Q&R with Brad Jersak: The wrath of Christ in Jude’s Epistle
Hi Brad, I just finished reading A More Christlike God and I wanted to thank you for your thought and words, and for helping me see the pure love of the Lord.
I still have one questioning pertaining to wrath, however, and I’d love to know what you think. In Jude, the author says that Jesus saved, then destroyed those who did not believe. He seems to imply that Jesus did this himself. I agree that Paul read the Old Testament differently (attributing to the Destroyer and not God), but what about this instance in Jude?
Great question. Short answer:
Jude is pulling out every rhetorical weapon in his arsenal in a last-ditch effort to rescue his “dear friends” (vs. 3) from a cadre of false teachers who were beguiling them onto the terrifying path and consequences of some sort of cocky, licentious apostasy. He calls these friends “called and loved of God and kept for Jesus” but is apparently nevertheless concerned for their souls.
When I say he’s using rhetoric, I am not referring to the empty rhetoric of modern politicians. Epistolary rhetoric is a genre of preaching put to ink that focuses on using highly emotive language–an dramatic oratory intervention designed to wake up and motivate those listening to action.
While rhetoric is difficult (to the point of harsh) and the warnings are meant to be taken seriously, the polemic should not be literalized or totalized. Jude’s basic strategy is to demonstrate the urgency of the threat. How does he do this?
First, Jude gives us three arresting OT examples of the dangerous path of departing from the faith:
(1) The Exodus: while the whole company passed through the “baptism” of passing through the Red Sea, some who had been delivered defied God and their sin became their destruction.
(2) The Angels: while at one time all the angels’ abode was with God in heaven, the story goes that they fell away into spiritual darkness and are bound up, awaiting destruction.
(3) Sodom and Gomorrah: the men in the cities around the Dead Sea gave themselves over to sexual perversion, intent even on raping the angelic visitors.
The point so far: don’t depart from the path of “the faith once delivered to the saints.” Stay the course. If you turn away now, the results could be disastrous.
He then enters into a three-fold series of woes against these brazen deceivers–these “perennial persistent pedlars of perversion” (citing my first systematics prof, Orville Swenson) who were luring his friends into their web of lies.
Next, Jude compares them to three of the great biblical super-villains: Cain, Balaam and Korah, who practiced rebellion, murder, seduction and sedition. These false teachers are their demon spawn. The rapid-fire series of name-calling phrases is both poetic and a delicious example of trash-talk that eclipses Eminem’s take-down raps or what you might hear from Mohammed Ali in his boxing heyday. Here he goes; catch his rhythm:
- 12 These are spots [stains/hidden reefs] in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. Clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; 13 raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.
Ouch! Jude paints a vivid, verbal montage that exposes the ugly character and motives of these slick hucksters, these sinister serpents whose deadly venom threatens the community’s spiritual wellbeing.
At the crescendo of his ominous chorus of woes, BOOM! he delivers the resounding double “BUT YOU”! But you are not like them, are you! But you are not going to bail, are you! But you remember the words and warnings of Christ, won’t you! But you are building yourselves up in the faith, praying in the Spirit and kept by Jesus, aren’t you!
These are not questions. These are pathos-thick exhortations–to be heard as virtual commands. It’s a heavy-handed invitation to faithfulness. Because he thinks that’s the mountain pure, icy cold water they need splashed on their faces.
Would Jude ‘literally’ ascribe the wrath in these *stories* to God or can we hear him evoking the threat narratives (some extra-biblical and even mythological) for rhetorical purposes like a wake-up slap?
This is why epistolary rhetoric is the toughest genre in all of scripture to interpret—harder even than apocalyptic—because we typically mistake it for straightforward teaching.
As I said, the words are still meant to be taken seriously. For those of us who came out of Christian cultures permeated by prurient moralism, the freedom we experience in grace makes us vulnerable to over-swerving into libertine presumption, where now anything goes? That’s what Jude’s readers were facing. No. Instead, the solution is to find our freedom in the fulness of joy found in the Holy Spirit and in the Jesus Way of living well.