This article is part of the Distinctive Theology series.
Dealing with False Teaching
Growing up as the half-brother of Jesus could not have been easy for Jude. The difficulty only increased as Jesus began his ministry. Early in Jesus’s earthly ministry, his brothers (presumably including Jude) did not believe in Jesus (John 7:5). Yet sometime either shortly before his crucifixion or after his resurrection Jude came to believe that his half-brother was, in fact, the promised Messiah. Despite Jude’s unique experience with Jesus, the short letter that he wrote is often neglected within the church today. That neglect is to the church’s detriment, as Jude has important insights for the contemporary church. Two distinctives in particular stand out: dealing with false teaching and God’s preservation of his persevering people.
Jude describes the false teachers as “certain people [who] have crept in unnoticed” (Jude 4), suggesting they are outsiders. In the most basic sense they are ungodly (Jude 15), by which Jude means that their lives (i.e., thoughts, beliefs, emotions, inclinations, desires, actions, etc.) are not fundamentally oriented towards God but rather towards themselves. As a result, they “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). Because they reject the authority of Jesus as their Lord and Master, the opponents are driven by their unrestrained sinful desires (Jude 7–8). They appear to have promoted two false beliefs. First, they taught that because they were under God’s grace, they were free to live in any manner they saw fit without any fear of repercussions or judgment. Second, they taught that ultimate authority rested in their own direct access to the spiritual realms (primarily through dreams, Jude 8) rather than in “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) through “the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 17).
To drive home his point, Jude uses several “cases studies” of false teachers from the OT and Jewish literature. Jude sees in the angels who sinned by abandoning their appointed boundaries (Gen. 6:1–4; Jude 6) a picture of the false teachers who reject God-given boundaries of moral behavior. The greed of the false teachers echoes that of Balaam, whom Balak, king of Moab, enticed Balaam to speak a curse on God’s people in the name of Yahweh (Num. 22–24; Jude 11). Moreover, the false teachers have “walked in the way of Cain” (Jude 11). Based on traditions found in Jewish literature, Jude appears to see in Cain a picture of the opponents who, because they are motivated by greed and lust, attempt to lead others astray. Lastly, Jude sees in his opponents the reflection of Korah and his rebellion in the wilderness (Num. 16:1–50) as they reject God’s appointed leaders in the church and the divine authority of God’s moral law (Jude 11).
The cure for false teaching is being firmly grounded in the truth of the gospel. Knowing the true gospel inside and out is a crucial way of being able to identify departures from the gospel and remain true to Jesus. What unites believers is their “common salvation” experienced through knowing Jesus, a faith “that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Yet the truth of this gospel is something that believers must “contend for” like athletes competing in the arena. Believers must remember Jesus’s identity as both Savior (Jude 5, 25) and “Master and Lord” (Jude 4). Therefore, those who claim to be his people must resist those who deny his authority, either directly through their teaching or indirectly through their indulgence of sinful desires. The gospel also gives believers hope for the future, enabling us to wait for the “the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 21). On that day, the Lord Jesus will present his people “blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24). It is that hope that empowers believers to resist the false promises of the opponents and remain true to the gospel proclaimed by the apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Despite the strong language directed at the false teachers, Jude is not ready to write off those who have been deceived by them. He distinguishes three different categories of people and prescribes a specific approach for each group (Jude 22–23). For those wavering in their faith, believers should show mercy rather than condemn them for their lack of faith (Jude 22). Those who have moved beyond wavering to embracing at least some of the false teachers’ beliefs and practices must be snatched from the fires of eternal judgment (Jude 23). Even those who are deeply ensnared by sin because they have followed the false teachers should be approached with mercy (Jude 23). Yet this mercy is accompanied by a hatred for the sin that has corrupted their lives.
God’s Preservation of His Persevering People
Although we are inclined to see our need to persevere in the faith and God’s promise to preserve his people, the reality is that God’s ability to preserve his people fuels the perseverance of his people. Jude brings these two truths together in a beautiful and compelling manner.
He begins by addressing his recipients as “those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1, emphasis mine). Another way of translating the italicized phrase is “kept by Jesus Christ” (see ESV mg.), in which case the point would be that Jesus Christ is the one who keeps his people. Either way, the passive voice of the verb “kept” indicates that someone (either God the Father or Jesus Christ) is preserving his people. That sets the stage for Jude’s lengthy warning about the false teachers threatening the church (Jude 3–19).
Believers must make the intentional effort to remain true to the true gospel that has been handed down to us through the apostles.
Jude returns to this theme of God’s power to keep his people in the concluding benediction. He describes God as “him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24). God’s power extends to preserving his people from stumbling, a word that describes falling into the immorality, rebellion, and apostasy of the false teachers. Because God is able to keep his people from stumbling so that they do not abandon their faith in Jesus, he is also able to present his people blameless before himself on the last day with great joy. By placing references to God’s ability to keep his people at the beginning and the end of the letter, Jude frames the entirety of his letter within the comfort and stability that comes from that truth.
From start to finish, Jude also makes persevering in the faith a key emphasis. Believers must make the intentional effort to remain true to the true gospel that has been handed down to us through the apostles, because false teachers seek to pervert that gospel into a license for pursuing their own sinful desires (Jude 3–4). Believers must persevere in the faith to avoid ending up like the Israelites who perished in the wilderness because of their unbelief (Jude 5).
That foundation sets the stage for Jude’s central command related to persevering in the Christian life. He writes:
But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. (Jude 20–21)
The heart of this lengthy sentence is the command to “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). Jude gives three ways that believers keep themselves in God’s love. The first is “building yourselves up in your most holy faith” (Jude 20). Jude’s language portrays the believer building upon an already existing foundation rather than starting from scratch. Although each individual believer is responsible to pursue his/her own growth in the faith, the emphasis here is on believers cooperating together to enhance the spiritual health of the entire community of believers. The second way that believers keep themselves in God’s love is by “praying in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20). In contrast to the false teachers who are devoid of the Spirit (Jude 19), believers are able to pray continuously in the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Eph 6:18). The final way that believers keep themselves in God’s love is by “waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 21). This is not a passive waiting, but an eager expectation that produces a life of holiness as an expression of their hope in Jesus’s mercy, not as a means to earn it.
Jude envisions keeping ourselves in God’s love as a community project. Each believer is responsible to play his or her part not only in pursuing their own spiritual growth but also in the spiritual growth of fellow believers. That requires intentional involvement in the church that goes beyond merely attending a weekly worship service. It requires intentionally building relationships with fellow believers that enable us to know when others are struggling or tempted to walk away from the faith.
Although we are now almost 2,000 years removed from when Jude wrote this letter, the contemporary church faces many similar challenges. False teachers openly seek to lead God’s people astray. Believers are tempted to abandon the faith once and for all and embrace contemporary sensibilities. Into these confusing times Jude speaks with a clarion call to remain faithful to the gospel and to persevere in the faith, empowered by the God who preserves his people to the end.
Matthew S. Harmon is the author of The God Who Judges and Saves: A Theology of 2 Peter and Jude.
Popular Articles in This Series
Why has this small letter had such a big impact on the church? The answer, at least in part, is due to the depth and diversity of topics emphasized in the letter.
The four Gospels present Jesus as true Israel and the divine Son of God who lived a faithful life, died for sins of his people, and rose from the dead, but each evangelist retells this story a bit differently.
Certainly Mark is the Gospel that has most in common with the other Gospels. But even Mark has some distinctives that are worth noting and that help us to read Mark as Mark.
Second Peter has a robust doctrine of Scripture. Peter begins his letter with one of the strongest assertions of the sufficiency of God’s Word found in all of Scripture.