Sunday, November 8, 2009

Opening the Epistle of Jude

I taught the first lesson in my new study of Jude this morning, and I have to say I felt a passion for the subject matter of this study that I haven't experienced for a while. While the letter is a hugely challenging one to exegete and the message is a hugely unpopular one in today's church, God's words through Jude regarding the danger of apostates and how to deal with them are hugely relevant, now more than ever.

Today's lesson dealt with the background on the author and setting of the letter, and Jude's opening words to his original audience. It's instructive to put ourselves into the sandals of those early church members who were dealing with the issues Jude addresses as he writes this letter somewhere around 69 AD. Think about it - the church was still relatively new, but most of the apostles were gone by this time, with likely only John still around. The pastors and elders of the local churches were doing their best to pass on the teachings of Jesus received through the apostles, but the formalizing of orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith hadn't really started yet, apart from the OT Scriptures and the epistles that would eventually form the NT canon. So the early church was at a critical stage, a dangerous juncture. And just as Christ and the apostles had warned, false apostate teachers were infiltrating the churches, teaching "doctrines of demons" and all kinds of aberrant heresies and leading many to follow them. We know that Judaizers were active, as well as early forms of what later would become full blown Gnosticism. And as Jude makes clear in his letter, these apostates were living immorally and sensually, and leading others into the same. What a confusing time in the church. What turmoil as factions would form following one false teacher after another, undermining the authority of the church  elders and disturbing the faith of the doubting and wavering. And troubling and discouraging the faithful believers who were seeking to remain committed to the pure and unperverted gospel of Jesus Christ.

So it's into this maelstrom of doctrinal confusion and church upheaval that Jude writes his short and powerful epistle. A time, honestly, not unlike our current situation, although for different reasons. So how does Jude open his letter to these faithful believers who need to know how to contend for the faith? In this brief epistle, what does he need to focus them (and us) on in as few words as possible? The answer is in the terms Jude uses to describe the recipients of his letter in v.1: Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ. He points to three specific aspects of his audience that remind them of where their focus should be - on the Lord of the Church, and not on the apostates.

First term he uses: called. A reminder that he's writing to the elect, those whom God Himself has chosen for His own possession and has called out of darkness and bondage and into His marvelous light. A reminder that He is the One who saved them, by His sovereign grace.

The second term: beloved in God. Note that he doesn't say beloved by God, but rather in God. Jude speaks here of the position of the believer in Christ: immersed in the invincible and saving love of God. A position resulting from His election and His calling. A secure, sustaining and protective place to be.

And finally: kept for Jesus Christ. Here is the culmination of the reminder Jude is giving faithful believers in an apostate time. It is God Himself who not only calls the faithful to Him with an effectual call, and causes them to remain in His love, but also is the One who is keeping them in that position until the day of Christ. Just as we see in 1 Peter 1:5 - "who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time." Even when it seems that false and apostate teachers are the majority and the church of Jesus Christ is on a colossal "downgrade" once again as Spurgeon saw in his day, Jude's opening greeting reminds us that God is the One who builds His church, sustains His church, and who ultimately will bring His church to glorification by His power and for His glory. And not even an army of eloquent or charismatic apostate teachers will thwart His purposes, even though many professors of the faith follow after them.

I find this incredibly encouraging in a day when much of what passes for "Christian" teaching resources, books, media and ministry are only Christian in name, but not in content. In a day and age when I view everything labeled "Christian" with an extra wariness and suspicion, I take heart in Jude's reminder that God has His faithful people, who He has called and He knows, that He holds in His love, and who He is preserving for His glory until His appointed day. These truths reorient my perspective and my focus, from the temporal to the eternal. This reminder sets my mind on the grand and glorious and eternal plan and purpose of God, rather than the foible and failures of what passes for Christianity today. And these truths motivate me even more to guard the trust of the gospel that He has given to us as His people, to defend the gospel against the apostates of our time, and to continue to preach that gospel to myself and to the church so that we all are equipped to do the same.

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