For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge us Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “A dog returns to its own vomit,” and, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.” (2:20–22)
To be sure, the false teachers of Peter’s day were outwardly religious people. They had professed faith in Jesus Christ and probably convinced the people that they knew far more about Him than they actually did. Otherwise they would not have been able to infiltrate the church so effectively.
In pursuing religion, specifically Christianity, they in a sense escaped the defilements of the world. Defilements, or “pollution,” is miasma, a transliterated word in English that conveys the same meaning as it does in Greek: “a vaporous exhalation formerly believed to cause disease … an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt.” The debauched system of the world produces, as it were, poisonous vapors, infectious evils, and moral pollutions in every conceivable form. Unsaved humanity is heavily contaminated by the world’s immorality and vanity, and some, such as those who become false teachers, seek to escape it. They do so by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, finding provisional shelter in the church. Such knowledge is an accurate awareness about Christ, but it is not a saving knowledge of Him (Matt. 7:21–23; Heb. 6:4–6; 10:26–29). Thus, their efforts ultimately result in nothing more than temporary and superficial moral reform through religion—the religion of nominal Christianity, devoid of genuine faith and repentance.
It is evident that false teachers are not really in Christ because they are again entangled in the world’s defilements and are overcome. They are not the “overcomers” the apostle John wrote about in his first epistle (1 John 5:4–5) or the book of Revelation (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). Since there is no real salvation for them—no grace received to overcome the power of sin (Eph. 1:7), walk by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:12–13; Eph. 2:8–10), and persevere in the faith (Phil. 2:12–13; 2 Thess. 1:11–12)—they sink back into the pollution of the world and completely reject the gospel of salvation. This last state is much worse for them than the first. After all, those who understand the truth and still turn away will face far greater judgment than those who have never heard (cf. Matt. 10:14–15; 11:22–24; Mark 6:11; Luke 12:47–48).
In light of this, it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them (cf. Matt. 26:24). The way of righteousness is the Christian faith (see the discussion of 2:2 in chapter 5 of this volume). Because of the greater condemnation they face, false teachers would be better off not hearing about Scripture and doctrine than, having contemplated it, to reject it. Their insincere consideration of the gospel gives them access to divine teaching in God’s Word, the holy commandment (cf. Ex. 24:12; Deut. 6:1, 25; Josh. 22:5; 2 Kings 17:37; Pss. 19:8; 119:96; Prov. 6:23; Matt. 15:3; John 12:50; Rom. 7:12; 16:26; 1 John 2:7). But they ultimately renounce Christ and His saving truth. Thus, they spurn the only true way of salvation and are subsequently left without any hope of eternal life. The writer of Hebrews gives a similar warning against apostasy:
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. (Heb. 6:4–6; cf. Matt. 13:3–7; John 6:60–66)
Later in that letter, the writer reiterates the same truth in different words:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26–31)
(For commentary on the Hebrews passages, see John MacArthur, Hebrews, MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1983], 142–49, 276–80.)
Apostate teachers, as Peter describes them, actually develop from within the church where, partially exhumed from the muck of society’s wickedness, they hear the truth but ultimately reject it. Like Judas Iscariot, they breed in close proximity to Jesus Christ and His Word—cloaking themselves in the feigned righteousness of hypocrisy. Ultimately, they use the church solely for their own selfish purposes, like spiritual parasites, seductively seeking to drag as many as possible down with them, to the fiendish satisfaction of the hosts of Satan (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1–2).
In a final portrayal of their despicable nature, Peter described the false teachers by using graphic imagery from the animal kingdom. His first analogy of what happened to them is according to the true proverb, Proverbs 26:11, “A dog returns to its own vomit.” The second is probably borrowed from an ancient secular adage, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.” In biblical times, dogs and swine were both contemptible animals (cf. Job 30:1; Ps. 22:16; Matt. 7:6; Luke 16:21). Dogs, for instance, were rarely kept as household pets because they were usually half-wild mongrels—often dirty, diseased, and dangerous (cf. 1 Kings 14:11; 21:19, 23–24; Isa. 56:11; Rev. 22:15). They lived on garbage and refuse, and were even willing to eat their own vomit. It is not surprising, then, that the Jews treated dogs with contempt and disgust. Swine similarly represented filth, being the ultimate in uncleanness to the Jews (cf. Luke 15:15–16). This was primarily because the Mosaic law declared them ceremonially unclean (Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:8). Peter’s comparison, then, is unmistakable: False teachers are the epitome of spiritual uncleanness and smut.
Contemporary Christianity, sadly, contains many people like the ones Peter describes in this passage. They have sought personal improvement and moral reformation in their quests for spiritual and religious experience. Many of them have become teachers, preachers, and self-styled prophets within the professed church. Tragically, like dirty dogs or unclean pigs, they eventually return to their old lifestyles—rejecting the only One who can truly reform them. Those who become spiritual leaders are in reality false teachers, motivated by their own selfish pursuits and sensual desires. In view of their appalling character and damning influence, Peter’s warning is clear: Stay away from false teachers and expose them! Believers are to listen to the true apostles and prophets, not the false ones (3:1–2).
20 Two vivid pictures from the natural realm sum up the state of the apostate, i.e., those who in the past “escaped the corruption of the world” but had become “entangled in it and overcome.” Both images communicate actions that fit “brute beasts” and “creatures of instinct” (2:12). Common though these images are, they have the effect of shocking the readers when applied to the realm of faith. If people return to the world’s defilement after rescue through knowledge of Jesus Christ, they enter a state said to be worse for them than the first. It would have been better, the writer declares, that they had never known the truth to begin with than to disavow what they knew (cf. Mt 12:43–45). In relative terms, ignorance of “the way of righteousness,” at least according to the apostle’s logic, is better than apostasy from it. Disavowing the truth is serious business.
False teachers have nothing to commend them (v. 20)
To be caught out once is foolish, but to be caught a second time is scandalous, and those who are ensnared again are liable to struggle even more because they do not know which way to turn.
Christopher Green and Dick Lucas helpfully list six things we must note:
- The salvation Christ has won is full, final and free.
- There will always be non-Christians in the church.
- From the outside it is extraordinarily difficult to tell a real Christian from a fake one.
- In cases where there is blatant disobedience, church leadership has the responsibility to discipline.
- The acid test is whether we are merely hearers of God’s Word, or doers as well.
- Some measure of self-examination in spiritual growth is always healthy.
Some who toy with Christianity appear to have entered into the joy of Christ, but the reality is that that joy has never entered into them, and when the going gets tough they fall away. They are embittered by the whole experience and turn against Christ.
2:20 / The false teachers had once known true freedom from the corruption of the world, that is, from the sphere of life which leaves God out of account. That liberty had come to them through knowing our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1:3–4). But evidently this had been head knowledge rather than heart knowledge (Matt. 13:20–21). Now these men are again entangled in the corrupting influence of the world, having slipped back into their old pattern of life. As a result, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. These words echo the warning of Jesus himself about a man whose evil spirit was reinforced by seven others worse still (Matt. 12:45; Luke 11:26). These men are worse off because they have rejected the forgiveness of their past sins and so they continue to bear them personally. Indeed they have incurred even greater culpability by flouting that gospel after once having known it, and thus they have rejected the only source of salvation. Furthermore, their future ability to resist sin has been fatally weakened by their returning to embrace it.
2:20–22. The New Testament distinguishes clearly between people who are in the church and people who are actually followers of Jesus Christ. They are not always the same people. This distinction is seen clearly with this group of false teachers. They were not followers of Jesus. The knowledge of Jesus mentioned in verse 20 was simply a head knowledge, not a knowledge of the heart. They knew all about Christ and Christianity; this is how they were able to offer a counterfeit. Because of their association with true believers in the church, they had escaped some of the corruption of the world simply because true believers move away from this behavior.
However, knowing about Jesus Christ and being associated with Christians does not mean that they had embraced Jesus Christ as their Savior. Since they were worse off at the end than they were at the beginning, these people had never reached full, saving faith.
Worse off at the end than they were at the beginning aptly summarizes what Peter went on to explain in verses 21–22. They were worse off because those who give themselves to the pursuit of greed and sexual immorality ultimately become so corrupt that they lose the ability to enjoy themselves. Like a sick dog, they wallow in their own vomit (v. 22). They were worse off, secondly, because they deliberately chose to reject the truth they had learned (v. 21). They rejected the way of Christ, the way of forgiveness for their sins, the way of heaven. As a result, they chose hell over heaven and confirmed the judgment already confirmed upon them (see v. 17).
MAIN IDEA REVIEW: The church is always subject to the heresy of smooth-talking false teachers. Christians must understand who these false teachers are and how they operate. We must understand God’s verdict on such people and be alert for their presence within the body of Christ.
20. If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.
Who is the subject of this verse? Some writers say: “The false teachers.” Other commentators assert: “The new Christians who are led astray.”52 The arguments advanced to defend either position are cogent. For instance, the use of the conjunction for (omitted in the NIV) as a first word in verse 20 forms a bridge to the immediately preceding verse (v. 19). Because the two texts form one unit, they have the same subject: the false teachers. On the other hand, the verb to escape appears in verses 18 and 20. The subject of this verb appears to be identical in both verses. But the argument on the use of a particular verb must be balanced by the observation that the verb to master, overcome in verses 19b and 20 refers to the false teachers. And last, in the light of the preceding verses that feature the apostates as the dominant subject, many commentators apply the last three verses to these teachers. Granted that convincing evidence has been presented by both sides, I am persuaded that in view of the flow of the entire chapter the subject is the false teachers.
- “If they have escaped the corruption of the world.” This is a factual statement, even though it appears in a conditional sentence. The element of probability is missing and the experience of what has happened in the past becomes evident. In the Greek, the verb form indicates that the false teachers on one occasion departed from the corruption of the world. “They had once escaped the world’s defilements” (NEB; also see JB). The difference in the verb form (in v. 18) is evident: “[They] have barely begun to escape” (NEB). This variation in the use of the verb form shows that Peter was thinking of the new converts who were in the process of breaking with their past. Here in verse 20, however, he is describing the heretics who at one time forsook their world and its corruption. “There can be little doubt that the false teachers had once been orthodox Christians.” In the past, these people were members of the church and they became acquainted with the teachings of the Christian faith.
- “By knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Did the false teachers at one time know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? The answer is yes. For example, when Jesus commissioned his disciples two by two, he sent out Judas and another disciple. “They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them” (Mark 6:12–13). Obviously, Judas knew Jesus; in the name of Jesus he preached and performed miracles. Yet Judas betrayed his Master.
The apostates had a knowledge of Jesus Christ, but their knowledge lacked the intimacy that characterizes the relationship of the true believer with Christ. Observe Peter’s personal touch in the phrases our knowledge of him (1:3) and your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (1:8). These people had professed the name of Christ as their Lord and Savior but in time fully disclosed that their knowledge was merely intellectual knowledge (compare Matt. 13:20–21). Also note that Peter refrains from using the terms faith and believer in this context. The teachers never put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Because they lacked a personal relationship with Christ, they fell away.
- “And are again entangled in it and overcome.” The Greek actually indicates that these teachers were again woven into the fabric of the world’s corruption. This matter is an accomplished fact: although they left the world momentarily, they returned and defiled themselves again with its sordid sin. The result is that they are no longer free; they are slaves of sin (v. 19). Any resistance to the corruption of the world is out of the question, for they are overcome by sin and serve as slaves.
- “They are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.” Here is the conclusive statement in Greek that Peter borrows almost verbatim from the teachings of Jesus. About casting out a demon who returns to a former demon-possessed person with seven other spirits, Jesus says, “And the final condition of that man is worse than the first” (Matt. 12:45; Luke 11:26; and compare Matt. 27:64).
Peter writes descriptively about the destiny of the apostates. Yet his words contain an urgent warning to the believers not to follow the path of the heretics that leads to irrevocable and everlasting destruction.
Doctrinal Considerations in 2:20
Within the church of Jesus Christ are true believers and pseudobelievers. Scripture tells the church members to make a clear distinction between these two groups. They live alongside each other much the same as the wheat and weeds in the same field. When the pseudobelievers depart on their own accord, they demonstrate that they never belonged to the body of Christ. Writers of Scripture, therefore, distinguish between the two groups by using the pronouns we and us over against they and them.
Peter differentiates between the members of the church and the false teachers with the use of the personal pronouns. In verse 20, for instance, he refers to the teachers with the plural pronoun they. In the last three verses of this chapter (vv. 20–22), he speaks only of the teachers and not of the believers. The exception is that Peter uses the possessive pronoun our in the phrase “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
In these verses, then, Peter never calls these teachers believers or children of God. Throughout these verses he describes them as people who deliberately sin against God and his Word. He repeatedly declares that these people face God’s judgment and destruction (vv. 3, 9, 12, 17).
Did these false teachers ever know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? By listening to the words of Jesus we receive an answer. Jesus says that only the person who obeys his Father in heaven will enter the kingdom. “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ ” (Matt. 7:22–23).
2:20 Verses 20–22 refer, not to the false teachers themselves, but to their victims. They are people who had reformed but who had not been born again. Through a partial knowledge of … Christ and of Christian principles, they had turned from a life of sin and begun a moral house-cleaning.
Then they come under the influence of false teachers who mock puritanical virtue and crusade for liberation from moral inhibitions. They become involved again in the very sins from which they had been temporarily delivered. As a matter of fact, they sink lower than before, because now that religious restraints are gone, there is nothing to hold them back. So it is true that their latter state is worse than the first.
2:20 they have escaped: The subject of this phrase is the heretical teachers who are called “slaves of corruption” in v. 19. This verse seems to indicate that the teachers had formerly turned from the pollution of the world through a full and experiential knowledge of Christ. Now, however, they have fallen again into immorality, even becoming teachers of sinful lifestyles. As a result, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. This phrase is almost certainly taken from Jesus’ words in Matt. 12:45 and probably reflects Peter’s memory of that occasion.
the termination of destruction (2:20–22)
Of whom are these verses speaking? Four views are possible.
(1) Some suggest that the word “they” refers to the false teachers rather than the targets of their attack (e.g., Edwin A. Blum, “2 Peter” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:282).
(2) But the connection between the end of verse 18 (“people who are just escaping from those who live in error”) and the beginning of verse 20 (“if they have escaped the corruption of the world”) seems to favor a reference to the unstable, unsaved people who were “listeners” of the gospel (v. 18).
(3) Others think the reference might encompass both the false teachers and their “converts,” who can lose their salvation. This, however, runs counter to many passages that assure believers of eternal salvation.
(4) Another view is that new believers are warned against being “caught up into a life of carnality … only to find that there is even less pleasure, less fulfillment than before they were saved” (Duane A. Dunham, “An Exegetical Study of 2 Peter 2:18–22,” Bibliotheca Sacra 140. January=March, 1983:51).
2:20–21. Whether they in verse 20 refers to the teachers or their victims, both groups had available to them knowledge about Jesus Christ, which could produce liberty and life. But when that knowledge was rejected, their end was deeper corruption (again entangled in it and overcome) and presumably a more severe degree of punishment. Indeed, they would have been better off never to have known the gospel, the way of righteousness, and the sacred (holy) commandment (i.e., the apostolic message) than to have known the truth and have deliberately violated it.
2:22. Jews considered both dogs and pigs among the lowest of creatures (cf. Matt. 7:6) so Peter chose these animals to describe people who knew the truth and turned away from it. The first proverb, A dog returns to its vomit, is taken from Proverbs 26:11. The second proverb, A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud, was presumably commonly known by Jews in the first century. The underlying principle of both is the same: these apostates (whether false teachers, their victims, or both) never were what they seemed to be and returned to what they had been all along. Dogs and pigs can be scrubbed but not kept clean, for it is in their very nature to return to unclean living. Such apostates are in a tighter bondage, they are farther from the truth, and they are deeper in spiritual filth than ever before.
Believers today do well to heed Peter’s warning against false teachers, to learn how to discern truth for themselves, and to teach it to others. The false teachers will themselves meet destruction and others will be destroyed by them. But Christians can wage spiritual warfare more effectively if they know their spiritual enemies, the techniques that heretics use, and the end result of their deception.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2005). 2 Peter and Jude (pp. 106–108). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 Charles, D. J. (2006). 2 Peter. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 403). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Anderson, C. (2007). Opening up 2 Peter (p. 79). Leominster: Day One Publications.
 Hillyer, N. (2011). 1 and 2 Peter, Jude (p. 205). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Walls, D., & Anders, M. (1999). I & II Peter, I, II & III John, Jude (Vol. 11, pp. 129–130). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Epistles of Peter and the Epistle of Jude (Vol. 16, pp. 311–313). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2300). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1698). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
 Gangel, K. O. (1985). 2 Peter. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 874). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.