There is a problem that has plagued mankind as old as the story of Adam and Eve; indeed, is traced to what took place in the Garden. Why is it that all good movements end up as Camelots – destined to decline and fail? How is it that even the best births come with their own seeds for corruption, so that we marvel not at failure, but that anything – a business, a school, an empire – lasts for as long as it does, or keeps true to its vision? Something always goes wrong in the end; some slipup, some oversight lets in the germ for sickness, so that, sooner or later, it becomes clear that “something is rotten in Denmark.”
Jude did not have Shakespeare to quote, but he had other material to draw from to make the same conclusion in the early churches. Something has gone wrong in the Church. Another apple has been eaten in the Garden; a serpent yet again spotted, and it is time to sound the alarm.
1 Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
2 May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
3 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 is distressed. He wanted to write a letter discussing matters that would build up believers in the Christian faith. But he is disturbed by an attack in the church. Now he must write, exhorting believers to contend for the faith, i.e. the gospel, which was “once for all delivered to the saints.”
What has happened? He tells us in verse 4:
4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Just as a serpent crept into the garden, so serpents have crept into the church, using the same tactics of the original Tempter – twisting what God has said to subvert his authority.
Note what they are doing. First, they pervert the grace of our God into sensuality. They have changed, altered the doctrine of grace into a “license for immorality,” as the NIV puts it. This doctrine, intended to relieve believers of the burden of guilt and the yoke of works-righteousness (trying to earn God’s salvation through being good enough) – that doctrine is being twisted to justify living immoral lifestyles.
Secondly, they deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. That’s an interesting combination of titles – Master and Lord. The Greek word for Master is “despot,” the term used for owners of slaves and for kings. When used for God, it is often translated “Sovereign.” That’s why the NIV has translated it “Sovereign” in this verse. I think Master is a good translation. 2 Peter 2:1 helps out here. Chapter 2 of that letter runs parallel to Jude and lends insight. Peter speaks of false teachers “denying the Master who bought them.” It appears that these ungodly people deny that the Lord Jesus Christ owns them and has rights over them. You can see the connection between the two charges. By appealing to a twisted view of grace, they deny the claims of Christ to control how they live.
As we continue to read, we can pick up some clues about the nature of their sins. The point of verses 5-7 is to note that God will not be mocked, but, indeed, will bring judgment. Jude gives three examples of this. Our interest tonight is the behavior of these three groups. The first is that of the Israelites delivered from Egypt.
5 Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.
Note what Jude picks out as their defining sin. He could have chosen rebellion, idolatry, grumbling, testing God, among others. But he zeroes in on unbelief. Did they not believe in God? It is not accurate to say that they did not believe in God; rather, they did not believe God, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses. That God had competitors, the gods of the Egyptians and the Canaanites, who seemed to do a better job of serving their peoples’ needs. The irony, of course, is that Yahweh, Israel’s God had delivered the Israelites by the greatest series of miracles ever performed.
The second group of the examples is interesting: 6 And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling…
There are differing views as to what Jude is referring to, but I think the sin of the angels is that they abandoned a trust they were given – to keep watch, to guard whatever it may be – a city, a people. They abandoned their posts. They left where they belonged.
And then there is the third group: Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities. which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire…. It doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out what sexual immorality entails, though I should note even less imagination is needed as far as the Bible is concerned. Any sexual relations outside of marriage would fall into the category. What then is this additional phrase, pursued unnatural desire? Literally, the Greek reads “go after other flesh.” That term for “other” indicates can mean simply “another,” as well as “of another kind.” Its context here and applying it to Sodom and Gomorrah would lead to the conclusion that Jude is speaking of homosexual relations. This was an element of the sin in Sodom, and it seems simplest to see that Jude is adding another sin onto sexual immorality.
In verses 8-10, Jude directly compares the sins of these three groups with the sins of the “ungodly” who are troubling the church.
8 Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. 9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” 10 But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively.
Just as the men of Sodom and Gomorrah defiled the flesh with sexual immorality, so are the present ungodly men doing. Like the angels who rejected God’s authority and abandoned their positions, so these men are rejecting the authority of Christ. The third comparison may not appear to be quite so direct, but the connection is there. The Israelites expressed their lack of faith through complaining: Why did God bring us out into the desert? Where is our water? Where is our food? How can we defeat the giants in Canaan? To put it another way, they slandered God.
These ungodly people are doing the same as they blaspheme/slander “the glorious ones,” the holy angels of God who reflect his glory. How so? It somehow involves judgment. Thus, Jude gives the example of the archangel Michael avoiding blasphemous judgment against Satan. It must have something to do with the choice of words. If anyone has a right to judge, it is the holy angel Michael; and if anyone ought to be judged, it is the wicked devil. Even so, Michael is careful in his words, making clear that God is the rightful judge.
Perhaps that is the key to understanding Jude’s point. Michael doesn’t avoid blaspheming the devil, but rather God. If he had failed to give due acknowledgment to God, then his judgment against the devil would have been blasphemous. Interestingly enough, it was Moses himself who stumbled over a similar sin and could not enter the Promised Land. Angered by the Israelites with their complaining about water, he spoke of himself and Aaron as the ones to bring water out of the rock.
This was God’s response:
Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them (Numbers 20:12).
These ungodly men go even further in their blasphemy, because they speak arrogantly about matters in which they are ignorant. Perhaps they are attributing to angels human attributes, even human sins. Whatever the case, it is God whom they ultimately blaspheme. Do you remember the warning that Jesus gave not to despise little children? He says, “For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). Don’t mess with angels who stand in the presence of God. These ungodly men take no notice.
Jude next sums up their sins with a three-fold identification to other sinners: 11 Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion.
Jude is revving up! His allusions and metaphors drive home the depth of the ungodly men’s sins. They walked in the way of Cain – like Cain they rejected God who refuses to accept what they deem to be acceptable. Revelation 2:14 helps us to understand the reference to “Balaam’s error.” The Lord lays this complaint against the church in Pergamum: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. What led these ungodly persons to the error was the motivation for gain, for self-advancement. In short, they are rebels like Korah who rebelled against Moses. They rebel against the authority of the church leaders and the apostles.
We are then given a list of derogatory, yet on-the-mark descriptions of these persons:
12 These are blemishes on your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, looking after themselves;
They are like foul stains on an otherwise beautiful tapestry. You come together for your meals which are to express Christian love, and they “uglify” the event with their self-centered behavior.
Jude gets to the heart of what they are really like:
waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.
They are empty. They are clouds that do not provide nourishing rain, trees that do not bear fruit, wild waves that do not move a boat along, but merely produce foam, stars that do not provide direction through a precise pattern, but wander about. They have no value; and indeed create havoc.
The ungodly are an unpleasant crowd to hang around. They are not quiet about bad attitude: 16 These are grumblers, malcontents,…; they are loud-mouthed boasters. They clearly make themselves their only concern: following their own sinful desires… showing favoritism to gain advantage. The result is that they foment discontent: 19 It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. To use the language of verse 15, these are ungodly sinners who commit ungodly deeds in ungodly ways. They are bad! And they are in the church!
How did this happen? Jude says they crept in unnoticed. How could such an obnoxious group of sinners slip in quietly? Most likely they were not so bad, at least flagrantly. It may be some of them feigned conversion in order to later take advantage of the church. Perhaps, they considered themselves sincere believers and then in time the true nature of their hearts came out. Jesus spoke of this in the parable of the four soils, in which he explained how many people make what seem to be real commitments to the gospel, but time and circumstance eventually reveal the bad soil in their hearts.
A very real concern of the apostles was the entrance of false leaders and teachers who would lead believers astray and bring division. Paul warned the Ephesian leaders about this. Peter gives this sobering warning: There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words (2 Peter 2:1-2). This leading astray is Jude’s worry for his people. It is why he dashed off this urgent letter, urging them to “contend for the faith.”
We do not want to fall into the same troubles, so consider what we can learn from the downfall of these ungodly persons. How did they get from Point A of confessing the gospel and the Lordship of Christ to Point Z of arrogant rejection?
One clue is found in a recurring idea, that of giving into their natural dispositions: “indulged in sexual immorality”; “pursued unnatural desire”; “abandoned themselves for the sake of gain”; “looked after themselves”; “following their own sinful desires”; “following their own ungodly passions.” What distinguished these fallen is not that they had sinful desires, but that they gave way to them.
It is the tendency of the sinful heart (even the redeemed heart) to put oneself before one’s neighbors and to desire physical pleasure above attaining virtue. The world, the flesh, and the devil are very much with us. And our subtle, pernicious danger is to indulge, to follow one’s passions and then to justify the behavior. “Did God really say?” “Does the Bible really mean not to?”
What happens over time as we yield to our passions, we grow discontent as we fail to convince others and our consciences that our behavior is justifiable. We may at first distant ourselves from other believers; start finding that our schedules don’t fit in. We then begin to grumble about others, about the church teachings. “Why should doctrine matter so much anyway?” “The church is getting legalistic.” We even get to the point of denying that Christ would make any real claim on us. He’s our Savior, but we will live as we please. “He accepts everyone anyhow. He lets me be who I am.”
When we gave way to our sinful disposition, we will then either choose to repent and turn to God for forgiveness and strength to resist; or we will choose to find a way to continue giving in without feeling the weight of guilt. And the best way of doing the latter is to not only boldly give in to our passions but champion the cause.
But, again, how could a follower of Christ even move in such a direction? Jude gave the answer: by perverting the grace of God. Grace is the signature quality of the Gospel. By grace are we saved; by grace we are justified; by grace God treats us not as our sins deserve, but makes his enemies his children. Isn’t that good news? God accepts me as I am. I don’t have to change for God to love me.
I got to thinking about why the hymn “Amazing Grace” is so popular in our secular culture. Everyone likes “Amazing Grace,” no matter how far apart they may feel from the Christian faith. It is because they can express the idea of being accepted, even rescued by God, without having to change. They can remain “wretches,” knowing that in the end God will lead them home without having to commit to anyone, including Christ.
Now, you might to say to me that I am perverting the hymn. You want to point out that I am taking verses and biblical phrases out of context. You would be right, for I am demonstrating how one perverts grace. Start with a truth, turn it into a half-truth, and it will finally become a blasphemous lie.
The lesson to us is this: if grace does not alter us, we will alter grace. If grace does not break us and drive us to repentance; if grace does not open our blind eyes to the holiness, majesty, and mercy of God; if grace does not fill our empty hearts with the desire to please Christ above all else; then we will transform grace into a tool to justify and sink deeper into sin.
That is our lesson. This is our hope: that grace – the real grace of the Gospel – will lead us home. If we look to grace, not as an excuse to sin, but to deliver from sin; if we look to grace to change us and keep committed to our Lord Jesus Christ…well, let the writer of Hebrews say it better:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who is every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (4:14-16).
© 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By D. Marion Clark. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org