Balaam and the Donkey, by Rembrandt (1626)
12 But these, like natural brute beasts made to be caught and destroyed, speak evil of the things they do not understand, and will utterly perish in their own corruption, 13 and will receive the wages of unrighteousness, as those who count it pleasure to carouse in the daytime. They are spots and blemishes, carousing in their own deceptions while they feast with you, 14 having eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin, enticing unstable souls. They have a heart trained in covetous practices, and are accursed children. 15 They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; 16 but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet. 17 These are wells without water, clouds carried by a tempest, for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.
Although these false teachers saw themselves as better than angels, the reality is that they are barely even men, for St. Peter refers to them as “natural brute beasts made to be caught and destroyed.” Continuing this strong condemnation, St. Peter says that they will “utterly perish in their own corruption and will receive the wages of unrighteousness.”
Not only do the false teachers teach heresy, but they also love to “carouse in the daytime.” One way that you can tell if someone is a false teacher is by looking at his or her life. Almost without fail, heretical self-proclaimed teachers of truth also live very impure lives (think, for example of the early Mormons, who lived in bigamy, or of David Koresh and his followers).
The problem that the false teachers presented St. Peter and the early Christians with was their participation in Orthodox, apostolic Christian worship and other gatherings. In so doing, they produced “stains and blemishes” in the Body of Christ. Christian worship was supposed to be a pure and holy sacrifice of praise to God, but the false teachers were spoiling it with their unrighteous teaching and lives.
St. Peter goes on to describe the false teachers as “having eyes full of adultery” and not being able to cease from sin. To make matters worse, they even entice others to sin. Using an athletic metaphor, the apostle says that the teachers have hearts that are “trained in covetous practices” (i.e., greed). FF elaborates: “Just as training in the gymnasium makes one strong (the word rendered trained is the Gr. gymnazo, from which the English word ‘gymnasium’ is derived), so these men are strong in getting what they want, cooly efficient experts in acquisition” (128). Even worse, because of their false teaching and their impure lives, they are “accursed children.”
Finally, using an OT allusion (from one of my favorite OT stories, no less!), St. Peter compares the false teachers to Balaam son of Beor. Interestingly, the Greek text actually says “son of Bosor,” not “son of Beor,” as the Hebrew OT text says and the NKJV corrects. FF believes that this is not a mistake on St. Peter’s part, but rather a play on words, as he explains: “...in Hebrew, the word for ‘flesh’ is the word basar. Peter is saying that Balaam was a son of the flesh, not of the Spirit, a false prophet, not a true one” (128).
Balaam, if you remember, was a mercenary prophet whom God used in spite of his folly. And God used a donkey to teach him a lesson. God gave the donkey the ability to speak in a man’s voice and to bring Balaam to humility. As usual, FF brings out an interesting point that gets lost in translation: “The word used to describe the donkey’s sound (translated expound) [or “speaking” in the NKJV] is the Greek phtheggomai, used for loud proclamations; the related word apophtheggomai is used for the utterances of holy men and prophets. The thought here is that Balaam was so irrational in his lust for money that even his own donkey was more of a prophet than he was. In their greed, the false teachers are every bit as deranged as he” (128).