The sermon last Lord’s Day morning was on Obadiah, a little book to which little attention is usually paid. This morning we turn to Jude, one of the little books of the New Testament and, again, one to which Christians characteristically pay slight attention. But Jude is a fascinating letter for a variety of reasons and one that wonderfully repays study. The church father, Origen, wrote, “Jude wrote an epistle, tiny in the extreme, but yet full of powerful words and heavenly grace.” [Comm. in Matt. X, 17]
v.1 At the time Jude was written, probably during the sixties of the first century, the only “James” that could be identified by a single name was James the Lord’s brother, who had become a very influential Christian leader, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, the mother church of the Christian world. The James who had been one of the Lord’s disciples, the James who was the brother of John, the James of Peter, James, and John, had been executed by Herod Agrippa, as we read in Acts 12. So as the brother of James Jude was also the brother of Jesus, either his youngest brother or his second youngest brother. Jude is another form of the same name sometimes spelled Judah or Judas.
We do not know to what particular community of Christians Jude wrote his letter. It is supposed that at least most of them were Jewish Christians because Jude assumes that they are familiar with the literature of Second Temple Judaism, to which literature he will make several references in his letter.
v.3 This tantalizing remark suggests that had a crisis not intervened, Jude might have written an exposition of the Christian faith. Perhaps he would have written something like Paul’s letter to the Romans. But it was not to be.
v.4 Trouble had come in the form of men, claiming to be Christians, who were undermining the Christian faith of these people because they were undermining the teaching of the Word of God. This was not the first time and it would not be the last that the gospel of free grace was turned into an excuse for sinful living. The term itself suggests sexual immorality, though it can refer to sin in general, but that there was a sexual dimension to the sin Jude was concerned about will become clear as we proceed. The logic of the argument is easy enough to follow, so easy to follow that people have been persuaded by it again and again through the ages: if God forgives our sins and if we are saved by God’s grace and not by our own effort and by Christ’s righteousness and not our own obedience, then whether or not we live sinfully or licentiously has nothing to do with our salvation. If we can sin and still go to heaven, why not sin? All the more because the more sin you commit the greater the salvation of God will revealed to be. As you know, the Apostle Paul had to contend with this perversion of Christian doctrine as well.
v.5 The 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland text of the Greek New Testament, the standard edition used by almost all biblical scholarship, was recently published. For the first time the Greek text of v. 5 reads “Jesus” and not “the Lord.” It was Jesus who delivered his people out of Egypt. It has long been recognized that “Jesus” must be the correct reading. It is found in the best manuscripts and it is the more difficult reading — the reading a scribe was more likely to change — and finally wiser heads have prevailed. Jude 5 is perhaps the most striking of the many instances in the New Testament where Jesus of Nazareth is identified with Yahweh, Israel’s God, the Yahweh who delivered his people from bondage in Egypt. It was Jesus who delivered Israel from Egypt; it was Jesus who delivered the law at Sinai, as we read in Hebrews, and it was Jesus who accompanied Israel through the wilderness, as we read in 1 Cor. 10. Most admitted, in any case, that if the reading were “the Lord,” it was still a reference to Jesus Christ. But with “Jesus” v. 5 is a still more striking statement of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, the first-century man, with the God revealed to us as Yahweh in the pages of the Old Testament.
Now we are given three notorious examples of licentiousness and the punishment that was visited upon those who practiced it. The first is Israel in the wilderness, a typical example in the New Testament of a faithless people who suffered for their unbelief. Their unbelief was also expressed in sexual sin with the Moabite women at Baal Peor, as will be mentioned in v. 11.
v.6 This is a reference to the “sons of God” who co-habited with the daughters of man, as we read in Genesis 6, the sin that eventually led to the punishment of the flood. Some of the precise wording used here is taken from a Jewish work known as 1 Enoch.
v.7 His third illustration is that of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, typical examples of very sinful people and particularly of sexually sinful people. All of these are examples of those who committed the same sins that were now being committed and apparently even recommended by the false teachers who had come among this group to whom Jude is writing. With these examples Jude is warning them of the punishment that God invariably visits on such sins.
v.9 This encounter between the archangel Michael and the devil is not found in Holy Scripture, though in Revelation 12:7 Michael is mentioned as the protector of the church in its struggle with the dragon. According to some church fathers the account that Jude refers to was found in the Jewish work entitled The Assumption (or The Testament) of Moses, though the portion of the work which included this story is lost. This use of a story found in an apocryphal book poses a problem. How can a biblical writer seem to credit the authority of a book we do not recognize as belonging to the Word of God? A variety of answers have been given to that question though we know so little about this material it is hard to choose between them. Certain traditions preserved in those books may have been historical and, of course, it is always possible that Jude is drawing an illustration from a story that everyone knew, not expecting that anyone would consider it history. The idea is that nowadays Jude would refer to one of Tolkien’s works or the Narnia Chronicles or something of that sort. Who’s to say?
v.11 As you may remember, verses 4-16 of Jude very closely resemble verses in 2 Peter 2. The themes are the same, in some cases the wording is the same, and the correspondences are too striking to be coincidental. Almost everyone agrees that Jude came first and that Peter made use of his little letter in writing his own. This is a striking illustration of the humanity of the Bible, how much its authors were ordinary men who wrote as ordinary men do, building on the material in someone else’s letter, however much their writing was overseen by the Holy Spirit.
v.12 These false teachers — shepherds — were participating in the Lord’s Supper but their faith was false.
v.15 This is a citation from 1 Enoch 1:9.
v.16 Israel grumbled a lot in the wilderness!
v.24 You often hear ministers recite these words as a benediction at the end of a worship service. I’ve heard them do it countless times. But this is not a benediction, or if it is, it is a blessing of God, not of his people. Too many Christian ministers do not fully understand what they are doing at the end of the worship service.
Jude was the Lord’s younger brother. What stories he must have had to tell! And no doubt wherever he went he was pestered to tell his stories of growing up in the family of the Son of God. What was Jesus like as an older brother? What was it like living with a brother who never sinned? My brother is asked that question all the time! And so on. It has long been noted that neither James nor Jude identifies himself as the brother of Jesus, but as his servant. They didn’t trade on their family relationship to the Lord Christ. Remember, as no doubt they remembered to their shame, they hadn’t believed in him until after his resurrection
We wish we knew more of Jude’s life. Where did he do his work as a teacher and leader of the church? We know he had a family because two of his grandsons were later hauled before Domitian, the “morbidly suspicious” Roman emperor whose reign lasted from A.D. 81-96. He had heard something about them and thought they posed some danger; but after interviewing them and finding that the only kingdom they were interested in was a heavenly one, he let them go. They were farmers and he thought them of no account. [Kelly, Commentary, 232-233]
But little as we may know about Jude himself, we have this letter from his pen. And, short as it is, it reveals the man. What we get in Jude is the fundamental philosophy of history and of the Christian life, the philosophy that guides the life of those who are followers of Jesus Christ. of Let me summarize it in three parts.
- First, the Christian faith itself is that truth about God and man revealed once and for all by the prophets and the apostles.
When Jude exhorts his readers to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” he puts in memorable words the truth that is writ large on every page of the New Testament. The church is built, we read in Paul, on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. It was those men, immediately commissioned by Christ, who delivered the full and authoritative revelation of his religion. The writings of the Bible are, to be sure, the writings of men, but nothing could be clearer than that God used their words with which to speak his word. Peter may make use of Jude in writing his second letter, but both of them are the Word of God. It is the mystery of divine accommodation, of God stooping to make use of mere human beings as agents of his self-revelation. It is akin to the incarnation itself. As Christ himself was both God and man, so the Bible is both human and divine. I haven’t time to prove the point to you, but it lies face up on a great many pages of the Bible. It is this double aspect of the Scriptures that make them both authoritative as the Word of God and intelligible and accessible to us as human beings. But take the point: first the books we call the Old Testament and then those that make up the New contain the Word of God, the self-disclosure of the living God concerning those truths that are essential for human beings to know if they are to live forever. That is what makes the Bible so fabulously important to Christians and the world. The truth everybody needs to know has been set down in that book once for all.
That is the burden of that word hapax in v.3. The Greek word can mean simply “once,” as in the phrase all seminary students learn to their dismay early on in their study of Greek, hapax legomenon. A hapax legomenon is a word that occurs just once in the New Testament. By one count there are 5,434 different words in the Greek New Testament. Many of them, of course, appear repeatedly. “God,” “salvation,” “Jesus,” “go,” “walk,” “eat,” and so on. But of those 5434 different words 1,947 are hapax legomena, that is, words that occur just once in the New Testament. So more than a third of the vocabulary of the Greek New Testament is composed of words that occur only once. Obviously that makes memorizing the vocabulary of the Greek New Testament a great challenge for a seminarian, because one must learn so many words that one rarely if ever comes across in reading the text. But, though the word can mean simply “once,” hapax can also mean once for all, that is, once and never again.
For example that word hapax found here in Jude 3 is the same word used in Hebrews 9 and 10 to say that Christ died once for all for the sins of his people. There the point is made explicitly. He did not have to die again and again, as the Levitical sacrifices had to be offered again and again. He died once for all and his people are cleansed once for all by his death.
This conviction, that the truth lies behind us in one full, comprehensive, and never-to-be-repeated revelation of the divine mind, was the conviction of the early church. Teachers and Christian thinkers in those early centuries understood that they were not in the business of invention, of discovering new truth about God and Christ and salvation. Their task instead was to understand and explain something that had already been revealed. [Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 3] And faithful Christians have had the same conviction ever since. The truth of the Word of God is in its very nature unalterable. Do we need knowledge and wisdom: “To the law and to the testimony!” Or, as Paul reminded Timothy, it is the Scripture, the writings that make up the Bible, that make us wise for salvation and thoroughly furnish us for every good work.
The God we worship, the Savior we trust, the doctrine we believe, the laws we obey, the life we live: it is all to be found in the Bible, in the authoritative, once-for-all revelation of the truth. There are immense implications of this fact, implications the church has always accepted when she has been spiritually healthy. And one of the implications is precisely that of the fixity, the permanence, and the definitiveness of divine revelation is that all attempts to add to or subtract from it are forbidden.
From the very beginning this once-for-all character of apostolic revelation was challenged. In one way this is what these false teachers were doing: they were at least ignoring huge tracts of the Bible’s teaching. The Gnostics and others added texts and Marcion and others subtracted texts. And it has been happening ever since. The Roman Catholics added their tradition and call it as well the revelation of God. Islam, which considers the Bible a divine revelation, admits some of its books, subtracts others as supposedly corrupted, and added the Koran and other texts to it. And in modern times Mormons and others have proposed to add other books to the Bible that expand and update its message. But there stands that hapax in Jude 3: the faith once-and-for-all delivered to the saints! We no more think that we need more Bible than we think we need more of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is the Bible as the one source of absolute truth; it is its definitive nature that has led to the great reverence for the Bible that is characteristic of Christianity in its best and healthiest representatives. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer would tell a friend to “treat the Scripture of God as the face of God and melt in its presence” or why John Stott should describe Holy Scripture as “the scepter by which King Jesus rules the church.” Jude’s “once-for-all” in v. 3 challenges each one of us. What is our view, really, what is our view of this book that we hold in our hands and the teaching that it contains? Do we consider it to be the very word and truth of God? Do we really believe that everything we absolutely need to know is found in this book? Do we love it for that reason and read it carefully for that reason and learn it for that reason? Are you a Bible man or a Bible woman? Is it obvious to others that you are? Jude makes it clear that everything for the present and for the eternal future, hangs on our answer to that question.
- Second, there have always been and there will always be efforts to subvert the teaching of the Bible in the church.
It is not too much to say that the story of the church in the world is the story of two great struggles: the first to evangelize the world and the second to preserve gospel truth from its enemies within the church. It is hard enough to have opposition from the world, but we understand and expect that. The world hated our master; it will hate his followers too. But to find it springing up like dragon’s teeth in the church, in every age, in every place is the true tragedy of Christian history. But from the beginning the church has been a mixture of believers and unbelievers and not unbelievers only, but some unbelievers who act aggressively to undermine the teaching of the Word of God and it will be such a mixture to the end. Jude clearly regards these false teachers as unbelievers, even though they are attending Christian services and sitting with believers at the Lord’s Supper. His descriptions of them are unmistakable. They are like the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, they are unbelievers, they are ungodly sinners, they are worldly people devoid of the Holy Spirit. These are not people who have a true Christian faith but may be mistaken on this point or that, the sort of people Paul bent over backwards to keep faith and unity with. These are unbelievers posing as believers; enemies of Christ passing themselves off as his friends. And there have been immense numbers of such people in the church through the ages.
That we cannot expect ever to escape this challenge is sufficiently proved by the fact that even when the apostles were alive, even before the age of miracles had come to an end, the church had to contend with heresies of one sort or another. A number of the letters of Paul, like this letter of Jude, were written to combat lethal false teaching that had begun to be believed and accepted in the church. He battled antinomianism, as Jude does here, the idea that free grace makes a Christian’s way of life immaterial. He battled legalism as in Galatians. There were those who began to teach that the Second Coming had already occurred, others who taught that marriage was improper for Christians. Paul had his hands full all his apostolic life beating back false teaching that seemed to arise everywhere in the church. John had to battle fatally false views of the person of Christ and so on. And now here is Jude having to enter the lists against an aggressive antinomianism that apparently flaunted what it imagined was a Christian’s sexual freedom.
What is so significant about this is, of course, that the very same errors have surfaced repeatedly throughout church history and can be found in the Christian church still today. Our culture may be different from the culture of the first century, but in many respects it’s very much the same. We have supposedly Christian teachers who deny the deity of Jesus Christ, the fact of his resurrection from the dead, the authority of the Bible, and so on. We have self-styled Christian teachers who deny that God created the world or that biblical sexual ethics are a divine law, fixed and unchangeable. Whatever else the movement to normalize homosexuality in the church is, and it is found in virtually all the major denominations of the church in the western world, it is effectively just the umpteenth example of the very antinomianism that Jude condemned here.
We may wish that false teachers would simply leave us alone, but they will not. They are doing the devil’s work and he will not let them rest. As soon as the church has righted itself from the influence of one heresy, nothing is as certain as that another will soon appear on the horizon. If there is a faith that has been once-for-all delivered to the saints, it is a faith for which Christians will have to contend as Jude orders us to do here. This is truth worth fighting for, but it is also truth that has to be fought for, in every generation, in every family, in every Christian heart.
Can you deny, any of you, that you have not felt doubts rising in your own minds regarding those Christian doctrines that are least congenial to twenty-first century American culture: that salvation can be found only in Jesus Christ; that the wicked and the unbelieving will be punished in the world to come and punished forever; that masculinity and femininity are divine orders of being, and so on? I cannot say that I have struggled at length with such doubts, but that I have felt the force of them I cannot deny. This is the world and the devil at work, and in this way we are reminded that every Christian must contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. It is under attack, it is always under attack; we must defend it in the church, in our families, and in our own hearts.
- And third and finally Christians contend for the faith by living a life of love.
This is really extraordinary, I think. We might have expected Jude to say, as John does, “have nothing to do with these false teachers.” We would not have been surprised if Jude had said, as Paul does, “Drive them out of your church services.” And perhaps he intends for them to do just that. After all, contending for the faith doesn’t sound like meekly standing by while it is contradicted in one’s own church! I remember the touching story of a Sunday School teacher in Holy Trinity Church, the church the great Charles Simeon had pastored for fifty years in Cambridge, coming to the parsonage one Monday morning to resign his post. He had learned the faith at Simeon’s feet but the great man was gone and that Sunday he had sat and listened to gospel truth being belittled in Simeon’s old pulpit. There was little he could do as an old man and just a Sunday School teacher to contend for the faith except to submit his resignation. The pastor thought it amusing, but Jude would not have.
But Jude contents himself with identifying and describing these heretics and telling his Christian friends to contend for the faith. What he orders them to do explicitly is to keep themselves in the love of God and to practice mercy toward others, particularly others who might be susceptible to the false teaching that was making the rounds.
This is practically very helpful counsel I think. None of us is likely to contend for the faith as a great Christian controversialist: an Augustine or a Luther or even a Francis Schaeffer or a Ravi Zacharias. We are not likely to nail 95 theses on some door and ignite a great movement of renewed loyalty to the teaching of the Word of God. The sort of contending for the faith that we are likely to do is simply to live a faithful life, to adorn the faith by our words and our deeds, and to help others to do the same.
There are those around you, there are some here this morning, who are struggling with doubt and with temptation. There are always such people around you in the church. You have a calling, you are under orders to help them in whatever way you can: to strengthen their faith, to help them resist temptation, and to love them in Christ’s name. We must not read commandments like these that Jude gives you this morning without putting the obvious question to ourselves: for whom am I praying in the Holy Spirit? To whom exactly am I showing mercy? Whose temptations am I helping them to resist? How am I fulfilling these commands from Jude? I should be able to put names and faces to vv. 21-23; can I? Can you? We are not supposed to read this letter and then simply go on as before. We are to heed what we are told for this is the Word of God. I suspect if we had known Jude it would have mattered to us, maybe it shouldn’t have had, but it would have mattered to us that it was the Lord’s own brother who was telling us to do these things.
We should not underestimate the immense power of the faithful Christian life in the world and of the love of Christians for one another. I just heard from Jonathan Nichols this morning about one of our foreign Covenant High School students who said to him “It’s the love that I see Christians giving to one another that makes me want to be a Christian.” The great proof, the public and persuasive demonstration of the truth of the Word of God has always been and is today the ordinary life of sincere Christians. I think we do not appreciate how impossible it would be to defend the Christian message if its truth were not being embodied in thousands and millions of human lives around the world. Heaven itself will reveal how much the salvation of each one of us depended upon the faithful living of the Christians we knew, of their love for us, and their efforts to nurture our faith and to resist the temptations of unbelief. What is so profoundly true in the Christian family, the essential role parents play in nurturing the faith of their children, is also true in the family of the church.
Beware, therefore, brothers and sisters, the temptation to shave this truth or that or to accommodate this assured conclusion of our culture or that which happens to contradict the teaching of the Bible. Stand fast with the Word of God, at least if you love the souls of your children and your grandchildren and if you love the church of God. As Spurgeon put it long ago:
“Trimming now, and debasing doctrine now, will affect children yet unborn, generation after generation.” [In Pike, ii, 327]
I mentioned Origen earlier. It was said of him, “As his doctrine, so was his life; and as his life, so also was his doctrine. That is how, through God’s grace, he induced many to imitate him.” [Eusebius, HE, 6.3; ET Paul Meier, 209]
Well, isn’t that the gist of this letter of the Lord’s brother Jude? As Paul told Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely for by them you will save not only yourself but your hearers.” There is obviously a sense in which that exhortation applies especially to ministers, but in a general way it is for us all. Indeed, Jude’s brother James explicitly applies it to us all.
“Remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
You have it in your power to save other human beings. Life and death hang in the balance. We are not Christians if we don’t realize that life is serious business. We have deadly adversaries in the Church of Jesus Christ. False teaching almost invariably finds a following in the church. People who might have lived forever perish instead as a result. Contend for the faith, Jude tells us, and keep yourselves in the love of God. That is the best way, that is finally the only way, to keep the heretics at bay, to go on in our faith, and to carry others with us.