NOTHING can surpass the goodness of God. It is the very source of divine grace; and out from it flows the word of truth which works on our souls to bring us into the presence of God, where alone we may find peace and real joy. With absolute knowledge and with perfect wisdom, God weaves the web of time for the glory of His own great name, and for the infinite blessing of those who love Him. He reveals Himself in His ways of grace when He leads us into His presence. When the heart and mind are consciously kept in the presence of God by the Word, they are preserved from sin and guarded from all evil.
Sin has come into the world and spoilt everything for man; but God has used the opportunity that sin has afforded, for the rich display of grace. He is not indifferent to evil, for He is holy and righteous, and cannot associate with iniquity. While abhorring evil according to the holiness of His nature, He reveals His love in the way He condescends to the sinner, reaching him in his need however low he may have fallen. When men in the height of their sin put Christ to death, the love of God was there above all their enmity and wickedness. The Word tells us that, "God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him": He sent His son to be "the propitiation for our sins": "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us": "In due time Christ died for the ungodly."
The cross of Christ reveals God's perfect abhorrence of sin, and there He judged it absolutely in justice and with wrath; but it is there the infinite love of God is made known to the sinner. God gave His own beloved Son to suffer and to die for the guilty and the lost, that all who come to God by Him may be saved. Now we know the full extent of evil and its devastating power; we know it by the infiniteness of the good that is manifested in the grace and love of God, when He took full account of sin at the cross where Christ suffered under its judgment. The more we know of man and the effects of his fall, the better we know God; and it is also true, the better we know God and enter into His goodness, the more we know of man and the extent of his wickedness. The sent One of God has been rejected by the world, and God's alternative to judgment has been despised. Grace in a humbled Christ is the only way of escape for man, and is the door of hope for eternal blessing with God. Apart from grace in Christ there is nothing man can expect but judgment. God is long-suffering, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Now that Christ is glorified with God on high, and the world is away from God and its judgment foretold (see John 12:31), Christianity has come as God's last message in grace. It says to man, "You are lost," and speaks boldly and solemnly, yet most graciously, for "God is love," and the message of His love to men who are lost is, "I am perfect love and can save you." There remains only judgment for the despisers of such goodness. If grace does not turn the heart nothing will.
Until the day of reckoning comes, God, by various means, restrains evil from vaunting itself above every testimony to His name on the earth. This is its tendency for evil, once gaining an entrance, continues its deadly work until it is ended by judgment. While man's relationship with God remains simply spiritual and invisible to the world, and would not be known to exist, save by the fruit it produces, evil runs its course in a hidden and secret way. It is called in Scripture the "mystery of iniquity" (2 Thessalonians 2:7); it remains hidden to human intelligence and can only be known by revelation, until the day it is allowed to reveal itself on earth in open hostility to the truth, and then it is no longer a mystery. Meanwhile it works in its own subtle way amongst men, even while a divine testimony to the goodness of God proclaiming salvation to men in the righteousness of God is being preached. The glad tidings of God sets the hope of glory before men everywhere, and it takes them by faith out of the world and attaches them in heart and in hope to heaven. The effect of evil at work is seen in the tendency of Christians to fall back into a religion of the flesh, the keeping of ordinances and religious rites, which connect the moral life of man with this world as though the source of life is to be found in form and ritual.
Evil works in many ways, and it will, as time runs on, become more manifest in its opposition to heavenly truth. It grew violent against Christ when He came into the world, and again it will become violent towards those who confess His name as His second coming draws near. God providentially restrains evil from overstepping its bounds and plunging the world into chaos and judgment. He uses various instruments of earthly government to check the will of man from rising in open revolt against His authority in the world.
The spiritual mind that has learned to exercise itself, always to have a conscience void of offence before God and man, can discern the incoming tide of evil in its earliest movements, and under God's instruction can foretell its future development. To those who walk in the light with God, evil appears as a dark shadow, it may be long before it becomes an open and visible enemy of the truth. But God in grace gives light to those who walk with Him, and they keep to a path of separation from the evil the adversary would try to intrude between them and God. The knowledge of God as revealed in Christ is, for those who believe, a practical knowledge, it guides them in life and walk. The apostle Paul prayed for the Colossian Christians, that they "might be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God…" (Colossians 1:9, 10).
God withholds judgment while evil remains a hidden mystery, discerned only by the spiritual mind. He delivers the faithful from its subtle influence by moral power, through an increasing knowledge of Himself. By grace and by faith He withstands the tide of evil which, since the fall of man through self-will, is ever ready to break from its bounds. If those bounds be weakened ever so little, or the instruments of restraint loosen their grip, evil quickly raises its head in one form or another. While it works secretly it is checked by the pressure of outward forces, providentially used to restrain its working; and it may be checked by moral enlightenment, if the truth be preached and the public conscience be aroused, for men fear to do in the light what they boldly do in the darkness of their own nature.
There are those who pretend to the knowledge of God and yet walk contrary to His will. The apostle John calls them liars and says they have no truth in them. Fellowship with God, and occupation with Christ, keep the soul out of the clutches of the enemy and away from the deceiving power of evil. The Son is the object of the Father's delight. He is made our delight, too, through grace, in the power of the Holy Ghost, whose mission is to make Christ everything to our hearts by revealing what He is to the Father, and opening our hearts to learn what Christ did for us down here before we ever knew Him.
The self-will of man, as it began in Adam, has been allowed to develop, but not yet fully and world-wide. The terrible length to which it will drive man was seen when Christ was chased from the world. The wilful course of man was not there and then ended, when he showed such enmity to the sent One of God, for He had come into the world to die for the lost and guilty. The world sealed its own sentence of judgment by driving Christ out when He came as a Saviour. But God waited, and He still waits while the grace of the Gospel, the fruit of the work of Christ who died for the guilty, is preached to men who have burned down every bridge that connected them with the possibility of life through maintaining their responsibility. Now man stands beneath the sword of judgment with no way of retreat but through mercy. During the waiting-time of suspended judgment wickedness has not lessened nor disappeared from the world, but, taking on a more subtle guise, it carries on its evil work under the shelter of the dispensation of grace, in the very bosom of the Church, the place of Christian privilege. Taking advantage of the open door grace affords, the adversary introduced evil in a cloak of righteousness, amongst godly Christians, and there it carried on its nefarious work. We are warned in Scripture that evil develops itself in the Church, the place where the people of God enjoy their privileges; and it will continue to develop until the day when, casting all disguise aside, it boldly goes out from its hiding-place and deceives the world, especially the so-called Christian world, or Christendom. It has long retained a religious character, and at the end, under its perverted religious influence, the world will be led to leave God wholly out of its reckoning, then it will at last be found in open revolt against God.
Unless God put a restraint upon the will of man, a will that was early used in defiance of His command, the world would soon fall into a state of anarchy, or to save themselves from the horrors of anarchy, men would accept as absolute the authority of the temporal power. In the day that is coming, when men are allowed to do what they will under the leadership of the beast, the head of the revived Roman empire, the Lord will in great mercy send a testimony with power to turn the hearts of man from hatred to a natural regard for one another. If He did not the world would end in chaos and suffer a divine curse. (See Mai. iv. 5, 6.) Today the sword of government is in the hands of the State, and there is usually among nations, a power or an alliance of powers, with sufficient strength, and enough regard for the truth that even creation affords, to be able to check the ambitions of evil forces. When the morals of a people are undermined by a denial of truth, evil and violent men make great headway, and the evil at work finds its expression in the ambitions of a tyrant, or dictator, as he is called today. These men despise even the natural rights of man which nature demands for him that he may exist.
A will that is not subject to God and is not outwardly restrained, but is guided by nothing more than the lusts of the flesh, is led into excesses and violates even the natural conscience, and the end is judgment in death. Where evil has grown up under the shadow of grace, and the grace of God has been turned into lasciviousness, even the natural conscience is shocked by man's total disregard for all morality. When men use the truth wrongly they do not feel it in their consciences, and therefore lose all fear of the consequences of despising the truth. If evil succeeds in perverting the natural judgment and deceives the natural conscience, it seeks to hide its guilty hand behind the acts of the ruling body it has misled. Such a form of wickedness is found in false religion. It may use violence against those who oppose it, but does not strike openly; it deceitfully leads astray the judgment of the civil power, which only has the right to use violence against wrong-doers. If man sheds blood, by man shall his blood be shed, and the ruling body wields the sword of justice. It may be misled in its judgment, and some day it will have to answer for its actions, for it is held responsible to rule justly.
When the civil power becomes apostate, being led away from truth and righteousness even as to natural right and justice, it immediately becomes openly rebellious against all godly restraint, and against God Himself who gave governments the authority and the power to rule. We learn from Scripture that when the civil power finds itself deceived by a false system that cannot even be faithful to its own lovers, nor finally be of use to its own master, it turns and wreaks its vengeance on the treacherous deceiver. Such will be the judgment of the vile ecclesiastical system that will publicly turn from the covert of grace, and will, without shame, lead the governments of the so-called Christian world to their doom. In that day the kingdoms of the western world, which unite to retain their supremacy against the aggressive northern and eastern nations, will find themselves also at war with the King of kings, the Anointed of the LORD; He will come and thresh them all as sheaves on the threshing-floor.
Wickedness in man has a double character. An evil principle working in the flesh produces corruption, and aroused passions drive man to violence. The corruption of the flesh shows itself in a two-fold form. Lust governs in the flesh and falsehood covers up the intent of the heart. Two of these forms of evil are particularly satanic. The Lord said of Satan that he was a liar and a murderer from the beginning. Because man is in the flesh he adds the corruption that is caused through his lusts. The principle of sin became part of the nature of the flesh through the fall of man, who listened to the lie of the enemy. Lust was awakened in man, and self-will was the result and became the root of sin in man. Cain added violence to self-will when he murdered his brother.
There have been many restraints and partial judgments sent to check the erring ways of man; we can trace them in all dispensations. But evil in its ripened fruit has not yet been judged in its great public manifestation in satanic power.
In the counsels of God, evil in all its ramifications has been anticipated and its judgment foretold. God has not yet left man wholly to his own unrestrained will. Again and again He has interfered in the life of man, and placed him on trial in some special relationship and responsibility, to live and to keep in the path of some expression of His revealed will. History has proved the failure of man under every trial; though he may have entered with enthusiasm upon his trial as he first thought of the blessing accompanying the trial, without knowing his lack of strength to sustain his effort. Man has proved his utter inability to maintain the conditions and principles of God in which he has been placed. There has always been, in the hands of man, a complete breakdown of the dispensation. God, in His perfect foreknowledge, anticipated the failure of the first man, Adam and all his race; but He will infallibly establish all His counsels, upholding every divine principle, in Christ, the second Man, who glorified God about all His ways, when He came to do the will of God, though it took Him to the cross of Calvary.
God delights to minister the blessedness of His grace to hearts tempered and ready to receive it. But when the Spirit of God discerns evil at work, though it be in a hidden way, He describes what is working.
Scripture speaks of hidden wickedness, the mystery of iniquity, as leaven, the fermenting element in bread. The searching eye of the Spirit of God can foresee its end. He can describe its form, its working, its development, and its final judgment when God intervenes to end its treacherous course. But God does not seem to interfere publicly until wickedness rises up in open hostility to Him. In fact, when He makes His ways and presence felt, the will of man revolts, but while a providential restraint checks the activity of the will, it cannot come to full development as wholly defiant against God and in conflict with Him.
While the Spirit of God delights to fill the heart with all that is most blessed in the counsels and ways of God, yet in the care of His people, He has often to make them aware of their declension. He shows them the source and the effect of the presence of the evil that prevents them from entering into the full enjoyment of the truth with God. This is grace too, and the ministry given, though coming as a warning, drives the heart into its true hiding-place, the assurance of God as found in the Word. The soul finds its most blessed resource in the word of grace given for the need of the day. Often the testimony is brighter as the day grows more difficult. For then it is clearly seen what man is, and God is better known for what He is in grace.
In the day of decline one of the first questions to be raised is—What did God set up at the beginning from which there has been departure? Each must find an answer for himself. What was the faith once delivered to the saints? Is a question that tries every conscience? The point of departure is always the point where the soul once again on returning, meets God for blessing. He may in sovereign grace call a halt when His people are wandering, but the way of blessing is found in judging the departure from the original path of blessing. In a downward course there is no right direction. There is no remedy for the development of evil, and there can be no general revival as though the evil could be arrested. The only way of escape is in a complete moral judgment of the first departure, and while recognizing fully one's own responsibility in the failure, to separate from the evil, coming out to God Himself as the only resource of the soul. This fully applies to the Church in her responsibility, but it is the individual heart that hears and acts on the warning in the day of declension.
Through the grace and long-patience of God there have been revivals in the Church; never a revival to re-establish the official order as set up by the apostle Paul, which soon ceased to be what it was at the beginning; but a revival of truth and the work of grace. For the sake of the testimony to His name, and for the encouragement of souls, God has from time to time pressed upon the heart and conscience of those who through grace have lent their ears to the word, a vital truth for the day, a truth perhaps long forgotten, but which the Holy Ghost has filled with energy. This has arrested the rapid downward course of those who have left their first estate, and these for the moment hide their hostility. All tends to the end, and without such intervention, evil would have quickly developed and been ripe for judgment before its time, we might say. Souls would have been swamped in the all-prevailing evil, unless God had acted in moral power by His Spirit.
When Satan introduces evil he begins with deception, if his seductions are resisted he resorts to violence. We find this fully exemplified in the history of man. Adam in the garden fell from his first estate; he departed from the goodness of God and began the history of the world in self-will outside the garden. The woman was first in transgression, being deceived she entered into the temptation; the man acted wilfully against the direct commandment of God. This clearly shows the double character of sin. Lust is active in producing sin, and the will when led away by lust acts in defiance of the command. At the end of his days of trial, man makes his final plunge into wickedness, and consummates his iniquity by rising in revolt against God and all that bears His name. Man turns away from the last and greatest expression of God's goodness in the grace of redemption and the call of the Church, to take up arms in open conflict against God, and to oppose the coming of the Son of man in the glory of His kingdom.
There are two ways in which the Spirit of God cares for and guards the soul of the saint now. While His most blessed work is to build up the soul in the truth, which He does by keeping before the soul Christ and all that God has given and made us in Christ, yet He is ever mindful of our present state and circumstances. In this world the soul needs to be guarded, it needs correction, instruction and warning. God is the blessed source of all that our souls need, and He is far more. From His limitless resources of grace He meets every circumstance according to His wisdom, and turns everything to the present and eternal good of those whom He has called to have part in His purposed blessing.
We can see the way of God's grace in the service and writings of the apostles who were the guardians of the assembly in its earliest days. The apostles, taught by the Spirit of God, wrote for the needs of the assembly and of the individual Christians living at that time. But in the wisdom of God, the future needs of the assembly were anticipated in the warnings and exhortations of the apostles. They saw the tendencies of the thoughts and activities of their day. They could see the form evil was taking and they could foretell its development. The evil that had already found its way into the assembly was known at once by the Spirit of God before it had developed. The failure of Christians to stand faithfully against the encroachment of the form of evil that would undermine their strength and their position as a heavenly people was anticipated, and the necessary exhortations were given which would guard their souls in spite of the breakdown. We are shown the only means of defence that avail against the rising tide of iniquity. We can thank God that, by His grace, these means have been used again and again to enliven and strengthen the saints through the centuries of waiting, and the saints have been saved from the chaos which might have overtaken them in a self-willed and godless world. God has given strength to His servants by His Spirit to bear a faithful testimony to the truth, and there has been sufficient power in the testimony to hold back the tide of evil.
That the present period will end in judgment is the united testimony of all scriptures which speak of the last days. In these scriptures there is always a warning against the corrupting evils that find their way into the assembly. They also warn against the rebellious element which goes out, denying the truth of God's revelation of Himself in the Son. The latter form that goes boldly out is not content merely to corrupt the assembly, but it opposes the truth, it opposes God in open rebellion, leading astray the civil power, and this brings down the judgment of God upon a rebellious creation. The self-will of man lends itself to the development of the public manifestation of satanic power in man, and then it is ripe for judgment.
God anticipates all these forms and activities of evil, and in the revelation of His counsels we see the way He will take to subdue them all. His searching eye notes the evil in its first movements, and He describes it fully. Perhaps not as then acting in manifest opposition to the truth, though in many instances it was, but as it will be seen when it is in full bloom. While it is under restraint it may not be easy to see it, and the greatest may be deceived; but the Spirit of God knows what evil is and into what it will grow. He delights to fill the heart with the blessedness of all that is good, but when the path is rough and treacherous He must make the saint aware of the dangers. If the storm is approaching the child of God must take shelter before it breaks. Not that the Christian will be caught in the great catastrophe of world-judgment, but there may be some who will be saved as by fire. Even in the great tribulation that is coming upon all the world a remnant will be preserved (See Revelation 3:10; 7:14). Those who now are waiting in the patience of Christ will be kept from that hour of trial. They are waiting in a world upon which the storm will break suddenly, and they need the warning to help separate them from a scene ripe for judgment and into which it seems they will fall.
In the word of instruction given to the assembly, there is also a rebuke for negligence, and a warning against continuing in the evil. The Word is faithful, it gives the whole truth, and the saint finds his resource and guidance for the day of his pilgrimage in the warning and instruction it gives.
Jude, who desired to write of more blessed things, found himself led by the Spirit to speak of the evil that had crept into the assembly and corrupted it. The apostle John later on warned Christians against the rebellious element which went out from among the saints, openly denying the truth as the apostles taught it. Revolt does not creep, it is defiant. The more subtle form of evil, which corrupts the assembly without leading others out, creeps in. Judgment falls when wickedness comes out openly and unashamed. In principle evil follows the same course in individuals. The trial of Job was brought to an end when, by his rebellious speeches which came from an unsubdued heart, he found himself in conflict with God. It was then time for God to reveal Himself to settle the question. Job was discomfited, but through grace it was not that he might be taken away in judgment; it opened the way for God to do him good at the end.
Evil assumes different characters, and the Spirit of God clearly distinguishes the ways in which these manifest themselves. Jude saw the way evil was creeping into the assembly through the negligence of true Christians, and its presence brought about a change in the conduct of the assembly. Instead of the Christian assembly wearing the character of a heavenly company on earth, walking in separation from the world, it allowed the adverse elements a free hand in its activities, and the behaviour of these false brethren lowered the whole tone of the assembly. It was a mighty fall from heavenly grace, and Jude likens the state of those who had departed from the faith, to the fall of the angels who left their first estate. There were those in the assembly who denied the first faith; it was apostasy. Speaking by the Spirit, Jude could foretell the judgment of these very persons, for nothing would change them; there was no remedy, no means of recovering these apostates. They would only grow worse and worse until judgment in vengeance brought them to an end. Judgment was their portion, not grace; they had despised grace, and turned it into lasciviousness.
The apostle Peter writes in a somewhat similar strain. Instead of drawing attention to the corrupting influences which were surreptitiously entering, he speaks boldly against the wickedness of those who preach damnable heresies, and without shame practise all kinds of wickedness. Corruption develops into positive offensiveness.
The apostasy of which Jude speaks comes before the public refusal of Christ by the antichrists pointed out by John. In the moral fall of the Church, the moral evils of Jude's epistle precede the antichrists of John's epistle, and then Peter morally follows John. First there is apostasy from the truth, then with the increasing boldness of wickedness, all truth is attacked and men are not afraid to take a public stand against God. Peter says judgment will come upon the whole world which once was overtaken by the flood, but now is reserved for the fires of judgment.
When evil comes in to corrupt the Church, Jude sounds the warning. Addressing individuals, he warns the faithful against those who separate themselves in the assembly as being better than others, and remain there to drag down others. He warns against pharisaism. John sees those who separate themselves, going out from the truth in the sight of all.
The apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, warns him of perilous times to come. The mystery of iniquity was already working, and the apostle knew it when he wrote his second epistle to the Thessalonians, which bears an early date.
Jude deals with the ruin of the Church, and he guards the beloved, who are set apart by God the Father and preserved in Christ Jesus, from the corruption of sensualists, while John guards the children of God from those who deny the relationship of the Father and the Son.
The character of evil described in Jude's epistle is not a case of isolated wickedness, he sees growing up in the bosom of the Church a vast system of evil which will eventually involve the whole visible Church in judgment. Through the deception of error, more will be brought into the judgment than the corrupt ecclesiastical system. The whole world will eventually be caught in the toils of the arch-enemy, who gives his great power to man, that man in unrestrained will might oppose all that is called by the name of God upon earth. God in sovereign grace will preserve many from the deception of the man of sin; they will pass through great trial.
When the Church has reached such a state of ruin that the apostates, those who have fallen away from the faith, characterize it outwardly, claiming the name and the privileges of God's assembly which rightly belong to the called and faithful, the Spirit of God addresses, not the Church, but individuals in it. For such a state there is no remedy. But there is hope for the faithful who are cast out of the pretentious body, or separate from it, and find all their resources in God Himself (compare with Jeremiah 51: 44, 45). Instances of the faithfulness of individuals are found in many figures in the Old Testament. Elijah is an outstanding example. He stood alone, the only public witness for Jehovah in apostate Israel (see 1 Kings 19)
From the first entrance of evil into the Church until the Lord comes in His glory to judge the ungodly, there is a continual development of ungodly principles and evil practices in what is called the Church. Though the true work of God in saving souls and building them up in the truth may be for the most part hidden from the eyes of the world, and the outward visible thing be false, yet the false thing will be judged on its profession. If it claims the name and the rights belonging to the true thing, it will be judged according to its profession and pretension to be the witness of God to the world.
Jude goes over the whole outward history of Christendom, from the first departure until evil is judged in the last days. Even when, through the mercy of God truth is revived, the enemy takes advantage of the open door and sows the seeds of error by his emissaries whom he introduces as angels of light. The weakness and the carelessness of Christians give him the opportunity to cause dissensions through endless discussions of unprofitable questions, which morally weakens them because they lose Christ as the sole blessed object and centre of all their thoughts.
While the apostles were alive they held the evil in check. It was present and working secretly, but they had the ability to see it, and the power to restrain it. Even today the effects of the evil which is at work is partly hidden. Many would be surprised to be told that it was present, others who see it would deny that its present working was so deadly, and that certain tendencies led to a total denial of the truth and the complete refusal of God.
When Satan introduces an instrument of evil into the company of Christians, he chooses a man whom men can naturally admire, and when they are taken up with admiration of a prominent man, the truth is neglected. Truth has not a man of Adam's race as its centre. Spiritual life becomes stifled by man-occupation, and men fall easy victims to the man they admire. If men seek advantages for themselves by holding the persons of other men in high esteem, and" think it exalts them to be noted for doing so, they only lower themselves beneath the level of their own consciences, and soon the}' have no conscience of their own. They have made their consciences subservient to others.
From the beginning, and all through man's history, there has always been a falling away from that which God set up. It has occurred again and again under different forms of trial, and always there has been complete failure. The depth of man's fall depends upon how high he has been lifted by the revelation of God's ways in setting him upon his responsibility.
All creation began with God, and He must be All in All in the end. In between times, every trial of man which requires inherent strength in man and faithfulness from him, must end in the failure of man. In Christ alone we find the counsels of God and the responsibility of man meeting perfectly, and apart from Christ there is only failure. But outside and above all failure the goodness of God remains supreme. In grace He preserves a remnant, and in them He magnifies His own great name. They have their portion in connection with Christ according to the counsels of the grace of God.
The epistle of Jude was written with divine intelligence which foresaw the result of the evil that had already found its way into the assembly. It had come in by the introduction of godless, sensual men who, though they had not the Spirit dwelling in them, posed as leaders and as being the most godly and spiritual in the company. These men separated from others that they might keep the prominent places they coveted.
Jude addresses the called ones, beloved in God the Father and preserved in Jesus Christ. These alone would heed the kind of warning he had to give them, the others who professed to be spiritual, but were mockers of the truth, would not hearken. Scripture says there would be such in the last days, but to them the warning would be useless (verse 18).
The epistle is not addressed to an assembly; it has not the character which an assembly in a poor broken moral state would read aloud in the company, where evil men had much to say, perhaps the most to say (verse 16). He appeals to mercy as that by which the individual soul would be preserved in a weak and evil day. Peace and love were the very foundation of a patient and godly walk, and the servant of the Lord desired that the faithful heart should know an unlimited increase of these basic principles of Christian life.
Instead of a letter delighting in the most blessed privileges of the believer, the faithful servant of Jesus Christ has given us the earnest exhortation to hold fast the faith once delivered to the saints. We must contend for it against all opposition. Here we have not evil doctrines and satanic superstitions spoken of as the difficulty with which the faithful had to contend, but we have what would be common in a Philadelphian and a Laodicean day (see Revelation 3). It is great pretension seeking to undermine the faith once delivered to the saints; an attack on that which was believed at the first, and the onslaught coming from inside the assembly by those who, taking advantage of grace, turn all into fleshly licence. The adversaries of faith were those who went back to that out of which they had been called—ordinances and religious customs in which the flesh could take full part. The men who had got into the assembly unnoticed and were behaving in this fleshly way, bore the same character as those of old of whom the men of God spoke, prophesying their judgment. The presence of these servants of Satan showed how careless Christians had been to let them come in and to walk with them. The judgment prophesied of old would fall upon these false brethren, and the Spirit of God mercifully warns Christians in time so that they might keep them-selves from their evil ways, and walk in the truth. The warning comes even when there had been great negligence on the part of Christians. The goodness of God makes use of everything to glorify His ways in grace and mercy and to safeguard His people.
Beginning with the history of Israel from the day they were brought out of Egypt, Jude shows the analogy between their history and that of Christendom. Israel brought the gods of Egypt with them into the wilderness, and they retained' them until the day of their captivity. Though the children of Israel were the subjects of an outward deliverance with all its privileges, many were afterwards destroyed because of unbelief (verse 5). Christendom has known the privileges of Christianity, even as Israel knew the blessedness of deliverance from the bondage of Egypt, but the sin of the first departure from the truth will be the cause of the final judgment of Christendom.
The angels that fell, not as Satan fell through pride, but those who left their first estate, are held in chains for the day of judgment (compare with Genesis 6:2, where reference is no doubt made to Cain's descendants. But may be angels "possessed" men without divine command and added strength to their lust.) These subjects of judgment are apostates that fell from their first estate. Sodom and Gomorrah are earthly witnesses of those who, through lust, fall from their first standing. The inhabitants of these cities even held the order of nature in contempt. The cities have never been rebuilt and they present a picture to the world of abiding judgment. In like manner, everlasting judgment will completely close the history of an apostate Church. The vengeance of eternal fire will close for ever the history of fleshly corruption that bows to no authority, but is the sport of lawless spiritual wickedness.
There were men in the assembly who lived in their dreams of fleshly lust, yet were not afraid to speak boldly in the company. The truth was not in them, and taking advantage of the privileges common to all in the assembly, they used the opportunity, not to edify, but to corrupt others (verse 8). Their judgment will come when they openly revolt against God. Until that day they are rebuked but not judged, for even Michael the arch-angel only rebukes Satan in the name of the Lord (verse 9). Revelation 12 reveals the coming day of conflict in heavenly places between mighty spiritual forces when Satan will be more than rebuked, he and his forces will be routed and cast out of heaven. At present these vile spiritual powers of wickedness which work through men introduced into the assembly, add corruption to corruption. These servants of wickedness do not know what they say, and they are lower than the brute beasts, degrading nature with perverted minds.
Jude speaks of three kinds of wickedness that corrupt the world and which will finally bring it into judgment. One is natural evil, and the other two are more connected with ecclesiasticism: though all are seen at their worst when connected with the religion of man in the flesh, that is, man as living in the world and uniting to his religion the world-system he has in self-will built around himself. These forms of evil were to be found in the bosom of Christianity, and there they would ripen for judgment. In Cain we see the natural passions set on fire by jealousy and hatred of his favoured brother, and he stopped not short of murder. A heart at enmity with God does not hesitate to do violence to His people.
Cain shows us natural evil going to the extremes of violence. In Balaam we have the wickedness of heart that teaches error for reward. It is religious corruption and ecclesiastical apostasy, which, though checked in its designs, finds a way to seduce men from the way of, righteousness. Bad as this form of evil is, it is not judged until it leads the natural conscience astray, and corrupts the government ordained by God to restrain the will of man and the development of evil. In the third case, when men seek to be independent of all authority and set up to be superior to God's recognized authorities, the end comes with devastating judgment. As Korah rebelled against the authority of God's king in Israel, Moses, and God's priest, Aaron, so at the end men will dispute Christ's claim of royalty and priesthood. This last form of man's self-will brings down swift divine judgment on apostate Christendom. The judgment will not stop at Christendom, but will reach out to all the world.
Here in the epistle, we see where the evil takes root and flourishes until it is cut off for ever.
In these three characters of evil we find the whole history of apostasy from beginning to end. It begins with the natural hatred of authority and independence of will as seen in the earliest history of man. It ends in the rebellion of man, throwing off all restraint and making war against God's King and Priest—Christ. The awful progression of evil from its first entrance into the assembly reaches such a point that it brings down divine wrath to the uttermost (verse 11). Strangely, it may seem, the progression of evil is largely hidden from the majority of professing Christians. This is the adversary's subtlety. But God enlightens those who wait upon Him. He reveals more truth to the faithful, and they, through the mercy of God, are awakened to the danger of associating with those who do not hold fast the faith as it was first delivered to the saints.
The men who take advantage of the privileges of faith while they are in the company of the faithful, yet walk according to their own thoughts, show no fear and they are without shame. They feed themselves on that which pleases the flesh, and they do it where the truth is spoken, yet they do not feel the contrast. While making a great show of handling the truth, they receive no spiritual nourishment from it. All is outward appearance, they have no root and they produce no fruit. Jude says such men are twice dead; they are dead in a lost nature, and are dead in apostasy (verse 12).
It is not the way of these men to sit quietly in company, they make a great show. As vigorous agitation forms a froth, so these active agents of error are merely frothy speakers, they have no substance. They say much, but though appearing as great lights of truth, they are only wandering stars, and are descending into darkness where they will be confined for ever.
Enoch prophesied that the Lord would come with ten thousands of His saints to judge these very persons. They existed in his day, and they have persisted through the ages, but they will be judged in the end. All the Christian period is passed over in the prophecy of Enoch, beginning and end are brought together, showing that there is no improvement once the evil begins, judgment alone ends its course.
The apostles saw the early movements of declension in the Church, and they spoke of evil as they knew it in the light of the revelation of God as He is revealed in the work of Christ, by His death and resurrection. They saw the iniquity of the world, and they knew that the world was wholly at enmity with God. Already the sentence of God had been passed upon all its godless activities, and evil had found its way into the Church, where it would work until the whole was corrupt. The corruption has developed into what we know as Christendom. The mercy of God might restrain evil, but it must eventually be judged in its last and extremely rebellious form, when it becomes an open question—Who is to rule? Judgment must begin at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17).
The men of God were able to say exactly what the evil was and into what it would develop. They could see clearly that men in whom these evil principles were at work without knowing any inward restraint, denied the Lord God. Their ungodly speeches did not proclaim the truth, but were directed against the faith and opposed the Lord. Though the words of these evil speakers were strong and forceful, they were false, and were meant merely to make much of the man who spoke. Their strong speeches were but the efforts of falsity to give itself courage, and were made to discredit faith. Indulgence in man-worship, regardless of the truth, holding men in admiration for personal advantage, are signs that reveal the men-pleasers, they are not active in the service of God (verse 16).
The safeguard against all this moral deception was to be found in remembering the words of the apostles as first delivered to the saints (verse 17). By the words of the ambassadors of Christ the faithful had been converted to Christ, and they had already been warned of the enemy's subtle attacks. Before the adversary uses violence he tries seduction, which was so successful with the woman in the garden. By pouring contempt upon the hopes of faith he seeks to destroy faith, for without faith men can but walk after the lusts of the flesh (verse 18). When all is practically ruined through departure from the faith, our only resource lies in finding grace to return to the beginning. Not that we may set up again that which has been broken down, or in the case of the Church, that we may re-establish the Church as it was at the beginning; but that we may have the mind of God, and not be left to the workings of the human mind, which can only add confusion to confusion.
Mockers are a sign of the times, they but hasten the day of judgment (compare with 2 Peter 3:3, 4). They say that the existing order of things is stable, and they deny the coming of the Lord.
Those who name the name of Christ are enjoined by Paul to depart from iniquity (2 Timothy 2:19), and believers are everywhere exhorted to walk in separation from evil. But in his epistle Jude speaks of those who separate themselves as being more exclusive than others (verse 19). He says they are sensual, walking in the strength of their ungodly desires. They have not the Spirit for power in their walk, nor to direct their thoughts and govern their motives by presenting an object to them outside themselves. They do not find the company of the godly congenial, but they gather the privileges of the assembly about themselves. They are Pharisees of the Pharisees; we always find them present when men take advantage of grace.
The beloved saints of God are kept by God Himself for the day of glory with Christ. On the way through the wilderness they know many trials; and when they partake of the conflicts of Canaan, they must, above all, be armed with the shield of faith. To them, their faith is a "most holy faith." It holds fast to the Word and the revelation of God in Christ as unfolded there by the Spirit. All we know and can know of God from the Word, by the Spirit, strengthens faith. There is conflict to face, and we have to withstand the attacks of the enemy. There is also a real work in building up both one's own faith and the faith of others. Prayer, too, in the power of the Holy Ghost, presents our petitions and supplications to God according to His mind. Communion is maintained by the Word, and prayer made according to the Word, finds its answer, if not in present results, at least in that the peace of God fills the heart, and the soul grows in its communion (verse 20).
The heart finds its rest and its confidence in the love of God, and it must keep itself there in a practical way. God loves us; He has given us full proof of His love in the gift of His Son, when we did not know Him, nor even were aware how deeply we stood in the need of Him. But now through grace, in discovering that love, we have learned with what mercy it reached us (compare with Ephesians 2:4.) Though all around be sinful, and the Church be in ruins, yet with the love of God shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Ghost who is given to us, we are kept close to the source of grace where we find strength to go on. Nor is that love merely for the moment, it goes on unto eternal life; but we are ever conscious, here amidst all the evil, what subjects of mercy we are (verse 21).
With the consciousness of the love of God in our hearts, we may turn to others, and seeing their condition, realize their needs, making a difference between the state of souls (verse 22). Some are ignorant, some are weak, others are wilful. There are those who compromise with evil and may be saved with difficulty and with fear.
Those who do not understand their danger, or know themselves, and are unable to act for themselves, must be dragged out from the coming judgment. Righteous Lot, who escaped the judgment of Sodom by compulsion, was forced to leave in haste just before the fires of judgment consumed the city. What holds back the soul from salvation is of the flesh, it pleases itself and has no desire for the things of God. The heart that keeps itself in the truth turns away with abhorrence from all appearances of the flesh, and learns to say with Job, when he discovered that the robe of self-righteousness in which he clothed himself, was but a garb of filthy rags, "I abhor (myself)" (verse 23).
God is able to keep us from falling. Not only has He the power to do so, and is willing to preserve faultless, but such is the confidence He brings into the heart, it may rest with perfect security and delight in the keeping power of God as active in grace toward it. Here it is scarcely a question of stumbling, but rather that God is able to keep the soul quite apart from sin, and hold it steadfast that it should not depart from the faith. In spite of all the surrounding evil, God by His grace is able and willing to keep the faithful and those who are subject to His Word, from all sin, especially from the sin of apostasy. He does it by shedding His love abroad in the heart and filling it with Himself.
When the will mixes itself with a profession of the knowledge of the grace of God, it is only a matter of time before Christians are bemoaning their downfall. The flesh is all too ready to intrude upon the privileges of grace, but the flesh cannot deny itself for long, and it lowers all it touches to the level of a faithless, struggling world without God. A Christian has a risen Christ for his life, and the life he lives has Christ, not only for its object, but He is its source and power; so that in the end the believer will be perfectly conformed to His likeness. The practical aim of the life by which he lives, is to make the risen glorified Christ manifest to perishing men who, without Him, are without hope. The believer is complete in Christ, in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells, and the Holy Spirit makes him conscious of the unutterable blessedness of being united to Christ on high. He seeks to realize, in the power of the Spirit, the perfection and blessedness of that union and unblameable condition before God. He desires to realize it, but has no uncertainty as to his calling, meekness and acceptance in Christ, though ever conscious while here of his need of grace.
Ascribing all glory and majesty, dominion and power to the only wise God our Saviour, now and for ever, Jude closes his short but powerful warning. Christians of these last days do well to hearken. The evil has ripened, and is ready to manifest itself in total departure from the Christian faith, in the complete denial of Christ, and of the Father and the Son. The wickedness which the apostle Peter denounces is fast heading up, and judgment is ready to begin at the house of God. It will not stop at the house, but all the world will learn righteousness when the judgments of the LORD are in the earth (Isaiah 26:9). But God rejoices in mercy, He is a Saviour God.
In these last times it is most important that we inquire what was in the beginning. To what did God call men by the Gospel of His grace? Has the Church kept her first estate? Was there a body formed on earth? Is it still here? To what did the Church witness? Is it still responsible to bear the same testimony?
The apostle Paul preached to the Gentiles the Gospel of the glory of Christ, and it led those who believed out of the world to a Christ in heaven. Though still in the world they were not of it; their life was hid with Christ in God, and their hope was to be with Christ in the glory. Their Head being in heaven they had their place and portion in Him there. To the apostle was given the revelation of the mystery of God, it concerned Christ as Head over all things, and He was Head to the Church which was His body. Paul carried out his ministry of the Church as a distinct service, making known the true position, privileges and blessing of the assembly. The ministry of the Church entrusted to Paul was connected with the Gospel of the glory that he preached. He administered the truth he received in revelation from the Lord, and established the Church as an ordered assembly of Christians amongst the Gentiles. For the moment it acted manifestly as a body, a living organism, in the power of the Spirit, directed by Christ the Head on high. The apostle taught that Christ dwelt invisibly amongst the Gentiles; He was in these Gentile believers. Christ in them was the hope of glory. He lived in their hearts and filled them with joy and glory. The Holy Spirit by whom they were united to Christ, and who dwelt with them, set Him before their souls and formed them after their object; He brought the consciousness of union with Christ in all its blessedness into their hearts. The assembly had only a pilgrim path down here, it was not of the world, and this was also true of the individual member, he was a member of Christ, he was livingly united to Christ the Head. It was equally true that the members were united to one another. But before the apostle had departed, he saw the incoming evil which would divide and scatter them, and he had to write, "For I have no man like-minded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's" (Philippians 2: 20, 21). "All they which are in Asia be turned away from me" (2 Timothy 1:15). "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock" (Acts 20:29).
The beloved and aged apostle John wrote to the assembly at Ephesus, "Thou hast left thy first love" (Revelation 2:4). The assembly had fallen from her heavenly testimony that she was united to and wholly for her beloved Head on high. The virgins had sought a place of rest and were taking their ease in the world while the Bridegroom tarried. All the scriptures which speak of the last days of this Christian period forewarn of departure and judgment; the constant exhortation is, "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen." It brings the heart back to God Himself.
The Church as the body of Christ was formed at Pentecost; it is still the body of Christ, whatever may be the outward appearance of Christians. It has never ceased to be His body, and never will cease to be His body, we may say. Though it is spoken of as on earth it will not always remain on earth and be in need of the gifts by which it is nourished and grows. It will be manifested with Christ in the glory as the fullness of Him who filleth all in all, when He comes. It was known by believers to be the body of Christ, and for the moment they acted in unity and enjoyed together their privileges as true members. That Christians should show an appearance other than that which God formed them to be, is irrefutable evidence that they have in practice fallen away from the truth. If what was meant to be the visible witness of the unseen Head, and which for a moment was visible, has become invisible, then Christians have only themselves to blame. A light is not meant to be hidden. The assembly was one with its Head on high, it still is. It was the witness down here that the world had rejected Christ who was no longer down here, but with the Father on high. When He went up on high He received again the Holy Spirit from the Father, and sent Him down to be the uniting bond between Himself and His own down here, and to be in them the power for a testimony to Himself in glory. The presence of the Holy Ghost in believers was the proof of the power of Christ in glory, a power all-sufficient to keep His own. An invisible Christ preached among the Gentiles was a proof of His acceptance and glory on high; at the same time He was in those who believed the hope of glory. They were not of the world, though they bore a testimony in it, and it was a testimony of a people who belonged to heaven because their Head was there.
If the Church has failed her responsibility has not been removed, she is no less responsible than she was. There is no evidence that the testimony she should have borne has changed; there is abundant evidence that she has not kept her witness to her first standing. Though she may have forgotten the truth, it is no less true than it was, nor has it been extinguished. Is the body of Christ here? Are the members of the body one with Christ and one in Him? Are they also brethren in one family, sons of the Father? What appearance do they present to the world? Is there anything more disunited than the Church down here? This downward trend is not remedied by revivals. If in the mercy of God the truth be revived, nothing is remedied, but it is great grace for the Church and most blessed for the individual Christian, who has his own responsibility with regard to the truth. It scarcely retards the acceleration of evil at the end, but it guards and arms the Christian against the wiles of the adversary, who knowing that his time is short, increases his activities to destroy souls by denying the truth and opposing Christ whose coming is near. The enemy is greatly successful when he is able to turn Christians to ordinances and religious forms, and even to turn the exhortations addressed to the hearts of Christians into legal commands.
The house of God in which He now dwells by the Spirit, was established upon a sure foundation, laid by the wise master-builder (1 Cor. iii. 10), but since the foundation was laid men have built in much faulty material, and many vessels to dishonour have been introduced. All man's workmanship must come into judgment and be tried with fire. God in great grace has, in these last days, reminded believers that He still dwells in His house down here. Where His grace has awakened a response in the hearts of Christians and they have given Him His place, not only have they known great blessing for their souls while feasting with God, but they have learned to give Him the praise in which He delights—the outpouring of hearts that have entered into His thoughts and magnify His grace. This praise from hearts touched by grace has stayed the judgment for a little time.
The evil that will develop in the last days is no longer as hidden as it once was; it grows more blatant and loudly announces its unbelief. The believer is warned and guarded by the Word of God, and by the blessed ministration of the Spirit of God who never fails to anticipate the working of the flesh and the wiles of the enemy. The wicked one will be revealed when He who hinders his manifestation is taken out of the way. Meanwhile the spirit of error works as the mystery of iniquity which often breaks through the surface to reveal its horrid activities.
When the last restraint is removed and the man of sin is revealed, judgment will fall. The mystery of God as announced by the prophets will be finished and His direct power will have come. The state of things under the great apostasy and their historic course will be disclosed as found in the "little book" of Rev. x, and its whole history will be closed in the seventh trumpet. The time of long patience with failure and evil while men are being gathered for blessing will be past. The time to close up man's day of self-will and godless activity will have come; and the day of satanic deception will be drawing to its end. The question then is openly raised—Is Christ to rule? It is then He will appear and assert His rights by His own title and power. The final days of open apostasy which bring the mystery of iniquity to an end will have come. All that is at work in principle now will be fully developed in those days, and the way God acts to meet it and destroy its working will be openly seen. All will be finished historically in the sounding of the seventh trumpet. The mystery of iniquity is by no means the whole mystery of God, but it is included in the revelation of God in His ways by which He brings to pass His eternal counsels.
Now is the time when the faithful are called to depart from all iniquity, to stand firm in the truth as it was first delivered to the saints, and to hold fast the form of sound words as given by the Spirit of God to the apostles. They are not to be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord nor of all that was taught by Paul, His prisoner for the truth's sake. In such a day of pretension as this, it is increasingly difficult to walk in the path of lowly humility where man is nothing and grace is everything. Only with the sense of divine goodness pervading the mind, and the heart filled with the love of God, can the lowly and despised path be followed in faithfulness. The sense of the need of mercy will keep the heart humble, and the believer will find his strength in the joy of the Lord, where he may rejoice always, casting himself wholly upon the grace that flows freely from the goodness of God.