Monthly Archives: October 2019

Limited Tolerance? (Jude 1-10)

Limited Tolerance? (Jude 1-10)
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In our modern world tolerance stands out as an unquestionable virtue. Any intolerance will be greeted with firm intolerance! Society today demonstrates tolerance for tolerance, but intolerance towards anything it deems intolerant. This relates to inter-faith issues as well as to ethical and gender debates. Christian affirmations of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and Saviour, the Christian faith as absolute truth and biblical teaching as the ultimate plumb-line in issues of morality and gender may arouse strong opposition. Such definite faith can sound terribly intolerant today. But the letter of Jude sees things differently from our contemporary world-view.

Introduction (1 and 2)
As was usual in the first century, Jude starts by introducing himself as the author of the letter. Like Paul in his letters, he asserts that he is a slave of Jesus Christ. In the Roman empire of that time slavery was an all too common phenomenon, but the apostles rejoiced in the privilege of total submission to Jesus in every side of life. Their whole aim and desire was to serve and follow the Lord. Let slavery to Jesus be our boast and ambition too!
Jude also declares his credentials as the brother of James (Jesus’ brother?), the leader of the church in Jerusalem itself. At that time, as we may see from Acts 15.13 and from Paul’s disclaimer in Galatians 1, James and the Jerusalem church exercised considerable influence. As “a slave of Jesus Christ and a brother of James”, Jude’s words carry authority. And the heading over the letter of Jude states that this is a “general” (Greek catholic = universal) letter, so its teaching relates to all the Christian church, not just to one particular congregation. It comes to us also as God’s Word.
Jude then addresses his letter to those who are “called, loved in God the Father and kept in (there is no preposition in the Greek, so it could be ‘by’ or ‘for’) Jesus Christ”. These words remind us of God’s amazing grace – we have been chosen and called by the Father to be his children; God’s heart-warming love enfolds us; he promises to keep us in his love, so we have the comfort of absolute assurance. Being called, loved and kept we now receive Jude’s message as God’s word to us – even if it does sound intolerant to other people!

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No open fellowship (3 and 4)
Evidently in the churches Jude is relating to there was a problem. Certain ‘godless’ (Greek asebeis signifies non-worshipping, not devout) men had slipped into their fellowship and presumably were influencing others with their wantonly lascivious immorality and their false teaching.
They were teaching that God’s grace allows us freedom to sin freely, knowing that God’s forgiveness covers all sin. In fact this implies that the more you sin, the greater is God’s grace and forgiveness. Such false teaching with its blatant immorality can be paralleled in the similar Muslim ‘Drunken Sufis’ movement and within the Jewish ‘Sabbatianism’, following Sabbatai Tsevi (1626-1676). The sinful human heart loves a good religious excuse for immorality.
Jude goes on to give a specific definition of false teaching. They were denying Jesus Christ as “our one Sovereign (the Greek word from which we get the English ‘despot’) and Lord”. In the New Testament God alone, with his Son Jesus Christ, has authority over us. As Christians we need to resist the tendency of political or church leaders who may claim authority and demand our obedience. But Jesus does have full authority over us and rightly demands our total obedience.
So we may observe how denial of Jesus’ authority goes hand in hand with “a licence/freedom for immorality”. Both in society generally, and in individual lives personally, true faith in Jesus will lead to greater moral goodness; and likewise godlessness inevitably opens the door to greater evil and immorality both individually and in society more generally. For example, the decline in the British church has led to enormous moral problems in society which our government and police can never overcome.
Jude is warning the churches not to allow godless, immoral people to slip into their fellowship and introduce their approach into the church. There is a limit to our tolerant welcome of such people.

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Judgment (5-10)
Like all good Jews, Jude immediately relates the situation to God’s deliverance of his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. So he reminds his readers of the Passover which remains as the foundation of Israel’s faith and redemption. But Jude does not dwell on that gloriously positive note. Rather, he immediately moves on to the consequent judgment on those who later failed to trust and believe in the Lord. God “destroyed those who did not believe” (5).
So Jude goes on to remind us all that sin and immorality will incur the fearful judgment of God. Even the angels, who failed to maintain their position of authority and  abandoned their own heavenly home, are kept by God in darkness and everlasting chains (6). If angels await God’s judgment on that “great day”, we may be sure that we, mere humans, will also face God’s judgment if we allow the wrong people to infiltrate our fellowship and lead us astray.
To underline his warning of the coming judgment, Jude goes on to cite various Old Testament examples. He starts in verse 7 with the striking story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) whose sin paralleled the problem Jude is addressing. The “godless men” (Jude 4) practise “immorality” (4) and “pollute their own bodies” (8) with sexual perversion, so God’s fearful destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah comes as a pertinent word to Jude’s readers lest they too allow themselves to be led into such sin.
It is not easy to stand against people within our fellowship whose lives and teaching are leading people astray both in their faith and in their moral standards. None of us enjoy such confrontations. How easy it is to avoid them with nice-sounding words of love, grace and tolerance! And very few churches today actually practise biblical church discipline. Even to read or write in a blog about judgment, confrontation and church discipline raises all sorts of questions. But God’s warnings in Jude need to be taken seriously.
Our passage concludes with the strange reference to the archangel Michael disputing with Satan about possession of Moses’ body after his death (9). Origen says that this story is based on an apocryphal book called “the Assumption of Moses”, in which Satan was said to have claimed the right to snatch away the body of Moses because Moses had murdered an Egyptian and because Moses’ body was physical and therefore evil (a typical Gnostic heresy). But the Jewish Targum on Deuteronomy 34.6 states that Michael was the appointed guardian of Moses’ grave. Jude points out that in this story even the archangel avoided the unpleasantness of actually accusing Satan of sin and error, but somewhat weakly says “The Lord rebuke you!” And if an archangel does not “dare to bring a slanderous accusation” (9) against Satan, is it surprising that Jude’s readers also fail to confront the men who have “secretly slipped in among you” (4)? But such failure may lead to other Christians denying Jesus Christ as “our only Sovereign and Lord” (4) and allowing gross immorality within the congregation.
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For our discussion
How can we balance Jude’s message of confrontation with our message of grace, love and forgiveness?
Are there people (even church leaders?) in our congregation whose teaching and life-style are leading other Christians astray?

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Truth and Love (3 John)

Truth and Love (3 John)

As we come to the end of John’s three letters, we face yet again his tremendous repeated emphasis on truth and love. ‘Truth’ comes seven times in this short letter, while ‘love’/’beloved’ comes six times.

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Truth
“The whole purpose of life is to make money”, I heard recently. But how about the poor, the pensioner or the unemployed, none of whom are succeeding in making money? What is the real purpose of life? How can we know? And how can we discern what is right or wrong? Is making money or seeking our own pleasure the ultimate yard-stick by which we measure everything? If I live for money, how can I relate to you if you are only seeking your own welfare and pleasure?
The Bible sees things through totally different eyes. Truth is more important than money. Again and again in John’s writings we have noted his emphasis on Jesus as the truth. And therefore as his followers we too are called to walk in the truth – not money-grubbing. So in this lovely personal letter of 3 John he declares that he loves Gaius “in the truth” (1) and rejoices that Gaius is faithful to the truth and is walking in the truth (verses 3 and 4). In verse 12, also, the truth joins with everyone to speak well (literally ‘witness’) of Demetrius. John asserts that his own witness is also true.
In Jesus we have the genuine truth which forms a solid basis for everything in life. As we live, think and speak in accordance with that truth, our whole life increasingly reflects the nature and character of God himself. Like the apostle Paul we shall “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor.2.16), discerning right from wrong like him, becoming truly trustworthy like him, living lives of purity and holiness like him, serving God and other people like him etc.
How then can we come to know the truth? As we have observed, the truth is found in Jesus. The more closely we know and relate to Jesus, the more we shall learn and experience the truth. The truth of Jesus is revealed to us particularly in the biblical Scriptures which are God’s Word. In 2 Timothy 3.16 we learn that the Scriptures were ‘breathed out’ by God himself, so they reveal the truth in perfect form. It is therefore vitally important for us all to be steeped in study of the Bible. Through the work of God’s Spirit as we soak in the revelation of God in our Bible study, our lives and our whole thinking will be moulded into the image of Jesus. Through the truth of God’s Word we shall know his purposes for us; our lives will reflect his character; we shall become people of truth and therefore trustworthy; we shall be able to discern what is right and what is wrong. In our society today financial gain and personal freedom and pleasure have become the plumb-line by which people judge what is good or bad, but this can only lead to socially and personally destructive consequences. Our society desperately needs the entirely reliable and morally upright truth of Jesus and the Bible.
John doesn’t speak just of ‘truth’, but of ‘the truth’ – there is only one truth. In all our moral controversies and our multi-faith context it is important that we maintain a deep assurance of Jesus and God’s Word in the Bible as the unique truth. Of course we are still to love our neighbour and strongly support religious tolerance in society, but we also long for everyone to find the truth, the life, the salvation through faith in Jesus.

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Love
In this letter John consistently addresses Gaius as “beloved” (NIV ‘dear friend’ loses John’s emphasis on love) and it is to his love that others witness (6-8). This love leads to practical outworking in hospitality and supporting other Christians as they move on,  in ways that are worthy of God.  Presumably these Christians were travelling evangelists and so unknown to John previously. Were they now leaving because they had been called by God to serve him elsewhere? So is this an early example of God’s call to support Christians who are called to serve in other countries?
Love goes together not only with hospitality (8), but also with loving cooperation in serving the truth together (8). Such team ministry stands in direct contrast with the evil example of Diotrephes who “loves to be first”. In Greek this very human desire for prominence (‘loves to be first’) is actually just one word ‘first-loving’ – such pride was and is so common that it merits a special word! Sadly this is often the case even in the Christian church. Because of this sin, Diotrephes would not accept John – was he threatened by him and so feared for his position? He evidently was trying to pull John’s reputation down by false gossip. He was also refusing to welcome other Christians to the church – perhaps because the advent of other faithful Christians might threaten his prominence? In fact, he was even throwing good Christians out of the church (NIV softens the violence of the Greek ‘throws out’ with its translation ‘ puts out’). Happily in this letter John doesn’t only give us the bad example of Diotrephes, but then goes on to commend Demetrius who “is well spoken of by everyone” (12). And John concludes with the word that his witness concerning Demetrius is true, as everyone knows.

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The Name (7)
God is so glorious, all-holy and splendid in majesty that Jews have felt that they should never allow his name to pass their sinful lips. So it has been customary to use the expression “the Name” for God. Still today Jews will normally refer to God as HaShem, the Name. John also follows this pattern of deeply honouring the absolute glory of God: “It was for the sake of the Name that they went out” (7). We today may prefer to speak of ‘God’ and ‘the Lord’, but let us do so with reverent worship in our hearts. It is easy as Christians to speak so casually of the Lord! And sadly non-Christians commonly blaspheme with the expression “God knows” or the ejaculation “God Almighty!”. Some times it may be good to respond with “Yes, I guess He does indeed know . . . ” or “Yes, God’s power is indeed fantastic”.

‘εθνικοι

The Pagans (Greek ethnikoi)
In verse 7 is John meaning ‘pagans’ (as in NIV) or non-Jewish Gentiles? The Greek word stems from a word which generally refers to the Gentiles, as in the incarnate Jesus’ closing command to his disciples (Matthew 28.19). Of course it was true that in those days the Gentiles were almost all ‘pagans’ who did not yet believe in the God of Israel. So John in verse 7 almost certainly meant non-Jews, but he will have assumed that as Gentiles they will still be unbelieving.
Even in much later centuries it became customary to use the word ‘Gentile’ as meaning ‘pagan’. Thus in Aquinas’ “Contra Gentiles” (Against the Gentiles) he assumes that the word ‘Gentile’ means non-Christian, while the term ‘Israel’ referred to the church – and the church then was almost entirely non-Jewish. So the term ‘Israel’ came to mean non-Jews, while the term ‘Gentile’ meant non-Christian Jews ! So Jews became Gentiles and Gentiles became Israel! The same muddled error afflicted the Reformers too. Thus Luther used the term ‘the heathen’ (German: die Heiden) when translating ‘Gentiles’ and Calvin used ‘les paiens’/the pagans. After that the early pietistic missionaries to North America called the North American Indians ‘the Gentiles’, while the white Christians were ‘Israel’. Some times as a Jew myself I am asked whether Elizabeth is also Jewish. I used to answer, “No, she is Gentile”, but now I have learned to answer differently. People used to be shocked at my words and wonder how I could be so rude about my wife! They too still had the misunderstanding that ‘Gentile’ was a negative word for people without faith.
The Bible underlines God’s concern not only for his own Jewish people, but also for the Gentiles. Evidently the Christians referred to in verse 7 must have been living and working for the Lord in a Gentile milieu, but they got no help from their Gentile neighbours. As Christians today we too are called to mission with people of all ethnic backgrounds, Jews and Gentiles.
In our next blog we shall move on to Jude’s letter.
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The chosen lady and her children (2 John)

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Who is this letter addressed to? “The chosen lady (Greek Kuria)”. ‘Kuria’ was a common personal name, but also the equivalent of our ‘lady’. We may also note that ‘Kuria’ is the feminine form of ‘Kurios’/Lord, the title of Jesus himself. Many highly reputable commentators (e.g. Schnakenburg, Brown, Westcott, Stott and the Asia Bible Commentary by Hoo published by Langham Global Library in 2016) suggest that John was writing to Christians in general, not to an individual person or church. But unlike John’s first letter (and James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude), the early church did not give this letter the title “General (Greek Catholice = universal)” which implies that this letter does  have a particular person or church in mind. It is not intended for a wider, more general readership. So for myself I feel therefore that ‘kyria’ does probably signify a particular lady.

Commendations

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John unhesitatingly addresses this letter to “the elect lady”, thus affirming his confidence that the lady concerned (or the churches) has indeed been chosen by God to have the life Jesus has won for us. And in verse 1 he goes on to declare that he loves her children – are they literally the children of this lady or the members of the churches? In either case John affirms his love for them. But then in verse 4 he “rejoiced greatly” that from amongst her children he has found those who are “walking in truth”. Does this imply that others of her children (or some of the church members) were not following the Lord? Perhaps. But we need also to take seriously John’s assurance that he “rejoiced greatly”. We all long for the baton of faith to be passed on from generation to generation.
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As in 1 John 1.4, so also in 2 John 12 some ancient manuscripts have “our joy” and others have “your joy”. It would seem that they enjoyed such close, loving fellowship in unity that ‘our’ and ‘your’ coincide. ‘You’ are so immersed in that loving fellowship that ‘our’ joy also includes ‘you’. Such full joy is based on the fundamental commandment that “we love one another”, a constant refrain in John’s writings. Although it would seem that ‘the lady’ already knows God’s commandment of love, he feels the necessity to underline it and encourage her to walk in that love. Likewise he has confidence that the truth dwells in us, both in John himself and in the lady, and is with us eternally. Yet his repeated emphasis on the word “truth” (5 times in the first four verses) seems to hint that the lady and her children may need to be reminded of the call to walk in the truth. We may note also the repeated emphasis on “walking” (3 times in these few verses) in the truth seems to underline the necessity of the need for consistent practical outworking of truth and love in their everyday lives as believers.

Dangers to faith

danger.jpgAlongside John’s emphasis on truth comes a repeated warning about “the teaching” in verses 9 and 10. Many “deceivers” are spreading out into the world, refusing to acknowledge that Jesus has come in the flesh. John names them as “the deceiver” and “the anti-Christ”. Evidently the lady was in danger of hobnobbing with them and thus losing her ‘full reward’, the glory of eternal life with the Father and his Son. With the multiplicity of false and inadequate teaching in our world today  John’s words challenge us to think carefully about the company we keep.  Our contemporary cultures tend to emphasise our feelings and exciting experiences, but careful biblical teaching sometimes takes second place. John makes it abundantly clear that anyone can lose their relationship with God, including those who have in the past worked (verse 8) for the Lord. Anyone who “does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God”, but wonderfully “whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (9).
Seeing the danger of relating too closely with such deceivers, John then instructs strongly that “if anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching” (10), they should not be accepted into the house or given a welcome – the word used for ‘greet’ (Greek: chairo) also signifies ‘rejoicing’. As deceiving unbelievers they do not fit in the abundant joy of Christian fellowship. If we find our companionship largely with such people, we shall also share (the same word as ‘fellowship’) with them in their evil works (10). How important true Christian fellowship and love is!

John concludes this letter with the very personal note that he hopes to visit them and so talk face to face. Personal inter-relationship is so much more satisfactory than in writing – even better than through the latest forms of social media! In this way “our/your joy may be filled/completed” (12).

And John’s final words are that “the children (plural) of your elect/chosen sister greet(singular) you” (13). The singular form of the verb (greet) with its plural subject (children) reveals that they are closely joined together in a close-knit composite body. Do we observe here the beauty of a loving Christian family with siblings who richly enjoy each other? Or is John meaning the joy of a loving Christian church in fellowship together? Both are surely God’s perfect will and purpose for his children. Lord, work amongst us by your Spirit and let it be so! Amen!
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