Chapter 9: II Peter and Jude

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 9: II Peter and Jude

The Gospel of the Good Life

There are very few ordinary Christian people who are familiar with the Second Letter of Peter and the Letter of Jude. They are both books which for long stood rather on the fringe of the NT than as an integral and undoubted part of it. Eusebius always speaks of them with a doubt. When he was writing of the writings of Peter, Eusebius said that I Peter is everywhere unquestioningly received, but, "We have learned that his extant Second Letter does not belong to the canon; yet it has appeared profitable to many, and it has been used with the other Scriptures". He speaks of the doubt concerning the Letter of James, and then he goes on to say: "At least not many of the andents have mentioned it, as is the case likewise with the Letter that bears the name of Jude . . . We nevertheless know that these also with the rest have been read publicly in very many Churches." In his classification of the NT books he writes: "Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called Letter of James, and that of Jude, also the Second Letter of Peter." He quotes the verdict of Origen: "Peter has left one acknowledged letter; perhaps also a second, but this is doubtful" (The Ecclesiastical History 3:3:1; 2:23:25; 3:25:3; 6:25:8). Luther would have dispensed with both Letters from his canon of Scripture. A modern scholar, E. F. Scott, says of II Peter that it is "the least valuable of the NT writings." (Jude has also been suspect since the earliest days because it appears to quote apocryphal books -- the Assumption of Moses and Enoch -- as Scripture (9, 54,15).)

That the two Letters are closely interdependent and must be taken together is clear. Of the 25 verses of Jude 19 appear in whole or in part in 11 Peter. The second chapter of II Peter includes almost everything in Jude 4-16. It is fairly certain that the writer of II Peter has incorporated Jude into his work almost entire.

 It is further clear that both letters must be fairly late, for both look back to the beginnings of Christianity as if they were a long way away. Jude (3) speaks of the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. II Peter (3:4) speaks of the fathers having fallen asleep. This is the way in which men speak when they are looking back on something which is now far past. When the Gnostics were propagating their beliefs, it was their habit to attach works to the great names of the past, as they did, for instance, in the case of the Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of John; and it may well be that both II Peter and Jude are Christian answers to these Gnostic claims, and that these little letters were issued by some part of the Church to say to the Gnostics what they were quite sure Jude and Peter would have said, if they had still been alive. Such a proceeding in the ancient world would have appeared perfectly natural, for often a disciple would write in the name of his master to say what he was certain that his master would have said. To speak of forgery in the modern sense of the term is a complete anachronism. Heretics and orthodox alike sought for their writings the lustre of the great names of the past.

Whatever we say of these writings, and whatever view we take of their origin, we could ill spare them from the NT, for they set before us a situation which threatened the Church like a deadly poison, and a situation which has kept recurring throughout the history of the Church. Jude certainly was written in a crisis. Its writer had intended to write a treatise on the Christian faith, but he had had to lay it aside to take up his pen to deal with this evil thing which had come into the life of the Church (3). Both letters are more invective than they are argument; their writers knew that there is a time when scathing condemnation is more effective than calm apologetic; and it is from the vivid and violent picture of the heretics that we must try to reconstruct what these heretics stood for.

1.They are not attacking the Church from outside; they are corrupting it from within. They are a blot on the love feasts of the Church (Jude 4; cp. II Peter 2:13; see RSV and NEB margin). Their conduct is such that they turn the Agape, the Church's common meal of fellowship and love, into nothing better than a carousal and a revel. They have a defiling touch which makes the loveliest things unclean.

2. They deal in cleverly devised myths instead of the simplicity of the Gospel (1:16). This was typical of the Gnostics, who had to supply each of their acons and their emanations with a genealogy and a history.

3. Their interpretations of Scripture were entirely subjective (1:20, 21). Instead of going to Scripture to find the true belief, they took their own twisted beliefs to Scripture and by the misuse of Scripture extracted from its justifications for their private beliefs. Instead of submitting to Scripture they made Scripture submit to them.

4.They brought discredit on the Church (2:2). Their way of life was such as to disgust men with the Church rather than to attract men to it.

5. They have taken upon themselves a fearful responsibility (2:21, 22). They cannot claim ignorance and lack of knowledge; they cannot plead that they have never had the chance to know the truth. They have known the right way and taken the wrong; they have heard the truth and have embraced a lie.

6. They have abandoned all belief in the Second Coming (3:4, 8:10). They have forgotten that, if God delays his hand, it is to give men the opportunity to repent, not to allow them licence to sin. But the Day of the Lord is inevitably on its way and will burst upon them in destruction and in judgment.

7.But one thing above all stands out about them, the licentiousness of their lives. They are openly licentious (2:2); in their greed they exploit their fellow-Christians (2:3); boldly and wilfully they give free rein to their defiling passions (2:4.10); they are notorious for their revelry, their dissipation, their carousing, their adultery, in which they not only engage themselves, but into which they also entice others (2:12-16); so far from having any sense of shame, and so far from seeking to conceal what they do, they boast of their folly (2:18); they promise men freedom, but in point of fact all that they have to offer is slavery to sin and corruption (2:19, 20).

Here is a picture written at white heat of men who had made the most blatant immorality the deliberate policy of their lives. The strange thing is that this is a picture which continuously appears in glimpses all through the NT.

It is Paul's last warning to the elders of Ephesus that into the flock there will come men who are like wolves and will speak perverse things (Acts 20:29). There are those who serve, not the Lord, but their own appetites (literally, their own belly), and with fair and flattering words deceive the simple-minded (Romans 16:18). Behind I Corinthians 6:9-20 there lie the beliefs of those who saw no harm in sexual immorality. There are cunning men with craftiness and deceitful wiles ready to lead their fellow-Christians astray (Ephesians 4:14). There are those who teach that immorality and impurity and covetousness are of no importance (Ephesians 5:6). There are those who are the enemies of the Cross of Christ, whose god is their belly, and who glory in their shame (Philippians 3:19). There are those who have rejected conscience and made shipwreck of the faith (I Timothy 1:19). The Christian must avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge (I Timothy 6:20). There are evil men and impostors who go on from bad to worse, deceiving and deceived (II Timothy 3:13). There comes the time when people will not endure sound doctrine, but will get themselves teachers to suit themselves (II Timothy 4:3). There are people who profess to know God, but who deny him by their deeds, and who are detestable and disobedient and unfit for any good deed (Titus 1:16).

It is a formidable indictment of what was evidently a widespread line of thought and way of conduct. This is the belief which is known as Antinomianism. Antinomianism is that attitude of mind which holds that all law has been banished and abrogated for the Christian. It will quote such a saying of Paul as: "Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified" (Romans 10:4). J. M. Sterrett defines Antinomianism as follows: "In its widest sense the term is used to designate the doctrines of extreme fanatics who deny subjection to any law other than the subjective caprices of the empirical individual, though this individual is generally credited as the witness and interpreter of the Holy Spirit." (From his article in Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics) The term itself was invented by Luther in his controversy with Johannes Agricola. Agricola in his anxiety to conserve the principle of salvation by faith held that even the Ten Commandments are abrogated for the Christian. "Art thou steeped in sin, an adulterer or a thief? If thou believest, thou art in salvation. All who follow Moses must go to the Devil. To the gallows with Moses!"

This antinomianism was a characteristic feature of Gnostic teaching, and it issued in the most deliberate and licentious immorality. The Gnostics allowed this immorality on three grounds: (i) Spiritual things are provided for the spiritual nature and carnal things for the carnal nature; the carnal nature legitimately and properly expresses itself in the things of the flesh. (ii) If gold be dipped in filth, it does not lose its beauty but retains its own nature; the filth has no power to injure the gold. Nothing that a spritual man can do can injure his spiritual substance. (iii) Since the Gnostic believed that only spirit is good and that matter is essentially evil, then he must long for the day when he will become pure spirit. That can only happen when a man has gone through every possible experience in life; he must experience life in its totality, even if he has to be reincarnated again and again to do so. Therefore it is a plain duty to seek the very depths of human experience, for the sooner they are experienced, the sooner release will come (Irenaeus' exposition of the doctrines of Valentinus and Carpocrates, Against Heresies 1:6; 1:25). Oddly enough, in Cromwellian times this same doctrine is found in the highest kind of Calvinism. If a man is elected and predestined to salvation, nothing can stop him being saved. However sinful he may be, and however wicked his actions, he needs neither confession nor repentance, for he will inevitably be saved.

Still another feature of this line of thought appears in Jude. We have already seen in our examination of the principles of Gnosticism that the Gnostics believed that the world was created by an inferior god, ignorant of, and hostile to, the true God. Not infrequently they took a further step and identified this hostile and ignorant god with the God of the Old Testament, who is said to have created the world. Now, if the God of the Old Testament is in fact a god ignorant of, and hostile to, the true God, then it follows that the people whom the God of the Old Testament approved are the bad people, and the people he condemned are the good people. Hence there was a sect of the Gnostics called the Ophites, who worshipped the serpent; and there were some who made Cain and Balaam and Korah the saints of Old Testament times (Jude 11). Here in fact is the very essence of Gnosticism, for Gnosticism ended, as Clement of Alexandria put it, by deifying the Devil (The Miscellanies 4:12, 87). Gnosticism in effect turned morality upside down.

Here was the threat which beset the Church when II Peter and Jude were written. It was terrifyingly easy to pervert the Christian offer of salvation. Faith could be twisted into material for an argument that conduct was of no importance. Grace could be misinterpreted to mean that sin did not matter. Gnostic teaching, with its emphasis on spirit and its condemnation of matter, came preaching either that it did not matter what a man does with his body, or that it was nothing less than a duty to give the fleshly nature its full sway. It is easy to see how satanically attractive such teaching could be; and it is easy to see how those who propagated it would take to themselves a conscious superiority, contemptuous of those who still allowed themselves to be shackled and constricted by obedience to the moral law or to any other kind of law.

It is for this very reason that in II Peter Jesus is called Saviour oftener than in any book in the NT (1:1; 2:20; 3:2; 3:18); and it is for this very reason that men are summoned to remember that the day comes when they will give account to him. It is for this reason that we can never spare from the NT the two little books which in white-hot holy anger see the literally damnable nature of any teaching which makes sin attractive, and which glorify Jesus Christ, not as the one who gives license to sin, but as the one who is able to keep us from falling and to present us without blemish before the presence of the glory of God with rejoicing (Jude 24).