The Lessons of History: Remembering the Past to Defend the Faith
The Missouri Baptist Convention has published a new resource called The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith. The 275-page book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in print from the MBC. But we also want to make each of the 16 chapters available online. This post features the first half of Chapter 7: The Lessons of History: Remembering the Past to Defend the Faith
Previously: Jude and his divine half-brother
Now I want to remind you, though you know all these things: the Lord, having first of all saved a people out of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe; and He has kept, with eternal chains in darkness for the judgment of the great day, angels who did not keep their own position but deserted their proper dwelling. In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them committed sexual immorality and practiced perversions, just as they did, and serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 5-7)
In The Life of Reason, Vol. 1 (1905-06), George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Many others have fashioned their own versions of this quip to make the point that our past does not have to determine our future – as long as we’re careful to learn the lessons of history.
Not everyone agrees. Author Kurt Vonnegut once offered this pithy response, “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”
Both men have a point. Santayana implores us to learn from past mistakes, while Vonnegut reminds us that the depths of human depravity virtually guarantee that, if given the chance, we’ll repeat the same bad choices.
The Bible speaks to both sides of the issue. God and His servants often instruct us in Scripture to remember. Moses tells the Israelites to remember their slavery in Egypt, and God’s mighty deliverance with a strong hand and an outstretched arm (Deut. 5:15). Jesus instructs the apostles to observe the Lord’s Supper – particularly the symbolism of the bread and cup – in remembrance of Him (Luke 22:19). And in visiting the church at Ephesus – a hard-working congregation whose members have cooled in their passion for Christ – Jesus urges them to remember how far they have fallen (Rev. 2:5).
Other passages could be cited, but the point remains that remembering the goodness of God, and rehearsing the acts of obedience He has given us to honor Him, lead to blessings, while neglecting the things of God invariably results in a downward spiral of sinful patterns.
Three lessons from history
Having introduced himself, and having stated the reason for his urgent letter, Jude offers three lessons from history to remind his readers that wickedness leads inescapably to God’s wrath. Jude selects examples involving Jews, Gentiles, and the angelic host. In a similar passage, Peter refers to fallen angels, Noah, and Lot, laying out the stories of their encounters with God’s justice in historical order (2 Peter 2:4-10).
Jude’s version is not chronological, perhaps because he seeks to establish a pattern of descending ungodliness. He begins with an example of unbelief, then disobedience, and finally depravity. In some ways, it’s similar to Paul’s message in Romans 1, where the rejection of God’s self-revelation is followed by the exaltation of substitute objects of worship, and ultimately ends in a complete loss of moral convictions.
In this chapter, we examine the examples Jude offers from ancient Israel and Sodom and Gomorrah. In the next chapter, we take a closer look at the story of rebellious angels.
Why does God save some people only to destroy them?
Jude begins with the words, “Now I want to remind you,” and follows with, “though you know all these things.” This suggests that Jude’s initial readers are Jews. At the very least, they are well acquainted with God’s dealings with Israel stretching back to the days of Abraham.
Jude’s first history lesson is from the desert. After watching His people endure more than four centuries of slavery, God delivers the Israelites out of bondage, convincing pharaoh, through Moses, to let His people go free after mighty displays of divine power. The Lord then parts the Red Sea after pharaoh – who decides it’s not such a good idea after all to send cheap migrant labor away – pursues the escaping Israelites. God manifests His presence as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, providing a wall of separation between His people and pharaoh’s army. He provides food and water in the wilderness, makes sure the people’s shoes don’t wear out, and commissions twelve spies to scope out the Promised Land.
When the spies return and confirm that Canaan is a land flowing with milk and honey, but also is populated by strong adversaries, the people lose heart. Siding with the ten spies who bring a fearful report, they refuse to enter the land, forgetting so quickly God’s miraculous provision, and doubting that the God who defeated the gods of Egypt can now deliver them from mortal men. “This was apostasy, sinning with eyes wide open, and could only be dealt with by the infliction of the death penalty,” notes Kenneth Wuest. “That generation died a physical death in the wilderness.”
The apostle Paul shares a similar message in his first letter to Corinth: “Now I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ. But God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. Now these things became examples for us, so that we will not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:1-6).
Interestingly, Paul follows these words with exhortations that match Jude’s warnings about the influence of false teachers:
- “Let us not commit sexual immorality …” (1 Cor. 10:8). Compare this with Jude’s warnings about those who practice “promiscuity” (v. 4), “defile their flesh” (v. 8), perform “shameful deeds” (v. 13), and walk “according to their desires” (v. 16).
- “Let us not tempt Christ …” (1 Cor. 10:9). Compare this with Jude’s description of false teachers who deny “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v. 4), “despise authority, and blaspheme glorious beings” (v. 8).
- “Nor should we complain …” (1 Cor. 10:10). Consider this alongside Jude’s depiction of the interlopers as “discontented grumblers” (v. 16).
The writer of Hebrews also uses the experiences of ancient Israel to warn his Jewish audience against the perils of unbelief. Consider his words in light of Jude’s call to remembrance: “Watch out, brothers, so that there won’t be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that departs from the living God. But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception…. For who heard and rebelled? Wasn’t it really all who came out of Egypt under Moses? And with whom was He ‘provoked for 40 years’? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did He ‘swear that they would not enter His rest,’ if not those who disobeyed? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:12-13, 16-19).
From the desert to the church
Jude is well aware that his readers know this story, and he seeks to connect the apostates in the desert with the false teachers in the church. Hanging out with God’s people doesn’t make you a citizen of His kingdom any more than swimming in the Amazon River makes you a pink dolphin. Those who fell in the desert are Israelites by lineage, but not by faith, just as the apostle Paul declares, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom. 9:6).
In Numbers 14, the Lord speaks to Moses and Aaron, asking how long He should endure this wicked generation of grumblers. He has heard the complaints of His people and has measured their hard-hearted response to His miraculous provision. So, several times He declares that the corpses of unbelievers 20 years and older will fall in the wilderness, and after 40 years of wandering, the younger generation, along with the older faithful, will enter the Promised Land. God declares a penalty of 40 years, one year for each day that the spies are in the Promised Land. Of the twelve spies, only Joshua and Caleb, who bring good reports, are spared.
Like the ancient Israelites, the church is the recipient of God’s grace. Many in the first-century church have heard first-hand the apostles’ eyewitness accounts of the crucified and risen Christ. Many have witnessed the apostles’ miracles and experienced their authoritative teaching. And yet, like the unbelieving spies who accompanied Joshua and Caleb into the land of milk and honey, they follow only their own selfish desires, fall prey to their fears borne of unbelief, and reject the truth.
Surely, the false teachers of Jude’s day realize that God will not tolerate their wickedness. Though He always saves a remnant, He destroys those who seek to poison the well with their unrestrained ways and corrupt doctrines. The grumbling, unbelieving Israelites fall in the wilderness, their corpses a reminder of the severity of their sin. In like manner, Jude wants his readers to know that God will judge the false teachers who worm their way into the hearts of the first-century faithful.
Warren Wiersbe shares a word of keen insight: “Keep in mind that Jude was using a historical event as an illustration, and we must not press every detail. The entire nation was delivered from Egypt, but that does not mean that each individual was personally saved through faith in the Lord. The main point of the account is that privileges bring responsibilities, and God cannot lightly pass over the sins of His people. If any of Jude’s readers dared to follow the false teachers, they too would face the discipline of God.”
Next, Jude focuses on “angels who did not keep their own position but deserted their proper dwelling” (v. 6b). We are saving our inquiry into this curious group of wicked spirits for the next chapter. For now, let’s travel to Sodom.
Next: What is the sin of Sodom?