Beyond the Lectionary Text: Jude
by Chelsey Harmon
Though it seems like the bulk of Jude’s letter deals with negative examples, he surrounds the negative with some very strong positives. The key is to slow down and pay attention to why Jude says what he says the way he says it. The main thing Jude wants to say to the community is found in verse 3: contend for the faith; in verses 20-23 Jude explains how they can do so. Everything in-between is a description of the other option; what comes at the very beginning and end, though they are formal aspects to letters of the time, surround the entire topic with God’s mercy, peace and love.
Those middle verses, though, are a veritable hall of shame in which Jude provides numerous examples of people from the family of faith’s history who have chosen to do what the “libertines” are doing in their midst: turning the grace of God into an excuse to do whatever they feel like and living in rebellion to God and his ways. The thing that ties all of the negative examples together is their motivations. Each chose to follow their human desires rather than trust in God and his ways. The first generation of Israelites did not obey God’s command to take the promised land because of their fear. The angels (see 2 Peter 2.4) wanted to be in control so they stepped out of their God-ordained role. The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is found in their sexual immorality and selfish desires. Cain was jealous and angry. Balaam’s error is a story about being consumed by greed. And Korah, hungry for power, led a rebellion against God’s appointed leaders. All of them were dreamers, thinking that the world they created and ruled in their minds was the way the world really could be. When these two worlds are so far apart, the fall is hard. But when God’s world is also the world that you dream of and seek to create, when Jesus is the Sovereign and Lord of your world, then you are kept from falling—a point Jude makes at the end of his letter.
I appreciate the way that Jude weaves in God’s lovingkindness as the powerful and sustaining agent for the community of believers. He opens his letter and repeatedly refers to them as “beloved.” Further, Jude expands the traditional Jewish blessing, “mercy and peace,” to include the prayer that “love be yours in abundance.” Towards the end, Jude tells them that they need God’s mercy, peace and love to contend for the faith. Jude encourages them to build themselves up in the true faith (by knowing and living it well), praying in the Holy Spirit (being filled with God-with-them), and keeping themselves within the love of God. God’s goodness is there at the beginning and again at the end as Jude addresses the Christian community, but it is missing from the middle, emphasizing God’s separation from the ungodly and their ways.
“Keeping in the love of God” is a command; so is having mercy (which is repeated twice) and saving people from the danger of their lifestyles. The second time Jude tells them to have mercy is qualified with a warning to do so carefully. Jude says to have mercy on others “with fear, hating even” their clothing because their clothes are stained (remember the description of blemishes on the love feasts?) by their corruption. Basically, Jude is saying to be careful when you are showing mercy to not become allured by the invitation or pleasures of the sinful lifestyle. When we are weak in faith, or are keeping an area of our life away from Jesus’ sovereignty, even the suggestion can be enough to send us down the wrong road.
But for someone who is firm in the faith, kept safe for Jesus Christ, as Jude describes, their heart shares God’s heart for sinners. Empowered with the gospel message, Jude tells the Christian community that the Holy Spirit can use them to help these dreamers find a firm footing in God’s reality, known in Jesus’ gospel message of mercy and the Spirit’s work of transformation expressing itself in obedience to God’s wills and commands.
Verse 12 describes the people as “blemishes” at the “love feasts.” Both words are worth a quick explanation. First, “love feasts” was a description of regular meals the early Christian communities gathered to celebrate in remembrance of Christ and his command at the Last Supper. Love feasts were more than what most of the Christian church observes at the Eucharist, Communion, or Lord’s Supper, as it included teaching time along with community building fellowship.
Second, “blemishes” could also be translated as “reefs” or “rocky hazard hidden by waves.” Either translation works with the imagery Jude uses in verses 12, 13 and 23. If one chooses “blemishes,” then it underscores the pervasive spoiling nature of those who have rejected Christ’s moral authority: they ruin things not only for themselves, but they also ruin the love feasts of the community. If one chooses “reefs,” then it underscores the danger that such members pose: get too close to them or forget that the danger they represent and you won’t remain unscathed.
Jude quotes two nonbiblical sources to support his arguments, implying they were held in esteem by the community of believers. In verse 9, he refers to an exchange between the angel Michael and the devil over Moses’ fate, which can be found in the Testament of Moses. The story goes that the devil accused Moses of being a murderer (thereby slandering Moses for something God had given him forgiveness for); Michael, instead of falling to the temptation to respond in kind, gives judgment of the devil over to God. Then, in verse 14, Jude quotes from the Book of Enoch to make a similar point. The Christian community already viewed itself as living in the end times, waiting on the Lord to return to judge.
It is interesting for the modern reader to pair Jude’s main argument with his use of extrabiblical material. One of Jude’s main thrusts is that the teaching of the “libertines” was not based on the message of the apostles, received from the gospel as it was lived and taught by Jesus. Jude, like many of the other New Testament Epistle writers, reminds the community to stay close to the message they first heard when they came to saving faith. Yet many modern readers who cling to the motto “the Bible and the Bible alone” would think that Jude seems to be stepping outside of those bounds. Jude shows us, however, that we can find confirmation of the gospel truth in texts that aren’t divinely inspired as the Bible is—especially texts that are borne out of our tradition, in conversation with the biblical text itself. Though they do not have the same weight as the Holy Word, they are useful for teaching and confirming matters of faith first found in the Bible.
In verse 15, you aren’t meant to miss the repetition of those whom God comes to condemn: those of ungodly acts, ungodliness, the ungodly sinners. Notice that the Lord judges all, but only those whom do not have the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit in them (those who have rejected Christ as Sovereign and Lord) are condemned by their ungodliness because God Emmanuel is not with them.
The RMS Titanic was thought to be the most secure vessel on the ocean at the time of its maiden voyage in 1912. Not technically described as “unsinkable,” it was advertised by the builders as “designed to be unsinkable.” We all know how that worked out… Sunk by an iceberg in less than three hours, the Titanic’s demise led to more regulations and protocols in the hope of preventing other such tragedies. Jude’s long list of offenders, as well as the alternate translation of “reefs” in verse 12 is meant to serve a similar—but pre-emptive—purpose. The offenders also show the ways in which God’s “unsinkable” plan of redemption for the world is futilely attacked. Though they cannot escape God’s final judgment—for Jesus has already won the final victory—they do have the ability to harm their fellow human beings by their actions in the not yet.
I recently saw a statistic on the History Channel that there are over 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris floating in the oceans. Regularly, some of that trash appears on the beach; in the foamy waves of a storm, even more of it comes ashore. Similarly, it’s like the trashy theology that comes from people seeking to design their own spirituality—especially in times of struggle or distress—and those who believe they can design (dream up) their own way of living. Trash is pollution; some of it is more harmful than others, but we shouldn’t encourage people to turn trash into their treasure. Instead, it’s a safer bet to look to the one that calms the storm and walks on the stormy seas; it’s safer to be in Jesus.
I once heard a story about a pastor who drove past an adult video store and noticed a colleague’s car parked in the lot. Instead of driving away in judgment, the pastor parked his car, went into the store, found his colleague and gently said to him, “Hello friend, you and I don’t belong in here. Let’s leave together.” This is what it looks like to have mercy, show love, saving someone from the fire.