Balancing Acts – Hey Jude: Excerpts from a Commentary

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Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns and appears the second week of each month.

by Tom Beutel

But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God;

Jude 20-21a (NRSV)

In August 1968 The Beatles released their first single from the Beatles’ record label, “Hey Jude.” Written originally by Paul McCartney to comfort John Lennon’s son Julian in light of the divorce of  his parents, the song topped the popular record charts in both the US and Great Britain.

The song begins with words of encouragement: “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better.”

By contrast, the New Testament book of Jude has not only words of encouragement, but also words of warning. This “balancing act” is characteristic of Jude. Despite the fact that “Jude is one of the shortest letters in the Bible” and that it “is arguably the least well-known writing of the Christian scriptures” (Daniel Powers, 1 & 2 Peter, Jude, New Beacon Bible Commentary), there are several important lessons to be learned from the book of Jude.

One important element is Jude’s ability to embrace paradox and balance seemingly contradictory ideas. This contrasts with our human tendency to see only one side of a paradox. Writing in the Believers Church Bible Commentary 1&2 Peter, Jude, Erland Waltner asserts,

Christians tend not to recognize the necessary tension inherent in biblical paradoxes. Sensing this tension, human beings are inclined to wipe out one side of a paradox. The human mind frequently pits grace and divine initiative against human responsibility. Believers Church Bible Commentary, p. 288

The themes of Jude are God’s faithfulness, the dangers and consequences of false teaching, and the believers’ need to “contend for the faith.” Several interesting and important ideas are presented in the Believers Church Bible Commentary.

First, it is evident that Jude, like other New Testament writers including Paul and Peter, is dealing with problems in the young church. Thought by most to be the half-brother of Jesus and the brother of James, Jude is writing to the embryonic first century church. What this tells us is that while the church today may be facing many problems, including disagreements and divisions within, we are not living in a unique time. As typically attributed to the infamous Yogi Berra, it is “deja vu all over again!”

Second, Jude deals with heresy and apostasy. Again, quoting from the commentary,

Heresy may be formally defined as doctrinal deviance from orthodox belief (Greek: haeresis, “a choosing,” a dissension, faction, sect; 1 Cor. 11:19). Apostasy constitutes the behavioral or ethical side of rejecting religious dogma (apostasia, a “withdrawing,” a “wandering away”; 2 Thess. 2:3). In Jude, both doctrine and ethics, belief and practice, are at work…Both doctrinal erosion and moral error compromise the integrity of the Gospel and the believing community.   (p.289)

Waltner goes on to say,

One sociologist describes modernity as making place for widespread heresy. He observes the increasing secularization of religion in American life (Berger: 1-3). To contemporaries, picking and choosing becomes an imperative, with people turning inward and claiming absolute authority for their own experience. Religion and theology thus increasingly become an    individual and human phenomenon. They lose their sense of transcendent moral authority. In the end, heresy is little more than private opinion.(p.290)

Thirdly, scripture can be used and often is, to support heretical or apostate beliefs. Waltner quotes Menno Simons as saying that “all heresy, seduction . . . and hypocrisy can be . . . defended with Scripture.” (p. 290)

As Waltner applies Jude’s writing to the “Life of the Church,” he emphasizes Jude’s careful balance between God’s grace and human responsibility: “Jude stresses the reality of God’s election and keeping power, while at the same time assuming the real possibility of departing from the faith once for all delivered to the saints. ” (p.310)

Despite, the ability of God to “keep” believers, Jude warns that believers must “build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit;  keep yourselves in the love of God.”

Jude’s warnings and exhortations, may strike us living in the 21C as “old-fashioned.” Waltner writes,

Jude’s tone strikes modern readers as unusually forceful and even “insensitive.” In a culture  where “tolerance” has practically achieved status above God, we see intolerance for truth,  morality, and religious authority. The fact remains, however, that certain doctrines and lifestyles are true, and some are false. The latter, from Jude’s prophetic standpoint, lead to  disaster. Thus the distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy is not merely academic or  passé. Instead, it has consequences both for the present life and for eternal destiny, forever (Jude 6-7, 13, 21, 25). (p. 310-311)

Waltner wraps up this section of the commentary in this way.

With the advent of a new paganism in Western culture, the church …must reaffirm the importance of  absolute truth, a doctrine of “ultimate things,” which is both theological and    moral in character. (p. 311)

In these times of turmoil in culture and in the church, let us all heed Jude’s warning and encouragement. Let us recognize the dangers inherent in the post-modern psyche, “keep ourselves in the love of God,” and “contend for the faith.”

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