I would like to buy about three dollars-worth of gospel, please. Not too much – just enough to make me happy, but not so much that I get addicted. I don’t want so much gospel that I learn to really hate covetousness and lust. I certainly don’t want so much that I start to love my enemies, cherish self-denial, and contemplate missionary service in some alien culture. I want ecstasy, not repentance; I want transcendence, not transformation. I would like to be cherished by some nice, forgiving, broad-minded people, but I myself don’t want to love those from different races – especially if they smell. I would like enough gospel to make my family secure and my children well behaved, but not so much that I find my ambitions redirected or my giving too greatly enlarged. I would like about three dollars-worth of the gospel, please.
Sobering words. They’re the opening words to D.A. Carson’s excellent book, Basics for Believers. None of us would say that’s what we want when it comes to our faith in Christ. But if you take a look inside us … if you look at how we live our lives day to day … that’s kind of the picture that emerges. We go to church on Sunday, and then go to work and fail, or refuse, to live by our convictions. We bounce from church to church, choosing the one that makes us feel good, and we find a new one when the one we’re attending dares to challenge us. We dull our consciences and settle into complacency so that we don’t rock the boat, or upset our lives or anyone else’s lives in any significant way. We’ve taken faith from being a verb to being a noun, a set of ideas to be believed, rather than a life in relationship with Christ to be lived. We want inspiration, but not transformation.
And that is nothing new. From the very beginning, we have struggled with the idea that we can separate, compartmentalize our faith in such a way that we can consider ourselves followers of Christ and still live however we want. And that is what St. Jude tackles in his brief book near the end of the New Testament, right before the book of Revelation. Jude is actually a shortened form of the name Judas, and the Judas who wrote this letter was one of Jesus’ half-brothers, fathered by Joseph and born to Mary. We say half-brother because Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph was his earthly father, but Jesus was not physically a son of Joseph. Judas was likely the youngest brother. So he would have been one of Jesus’ family members who thought he was crazy until after the resurrection, and who then placed their faith in him and became a leader in the church in Jerusalem.
Christ’s followers were initially centered primarily in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. But persecution came on the believers in Jerusalem, and God used that persecution to spread his people throughout the Roman Empire. And they took the message of Christ with them. Most of them weren’t missionaries. Most were craftsmen and tradesmen and business owners of various kinds who relocated and took their faith with them. They also took the lesson that their faith in Christ could actually be dangerous with them. And as human beings, the temptation is always there to stay comfortable, isn’t it? Don’t endanger your business. Don’t endanger your family. Don’t stand out. Don’t rock the boat. And be comfortable. Take just enough Jesus to be happy, not enough that you actually have to challenge the status quo. The same temptation exists today. In America our lives aren’t in danger for worshipping God. We can’t be thrown in jail for worshipping God. But we’re still tempted to stay comfortable. To not rock the boat. We’re content to keep our faith compartmentalized so that it doesn’t impact how we do business, how we perform on the job, how we interact with others during the week. Turn with me to the tiny New Testament book of Jude.
Notice how Jude introduces himself. He could have said, “Jude, the brother of Jesus” but he didn’t. It would certainly have lent his words more authority, wouldn’t it? But he doesn’t approach the people he’s writing to that way. Jude simply calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ” and “brother of James.” Talk about humility. Remember, at one point he thought Jesus was crazy. Literally. His whole family did. How many of us would ever introduce ourselves as a servant of one of our siblings? Certainly not me! But at some point Jude came to the realization that his half-brother really was and is the incarnate Son of God, that he really did die on the cross for the sins of all humanity, and that he really did rise again in victory over death, and that realization, that faith transformed him. He is now a servant of the one he was certain was nuts. And the brother of James. He puts himself on the same level as everyone else. He comes to them not as one over them, although in some sense as a leader in the early church he was, but as one of them.
And while he had wanted to write to them a brief reminder of the foundation of their faith, he instead found himself needing to encourage them to contend for that faith. Look at V. 3. The Greek word translated as contend here pictures athletes, maybe wrestlers, contending, striving, straining for victory over their opponent. The effort being exerted is intense. In fact, it’s the word we get our word “agonize” from. Have you ever watched a real wrestling match, like a high school or college match? The wrestlers are locked in combat, each trying to take the other down. Every muscle is straining. The output of energy is intense. And why does Jude want them to “contend” for the faith? Look at V. 4. False teachers were subtly penetrating the church and starting to have an influence.
Now, many different types of false teaching have permeated the church over the centuries, but they’re all variations on a theme. They begin with a misrepresentation of who Christ is, a misunderstanding of who Christ is, and that in turn leads to a people living lives that don’t bring honor and glory to God. Christ transforms our hearts and minds, and in the process the way we live daily is transformed too. But when our view of Christ is wrong, so will be our living. And it’s very important to realize here that we aren’t talking about normal diversity in the church of Jesus Christ. We aren’t talking about denominational differences and distinctives, many of which have been argued over passionately over the centuries. The thing that unites all of the diverse churches of Jesus Christ is exactly that – Jesus Christ. When we deny Christ in some way though, we cease to be Christian. We’re talking about a denial of Christ in some way. At one point in my ministry I was a part of a church that left a denomination over just such an issue. As we looked carefully about what the denomination was teaching and where it was headed, we realized that they were headed quickly away from Christ. It wasn’t primarily about their views on sexuality or anything like that. It was their movement toward teaching that Jesus was one way among many to be in relationship with God. They were denying Christ’s own words “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). And of course to do that, you have to alter your view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. So we left.
Like I said, differing false teachings are all variations on a theme. In the church Jude was writing to, these false teachers were denying Jesus Christ, and thus leading people into sensual lives that perverted grace. And to understand that, we have to understand that the worldview in which Jesus ministered and in which the church developed was very heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, including the teachings of Plato, who lived 4 centuries before Christ. And a significant part of that worldview is what we call a flesh – spirit dualism. There is flesh, and there is spirit. One is bad, evil, and fallen, and the other is good. Flesh is bad. Spirit is good. Our own western worldview today is heavily influenced by this idea. But what did the incarnation of Christ, God with flesh on, fully God and fully human, do to this philosophical idea? It blew it out of the water. The incarnation of Christ requires us to see the sanctity of the human body, which God proclaimed very good in creation, and which Paul calls the temple of the Holy Spirit.
So when Paul talks about the difference between flesh and spirit, telling us we have died to the flesh and been born in the Spirit, he’s playing on the language of this dualism, but he’s defining the words differently very intentionally. In the New Testament, the flesh, the old life, the sinful self, is the orientation of the whole person toward self and away from God. And the spirit, the new life, the reborn self, is the orientation of the whole person toward God and away from self. We sin because we still live in a fallen, broken world, and are prone to temptation, but we live fully in Christ now too and no longer MUST sin. But we still think along the lines of the Greeks in powerful ways today, and it has created a church of Jesus Christ in this world that is at best muddling along, believing that nothing in this life matters, only the next life, eternal life, spiritual life matters, so we do our best to survive until we die and enter eternity with God, and at worst actually believes that what we do in the flesh doesn’t matter because we’re forgiven in Christ anyway.
Now, if you believe that flesh is evil and spirit is good, you have two ways to go. One is the way of the ascetic, denying self. Viewing everything associated with the flesh, including all pleasure, as evil. The other is the way of license, hedonism. Pursuing pleasure above all else because the flesh doesn’t matter anyway. Our spirits are forgiven and redeemed. So if sin shows off the grace of God, sin for all you’re worth. Of those two ways, the way of the ascetic and the way of hedonism, which one do you think is more popular? Hedonism, definitely. No pleasure verses all pleasure. I went to college at Asbury University in Wilmore, KY just south of Lexington. And there is a small village near Wilmore called Shakertown. At one time it was a village of Shakers, a movement similar to Mennonites or the Amish with one significant difference – they were completely ascetic. They didn’t believe in sex at all. And of course they died out. Obviously they weren’t making new little Shakers from within the community. They relied totally on converting people, and saying “Join us and never enjoy physical pleasure again” isn’t a great marketing strategy. Asceticism is very radical and often denies the reality that God in both creation and in Christ has sanctified the human body. But it isn’t a very popular approach as such, but it’s the spirit behind legalism.
Much more common is the pleasure at all costs approach of hedonism. We don’t call it hedonism, though. We say “I’ll do me, you do you.” “To each his own.” “Live life your way.” And that is the path the false teachers in the church to which Jude was writing took. They denied the humanity of Christ, saying that the physical world and our physical bodies don’t matter at all, and it doesn’t matter what we do with them. God’s going to forgive us anyway. So live it up. These are people who, as Jude says, “Pervert the grace of God into sensuality.”
Now, Jude isn’t saying that this life is the ONLY thing that matters. That’s actually an offshoot of what the false teachers were saying. You’re forgiven, sensual stuff doesn’t matter, so live it up. He’s saying that this life DOES matter though. This world DOES matter. Creation, incarnation, and redemption speak clearly to this truth. So if your mentality has been, “The state of this world doesn’t matter because eternity with Christ is the only thing that matters …” “Seeking justice for the oppressed doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is people’s souls.” Your thinking is being influenced by Plato, not by Jesus. Do our souls matter? Absolutely they do. Should we be working to help people come to faith in Christ. Absolutely. Does that preclude us from seeking justice in this life and standing up for the forgotten and oppressed? Absolutely not. We do both, and we do both passionately, because when I place my faith in Christ, I recognize that in Christ eternity has broken into the temporal, and is here now in me, and I seek now what I will see then.
- A. Carson, whose challenging words I quoted to open this message, is a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, used to meet with a young man from French West Africa for the purpose of practicing their German. He writes: Once a week or so, we had had enough, so we went out for a meal together and retreated to French, a language we both knew well. In the course of those meals we got to know each other. I learned that his wife was in London, training to be a medical doctor. He was an engineer who needed fluency in German in order to pursue doctoral studies in engineering in Germany.
I soon discovered that once or twice a week he disappeared into the red-light district of town. Obviously he went to pay his money and have his woman. Eventually I got to know him well enough that I asked him what he would do if he discovered that his wife was doing something similar in London. “Oh,” he said, “I’d kill her.” “That’s a bit of a double standard, isn’t it?” I asked. “You don’t understand. Where I come from in Africa, the husband has the right to sleep with many women, but if a wife is unfaithful to her husband she must be killed.” “But you told me you were raised in a mission school. You know that the God of the Bible does not have double standards like that.” He gave me a bright smile and replied, “Ah, God is good. He’s bound to forgive us; that’s his job.” Spirit is good, flesh is evil. The eternal Son was never fully human. He came to redeem the Spirit. So do what you want with your body. You’re forgiven anyway.
And what is the destination of this path? Destruction. Look at the vivid imagery Jude uses in Vv. 5-15. These are actually common cultural images for people with a knowledge of Jewish history. Six come from the Old Testament. The Exodus, after which the people of God grumbled constantly and refused to trust God. The Nephelim, an extremely evil people who came from the demonic mating with human women, an evil that was one of the primary reasons for the great flood. Sodom and Gomorrah, who insisted on pursuing pleasure above all else. Cain, who argued with and killed Abel. Balaam and Korah, who led the people astray. And then two come from what we know as the Apocryphal books. The texts that all scholars agree are helpful in helping us to understand how people viewed God and their faith, and which all scholars agree are not inspired by God in the same way as the Old and New Testament books. Some Bibles include them between the testaments and some don’t. And so we have these weird references to the Archangel Michael and Satan fighting over the body of Moses, and the proclamation of Enoch. He’s getting at the ungodliness of these false teachers and the destruction awaiting them. And he’s backing the false teachers into a corner. Try to use Scripture and you’re condemned. Try to use another source outside of Scripture and you’re still condemned.
So how do we as followers of Christ respond to those caught in false teaching. Well, for starters, we refuse to give false teachers a platform. But then, look at Vv. 20-23. “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” How do we do that? Jude tells us. First, by building ourselves up in the faith. We expose ourselves to solid, godly teaching, so that we can recognize false teaching when we see it. And false teaching isn’t necessarily every “new” application of Scripture. It’s based in a faulty understanding of who Christ is. Second, by praying in the Holy Spirit. He isn’t talking about praying in tongues here, although if you have that gift, its certainly good to do so. He’s talking about allowing your prayer life to be led by the Holy Spirit. And third, to wait for the mercy of Jesus Christ. And he tells us what that waiting looks like. We have mercy on those who have doubts because of false teaching, on all the people on whom we can have mercy. And we seek to save as many as we can through the truth of Jesus Christ. We don’t respond in venom and anger. We respond in mercy and patience, but with the truth, and we simply refuse to give false teachers a platform. We seek the lost.
Officer Tori Matthews of the Southern California Humane Society got an emergency call: a boy’s pet iguana had been scared up a tree by a neighbor’s dog. It then fell from the tree into a swimming pool, where it sank like a brick. Officer Matthews came with her net. She dived into the pool, emerging seconds later with the pet’s limp body. As the Arizona Republic (2/14/95) reported, she thought, Well, you do CPR on a person and a dog, why not an iguana? So she put her lips to the iguana’s. “Now that I look back on it,” she said, “it was a pretty ugly animal to be kissing, but the last thing I wanted to do was tell this little boy that his iguana had died.” The lizard responded to her efforts and is expected to make a full recovery. Tori Matthews didn’t see a water-logged reptile; she saw a little boy’s beloved pet. We may never see the beauty in some people, but when we realize how much they mean to God, we’ll do what we can to keep them from drowning.
How much Christ do you have? $3 worth? Or do you want all of him? Enough to give CPR to an iguana, so to speak? Being willing to reach out to all, no matter what they look like or how they think. Because as authentic followers of Christ, we are to grow in our ability to recognize false teaching and mercifully reach out to those caught up in it with the truth. False teaching starts with a denial of the fullness of Christ in some way, and it always leads to a life that isn’t the life God wants for us. It can just as easily lead to legalism as it does to licentiousness. Let us pray.