My Old Testament professor Carol Bechtel once told us that “goodness and mercy are like God’s sheepdogs.” After all, it says in Psalm 23 that goodness and mercy will follow the psalmist all the days of his life. And it’s true. God’s goodness and mercy are everywhere – in Scripture and in our lives – so we must always be on the lookout. In the book of Jude, God’s mercy is like a thread that holds the whole book together, and it also serves as Jude’s bookends. Jude begins with mercy and ends with mercy, but sometimes the baggage we bring with us as we read the Bible makes it harder for us to see what God wants us to see.
As I read through the book of Jude, specifically the last nine verses, I struggled to make sense of what Jude was trying to say. I wrestled with the words and found myself frustrated time and again as I read verses 22-23 and couldn’t understand them.
I kept coming back to the end of verse 23: “And have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.” Whose fear – the one having mercy, or the one with the defiled tunic? How can hate be merciful? What does this mean for how I live my life? And, then I realized that what I was struggling with revealed more about theological baggage I was carrying around than it did about what Jude was teaching. I had internalized some ideas about God – and about the Christian life – and those ideas had muddied the waters so much that I couldn’t see the good news that was plainly in front of me.
When I was in high school, I attended a youth group event at a ski resort. During the day we would ski, and at night we had sessions with a speaker and worship led by a praise team. On the last night, our speaker asked one of us to stand on a chair. He demonstrated how much easier it is to pull someone off of the chair than it is for the person on the chair to pull anyone up.
Our speaker said this should serve as a warning to us about mingling with people “in the world.” At the time, this made a huge impression on me. People “out there” were to be feared because they could make me change my life, and not in a good way. So, as I approached Jude 22-23, and read about saving others by snatching them out of the fire, I read that as a call to make sure my brothers and sisters in Christ weren’t mingling too much with the world. I read it as a call to save my brothers and sisters from the hell that was “out there.”
But, there’s a problem with the chair scenario. Sure, there are times where we have to make wise choices about entering into certain situations. There are relationships that are unhealthy for us to be involved in, and there are times when we have to make tough decisions so that we can live healthier and fuller lives. The problem with the chair scenario is that there really isn’t a chair. I’m not “up here” while someone else is “down there.” I’m not called to be the savior of the world. A gospel where I’m the savior isn’t good news for anyone.
When I read through these verses the first time, I read it from the vantage point of someone on the chair. I read it as step-by-step instructions for bringing three different kinds of people to Jesus, and for protecting myself from the world. Some need a little mercy because they are wavering. Others are toeing the line and are in the fire and need me to pluck them out. Still others are dangerous and if I try to pull them up, they will pull me down. Is that really what Jude wants to teach us?
This is where context is critical. Backing up to verse 20, we read this: “But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on some…” We are a people standing in desperate need of the mercy of Jesus. We are a people who need to keep ourselves rooted in love, tethered to faith, and who rely on the working of the Holy Spirit. At the foot of the cross, we are all on level playing field. None of us stands high on the chair commissioned to save the people around us. Instead, we are to keep looking up to the only one who can save, the one whose mercy we are looking forward to.
Verses 22-23 read a little differently when we are not trying to hold ourselves responsible for saving the world. Having mercy looks different when we no longer see ourselves as people standing high above the crowd, but rather as people within it. When we read these verses from this vantage point, we no longer see three categories of people we are responsible for. So, what else might they mean?
“Have mercy on some who are wavering” seems pretty straightforward. There were divisions in the church, and perhaps some of the people were unsure who to follow – the false teachers, or the truth. Jude urges the people to show compassion – or have mercy on – those who are dealing with doubts about who to follow or trust. Doubts should not be handled with judgment, but with compassion. In times of division and struggle, the appropriate response to those who are trying to discern their way is not one of condemnation, but one of mercy. This is good news for all of us, because no matter how assured we may feel, doubt and struggle is something that most of us can relate to.
Even John Calvin, who is often painted as a staunch defender of faith and quite assertive in his beliefs, once wrote in The Institutes, “Faith is tossed about by various doubts, so that the minds of the godly are rarely at peace.”
The call to “save others by snatching them out of the fire,” however, not only tempts us to see ourselves as the savior standing up high and pulling others out, but it also reveals to us what we’ve been taught about how fire is viewed in the Bible. When we read the word fire, what do we think of first? For many of us, the answer is hell. But, let’s take a look at how fire is viewed in Zechariah 3:1-3:
Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?”
Throughout the book of Zechariah, and elsewhere, fire is seen as a place of burning off impurities, an indication of the need for repentance. We read of the refiner’s fire in Zechariah 13. God is described as a devouring fire in Deuteronomy 4 and again in Hebrews 12. Fire, in the Bible, is not only used to talk about God’s judgment, it is also used to describe God’s majesty, God’s presence, and the purification of repentance.
What kind of fire is Jude talking about – condemation or repentance? Let’s put that question to the side just for a moment and continue on with the rest of verse 23: “And have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.” When I first read this part of Jude, I found it to be the most confusing. But, the more I read and studied it, I began to realize that it is the key. The call to snatch others out of the fire, and the reference to hating the tunic defiled by their bodies is so remarkably similar to Zechariah 3 that I wonder if Jude was structuring his words with Zechariah’s words in mind.
In Zechariah 3 we begin with an interesting exchange between the Lord and Satan. Satan, in this passage, wants to accuse the high priest Joshua, but the Lord rebukes Satan. He calls Joshua “a brand plucked from the fire.” And then the passage continues,
Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with the apparel; and the angel of the Lord was standing by.
Joshua, the high priest, had been plucked out of the fire. He had withstood it. He had passed the test. He had been spared, even though his clothes were dirty. His filthy clothes were removed and he was clothed in priestly garments.
What if, rather than giving us a step-by-step guide for how to best save different groups of people, Jude is reminding us that even though there are divisions in the church, even though it seems as though we are going through the fire and our clothes are filthy, God will take away our guilt and make us new. What if, instead of reading these words through the lens of a hero, we recognize our dependence on the mercy of Christ who has plucked us from the fire and called us to be priests in this world?
This past week, I cleaned my oven. I turned on the self-clean function, set it for three hours, and then locked the oven door. For the next three hours, the inside of the oven was super-heated as bits of food were burned and vaporized. When the oven was finished with the self-clean, I waited until it cooled, and then I unlocked the door and looked inside. The bottom of the oven was covered with soot. In some ways, it looked dirtier than when I had started. But with a swipe of a damp rag, the soot was wiped away and all that was left was the clean oven that had been under all of that filth all along. The heat and the soot didn’t change what was underneath it all.
Brothers and sisters, whether we are wavering, struggling, or covered with guilt, the mercy of Christ abounds.
Whether we’re doubting, passing through the fire, or longing to be changed, the mercy of Christ abounds.
No matter how close to God we feel or how far off, no matter how filthy our rags might be, the mercy of Christ abounds.
This is why we come together as a church – to accompany each other along the way, no matter the obstacles, no matter the challenges, no matter how hard it might be – because the mercy of Christ has been shown to us so that we may show it to others.
Jude began with the greeting “May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundace,” and ended with the call to look forward to the mercy of Christ that leads to eternal life. We are called to show mercy to others, not because we have any power to save, but because so much mercy has been poured out onto us. None of it is possible without Christ.
May we be a people who greet doubts and struggle with mercy. May we look beyond the filthy rags we all wear and see the new creation that exists because of Christ. And may we receive this beautiful blessing from Jude as a blessing upon each of us, too:
“Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen.”