I write Bible reading notes for several organisations, and at the moment am writing for BRF’s Guidelines series. I recently wrote these notes on the Letter of Jude, which is a much neglected short letter, and offer them here for wider use. I have added in some questions for group discussion.
The letter of Jude is very short and equally challenging! Where some of the New Testament letters feel like spacious rooms of theological and pastoral exploration, this one feels like a small closet packed floor to ceiling.
The author is one of the younger brothers of Jesus, mentioned third in Mark 6.3 and fourth in the parallel list in Matt 13.55. It is clear that Jesus’ brothers were not believers during his life time, but seem to have encountered the resurrected Jesus (see 1 Cor 15.7) and were involved in early missionary activity (1 Cor 9.5). It is notable here that Paul describes ‘the Lord’s brothers’ separately from ‘the apostles’; their actual kin relationship to Jesus did not grant them special authority.
Jude appears to be writing to people that he knows and responding to a situation he has heard about, so this is not a general ‘catholic’ epistle like those of Peter and James. The main section of the letter is full of powerful and persuasive rhetorical devices, but the beginning and ending make it clear this is a genuine letter. We need to remember that almost all communication in the ancient world was oral, both in origin and reception; letters were dictated to a secretary and read aloud to the audience. Jude is particularly fond of saying things in threes!
The challenges for the modern reader are not just the powerful yet concise language Jude uses. He is writing in the style of Jewish apocalyptic, using much terminology that is unique in the New Testament. He draws extensively on Jewish traditions with which we are unfamiliar, especially the Jewish works of 1 Enoch and the Testament of Moses, both of which are mostly lost to us. Yet his message is as pertinent today as ever: do not be drawn away from the apostolic faith by those claiming new revelation, who reject the disciplines of holiness for their own gain, and bring division and disunity to the people of God.
I am mostly using the NIV, but commenting where the translation needs clarifying.
Richard Bauckham Jude, 2 Peter (WBC, 1983)
Michael Green 2 Peter & Jude (TNTC, 2009)
Douglas Moo 2 Peter, and Jude (The NIV Application Commentary, 1997)
John Painter and David deSilva James and Jude (Paideia, 2012)
Jim Samra James, 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude (Teach the Text Commentary Series, 2016)
Day 1: Jude 1–4: Called, chosen—and challenged
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James, To those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
2 Mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance.
3 Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that the Lord has once for all entrusted to us, his people. 4 For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.
Jude is one of the brothers of Jesus (and so brother of James, the leader of the community in Jerusalem), but he does not claim any authority from that earthly kin relationship. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus has changed everything; what matters is that he is a servant of Jesus the exalted messiah.
Jude loves to do things in threes! He greets his readers as being ‘called, loved, and chosen’, language used in the OT of God’s people, particularly in anticipating their restoration from exile (see for example, Is 42.1, 6), and echoed in the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. This language looks back; what God has accomplished by his love in Jesus is the fulfilment of all God’s promises to his people. But it also looks forward; though the kingdom of God has broken in, we will not see it in its fulness until Jesus returns, and in the meantime we are kept, safe and firm, by God.
The threefold greeting is typically Jewish in speaking of the ‘abundance’ of God’s mercy, but also reflects the gospel of peace with God that we have as his love is poured into our hearts (Rom 5.5).
Rather than expound further what God has done for us in Jesus, Jude needs to tackle a real and practical challenge his readers are facing. It is striking that he begins first with an assurance of all that God has done for us—but quickly focuses on what we need to do in return. God’s grace is not just something to rest in, but also something to respond to; the waiting we are called to is active, not passive. This should come as no surprise; such conflict was anticipated ‘long ago’ and will not jeopardise either God’s salvation or his just judgement.
As Paul has seen in Corinth (1 Cor 6.12) and Galatia (Gal 5.1), Jude sees that the radical freedom that is ours in Jesus can be misunderstood. It is not freedom from obedience to God, but freedom to live lives of holiness that honour him. Perhaps the equivalent error in our age is the idea that ‘God accepts me as I am; therefore I can stay as I am.’ But if we proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Rom 10.9, 1 Cor 12.3) then it means surrendering our lives to his transforming power.
Are you aware of being ‘called, loved, and chosen’? What difference does this make to you? How might it help in situations of conflict or where you feel under pressure?
What response is God’s grace calling you to at the moment? Can you see ways in which faith in God is being misrepresented and you need to speak up?
Day 2: Jude 5–7: Three examples to heed
5 Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord at one time delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe. 6 And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. 7 In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.
Jude now moves into the main part of his argument, signalled by ‘I want to remind you…’ using language like that of Paul (Rom 11.25, 2 Cor 1.8, Gal 1.11). But he is not offering them new, additional knowledge, for they already know the full truth that they received when the message of the apostles was shared with them once and for all. Christian teaching can never add to or displace that apostolic message—but it is a core discipline for us to remember and reflect on the truth we have received. The central act of Christian worship is to ‘do this in remembrance of me’.
Jude continues in his threefold rhetoric by pointing to three episodes from the Torah which serve as examples for his readers, just as Paul notes that these stories are offered as warnings to us (1 Cor 10.11). There is no sharp difference between ‘Israel’ and ‘Church’; the same Greek word ekklesia is used for both. No, those who follow Jesus now, both Jew and Gentile, are the new Israel in him, and so their stories are now our stories, and we must learn from them.
The three episodes are: the unbelief of the people about the goodness of the promised land in response to the report of the spies in Numbers 14; the fall of the ‘sons of God’, driven by lust, in Gen 6.1–4, interpreted through the language of 1 Enoch 6–19; and the sin of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19. The strong sense of God’s sovereignty means the language here is expressed in terms of God’s active judgement, but each story is in fact about the consequences of actions, of unbelief and of disobedience. Two of the three relate to immoral sexual desire—the angels for the daughters of men, and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah for the ‘strange flesh’ of angelic visitors.
These classic Jewish examples show that no-one is exempt from accountability before God—neither the foreigners in Sodom or Gomorrah, nor the angelic powers, nor even the people of God whom he longs to save. Rejecting God’s call to holy living does not bring freedom, but chaos and disaster—and Jude longs for his readers to learn this lesson.
What things do you need to be ‘reminded of’? How does the remembering involved in Holy Communion help build your faith?
How important is Scripture, and in particular the Old Testament, in your devotional life? How do these stories help you in your walk with God?
Day 3: Jude 8–10: Don’t repeat their mistakes
8 In the very same way, on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings. 9 But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” 10 Yet these people speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them.
Jude now makes the connection with the present situation; the false teachers he is warning about are falling into error ‘in the same way’ as those of the past. Like Peter at Pentecost (‘in the last days’, Acts 2.17) and Paul writing to the Corinthians (‘we on whom the end of ages has come’ 1 Cor 10.11), Jude sees the coming of Jesus and the renewed Israel following him as the end-time (‘eschatological’) fulfilment of the Scriptures. Therefore all the lessons from the story of God’s people apply to the followers of Jesus.
‘Dreaming’ can sometimes be seen as positive (Acts 2.17)—but more often it is associated with false prophets (Deut 13.1, Jer 23.25) because the dreams are claimed to offer an alternative, new source of revelation—and so offering ‘another gospel’ (Gal 1.6–8). The three problems that arise are related to the three OT examples that Jude is drawing on, but do not correspond to them in order.
The examples of the angels in Numbers 6 and Sodom and Gomorrah both involve sexual immorality, and Jude agrees with Paul that this causes harm to oneself (‘those who sin sexually sin against their own bodies’ 1 Cor 6.18). The throwing off of moral restraint is not just a general rejection of authority, but specifically a rejection of the Lordship of Christ; the unusual term kuriotes connects back with the mention of ‘the Lord’ (kurios) in verses 4 and 5. ‘Heap abuse on celestial beings’ is most likely a reference to the Jewish tradition that the Torah was given to Moses by angels, who are the faithful messengers of God to humanity.
The story of Michael contending with Satan for the body of Moses comes from the apocryphal Testament of Moses, but the idea of Satan as the accuser of God’s people is found in Job, Zechariah, and Revelation 12. Michael’s language of rebuke, based on Zech 3.2, demonstrates that, in these spiritual conflicts, even the angels don’t depend on their own power, but appeal to the authority of God who is the just judge. The false teachers are following their own desires, just like animals, rather than seeking to understand the truth of the gospel.
Departing from the teaching of the apostles is not just unfortunate—Jude sees it as dangerous and damaging at every level.
Where have you come across claims of a ‘new revelation’ about the Christian life? How should we respond to such claims? How might scripture help us in this?
What practical difference does it make to recognise ‘Jesus is Lord’ in different areas of your life? Have you recognised that conflict has a spiritual dimension to it? How does that help?
Day 4: Jude 11–13: Avoiding error; shunning rebellion
11 Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion.
12 These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. 13 They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.
We are now reaching the pinnacle of Jude’s rhetoric against the false teachers, with more examples from Scripture and vivid metaphors from nature. It is challenging to be immersed in this language—but this kind of ‘woe’ oracle was stock in trade of the Old Testament prophets and was a key part of the teaching of Jesus (see Matt 11.21 and Matt 23.13–29). The emphasis here is not the authority of the prophet themselves, but the judgement of God alone.
The three further examples from Scripture are now individuals rather than (as previously) groups. Jude is drawing not just from the biblical text, but from the way these examples were used in Jewish tradition. Each committed sin—Cain’s murderous anger when his sacrifice was not accepted in Gen 4, Balaam’s being enticed by money to prophecy against Israel in Num 22, and Korah leading a rebellion in Num 16—but in the tradition they all were thought to have led others astray as well.
The threefold criticism that follows focusses on the community of faith, on God, and on the false teachers themselves. The word translated ‘blemishes’ is actually the normal word for a rock, that is, something that causes a shipwreck; the false teachers are in danger of destroying the central reality of community life, here described as agape meals for the first time. They participate ‘without fear’ of God, and their ministry serves only themselves (Ezek 34.2), rather than the people of God.
The use of vivid metaphors from the natural world comes from the Wisdom tradition; we find similar language in Proverbs, in James, and in the teaching of Jesus. Jude draws from what were considered the four regions of the universe—air, earth, water, and the heavens—showing how comprehensive the issues are. The false teachers either fail to produce what God intended—life-giving rain from clouds, fruit from trees—or produce what is not wanted, like turbulent waves throwing filthy debris onto the shore. The image of ‘wandering stars’ (from which we get our word ‘planet’) is drawn from 1 Enoch, but uses the same language as Jesus when he rebukes those who have ‘gone astray’ (Mark 12.27).
There is a serious warning to believers—but there is also a note of pity. These false teachers are missing out on all that God promises; there is a much better way.
How do you respond to language of judgement in the Bible? Why do we shy away from it? Why is it important?
Do you have experience of seeing people or communities ‘shipwrecking’ their faith? Is there anything we can learn from these examples?
Day 5: Jude 14–19: Nothing new under the sun
14 Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones 15 to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” 16 These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.
17 But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. 18 They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” 19 These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.
Having looked to the past in the biblical narrative in relation to the events of the present, Jude now changes his focus. He appeals to two sources to assure his readers that these tests are not unexpected, but have been anticipated long ago.
His first source is, again, 1 Enoch, introduced with a quotation formula. This book was not included in the canon of Scripture, but that does not stop it from being a text which can offer insight and encouragement. It was valued because it reflected on the application of key parts of the Torah, particularly on Deut 33. Enoch is seventh from Adam on the basis of ‘inclusive’ counting; he was revered along with Moses (whose burial was mysterious) and Elijah as ones who defied death to enter God’s presence (Gen 5.24).
Jewish hope was that God would come as promised to judge the world, raise the dead, and both purify and redeem his people from oppression. The New Testament consistently identifies this hope with the royal return (parousia) of Jesus; he is king in principle now, seated at the right hand of God, but will be recognised as Lord by all when he comes again (Phil 2.10–11, citing Isaiah 45.23). ‘Lord’ is used in the Old Testament of the God of Israel, but in the New Testament it refers to Jesus, who does for us all the things that God does. In both the quotation and the rebuke of the false leaders, Jude for the first time focusses on what they say as well as how they live. His threefold critique is of grumbling speech (which characterised the dissenters in the wilderness), following desires (as at Sodom and the ‘sons of God’ in Num 6) and seeking their own gain (as Balaam did).
As a brother of Jesus, Jude does not count himself as one of the apostles. The quotation is not a precise one from any text we have, but echoes both the teaching of Jesus (Matt 24.24) and Paul (2 Tim 3.1–5). The contrast between ‘natural instincts’ and the Spirit is the same as Paul makes between the ‘works of the flesh’ and the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ in Gal 5.16–26. Claiming new insights, rejecting God’s call to holiness, and indulging desire will always bring division and disunity to the people of God.
How important to you is the hope of Jesus’ return? What difference does knowing that he will come to judge the world make in practice?
Whatever troubles we face, we can be sure that we are not the first! Does this change our perspective on our own challenges?
Day 6: Jude 20–24: He is able
20 But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.
22 Be merciful to those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.
24 To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— 25 to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.
These closing verses return to the positive tone of the opening section. Jude once more emphasises that those he is writing to are beloved (‘dear friends’, agapetoi, here and in verse 17). The reason for his strong warnings about the false leaders is his deep concern for his sisters and brothers in Christ. His final commendations include three emphases which might seem surprising to us.
First, the primary strategy for continuing to live faithfully in obedience to Jesus is not to get dragged into disputes and debate, but to focus positively on what we believe. We are to be active in building ourselves up, in praying in the Spirit (as in Eph 6.18), and in guarding what we already have (similar to John 15.9, ‘remain in my love’). Jude here talks both in Trinitarian terms, referring to the work of the Spirit, the love of the Father, and the hope we have in Jesus, and in doing so echoes the Pauline triad of faith, hope, and love (1 Cor 13.13).
Secondly, our attitude to others must always be marked by compassion. Between those who are strong in faith and those who are drawn to these erroneous teachers will be the middle ground of those who have questions, and they are to be treated with mercy. But part of that merciful compassion will be a recognition that they are in real danger from false teaching; we should rightly fear the consequences of them falling away, which is why Jude has gone to so much trouble to expound the dangers.
But, thirdly, our confidence is not in ourselves and our ability to avoid error, but in God’s ability to complete the work that he has begun in us (Phil 1.6), so that we will reach the full maturity that he desires for us (Eph 4.13). As everywhere else in scripture, our confidence in God motivates us to positive action; and our action is always rooted in our confidence in God. The goal is to fully live the live of the kingdom of God; our power to do this comes from God alone; and the result is for his glory alone. ‘For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever! Amen!’
Jude talks, rather surprisingly, of the active things we can do to ‘keep ourselves in God’s love’. What can you do this week to remain in God’s love? What can you do to help others in this?
Who do you know who is doubting, or appearing to be stumble? What can you do to show them compassion this week?
In reading carefully through this short letter, if feels as thought we have come a long way. There are some important things to learn from our journey.
Though filled with strong language and stark warnings, the letter of Jude begins and ends with his love and concern for the believers he writes to. This must surely be the first motivation in tackling and engaging with false teaching. It applies in our thinking about ourselves as well as our thinking about others. If we hear words of warning and discipline from God, we need to remember that this springs from God’s deep love for us, the forgiveness, peace, and hope that he has given us in the costly gift of Jesus, and his calling and empowerment through the Spirit. And if we love our sisters in brothers in Christ, we will want them to be aware of the dangerous reefs created by claims to new revelation which will lead them away from the truth.
Throughout his letter, Jude interprets the present challenges through the lens of Scripture, interpreted and applied within his Jewish teaching tradition. Because we are all, Jew and Gentile, incorporated into the Israel of God by means of the overflowing grace of God, ‘from every tribe, language, people and nation’ (Rev 7.9), the story of Israel is our story. We face the same dangers that they did, and so we need to learn the lessons from their experienced.
Although Jude uses different language from the gospels and other letters in the New Testament, the theological and pastoral ideas are the same. The good news about Jesus, passed on to us by the apostles and now forming the text of our New Testament, is all that we need to ‘grow up into salvation’ (1 Peter 2.2). There is no further ‘new revelation’ needed, since Jesus is God’s last word to us (Heb 1.1) and the scriptures testify to him. When confronted with claims to new teaching, we need to realise two things: first, that they represent a real danger for ourselves and for others; and second, that the primary response must be to stand firm in the faith that we have received. God calls us to true freedom, empowering us by the Spirit to live in the holiness which is ours through the new life offered in Jesus.
As always, the Bible Project video offers a great overview of this letter: