In Jude 20-23, the writer addresses three groups of people: doubters, deceived, and departed. The text reads:
But you, dear friends, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, expecting the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ for eternal life. Have mercy on some who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; on others have mercy in fear, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.
The first group of people Jude addresses consists of those who doubt. That is, they are not able to discern between true doctrine and false doctrine. These may be the same folks Peter describes as “unstable people” that prove to be easy marks for false teachers (2 Peter 2:14). Likely, the doubters are immature believers who are not well-grounded in the faith, although Jude also could be describing unbelievers who are being drawn to Christ, but who must contend with the obstacles of false doctrine. Jude hints that false teachers also prey on disgruntled church members because the false teachers themselves are “discontented grumblers” (v. 16).
False teachers are clever. Often attractive, articulate, and persuasive, they profess to speak for God – even using Scripture and biblical terms – yet they deny the central beliefs of historical Christianity. How can someone seeking the truth, whether an unbeliever or an immature Christian, tell the difference between true doctrine and false doctrine? This is the front line of battle where Jude has challenged us to be, contending for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all (v. 3).
Jude is not the only first-century church leader wrestling with this assault on the kingdom of heaven. The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “But I fear that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your minds may be corrupted from a complete and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). Paul then goes on to identify three specific doctrines that the “super-apostles” (whom he later calls “false apostles”) are promoting. They teach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (v. 4).
Today, these three markers continue to help us separate true Christianity from false belief systems. It is noteworthy that three of the most popular and prolific false religious organizations in the world today – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, and Islam – all proclaim non-biblical views of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the gospel. If we as Christians did little more than ground ourselves in these three core biblical doctrines (concerning Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the gospel), we would go a long way in protecting ourselves and others from the wiles of many false teachers.
Paul also grapples with Judaizers in Galatia. Judaizers promote a mixture of grace, through Christ, and works, through the keeping of the Law. He writes, “You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Did you suffer so much for nothing – if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:1-5).
James, the brother of Jude, urges his readers to ask God for wisdom. “But let him ask in faith without doubting,” says James. “For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind…. An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6, 8).
For Jude’s readers, the issues largely are pride and prosperity – speaking arrogantly to demonic forces while living a hedonistic lifestyle. The false teachers are bold, persuasive, and evidently unchallenged. As a result, many people in the church, whether unbelieving seekers or new believers, are confused. They simply cannot discern whether the pure gospel, preached by the apostles, or this new gospel, proclaimed by charismatic false teachers, is the true gospel. So those who are strong in the faith must show mercy to those torn between truth and error.
Showing mercy does not mean ignoring the serious nature of false doctrine. Nor does it mean commending doubters for their sincerity. Rather, it means extending to those who vacillate between truth and error the same patience, kindness, and perseverance that God shows to us. If the Lord delays His coming in order to grant unbelievers more time to repent (2 Peter 3:9), shouldn’t we also labor patiently with those earnestly seeking the truth?
The second group under the spell of false teachers consists of those who have gone beyond doubt into deception. These people still may be in the local church, although fully engaged in “the teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). Or, perhaps they have left the fellowship of the local church and now are immersed in the companionship of an apostate group. In either case, Thomas Schreiner argues that these people are “close to being captured by the teaching and behavior of the opponents. Believers should not give up on them. Their lives could still be salvaged, and they could be snatched from the fire that threatened to destroy them.”
While the first group – the doubters – may include true followers of Jesus, it appears the second group is characterized primarily by those who do not know Christ. Perhaps they call Jesus “Lord,” as many do on the day of judgment, self-deceived into a false sense of security (Matt. 7:21-23). Or, it could be that they knowingly have left the faith, cleaving to false teachings to satisfy their fallen natures.
Like Esau, the immoral and irreverent son of Abraham who sold his birthright for a single meal, these unbelievers do not value the things of God and are dangling over the precipice of outer darkness (see Gen. 25:27-34; Heb. 12:16-17). It is possible, however, that some of the deceived to which Jude refers are indeed Christians who have never become grounded in the faith and thus, like little children, are “tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14).
What are we to do with such unwitting, or willing, victims of deception? Jude exhorts us to “save” these folks by “snatching them from the fire” (v. 23). What does he mean by “save”? Save them from damnation? Save them from drifting into apostasy? Save them from the consequences of their actions? Jude may be addressing all of these scenarios. But his primary focus seems to be on rescuing those on the brink of spiritual danger before they pass the point of no return.
As Warren Wiersbe writes about Christians in this dangerous predicament, “The angels took Lot by the hand and pulled him out of Sodom (Gen. 19:16), and sometimes that must be done in order to rescue ignorant and unstable believers from the clutches of false teachers.”
The verb “snatching” (Greek harpazo) means to seize, carry off, or take something or someone by force. It’s the same Greek word Paul uses to describe what happens to Christians on earth on the day of resurrection. They are “caught up” with the resurrected saints to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17). The phrase “caught up” is rendered rapio in Latin, which lends itself to the modern term “Rapture” to describe this glorious day.
Jude likely borrows this imagery from the prophets, however. For example, consider what the Lord says through Amos about unrepentant Israel: “I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were like a burning stick snatched from a fire, yet you did not return to Me” (Amos 4:11).
A similar phrase is used in a different context in Zechariah, who sees Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, with Satan there to accuse Joshua. The Angel of the Lord says to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! May the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Isn’t this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” (Zech. 3:2). The Angel – the pre-incarnate Christ – proclaims Joshua’s sins forgiven and orders that his filthy clothes be replaced with clean garments and a clean turban. All of this foreshadows the finished work of Christ, and offers both encouragement and incentive to Joshua and Zerubbabel as they lead the Israelites returning to their homeland after the Babylonian captivity.
With these images in mind, Jude may be picturing those who have embraced the doctrines of the false teachers and thus figuratively are singed by the very fires of hell. It is not too late for them, but they must be made to understand how little time is left for them to repent.
Notice how Jesus deals with people in various stages of unbelief. To the confused or unsure, like the woman at the well (John 4), He exhibits exceptional kindness and patience as He corrects their false beliefs. But to those fully embracing man-made doctrines that oppose the purity and simplicity of Scripture, like the scribes and Pharisees, He pulls no punches, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, blind fools, and snakes. He warns them they are filling up the measure of their father’s sins. And He wonders aloud how they can escape being condemned to hell (Matthew 23).
We cannot search the hearts of men and women, or say with certainty whether they are saved or lost. However, for those openly proclaiming “another Jesus,” “a different spirit,” or “a different gospel,” we should confront them with biblical truth, which includes the real and present danger of eternal separation from God in hell for those who reject their only hope of salvation.
Jesus does not hold the reality of hell over the heads of the scribes and Pharisees for the purpose of magnifying His sovereign power, but to make clear the truth that our choices now have everlasting consequences. We, too, should never shy away from preaching the reality of hell – not with a gleeful glint in our eyes, but through the watery lens of our tears. Perhaps some may be snatched from the fire.
It seems quite likely that the fire to which Jude refers in this passage is future judgment in hell. That imagery runs consistently throughout the New Testament. John the Baptist tells the Pharisees and Sadducees – whom he calls, “Brood of vipers!” – to show they are truly repentant by producing good fruit. And he warns them, “Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (see Matt. 3:7-10). He goes on to proclaim the coming of Messiah, whose winnowing shovel is in His hand. “He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn. But the chaff He will burn up with fire that never goes out” (v. 12).
Jesus often uses fiery images to depict hell. In the parable of the dragnet, He tells His listeners, “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out, separate the evil people from the righteous, and throw them into the blazing furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:49-50). And in warnings about hell, He says, “And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48; quotation from Isa. 66:24).
Addressing the Thessalonians about God’s judgment and glory, Paul writes that “it is righteous for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to reward with rest you who are afflicted, along with us. This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with His powerful angels, taking vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:6-8).
Warning Jewish unbelievers, who only partially embrace the gospel, the writer of Hebrews declares, “For if we deliberately sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire about to consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27).
Perhaps the most graphic, and terrifying, picture of hell fire comes in John’s vision of the great white throne judgment, where all unbelievers have their day in court. The Lord Jesus, who sits in judgment upon the throne, opens various books, most significantly the book of life. John solemnly records, “And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15).
So, if Jude implores us to snatch the deceived from the fires of hell, what does that mean about our role in the salvation of others? Scripture is clear that God is the Author of salvation, the only One who grants forgiveness of sins and restores those who once were enemies of God to a right relationship with Him. Jesus is the only way of salvation (John 14:6). There is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
At the same time, God has entrusted the gospel to us – an awesome privilege, and a weighty responsibility that not even holy angels possess. Christians are the secondary means by which people are reconciled to our offended Creator. On the Day of Pentecost, after Peter preaches an inspired message of Christ crucified to his Jewish brothers, they are pierced to the heart and ask the apostles, “Brothers, what must we do?” Peter replies, “Repent, and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37b-38). About 3,000 surrender their lives to Christ, are baptized, and added to the church (v. 41). It is a message repeated throughout the Book of Acts, resulting in salvation (see Acts 4:1-4; 8:26-38; 13:46-48; 16:13-15).
Our role, then, as Paul later writes, is simply to preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23). As for those who profess Jesus, and then find themselves drifting into the vortex of false doctrine, we must humbly and firmly seek to bring them back to the solid ground of biblical truth, careful not to be swept away with them.
Thomas Schreiner writes, “Probably Jude spoke of those who had fallen into the libertinism of the false teachers. Even in this case mercy should still be extended. But the readers should be extremely careful, avoiding the danger of being stained by the sin of these opponents.”
The third group under the influence of false teachers consists of those we may call the departed. They are fully under the power of apostates who have infiltrated the church. Even so, we are to regard them with “mercy in fear, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (v. 23). They are objects of mercy because the riptides of false doctrine have swept them into the miry deep, and they are beyond the view of any landmark that would bring them safely to shore. They are so convinced of their newfound beliefs that they cannot be swayed by Scripture, reason, or passionate persuasion.
But we are not to give up on the departed. We are to have mercy on them – in fear. This means being gracious to them, taking every opportunity to share a word of biblical truth, but not allowing our compassion to morph into complacency about the truth, lest we find ourselves embracing the same false teachings we warn against.
So, how should we approach, warily, those who once professed faith in Jesus (and still might), but now have departed the core doctrines of Christianity? To begin, we should acknowledge the dangers that come with engaging in spiritual warfare. Here are a few:
(1) The danger of doing nothing. This may be rooted in an overestimation of Satan’s power to deceive. No doubt, the evil one prowls the earth like a lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). And he masquerades as an angel of light, as do his false apostles (2 Cor. 11:14-15). He is, without question, a formidable foe. But he also is a defeated foe, whom Christ conquered in His finished work on the cross. As the apostle John writes, “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose: to destroy the Devil’s works” (1 John 3:8b).
Even so, we may fear an encounter with deceived persons. We tell ourselves that it’s too late. Or we know too little about the organization to which they belong. Or we claim 2 John 10-11 to rebuff conversations with deceived persons, failing to understand the proper context of John’s warning not to feed and house itinerant false teachers. None of this does the objects of our mercy – the departed – any good. In fact, it may embolden them to think their newfound faith is indisputably true.
(2) The danger of doing too much. While it’s important to invest time and attention in those we are trying to bring back to sound teaching, we must not allow our departed friends to write an open-ended ticket against our own spiritual health. Allowing them to argue their points ad nauseam, place more and more of their organization’s literature into our hands, or start a “Bible study” in our home goes beyond the bounds of earnestly contending for the faith.
When there is no give-and-take discussion, no willingness on the part of the departed to consider other points of view, no acknowledgement that their newfound views could be wrong, it’s probably time to put an end to engagement – for now. Our own spiritual lives need daily care and feeding. Others who doubt, or are deceived, may be much more open to our attention.
It’s difficult to know when enough is enough. But keep in mind that even Jesus sets limits for Himself and His followers. He doesn’t endlessly engage the religious leaders of His day; in fact, He ultimately declares their damnation and leaves them to their own devices (Matthew 23, particularly vv. 37-39). In the Sermon on the Mount, He cautions His listeners against hypocritical judgment (Matt. 7:1-5). Immediately thereafter, however, He says, “Don’t give what is holy to dogs or toss your pearls before pigs, or they will trample them with their feet, turn, and tear you to pieces” (v. 6). Jesus uses dogs and pigs as symbols of those who ridicule, reject, and blaspheme the gospel presented to them.
As a writer for the Christian website gotquestions.org makes clear, “We are not to expose the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who have no other purpose than to trample on it and return to their own evil ways. Repeatedly sharing the gospel with someone who continually scoffs and ridicules Christ is like casting pearls before swine. We can identify such people through discernment, which is given in some measure to all Christians (1 Corinthians 2:15-16).”
(3) Finally, the danger of going along to get along. This means compromising on the non-negotiables of the Christian faith – the very doctrines that define biblical Christianity. As we noted earlier in this study, these doctrines include, but are not limited to, the Trinity; the deity of Christ; the sacrificial and substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross; His physical resurrection from the dead; salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; and the imminent personal, bodily, glorious return of Jesus to earth to set things right.
Evangelical Christians may respectfully disagree on secondary and tertiary doctrinal issues such church polity, the doctrine of election, and eschatology. But we vigorously embrace the primary doctrines for which the apostles died, when compromising may well have saved their skins.
For example, a Christian denomination that requires speaking in tongues as proof of baptism in the Holy Spirit may be out of the mainstream of evangelical Christianity, but it does not embrace heresy. However, a self-proclaimed Christian organization that denies the deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit has advanced a dangerous false teaching to the front lines of the doctrinal debate. One group may be playing with fire; the other is consumed by it.
Finally, we should consider Jude’s admonition to have mercy in fear, “hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.” It is a sobering task to reach out to people being drawn to the warm glow of false doctrine. While the rewards of “snatching them from the fire” are deeply satisfying, the risk of being scorched ourselves is great. Moving too close to the fire, for too long, has the potential to melt away our confidence in the fidelity of Scripture.
Jesus warns His followers to beware of the “yeast” of the Pharisees and Sadducees – that is, their teaching (Matt. 16:6). Paul quotes the poet Menander to urge the Corinthians to be right-minded: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’” (1 Cor. 15:33). Paul further challenges the Galatians: “You were running well. Who prevented you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who called you. A little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough” (Gal. 5:7-9).
And a few verses later, the apostle reminds his readers of the spirit with which they should seek to restore a sinning brother or sister: “Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted also” (Gal. 6:1).
It’s clear that Christians are to engage others in defense of the gospel, and to urge those who profess faith in Christ to remain true to His Word. At the same time, we should be mindful of our own fleshly desires, which alluring false doctrines may ignite. In fact, the danger of close association with those who have departed the faith is so severe, Jude uses graphic imagery to warn us. The English word “garment” translates the Greek word chitonand refers to the clothing that people of Jude’s day wear under their outer tunics. Simply put, it is their underwear. Jude depicts these garments as “defiled,” which means stained or spotted, most likely by bodily functions.
Jude may be drawing from Zech. 3:3-4, where the high priest Joshua stands in “filthy clothes” before the Angel of the Lord. The Hebrew word for “filthy” is the word for excrement (see, for example, Deut. 23:14; 2 Kings 18:27; Ezek. 4:12), and in the case of Joshua signifies sin. In a similar manner, the sin of those engaged in libertarian practices in Jude’s day are so vile that they threaten to pollute anyone who comes near. “Such a picture shocks the readers with how polluting and corrupting sin is. Believers are to beware lest their mercy is transposed into acceptance, and they themselves become defiled by the sin of those they are trying to help.”
Jesus commends a few people in the dead church at Sardis “who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with Me in white, because they are worthy” (Rev. 3:4). The rest have embraced apostasy and effectively killed the church. They, like other dead churches, have rejected the warning of the apostle Paul, “Now I implore you, brothers, watch out for those who cause dissensions and pitfalls contrary to the doctrine you have learned. Avoid them; for such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Rom. 16:17-18).