It is a great joy to share with you this evening. It was also a great joy to share in worship here this morning. Thank you for this opportunity of making a link between the local church and the wider church; how much we need each other.
I want to comment on the opening and closing words of Jude's letter. It's only 1 chapter, as most of you will have realised. So I'm talking about verses 1 to 7 and verses 17 to 25. Let me say straight away that the letter is old and totally authentic. The style in the original Greek is good. And the message is what nowadays would be termed 'robust' and at times, therefore, it's rather uncomfortable. Jude, who wrote this letter, identifies himself as the brother of James, and therefore he's the half brother of Jesus. And you can check that out in Mark chapter 6 verse 3. And his purpose in writing is to help those who read his letter to defend themselves against their critics, and at the same time to encourage them to help others around them to put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. That's by way of background. As we sit before I say more let's pray:
That we may indeed, Heavenly Father, hear by your Spirit the words of Scripture, the words of Jude. As they spoke then may they, by your grace, speak to us now, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
After his introductory comments, and that's obviously vv1-2, Jude gets straight to the point. And I want to read again vv3-4.
3Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. 4For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.
Let me give some headings for what we have here and what follows in the rest of the letter before us. If we look first of all at v3; we're told about the salvation we share together. And then if you look in the same verse you'll see that although we have this common salvation Jude finds it necessary to remind us that there is also a faith – our Christian faith – which we must contend for.
And then in vv4-16 he describes, with a variety of illustrations, mostly from the OT, some from what's called the 'Intertestamental period', he describes, with various illustrations, from Jewish history particularly, the opposition we face. And then in vv17-23 he reminds us of the responsibility we must assume together.
Then in vv24-25 at the end of the letter he reminds us, looking to the future, of the glorious future which one day will be ours to enjoy and which we get glimpses of in our Christian life here on Earth, right now.
So that in outline is what the letter is about; Jude is writing to 1st Century Christians. He's writing to inform them, he's writing also to alert them of the situation they must face together, and he's writing to encourage them. And can I remind us all that getting informed and alerting one another to what's going on in the world around us is vital if we're to move on, to be able to encourage one another. But, as I said earlier, the letter doesn't make for a comfortable read. In fact Jude, on his own admission, would have preferred to have written a very different kind of letter. And there's a hint of that in the Greek structure that he uses, that suggests that he would have liked to have had a more leisurely opportunity to write about the gospel, our common salvation. As it is, he must write to alert them to contend for the faith, that was once for all entrusted to the saints. And the saints are the likes of you and me – ordinary Christians. And the faith that we need to contend for has about it a legal quality. It's, as it were, been handed to us from a previous generation; it's not ours to tamper with, but it is ours to pass on to our children and our children's children. And we are urged to pass it on intact, with all its original apostolic authority.
But Jude knows, and this is why he writes as he does, that the very confidence of those 1st Century Christians is under threat by a group that he refers to as 'those who have slipped in among you', and there it is in that opening paragraph. It's a fascinating way of describing it; the word is quite a rare one. And it's used by one of the ancient writers, a guy called Plutarch, to talk about the steady decline in society of good laws, and the stealthy substitution of inferior ones. Those of you who have links with the Christian Institute may hear a familiar ring from Plutarch in the old days. And this is happening not only in society, says Jude, it's actually happening in the life of the church. Be alert to the fact that there are those who are slipping in; it's not a change from one day to the next that's particularly dramatic, and therefore easy to recognise. It's something that subtly and slowing is changing within the religious climate of the day. You see both what these men believe and how they behave undermines the salvation that Christians share together. And so he writes towards the end of v4;
These are godless men who change the grace of our God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ, our only Sovereign and Lord.
Implicitly these are people who deny that there is such a thing as truth, and that this is something that we have received from a previous generation and which we hand on intact to the next. Now Jude is emphatic in his response; the salvation we share is about confessing Jesus Christ as our only Sovereign and Lord, there it is in v4. And this is a true faith; this is the orthodox, authentic, apostolic faith, preached by the likes of Peter and Paul, it's been entrusted to us and it's ours to share today and to pass on to the next generation.
But it's not just about what we believe; it's also about how we behave; how this works out in practice. He doesn't spell it out in detail in this particular verse, although it's alluded to in the central part of the letter. It's about if we use contemporary parlance, our experience of money, sex and power. As now, so then. These are all good things, given to us by God, which in our sinfulness and our rebelliousness against God, we easily misuse and abuse, and in the process destroy ourselves. The exhortation from Jude, therefore, is to live Godly lives, hence his emphasis on those who teach anything different as ungodly people.
Now I hardly need to remind us that then, as now, they is a constant pressure on us as Christians, and as the Church of God, to settle for a kind of compromised, belief-thin Christianity. It's our privilege this evening to welcome young people, and what a joy that is to welcome young people, into the life of the church as new Christian believers. And this is happening all over the world. Whether it's Europe, Africa, Asia or South America, where it's been my privilege to work most of my adult life, people are coming in to the Kingdom of God. But at the same time we need to acknowledge that there is great resistance to the Christian gospel. And therefore Jude, and from Jude we need to learn, exhorts us in the latter part of his letter to doing things together that actually justifies what we are as the Church, and it's part of God's purpose.
He reminds us, for example, and now I'm looking at vv17-23, that there is a responsibility that we must assume together. The Western World in which we live is dominated by a kind of individualism which says basically, 'it's better to go alone, each one of us doing our own thing. And it's our right to do so'. Jude insists, by contrast, that Christians must assume a responsibility together for each other's wellbeing. And only then can we point to the glorious future which will be ours if we're responsible in how we handle truth and how we express our love to each other. See Jude isn't afraid of that word 'responsibility'; it's this that gives us hope for the future. In v17 for example, he says 'remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold'. He's saying that's it's vital to learn from the past, not act and live as if the present were all that really mattered. That means in practice reading our Bibles because as Christians it's particularly important that we keep informed, not only about what the Bible says, but how it relates to our lives personally and corporately in a decadent society today.
So responsibility is about reading the Bible. But he goes on from that in v20 to say 'build yourselves up in your most holy faith.' And the emphasis here is not each one of us, isolated from the rest, as if we didn't need each other, but all of us together. And the idea is not of independence or dependence, but mutual dependence. And it's about the responsibility of taking the living Church – the people, us together – with the utmost seriousness, and building each other up in community, one with another. And it's for the sake not only of the community but the society around us. It's the easiest thing to criticise and condemn the decadence within our society, particularly in the West. But the greater tragedy is if there is decadence and decline in the life of the church. Our responsibility is to each other for the sake of the world. But he also says in v20 that we're to pray; 'pray in the Holy Spirit'. And what he's saying is that it's irresponsible if we're Christians not to pray. If we give up on Bible reading, if we give up on going to Church, sooner or later we'll give up on praying. Responsibility together is about praying; praying alone each day, getting into the habit of prayer. But also praying with others together in the presence of God. It's about praying with friends. It's about husbands and wives praying together. It's about family members praying together It's about praying together in the life of the church. And God honours that commitment. Pray in the Holy Spirit. But then he also speaks about Christians and our responsibility to be merciful and to show mercy. And that's spelt out in different ways in vv22-23.
Responsibility is about service. And it's always, if it's a genuine kind of service, going to be costly. Contending for the faith is going to be a costly business he says in v3. And the word in the original has something of the touch of agony about it; it's what it takes to bring up children. It's what it takes to grow to maturity. It's what it takes once you've qualified to practice well in your particular profession. It takes effort, energy and discipline. And it's nothing less than this what it takes to serve God, through the church, in society. There's to be no division between private faith and public life. For God they're inseparable and the world around needs to see that there's coherence in the life of the church. It's significant that right at the beginning of his letter Jude introduces himself not as the Lord's brother, although he would have had every reason to do so, but he simply introduces himself as a servant of Jesus Christ. We need as Christians to get on with the business of serving, and it begins right out there tomorrow, because that's our calling too.
So how does the letter end? Well, in a way that's really quite spectacular and beyond words to express. Jude reminds us in vv24-25 that in the midst of opposition, which is bound to come, in the agonising process of contending for the gospel, not only proclaiming our Christian faith but defending our Christian faith. In the midst of that, in the midst of the pressure to conform to the contemporary expectations, particularly of the Western world, in order to resist false religion, it's only God in his greatness who can preserve us. In God alone we must trust. And Jude simply and directly at the end of his letter points us to God. And we need that clarifying, simplifying message every day of our lives, looking to God to preserve us and guide us. God is able to make us stand, says Jude. God is able to present you in his glorious presence without fault and with great joy. Though in and of ourselves we shrink from that very possibility. But God welcomes us. A great deal in recent time has been written about the glory of God, and it's a magnificent for us to study and reflect on. But there's no doubt that a part of God's glory is his joy and his happiness beyond anything we can imagine, and he invites us to be part of that. Invites us together with a multitude of people both now and across time to enjoy his happiness for all eternity. So he finishes with these words, v25;
To the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore! Amen.