In his second letter, Peter warns against false teachers and false prophets. “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet 2:1 ESV). Who exactly were these false prophets and teachers, and what does Peter mean by “destructive heresies”?

Let’s look at three terms Peter used in the original Greek: “false prophets,” “false teachers,” and “destructive heresies.” Using The ESV Greek-English Reverse Interlinear, we learn that the Greek word for “false prophet” is ψευδοπροφήτης (pseudoprophetes). Once we have our Greek word, we can jump over to A Greek-English Lexicon of The New Testament (BDAG), which leads us to a few biblical passages.

BDAG tells us that Peter’s warning is part of a tradition stemming from the Old Testament and Jesus. Deuteronomy 13:1–3 states that a false prophet can be recognized by their actions. In Matt 7, Jesus also warns his followers about false prophets (pseudoprophetes).

Defining pseudoprophetes as “false prophet” is straightforward, but word studies are about more than definitions—they are about connotations, the usage of a word, and words that are paired together. Let’s look at “false teacher,” that pseudoprophetes is paired with.

“False teacher” is also one word: ψευδοδιδάσκαλοι (pseudodidaskaloi). BDAG tells us that the second part of pseudodidaskaloi, didaskalos, could mean “teacher” or “master.” Knowing that didaskalos can also mean “master” leads us to the issue at stake: spiritual authority. In Peter’s day, teachers often had followers—disciples. A didaskalos didn’t lecture to casual hearers; they sought followers who would look to them for authority. Peter’s warning against pseudodidaskaloi was an assault against those who pretentiously taught people in fledgling churches, and who could potentially start new churches.

Like “false teachers,” “false prophets” were after authority: Prophets were viewed as a divine mouthpiece who told people the will of God. Peter’s concern was that new believers in Jesus were listening to pseudoprophetes: people who claimed to be speaking for God but were not. And that they were listening to pseudodidaskaloi: self-proclaimed teachers who were more interested in gaining their own following. Neither group was directing people to Jesus and the teachings He passed on through the apostles.

Christ empowered true prophets, apostles and pastor-teachers and gave them as “gifts” to the church (Eph 4:11–12). The people Peter was arguing against were subverting those whom God had appointed to lead and teach His people. The apostles had walked with Jesus while He was on earth. Their status came not from “cleverly devised myths,” but the fact that they had been “eyewitnesses to his majesty” (2 Pet 1:16). False prophets and false teachers had no such divine commissioning.

Our third term, “destructive heresies,” tells us how deeply Peter was concerned. In the Greek, the phrase “destructive heresies” is αἱρέσεις ἀπωλείας (haireseis apōleias). BDAG tells us that the first term is derived from the verb hairein (ʼαιρειν) meaning “to choose.” Haireseis is about “choosing or taking up a set of beliefs”; hence why it is often translated as “sect.” Apoleias is most likely derived from apollumi (ἀπόλλυμι), meaning “to perish,” “to destroy,” or “be lost.” Literally the term haireseis apōleias means “a destructive choice.”