The Letter of Saint Jude – a reflection part 1
by Fr Richard Copsey, O.Carm
If we look at our copy of the New Testament, we will see that it begins with the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the Acts of the Apostles, then there is collection of letters, mostly written by St Paul with the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse at the back. Among the collection of letters, there are some claiming to have been written by the apostles, Peter, James and John and then, at the end there is one of the shortest of all, the letter of Jude. View it here (it'll open up a new window).
Before we look the content of Jude’s letter, it is important to stress that, after the Resurrection, belief in Jesus was passed on by word of mouth. Those who had known Jesus talked about him to others and these in turn passed the news on to their friends and families. For many who came to believe, it was a privileged experience because they were able to meet and listen to people who had known Jesus, who had heard him preach, witnessed the miracles he worked and shared the despair at his crucifixion followed by the joy at the news of his risen appearances. As the numbers of believers multiplied, some order needed to be established. In the Acts of the Apostles, the members of the community in Jerusalem are described as being “faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers” [Ac 2:42]
As the faith spread in the Holy Land and then, more significantly, across the Roman empire in the East, thanks to the efforts of first Peter and then Paul, there emerged a need to preserve some of this preaching in writing. One of the first subjects would have been the prayers and the liturgy for “the breaking of bread”, that is the mass. Then there would have been small collections of the saying of Jesus, his parables and some of his miracles. All these initial documents have now been lost but what have survived are the letters of Paul. Paul was the great missionary of the early church travelling long distances around the east of the Roman empire, establishing – often against great opposition – small communities of Christians in the different towns. In order to keep in touch with these communities, Paul had to send letters which are like sermons in written form. These were composed between 40-60 AD, long before the gospels were written and give us a precious glimpse into the experience of the early Christians. Paul’s deep faith and his loving care for his small communities struggling to live the Christian life come through in his letters. Of course, like all preachers he can go on a bit, there is even an account of a young boy falling asleep during his preaching! But, over all, there is his enthusiasm in following Jesus and his eagerness to pass his faith in Jesus to his readers.
There are, of course, letters written by the some of the other apostles but here we have problems. Some of them (like a few of Paul’s) must have been written after the apostle whose name they carry had died. At that time, this would not have been regarded as a forgery but a mark of respect, i.e. “this is what St Peter would have said had he been here”. I can remember, as a university student, writing a research report which was to go out under the name of my professor. However, it had to be sent to the publishers before he could read it and it is one of my fondest memories of him as he said “Whatever you write I’ll sign it”.
The gospel is regularly read to us in church and it is true that we need to listen to study the life of Jesus in order learn from him how to live and come close to the God who loves us. But, if you have your bible close at hand, try and read a little of one of St Paul’s letters, for example, one of those he wrote to the Romans, the Corinthians, or the Ephesians, or read one of his more personal letters to Timothy. Don’t try to analyse the text, just enjoy the infectious enthusiasm of Paul and catch a glimpse of the experience of those who came to the faith through meeting Paul.
Now to come to this short letter of Jude. Let’s start with a look at its contents (you can read it in your own Bible or use the text provided which is taken from the New Jerusalem Bible).
Reason for writing this letter
Three examples of God’s judgement
Three more examples of disaster
Pastoral appeal and closing words
The letter starts with the address: “Jude, servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James…etc. The James here is not the better known James the brother of John who was executed by Herod but James the leader of the early church in Jerusalem. Then there is the traditional but very warm greeting “… to those who are called and are dear to God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ, mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance.” There is no mention of Peter or Paul here or anywhere in the letter so it is likely that the letter was written after they had been executed, so 70 AD or later.
Then there comes the reason for writing the letter. Evidently Jude had intended to compose a more general letter on the faith to a group of communities where he had worked but a crisis has emerged due to some itinerant preachers having appeared and who were causing some disturbance among the early Christians. So Jude is writing this short letter quickly to counter the influence of these new preachers.
As a starting point, Jude reminds his readers of three times when God was forced to punish his chosen people. These were after the exodus from Egypt when the Israelites rebelled in the desert, the fall of the rebellious angels down to hell and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We will look at these in a little more detail later but here Jude is arguing that these itinerant preachers, like all those who rebel against God, will be severely punished.
In the next section, Jude gives three more examples from the Old Testament where God was forced to punish false prophets. These are Cain – who killed his brother, Balaam - who was asked by Balak king of the Amorites to curse Israel, and Korah, - who led a rebellion against Moses in the desert.
Jude then confirms these prophecies with a quote from an apocryphal book of the Old Testament, 1 Enoch, before going on to describe the itinerant preachers as “mischief-makers, grumblers governed only by their own desires, with mouths full of boasts, flattering
people for gain”.
After all these warnings of God’s punishment on wrong-doers, Jude ends with a gentle appeal to the faithful members of in these churches, “keep yourselves in the love of God, looking forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ for eternal life…”. And if they remain in the love of God then this love will reach out to others: “Take pity on some who
are wavering, save others by snatching them from the fire, pity others in fear ..”
The Church has always been subject to criticism and attacks from all sorts of people. Here, Jude is telling us to leave the censure of these people to God, our role is to keep close to our loving God, trusting in the redemption offered by Jesus. Then we can reach out to those in need or doubt, not to correct them but to pass on the love of God. It is through our friendliness, our listening and our kindness that God can touch those around us.
Part 2 will be published next Friday 25th June at 11am