This essay was written by Peter Winch who is a young man who is helping our church planting work in Berlin. I have set him essays to help him to grow in the Lord and I asked his permission to post this on my blog. I hope that you find it helpful, as I certainly did.
The epistle of Jude, often known merely for its closing doxology, contains strong exhortations, warnings and admonitions which Calvin describes as ‘more than necessary in our age’.
The author, who introduces himself as ‘a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James’, was most likely Jude the half-brother of Jesus, named in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 as the brother of James and son of Mary and Joseph. Although the specific identity of the intended audience is disputed, Jude was written in general to Christians; ‘those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ’.
This essay will examine the epistle of Jude, specifically in reference to its main theme and what it teaches us about the use of the Old Testament.
The Main Theme of Jude
Jude both opens and closes his epistle with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints; that those who are saved will be eternally kept by the grace and power of God. This is seen in the first verse when he describes Christians as ‘beloved in God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ’ and in the final doxology as he writes that ‘God, our Saviour, … is able to keep you from stumbling and present you blameless before the presence of his glory’. This emphasis on God’s merciful preservation of his people bookends the epistle and would seem at first to be the main theme, if it were not for verse 3 in which Jude writes ‘I was very eager to write … about our common salvation [but] I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith’.
The exhortation for believers to contend for the faith is the logical counterpart to God’s preservation, an idea cogently expressed by John Murray when he writes ‘the doctrine of perseverance is the doctrine that believers persevere. If they persevere, they endure, they continue. Consequently, the security that is theirs is inseparable from their perseverance’. Despite his initial intention, Jude’s knowledge of his readers’ circumstances convinced him that it was necessary to focus on the duty of the believers themselves to persevere. The main theme of the book is subsequently an exhortation for Christians to contend for the faith.
This theme is developed by Jude in two ways: the necessity of resisting false teachers and the requirement for believers to continually build up their own faith.
The first aspect of Jude’s exhortation to contend for the faith is being aware of the danger of false teachers. Jude writes that ‘certain people have crept in unnoticed … who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality’. The very grace of God that Jude had intended to write about is being used as an excuse by these ungodly men for their immoral conduct. They have worked their way into the church and now ‘defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme glorious ones’. Jude warns the believers in the church to shun the teaching and examples of such men for they are condemned to ‘the gloom of utter darkness’ and will be convicted ‘of all their deeds of ungodliness’ on the final judgement day.
The second way in which Jude encourages his readers to contend for the faith is that they personally grow in grace. He commands them in verse 20 to build themselves up in their most holy faith and subsequently lists four God-given means through which they can be edified: prayer in the Holy Spirit, remaining in the love of God, waiting for Christ’s mercy and showing mercy to those who doubt or are lost in sin. These four ways to grow in holiness contrast sharply with the way Jude describes the false teachers who have crept in. Instead of praying in the Holy Spirit they are ‘devoid of the Spirit’. Instead of keeping themselves in the love of God they are like ‘wandering stars’ who ‘pervert the grace of our God’. They ‘deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’ rather than waiting for his mercy, and instead of being merciful to others they are ‘shepherds feeding themselves’ who manipulate others to ‘gain advantage’.
The main theme of the book of Jude is, therefore, an exhortation to believers to contend for the faith. This is manifested by resisting the lies of false teachers and actively seeking to grow in personal holiness through the means God has given.
The use of the Old Testament in Jude
The epistle of Jude contains numerous references to Old Testament narratives and characters which teach us much about how to rightly use the Old Testament.
Firstly, and at the most fundamental level, Jude teaches us that events narrated in the Old Testament ought to shape the way we now live and view the world. The clearest example of this is found in verse 7, where Jude warns his readers of the reality of divine judgement on false teachers. He writes about Sodom and Gomorrah who, like the deceivers contemporary to Jude, ‘indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire’. This description of the towns is in the past tense because their physical destruction occurred long ago, but Jude then changes to the present tense and writes that they ‘serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire’. The judgement on these two cities is being carried out at this moment as ‘a remarkable example, in order to keep men in fear till the end of the world’. Jude makes clear that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah narrated in Genesis 19 is not an irrelevant incident confined to the past, but an ongoing warning of the reality of God’s judgement which must shape the way we live and view the world.
This same point is further illustrated by Jude’s reference to Cain, Balaam and Korah in verse 11. These three men had died long before Jude wrote his epistle, but their rebellion against God and his subsequent judgement on each of them ought to continue to guide those who read about them, an ongoing lesson that ‘apostates are the spiritual children of Cain and Balaam and Korah’.
The book of Jude thus teaches that the Old Testament, far from being an aridly academic historical record, continues to be ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’.
Secondly, we learn in this epistle that the Old Testament requires repeated study because Christians easily forget the truth. Jude prefaces the first lesson from the Old Testament with the words ‘now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it’. In the past the readers had fully known this particular truth of God’s judgement from the Old Testament and yet Jude, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recognises the need to remind them of it. This teaches us that learning from the Old Testament is an ongoing process which requires repeated study of that which has already been learned. Studying and learning from the Old Testament is a continuous course of action.
Thirdly, the book of Jude teaches us that the Old Testament can rightly be interpreted in the light of later revelation. This is most evident in verse 5 when Jude writes that ‘Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe’. The Exodus account refers at no point to Jesus, or even explicitly to the Son of God, but Jude applies revelation that first came with Christ to events hundreds of years previously. He understood the trinitarian aspect to salvation through revelation that came with Christ and through that was able to better interpret Old Testament events.
The book of Jude teaches that the Old Testament ought to be a guide to those who read it, that it requires repeated study so that we do not forget its truth, and that it ought to be interpreted in the light of the later revelation that came with Christ and through his Spirit in the apostolic age.
This essay has shown that the main theme of the book of Jude, given in verse 3, is an exhortation for Christians to contend for the faith. This admonition had not been Jude’s initial intent for the epistle, but under the inspiration of the Spirit he found it necessary because of the false teachers who threatened those he wrote to. The epistle develops the command to contend for the faith firstly by showing the sin and eternal judgement bound up with false teaching so that believers distance themselves from it and, secondly, by encouraging believers to build themselves up in their most holy faith through the means given by God.
In regard to the Old Testament, the book of Jude teaches us that, far from being a mere academic historical narrative, it should continue to shape the way we live and understand the world around us, that we must repeatedly study it lest we forget what it teaches, and that New Testament revelation should help us to interpret it.