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Two letters in one

November 2001 | by Hywel Jones

‘Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James, to those who are the called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace and love be multiplied to you.

‘Beloved, while I was making every effort to write to you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.

‘For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’ (Jude 1:1-4).

Usually, people have to receive letters before they can benefit from them. And before that can happen, the letters have to be written. But here is an exception to that norm.

Jude was intending to write one letter but did not do so. Now, as he begins another, he tells us what he was going to write about and why he did not do so.

Here is a rare and valuable insight into the mind of a writer of Scripture, as well as important information about each of his letters.

Salvation

The letter he was going to write was about ‘salvation’. How amazing that Jude was going to write about that! Although he had the same mother as Jesus, there was a time when he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, even thinking him insane (John 7:3; Mark 3:21).

But now Jude is in his right mind and, as a bond-slave to God’s Messiah, he wants to write about salvation.

Had he done so, his teaching would have been in total harmony with the rest of the Bible, because salvation is the wonderful theme of all the Old Testament books and of those New Testament ones that had already been written.

But he did not carry his intention into effect! Why? Did he have second thoughts about his subject and conclude that there was something better to write about?

How could that be? Salvation will be the theme of heaven’s praise, not just of the Bible! The explanation of this change of intent is that another matter came to his mind so powerfully that even this grand theme had to yield place.

Urgent

He was now thinking about something his readers needed desperately. There was something more urgent for them to hear.

This window into Jude’s mind and spirit is most valuable. First, it does away with an old caricature, namely, that Scripture was so divinely inspired that its writers were reduced to the level of automata when they wrote the words of God.

No! The authors of Holy Scripture were free, creative writers, not laser printers downloading heavenly material at the press of a key. Jude knowingly changed his mind concerning what he was to write.

Secondly, this change gives us an insight into the mind and working of the Holy Spirit. The ‘necessity’ Jude felt was a constraint of the Spirit making Jude aware of a need to be addressed urgently. Jude responded willingly to the new impulse.

Supervision

This is a graphic illustration of what is true of all the books of the Bible. They were written not as a result of human decisions and unaided ability, but under the Spirit’s leading, supervision, and enabling, as stated in 2 Peter 1:20-21.

But did Jude’s change of mind deprive God’s people of important information? And if so, is Scripture insufficient as a rule and guide for them? The answer to both those questions is, of course, a resounding ‘no’, and for two reasons.

First, the salvation Jude was going to write about was a ‘common’ one. It was not the preserve of a select few, a secret mystery. Predicted in the Old Testament, actualised in the coming of Jesus Christ, and proclaimed throughout the world, the gospel was gathering a multi-national church. Jude’s readers were not ignorant of it.

They were the ‘saved’, the ‘saints’, called by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, encompassed by God’s love, and kept for Christ’s glory. This ‘so great’ salvation belonged fully to each and every one of them.

Re-focused

Secondly, Jude did not depart completely from his intended theme. In verses 1-3 he identifies the Saviour and describes ‘the saved’.

He summarises salvation in terms of the mercy, peace, and love they had received. And at the end of his letter he refers to the coming glory.

His original impulse was not, therefore, wholly different from the mind of the Spirit. It underwent a decisive re-focusing rather than a complete re-drafting. Instead of writing about salvation to evoke their wonder, Jude wrote about it in relation to their pressing need. Faced with the serious crisis he describes in verses 4-17, he urges them to ‘save’ the faith in the church (v. 3), to ‘stay saved’ (‘keep yourselves in the love of God’ etc., vv. 20-21), and to ‘save others’ (vv. 22-23).

Neglectful

The church comes into being by the Word of God. Owing her existence to the faith of the gospel, she is to uphold and proclaim it to all. When she encounters opposition, she is to ‘hold fast (or hold out) the word of life’ (Philippians 2:12-14) and ‘obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).

But sometimes the church is spiritually asleep and neglectful of its mission to the world. Sometimes the world and Satan invade the church. As a result, the faith is threatened and has to be defended.

This was the situation in the congregation to which Jude wrote. Forgetful of the lessons of history, the warnings of prophecy and the teaching of the apostles (vv. 5-17), the church had allowed itself to be infiltrated by ungodly people (v. 4).

These people were arrogant, yet flattering (v. 16). They took prominent places at the Lord’s Table (v. 12), and pursued a policy of ‘divide and conquer’ in the congregation (v. 19).

They were spreading, not just an alternative to the faith, but a denial of its central truths and a distortion of its purpose. Instead of ‘the truth which leads to godliness’ (Titus 1:1), they were spreading a lie which bred unrighteousness.

Jude, inspired by the Spirit, was alarmed at this, and sought to awaken the saints to share his alarm.

Coherent truths

The Epistle of Jude is, therefore, more of ‘a tract for the times’ than a theological treatise. Even so, it is full of doctrinal and experiential teaching. His message is summed up in the words ‘earnestly contend’. They are a wake-up call to duty.

He is blowing ‘a bugle’ with no ‘indistinct sound’ (1 Corinthians 14:8). The enemy is no longer at the gate, but in the camp.

The verb ‘contend’ in verse 3 is doubly forceful. It includes not only our word ‘agonise’ but also a prefix that makes it even stronger. It bespeaks ‘blood, sweat, toil and tears’ in a conflict which is not primarily with humans but ‘with [evil] principalities and powers’ (Ephesians 6:14).

This struggle is for ‘the faith once for all delivered’ to the church. ‘The faith’ here means a body of coherent truths that constitute the gospel of God (see Philippians 1:27). This truth, established by God, has been handed, complete, to the church as a sacred trust.

She is to be its ‘pillar and support’ (l Timothy 3:15). She is not at liberty to devise new versions of it for different people-groups or eras. This faith is to be preserved at all costs and not updated.

Dependence on the Spirit

But contending for the faith means more than defending it from attack. It is to be spread abroad, for it is ‘the power of God for salvation’ (Romans 1:16). Have we advanced its sway, as well as taken steps to prevent its loss?

But how can we contend? Verses 20-24 supply the answer. First of all, believers should realise that they have weaknesses (vv. 20-21). Strength must be gained from integrating themselves with the faith, praying in conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.

We are to abide in God’s love, trusting in Christ alone for acceptance and keeping his commandments. And we are to expect merciful interventions as we look upwards to our eternal home.

Doxology

Secondly, we are to evaluate the opponents of the faith, differentiating between those who doubt and those who deny. Expressing mercy to both, we are to be cautious, avoiding contamination by the open impurity of the latter.

This is to be done bearing in mind both the amazing grace of the gospel and the unquenchable fire of God’s judgement on all who reject the faith.

Finally, in an exultant doxology, we are assured that whatever happens in the here-and-now, God is able to uphold us in the battle and present us in glory with great joy.

The dominion and the praise are his alone through Jesus Christ, not only before time began and when it shall be no more, but in our present striving for the truth.