Jude and rhetoric

Book_of_JudeI just finished doing a brief study on Jude, and found it a fascinating book. In the spirit of trying to do shorter posts, I am attempting to summarize what I learned about the book briefly, so here is my main idea in one sentence: much like the way Martin Luther King uses historical references and quotations to give his Letter from a Birmingham Jail more authority, the book of Jude piles up historical allusions and vivid metaphors in order to give his warning about false teachers more rhetorical force for his readers.

Historical allusions in Jude:
-unbelieving Israelites whom “Jesus” (!) destroyed (v. 5)
-disobedient angels who became demons (v. 6)
-Soddom and Gomorrah which were destroyed by fire (v. 7)
-Cain (v. 11)
-Balaam (v. 11)
-(those involved in) Korah’s rebellion (v. 11)
-those about whom Enoch prophesied (vv. 14-15)
-those about whom the apostles warned (vv. 17-18)

Vivid metaphors in Jude:
-hidden reefs (v. 12)
-shepherds feeding themselves (v. 12)
-waterless clouds, swept along by winds (v. 12)
-fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted (v. 12)
-wild waves of the sea (v. 13)
-wandering stars (v. 13)

Throughout his letter Jude connects the false teachers to these historical allusions and vivid metahpors with words like “in like manner these people also” (v. 8) and “it was also about these” (v. 14) and “it is these who” (v. 19).

What rhetorical impact! Jude could have just written, “these false teachers are really, really evil, and they will be judged.” Instead he associates them with an ongoing tradition of sin and judgment throughout human (and angelic) history. He could have just written, “they false teachers are pastorally worthless.” Instead, he calls them “fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted” (v. 12). He could have just said that they were dangerous. Instead he calls them “hidden reefs.”

The overall function of this rhetoric, as I see it, is to highlight two points:

(1) the certainty of the judgment of these false teachers – after all, if all these other people and angels who sinned were judged, how will these false teachers not be? If this is the universal historical pattern, how will it be any different now?
(2) the depth of the evil of these false teachers. Its much more forceful to say, “you’re Hitler, you’re Stalin, you’re Herod” than to simply say, “you’re really evil.” In the same way, Jude’s pastoral concern for his readers forced him to compare these false teachers to demons, Sodom and Gomorrah, Balaam, Cain, etc. so that his readers would understand exactly what they were dealing with. If his language had been more ordinary, his readers might have not been sufficiently alarmed.

Three applications I would draw from Jude to the church today:

(1) Jude reminds us that false teachers and deeply evil people will always be around in the church. It is an inter-generational reality. Carson and Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 964: “by associating the false teachers with sinners, rebels, and heretics in teh Old Testament and Jewish Tradition, Jude effectively reminds us that defections from true revelation and sound morals are to be expected in every generation.”
2) Moreoever, since Jude is a part of the canon of Christian Scripture and thus authoritative over us, it teaches us that it is not wrong to strongly denounce false teachers in the church. Where we find Jude a bit harsh, we can allow our definition of “harshness” to be changed.
3) Nevertheless, although Jude found it “necessary” to write against the false teachers, he was “eager” to write about their common salvation (v. 3). Thus our zeal for opposing false teaching should not be greater than our zeal for promoting good teaching.

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  1. Gav – Great post. It fascinates me how false teaching in Jude is not merely an intellectual problem, but a moral one – it arises out of a moral failing in the false teachers.