“Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. And have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 21-23). Jude offers some excellent advice for those trying to reach the lost of this world, and I would like to spend some time considering his words in this section of scriptures.
Jude divides this small text into four sections, each providing a brief statement about how we ought to deal with lost souls at certain levels of accessibility. First and foremost, we must take care of our own souls, being aware of our own faith in God and of the status of our salvation. Second, we must learn to show mercy, or pity, for those who doubting. We are not terribly exposed when leading them to Christ. Moving further out, there are times that we will need to harshly rebuke those who are very close to spiritual death – though they are not quite at the brink, they are near enough that actions must be taken swiftly before it is too late. Finally, and in the most dangerous way, we will need to interact with people who are practically infected with sin. They are the ones who will turn on us when we are most exposed, because they are caught deep in sin and too foolish, arrogant, or spiritually rotten to want to turn back to God!
It may be that these examples will seem familiar to us, either because they are reminiscent of unbelievers with whom we are familiar or because we have fallen into the traps of sin. Hopefully, by studying this and other Biblical texts, we can come to a greater understanding of what it means to rescue the lost.
Jude 21 – “Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life.”
The very first point he makes is that we must all diligently seek the salvation of our own souls before we try to convert any other person. If I cannot manage my own heart, then how can I say that I will change and lead the hearts of others toward salvation? “But I buffet my body daily and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Even the apostle Paul understood that individuals accountability was absolutely necessary in order for him to be an effective tool for Christ. What an inefficient soldier he would have been if he had not taken care of his own soul! In the same way, I would be a terrible Christian if I was constantly suffering from ill faith, poor studying, an unhappy marriage, depression, bottled-up anger, and other personal spiritual problems that often go unchecked. It is very unfortunate that a great number of very influential religious leaders have been destroyed because they failed at establishing their own faith, or practicing self-control and piety in their personal lives. Though a preacher may convert a thousand souls in his career, it does him no good if his own soul is decaying in sexual impropriety, self-aggrandizement (Philippians 1:17), deceit, scandal, or even a lack of love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). If we expect to lead others to Christ, then we must not fall prey to the temptations of the devil. Otherwise, we have become just what Christ describes in Matthew 15:14; blind men leading the blind! Consider what Job’s companion Eliphaz tells him in Job 4:3-5. While Job lived a life of kindness and charity to those in distress, it is now his turn to experience trouble, and it has become a source of powerful discouragement for Job. “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). We must think of our salvation as our own, not as somebody else’s and especially not as something paltry or cheaply purchased. If we do not internalize and personalize our faith, then it will never be strong enough to stand up to the heat of the battle. It is your salvation, friends, and nobody can work it out for you.
The phrase “waiting anxiously” has also been translated as “looking for” in other versions. Either one is beneficial because they both state the importance of personal agency in the work of the church, and in entering a state of grace. We should be anxious for the mercy of God on the last day, and never dreading it. It is only those in sin who have something to fear from God (Hebrews 10:27). “The blameless will not be ashamed in the time of evil” (Psalm 37:19) because they have no skeletons in their closet, no dark secrets or smoldering regrets for grave mistakes made early in life.
Jude 22 – “And have mercy on some, who are doubting.”
In the same way that we had once been taught about Christ, we each have a responsibility to teach others the same message (2 Timothy 2:2). There is need, though, for discretion because every person is different. Every potential convert is coming from a different background, with his or her own set of prejudices, preferences, and preconceived ideas. We cannot expect to change everybody’s heart in the same way all the time – in fact, we cannot expect to change everybody in the first place. Some people are beyond changing, though it is only because they have chosen to close their minds to the possibilities of the truth. As we travel the road of Christianity, we will come across unbelievers who are indecisive, or doubtful about everything. They do not want to make up their minds, if it is even conceivable to do so. They want to teeter on the fence for as long as possible, never committing, never deciding, never saved.
There are two kinds of doubters; those who doubt out of fear, anxiety, or spiritual weakness, and those who doubt out of arrogance. Either way, though, many of these doubters choose to make this their primary “life philosophy” – that is, the anxious doubters are to afraid to make up their mind either way and therefore refuse to choose sides, and the arrogant doubters believe that their indecision is a sign of their superior mental faculties, as if they have completely transcended the foolishness of decision-making. One write put it well when he wrote, “Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through [it]… But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation” (Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 31). While it is true that we all have moments of fear and doubt, whether that be a time of youthful skepticism about our parents’ beliefs, or a sudden fear that we have made the wrong choices, to live by the creed of the doubter is as foolish as the young man who chooses to do nothing in the face of a lion – he can either face the lion in combat, run from the beast, or stand there in inactivity.
As our text in Jude tells us, we need to have mercy on those who are doubting. Other translations also render the phrase “have pity on those who doubt.” We must always try to put ourselves in the shoes of the person who is too scared to make up his mind, because we may be able to relate very closely to his doubts. “Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God’?” (Isaiah 40:27) Many have asked the same question! We meet a number of unbelieving individuals who do not want to choose Christ because they think He has ignored them in their distress. Single mothers, disabled fathers, widows, orphans, people suffering from depression, and a host of other conditions may lead a person to question the very existence and nature of God. How do we answer a person in this situation? How do we respond to their uncertainty? “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might, he increases power” (Isaiah 40:28-29). Just like the prophet, we must show unbelievers that God will give us the strength to pull through the trials of this life. Although God does not promise worldly peace or wealth to his followers, He always promises that we will not be overcome by tribulation (1 Corinthians 10:13). The psalmist writes it very clearly in Psalm 37:24, “When he falls, he shall not be hurled headlong; because the Lord is the One who holds his hand.” Notice that the verse never says the believer will not fall – in fact, the wording seems to promise occasional distress – but it does promise safety from utter spiritual demise. Everybody suffers; the question is whether we want to suffer alone or not.
Other doubters choose to be that way out of haughtiness, believing that indecision is evidence of their superiority. They remind me of Pontius Pilate, who arrogantly asked our Lord, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) They often call themselves agnostics – the simple explanation for the doctrine being a chosen disbelief in anything. To them, it is not a matter of whether or not there is a God, but simply that we do not have the knowledge to determine the answer. Because there is no way to prove God’s existence either way, they choose doubt as their primary belief. They doubt organized religion, they doubt God’s preeminence, they doubt any sort of “revealed word” or supernaturally composed books.
To an agnostic, doubt is the reason for all of the advancements in science and society. “Science is responsible for the building of railroads and bridges, of steamships, of telegraph lines, of cities, towns, large buildings and small, plumbing and sanitation, of the food supply, and the countless thousands of useful things that we now deem necessary to life. Without skepticism and doubt, none of these things could have been given to the world. The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the death of wisdom. Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom. The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith” (Why I Am An Agnostic, Clarence Darrow).
To these individuals, we must also learn to show mercy and express pity for them, just as our text in Jude 22 says. Indeed, I do have pity on people who place their trust in doubt (oxymoron?). Instead of choosing the Lord and having the promise and assurance of Heaven, they proudly decide to decide nothing. While I will approach my death – and the throne of God on that judgment day – with confidence and full assurance, they will al face it with fear because they do not know what awaits them!
Jude 23 – “Save others, snatching them out of the fire…”
While many sinners are that way because of indecision or doubt, others end up lost because they stand too close to the fires of sin, which results in condemnation. These individuals often walk the line, choosing to practice doctrines and lifestyles that lead only to destruction, but may not feel bad at the moment. They are at a point that is critical for their spiritual preservation, and only immediate action, such as the “snatching” described in the text, will offer any chance of a return to Christ. “This brings a different class of person into view – those who have sunk into corrupt courses which will soon undo them, who are already, indeed, in the penal fires of wrong, but yet are not beyond the possibility of rescue if quick and vigorous measures are taken with them” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. XXII, Salmond, 15). When we know a brother or sister is in sin, we cannot wait a long time to get involved – we cannot just hope that it all goes away!
Snatching hurts sometimes, and not just for the one being pulled away. It takes a great deal of spiritual integrity and strength to pull a loved one away from the brink of sin. For their own good, though, we must be willing to be brutally honest and sometimes very harsh with those for whom we care. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 that severe action needs be taken with some brethren, and it is only after the punishment has occurred that we can “reaffirm our love” for the sinner. It hurts, at first, the rebuke somebody, but in the end it will be better for both parties.
Some sinners do not want to be saved, though, and the presents some different challenges to us. “‘I overthrew you as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were like a firebrand snatched from a blaze; yet you have not returned to Me,’ declares the Lord. ‘Therefore, thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I shall do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel’” (Amos 4:11-12). Even though the proper steps were taken to wake up the sinners of Israel, the people still refused to repent and obey Jehovah. And we will find that some sinners are so stubborn that they will refuse all logic, wisdom, and reason to continue pursuing their crooked habits. Even though any logical person would see that smoking kills, millions continue to do it. Though adultery is only a temporary pleasure in the midst of a bad marriage, men and women still commit it. In spite of the clear teaching of the Bible, and the rampant spread of sexually transmitted diseases in that sect of society, the vast majority of homosexuals will never admit the error of their ways until they are finally confronted by the Lord. Proverbs 9:7-8 makes it clear that scoffers and wicked people do not listen to criticism very well, and will likely turn on anybody who tries to correct them. Also consider Galatians 4:15-16, “Have I therefore become your enemy by telling you the truth?” The very people who we stick out our necks to preach to are the ones who turn around and attack us, which is why we must always be careful not to become discouraged.
Like blind people walking straight toward a cliff, many sinners will refuse to let us “snatch them from fire” and we will, unfortunately, have to leave some behind. If we remain faithful, preach the Word, rebuke those who need it, and keep sin out of our own lives, then we have done all we can. If there are those who end up in Hell because of their own refusal to be saved, then it will not be on our shoulders (Ezekiel 3:17-19).
Jude 23 – “And on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.”
The final class of those who need to be saved are the ones who are already deep in sin and may never be saved – only because they refuse to hear the truth and choose the ways of darkness. We ought to fear these individuals because they can easily drag other souls to perdition with them. This verse shows that we do not automatically have to accept people back into our hearts when they have proven they cannot be trusted. Though we are obligated to forgive our brethren when they make mistakes (Matthew 18:21-22), that does not mean that we must completely restore the relationship to what it once was. In lawful divorce, for example, a wife should forgive her adulterous husband, but that does not mean she ever has to remarry him (Matthew 19:9). It is the same with Christians in business relationships – a brother who repeatedly steals from another Christian may repent of his sins, but if he has lost his brother’s trust, he should not expect to be welcomed back into the business. Some people cannot be trusted, so we must fear them – love them, perhaps, but with discretion and care.
This attitude of discretion is important because as Christian we deal with sin all the time. Like a doctor administering to plagued patients, there is always the risk that we, too, will end becoming infected with spiritual diseases. In matters of doctrine, we must learn to have fear for a brother with a reputation for teaching strange doctrines. Also, we must have fear for a repentant brother who still carries a reputation for sin. We can love him, respect him, and welcome him back to the church, but that does not mean we should welcome him into our inner circles – our money, our children, our romantic love. Paul and John Mark serve an example of this concept. In Acts 13:13 we read that a man by the name of John Mark abandoned the apostles in their work, an obvious breach of trust in the eyes of the apostle Paul. He held hard feelings when it came to John Mark, and refused to allow him to accompany the group on their next journey. In Acts 15:38, Barnabas requests that John Mark go with them, but Paul explains that he does not trust John Mark. It seems that Paul had forgiven the young man for his cowardice in the face of the work, but forgiveness does not necessarily mean a complete renewal of their previous relationship. Paul did not trust John Mark – he may have loved and forgiven him, but he did not trust him.
There is nobody who cannot be saved, though many choose to reject any hand that reaches out to help them. No matter how sinful a person may be, there is always forgiveness available (Joel 2:12-14). We are told to “hate the garment polluted by the flesh,” which means that there is nothing wrong with hating sin, while loving the sinner. In that sense, we ought to hate homosexuality, adultery, lying, theft, unfaithfulness, rudeness and every other sin. “Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, not adulterers, nor idolaters, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor swindlers, nor revilers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). If even the wicked Corinthians could be washed and sanctified from their terrible sins, then you can do, and so can I. God is reaching out to you, O lost one! Take His hand and live. Stop doubting. Stop rebelling. Stop walking on the edge, trying to get away with just enough. Cast off the arrogance of sin and take your stand with Jehovah!
Today, we can all choose salvation. If you have heard the message tonight, and believed it with all your heart – that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (1 John 3:23); if you will confess that believe before God and man (Romans 10:9-10); if you repent and live a life that is renewed and in the strength of God (Luke 3:8); and if you will be baptized for the removal of your sins (Acts 2:38, Romans 6), then why will you not obey the invitation?
“He who believe and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).