It is a common literary device to use groups of three. Think of such quotations as “wine, women, and song,” “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou,” or “Winken, Blinken, and Nod.” Dickens used three ghosts in A Christmas Carol. Even in the Bible there are trios: the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), or “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” When I was writing annual evaluations in the Navy I often tried to mention three characteristics, like “dedicated, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic.” Preachers are taught to keep their sermons to three main points. (Some don’t pay attention to that, though.) One person seems to take the threesome to extremes. Judas, more commonly called Jude, structured his letter almost entirely on groups of three, with a couple of pairs and foursomes for variety.
Let us take a quick look at this book. This will, obviously, not be a complete commentary. Jude has much to say to us, though, and he says it in triplicate.
His first trios come in his introduction. He addresses his letter to those that are “sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called.” Any of those three things would be nice. Sanctification alone would be sufficient, but God has also preserved us and called us. On top of those blessings, Jude wishes that mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to his readers. Paul often opened his letters with grace and peace, including the Greek greeting (charis) and the Jewish (shalom). Jude’s greeting is perhaps less cultural, but maybe more reflective of the God whom we serve. His greeting also continues. He wishes these blessings multiplied.
After a brief explanation that he had to change the purpose of his letter, Jude begins with warnings about people who would lead the church astray. Most of the remainder of the letter, 15 of the 25 verses, describes these people. It is important to note that he is not talking about people attacking the church from outside, but those who would destroy it from within. While we will always have people who are unbelievers persecuting the church, the greatest damage will come from those who claim to be Christians. People may take attacks from without with a grain of salt, but when our own members act hurtfully that is noticed. That gives people an opportunity to say, “If that is what it means to be a Christian, I want none of it.” The division of Christianity into the various denominations, for instance, may have been Satan’s greatest victory.
Jude describes these evil people in several ways. “Ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God.” (v. 4) (Italics mine to emphasize the trinity of accusations.) They are “murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts, and their mouth speaketh great swelling words.” (v. 16) These men were prophesied to be mockers, walking after their own desires (a pair, v. 18); they are those “who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit.” (v.19) In verse eight he says they “defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities.” One quickly gets the idea that these people care more about themselves than they do about God. They use their liberty in Christ to satisfy their own desires, both sexual and political. Not only do they show no respect to other members of the church, they disrespect the governing powers. These are people who use the church as a dating service. They use the members of the church only for the business networking available. These people would include those preachers and members who speak ill of the President (or any leader), even if only not according them the respect of using their proper titles.
The people who would bring down the church are compare to notorious men in biblical history. The three he mentions are Cain, Balaam, and Korah (v. 11). Cain committed murder simply because he was embarrassed. Balaam was willing to curse God’s people, and lead them into sexual errors, just to satisfy his greed. Korah showed contempt for authority, setting himself up as equal to God’s prophet. Few sins are considered by men as serious as these: murder, greed, and rebellion. Yet these are the very sins that were creeping into the church, requiring Jude’s warning letter.
In verses 12-13 we find two triplets and a pair to describe the false teachers in the church. They are called “spots” in your love feasts. Literally, the word means that they were rocks or reefs that lay just under the surface of the water. Every sailor knows that the dangerous reefs are not the ones you can see, but the ones that are below the surface. Everything looks calm in the church, but these people “make shipwreck of the faith.” (1 Tim 1:19) They are waterless (and therefore unprofitable) clouds, driven by every wind. Paul says they become victims “by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” (Eph 4:14) The third of the triplet contains one of its own (or maybe a foursome). They are trees “whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots. Not only are they barren of fruit, and thus dead, but they suffer a second death. That second death, in this case, is being plucked up. Not only are they already dry, but they will have no root to hope for sustenance.
Next is a couplet. They are raging waves and wandering stars. Those of us who have spent some time on the ocean know about waves “foaming out their own shame.” Normal waves are unremarkable. Stormy waves, on the other hand, stand out from all others because they are topped with foam. You can see them, even in the dark of night. The wandering stars, planets or comets, travel through the darkness. They have no light of their own, like true stars, but reflect whatever light is available. These people have no foundation, but ultimately show their true colors.
The author of the letter not only describes evil men, he also describes what will happen to them. God will not be mocked. Those who oppose him set themselves up for punishment.
Just as Jude compared the evil men to historical figures from the Torah, he compares their punishments to historical groups. First he compares them to the people who listened to the spies during the exodus or those who complained about the lack of food. He reminds his readers “how that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed them that believed not.” (v. 5) This recalls to his listeners that the mere act of murmuring and complaining is anathema to God. He then compares them to the angels that chose to leave heaven. (v. 6) This is one of the few verses that give us a hint of how Satan and his angels came to oppose God. Whatever their reason for leaving, we do know their end. God has reserved them “in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.” Finally, he compares their sexual misdeeds to Sodom and Gomorrah, and reminds them of the fire that destroyed them (v. 7). God’s punishments are sure and eternal.
Verse 15 is, to my thinking, one of the great literary passages of the Bible. “To execute judgment upon all, and to convince [a couplet] all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” In addition to the opening couplet, no greater description of these men can be found than Jude’s quartet of “ungodly’s.” God’s judgement has a purpose. It is to convince (or convict) ungodly men of their ungodly works. Until such time as they are convicted, evildoers may convince themselves that they are not really doing wrong, or that they will avoid punishment. God will forcefully convince them otherwise.
Because of the potential for punishment, our loving God lays an obligation on those who would rather see the salvation of those who have tried to lead them astray. God would rather they did not perish.
Before we can look to the salvation of others, Jude says we must look to ourselves. We must build ourselves up, pray, and keep in God’s love (vv. 20-21). Without these necessary things, we fall prey to the twin dangers of being led astray by those we would save or becoming self-righteous by comparing ourselves to them.
Once we have armed ourselves, then we may approach sinners in one of three approaches. On some we have mercy, because they “are in doubt.” They don’t fully know the truth. Approach two is “snatching” those who are falling into the fire of sin. On the third group, the most serious, we have mercy, but fearing even for our own souls. In all cases there is some hatred. This is the scripture most often paraphrased, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” In order to love the sinner, we must hate “even the garment spotted by the flesh.”
Jude closes with a triune description of God. Our God is able to keep us from falling, to present us faultless, and brings joy. After this he blesses God with a four-part benediction. “To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power.” This blessing is for the triple time of past, present, and forever. This is our God. In biblical numerology he is a three and a four, or a complete seven. There is and can be no greater. Those who would lead the church astray need to know this about God. They need to know that they can not win, because God is God.