The book of Jude: Power, grace, and a few surprisesWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
The book of Jude has been called the most neglected book in the New Testament. Nestled near the back of the Bible and written by an obscure author, Jude is one of the shortest documents in Scripture. The brief letter rarely appears in sermons, group studies or devotional reading. Despite its brevity, the book contains some unusual features that have led to controversy among Bible scholars.
In the early church, Jude was among a handful of books that took slightly longer to be accepted than the Gospels and Paul’s letters. Even so, leading church figures defended its place in the canon. Origen (c.185-c.253 AD) wrote that Jude “is filled with the healthful words of heavenly grace.” Jerome (c.342-c.420 AD) described those who reject Jude as “failing to understand what power and wisdom lies hidden underneath each of the words.”
For its brief 25 verses, Jude hits well above its weight, crammed with truths about the power and grace of God driven home with unique, eye-opening illustrations. It’s a book modern followers of Jesus should get to know better.
Why it was included in the New Testament
Jude identifies himself as a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James. According to early tradition, this makes him a brother of Jesus along with James, the author of the New Testament letter bearing his name. Both James and Jude are mentioned among Jesus’ brothers in the Gospels, and James was a leader in the Jerusalem church. Jude’s letter has some parallels to 2 Peter and was likely written between 60 and 80 AD. These factors add up to sufficient apostolic connection for the letter to be recognized as canonical.
The letter was aimed at a general audience rather than a specific church. However, its strong reliance on Old Testament and intertestamental writings suggests the original readers were a mix of Jewish and gentile believers who were familiar with Judaism.
Why it was written
At the outset, Jude states his initial intent was to write these believers about the salvation they shared, for their mutual encouragement, much as Paul had done with the Roman church. Instead, he decided to write this short letter urging them to contend for the faith against false teachers who had infiltrated the church.
Jude describes the faith as having been delivered to the saints once for all. This suggests a unified and integral body of belief and teaching that had come from Jesus through his apostles and was being challenged by heretical ideas that had begun to spring up. Jude’s statement also puts a lie to the modern skeptical claim that there was no unified orthodox body of faith in the early church.
According to the apostle Peter, followers of Jesus are to be ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). This is the classic text that underlies the discipline of apologetics. But Jude here enjoins another side of apologetics – not just explaining the faith to inquirers but also defending it from attackers. The bulk of his brief letter could be described as a sustained counterattack against these false teachers and their teaching.
The heresy in question may have been a precursor to Gnosticism, which was to plague the church in the following century. Jude describes the false teachers perverting God’s grace as an excuse for sensual sin, denying Jesus as the only Lord and Master, relying on their dreams as a warrant for rejecting divine authority and slandering heavenly powers. In addition, Jude makes the astounding claim that these false teachers were designated for judgment long ago, a clear statement of God’s sovereign will that transcends time and history.
Jude follows this with an even more astounding claim – that it was Jesus who saved the Israelites out of Egypt, who later destroyed those who didn’t believe, and who shackled the fallen angels for Judgment Day. In other words, everything God did, Jesus did. This is one of the most powerful trinitarian assertions in the New Testament, aimed at those who deny the deity of Jesus as the only Lord and Master.
How it was written
Through a series of vignettes drawn from the Old Testament – the Exodus, Sodom and Gomorrah, Cain, Balaam, Korah – Jude parallels the various sins of the false teachers and the judgment to follow. He also piles up vivid metaphors from nature – dangerous reefs, waterless clouds, bare autumn trees, foaming waves, wandering stars (comets or planets) – to show that these teachers are dead, useless and destined for outer darkness.
The most astonishing feature of Jude’s letter – and the most controversial – is his citation of apocryphal Jewish writings from the intertestamental period to build his argument against the false teachers. The episode about Michael the archangel and the devil disputing over Moses’ body is from a document known as the Testament of Moses, and the quote ascribed to Enoch is taken from the book of 1 Enoch.
Although not part of the Old Testament canon, these documents would have been familiar to Jude’s original readers, and he uses them analogically to make his point. To the extent these apocryphal writings may preserve some facets of ancient history handed down, they illustrate the fact that all truth is God’s truth, even that found outside the pages of Scripture. Just as Paul quoted Greek philosopher poets in his Areopagus address, Jude quotes apocryphal Jewish sources here – both men inspired by God to incorporate these filaments into the tapestry of his Holy Word.
Jude winds up by switching his focus from the false teachers to his beloved friends, encouraging them to keep growing in their faith, which is a gift from God and beyond value. They can do this by praying in the Holy Spirit, remaining in the love of God, and relying expectantly on the mercy of the Lord Jesus for eternal life. Just as he began, Jude concludes with this very powerful trinitarian argument. Given the brevity of his letter, it contains some of the clearest, most concentrated teaching on the Trinity in the New Testament.
Genuine faith, however, is expressed through action, and Jude urges his friends to have mercy on those who are weak or wavering, to snatch them back from the precipice of false teaching. He assures them that God can keep them from falling and will bring them into his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.
Jude ends his short letter with a soaring benediction: “to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority before all time, now and forever,” capping it off with a resounding “Amen” (Jude 1:25).
Why it’s still relevant today
The polemical tone of Jude’s letter, as he goes on the counteroffensive against false teachers and their teaching, may sound harsh to 21st-century ears. Our cultural default is to hold all beliefs – even mutually contradictory ones – as being of equal value, part of each person’s own “truth” and not to be critiqued.
But according to Jude, there is one faith, delivered to the saints once for all. Jesus claimed to be the only way, truth and life that leads to God. He taught that what we believe about him has eternal consequences and reserved some of his most withering words for the Pharisees. Our beliefs influence our lives and those around us, now and for eternity. Spiritual truth matters to God and should matter to us.
None of this is a licence to hate, to insist on being right, to flash our tribal credentials and demonize those outside. That attitude has borne barrels of toxic fruit in our culture, our churches and our families. Jude brackets his strong words with calls to mercy and love. He’s not so much a militant warrior as a shepherd defending the sheep of his Lord and Master.
Some of the attacks we face will look different from those in Jude’s day, some will look shockingly similar. But whether we’re sheep or shepherds, we need to protect our brothers and sisters and ourselves from the devastating effects of spiritual falsehood.
The way we do that hasn’t changed in the two millennia since Jude wrote his powerful, gracious and eye-opening little letter. We build ourselves up in our most holy faith, praying in the Spirit, resting in our Father’s love and leaning on the mercy of our Lord Jesus – our great triune God, to whom be the glory and majesty through all time and eternity. Amen.
Sources and further reading
Richard J. Bauckham, Jude-2 Peter, (Word Biblical Commentary), Zondervan Academic, 2014.
Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, (The Pillar New Testament Commentary), Eerdmans, 2006.
Hywel R. Jones, “Jude for today: Preserving the faith in the church,” Tabletalk, March 2022.
Michael J. Kruger, “Do we have the right books of the Bible?” Tabletalk, November 2022.
Risto Saarinen, “The epistle of Jude, a Christian midrash,” Lutheran Forum, Spring 2010.
Luke Wayne, “The book of Jude and the deity of Christ,” CARM, September 5, 2016.
Jared C. Wilson, “The Gospel in Jude,” Crossway, April 26, 2019.
“Jude,” The Bible Project, accessed January 10, 2023.
“Introduction to Jude,” ESV Global Study Bible, accessed January 10, 2023.
“Introduction to Jude,” The Gospel Coalition, accessed January 10, 2023.
“Who wrote Jude?” Zondervan Academic, September 7, 2017.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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