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XXV

ALTOGETHER BECOME ABOMINABLE

"These are springs without water, and mists driven by a storm; for whom the blackness of darkness hath been reserved. For, uttering great swelling words of vanity, they entice in the lusts of the flesh, by lasciviousness, those who are just escaping from them that live in error; promising them liberty, while they themselves are bondservants of corruption; for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he also brought into bondage. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first. For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them. It has happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog turning to his own vomit again, and the sow that had washed to wallowing in the mire."—2 Peter ii. 17-22.

The Apostle now describes these traitors to the cause of Christ under another aspect. They proffer themselves as guides and teachers. As such they should be sources of refreshment and help. But in every respect they belie the character which they have assumed. These are springs without water. The blessing of a spring is only known to the full in Eastern lands. Hence it is that in Bible language wells and fountains are constantly used as emblematic of happiness. When Israel is brought out of Egypt, their destination is described as "a land of fountains." Mental and spiritual blessings are pictured by this314 figure: "The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life" (Prov. x. 11); "The wellspring of wisdom is a flowing brook" (Prov. xviii. 4). The invitation which the prophet publishes in God's name runs, "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters" (Isa. lv. 1); and the gracious promise is, "With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation" (Isa. xii. 3). To those who had been accustomed to language of this sort St. Peter's words convey a picture of utter disappointment. Where men had a right to expect that they would find brightness and refreshment, where they were promised an oasis in the world's desert, there proved to be only a delusive mirage; and for this the brethren were beguiled to forsake the living waters which Christ has promised to His faithful ones. And mists driven by a storm. Here the same thought is put into another shape. Mists, resting above the ground, play a part like that of the watersprings beneath. They protect from scorching heat, and drop down blessing on the thirsty land. But when they are chased away by the whirlwind, they can furnish neither protection nor nourishment. And so helpless for those who followed them were these apostles of licence. Like mists they were, it is true, but only in their blinding influence. They brought with them blasts of vain doctrine, in their craftiness, after the wiles of error, and so created a desolation for those who sought unto them. We cannot help comparing this description with the ever-increasing illumination that flows from the lamp of prophecy, making the world's dark places light.

For whom the blackness of darkness hath been reserved. Yes, for these also God has a destiny in store. It is reserved, as is the incorruptible inheritance (1 Peter i. 4) which awaits His faithful ones. But it is in those pits315 of darkness to which the rebellious angels were committed. Yet even in the Apostle's language there shines out somewhat of God's mercy. The sinner's doom is certain, but the blow has not yet fallen; the blackness of darkness is prepared, but was not prepared for men. Only those fall into it who persist in their rebellion. For them, in the words of Christ, it will be the outer darkness, where is the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

For, uttering great swelling words of vanity, they entice in the lusts of the flesh, by lasciviousness, those who are just escaping from them that live in error. St. Peter's words are here very aptly chosen to contrast the boastful pretensions of these corrupters with the hollowness and delusion of all they promise. St. Jude (16) tells of the great swelling words, but does not add that further touch which proclaims their emptiness; St. Paul (1 Tim. i. 6) says that such men fall to their vain and boastful talking because they have swerved from purity of heart, from a good conscience, and from faith unfeigned. From such there is nothing to be expected but falseness and unreality; they arrogate to themselves a penetration which others have not. Theirs it is to have found a deeper meaning in revelation, to have worked their way to a freedom beyond the rest, a freedom in the midst of sin, which imparts to those who attain to it a freedom to sin with impunity. Thus do they entice in the lusts of the flesh by lasciviousness. Such a liberty suits the natural man; such guides find many to follow them.

True Christian freedom, the freedom of St. Paul, calls for constant watchfulness, earnest anxiety at every step, for life is full of treacherous roads. But forethought and carefulness are lacking for the most part in those316 who have just escaped from the entanglements of error. "I buffet my body," was the Apostle's rule, "and bring it into bondage" (1 Cor. ix. 27). This was the discipline to free the soul. And to others he preaches in his letter to Timothy that "the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men" (2 Tim. ii. 11). But mark the pathway which leads to this life: "Instructing us to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world." Such precepts these men mocked at. There was a nobler knowledge, they said, a higher initiation. To this they had attained; to this they beguiled their followers.

Such men are unspeakably dangerous to those who have made but little progress in spiritual life. It is only those who, like Nehemiah of old, have become firm of purpose through prayer to the God of heaven, and know the dangers that everywhere beset them, that can withstand such temptation. As he laboured amid the ruins of Jerusalem, which he was so zealous to restore, there came to him the invitation of the Samaritans, "Come, let us meet together; ... let us take counsel together" (Neh. vi.). No doubt the village in the plain of Ono, to which they asked him to come, was a pleasanter place just then than the bare hill-top of Zion, with its desolation and ruins. But his heart misgave him at the words of such counsellors. "They thought to do me mischief." And his sturdy answer to the tempters is a pattern and a lesson for all time: "I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down." For it is always to come down that such counsellors invite us, not to be afraid of putting ourselves on their level. They may cloke it under the name of elevation, as these Asian tempters did. They talk of this as liberty and power, just as the317 archfiend himself spake to the Saviour, tempting Him to a boastful display of His trust in His Father: "Cast Thyself down." Those who fall fall in this way, by a too ready yielding to some acceptable bait; and then they find themselves, not free, but prisoners. And the weak in the faith, those who are only just escaped from error, are those from among whom the deluders seek and find their victims.

Promising them liberty, while they themselves are bondservants of corruption; for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he also brought into bondage. Here we have two views of the same persons. First their own picture. They proclaim their superiority in lofty terms. Satan and his servants have always been liberal with promises. "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil," "All these things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me," are sample speeches of the arch-tempter. And these men follow their master; but, says the Apostle, they are themselves in the grossest slavery. He personifies Destruction as a power who holds them in her chains. And the idea sets sin before us in a terrible light. It begins in the single act, over which men fancy they have entire control; but the acts become a habit, and this, like a mighty, living power within men, but beyond their sway, overmasters their whole being, and drives them at its will. In the case of these men, no faculty was free; their very eyes could not cease from sin.

For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first. Corruptio optimi pessima is a well-known and very true dictum, and the Apostle sets these false318 teachers before us as a notable illustration of it. The backsliders, the renegades who desert a good cause, are sure to exhibit intense hostility to the position from which they have fallen away. They are constrained to do so that men may think they have a warrant for their conduct; and often they have an uneasy conscience, which they must try to silence by large assertion of the rectitude and wisdom of what they do. Satan himself is the great instance. The state from which by rebellion he fell was unspeakably glorious, a life in the presence of perfect holiness. Now he takes his pleasure in marring everything that is holy, in defiling God's world and filling it with pollution through the sin which he has introduced.

These Asian backsliders had tasted the good grace of God. The Apostle speaks of their knowledge of Christ as that true comprehension of His love and mercy which draws men away from the world and its allurements. They had escaped and found a camp of refuge. But to take service under Christ means to bear the cross, and to bear it patiently. Jesus puts His servants to the proof, and not all who have set their hands to the plough continue stedfast in their work till the harvest comes. They halt in the process of that growth of grace which St. Peter describes in the first chapter of this letter. In their temperance they should provide patience, endurance in well-doing. Many, however, persevere but for a little time; and the world seizes the opportunity of their doubt and hesitation, comes forward with its allurements, and captures the weak in faith. And such were these men, and their capture was fatal. They were now in the toils of a net from which there was little chance of escape; they were overcome and made very slaves. In their first efforts to walk with Christ319 they had been enabled to wrest themselves away from their evil life; but now they were sunk down, overpowered, and blind, with a blindness the more terrible because they had known what it was to have sight. Their last state was unspeakably worse than the first.

St. Peter has in mind the parable of his Master (Matt. xii.; Luke xi.) which was spoken prophetically of the Jewish people. There Christ tells of the evil spirit which has been cast out, but no attempt made to fill his place with a better tenant. Soon finding no rest, he returns, and beholds his former home swept, and garnished, and unoccupied. Then he goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than himself, who enter with him and dwell there. With what solemn meaning come those words which follow the parable, "Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!" (Luke xi. 28). To have heard, and not to have kept, indeed makes the last state worse than the first.

For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them. These words of the Apostle point out the fear and care which should possess the hearts of those whom God blesses with large opportunities: fear lest they receive them amiss and fail to value them; care lest they pervert them to a wrong use. Our Lord's own words form the mightiest homily thereon when He spake to those cities of Galilee upon whom a great light was shining as He dwelt in their midst, but He could not do His mighty works there because of their unbelief. "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." Hence the solemn denunciations of woe upon them: "It shall be more tolerable in the judgement for Tyre and Sidon, for Sodom and Gomorrah, than for them"; "The queen320 of the south shall rise up in the judgement against them and condemn." And more sorrowfully still He speaks to Jerusalem: "If thou hadst known in this thy day the things that belong unto thy peace, but now they are hid from thine eyes."

Christ went away unto the Father, but He left the Apostles their commission to teach the way of righteousness as He had taught it. "Teach them," He says, "to observe all things whatsoever I have told you; and lo, I am with you always." By the ministrations of St. Paul and his fellow-labourers the feet of these Asian converts had been set in the right way. They had made a profession of faith in Christ's sacrifice, and thus had been reckoned among the righteous, among those called to be saints. But the journey unto righteousness is made by daily steps in keeping God's law; and if these be not taken, the road may lie open, the traveller may see it, but he comes no nearer to the goal. Nay, in this road there is no standing still. They who fail to press forward inevitably slide back. It was here that these false teachers had failed. The command of God checked their evil appetites and greed; and so they set it at defiance and turned aside, and taught their deluded followers that God's freedom in its highest sense meant a licence to sin.

Here one of the Apostle's words is very significant. He says, not holy commandments, but holy commandment, telling us thus that the Divine law is all comprehended in the right ordering of the heart. In principle all God's laws are one. If that inward source of all our right and wrong be kept pure, from it are the issues of life; and every action flowing from it will then have a righteous aim. Thus men lead holy lives; thus they keep God's commandments in every relation.321 They do not in this life become free from offence; they stumble, because they are compassed by infirmity. But they act from a right motive; and this, and not the sum-total of results, is what the loving Father of men regards. Thus the Divine law is the law of true freedom, supplying a principle, but leaving the particular actions to develop according to the circumstances of each man's life. This is the freedom of which the Psalmist sings: "I will walk at liberty, for I seek Thy precepts" (Psalm cxix. 45); and one of our own poets extols a life so ordered by Divine law as the truest, grandest freedom:—

"Obedience is greater than freedom. What's free?

The vexed straw on the wind, the tossed foam on the sea;

The great ocean itself, as it rolls and it swells,

In the bonds of a boundless obedience dwells."

It has happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog turning to his own vomit again, and the sow that had washed to wallowing in the mire. To describe in all its horror the abysmal depth to which these false teachers have sunk, the Apostle makes use of two proverbs, one of which he adapts from the Old Testament (Prov. xxvi. 11), while the other is one which would impress the Jewish mind with a feeling of utter abomination. The dogs of the East are the pariahs of the animal world, while everything pertaining to swine was detestable in the eyes of the Israelite. But all the loathing which attached to these outcasts of the brute creation did not suffice to portray the defilement of these teachers of lies and their apostate lives. It needed those other grosser features—the return to the disgorged meal; the greed for filth, where a temporary cleansing serves, as it were, to give a322 relish for fresh wallowing—these traits were needed ere the full vileness of those sinners could be expressed.

Solomon spake his proverb of the fool who goes back to his folly; but of how much grosser lapse is he guilty who, having known the mercy of Christ, having tasted the Father's grace, having been illumined by the Holy Spirit, turns again to the world and its pollutions, goes back into the far country, far away from God, and chooses again for his food the husks that the swine did eat!

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