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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 9

The Rebellion of Korah

Jude 11 compares the Gnostic infiltrators to Cain, Balaam, and Korah. We have discussed Cain and Balaam. We turn now to Korah. Jude 11 says that they “perished in the rebellion of Korah.”

Background

Israel had already failed to enter the Promised Land in Numbers 14, having lacked the faith necessary to take the land. God judged the nation, telling them that they would have to spend a full 40 years in the wilderness, and that the entire generation would die in the wilderness (Num. 14:29, 33, 34). Some of the people then changed their minds and assembled an army to conquer the Canaanites after the divine verdict had been decreed. Numbers 14:39, 40 says,

39 And when Moses spoke these words to all the sons of Israel, the people mourned greatly. 40 In the morning, however, they rose up early and went up to the ridge of the hill country, saying, “Here we are; we have indeed sinned, but we will go up to the place which the Lord has promised.”

Moses warned them not to try to take the land without the blessing of God, but they refused to listen. Numbers 14:44, 45 says,

44 But they went up heedlessly to the ridge of the hill country; neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses left the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and struck them and beat them down as far as Hormah.

In Numbers 15 Moses interceded for the people to obtain forgiveness for the nation, but in chapter 16 we find that many of them were angry with Moses for not going with them and for not allowing the ark of the covenant to accompany them in battle. They blamed Moses for the loss of the battle and for the casualties of war.

Korah, a Levite, then took advantage of the situation. He desired the priesthood and was angry with Moses for appointing Aaron and his family alone to be priests. Dathan and Abiram, who were disaffected leaders from the tribe of Reuben (Num. 16:1), allied themselves with Korah. Apparently, the tribe of Reuben had suffered the most casualties in the failed attempt to conquer Canaan.

Dathan and Abiram later blamed Moses for not bringing Israel into the Promised Land, for when Moses summoned them to the Divine Court to resolve the dispute, they refused to respond. Numbers 16:12-14 says,

12 Then Moses sent a summons to Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, but they said, “We will not come up. 13 Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us? 14 Indeed, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!”

In other words, instead of agreeing with God’s judgment and admitting their lack of faith, they found fault with Moses. They did not like the prospect of dying in the wilderness without receiving the promises of God.

We see here an interesting interplay between the two covenants. Dathan and Abiram did not understand the difference between the Old and New Covenants. At Mount Horeb they had obligated themselves by their vow to obey God, but they had failed to fulfill their vow. So they were held liable for that failure. Yet they tried to blame Moses—and, by extension, God Himself—for failing to bring them into the Promised Land, as if they were under the New Covenant.

They did not understand that God was treating them as Old Covenant believers, holding them accountable for their own failures. Why? First of all, the New Covenant had not yet been given to them, for that did not come until 38 years later (Deut. 29:1).

In other words, God had not yet vowed to bring them into the Promised Land, a vow that later obligated God to change the hearts of the people in order to make success possible. Hence, their attempt to blame Moses and God was unfounded, but they did not understand the law or God’s mind.

Most of the other Israelites had no understanding of the two covenants either, nor did they distinguish between man’s vows and God’s vows. So Korah was able to persuade many of the people to join their revolt against Moses and Aaron, for these people thought that they had a valid case. Does not the carnal mind always think it is right and that God is wrong?

The Korah Revolt

The story of the revolt comes from Numbers 16, where Korah, son of Kohath, son of Levi, led a democratic revolt against Moses and Aaron. Numbers 16:3 tells us their complaint:

3 And they assembled together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You have gone far enough, for all the congregation [edah] are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly [kahal] of the Lord?”

Their argument was that Moses had assumed leadership over Israel and that he had appointed Aaron to be the high priest apart from the democratic consent of the people. Korah insisted that “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst.” Therefore, they said, all are equal, and so Moses and Aaron had no right to exalt themselves above the assembly (church).

This was a challenge to the authority that God had given Moses and Aaron. In other words, they claimed that Moses and Aaron had given themselves this authority and that God had not truly given them authority over the church. Their argument was based on the democratic principle that all of the people were “holy,” that is, set apart, since the nation itself had been called out of Egypt and set apart as a priestly nation. They did not see that Israel was a Theocracy, not a Democracy.

It is likely that they cited Exodus 19:6, where God had said, “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” If the entire nation was holy and was to be a priestly nation, then why would God give authority to Moses and Aaron? Does not God give the people the right to appoint their own leaders by a democratic process?

A monarchy has the right to appoint leaders according to the wisdom of the king. A democracy gives that right to the people. Earthly kings are fallible in many ways, but when God (Christ) is the King, He appoints all authorities and holds them accountable to rule properly. Men appoint leaders according to their perceived talents; God chooses those whom He has gifted by His own sovereign will.

This calls into question the origin of men’s callings. When men decide on a career or profession, they exercise their own choices. When God calls, He equips men with spiritual gifts necessary for that calling, and then He develops those gifts by real life experience. In this case, Moses and Aaron were called by God, and men did not have the right to disagree with God.

Korah and his 250 followers failed to recognize the calling of Moses and Aaron. Perhaps the main problem is that callings are seldom announced by God verbally in a public setting for all to hear. The people are expected to discern callings and to watch for confirmations based on actions and abilities. Without spiritual discernment, men’s callings often go unrecognized, and carnally-minded men compete with those who are called by God.

Korah’s assumption was that Moses was claiming authority based on his own personal, subjective revelation which could not be verified. Moses was acting in his own self-interest and was self-called, he claimed.

Moses’ Response

Numbers 16:8-10 gives Moses’ response:

8 Then Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi, 9 is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them; 10 and that He has brought you near, Korah, and all your brothers, sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking for the priesthood also?”

Korah was a Levite but not a priest. The tribe of Levi was called to represent all of the first-born in Israel being given to God for the service of the people, but only those of the family of Aaron were priests. Levites ministered to the people in the outer court, but one had to be descended from Aaron to minister to God in the tabernacle. The exception was when one was of the Order of Melchizedek, such as Moses and (later) David and (still later) Jesus Christ.

In later times, the Jews also considered Nazarites on par with the priests. Hence, Nazarites such as James, the brother of Jesus, the head of the Jerusalem church in the first century, were allowed to enter the temple to pray. It was after one such prayer vigil, as James was leaving the temple, that he was stoned to death for bearing witness that Jesus was the Christ. (Josephus records the story of his martyrdom in Antiquities of the Jews, XX, ix, 1.)

In the story of Korah, Moses recognized a hidden motive, couched in genuine truth, but motivated by the desire for a calling that was not his. He was not content to minister to the congregation but wanted to minister to God as a priest as well. His argument was based on the democratic idea that because all were holy, authority over others was unnecessary and even harmful. But Moses understood that callings came from God and that callings were based on spiritual authority.

Moses said further that Korah and his company had “gathered together against the Lord” (Num. 16:11). Moses recognized that Korah had revolted against the Lord, although Korah himself would never have admitted such a thing. To reject authority (apart from the abuse of one’s authority) is to revolt against the one who had authorized it—in this case, God Himself.

The problem is discerning who is called and who is not.

The Divine Court Ruling

When one’s authority is challenged, one must appeal the case to the source of the authority. In this case, God had given Moses and Aaron their respective authorities, so when challenged, it was appropriate to appeal to God, rather than defend one’s self.

Moses understood that this was a case for the Divine Court, so he presented the case to God in Num. 16:5. God instructed all of the dissident Levites to take their censers and place them at the door of the tabernacle to see if God would accept their prayers (Num. 16:17). Censers were used to burn incense, which represent the prayers of the people (Rev. 8:3). In this case their censers were used to present their case before God.

When they did so, “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation” (Num. 16:19). The judgment went against Korah and his co-conspirators. God told Moses to tell the people to separate themselves from Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num. 16:24, 27) so that they would not be judged along with these leaders.

The ground then opened up and swallowed up the conspirators and their tents (Num. 16:31-33). A further judgment then came upon those rebels who remained loyal to Korah and his allies. Numbers 16:35 says,

35 Fire also came forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense.

Afterward, the brass censers of the dissidents were hammered into some sort of plating for the brazen altar in the outer court. Numbers 16:36-40 says,

36 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 37 “Say to Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, that he shall take up the censers out of the midst of the blaze, for they are holy; and you scatter the burning coals abroad. 38 As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered sheets for a plating of the altar, since they did not present them before the Lord and they are holy; and they shall be for a sign to the sons of Israel.”

What sort of sign was this to be? Numbers 16:40 says,

 40 as a reminder to the sons of Israel that no layman who is not of the descendants of Aaron should come near to burn incense before the Lord.

In other words, one must truly be called as a priest of God to minister to God in the Sanctuary. The plating on the altar was to remind the Israelites to remain within their callings and not to covet a calling that is for others. The altar of sacrifice was the place of judgment, so when the people saw the plating, they remembered the seriousness of this lesson, knowing that many people died in the rebellion.

Jude’s Lessons

Jude 11 pronounces the same judgment upon the Gnostics as occurred in the rebellion of Korah. In other words, Jude implies that Simon Magus was another Korah by questioning the authority of the apostles and by coveting an apostolic calling that was not given to him.

As in the days of Moses, the Church too had failed to enter the Promised Kingdom shortly after being redeemed from the house of bondage at the feast of Passover when Jesus died on the cross. The pattern set by “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38 KJV) was repeated in the Church under Pentecost.

The key event in this case was the stoning of Stephen, where, as in the case of Israel, the people again showed their lack of faith by stoning Stephen instead of believing His good report. If we compare Stephen with Caleb and Joshua, we see the similarities. Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:59), and earlier, the Israelites attempted to stone Caleb and Joshua for their testimony as well (Num. 14:10). In both cases the glory of God appeared. The difference is that the Lord prevented the people from stoning Caleb and Joshua, whereas He allowed it to proceed in the case of Stephen.

For prophetic purposes, the stoning of Stephen showed that the Church’s entry into the Promised Land was to be postponed for 40 Jubilee cycles (40 x 49 years), even as Israel had to spend 40 years in the wilderness.

Like Korah, Simon Magus took advantage of the situation and claimed to be a better leader who could bring the people into the Promised Land. But his leadership was based on rebellion and jealousy of apostolic authority. The same judgment of God thus applies, and the same admonition also applies to us today. Jude shows that we are to separate ourselves from the Gnostics, lest we too be swallowed up by the ground when the judgment is decreed.

A secondary lesson to be derived from this is to be patient and submit to the judgment of God. Even as He decreed that Israel should spend 40 years in the wilderness, so also has He decreed that the Church in the Pentecostal Age should remain in the wilderness for 40 Jubilees without receiving the promises.

There are many who do not accept this judgment and who attempt to enter the Promised Land without regard to this divine judgment that was decreed long ago. They are under the illusion that they may receive the full promise of God as individuals, apart from the rest of the body. But even Caleb and Joshua—the overcomers—had to wait for the rest of the body before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land.

There is indeed the matter of one’s individual relationship with God to consider, but there is also a broader context that is equally important, one which individuals cannot escape or overcome. While we, as individuals, may indeed live according to the promises of God, we do so within the overall context of the Church’s wilderness experience, because we are all part of a greater body.

To understand that wilderness experience, one must respect the judgments of God, which are based upon timing—in this case, 40 Jubilees, which was the sentence imposed near the beginning of the Age of Pentecost.

Not accepting or respecting the judgments of God may cause us to run the risk of being caught up in the Korah rebellion, and some then become vulnerable to the spirit of Gnosticism.