2 Peter 2:20 Conditionally Speaking
Word Biblical Commentary
“They” are most naturally understood as the false teachers themselves, rather than their followers
ἐπιγνώσει τοῦ κυρίου καὶ σωτῇρος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ
Believers Church Bible Commentary
In relative terms, ignorance of the way of righteousness, according to the apostle’s logic, is better than apostasy from it (Green: 130). Apostasy is extremely serious business.
Bible Knowledge Commentary
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.
Black’s NT Commentary
the language of 20 f., cast as it is in a hypothetical form, reads exactly like a deterrent to people who are exposed to severe temptation but have not yet succumbed, whereas we know that ‘Peter’ has already given up the heretics as irretrievably lost;
His warning is direct and to the point: if Christians revert to pagan moral standards, their final state is worse than the first (this will be more fully explained in the next verse).
the writer defines conversion as ‘escaping from’ the pollutions of the world, and as being brought about (cf. 1:2; 3; 8) through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Lapsed Christians are in a more tragic plight than unconverted pagans because they have rejected the light (cf. Lk. 12:47 f.).
The writer has already (2:2) defined the Christian message as ‘the way of truth’, and there is no suggestion (any more than in 2:5 or 1 Pet. 2:24) that righteousness (dikaiosunē) has a legalistic connotation; it is the pattern of well-ordered, righteous behaviour which issues from the Christian’s knowledge of Christ, in the profound sense that that knowledge has in the epistle. Again, because the opponents he is criticizing have antinomian tendencies, he castigates apostasy as turning one’s back on the holy commandment (entolē, as in 3:2: often used in the singular of the law of Moses, as in 4 Macc. 13:15; 16:24; Rom. 7:8–12; Heb. 7:18; 9:19; in the singular or plural of the commandment or commandments of Christ, as in Jn. 13:34; 14:15; 21; 1 Cor. 14:37; 1 Clem. xiii. 3; 2 Clem. iii. 4; vi. 7).
Expositor’s Greek NT
γὰρ loosely introduces the subject of the victims allured by the false teachers away from their former faith.
It is characteristic of this writer to emphasise the aspect of Christianity, not only as faith, but as the moral law ἁγίας ἐντολῆς. Cf. 1:5. ἐν τῇ πίστει ὑμῶν τὴν ἀρετήν. A strong ethical note pervades the teach-of 2 Peter.
Handbook on the 2nd Letter from Peter
The word if is used here not to mark a condition that is contrary to fact, but rather to mark a conditional statement that is true. In other words Peter is not questioning or doubting the initial faith of the false teachers (or, recent converts) but is asserting the fact that they had at one time left their heathen loyalties and become members of the Christian community. It will be helpful in certain languages to place the word if before the second sentence rather than the first and say “These false teachers (or, recent converts) have escaped … So, if they are caught …”
As in 1:4, conversion to Christianity is defined as escaping the defilements of the world.
Leaving the Christian faith and returning to heathen practices is described as being again entangled and overpowered by these forces. In them goes back to the defilements of the world. Entangled is “to be mixed up with,” “to be implicated,” or “to be involved in.” This pictures people who have renounced their pagan religion, but who now again involve themselves in pagan practices. However, these people do not only get entangled in these practices; they are overpowered as well, that is, they are defeated and become slaves to these evil forces from which they have been delivered in the past. The clause they are again entangled in them and overpowered may also be expressed as “So if they are trapped again by the powers of these worldly lusts …” or “So if they are trapped again by the power of this evil worldly system …” And since this is the case, then the last state has become worse for them than the first. The last state refers to their state of having been mixed up with and defeated by immoral pagan practices. The first refers to their state before they became Christians, that is, before they came to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Alternative translation models for this verse are:
(1) If people (or, these false teachers, or, recent converts), through their coming to know our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, have escaped from the forces of the world that cause peoples’ hearts to become dirty, and if they are again trapped by the power of this evil worldly system, they are in a worse condition at the end than before they came to know Jesus Christ (believed in Jesus Christ).
(2) People (or, These false teachers, or, Recent converts) have escaped from the evil and licentious forces of the world through their knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But if they are again caught and conquered by these forces, they are in a worse condition …
This verse expands on the previous verse, asserting that it would have been much better for these people to remain heathen, rather than to become Christians and then to turn their backs on the Christian way of life. The connection of this verse to the verse before it is expressed by the connective For, which has the sense of “Because” or “It is a fact.”
Baker NT Commentary
“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.
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.
Did the false teachers at one time know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? The answer is yes.
The apostates had a knowledge of Jesus Christ, but their knowledge lacked the intimacy that characterizes the relationship of the true believer with Christ.
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
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)
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 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).
If they had not known the way of righteousness, the teachers would have been able to claim ignorance. Not now. They have known “the way of righteousness” that John the Baptist already revealed to the people of Israel in preparation for the coming of Jesus (Matt. 21:32).
Pillar NT Commentary
Nor is this previous escape and later entanglement a hypothetical condition, since in Greek it is what is called a “real condition” (using the indicative rather than the subjunctive). The point our author is making is, first, that they had been true followers of Jesus Christ, that is, they had escaped the corruption of the world.
Apparently what is worse about this situation is that (1) they have willingly entered into it (since they were once rescued from the power of evil), (2) it entails a rejection of the authority of Jesus in their lives, and (3) it is more hopeless than their pre-Christian state (and certainly so if our author is thinking along the same lines as Hebrews 6; cf. Heb 10:26).