by Hywel R. JonesK; TABLETALK MAGAZINE
This study of Jude’s epistle is based on the view that it was written by one of the Lord’s natural brothers sometime between AD 60 and 80 to a racially mixed congregation (or more than one) in a particular region, most likely Palestine. It concentrates on his message, “Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Those well-known words were addressed to a church about her duty to preserve the faith against all odds. This message is so relevant today. Unless a church maintains the gospel, it has nothing worthwhile to say to the unbelieving world and, indeed, will soon cease to be an authentic church. Jude’s message is therefore a call to both congregational reformation and revival.
In 1975, an article by Douglas J. Rowston appeared in a scholarly journal about the epistle of Jude with the eye-catching title “The Most Neglected Book in the New Testament.” In the article’s opening sentences, Rowston indicated that this neglect included Jude’s rarely being read in public worship. That is serious—as we shall argue, in hopes that the omission might be remedied. Since the article appeared, there has been a flurry of scholarly writing about the letter. But why had it been so overlooked? Two factors seem to explain most of the reason for the epistle’s neglect.
First, Jude is relatively brief, and it is tucked away at the end of our New Testaments. It amounts to just twenty-five verses in our Bibles and, along with its companions 2 and 3 John, it lies between the longer books of 1 John and Revelation. However, this brevity and relative obscurity should not lead anyone to grant it a place of lesser importance, even with 1 John and Revelation in the balance, and Jude’s place in the canon is as secure as is any of the four Gospels. Without it, the Bible would not be God’s completed Word for the church of all time. It is a “catholic,” or universal, epistle in that sense, as well as in its not having a specified destination. In the third century, the church father Origen’s testimony was that Jude wrote an epistle that is very short but “full of powerful words and heavenly grace.”
Second, much of what Jude wrote is also found in 2 Peter, and they are usually combined in commentaries. This results in the longer text’s usually receiving the lion’s share of the treatment but also in the idea that dealing with the content of 2 Peter means that Jude is automatically covered. Thus, frequently what is emphasized in commentaries on Jude is a consideration of how it is to be related to 2 Peter from the standpoints of originality and date and its use of alleged “quotations” from two pseudonymous Jewish writings: the Testament of Enoch and the Assumption of Moses.This extrabiblical material was used to question the trustworthiness of the whole of Scripture and not only Jude. The argument ran as follows: Seeing that Jude uses material from one source that he knew was not “canonical” in the Old Testament sense, and then from another which was not “Apostolic” in the New Testament sense, how can his letter and the Bible, of which it is a part, be infallible?
In the article referred to above, the suggestion is advanced that Jude was largely overlooked because it addressed “a particular historical occasion” that was “foreign to the message and/or world of the twentieth century Church.” We will make use of those terms “message” and “church” because they bring us nearer to the real explanation of this neglect, which can be highlighted by comparing the degree of attention that Philemon has received in comparison with Jude. Both of those letters amount to twenty-five verses in our translations, but Philemon has been more readily received and widely used in the church than Jude although it has some one hundred fewer words in the original. Why might that be?
This discrepancy points to the prevailing interests of our Protestant churches in the twentieth century. At that time, much more attention was given to Christianity’s relationship with social issues than with doctrinal matters, and Philemon seems to touch more on social issues—specifically, slavery—whereas Jude seems to focus more on doctrinal matters—specifically, orthodoxy. But if there was ever a time in the church when Jude should have been turned to, it was in the hundred years and more that have just elapsed. This same line of explanation holds good for the relative neglect of 2 and 3 John, and also the way that 1 John is often treated as if it were only about love when it too is about doctrine and heresy. These are telling facts. The major factor at work in the neglect of Jude is that it is wholly concerned with the rebuttal of false teaching and the refutation of false teachers. Given the rampant spread of heresy in the twentieth-century church, to let Jude speak to the church was therefore too close for comfort! That, we think, is the basic and serious explanation of the neglect of his epistle in much of the church in the last century. What Calvin wrote in the sixteenth century applies equally to those years and serves as a warning for our age: “If we consider what Satan has attempted in our age, from the commencement of the revived gospel, and what arts he still busily employs to subvert the faith, and the fear of God, what was a useful warning in the time of Jude is more than necessary in our age” (italics added).
Jude’s message is a call to both congregational reformation and revival.
In the seventeenth century, William Jenkyn and Thomas Manton preached through the epistle, interacting with the antinomianism of their day. Surely, the letter should be given a proper place in the life of the church, in its corporate assemblies, and in individual congregations in these immoral times. To talk about “the church under the Word” while a part of Holy Scripture is hardly ever touched on is a grievous fault. It happened in the last century, and the results are evident in declining church attendance and the alarming moral decadence of our Western world. As Hosea said, “They sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hos. 8:7).
But the epistle of Jude should be handled with great care because in addition to its textual challenges, an appropriate spirit is required. Putting the church under the searchlight of God’s Word must be done in “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1) and not the spirit of Jehu (2 Kings 9–10).
TWO LETTERS IN ONE?
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, to those who are the called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: may mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you. Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 1–3)
How the thoughts of God become the words of human beings is a profound mystery. His thoughts are far above what they can conceive, but He can read their minds. King David wrote “You discern my thoughts from afar. . . . Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (Ps. 139:2, 4). Solomon, his son, recorded “the king’s heart [mind] is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wills” (Prov. 21:1). The mind of man is therefore accessible to God for whatever purpose he may choose to use it, but that is always done in a way that neither violates their personal dignity nor diminishes their full responsibility. And so it is with regard to Holy Scripture. God will not have any difficulty in implanting His own thoughts in the minds of its writers with the result that they freely and accurately express them in their own languages. Dynamic inspiration is not dictatorial imposition.
The Apostle Peter described this unique “process” as men speaking “from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), and Paul described their “product” as having been “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). It sounds so free and natural and it is—but it is wholly supernatural too. God’s thoughts become human texts without overriding the personalities and gifts of the human author. Divine inspiration includes human psychology.
Luke could open his Gospel account with the seemingly innocuous words “It seemed good to me.” Others had written a “narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us” and so he “thought” of helping his non-Jewish brother, Theophilus, to assurance of faith. Jude says that he was fully intending to write about “salvation” but wrote about “contending for the faith.” He repeated the verb “write” in this opening sentence using different tenses to do so, a variation that could mean that he was on the point of beginning to write when his mind was influenced in another direction. But that timing does not have to be the case. The all-important matter is that he became aware that he could not proceed as he had planned. There is nothing more human, more ordinary than for someone to intend to do something and then to change his mind. But was Jude’s original intention no more than something “human”? Was there anything divine about it? Is this a case of a discrepancy between the mind of God and the mind of man? If it is, it has an adverse effect on the harmonious nature of the composition of more than one book of Holy Scripture.
Putting the church under the searchlight of God’s Word must be done in “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” and not the spirit of Jehu.
What is certain is that Jude’s original intention was not changed because there was anything unworthy about it. The salvation of sinners is the story line of the whole Bible, the mainspring of the church’s worship (in heaven as well as on earth) and of her message and mission to the world. There is no greater subject about which anyone could ever write. But a “necessity” registered itself in Jude’s mind and spirit which constrained him to alter course. What did that entail? Does that mean that he left his first subject wholly to one side? Some think so, but there are indications in what he wrote that he did not do that. He refers to “salvation” at the beginning and at the end of this letter with the words “our common salvation” and “the only God our Savior.” Donald Guthrie’s judgment is more balanced. He wrote, “Jude’s former purpose must not . . . be lost sight of because he evidently recognized the need of some constructive teaching about the Christian faith before he was faced with the problem of the insidious false teachers.”
OUR COMMON SALVATION
If Jude was going to write about something else, there was no need for him to mention at the beginning what his intended subject had been. But by doing so he was in effect speaking about it. He was reminding his readers of its importance and of the fact that he and they possessed it, and he went on to pray for more of its blessings for them—namely, “mercy, peace and love.”
Jude identifies himself as “a bond-servant of Jesus Christ and the brother of James,” and those twin facts are sufficient to point to him as the Lord’s brother. If he were Jude the disciple (Luke 6:16), it would have been suitable for him to invoke his authority in connection with the situation he addressed, but he implicitly distinguishes himself from the Twelve (Jude 17). In addition, there was only one James whose name was sufficient by itself to mark him out from all others. He was the leader of the Jerusalem church and also the (half) brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19; Acts 12:17). Therefore, Jude was most likely the (half) brother of Jesus too (Mark 6:3).
Each of the nouns by which Jude identifies himself highlights the wonder of God’s saving grace. He uses his family relationship with James to identify himself, but he refrains from doing the same with regard to Jesus. He could have written “Jude, the brother of Jesus and James” if he were thinking of gaining kudos in the eyes of his readers. But that was certainly not his aim. Jude had learned that it was far more important to have a spiritual relationship with Jesus than a physical one. He was a willing bond-slave to his (half) brother because he had come to see Him as the Savior who is the Messiah of God (Jude 1–2).
Jude described those he addressed as one with him as recipients of salvation. It did not just belong to his family, including his brothers and mother, who needed it every bit as much they did. This “so great salvation” was not the preserve of a “holy family” or a chosen race, a secret mystery. Its universal scope was predicted in the Old Testament and, as a result of the coming of the Messiah, a multinational church was being gathered. Those addressed had been “called” by the Spirit in association with the gospel of Christ, and they were encircled by God’s love and were being “kept” for Christ’s glory. “Called, loved, kept”—the terms recall Isaiah 43:1–7. They were the true Israel; they were “saints”; they were the “saved.” This (so great) salvation belonged to them all, and not in the sense that each had only a part of it. It was, in full, the possession of each of them. Each and all had “a faith of equal standing . . . by the righteousness of God our Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1)
THE ONLY GOD OUR SAVIOR
In this doxology, monotheism and mediation combine so as to result in the provision of salvation. Jude could indeed have written a doctrinal-devotional treatise about salvation. The one God is the “Father” who therefore has a Son to provide as a Savior, and this Son and Savior is Jesus Christ the Lord (Jude 5). Here is theology proper (the doctrine of God) and Christology (the doctrine of Christ) too. Jude’s concern that the faith should be defended in the church was with a particular view to its opponents’ being saved, and he emphasized that a merciful disposition and activity is necessary for that ministry (Jude 22–23) if it is to redound to the glory of God in Jesus Christ, who does the saving (Jude 24–25).
The salvation of sinners is the story line of the whole Bible, the mainspring of the church’s worship and of her message and mission to the world.
There is therefore a close connection between Jude’s “old” subject and the “new” one that is between “salvation” and “the faith” because, as will be shown, “the faith” is made up of the core truths of God’s way of salvation. Jude’s alteration, therefore, was not like the “yes/no” change of travel plan for which Paul was unfairly criticized (2 Cor. 1:17). All that was required was an adjustment, albeit a substantial one, in how he would treat his original theme in the light of newly obtained information. He attributes that change of focus to a “necessity” registering itself in his mind and spirit. The word that he used for “necessity” was used by Paul to describe his sense of call to a church-planting and church-caring ministry (1 Cor. 9:16). It was something “laid upon him,” a delegated stewardship like the obligation of the Lord’s word that the Old Testament prophets knew. It resulted in his becoming obligated to make known the gospel to all (Rom. 1:14) and experiencing daily “the anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). Jude’s particular commission was a felt reality of the same kind. As in the case of Paul and the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11; 15:12, 34), Jude’s burden had something to do with the troubles in the church to which he was going to write. Facing the serious crisis, he not only urged the saints to “contend for” the faith in the church (Jude 3), and in doing so to build themselves up (Jude 20–21) but also to “save others” who were the church’s opponents (Jude 22–23). Instead of a treatise about salvation, Jude wrote a tract about it for the “then and there” that is needed in the “here and now.” The glory of God in the church of Christ is always at stake, but sometimes the threats are more urgent than at other times.
Jude was under no illusion about the difficulty involved in achieving his aim. He had to mobilize a fighting force on behalf of the faith from those who had come to terms with grievous error. He had no trumpet to blow like Gideon (Judg. 6:24) but, clothed with the same Spirit, he knew that his letter was to give no “indistinct sound” so that the saints might prepare themselves “for battle” (1 Cor. 14:8).
A HALF-ASLEEP CHURCH
The particular congregation he addressed was half-asleep. Jude therefore began by combining genuine affection with the term “beloved” (Jude 3) with a thinly veiled rebuke with the words “I want to remind you, although you once fully knew” (Jude 5), bringing them both together again with emphasis as he concluded his letter (Jude 17, 20). He specified that what had been forgotten, or no longer kept in mind, was “the predictions of the apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 17). He was recognizing them as primary and foundational in the church’s faith and life as the Lord’s personally designated and authoritative spokesmen and not including himself as being one of them. Peter wrote in this way, and he included the Old Testament prophets (2 Peter 2:1–3; 3:3). Paul did too (Acts 20:29), and so did John later (1 John 2:18–27; 4:1–4). They all warned about defection from the truth because of the influence of erroneous teaching as had the Chief Apostle Himself (cf. Matt. 24:23, 24, Mark 13:23).
Itinerant preachers were common in the early days of the church. Both Paul and John had occasion to alert and advise congregations about them (2 John 2; 2 Tim. 3:1–9), and here Jude is grappling with their character and effect. They had gained admission to the Lord’s Table (Jude 12) and acceptance for their teaching (Jude 19) in spite of their scandalous conduct. They were at the very center of the church’s life. He described them as having “crept in,” using a similar verb to the one Paul used when he wrote to the churches in Galatia (Gal. 2:4). He was referring to Jews who, requiring circumcision in addition to faith in Jesus Christ as a condition of acceptance with God, were destroying Christians’ liberty; here it was probably gentiles who were rejecting law altogether in the name of liberty, which in reality was license. Both were equally destructive of the Christian message. The implication is that they should have been challenged, but that had not been done. Some members of the church, perhaps those who really should have known better, had been won over by being made to feel special by them (Jude 16). This was what happened in the Galatian churches (Gal. 4:17–18). Jude therefore has to expose their falsehood and flattery in order to generate a different response.
He was committed to pouring his soul’s energy into what he wrote. Two connected words reveal his intention and aim. The word “appeal” indicates that, like every good sermon, he intended his letter to be productive of action (Heb. 13:22) and the verb “contend” described the action that he desired in terms of the exertions of athletes in the Greek games (1 Cor. 9:25). The Apostle Paul used such terminology to describe his own ministry (Col. 1:29; 2:1) and also that of believers generally (Rom. 15:30; Phil. 1: 27–28). Jude’s term epiagonizesthai is unique in the New Testament, and its meaning has been unpacked as involving “a fight, standing upon (Greek epi) a thing that is assaulted and that the adversary wishes to take away, and it is to fight so as to defend and retain it.” Such effort is expended in the letter by its argument and vocabulary and expected as a response to it.
Jude knew the most effective way in which to pursue his goal. He was familiar with the discipline of rhetoric, an oratorical skill that was calculated to persuade an audience to adopt a particular point of view and to act appropriately in its light. It was a settled feature of Greco-Roman culture and literature that had influenced Jews for some time. It was part of the educational system of the day, and Paul used it in the synagogue at Antioch (Acts 13). The Greek language was the lingua franca of the day, and Galilee, Jude’s home region, was bilingual. It was therefore most natural that he availed himself of this mode of address in his letter. We will look at how he did so under the headings of structure, style, and substance. The whole is a remarkable tour de force, lucid and vigorous, progressive in its buildup to its climax. Its methodology emphasizes the importance of having a single aim with subordinate parts being closely integrated to it—a model for sermon construction.
Beginning with a warm-hearted greeting, Jude presents a clear statement of the case to be argued, which is to maintain “the faith.” He then sets out an explanation of his alarm and appeal, pointing to the fact that people who had infiltrated the church were living in moral defiance of the lordship of Jesus Christ and so distorting the grace of God (Jude 3–4). Expanding on this grievous state of affairs, he strengthens his appeal to them by setting out examples of such ungodliness taken from their sacred history together with God’s judgment on each (Jude 5–16). And he does this twice. Finally, he returns to his appeal, summarizing his message and calling for appropriate action, which he describes in some detail, assuring them of ultimate victory (Jude 17–25). His “written sermon” is as cogent as it is urgent, and every part of it is directed to “the saints,” all of whom should have been in no doubt as to what was being required of them. An army was being raised to God’s glory, and they were each being called up into its ranks.
Jude puts flesh on the bone structure of his argument by way of direct, discriminating address and graphic, emotive vocabulary with repetitive emphases as follows:
First, he addresses the congregation in a direct and discriminating way, using differentiating pronouns and descriptive nouns. On the one hand, there are the “saints” who are “beloved” by God and by Jude himself (Jude 1, 3, 17, 20–24). They are the “you” whom he has in mind throughout. Others are disdainfully termed “certain people” or just “these” (Jude 4, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16), and they are further depicted by a series of contrasting adjectives and nouns, intended to awaken and create repugnance. He is drawing the battle lines, so to speak.
The glory of God in the church of Christ is always at stake, but sometimes the threats are more urgent than at other times.
Second, in the course of doing this, he uses repetition for emphasis. Verbal triplets are common. There are twenty sets of them in the twenty-five verses of the letter. There are examples on both sides of the divide. Positively, there are:
- Jude, servant and brother
- loved, called, and kept
- mercy, peace and love (Jude 1, 2)
- the Holy Spirit, God (Father) and the Lord Jesus Christ
- before all time, and now and forever (Jude 20–21)
- negatively, schismatics, worldly, without the Spirit (Jude 19)
In addition, there are two sets of three events and individuals all with an Old Testament connection (see below). The triplets that are assuring provide inspiration; those that are alarming are hammer blows to mind and conscience. They sound like a drumbeat for an army on the march.
Though Jude makes use of a secular model as the loom for his message, he uses biblical threads to weave a solid and solemn theological message.
Biblical. For Jude and the other New Testament writers and also for Jesus Himself, the Old Testament was Scripture. He refers to persons and events in it as fact and expects his summaries to be accepted by his readers, regardless of whether it is human beings or angelic spirits that are involved (Jude 5–16). He mentions the exodus, the fall of the angels, and Sodom and Gomorrah (Jude 5–7) and then Cain, Balaam, and Korah (Jude 8–13). They all belong to sacred history, and he uses them all with interpretation and application to impart weight to his case.
It is, however, noteworthy that he does not make any formal quotation from the Old Testament in connection with any of them, and yet he includes one from a Jewish pseudepigraphal work of around 200 BC titled 1 Enoch (Jude 14–15). In addition, he makes one allusion to another extrabiblical text of the first century AD, the Assumption of Moses, which records Michael’s dispute with Satan over the body of Moses (Jude 9) and also includes a mention of the fall of the angels (Jude 6).
Jude’s inclusion of such material has given rise to the argument that he regards these apocryphal Jewish compositions on the same level as “Scripture,” which for him would be the books of the Old Testament, as it was for Peter (2 Peter 1:20). But nowhere does he use the technical Greek term graphē (“writings,” i.e., Scripture) in doing so. There is therefore no need to draw such a conclusion. An alternative understanding that is not dismissive of any evidence is that Jude was using what he knew would have influence with his hearers in much the same way that Paul did on Mars Hill (Acts 17:28). What is really important to notice is that each of Jude’s excerpts from those extracanonical sources has words from the Old Testament at its core. Enoch’s prophecy goes back to Moses’ declaration the Lord came “from the ten thousand of holy ones” from Deuteronomy 33:2 and Michael’s words “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan,” from Zechariah 3:4. Jude uses both appropriately: the first referring to the Day of the Lord and the second to the opposition of the Angel of the Lord to the activity of Satan.
Jude is therefore not adding to the Hebrew Old Testament of his day by those linkages. They are only passing references to reinforce his argument. But what he does is to place the “predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 17) on the same plane as the Old Testament statements referred to above, and therefore with the “Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). Peter bracketed “holy prophets” with “apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). This is a pointer to the continuity and harmony between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The determination to present Jude as teaching something that is contrary to the long-standing recognition in Protestantism that is the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments that are “Holy Scripture,” God’s Word written, is not demanded by the evidence. It amounts to special pleading.
Theological. The connection between past and present is a loud note in Jude’s wake-up call. Events in Israel’s history are related to circumstances in the church. Using the terms “just as” and example (Jude 7), he shows the coherence between the wilderness generation, the fall of the angels, and Sodom and Gomorrah before linking them with the troublemakers in the church by the words “in like manner these people also” (Jude 8). He then uses Cain, Balaam, and Korah in a similar way. This interrelationship between past and present is what differentiates biblical typology from man-made allegory. Geerhardus Vos wrote memorably, “The gateway to the house of typology is at the farther end of the house of symbolism,” meaning that if a person, event, or institution did not have a symbolic dimension attached to it by the Word of God, it cannot be a type. If it symbolizes nothing, it cannot typify anything—and what is typified is the same as what is symbolized but raised to the level of “something better” in accord with the emphasis of the epistle to the Hebrews.
Theology proper is what undergirds the correlations that Jude makes is truth about God and Jesus Christ, which is that ungodliness will always be judged and punished (Jude 4). Regardless of whether it is human beings or angels who practice it, and whether it is corporal licentiousness or moral insubordination, the divine response is unvarying, although expressed in a variety of ways and degrees of severity. Jude can therefore say that the same “condemnation” awaits those who in his day “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality” (Jude 4) as occurred in the cases he referenced. God’s judgment is moral and fire and darkness are the outpouring of His majestic holiness (Jude 20–25). As it was, it will be throughout “the last time” (Jude 18)and until “the great day” (Jude 6), which coincides with Christ’s coming again (Jude 21, 24).
The translation of the latter part of verse 5 in the English Standard Version presents an intriguing instance of this fusion of horizons. The relevant words are “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those that did not believe.” This rendering bucks the trend of previous English translations going back to 1611, all of which favor “the Lord” as the agent of those acts of deliverance and destruction in accord with most of the extant manuscripts. But there are a few early Greek manuscripts that have the name “Jesus,” and the ESV translators have opted for that reading, which is more likely what Jude actually wrote. But how can Jesus deliver a “people” and also “destroy” many of them? This is because as the angel of the covenant He bears the Lord’s name (Ex. 23:20–21). He is the Lord of the covenant, and so there is a theological identity behind this textual variation.
God’s unvarying reaction to ungodliness enabled Enoch to speak prophetically and Jude to write prophetically. Human history is a cycle of human acts and divine judgments leading up to the great day of the Lord. This is the point—Jude can refer to those incidents, connect them with prophecies, and deduce principles or lessons from them that are endorsed in predictions of something yet to come and set the congregation in that framework. That is the perspective that was needed by those addressed to evaluate and respond to their situation properly. It is always so—and everywhere—throughout the last days.
Dr. Hywel R. Jones is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California and a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Wales. He is author of several books, including Philippians: For the Sake of the Gospel and Let’s Study Hebrews.