Well, happy New Year everyone! It's great to be with you. I hope you've had a fantastic Christmas. Throughout our services in January, we're having a mini-series on the letter of Jude. I don't know whether you've ever looked at it before - it's fair to say that it's a rather neglected letter. But as we'll see, it's got a very relevant message for us today. Let's start by praying.
Father, thank you for your Word. Thank you that it is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. And as we listen to it today, we pray you would soften our hearts by your Spirit, so that we are changed by your word, and so that we reflect your glory more and more as a church family. In Jesus' name, Amen.
What do you see as the biggest dangers of 2017? It could be the selfie-stick! Apparently, selfie-stick related deaths have doubled every year for the last three years. There are now significantly more selfie-stick deaths than people who are killed by sharks. But on a more serious note, there are big dangers. It feels like there's more uncertainty than we've had for quite a while. We don't know how Brexit is going to pan out. We don't know how Trump getting in will pan out. Both on a large scale and also how they'll impact us personally – whether we were for or against those things.
And yet Jude's message to us today is that the biggest danger for us as a church is losing the life-and-hope-giving gospel. The danger is that we don't fight to preserve the message of salvation. Because the Bible makes clear that it'll be constantly under attack, not just from outside the church, but from inside the church. And yet the only certainty of 2017, is that without the gospel, we're lost. We're without hope. Because the biggest danger of all is the fact that we are going to have to stand before our creator one day, and all of us will be found wanting – unless we're with Jesus. So let's pay careful attention to what Jude has to say this morning and as we start 2017.
Well let's dive in. As it's the start of our series, it's important to look at the context. And the first thing we note is that Jude is writing a letter. As with any letter, we need to know a bit of background if we're going to be clear on its purpose. Who's it from? Who's it written to? What's going on at the time? Let's take a look at verse 1 to get our bearings –
"Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James…"
Right at the start we see that Jude isn't someone who flashes his credentials; he's a humble guy. We read in the gospels that he's one of Jesus' four brothers. And yet here he introduces himself as a servant of Jesus. When we look at Paul's letter to the Corinthians, it seems that Jesus' brothers became leaders in the early church community. Jesus' life and resurrection clearly had a profound impact on his brothers, even though they'd seen his life from close-up.
So that's Jude, our author of the letter. But what about who he's writing to? We don't know exactly which specific church community Jude was writing to, but it seems that they were mostly of Jewish background. Jude assumes a deep understanding of Jewish literature in his letter. Now, it was a fair bit of effort to write a letter in those days. It wasn't like just winging off an email. Even taking a letter to the post box seems like a lot of effort to me these days. And yet back then, letters often had to be personally delivered – with the messenger going on a long, potentially dangerous, journey. And so letters were written with a clear purpose. So why did Jude write to this church? We're told clearly right at the start, in verse 3:
"Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints."
Jude's initial project had been to write them a letter about how wonderful the gospel is, about Jesus' love for them, about the cross, about their common salvation. But then he's forced to change tack, because he becomes aware of a crisis facing their church. Certain people have infiltrated the church; they say they're Christians, in fact they claim to be leaders, but they're behaving terribly and they're teaching things which just aren't true. And so Jude fires off this thoughtful, heart-felt letter to the church community. And the main point of his short letter is there in verse 3. He says:
"I appeal to you, to contend for the faith".
There are four key things which Jude is teaching us here about contending for the faith. You can find them on the back of your service sheet. The first one is that
1. There is one, true faith given to the church by God
If you were writing a letter like this, how would you start it off? Take a look at how Jude opens his letter in the second half of verse 1. He says:
"To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you."
It's a fantastic, warm greeting, isn't it? But he also reminds them of the amazing, one, true faith they've been given. Have you noticed that all the words he uses are God's actions? "To those who are called" – by God, "beloved in God", "kept for Jesus". God has called them. God loves them. God keeps them. The church family he's writing to is going through a difficult time, and so Jude starts his letter by encouraging them and reassuring them. The God of the universe has set his love on them and has saved them. God has done the work in bringing them to faith, and it's God who's going to keep them going. They're secure. And that's just as true for us today if we're followers of Jesus. I hope you're encouraged and reassured by that as we start 2017. As St Joseph's church, we too have been called, we're loved, we're kept in Jesus… all by God's work. True faith is given to every believer by God.
So God has given each of us faith in the sense that we're able to repent and personally put our trust in Jesus. And He's also given us a faith in the sense that he's given us a set of truths: truths about God, about man, about the world, about salvation. And that's what Jude's talking about at the end of verse 3 – take a look. He says "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints [saints meaning believers]". The truths fundamental to Christianity were delivered to the apostles – they weren't just thought up by the church. The apostles wrote them down in the New Testament, they've passed to us and we're to contend for those truths. As an aside, note that they're not going to change; there's not going to be any more revelation (any more revealing of truth from God) until Jesus returns. It was delivered once for all.
And those truths, the one true faith given to the church by God, bring salvation. And it brings a certain hope. But listen carefully. Knowing that our faith is from God and that we're called by Him is never a reason to lay down our weapons in the Bible. That's clear in the rest of this letter. Instead, it's always given as an incentive to keep going and to contend for that faith. You've probably heard of the enigma code. It was used by the Germans in World War 2 and was thought to be uncrackable. But the British cracked it. It was a huge moment, because from then on, they could understand German communications and they knew what was coming. For example, when they heard that a German submarine fleet was coming to secretly attack a convoy, they cunningly sent a reconnaissance plane out in the area over the submarines. It meant that it looked like they had accidentally stumbled across them. And then they sent a huge fleet of battleships and sunk every submarine. Enigma meant that they could take great heart. They knew what was to come… but it didn't mean they weren't still in the fight. And we too can take great heart because through the truths passed down to us by the apostles, we know what is to come. But it doesn't exclude us from the fight. And that's my second point, we have a faith that is worth fighting for!
2. This faith is worth fighting for!
Even in the early church, when Jude is writing, the one, true faith is under attack. And Jude urges the church to contend for the faith, because it's a faith that's worth fighting for. It's Jude's appeal to them in verse 3: "Contend for the faith." Jude knows this - if the truths about the one, true faith are lost, then our salvation is lost. Jude cares deeply about people being saved and being rooted in the great truths of the gospel. He cares about the gospel being preserved. He cares about God's glory and Him being glorified through people knowing the great truths of the Bible. He knows this is a faith worth fighting for.
What do you think the Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year was for 2016? It's 'post-truth' – an adjective defined as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". We live in a world that places less and less value on the truth. Truth isn't something that's worth fighting for. And yet, Jude says to the church then, and to our church now, this faith, these truths, are worth fighting for. The apostles were willing to die for the faith. The truth was preserved for us by many of the reformers of the 16th century who were willing to contend for the truth and often die for it. They fought for the message of salvation to be preserved – because they cared about people, and they cared about God's glory. This faith is worth fighting for. And the Bible makes it clear that we're going to have to fight for it. And that's my third point:
3. Many will try to distort this faith
I don't know about you, but I love a good spy thriller over Christmas – whether a John le Carre book, or a film. And as you'll know, the most dangerous spies are always those on the inside, the moles, who are unknown and unchallenged. Jude says it's the same with false teachers in the church. He issues a warning – look at verse 4:
"For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ."
People were stealthily entering the church and distorting and changing and misrepresenting the faith. In fact, these guys are distorting the very fundamentals of the gospel itself. Let me highlight three ways in which they are doing that:
Firstly, from what we read in verse 4 and then the rest of the letter, it seems that they're claiming that God's grace means that Christians can do whatever we want. They're saying 'Gods forgives us, so we can just keep on sinning! In fact, the more we sin, the more God's grace is evident!' But that's rubbish. Jesus died so that we could be set free from the slavery of sin and walk in righteousness. Paul reminds us in Romans 6.15, "What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!" Jude says… look - the immoral lifestyle of these people shows that they're a fraud!
Secondly, we see in verse 8 that these people are claiming to have dreams and visions which justify their behaviour. But they're relying on those rather than the truth they've been taught.
And the third thing, the worst thing of all, is that they're not doing these things because they're confused. They're doing it for themselves. Jude tells us in verse 12 that they're "shepherds feeding themselves" rather than their sheep. These people are acting as leaders, as shepherds of the flock, but they don't really care about them, they're just in it for themselves.
And so what does Jude say to all this? Well he says, 'you should have expected this, don't be surprised!' The prophets predicted these things, the apostles warned against false teachers. Jesus himself issued warnings. In fact, virtually all the letters in the New Testament are at points addressing contentions with those claiming to be Christians within the church. And those warnings apply just as much to us as they did to the early church. We too shouldn't be surprised by false teaching and people claiming to be Christians, but leading the flock astray.
Today, many churches are being led astray by the prosperity gospel – which is no gospel at all. It's telling people that if you become a Christian you'll have no troubles and become wealthy. But ultimately that leads people to think the gospel is a fraud and to neglect the great hope we have for eternity. Apparently that teaching is spreading like a bushfire in Africa. Closer to home, many in the church here are also moving away from the truths of the Bible. We see Church of England bishops not wanting to ordain people who believe the whole of the Bible, but being willing to keep people who deny the resurrection. Up in Glasgow, where I'm doing some part-time theological study at the moment, there's a large church called The Tron which has had to leave the Church of Scotland because the leadership aren't willing to listen to what the Bible teaches about sex and marriage. They've had to leave their big, central Glasgow Church of Scotland building and raise the money to buy another one. But thankfully the church is going from strength to strength and has planted two other churches.
And there are many more examples. We'll look at more specific examples in the next couple of weeks. But the point is, just like the church Jude was writing to, we too need to be ready, and alert. We need to be ready to…
4. Fight for the one, true faith!
And that's my final point. Fight for the one, true faith! Who is the letter of Jude written to? Verse 1: "To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ". It's written to normal Christians, like you and me. And just as they needed to contend for the faith, so do we. It's not just a job for church leaders, or preachers, it's a task for every one of us who belongs to Jesus. We need to fight for the message of salvation to be preserved. I don't mean physically fight; I mean that we need to be willing to contend for the truth. We need to speak out. We need to rebuke others, in love, who are distorting the message of salvation. We need to be willing to be insulted or even thrown out of our building for the truth.
Those words fight and contend aren't words that suggest something easy. So how do we prepare ourselves to contend for the faith? Well we're given some hints at the end of Jude, and we'll see them in the next couple of weeks as we look at this in more detail. But Jude says that most important thing to do, is to be a church which is built on the faith. With a solid foundation. A church which both knows the truths of the faith and loves those truths. John Piper, an American Christian author and pastor says this:
"the source of all false doctrine is the pride of man's heart not the weakness of his mind. Jude tells us to grow and pray and stay in the love of God, and depend on his mercy before he says anything about how we should contend for the faith. The best argument for the faith is when the saints live it."
Contending for the faith is never just mental or academic. 1 Peter 3.15 says this:
"be prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect"
So to fight for the faith, we need to know the truth, and we need to live the truth. As we start 2017, let's treasure God's word. Let's make it our priority as a church family to know it better and better. We can't recognise false teaching or distortions of the gospel without knowing the truth ourselves. But let's also make it our prayer that we would be a church that lives out the truth. Let's contend for the faith with our lives, not just our words. As Piper says "you can win with your logic, but lose with your life." Let me pray.
Father, as we start this new year, please help us to be a church which knows the truth, and a church which lives out the truth by your Spirit. We pray that we would contend for the faith this year, even when that brings hardship – help us to be alert to false teaching. And we pray all this so that we might be a light to the people of Benwell, the North-East and the UK. And so that you might be glorified as you should be. In Jesus' name, Amen.