One writer described the letter of Jude as “the most neglected book in the New Testament.” While this is true in many parts of the church, it cannot be said of other constituencies. This little letter has been the rallying cry of the more militant part of the church for almost a century, stirring the church up to action against theological liberalism and apostasy. For many preachers and pastors this little book is simply a thesis on the nature of apostasy, separation from apostates, and the fight against both. While all of these are important and dealt with in other parts of Scripture, we should note that Jude never mentions fighting or taking an offensive position against heresy and he never mentions separation. So what is Jude’s message?
Apart from the introductory greeting (vv. 1–2) and the concluding doxology (vv. 24–25) there are three main divisions that are clearly identified in Jude’s letter. First, Jude recognizes a problem that had arisen in the church (vv. 3–4) and that still exists: there are “certain men” who are a danger to the body of Christ (v. 4). The men are referred to repeatedly by the demonstrative pronoun these (vv. 8, 10, 12, 16, 19). Jude is dealing with what Peter had previously prophesied would take place (2 Peter 2:1; 3:3). There is a very definite and immediate danger of libertines creeping into the church, manifesting themselves by their theological heresy (v. 4), moral impurity (vv. 4, 10, 16, 18), and spiritual bankruptcy (vv. 12–13, 19).
Second, Jude shows us that this problem is not a new one. This spirit of rebellion has a long history in the church (vv. 5–19), indeed, going back before the creation of man when the angels sinned against the grace of heaven. He mentions Israel also, who sinned against the grace of the covenant, and the sodomites, who sinned against the grace of nature and conscience (vv. 5–7). Jude uses the greater part of the letter to convince his readers this is not new and that it should not take us by surprise. We ought not to consider these issues in the church, then, as a threat to the foundation of the church but more as “pests” disrupting the function of the church. Jude has already assured the believers that they are “sanctified,” “preserved,” and “called” (vv. 1–2) and he concludes with the assurance that the sovereign God is able to “keep you from falling” (vv. 24–25). In the providence of God then, these infiltrators are intended to keep us attentive to our own spiritual vitality.
The third point that Jude makes is that the church has a duty to deal with the problem. We must “earnestly contend for the faith” (vv. 3, 20–23). In verses 20–23 Jude returns to the exhortation of contending by outlining for us how we are to do this. The insidious infiltration of ungodly men into the church ought to have a sanctifying influence rather than embitter us. These problems and threats in the church should keep us founded on the Word of truth (v. 17), fascinated with grace of Christ (vv. 20–21), and focused on how we should react to the world around us (vv. 22–23). The book of Jude, therefore, is as much a rebuke of the church as it is an exposé of apostasy. Contending has more to do with ourselves and the struggle for our own spiritual vitality than it has to do with our denunciations of heresy and protests against others. I like the way the historian Michael Haykin has put it in his book The Empire of the Holy Spirit:
The major way to resist doctrinal and moral error is to put into practice the admonitions of verses 20–23, in particular those of verses 20–21…. It is in verses 20–21 that Jude prescribes the antidote to error: “Beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (page 70).