THE LETTER OF JUDE
Hey Jude… sorry, I couldn’t resist. The Letter of Jude is obviously one of the briefest documents in the New Testament. It appears to be a letter written to a specific community that is troubled by false teachers whose lifestyle the writer considers immoral and whose teachings he considers off the mark.
This brief letter exhorts its recipients to remain unwavering in faith and to lead virtuous lives, while rejecting the immoral lure of false teachers who are preying upon the community. The precise authorship, circumstances, date, origin, and location of its intended audience are impossible to determine with certainty. (New Interpreters Study Bible)
This little book is short, sharp, and salutary. Jude sets out to write an enthusiastic letter about the wonders of salvation but finds himself writing strong, stern words instead. He is motivated by love of God and love for his readers. Jude (said by tradition to be the brother of Jesus as well as his servant) burns with passion for the purity of the faith; he can’t bear to see it undermined. But that is exactly what is happening, and a warning must be issued. With anguish and energy Jude startles his readers into taking notice. At the beginning and end of the letter, Jude speaks of the mercy, peace, love, power and security that are available in Jesus Christ. In the middle of the letter, Jude gives graphic examples of the awful possibility of perverting what Jesus offers. Though the examples Jude gives certainly would have evoked powerful memories for his original readers, some of them may seem irrelevant to us in our culture and our time. We can’t escape the significance of this letter, however. God’s Spirit, who inspired Jude’s letter, asks us to consider what might pervert God’s grace in our day. What behavior, lifestyle, attitudes or destructive talk do we need to address?... May his passionate words kindle the fire of love in our hearts. Be warned. Take action. Keep yourself in the love of God. (The Spiritual Formation Bible)
At its best, Jude may help kindle a fire of love in our hearts. Others find the book less helpful. “Today, except for the memorable phrasing in Jude 3 to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, most people find this very brief work too negative, too dated, and too apocalyptic to be of much use” (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament). It is a part of our Scripture and we will need to see how the Spirit might use these words to touch our lives.
Let’s discuss a few other issues before tackling the text more directly. It seems unlikely that Jude, the brother of Jesus is the author of the letter, though the author is well-versed in the texts and traditions of Judaism. It seems to come from a later time in the development of the Christian faith, though it was probably written before II Peter as that letter quotes verses 6-19 extensively. Sometime in the late first century seems plausible. A few more words about the problem facing the Jesus community receiving this letter might yet be helpful. The readers now face the dangers brought by certain intruders whose destructive influence is not so much doctrinal as it is behavioral. By denying the second coming and the judgment, they effectively remove the moral constraints that kept many from immorality. According to the author, the license promoted in the name of Christian freedom amounted to a denial of Christ. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
The letter opens in a warm and welcoming manner, but with an interesting twist in language. The letter is addressed to “those who are called, who are beloved in God.” This is a very nice phrase. It is joined by a word about being “kept safe.” In an emerging faith community, where long-term existence was a live issue, such language would have been deeply comforting. There are times in our lives when we, too, long to be “kept safe.” It is one image, but only one image for Christian faith. It needs to be counterbalanced by a sense of an adventurous faith. The recipients are wished “mercy, peace and love” in abundance – another beautiful phrase.
The writer had intended to pen one letter, one focusing on the shared faith and saving activity of God. Instead, circumstances prompt him to write a different letter, one in which he contends for the faith hoping to encourage the readers to do the same. Wandering teachers have slipped into the community and intruded on its life in unhealthy ways. The author has no use for these people, arguing that were “long ago” designated for condemnation. This is a difficult phrase, and might imply that God has designated some people for condemnation. To use this to make that argument is to misuse the passage, I think. It is to take a pastoral remark and make it abstract and doctrinal. The writer is seeking to assure the readers that in spite of the difficulty they are facing, God is not overwhelmed. These intruding teachers have perverted the grace of God into “licentiousness” and “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” The primary objection is moral and behavioral – though we are not here given the content of the objectionable behavior nor the content of the objectionable teaching.
Perhaps what the author meant in verse 4 about God condemning these troublesome teachers refers to what the tradition has indicated God has done with previous troublesome persons. These new troublemakers are similar to past troublemakers. The writer decides to share stories from Scripture and tradition about troublemakers meeting a bad end – the story of Israelites freed from Egypt who died in the wilderness, the story from Genesis about heavenly beings, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The story about angels was expanded in a Jewish writing – I Enoch, which is a part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s Old Testament. The “sexual immorality” of Sodom and Gomorrah, their pursuing of “unnatural lust” (literally “pursued other flesh”) may have something to do with seeking some sort of union with the divine through sex. “Union with the divine through sex was a claim in many ancient fertility rites and continues in the promises of some cults today” (People’s New Testament Commentary).
The writer argues that these intrusive teachers have their heads in the clouds, misuse their bodies, reject appropriate authority, and speak slander against the angels that may have, in some way, fascinated them. He cites another story from the Jewish tradition, this one appearing in a work called “The Assumption of Moses.” The troublemakers “slander whatever they do not understand.” Further, “they are destroyed by those things that, like irrational animals, they know by instinct.” More than their teaching is in question. Their lifestyle was the more serious problem, it seems. Apparently they advocated desire run amok. The exact nature of their action remains vague. Sexuality is involved at some level, but just what the writer is concerned about is unknown. I recently heard Jude used to argue against homosexuality. I don’t believe the text warrants such use.
Other stories are told – Cain, Balaam, Korah. “Jewish rabbis had linked these three as examples of those who have no share in the life to come” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The author calls these people “blemishes – waterless clouds, trees without fruit, wild waves of the sea, and wandering stars,” none of which he means for good. They will be judged by God, the writer tells us, citing Enoch again. He characterizes them further – “grumblers and malcontents.” They “indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.” It might have been interesting to know how these people described themselves.
The writer has cited Jewish writings, from what would become Scripture and what would remain outside. He now cites an apostolic teaching, though the source is unknown. At what these people scoffed is not known. Again, the writer continues to characterize them. They are “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit… causing division.”
In contrast, the author encourages his readers to “build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” But you, dear friends, carefully build yourselves up in this most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit, staying right at the center of God’s love, keeping your arms open and outstretched, ready for the mercy of our Master, Jesus Christ. This is the unending life, the real life! (The Message) If one gets a little lost or put off by the verses just prior to these, these verses arrive like a breath of fresh air. A positive focus seems helpful. Yes, troubles abound, and need to be dealt with, but don’t lose focus on growing in faith. And an important part of living faith is showing mercy on those struggling with their faith, even, it seems, those most involved with the wandering teachers.
The final words are gracious and encouraging.
One of the difficulties in reading the New Testament letters is that we have one side of the conversation. All of the descriptions of those against whom the author writes are rather vague. We get little sense of the precise teachings and actions of those whom he opposes. As I have noted before, Christian faith is elastic, but not infinitely so. Certain teachings and behaviors take one outside Christian faith, but the precise boundaries are themselves topics for conversation and dialogue. Such conversation was less possible in the early days of the church as a fledgling community was forming. Boundaries needed to be established more firmly. Today we have more freedom to question, to converse. In such an environment, the positive side of this letter is more helpful and applicable. Seek to steep yourself in mercy, peace and love. Build yourself in faith, pray, keep centered in God’s love, be compassionate.
Eugene Peterson’s words about this letter are helpful. He describes Jude as “a doctor diagnosing what was wrong.” Then he elaborates. There is far more, of course, to living in Christian community than worrying about some undetected virus or sickness. Worrying too much is a sickness as well. Spiritual health, in Jude’s words, is “keeping your arms open and outstretched, ready for the mercy of our Master, Jesus Christ.” Healthy living, in other words, is finding life in Jesus.