The Last Epistle
In the English Bible the last epistle is that written by Jude. In this writer’s view, it is fitting that it immediately precedes the one NT book whose subject is judgment, namely the Revelation. Why? Because the the subject matter of Jude is apostasy and apostasy always ends in judgment. However, while the position of Jude in the NT may be doctrinally appropriate, the order of the books within the NT is not actually the result of inspiration. Again, whether Jude was penned the last may be open to discussion. While the precise dates of all the NT books are markedly uncertain, their contents provide a fair amount of information on which to judge their relative dates. Now Jude (or Judas) was the "brother of James" (Jude v1) and a little investigation by the reader will ascertain that this is the James who was prominent in the Acts (see Acts 12: 17; 15: 13; 21: 18) and whose epistle bears that name. This James was the half–brother of the Lord Jesus according to the flesh (see Matt. 13: 55; Mark 6: 3). During the Lord’s earthly ministry, the brothers James and Jude were both unbelievers (see John 7: 5). Interestingly, all the epistles came from the pens of apostles, with the exception of two—James and Jude. Now I believe that the overwhelming internal evidence is that the first inspired epistle preserved for us in the NT is that of James. He wrote to "the twelve tribes which [are] in the dispersion" (James 1: 1) showing that the nation of Israel was still recognised by God and that the Jewish Christians were viewed as still part of that nation and not distinct from it. This places the time of writing early in the history of the Acts. But did his brother Jude write the last epistle?
There is little doubt that Second Peter, Second Timothy and the epistles of John were written late and are the last apostolic epistles. Second Timothy and Second and Third John were written to individuals but Second Peter and First John are general in character and not written to assemblies or individuals. There are some features of apostasy in all of these but in Jude apostasy is the very subject itself. It is this one clear fact that leads me to judge that Jude was written last. Indeed, someone has said ‘The epistle of Jude may be taken as the history or revelation of apostasy’. But what is apostasy? Apostasy is the abandonment of the position in which God has set any of His creatures. The Greek word , from which our English word is derived, means departure or forsaking. Its birth lies in unbelief, its characteristic growth is corruption, its maturity is the refusal of divinely appointed authority, and its termination is judgment.
Now if my premise that Jude was the last of the epistles is correct, it follows that the comparative details of the other epistles known to be written late will support this view. Taking those written to individuals first, let us look at Second Timothy. What had been "God’s house" (my emphasis) in 1 Tim. 3: 15 had, by the second epistle, become "a great house" in which there was a mixture of vessels "some to honour, and some to dishonour" (2 Tim. 2: 20). Timothy is made aware "that in [the] last days difficult times shall be there; for men shall be …" (2 Tim. 3: 1, 2) but the awful list of features that follows does not have the church in view. What is before the writer are men in general, not the church—for at the end of that list, the two named who "withstood Moses" (v8) in a previous day did not belong to the people of God (Israel) but were Egyptians. Such men, who opposed God’s appointed Man, men "corrupted in mind, found worthless as regards the faith" (2 Tim. 3: 8) are now in the church (see Jude v8).
What Paul and Jude speak of as "the faith" (Jude v3), John describes as "the truth". The elder John could rejoice that there were individuals still walking in "truth" (3 John 3, 4; see 2 John 4). There is no such rejoicing by Jude! Jude is unique among the epistles in that he does not have anything complimentary to say about the conduct of those to whom he wrote. So far, everything has suggested that that Jude wrote later than both Paul and John. But what about John’s first epistle?
Remembering that both John’s First epistle and that of Jude address the professing church, John records of apostates: "They went out from among us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have surely remained with us, but that they might be made manifest that none are of us. And ye have [the] unction from the holy [one], and ye know all things" (1 John 2: 19, 20, my emphasis). Compare this carefully with Jude’s record: "For certain men have got in unnoticed, they who of old were marked out beforehand to this sentence, ungodly [persons], turning the grace of our God into dissoluteness, and denying our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ. But I would put you in remembrance, you who once knew all things" (Jude vs 4, 5). In both passages the Greek word for know is which means conscious knowledge. In John their perception of things was complete ("know all things") and the apostates were "manifest" and accordingly "went out". In Jude that spiritual perception was a thing of the past ("once knew") and accordingly apostates now "got in unnoticed". These facts give me to judge that Jude wrote after John.
Finally, turning to Peter we have "the corruption that is in the world through lust" (2 Pet. 1: 4. my emphasis); in Jude it was in the church (see Jude v10). I also read in 2 Peter that "there shall be also among you false teachers, who shall bring in by the bye destructive heresies, and deny the master that bought them" (2 Pet. 2: 1, my emphasis). These apostate features that Peter describes as future in the church, Jude describes as present (compare 2 Pet. 2: 1–22 with Jude vs 1–13). All this tells me that Jude wrote last after Paul, John and Peter. Thus, I think that the first and last epistles in the NT were written by the brothers James and Jude, neither of whom were apostles.
Jude is writing to those that claim the name of Christ on earth—that is the professing church—and the opening salutation tells us much: "to the called ones beloved in God [the] Father and preserved in Jesus Christ: Mercy to you, and peace, and love be multiplied" (Jude vs 1, 2). If the word to Peter’s readers was "use diligence to make your calling and election sure" (2 Pet. 1: 10) how much more so here! Unlike other epistles, there is no mention of grace in Jude and those to whom he wrote are not addressed as saints. Grace is absent for it was corrupted into decadence (see Jude v4), and as the Greek word for saint (agios) means holy one it could hardly be used when genuine believers were identified with apostates ("feasting together [with you] without fear"—v12)! However, aside from Second and Third John, this is the only epistle in which love is included in the salutation. Thus Jude would assure those addressed that, even in their low estate, as genuine believers they remained objects of divine affection.
Like the OT prophets before him, Jude had to deliver what he was told—"I have been obliged" (v3)—not what he would have liked to write about. Those he wrote to were "to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints" (v3). Now "the faith" is not limited to the Gospel but is the sum total of all that is believed. Furthermore, it has been once for all delivered. There is thus no modification, and no development. Apostasy is the abandonment of "the faith". The attack was not from the world but from within that which professed to be Christian, and the contention is therefore in ‘the church’. Nor could there be any slackness about the contention for the faith. It was to be in earnest—the Greek word translated contend earnestly is from which we get the English word agonize.
"For certain men have got in unnoticed … ungodly [persons], turning the grace of our God into dissoluteness, and denying our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ". (Jude 4). "Unnoticed"! What a state those addressed by Jude were in! Where was the spiritual perception? Make no mistake about it, this is the final state of the professing church on earth and that end–state is apostasy. The word translated dissoluteness here is and carries the thought of insatiable desire for pleasure. They had received men who had both corrupted the very grace that saves and denied the absolute authority of the Master and Lord who had died to make it possible. In so doing, they displayed two of the characteristic hallmarks of apostasy—corruption and the denial of divine authority!
Jude now proceeds to give examples of apostasy and its features from history. Firstly, the apostate unbelief in Israel as brought out of Egypt that ultimately ended in destructive judgment (see v5; 1 Cor. 10: 1–5). Then we have a textbook case of apostasy illustrated by certain angels in v6 "who had not kept their own original state, but had abandoned their own dwelling". These God "keeps in eternal chains under gloomy darkness, to [the] judgment of [the] great day". Now there have been at least two angelic rebellions. In the first under Satan they attempted to go higher than the place in which God had set them (see Is. 14: 13, 14), while in the second (recounted here) they went lower, for angels are higher than men (see Heb. 2: 7, 9; 2 Pet. 2: 11). These latter angels abandoned their own dwelling (heaven) for earth, for "the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair, and took themselves wives of all that they choose" (Gen. 6: 2). In so doing, they corrupted the human race—and this leads Jude immediately on to another case of apostasy: "Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities around them, committing greedily fornication, in like manner with them, and going after other flesh, lie there as an example, undergoing the judgment of eternal fire" (Jude v7, my emphasis). Not only are Sodom and Gormorrha likened to the angels who abandoned their own dwelling but there is also a parallel drawn in the manner in which they fell. This suggests more than the homosexuality implied by the words of Gen. 19: 5: "that we may know them". Just as the angels had descended to intercourse with a lower order of creation, so the men of these cities similarly debased themselves into sexual intercourse with animals— "other flesh" (Jude v7). Extraordinary as it may seem, there were those in the company Jude was writing to that were doing the same: "Yet in like manner these dreamers also defile [the] flesh" (v8). It is extremely hard for the believer to appreciate that this is the final state of that which claims the name of Christ, although the OT teaches explicitly that such behaviour may occur among those who are nominally the people of God (see Lev. 20: 15, 16). But there is more yet. The apostates "despise lordship, and speak railingly against dignities" (Jude v8). This brings Jude to speak of two of the highest created beings, namely Satan and the archangel Michael. Because of Satan’s exalted position, Michael could only say "[The] Lord rebuke thee" (v9). Michael honoured the place that Satan occupied because God had set Satan in it, even though morally he had fallen from it. There was no such honour accorded by those in the company to which Jude wrote—indeed, they railed not only against dignitaries (see v8), but "whatever things they know not, they speak railingly against" (v10). Their boorish and ignorant behaviour is likened to both "irrational animals" (v10) and to three infamous characters from the Bible who thought they knew better than God: "they have gone in the way of Cain, and given themselves up to the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core" (v11). With Cain it is unbelief in what has been revealed, Balaam is corruption in the testimony of God, and Korah is challenging God’s appointed Man. These three are introduced with the word woe—a word used in no other epistle (except 1 Cor. 9: 16 where Paul applies it to himself in connection with the Gospel); yet much used by the Lord, both in pronouncing judgment on the cities in Israel, and on the scribes and Pharisees (see Matt. 11: 21; 23: 15 etc.). Significantly, it is employed 14 times in the Revelation, eight of which are in relation to the judgment on mystic Babylon, figure of the apostate professing church.
While I have not commented on all the details given in Jude, sufficient has been said to demonstrate that this is the last epistle—if not the last penned, then certainly the last in moral character. And if apostate conditions were present in the professing church when Jude wrote, how much more are they there today! But what are genuine believers to do in such awful circumstances? Throughout the epistle, Jude carefully distinguishes between those assumed to be real and those who are false, speaking of the former always in the second person (ye etc.) and of the latter in the third person (they etc.). Contrasted with the epistle’s horrendous background we twice have the words "But ye beloved…" (vs 17, 20). The genuine believers are still the objects of affection, both of the writer and of “God our Saviour” (v25). As such, they were firstly to remember, not any “traditional teaching” (Matt. 15: 3), “but the words spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude v17). Jude takes his readers back to what was “from the beginning”, a feature he shares with John’s ministry (see 1 John 1: 1; 2: 7, 13, 14, 24; 3: 11). Secondly, they were to be marked by four things: building, praying, keeping and waiting (Jude vs 20, 21).
Apostasy is a downward moral movement but building is an upwards movement. Its foundation is the faith, described as "your most holy faith" (v20)—an expression used nowhere else in the Scriptures. There is to be prayer, yes, but it is to be "praying in the Holy Spirit"—another unique expression (compare with Eph. 6: 18—the word Holy, lacking there, is inserted here). Absence of the Greek article before "Holy Spirit" shows that the state in which prayer is made must be characterised by Him. The genuine believers are next exhorted to keep themselves "in the love of God" (v20). Irrespective of where they are on this earth, and independent of their spiritual state, true believers are always in the love of God (by contrast, others had left their place and had apostatised). On account of their poor spiritual state, Satan would seek to cause the genuine believers addressed by Jude to doubt that they were still objects of divine affection. The word keep in "keep yourselves in the love of God" is not a present particle as are building, praying and waiting but is in the Greek aorist. The force of the Greek tense is that they were already there and they were to keep themselves there. Lastly, they were to be "awaiting the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life" (v21, my emphasis). Four times in the epistle Jude uses the full title Lord Jesus Christ stressing His full authority by giving the title Lord the prominent position in the expression. Significantly, the Lord’s coming is not here described as such but only as the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ—for mercy always assumes a background of failure and evil. Nonetheless the end in view is eternal life.
Jude closes his letter by turning to God with a doxology: "To him that is able to keep you" (v24)—for there is only One who can keep those addressed. How will He keep them? Not without falling but even "without stumbling"! Such is the power of God even in the most adverse of circumstances. "And to [set] you"—in what condition?—"blameless"! Where? Not just in His presence, not even just before His throne, but "before his glory"! How? With reluctance? No! With hesitation? No! But "with exultation"! What a God we have! Well might Jude end his epistle by saying "to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, [be] glory, majesty, might, and authority, from before the whole age, and now, and to all the ages. Amen" (v25). Such is the ending of the last epistle! Wondrous anticipation of that four–fold universal doxology to God and the Lamb "from every creature" ascribing "blessing, and honour, and glory, and might, to the ages of ages" (Rev. 5: 13).