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!
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.
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.
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?