Beyond the Lectionary Text: Jude

by Chelsey Harmon

Comments and Observations

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.

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