Bible Study | May 2, 2016

Word from an intemperate heart

I have to work to appreciate the book of Jude in the New Testament. Not that I’m complaining. Working to think deeply about the Bible is an acquired taste.

The book of Jude seems written by someone who has a burr under his saddle or, as William Beahm of blessed memory used to say, “a raspberry seed under his dentures.” Some identify the author of Jude as a brother of Jesus, but that is a guess and not a proven fact. I have my doubts about that guess but, if we are all brothers and sisters of Christ, perhaps the genealogy of the author is not an issue.

Jude begins endearingly. “I wanted to write to you, O Best Beloved, about the salvation we all share. But I really must write urging you to fight for the way of life that was once entrusted to the people of faith” (verse 3).

The ending of Jude is also rich, including one of the most spiritually moving benedictions in the Bible. In the classic King James translation it reads, “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen” (verses 24-25). I always feel richly blessed when a pastor quotes that benediction at the close of worship.

Reading what is between is a bit of a downer. Jude chastises a group of people who are never clearly defined. It seems there were persons who have driven Jude crazy with their brazen attitude and behavior. But Jude never clearly defines just what about those folk irritates him the most. He warns that folks slip into our congregations and lead us astray. “I want you to remember,” says Jude in verses 5 and 6, “that the Lord rescued people from the land of Egypt, but then destroyed the ones who didn’t live out their faith. Even angels who did not keep their assigned places were placed in darkness until judgment day.”

About this time I begin to grow uneasy with Jude. It is not just the examples he chooses. I’m more uneasy that he begins by warning everyone of divine punishment. I grew up in a church and in a home that did not talk about God as one who punished, but as a God who forgave and encouraged. Years of Bible study have made me convinced that it is better to talk of consequences than punishments.

Both of Jude’s examples are aimed at the possibility that folks who began with a strong and well-grounded faith may end up compromising and sliding into faithlessness. That’s true enough. Sometimes I, too, find it hard to distinguish between “growing in my faith” and “compromising my faith.” But if I end up losing faith, I am convinced that God’s response is not wrath but sorrow, and I am in more danger of destroying myself than I am in being struck by a lightning bolt from heaven.

Jude goes on warning about people who are, in his judgment, “blemishes on your love feasts” or “like irrational animals.” They are “grumblers and malcontents . . . bombastic in speech.” They are “autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted.”

Through most of Jude, I do not feel uplifted. His benediction lifts my spirits, but what does one do with the rest of the book? One commentary says that “most people find this brief work too negative, too dated, and too apocalyptic to be of much use.”

At this point I grow uneasy again. This time I am not so uneasy about Jude as about myself. What business do I have to pass judgment on a book of the New Testament? On the other hand, many scriptures urge us to have discernment. For example, Paul prayed in Philippians that our “love may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment.” Yet, if I accept only scriptures that are acceptable to my limited “discernment,” I will end up trying to be my own god.

What if I think of Jude not so much as a book of the New Testament, but as a human being and a brother in Christ? Then, as much as the harshness of his words bother me, I remember he is my elder in Christ. As a fellow Christian I owe him my respect. The least I can do is to grant him the benefit of the doubt. I can try to listen more respectfully to his concern.

It seems Jude has a great concern for the church. So do I. Jude is disturbed by church members who take less seriously the call of Christ. So am I. If I look past Jude’s harsh language, I can see his heart hurting because the holiness of the church is being compromised. His intemperate language comes from his pain.

I know that nearly two thousand years separate me from Jude and we may not agree about which actions and attitudes are most threatening to the church. Yet, as I listen beyond his words to his genuine love for the church, I feel close to him as a brother in Christ.

Jude’s harshness reminds me to be less harsh toward him and, naturally, toward others whose attitude and language disturb me. Today’s heated debates often result in harshness. How do I learn to moderate my language when my heart hurts for the church? And how do I learn to listen beyond the words?

An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.