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The Epistle of Jude: Against Gnosticism

Jesus' brother, Jude, wrote a letter to the Jewish Christian congregations in the first century, warning them about Gnosticism and also urging them to stand firm in faith against their Jewish critics.

Category - Bible Commentaries

Chapter 2

Our Common Salvation

Jude 3 and 4 says,

3 Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common [koinos] salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Apparently, Jude had been preparing to write a letter to one of the local churches to explain the basic principles of “our common salvation,” when he received news that some Gnostics had joined that fellowship, teaching views that were contrary to the gospel of Christ. Gnosticism was the second great challenge to the early Church (the first being Judaism itself), and no doubt this was also the reason that Luke records the manner in which its founder, Simon Magus, had first come into contact with Christians. That story is told in Acts 8:9-11,

9 Now there was a certain man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city, and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; 10 and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” 11 And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts.

Whether Simon had been using trickery and illusion or demonic power is not known. However, when Philip came to Samaria and began to preach the gospel with “great miracles” (Acts 8:13), Luke says that Simon himself “was constantly amazed.” He knew that these miracles were genuine and had exceeded his own abilities. Hence, “Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued on with Philip.”

Simon could not dispute Philip’s miracles but desired to learn how to do these for himself. Later, when the apostles in Jerusalem heard of the revival taking place in Samaria, Peter and John went there and laid hands on people to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Thinking that the Holy Spirit was something to be controlled and utilized by men, Simon offered to pay them money for the authority to impart the Holy Spirit to people (Acts 8:19). That is when Peter discerned that Simon’s heart was not right.

Gnostic Teaching

It is not known precisely what Simon had been teaching in Samaria when he first came in contact with Philip, Peter, and John. By the second century, however, his followers were teaching that Simon and Helena, his prostitute-wife from Tyre, were the means of salvation. One only had to recognize Simon as “The Great Power of God,” who had been sent to release Helena from her condition, and to accept his doctrine.

Gnosticism was based on the idea of an unknown God, which they sought to “know” (gnosis). The Gnostics believed the basic Greek principle that spirit was created by the good God and that matter was created by the evil god (demiurge). Hence spirit was good and matter was evil. Simon’s wife, Helena, was supposed to show the path of salvation, or how to move from a life of darkness (prostitution) to a life of spirituality and light. In essence, Simon presented himself as a messiah type, competing with Jesus Christ as the savior of the world.

Over time, Gnosticism took more than one form, but the main groups were antinomian, rejecting the law of God as being given by the demiurge (or “devil”). This gave license to all kinds of immoral practices, which appeared to be drawn from earlier beliefs from Greece, Egypt, and Persia. It was commonly believed that man fell from heaven to earth in seven stages, each represented by a different planet. The sun and moon were considered to be the closest planets, and the moon (sexual relations) was said to be the final stage in which men fell.

The solution, they said, was to return to heaven through the seven stages, beginning with the moon. Hence, the people were required to be “purified” by having sexual relations with a priest or priestess in the outdoor groves (Asherah) or in structured temples. This teaching gave rise to the abominations denounced by the prophets.

Gnosticism attempted to appeal to a wide variety of people by adopting elements of many religions. Hence, they had adopted certain elements of Christianity and, in fact, claimed to be the true form of Christianity. They functioned as a mystery religion, claiming to know secrets of the unknown God, which would be imparted to those who believed in Simon Magus.

The Common Salvation

Jude mentions “the common salvation,” where he uses the word koinos. This was a word that Paul also used in a similar manner in regard to “Titus, my true child in the common faith.”

Koinos was a word used in Judaism to denote something that was profane or unclean, as we see in Acts 10:28, where Peter said,

28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy [koinos, “common”] or unclean.

Peter was still reluctant to follow his own revelation in later years, and Paul admonished him for his blatant hypocrisy in Gal. 2:11-13. Nonetheless, the term koinos was soon embraced as a good thing that characterized Christian practice as distinct from its usage in Judaism. The supposedly unclean Greeks were “unholy” to the Jews, but many of them had embraced Christ and had a “common faith” (Paul) and a “common salvation” (Jude).

Jude’s use of the term koinos may also suggest an underlying meaning, as it is used in the context of Gnostic teaching. Its dual meaning may refer to the counterfeit path or solution in moving from unholy to holy. Helena had been a prostitute and had supposedly become “holy” when Simon released her. All others too might be released if they believed Simon’s doctrines and recognized him as the Great Power of God.

But Jude makes it clear that the Gnostics had turned the grace of God into licentiousness and denied “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Grace was not a license to sin (transgress the law), and Simon was not a second “Master and Lord” on par with Jesus Christ.

Falling from Grace

Jude 5 continues,

5 Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe.

It is a matter of record that most of the Israelites died in the wilderness after being saved out of Egypt. Jude’s point is that Simon himself believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13), and yet he was like those Israelites “who did not believe.” This compares Simon and other Gnostics to the Israelites who did not have the faith to enter the Promised Land (Num. 14:11, 12; Heb. 3:19).

All of those Israelites who died in the wilderness had been justified by faith in the blood of the Passover Lamb when they had left Egypt. Nonetheless, their first step of faith was insufficient to receive the promise of God. So Heb. 4:1 tells us,

1 Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it.

The explanation is given earlier in Heb. 3:14,

14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.

It is clear from this that it is one thing to have faith in Jesus Christ and quite another to receive the promise of God. Only the overcomers can enter the Promised Land, pictured by Caleb and Joshua, who did indeed have faith in God’s ability to fulfill His promise.

True Faith is New Covenant Faith

When we examine the story of Israel’s failure to enter the Promised Land, the explanation for their lack of faith is found in Num. 13:31,

31 But the men who had gone up with him [that is, with Caleb] said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us.”

The people thought that they had faith when they departed from Egypt, but in the end the source of their faith was in themselves, not in God. They were depending upon their own strength to conquer the land, and they did not believe that God was able to do it. Hence, they had Old Covenant faith, which was faith in their own flesh, their own will, and their own ability to keep their vow to God (Exodus 19:8).

Of the twelve spies, only Caleb and Joshua possessed New Covenant faith, saying in Num. 14:8,

8 If the Lord is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it to us—a land which flows with milk and honey.

Their faith was in God’s promise, not in their own promise to God. That is what made the difference, and their faith in God’s promise was what qualified them to enter the Promised Land.

Afterward, Moses interceded for the people, saying in Numbers 14:15-17,

15 Now if Thou dost slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Thy fame will say, 16 “Because the Lord could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness.” 17 But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as Thou hast declared.

Moses did not appeal to God on the basis of the Old Covenant, for he said nothing about the people’s vow to God in Exodus 19:8. Instead, he appealed to that which God had “promised them by oath.” He did not ask that the power of the people would be great, but said, “let the power of the Lord be great.”

In other words, if God was unable to fulfill His oath, then the other nations would have grounds to say that God was unable to fulfill His word. God’s response is seen in Numbers 14:21,

21 but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord.

This promise is repeated four more times in later Scriptures, including Hab. 2:14,

14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Knowledge is given to people, not to an inanimate earth. It is clear, then, that the promise is being given to people, not to dirt or land.

In other words, God said, not only will I fill the Israelites with My glory, but I will fill the whole earth with My glory. And yet that generation died without receiving the promise.

The same can be said about most of the people in the rest of the earth. Most live and die without receiving the glory of God or even the knowledge of His glory. It is apparent, then, that when sinners die, it is not the end of the story, nor are they locked into ignorance of God’s glory. Their inherent right to experience the glory of God is merely delayed, for God’s promise must be fulfilled in the end.

So Scripture goes on to reveal that all of the dead will be raised and that they will stand before the Great White Throne. There every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess and declare allegiance to Christ (Isaiah 45:23; Phil. 2:10, 11). They will not be forced to bow. Angels will not be sent to break their legs, forcing them to bow to Christ. Neither will they force their tongues to profess allegiance to Christ, for such tactics do not give glory to God. His glory is in the fact that His love will win their hearts. They will recognize that He alone is worthy and will profess Him freely.

The point is that while men may today fall short of the faith required to receive the promises of God, their condition is not permanent, even if they die in their unbelief. Like the Israelites who left Egypt, some men are justified by the blood of the Lamb. Most, however, have died without even hearing of Jesus Christ. But in neither case is their salvation based upon their own vows or decisions to follow Christ. Their salvation is based upon the promise (oath) of God, not upon their own promises.

Jude does not explain all of this in his short epistle, so if we want to understand what he wrote, we must go back to the story that he referenced and study it for ourselves. Jude’s point was that men may indeed fall from grace when their faith is tested and proven to be insufficient. But we know from the actual story in Numbers 14 that this is not the end of the story. God’s oath must be fulfilled, and when our faith rests in His promise, then it is sufficient to enter God’s rest.