Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Reluctant Epistle

I usually think of Jude as the "contend earnestly" book. It is only one chapter, 25 verses and is probably best known for part of verse 3 "...appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints." This is the most commonly referenced verse for many apologists. It can appear from emphasizing that part of the verse that Jude is an enthusiastic advocate for apologetics but as I read through Jude yesterday what stuck out for me was the first half of verse 3: "Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you..." Jude didn't want to write to his audience about the need to hold fast to sound doctrine. He seemed to want instead, eagerly he says, to write about our common salvation, a more joyful topic than marking out false teachers. However based on some news or feedback he was compelled to pen this short letter to address the pressing issues that needed to be confronted.

So what was going on? It appears that as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes writes "there is nothing new under the sun". Specifically there appears to be a serious issue of people who are engaged in sexual sin and seek cover for their behavior by false appeals to grace. Look first at what Jude writes immediately after his "contend earnestly" verse:
For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:4)
Set aside for now the import of the part where Jude says that those who were condemned were designated long ago, a statement that seems to echo Romans 9. Look instead at what these ungodly people were doing. They were perverting the grace of God that forgives to the uttermost the sins of believers and with this perversion of grace had descended into "sensuality" or as the KJV puts it "lasciviousness". The NIV renders it "who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality". The Holman Christian Standard uses the word "promiscuity" and the NASB "licentiousness". However you render it, what is happening seems to be people who were engaged in sexual sin and when confronted about it waved the "grace card". Jude is urging his audience to reject this idea, an idea still very much alive and well today, that "grace" is a license to sin, in other words I am forgiven for all of my sins anyway so it doesn't matter if I sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact this attitude is a sign of someone who is not regenerate in the first place. The apostle John writes powerfully in opposition to those who try to cover their licentiousness with grace throughout his first letter and especially here:
Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:8-10)
That is some of the most powerful writing in the Scriptures. Talk is cheap. If you make a practice of sinning, you are of the devil and not redeemed. If you are indeed born-again you will inevitably be on a path of sanctification. That isn't a teaching that once you are born-again you never sin again, the error of "sinless perfection", but it does mean that if you wave your sin around with pride and are not only unrepentant for it but in fact pleased about you are of the devil. Those sort of words have no place in many "churches" where fornication, divorce and remarriage, homosexual perversions, etc. are out in the open and celebrated. Those words are powerful reminders for those of us who make up the church that there are many who claim to be Christians but demonstrate by their actions that they are not.

Jude continues with an interesting series of examples:
Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (Jude 1:5-8)
So three things are happening here. Jesus saved His people out of Egypt but He also destroyed those that did not believe. It is interesting that Jude specifies Jesus as the one who saved the believers out of Egypt, a powerful example of the eternality and triunity of Jesus in the Godhead.  Next he looks at a somewhat curious example of angels who apparently rebelled and are kept in darkness until judgment day. I am not sure anyone has a definite understanding of that although there are several viable theories. The third example leaves nothing to the imagination. Jude references Sodom and Gomorrah marked out for the wrath of God against sin. It is popular to try to soften the Sodom and Gomorrah story by throwing out malarkey like what God was really mad about was the inhabitants not being hospitable or that it was the forcible nature of the sexual sin that made God mad. Clearly Jude is saying that God destroyed them in a "punishment of eternal fire" because of sexual immorality and "unnatural desires", i.e. homosexuality which has been recognized as deviant and unnatural until very, very recently. Certainly there was sexual immorality of other kinds going on but Jude specifically refers to the "other flesh" as the unnatural lust of same sex relationships. God clearly was already planning on destroying these cities long before the angels visited Lot based on the negotiation going on between the angels and Abraham. It requires a willful disregard of what is preserved for the church to deny that the Bible in general denounces sexual sin and also takes pains to specifically point to one type of sexual sin, homosexuality, as deserving of special mentions and condemnation.

Jude goes on to warn his readers that these people are among them, falsely portraying themselves as part of the church.
These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, "Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him." These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage. (Jude 1:12-16)
The hidden reef picture is a powerful one. You can be sailing along on a beautiful day with calm, blue waters until you hit the reef and sink your ship. People who practice sin as Jude is pointing out are often found in the church, on the surface looking like "one of us" but with deadly danger just below the surface. What also strikes me is the language of wrath and judgment associated by Jude to Jesus Christ, the brother of our Lord who undoubtedly knew Him very well even though he has very little preserved of his writings. The language he uses is so foreign to so much of our religious culture that portrays Jesus as a simpering ancient version of George McFly.

Jude goes on to remind his audience that this was all predicted by the apostles and as such we shouldn't be shocked to see false teachers in our midst:
But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, "In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions." It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. (Jude 1:17-19)
Then amid all of the dire warnings and stern word pictures we get a beautiful closing with the promise of God, the calling of the great commission and a beautiful doxology:
But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:20-25)
It seems as if Jude were writing to the contemporary church, beset from without but especially from within. So many of us are sort in a stunned inaction, so disarmed by the ferocious attack on the faith that they don't want to move for fear of upsetting what little stability they have left. Many more want to sing contemporary Christian music more and more loudly to drown out the voices of warning all around them. Easier to pretend all is well than to face the ravening wolves. As Jude shows us, we cannot simply sit around in indifference while the church is under assault from false teachers who lead others astray. Jude was desirous to talk about other topics but he recognized the need to speak out when the church was under assault. We should be the same.


Gus Supan said...

How does the problem of besetting sin apply to this teaching? (a sin that has troubled someone for years. A sin that someone hates and constantly seeks forgiveness but has yet to gain victory. To me as long as someone caught in besetting sin and continues to repeatedly repent is yet a Christian. One who claims being a Christian and lives in besetting sin blowing it off without genuine repentance may not be a Chrustian. I use the words "may not" because I have a difficult time judging another's heart. "Man looks on the outer appearance but God looks on the heart."

Arthur Sido said...

This is largely an issue of discipleship and church discipline. Another problem is that we don't know each other as well as we should in the church and culturally many people are (often rightly) afraid that if they come for help with a besetting sin people are going to treat them like the proverbial leper.