The letter from Jude is 25 verses long. We'll read the entire letter before we leave today. What we don't know about Jude would take up many more words than that. We can't be certain about who wrote the letter, to whom it was written, to which religious books the letter alludes, or precisely what troubles in the church provoked it composition.
The early church probably understood the
from Jude …
brother of James — to mean that the
letter was written by one of Jesus' family,
although both Jude and James were common enough
names. The canonical status of this letter was
debated in the earliest church, but eventually
it was included in the Bible.
Martin Luther seems to have thought that was a mistake; he suggested that Jude be taken back out of the Bible. Then again Luther suggested dropping James and Revelation, and we would be much impoverished had he prevailed.
Based on the text itself (and on analogies with
other sources) we can make a guess about
what was happening in the early church. A new
teaching has crept into the church, different
the faith which God entrusted to his
people once and for all. Innovation isn't
invariably a good thing, and this particular
from certain persons who have
wormed their way in, whose very presence
within the church is already deceitful. They
are preaching a doctrine which perverts the
Jude reminds the faithful that Jesus and the apostles had foreseen this sort of false teaching. They shouldn't be surprised, and most certainly they should not think that God has been taken by surprise. On the contrary, God is prepared with a response. Faithful Christians also need to respond.
Jude reminds the church of something they know already: that God judges the unfaithful as well as the faithful. The letter lists a number of examples from both scripture and popular religious books: the plague during the Exodus, the angels who left heaven, Sodom and Gomorrah; Cain, Balaam, and Korah. In each case, error was punished — by disease, by seismic surface rupture, by exile, by chains beneath eternal darkness.
Many of us today are uncomfortable with God's
judgement (and well we should be). In the
context of this letter, however, the promise
of judgement is meant as a reassurance to those
who remain true. The promised judgement means
that this perversion of truth cannot stand.
However popular the new teaching might become,
however much these new teachers may
scorn on [true] religion, the truth of God
is stronger and will prevail.
But what exactly was this false teaching? We have only these 25 verses from which to guess. And perhaps it doesn't matter a great deal.
Some people are convinced that the issue is
one of sexual immorality (and typically some
particular form of that which is of unusual
to the person who makes this proposal). Jude
does say the false teachers
into licentiousness, but
those words are consistent with several other
theories as well.
Jude includes the story of Sodom and Gomorrah
as one of the examples of judgement. That
story is about the worth and dignity of people
but its lesson is undeniably worked out in the
misuse of sexual intercourse.
Another of Jude's examples is the case of the
fallen angels. The popular story of the time
includes the angels marrying human women and
having babies with them, and Jude alludes to
unnatural lusts when comparing
the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah to these
The other examples do not fit this theory, so I am inclined to discount it. Cain's sin was murder. Korah's rebellion was a power grab. Balaam was thought to have accepted money to pretend that God would turn against the Hebrew people.
Besides, Jude's description of
is much broader:
They are a set of grumblers
and malcontents, Jude writes. True it is
they follow their lusts; equally,
big words and play politics
to gain their ends. So I believe that
the issue is larger than any single category
of bad behavior.
The solution may well be in the comment that
these men draw a line between spiritual and
unspiritual persons. That is, they make
distinctions between the spiritual and the
material. (Other translators read this verse
to say these teachers create divisions, which
is certainly also true.)
Elsewhere we read about people who argued that
Jesus was never truly human; the second letter
of John, for example, warns about
… who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ
as coming in the flesh. Based on other
writings we think that they went on to argue
that Christ was only divine and saves only our
spiritual selves; the physical life is nothing
to them and has no impact on the spiritual
realm. Such a teaching can be used to justify
almost any sort of bad behavior and helps to
explain the emphasis which the letters of
James and John place on how we behave.
So the heresy of dividing life into separate realms, the spiritual and the material, which have nothing to do with each other, may be the false teaching Jude is writing against. But 25 verses translated from ancient Greek do not give us enough information to be sure.
The letter from Jude was not intended as a historical record of theological disputes in the early church. The purpose of the letter was to urge the Christian believers to respond appropriately to wrong teaching. The primary concern is not the content of the error but how the church should respond, and this is where Jude may become valuable to us.
Could false teaching creep into the church today? It might not take the same form or repeat the same errors, but we are human beings living within a society of human beings. Wrong-headedness is pretty much an inevitability. How should we respond?
Jude lays out a series of responses which can
guide us. We ought to begin with the faith we
the faith which God entrusted
to his people once and for all.
Our understanding should grow, our maturity in
the faith should increase, but the essential
nature of faithfulness does not change.
God created us, loved us, came to us; and we
must respond to God's love, as best we are
able, in the ways that God taught us.
Holding fast to this faith we've had since the time of the apostles, Jude tells us to take comfort in the judgement of God. It is not our responsibility to punish the error-prone or to purge the denomination of the devil's slick salesmen. We can trust God's judgement to do that.
Some of the most poetic among these 25 verses
are the ones assuring us that, in the long
view, the enemies of the truth end as nothing.
They are clouds carried away by the wind
without giving rain, says Jude;
that in season bear no fruit. They seem
formidable, but when the storm has taken them
away they have left nothing behind.
But we can leave a legacy, Jude says, if we work faithfully with God. What we should do is exercise our faithfulness and become strong. What we should do is join with the Holy Spirit when we pray and keep our own lives and actions in the stream of God's love. Then we can look forward to the fulfilment of God's promises to us.
As for our relationship with others in the church, Jude has some more advice. If there are disputes, some will have doubts. Since we don't have the responsibility to judge, we can instead reach out with mercy. But, Jude says, you should only reach into the flames of discord with a healthy fear; you want to draw others to safety, not bring judgement on yourself.
Jude is saying only what Jesus said to the
disciples near the end of his earthly life:
The [one] who has received my commands
and obeys them — [that is the one] who
loves me. … Anyone who loves me will
heed what I say.
Those who do will
live in the love of God
the Father and in the safe keeping of Jesus
Scripture taken from the New English Bible, copyright 1970, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press.