Catholic Epistles Scripture and the Life of the Church

Four Reasons You Should Read Jude

Jude addresses the faithful in the midst of scandal and calls them to build themselves up in deeper faith, sure hope in God's judgment and mercy, and merciful charity toward others. Relevant? Always.

Jude is one of the least read books in the New Testament. It is not regularly read devotionally, at least in my experience of teaching or serving in churches. It was not in the lectionary prior to Vatican II, and only six verses are featured now in the daily missal (Year B, Saturday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time). Check out an overview of the statistics here. Academically, too, one finds far fewer books on Jude than most New Testament documents. Of course, there are all kinds of reasons for this book’s neglect. It’s short, easy to skip or just forget after reading, and most of what is in Jude is paralleled or repeated in 2 Peter. It makes few doctrinal assertions and instead warns against false brethren leading others astray (see vv. 3-4). Theologically, it’s not as obviously catechetical as, say, Ephesians. Historically, its lack of specificity about Jude’s opponents makes it, for many, less interesting as a witness to nascent Christianity.

But I love Jude. And I want here to make a case, less academic and more devotional, for why Christians should be reading it. There are more, but I will list here four reasons.

1. Jude Addresses Us in Times of Scandal

Jude speaks to the problems of scandal within the church. Using nautical imagery, he calls the hypocrites “hidden reefs” in the churches’ liturgical celebrations (v. 12). He isn’t primarily talking about outsiders who oppose Christianity, but those whose example and leadership corrupts from within the Church. Their words and bad examples are attractive but ultimately false promises, like “fruitless tress” or “waterless clouds” that give no water for the crops’ true growth (v. 12). He calls them shepherds—an image that, since David, has been an ideal image of kings and priests guiding and nurturing God’s people (e.g., Jer 23:1; Ezek 34:1-10)—so some may even be presbyters. But they are “shepherds feeding themselves” (v. 12) rather than tending the flock for the flock’s good, and they act presumptuously and pervert the community of grace with unlawful sensuality (vv. 4, 8).

But after his heated denunciations of hypocrisy, his message to the faithful is first to remind them that this is not a surprise. They are evil and their destruction will come, 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” (vv. 17-18). Reading Jude reminds us that scandals in the church are terrible—Jesus said so (e.g., Matt 18:5-20), and Jude’s fiery rhetoric agrees—but they are not surprises to God, to the apostles, and should not be surprising to us. Surprising in the case of individual persons? Yes. Disappointing and infuriating? Yes. Requiring action? Yes. But we should not let scandal within the Church make us question the Church founded on the cornerstone of Christ and the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20-21). Jude will call his people to action, but first calls them to remember that this is the lot of God’s faithful, to be mixed in with brethren and even leaders whose example is pernicious.    

2. Jude Forms Us in Reading the Old Testament

Jude is chock-full of references to the Old Testament. They can quickly be missed, but if we meditate on them and try to think with him, we see how Jude wants the Church to see itself living in a continuation of the biblical story. He opens his exhortation by reminding them that Israel, once saved by God’s mercy in the exodus, still lost many of its children when they became idolaters (v. 5). The Church too, redeemed by God’s mercy through the water not of the Red Sea but of baptism in the Spirit (see 1 Cor 10:1-13), must also resist the temptation to apostatize. Indeed, wickedness will be punished in the Church as within Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 7). Notably, though, the judgment to which Jude directs his readers is God’s: he does not call them to take up daggers against the hypocrites, but to remain faithful, merciful, and wait for God to judge, which these examples remind us he will.

Art: Balaam and King Balak. (Figures de la Bible, 1728.)

Jude also uses quick Old Testament references to give pictures of the scandalizers’ sins to avoid. In v. 11, he compares them to Cain, Balaam, and Korah. One can pass over these references quickly or mindlessly if we do not stop to consider the biblical references or how they characterize hypocrisy. Christians or shepherds harm each other’s faith and piety is compared to Cain murdering his brother (Gen 4). Balaam took money to curse Israel and, when God turned his curse into a blessing, he tempted Israel to bring a curse on itself with sexual immorality and idolatry (Num 31:16; see Num 22–25), like those in Jude reaping benefits from the church they corrupt, but they themselves cannot destroy the Christ’s church. Korah, a Levite but not a priest, opposed Moses and Aaron by stating the truth that all Israel is holy but insisted on the untruth that therefore all should be able to offer sacrifice and that the ministerial priesthood should be democratized rather than be exercised only by the line God chose (Num 16). These are quick references, and they need to be read slowly with knowledge of the biblical stories. But for one who reads slowly, Jude teaches us to see ourselves in Israel’s story and to see Israel’s story played out again in us, and to learn encouragement, warning, and perseverance from these Scriptures written “for our instruction” (Rom 15:4). In that way, Jude teaches us biblical theology.          

3. Jude Reminds Us Who is in Charge

A fascinating passage that I don’t have space to talk about adequately is about Michael the Archangel. The hypocrites (like Korah or rebellious angels) do not keep to their own stations and instead flout the authority of God, the greater authority of the Church, and they likewise “blaspheme the glorious ones,” i.e., angels (v. 8). Against this he recalls a tradition or legend in which Satan and Michael argue about Moses’s body (about what specifically we must guess). Michael, rather than personally berating the fallen angel, responds, “The Lord rebuke you” (v. 10). The archangel’s job is to lead his angelic armies against evil (Dan 10:13; 12:1; Rev 12:7), and he is certainly powerful, but even Michael’s response to evil is to call upon God. The angel of the Lord says the same in Zech 3:2.

This is not because Michael has no power to fight but because, as the popular prayer expresses it, Michael’s victory and power is not independent, but “by the power of God.” It is easy to think of the spiritual realm in the battle imagery of Revelation, with heaven fighting against the rebellious powers and authorities, and this is true. But it is the angelic creatures who are fighting and on the ropes, not the Creator. When God steps into the battle personally, the battle ends (as depicted in Rev 19), because he is not a fighting angel but the Almighty. This is worth recalling when one prays that Michael and the angels will be victorious in their divine commission, and certainly worth recalling when one looks out and wonders whether good or evil will actually triumph. God may delay judgment for the sake of universal justice and in the interest of our repentance (cf. Gen 15:16; 2 Pet 3:8-15a), but his victory is already won in Christ, and when he comes to clean up the riffraff it will be swift.         

4. Jude Calls Us to Merciful Piety

Jude’s rhetoric can be fiery, and he spends a good bit of time talking about God’s judgment for sin, particularly about the hypocrites. For that reason, it might feel like the sort of letter that would encourage a vengeful attitude and therefore to be avoided. But that would read it poorly. Jude’s reminders about judgment are meant to remind people that God will avenge evil done to his bride (cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17), not to call them to be vengeful themselves. But the fact that God will judge is a call to action on the part of the faithful, the actions of personal piety and mercy toward others. “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God” and hope for his mercy (vv. 19-20). His first charge for the faithful in times of crisis is personal piety, to work on ourselves and get our own spiritual house in order. After that, he calls them to look to others with mercy, having mercy on people who have been led to doubt by bad authorities or examples (not, notably, blaming the doubter), and he calls believers to have mercy on those already going astray by going to come alongside them and restore them. For the faithful in the midst of scandal, our call is to remember the Scriptures and the character and power of God, to train ourselves in faithful piety, and to train our eyes to look on others with mercy and love – not to start amassing millstones to throw on the neck of everyone we think has gone astray.

These are just four reasons. As I said, there are more, but these should do. Whatever your reasons, I hope that, amid other books that you take up for study and edification, you pick up Jude. Reading it for all its worth takes attentiveness and time, but it is worth the effort.

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” — Jude 24-25, ESV-CE

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