How not to be knocked off course

Heavenly Father, thank you that you have spoken to us in the Scriptures. Help us now to hear your voice, to believe it, and to learn to obey it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

We live in confused, chaotic and worrying times – including in the life of the church in our nation. The teaching of the apostles (not least on sexual ethics) is being formally rejected by more and more denominations. In our denomination, the Church of England, the same course of action is being forcefully advocated by some and formally considered in the councils of the church. And behind that lies a wider rejection of the God-given teaching of the apostles, which is all too often replaced by a different gospel, memorably summarised by Richard Niebuhr as:

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.
[H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America]

So what does the Bible have to say to us at such a time? Well, the message of this Letter of Jude that we’re looking at over these summer Sunday evenings is so relevant to our days – as it was to life in the early church. I’ve called this ‘How not to be knocked off course’. And we’ve got to Jude 17-19. Here they are again:

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.

‘But…’ verse 17 begins. That is, in contrast to these people I’ve been warning you about. You must not be like them. As we’ve seen earlier in this series, these are people (Jude 4):

…who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Last week Ramzi took us through the extraordinary and devastating series of metaphors that Jude uses to describe what these people are like. They are hidden reefs. If we don’t watch out, we won’t see the danger until it’s too late and we’re holed below the waterline and sinking. They are fruitless trees. In our garden we have a little apple tree, which looks great except for one thing. It doesn’t have a single apple growing on it. It promises much and delivers nothing. They are shepherds feeding themselves – which is a picture of self-serving church leaders who leave the flock starved of the life-giving Word of God. And Jude adds, here in Jude 19:

It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.

When there is teaching in the church that contradicts the teaching of the apostles, it’s often those who are trying to hold fast to the apostles’ teaching who are accused of causing division in the church. But, says Jude, it’s the false teachers who are the ones causing divisions, by departing from the Bible’s teaching. And then he makes perhaps his strongest comment of all about these false teachers he’s describing. They are devoid of the Spirit – the Holy Spirit, that is. They do not have the Holy Spirit. Whatever impression they might give at times, the fact is that they are not true believers, trusting in Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. They might use a good deal of Christian language but they do not belong to Christ. They can, if they change course. While we breath, it is never too late for repentance and faith. But Jude could not be clearer that as things stand, they are not right with God. They are his enemies. And Jude says that the Day is coming when the Lord will execute judgement on them (that’s Jude 15). They are, he says in Jude 4, designated for this condemnation. These are strong warnings which we ignore at our deadly peril. But that’s exactly what such people do. In fact they go one step further, says Jude. They scoff at such talk of judgement. But we are to be different (Jude 17):

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We are not to be knocked off course by the scoffers, but we are to live our lives in the light of the fact that Jesus has promised to return – as the apostles have taught us. So in Jude 21 he adds:

keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

Now of course as we trust in Jesus we have already received mercy – but at the same time we wait for mercy in the sense of waiting for the return of Jesus, the destruction of evil, and the fulfilment of all that Jesus won for us on the cross, in the new creation. So (Jude 17-18 again):

…remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.”

What is the teaching of the apostles that we must stick close to? Well we heard 2 Peter 3.1-13 earlier. You might like to turn that up (it’s on page 1019 in the Bibles). Maybe the apostle wrote this after Jude wrote his letter. Clearly there’s a close connection. But whatever the relative dates, Peter expands there on what Jude says, and sums up his own teaching and the teaching of the other apostles about the coming Day of Judgement and those who scoff at the very idea. Peter makes clear that the future must affect the present. When people know that something of great significance to them is going to take place, it changes the way that they act. The future does have a massive impact on the present. Take an approaching wedding. When a wedding is in prospect, about-to-be mother-in-laws (and no doubt others) enter a prolonged period of frenetic activity, not to say anxiety. It gathers momentum like a speeding snowball as the big day gets inexorably closer. And the lives of the bride and groom become increasingly shaped by this event up ahead. Eventually virtually everything they do is done with an eye on the fact that they will soon be married.

The same needs to be true of us, says Peter. Jesus is coming back. The knowledge of that must change the way that we live now. But there are many ways in which the scoffers around us seduce or intimidate us into ignoring the most significant event that lies ahead of us: the day when Jesus will return as Judge, Saviour and King. Peter reminds us that we live in a world of deliberate forgetfulness of what God has said, and of what God has done already through his word (2 Peter 3.5):

For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God…

And we are surrounded by those who scoff about talk of the return of Christ (2 Peter 3.3):

…knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing...

And what makes it so easy for them to get away with their scoffing? It is the fact that there is no sign yet of Jesus returning. (2 Peter 3.4):

They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”

And so in a sense they are. Year follows year. Jesus does not return. The scoffers were obviously saying that a few short decades after the resurrection. How much more do they say it now? 2000 years later, we still wait. That will be your experience, warns Peter. And we will live, too, in a context in which people pursue self-centred and Satan inspired goals, following their own ungodly passions as Jude 18 says. So with no sign of Jesus’ return, we live surrounded by people pursuing a godless agenda, scoffing at God’s word. That’s the warning both Jude and Peter say we must remember. So in that context, how should we live? Here are four ways.

1. Remember God has promised that Jesus will return to bring judgement and a new creation

Don’t be like those who deliberately forget God’s word. Instead, deliberately, actively, remember. And what is the word that God has spoken? 2 Peter 3.10:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

God has promised it, so it will happen. We need no other guarantee than that God said it. That is enough. What is more, he has made us doubly sure by telling us first through his spokesmen the prophets, and then through his Son, Jesus, as the apostles have passed on to us. What has God promised will happen when Jesus returns? First, judgement, pictured as a destructive fire, roaring and melting the world. Then out of the ashes of the old, a new world - God’s undisputed Kingdom. When we had an allotment, every year we had a fire in the autumn. Its purpose was to clear the ground. The intention was the total destruction of all weeds. But despite appearances, those fires were essentially constructive. The destruction was for the sake of fruitful, weed-free planting. The coming of God’s Kingdom will be like that – but it will be once for all. So that’s the first way to live: remember.

2. Understand that God has delayed the fulfilment of his promise, to give everyone the opportunity of eternal life

2 Peter 3.8:

…with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

God’s perspective on time is not ours (2 Peter 3.9):

The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness...

The delay that we experience is not a sign that God is in the process of breaking his promise. 2 Peter 3.9 again:

…but [God] is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

He is being patient. Why? The reason is there in 2 Peter 3.15:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation…

Our perspective is short term; we break our promises; we are impatient. But not God. God wants heaven to be fully populated. The day will come when the door will close, but that will not be until all hope of further repentance is over.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the old David Lean film of Dickens’ Great Expectations. It has some memorable images – not least of Miss Haversham. Some think that the church is like Miss Haversham: jilted on her wedding day; years later still sitting amidst the rotting accoutrements of her never-to-take-place wedding; the once-white-now-grey dress falling to bits on her ageing body; still pathetically hoping, when the stark, hopeless truth has been so self-evident for so long to anyone in their right mind. The bridegroom is not coming. That is the scoffers’ image of the church. Jilted by Jesus. But no, God’s perspective on time is so very different. In my capacity as a minister I have had to wait at the church door for the bride for 30 minutes. Neither I, nor, more to the point, the bridegroom, ever doubted that she would arrive. God’s timescale is more like that. A decade is not long to him. A millennium is not long to him. Jesus will be here soon. But just as those 30 minutes at the church door allowed latecomers to the wedding to scamper in ahead of the bride, so Jesus is waiting so that no-one will be shut out unnecessarily. So both Jude and Peter want us not to be deceived or depressed by the scoffers. Instead remember, and understand. Understand that God has delayed the fulfilment of his promise to give everyone the opportunity of eternal life.

3. Look forward to the fulfilment of God’s promise

2 Peter 3.11-12:

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of the God…

This kind of looking forward is not a mere awareness that the horizon is there in the distance. It is more like sailing out at sea when your destination has become visible between the sea and the sky. You head for that point on the horizon. You set your course by it. So in the same way, heaven is our destination. We will be going home. So: remember the Second Coming; understand the delay; look forward to the fulfilment of God’s promise, and then:

4. Live in the light of God’s promise

2 Peter 3.11-12 again:

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of the God…

Peter is not talking about how we should live in order to be saved. He is talking about how we should live because we have been saved. We should live holy lives. Holiness is a matter firstly of belonging to God. We are his possession. The kind of people we are and the way that we behave should befit those who have been bought at a price by Jesus. Then holiness is also a matter of being different from the world. That is an uncomfortable challenge. We need to think things through. We need to be clear about how we intend to be distinctive before the issue arises and catches us off guard and unprepared.

We are to live holy lives and also godly lives. In other words it is to be God who is at the centre of our thinking not our families, not our careers, not our material security, not ourselves. These all have their rightful place in our minds, but their rightful place is not at the centre. That place should be reserved for God. Focus on him, and on where he’s taking us – and don’t get knocked off course by the scoffing voices that we hear all around us. Let’s bow our heads to pray:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for your amazing love and grace in giving us your Son to be our Saviour and our Lord. Help us to listen not to the scoffers but to your Word of truth that gives us life and hope. Thank you that we can look forward to That Day when he will come again – and when your kingdom will come once and for all. Help us, we pray, to keep that glorious day always in the front of our minds, and to live in the light of it. For your glory. Amen.

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