Build Yourself Up; Snatch Others Out of the Fire

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“But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 20-23).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
St. Augustine said: “In the Old Testament the New Testament is concealed; in the New Testament the Old Testament is revealed.” It’s another way of saying, “If you want to have a better understanding of what an Old Testament passage is teaching, look for a parallel New Testament passage; if you want clarity and depth on a New Testament passage, look for its parallel in the Old Testament.”
The book of Jude contains many references which at first might seem dark or obscure, but gain clarity when examined in light of the Old Testament. That is why our sermon for today begins in Zechariah 3. There the prophet sees a vision of Joshua, the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord. Next to Joshua stands Satan to accuse him before God and show his unworthiness. As for the high priest himself, he is hardly blameless as he stands in the presence of God. He is clothed in filthy garments—not just tinged with grime, but downright filthy, a violation of the Law’s requirements and a reflection of his personal sinfulness.
But this is about more than one man, for it is about all the city of Jerusalem: if this is the condition of the man who stands between God and His people, what does this say about the condition of God’s people? Surely, they are all filthy with sin. Surely, they are all unworthy of the Lord’s grace. When Satan stands there to accuse Joshua, the high priest, he is there to accuse all of God’s people. The filth of Joshua’s robe is his exhibit A.
But the Lord will have none of it. He speaks, and His powerful, living Word crushes the accuser’s hopes. To Satan, He says, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Then the Lord speaks, and Joshua’s filthy garments and filthier sin are removed from him; instead, he is clothed in pure vestments and righteousness, blameless before God and able to be in the presence of the Lord. Satan’s case goes up in flames, because the Lord speaks His Word and plucks His people like a brand from the fire.
Now, as the epistle of Jude concludes, it speaks of another priest being blameless before the glorious presence of God—you! For by God’s grace, you have been set aside as holy by God to be one of His royal priesthood. Jude presents a beautiful, blessed image of you, which is quite surprising, considering how unlikely this seems in the first 19 verses of his epistle, where Jude warns the people of God of a variety of sins that the devil, your own sinful flesh, and false teachers of the world use to seduce you away from your salvation.
Jude warns of turning God’s grace into lewdness, using forgiveness as an excuse to indulge in whatever sins you find pleasurable. How easy it is to abuse forgiveness as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. But to misuse God’s grace so, will harden your heart until you just go ahead and sin without bothering to ask for forgiveness, and assume you’re just forgiven anyway—when you are not.
Jude warns of the sin of the Israelites in the wilderness, who followed the Lord out of Egypt toward the Promised Land, but then began to complain about His Word and ways along the way. How tempting it will always be for you to believe you follow God in principle, but that there are certain allowances you must make contrary to His will, since He doesn’t quite understand your special circumstances. Remember, and take it seriously: when the people complained against God’s will in the wilderness, He struck them down for their unbelief.
Jude warns against the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, of homosexuality and all sorts of sexual immorality, as God’s gifts of marital intimacy and procreation are twisted to deny His grace and goodness altogether. Given the bombardment of images and words and temptations today, sexual purity is rare.
Jude further warns against those who, in defiling their flesh, reject authority and speak evil of it. In other words, those who warn against immorality will be rejected and slandered by those who glorify it. Few today have the courage to stand and denounce such sin. Look what happens to anyone who dares have the temerity to stand up for morality and freedom of conscience. They are practically crucified in the popular media, denounced as the worst of sexists and bigots.
The list of sins continue. You will be tempted to follow your own natural inclinations and believe that to be God’s will, thinking “It feels natural and right, so it must be right.” You’ll thus be tempted to believe that what feels natural to your sinful nature is purer than what God demands. You’ll be tempted to the sins of Cain, who envied Abel for his faithful sacrifice and God’s approval. You’ll be tempted to the error of Balaam, selling out your faith and your integrity in order to gain what you covet, since it’s easier to take coveting seriously than faith. You’ll be tempted to the sins of Korah, who rejected God’s appointment of Moses as His spokesman and wanted to call himself as the prophet to the people.
You’ll be tempted to dissatisfaction and discontent, to grumble and complain in order to get what you desire. You’ll be tempted to flatter people and enlist them on your side, using them to get your way. Tempted by desire and a mockery of God’s will, you’ll also be tempted to cause divisions because you believe your way is right. All of this is in those first nineteen verses of Jude. Furthermore, this is not a portrayal of the world out there, while Christians remain safe inside the church’s walls. These are sins that the devil will use to rip apart the people of God and to wrench you from the faith if he can, consigning you to the fires of hell.
It’s a fitting text on this Last Sunday of the church year as we ponder our Lord’s judgment at the end of the world, because the world will only grow worse before the end—and Christians more marginalized. It’s difficult for me to imagine that the world could depart from God’s Word a whole lot more than it has; but then again, ten years ago I could not have imagined our current moral climate.
In any event, this short epistle lists all sorts of sins that seek your death today. Examine yourself by all these sins, and remember that to sin once is to break the whole law (James 2:10). There is only one conclusion: left to yourself, you stand before God in a filthy robe like Joshua, for all of our righteousnesses are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Left apart from Christ and His righteousness, you’re far too sinful to be in God’s presence for a moment, let alone for eternity.
The Good News is that you’re not left apart from Christ. He who has redeemed you by His own blood has joined you to Himself, to His death and resurrection, in Holy Baptism. There, He removed your filthy robe of sin and clothed you with His own righteousness. Therefore, were the devil still able to stand before God’s throne and accuse you, Jesus would readily say, “I rebuke you, Satan. The one whom you accuse is one for whom I have died, one whom I have cleansed with My own righteousness. Depart from Me, you and your lies.”
Since the devil now has no chance to stand before God, he whispers his accusations directly to you. “Look at all your sin. Look at how defiled you are. Your robe is filthy. You surely cannot stand before God!” At which point, you can respond, “Why not? I don’t plan to impress God with my righteousness, for I have none. I stand clothed with Jesus and His righteousness, and for His sake God has given me eternal life.” When that is your confession of faith, the devil has no accusations left. Like God’s people in Zechariah 3, Jesus has plucked you like a brand from the fire, refined and tempered by His work. Like the high priest Joshua, He has removed your filthy robes and clothed you in His perfect righteousness.
All of this finally leads us to our text for this day. Knowing now the many sins with which the devil will try to seduce and destroy you, and assured that Christ has won your salvation by His death and made you His, how shall you then live? As to yourself, the text declares: “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 20-21). In these verses, Jude mentions three aspects of how Christians are to live.
First, build yourselves up in your most holy faith. Jude is not talking about your personal faith, but rather the faith, the Christian faith given to you by God in His Word. The battles of Christianity are fought not on military battlefields but in your heart and mind. Use the weapons and armor that God provides you. Build yourself up! How? Read the Word. Hear the Word. Sing the Word. Share the Word. Remember the Word. Eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord. Satan’s lies will shrivel up under the bright light of the Bible’s truth. Despair and fear fade away when you and your Savior are united through the blood of the covenant.
Second, continue praying in the Holy Spirit. After God has spoken to you in His Word, you speak back to God with your words. Communicating with your God celebrates and strengthens your relationship with Him. Pray with confidence, knowing that the Spirit intercedes for saints who don’t quite know what or how to pray. Pray with confidence, knowing that the Lord processes every request, has no limits to His power, loves to hear from you, and delights in fulfilling the hopes and meeting the needs of His children. He makes things happen for you to bless you.
Third, and perhaps most difficult, wait for the mercy of our Lord. Believers know that in spite of all our labors, we will never be able to purify this planet. It is terminally corrupt. God’s plan is to come soon, melt it down, and fashion a new heaven and earth. Our ultimate goal, therefore, is to experience the saving mercy of Christ when He returns. That bright hope keeps us moving forward.
As to the work of the Church, the text says this: “And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). Jude encourages us, who have experienced the mercy of Christ, to show mercy to other people. Show mercy to those who doubt and waver, not despising them for their weakness but patiently encouraging, rebuking, leading, and loving them. Show mercy to those whose feet are already hot from hell’s fires by intervening to prevent their spiritual suicide, caring enough to speak God’s Law and Gospel.
Christians, as God’s Church on earth, are to have compassion. We are to snatch others out of the fire—and how is this done? By proclaiming to them God’s Word—that Law which shows them how filthy their robes, and the Gospel that declares to them Jesus as their Savior. By this Word, the Holy Spirit does the work of salvation. That is how Joshua was plucked from the fire and made clean; that is still the only way that people are saved unto eternal life. To proclaim God’s Word is the highest of Christian compassion; we do so with joy.
We therefore compassionately proclaim the full counsel of God’s Word, and we do so with this distinction: we hate the garment stained by the flesh. We recognize that filthy robe of sin that is naturally ours. Therefore, we don’t make room for all those sins that would lead us astray. While so many churches sadly declare that certain forms of immorality are no longer sin, the Lord gives us no permission to do so. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a nice sounding slogan, but too often it is used as a license to sin without regard for the devastating effect sin has on a soul. There is nothing loving about allowing, much less putting the stamp of approval upon, thoughts, words, or deeds that will lead to condemnation. We, therefore, maintain the distinction between truth and error, right and wrong; because to make allowances for sin is to lie, to tell people that they can wear filthy robes into God’s presence. That’s a false teaching that leaves them in the fire.
No, rather than giving permission to sin, we proclaim Jesus Christ, who is able to keep you from stumbling; but should you fall, He has grace to clothe you with His righteousness once more. We proclaim Christ crucified, who has rebuked the devil and clothed you with His righteousness in your Baptism. We proclaim Christ crucified, present with you also in His Word and Supper, to forgive your sins. And because He forgives your sins, you are prepared for the day when He will present you blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy.
Jude’s beautiful doxology gives great comfort when your faith is under assault. What a relief to put your life finally in the hands of the One who is committed to getting you home to heaven! When you are exhausted by the struggle against sin and Satan, it is exhilarating to lift up your eyes to our great, changeless, majestic God, whose power and authority are unlimited, whose victory over sin and Satan is a fact, history, done, unchangeable, to realize that all your troubles are only for a little while, and to give Him all the honor and glory of which your lips and lungs are capable. To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever, because only by His Word and work, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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