Who are the “Opponents” in Second Peter?

May We Burn Her?

2 Peter was written in response to some sort of movement from within church which claimed to be Christian, but denied important elements of the faith. They have a overly-realized eschatology and seem to deny the return of Jesus (1:16, 2:1-3, 14, 18). While denial of the return of Christ may seem like a small deviation from the apostolic teaching, it is in fact a denial of the core of Jesus as Messiah, even the Jewish Messiah. This in turn could imply that the opponents reject the standard approach of the apostles to preaching as the Jewish messiah and perhaps a softening on the use of the Hebrew Bible as scripture.

It is possible that 2:5-8 implies sexual immorality, especially since the comparisons to the fallen angels, the time of Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah allude to sexual sins. Even the allusion to Balaam can be seen as a sexual sin since Balaam used prostitution to entice the men of Israel. While someone might suggest that this is just standard heretic bashing, it seems that there is some substance to the charge of immorality since it appears again in Jude and Revelation 2-3.

There are several suggested opponents:

Gnostics. This view is often tied to a later date for 2 Peter primarily because Gnosticism is not a factor until well into the second century. It is difficult to describe a Gnostic theology because it was such a broad movement encompassing many different (and sometimes contradictory) themes. With the exception of a radical realized eschatology and sexual sin, there is little on this list present in 2 Peter. Paul deal with a rejection of the resurrection in 1 Cor 15 and there may be some hints at a realized eschatology in 2 Thess 2. Sexual immorality is too generic to be used to prove 2 Peter is dealing with Gnosticism. At best, Second Peter might be aimed at a sort of proto-gnostic doctrine.

Epicureans. Neyrey suggested that the opponents in 2 Peter are teachers who combine Epicurean philosophy with Christianity. Certainly Epicureanism was popular in the Greco-Roman world, and there are some points of the school of thought that resonate with Christianity But Epicureans were not exactly hedonists, so this may not be a complete answer.

Antinomians. Richard Bauckham suggested that the opponents in the letter represent some form of antinomianism (Jude, 2 Peter, 154-6). “Antinomian” refers to any theology which sees itself as separate from law. For the most part, this takes the shape of permitting (or even encouraging) sinful behavior.  These behaviors are not matters of indifference, but rather genuine sin as defined in scripture.  Because the believer is free in Christ, they are free to behave however they want, whether that is judged as immoral or not.

The reference in 2 Peter 3:16 to Paul is important – the opponents are “twisting” Paul’s teaching in order to make it say something that was not intended.  In my view, this is probably the best way to describe these opponents.  They are post-Pauline Christians who have pushed the Pauline doctrine of freedom in Christ well past what Paul did.

The opponents are therefore (in the words of Baukham), “theologically unaware Christians” who compromise with the world on ethical issues (156).   This is the point of application to modern deviations from orthodox Christian theology and behavior.  How do you deal with the person who claims to be a follower of Jesus yet behaves in a way which is clearly sinful?  Do we “shun the unbeliever”?  Should we accept them regardless of the sin?  How does 2 Peter help  with this problem?

7 thoughts on “Who are the “Opponents” in Second Peter?

  1. 2 Peter 2:1-3 just may be some of the most important verses in the Letter! And also connects us with Jude 1:4 (comparing 2 Pet. 2:2). These “apostates”, have no moral law, and practice excess, immoderation in anything or everything, hence “licentiousness” and wantonness! I am seeking to use the more biblical terms and the older word definitions themselves. We all know where this has lead in our 21st century!

    Wow, can we see this today in our postmodern, postchristian culture!

  2. The Monty Python reference is classic. One of my all time favorite movies!

  3. From what I can tell the last group listed makes the most sense to me. If I read this right, the antinomian view (learning new words each day) basically says we can get away with whatever we want, whether moral or immoral. I think this is also a problem with people today. I don’t want to spark a giant debate, but it almost can be traced to what James says about faith and works. Simply put, those people who are actually living out their faith and growing in it are going to do the right things because that is the direction that they are headed. And the inverse is true for those that are heading in the wrong direction. If the solid foundation isn’t built then there is no support for what they may be saying or doing, and upon one failure it can be easy to drop from the top to the bottom.

    • “Antinomian” means simply no law, not even moral law, but as we can easily see in St. Paul, the moral law is still in effect for the Christian and the Christian life, i.e. the “Law of Christ”, (1 Cor. 9: 19-21, etc.) And here our great Reformer’s (Luther & Calvin) taught ‘Law & Gospel’.

  4. The identity of the opposition is quite difficult to ascertain. It could be any of the groups listed above or it could be something that is not known to us. It is completely possible that there were groups that we do not have names for that did not last for long or that morphed into some other movement. There are many different groups today that, in the future, probably will be unknown. Plus, with the ease with which information is communicated today, are more groups with opposing opinions today. While this was not possible in the first century there was still long distance communication which allowed for the travel of ideas. I believe that it is possible for Peter to be addressing a group that is not named or the earlier form of a later named group.

    In the matter of dealing with someone who claims to be a believer, but is not showing it, can be a difficult thing to do. We cannot simply accept the inappropriate actions of the person but the situation should be handled delicately. If the person is truly a believer than they should be sensitive to the moving of the Holy Spirit. It does not show the power of God through salvation if one does not work to obey the moral code that we should live by. “Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2:18b). We, as a body of believers, should try to reveal to the brother in sin that he is indeed in sin.

    • I might have set you up for a fall,since I have to agree with Robert, from Peter’s perspective these false teachers are outside of what it means to be a Christian. Rather than correcting a brother who is in error theologically, a better analogy would be, what do we say to Harold Camping or Westboro Baptist church? These people are not not on the wrong side of Calvinism (whichever side that is) or wrong about millennialism, they are not Christians but are claiming the name and making us all look bad.

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