Some years ago, one book changed the way we think about swimming in the sea. That book was a work of fiction, called Jaws. Not only was it hugely popular, but many swimmers have since been fearful of swimming near sharks. With good reason. In the past week, the author of that book, Peter Benchley, has been heading up a call to action to help protect sharks from extinction. It appears that they are being hunted for their fins (shark fin soup is a great delicacy in the East), and in danger of being wiped out. In his call to action, Peter Benchley points out why we might be motivated to do something: he acknowledges that sharks are not the most obviously loveable of creatures, but they are the apex of the food chain: if they are wiped out, the consequences will be felt all the way down. So there is a call to action.
The letter of Jude is a call to action. Some years before it was written, another word had changed the way men and women relate to God. That word was the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Jude writes a little later, in order to call to action those who have themselves been affected and influenced by Jesus Christ. As we will see over the coming weeks, this call to action is not obscure or irrelevant: the call touches on issues which are live and relevant for us today, whether or not you would call yourself a professing Christian. There is something for everybody here. Let's meet the author himself, in verse 1:
First, THE SERVANT OF CHRIST (v1-2)
At first glance, Jude's self-description is unremarkable: he says he is the brother of James, that is most likely James who was the leader of the Jerusalem church. He is also a servant of Jesus Christ. So are others in the NT (Paul, Timothy, Epaphras, Simon Peter, John etc.). But it is remarkable when we consider that Jude was almost certainly the Jude (or Judas) mentioned in Mark 6:2-3 as Jesus' half-brother:
On the sabbath [Jesus] began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, … is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offence [were scandalised] at him. (Mk 6:2-3) NRSV
Jude is now no longer the scandalised half-brother, but now a servant of Jesus Christ. His attitude to Jesus has changed. He now acknowledges that Jesus is not a mere man, but his rightful master. See also how he describes Jesus in verse 4: "Jesus Christ our only sovereign and Lord". The relationship has changed.
One of my contemporaries has gone on to become a prominent leader in the Christian world (and we thank God for him). I remember being at a social function with his father, who was coming to terms with his son's growing standing in this particular Christian circle: "time was when Vaughan would be introduced as my son; but now I am introduced as his father." The relationship changed.
How much more will the relationship have changed between Jude and his half-brother: "time was when people knew him as the son of Mary and the brother of Jude and others: but now I acknowledge him as my only Sovereign and master." To be "a servant (or slave) of Jesus Christ" is what it means to be a Christian: it is to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Master.
The sort of God we serve is described in the second part of verse 2 as one who has called, loved and kept his people.
Called, loved and kept in God
Christians are people who have been called, … loved … and kept. That three-fold description makes clear God's initiative in seeking and saving his people. That's God's grace; his initiative to seek and save his people. Some suggest that verse 2 is better translated as kept and loved in God, with the sense that we are enfolded in God's love, just like a little child wrapped up in their parent's loving embrace. That is such a powerful picture of love and security. It's not to say that we have no responsibilities for ourselves: in verse 21 Jude urges these same Christians to "keep yourselves in the love of God". The OT also teaches us that God called, loved and kept his people – in fact those three words appear together several times in Isaiah (see Isaiah 43.1-13). It is this common faith to which we turn for our second heading:
Secondly, THE SALVATION WE SHARE (v3)
The salvation we share is (literally) a common salvation. The heart of the Christian faith is common to all true Christians everywhere: in every age, and in every corner of the world, the salvation we share is a common salvation. The outward trappings – culture –can and should vary locally: but in the core doctrine, there is no local option or variation, because it concerns that faith "once for all entrusted to the saints".
Once for all
It was 'once for all' and not 'once upon a time'. It's the same word as usage as we get in two other important NT paragraphs which shed light on the nature of the Faith:
Just as man is destined to die once [i.e. once for all], and after that to face judgement, so Christ was sacrificed once [i.e. once for all] to take away the sins of many people (Hebrews 9:27-28)
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18).
The faith is fixed, because at its heart is a completed work: sins have been dealt with once for all in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. There can be no addition or enlargement on this. It was 'once for all'.
The Battle of Waterloo (with apologies to any Frenchmen present) was 'once for all'. It was a single action of ongoing consequence to those who live in the years immediately after it. We can improve our understanding, but never add to, or change, the outcome. So too with the cross: we live in the immediate aftermath: we can improve our understanding, but never add to, or change, the outcome. There is no need to repeat, augment or improve it. It is this faith which is under threat because in Jude's day there were those who would turn the 'once for all' event of the cross into a 'once upon a time' story which they can conveniently ignore. Which brings us to our third heading:
Thirdly, THE STRUGGLE WE FACE
I wonder if you like surprises: last year the Law Society published some surprises left in the wills of those who had died: A Mr. F left several relatives each "one penny as that is what they are worth as members of my family." A Kent man said in his will "To my first wife Sue, whom I always promised I would mention in my Will……Hello Sue!".
Surprise number 1 - the early church had doctrinal problems.
If you were watching the Wimbledon Champions' Parade this afternoon, you will have seen many past and some present Champions. No-one would deny that, in their time, these people were outstanding players. Yet within is similar time-span, there were men who were denying something much more important – the Lord Jesus Christ. See verse 4:
certain men …godless men, who change the grace of God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our Sovereign and Lord.
These men cause havoc by distorting the grace of God. God's grace to us is that I may receive a full pardon through the cross for all my sins. That is the wonderful truth of the gospel, no matter what I have done, and what I will go on to do.
Some may say "If God's grace is this wonderful; maybe I can go on living as I like, and maybe I can go on sinning". That seems to be happening here – indeed the False Teachers are encouraging this. But how can I claim to be living a live of grateful service if I am wilfully grieving God's love for me? I can't if I am the willing servant of the loving master Jesus Christ. Which is why wrong living must always go with wrong belief: these men deny the divinity of Jesus. It is extraordinary how early in the Church's history such deviation was already happening. But why should such distortion even gain currency among God's churches?
Surprise number 2 – this church has problems.
Look at verse 4: "they have secretly slipped in among you." If it is a surprise that there are false teachers, it is a shock to discover they are among you. They gain access secretly (like any under-cover infiltrator). But the reason these men make any progress is because their teaching sounds attractive to us. The attraction comes because we too are weak and sinful human beings.
There are areas in which we all find obedience hard: sexual behaviour (whatever our sexual orientation may be) is an obvious area, both now and then (see the end of verse 7): but there are others. And anyone who comes along promising a new way in which we can retain our sins without guilt or fear is bound to get a hearing. Be warned: these men turn the grace of God into immorality. And they deny Jesus Christ. Be careful.
Surprise number 3 – all Christians must contend.
Which is why the call to action is issued to all Christians: contend for the faith. The word for contend has been described as a 'sweaty' word: it means 'struggle', or 'wrestle'. If you and I are Christian people, servants of Jesus Christ, called, loved and kept by God, then we must all fight for the future of the gospel. We must do that for ourselves (because we are potentially in danger) and for the sake of others (because they already are in danger). That responsibility lies not just with up-front Christian leaders: the faith was handed over once for all to the saints, which in the bible means all God's people. And it is all God's people who must contend for the faith. I think that is an unpleasant surprise for many people. Like Jude, we would like to spend all our time exploring the salvation we share. And there is plenty to explore – God's grace is very wonderful indeed. But because we live in a world which does not naturally want to accept Jesus as Saviour and sovereign, we must, like Jude, contend for the faith.
That's the call to action: doing so will lead us and others back to the grace of God, and the service of Jesus Christ. Father God, we thank you for the great salvation we share in Christ, as servants who have been called, loved and kept in you. Grant that we would be faithful servants, to honour the Lord Jesus, and not deny him; to please him in our behaviour, and not to grieve him; for ourselves and for others. Amen.