“…For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” 2 Peter 2:19
This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about these words, “…For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” As a matter of fact, it’s posted in big letters on my study closet door. Only there it says, “Overwhelmed only by God.” It’s there because I realized and still do how easy it is to be overcome or overwhelmed by other things, or other thoughts, or other circumstances, or other ideas, including my own.
Now the context of 2 Peter 2 is all about false teachers and recognizing them. And maybe it’s a good idea for me to not just recognize them as people that I can point my own fingers at, but that if I’m not careful about who or what I submit to, then I could wind up being one of those false teachers myself. Well, who saw that coming?
Let’s just think about these words for a little bit. What does it mean to be overcome? The Greek word is hettao. It’s used in 2 Corinthians 12:13 when Paul tells us, “For what is it wherein you were inferior to other churches, except it be that I myself was not burdensome to you? forgive me this wrong. “ It’s in the context of that verse above and again in 2 Peter 2:20 where Peter continues, ” For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.” It’s about being made worse than something or someone else. It’s someone who has been vanquished and made to rate lower. It’s when someone else makes you inferior. Or actually, here, it’s allowing yourself to be made inferior. The problem is who we allow ourselves to be inferior under.
Here’s how the Amplified version puts our verse today, “They promise them liberty, when they themselves are the slaves of depravity and defilement- for by whatever anyone is made inferior or worse or is overcome, to that [person or thing] he is enslaved.” It’s a choice to be overcome this way. Maybe it came as a slow trickle, maybe it was sudden, but it was a choice either way, whether moment by moment, step by step, or all at once. A. W. Tozer thought, “The important thing about a man is not where he goes when he is compelled to go, but where he goes when he is free to go where he will…Where we go when we are free to go where we will is a near-infallible index of character.” That’s a good point. Where has my true character taken me? Where is my true character taking me? Where will my true character take me? And I must not forget, what about where it has taken, is taking, and will take those who trust me?
Read the prior stuff in 2 Peter 2 to see where people had led themselves in their false ideas. When we come to our verse in 2:19, we’re brought there by the word “for”. That simple word “for” is telling us we’re getting ready to hear an explanation. It’s alerting us we ought to stop and consider. Now it’s time to “pause to ponder and practice the passage”. So let’s hear it again, “For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” I just read this quote, by Thomas Merton, a mystic, that seems to be a good quote, but it was misquoted. I read, “Every man becomes the image of the man he adores…” But the real quote says, “Every man becomes the image of the God he adores. He whose worship is directed to a dead thing becomes a dead thing. He who loves corruption rots. He who loves a shadow becomes, himself, a shadow.” Hey, that doesn’t sound bad does it? There’s some truth to that, isn’t there? But listen to the subtlety of the lie. “Every man becomes the image of the God he adores.” Who is this God? Or should I say, “Who is this god?” Am I worshipping God’s image of Himself or am I worshipping what I want His image to be? See, this Merton taught that all religions led to God. Therefore, Merton is saying that God can be any image we want Him to be. But the truth is, that’s not true.
God can’t be God if He is not always God. If God is not who He says He is, then how can He really be God? How could He say to kill non-believers on one hand (as in Islam) and to forgive and be a light to non-believers on the other hand (Christianity)? How could there be multiple gods to worship and only one true God and it all be the same? In Numbers 23:19, Balaam, a seer and in this case a false prophet, speaks the truth about God, “God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it?” Balaam was a guy who was trying to fulfill his own desires. Balaak had asked him to curse Israel. God told him, “No.” But Balaam didn’t want to listen to God. There was too much he would miss out on if he didn’t accompany Balaak. So in his heart, he determined to go against God. So God told him to go. That wasn’t because God changed His mind. That’s because God can use all things for the good of those He loves. He can even use Balaam who doesn’t want to obey, who doesn’t really get who God is.
So here is Balaam, maybe thinking that God is persuadable or changeable. And Balaam heads on with Balaak’s men. Now, the minute we go against God’s will, we act as adversaries of God. Did you know that adversary is the word used for Satan? That’s pretty strong, isn’t it. But you can’t play on both sides of the fence. So here’s this seer, who is supposed to see spiritual things, whether good or bad. And he’s riding this faithful donkey. But today she refuses to proceed three times. Three times she sees the Angel of the Lord who has come before Balaam with his sword. Three times Balaam sees nothing but the stubborness of his donkey and beats her. Until after the third time, when this donkey speaks to him and he sees the Angel of the Lord standing before him with sword in hand. At this point Balaam falls prostrate on the ground. He is told to go with Balaak but only speak what God tells him to speak. So he does.
To make a long story short, Balaam ends up blessing Israel. Really, his own agenda or Balaak’s agenda didn’t matter. In the long run, God’s will is what will be done. It doesn’t matter what I want my god to be like or look like or do like. The truth is that God is God and He will always be God. “I AM who I AM.” He is unchangeable. He is ever-existent as who He has ever-existed as. The I AM cannot and will not be other than who He is. It doesn’t matter what we think or what we want. God is God and He will make that known.
Bob Deffinbaugh shared some thoughts on lessons we learn from Balaam’s story. “(1) It is never more dangerous or foolish than to be for what God is against, and against what God is for.” “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) I can surrender to God and His will or, like Balaam, I can choose my own way, my own interpretation. But I can also be guaranteed that at some point “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11). God’s word and way is final, not mine.
Point number (2) is that “our challenge is not to ‘convert’ God to be on our side, but to be converted, so that we may be on His side.” Maybe Balaam thought he could get God to come over on his side. After all, it seemed like God was changing His mind. He was letting Balaam go, wasn’t He? But the truth is that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He needs no converting. He’s the most stable thing in the universe. Isaiah 53:6 says we’ve all strayed, like sheep (or could it be like Balaam’s?); “We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him [Jesus] the iniquity [sin] of us all.” I’m so glad that God gave Balaam multiple chances to come to know Him and surrender to Him. I mean, how merciful was that of God, when Balaam was so deliberately antagonistic to His will? But that is just how God is, even in the Old Testament. “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life? Not only this, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation “(Romans 5:8-11). Oh, the blessing of being converted to God’s side!
Peter warned that we should understand about the thinking of men or women like Balaam. He wasn’t a solitary incident. “In the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges and saying, ‘Where is his promised coming? For ever since our ancestors fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation. For they deliberately suppress this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed from water and by water. Through these things the world existing at that time was destroyed when it was deluged with water. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, by being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes, the heavens will disappear with a horrific noise, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze, and the earth and every deed done on it will be laid bare. Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God. Because of this day, the heavens will be burned up and dissolve, and the heavenly bodies will melt away in a blaze! But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides (2 Peter 3:3-13).” Psalm 10:4 begins, “The wicked man is so arrogant he always thinks, ‘God won’t hold me accountable; he doesn’t care.’” In Psalm 73:11 we hear them say, “How does God know what we do? Is the sovereign one aware of what goes on?” And this leads to the third point, “Getting away with sin for a season should in no way lead one to conclude that there will be no dire consequences in the future.” I mean, come on, just because the serpent said, “You will not surely die.” (Genesis 3:4), ought Eve to have believed him over You, God? But that’s the danger of believing what we want to believe instead of believing the truth.
“(4) Many people who attempt to convince us they are eagerly seeking God’s will, but without success, are those who already know God’s will, and have no intention of doing it.” Balaam may have kept inquiring of God, but it really wasn’t because He was seeking God’s will. He wanted God to change His mind and do what he wanted Him to. Balaam never intended to follow God. He wanted God to follow him on his own road to success. Here’s a good check. Am I seeking God for His will? Is my every intention to do it? Or do I have my own agenda that I want God to join?
Don’t underscore the value of the Old Testament. ” (5) The story of Balaam underscores the vital role which the Pentateuch plays for Old and New Testament saints alike.” Balaak thought Balaam pretty important. He went to him because whoever he blessed was blessed and whoever he cursed was cursed. He thought that power was in Balaam’s hands. But the truth is, that power lies in God’s hands, not Balaam. Balaam could not curse or bless without the permission of God Himself. God is the One who blesses and curses. “Now the LORD had said to Abram, ‘Go out from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s household, to the land that I will show you; and I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, in order that you might be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3). I can’t leave out some of God’s Word, and still understand the fulness of God. It’s all interrelated and necessary to my knowing who You are and How You act.
I think we live in a culture where people are well-trained at manipulating and appeasing. It’s much easier to manipulate and appease than to understand or surrender. Bob shares point number (6), “Beware of the grave danger of seeking to “use’ God.” We use God for our agendas, we use Him for our finances, we use Him for our self-image, and more. We use Him because we want Him to meet our needs and do things for us. The pagan gods were gods fashioned after men’s images or men’s ideas. We try to stick God in our own little boxes of understanding or desires. But He doesn’t fit there because He’s not man-made; He’s the one true God, God of gods, Lord of lord’s. He is righteous and holy. We are not, if we are without Him. I’m to be God’s servant. I am to be under God, not vice-versa. That won’t happen, because God shall forever be high and lifted up. My safest and most secure standing, is surrendering under and to Him and His will. He will not surrender to me, nor should He.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12) “(7) There is nothing more important than being on the right path, nor more dangerous than being on the wrong one.” Balaam was going where he wanted to go. He thought that God was coming along for the ride. He couldn’t have been more wrong. It almost led to his death. Instead of leading to the cursing of Israel, it led to the blessing of Israel. It didn’t at all turn out the way Balaam had planned or desired. I can choose to be like Balaam and walk on my path and blindly think that God is going to come with me, or I can choose to be like David and follow God’s path and pray, “You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” This ought to be my prayer, “Lead me in the path of Your commandments, for I delight in it.” (Psalm 119:35) “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
What if Balaam, after all of this, had prayed the same prayer David did in Psalm 139? “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with You. For You formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in Your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are Your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with You. “ (Psalm 139:18) What if this was my prayer?
Am I overcome by You, God, or do I have something else on my agenda? Have I presented myself to You as a slave for obedience, or am I surrendering to obey my own will, the will of culture, or the will of passion? It’s my choice, just like it was Balaam’s. Either way, we are slaves of the one we obey, “either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness.” (Romans 6:16) Am I too proud to be less? Am I so proud that I think myself more than You? That’s the point, isn’t it. I’m either Your adversary or Your slave. Both seem negative to our mind unless we understand the beauty and joy of surrender. I can choose to be Your adversary, which puts me under the surrender of the lead adversary, Satan. Or I can choose to surrender to a loving God whose desire is for what is best for me, best for me and what He created me to be. I will yield to one or the other. Whom will it be? Maybe it would behoove me to realize the magnitude of my defeat. Because here is Someone who can make me surrender, who can force me to yield, and yet He allows me to choose surrender instead of death. And then He takes that even farther and though I choose to become His slave, He calls me, “Son,” and “Daughter.” “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (1 John 3:1) If Jesus, who is God, thought it a good thing and right to be a servant of all even though He was the Son of God, would it not be just as beneficial for me to be a servant of all under God since I too am His child through Christ? Would I ever be able to give up more than Christ gave up for me, for each of us? Yet what would I gain in Him?
It’s just a matter of truth, that someone will rule me. Who will it be? I can either be treated as inferior or I can understand that I am inferior. Once I understand that I am inferior to God, He doesn’t treat me as inferior. He gives me purpose in Him, He lifts me up, He “exalts me in due time,” He esteems me. The One who has every right to devalue me gives me ultimate value in Him.
The fact is, we become slaves to the one we obey, to the one we surrender our lives and attitudes to. If I surrender to my passions, to my thoughts, I’ll wind up committing sin, habitually, and I will become the slave of sin. (John 8:34) If I surrender to God, committing habitually to His way and His thoughts, to His passions, I’ll live out righteousness habitually in my life as a slave of God and child of God with an intimate relationship with my heavenly Father and Lord and Savior.
Maybe you don’t like thinking of yourself as a slave? If that’s such a bad thing, then why did some Israelites choose to become bond servants to their masters instead of going free? Could it be that life under some masters is better than freedom on my own? That is the case with God. First, God sweeps in and sets us free from our oppressive master- sin. He has now conquered our master and captured us as His own. Only, He is totally unlike our previous master. He loves us. He cares for us. He provides our needs. It’s like Joseph before Potiphar or Joseph before Pharoah. Only God’s perfect, and those men aren’t. God is the perfect Master and Conqueror who loves and enables His servants, His slaves. He gives them power and authority as His own children. The truth is “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Here’s my freedom in Christ under God: “Everyone who practices (present tense = habitually, as a lifestyle) sin also practices (present tense = habitually, as a lifestyle) lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness…8 the one who practices (present tense = habitually, as a lifestyle) sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one who is born of God practices (present tense = habitually, as a lifestyle) sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin (present tense = habitually, as a lifestyle), because he is born of God. 10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice (present tense = habitually, as a lifestyle) righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3) Jesus reminded us in Matthew 7:21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me you who practice lawlessness.'” What in the world is lawlessness? It’s making up my own law, my own right and wrong, my own path for righteousness. It’s lawless because God has already established that. It’s a choice that we make to be self deluded. And self-delusion will lead to death and destruction. God doesn’t want us to go there. He tried to change Balaam’s delusion but Balaam would have none of it. He’s trying to change ours. Will we let Him? Will we stop to take it in?
Really, this whole idea of being overcome, is all about worship. It’s about worshipping God according to His instructions. I must go by what He prescribes. He tells me how to experience the fullness of life and how to find prosperity. To choose to do other, is basically telling hIm that whatever is right in my own eyes is an act of worship when in reality, it’s actually blasphemy and sin. It’s never been about a feeling that comes over me. It’s always been about a conscious act of the will to serve and obey God. In this reality, in this choice, surrendering there, I am changed into the image of the One I worship. Nothing else is acceptable, until I’ve surrendered and given myself first to God. And unless I have come to the point of adoration of who He is, He’ll only look like a taskmaster to be appeased or persuaded. But once I come to adore Him, I will want to prostrate myself before Him. I will want to come worship and bow down and kneel before Him. I will be aware of His greatness and majesty. Though He makes Himself familiar with me as my Brother and Friend, yet like John, He is forever God, forever Other, and I must fall down before Him. Oh, Lord, may my perspective of You and my obedience not be under delusion from my own heart’s desires. May I see You clearly that I may put things in my own life into their proper perspective in You. I want to choose to be overwhelmed and overcome only by You, Lord.