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"Save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh." (Jude 1:23)
Clearly this verse, when viewed in its context, is talking about doing something good for sinners. And we can easily recognize that the first part of the verse mirrors the kindness that the angels showed to Lot in Gen 19:16. But what on earth is that "with fear" and "hating clothes" thing supposed to mean?
I always disliked the latter portion of this verse. It made me picture a sneering guy in priestly garb, his nostrils flared with disgust while doing whatever charitable deed he felt forced to do. If this "mercy-giver" had to touch the recipient of his "kindness," he'd do so with as few fingers as possible, and with an expression of nausea on his face.
But whether I like it or not, this verse says, "hate even their clothes." So I have to be the arrogant jerk described above, because that's what it says, right?
Or is that what it really says?
Thanks in part to the wonderful Biblehub.com website, which allows laymen to study Biblical words in their original languages, I was able to learn that this verse is, in fact, beautiful. It is a command to walk in humble love and mercy toward others when they sin, knowing that we're sinners ourselves. But in order to understand that, we have to get a handle on some fundamentals here. Namely, we must understand:
1. Why the fear and hatred?
2. What is the proper spirit of this hatred and fear?
2. What do the clothes represent?
First of all, it's important to note that "show mercy" is a command, but unlike what I had assumed for years, the word "hating" is not! (It looks like it could be a command in the English, but in the original Greek it's quite clear that it's not.) "Hating" in this sentence is a simple statement of the emotional condition that you're in while you're being negatively affected by something. In this case the negative is the idea of "staining" or "contamination."
Okay, but isn't "hating clothes" a weird way to talk about our reaction to sinners? Not to the First-Century Jewish writer and his audience! Back in Leviticus 15, the Jews were taught the laws regarding items, including clothing, which were contaminated by contact with an unclean person. Those items had to be dealt with in ways that sometimes seem drastic to modern readers. And these laws were deeply ingrained into the Jewish psyche and way of life.
God's reasons for such laws were multifaceted. He taught the people the basics of quarantining and hygiene, millennia before germ theory ever entered the human mind. But he also taught them a strong loathing for sin by equating sin with uncleanness. Don't miss that. In the Bible, sin is uncleanness.
Back to our verse in Jude. The hatred here is not primarily for the clothes. The focus is on the uncleanness. It's about hating uncleanness so much that you hate even clothes which have become contaminated. And hatred for uncleanness (sin) is commanded all throughout the Bible. It's the right thing to feel.
Yes, as distasteful as this fact sounds to modern ears, sin is offensive. It is offensive to our holy God, and when it affects us, it offends us, too. If we're honest, we have to admit that the sins we excuse when they're done by us, really bug us when they're done to us.
The Bible makes it clear that we're to hate sin. And the Bible also makes it clear that it's impossible to truly love our neighbor and remain indifferent to the sin that is destroying his soul. If our own souls have tasted the sweetness of undeserved mercy and salvation, how can we not hate the sin that destroys our neighbor? Hating sin is part of loving our neighbor, no matter what the modern mantra of tolerance says.
It's also important to understand that, in Jewish ceremonial laws, when a clean thing comes into contact with an unclean thing, it's always the uncleanness that spreads. The clean thing doesn't cleanse the unclean thing. Rather, the unclean thing contaminates the formerly clean thing (Haggai 2:12-13).
So why would a Jewish person hate and fear touching an unclean thing? Because he would become unclean himself! "The garment stained by the flesh" is metaphorically loathsome because it represents contagion...the contagion of sin.
But wait...didn't Jesus touch unclean people, like lepers, without becoming unclean Himself? Absolutely! That's because Jesus' cleanness was not merely ceremonial. He was the perfect, holy Son of God. So His cleanness can never be lost. He's the only one who cannot be contaminated.
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This is one of many things that the Pharisees (the religious elite of Jesus' day) got all wrong. They really did think they were better than everybody else, and so they wouldn't touch anything they considered unclean (and they had made their own rules about clean/unclean things, which were even more restrictive than God's law)! So blind were they to their own uncleanness, that they would order the murder of the sinless Son of God on trumped-up charges in an illegal court proceeding, but during that process, they would refuse to go into the house of an "unclean" Gentile, so that they wouldn't be contaminated and be unable to celebrate the Passover. They would stand in the Temple without a qualm about their own uncleanness, while declaring that the blood money they had used to pay for Christ's betrayal was too unclean to be put in the Temple coffers. Blind pharisees, indeed!
No, though we must hate uncleanness, it can't be an arrogant hatred if we know we are sinners.
How do we know that the hatred and fear in Jude 1:23 is a humble recognition of our own contaminability? By comparing it with verses like Gal 6:1, which command us to be gentle with others and careful of ourselves when confronting someone who is caught in sin, "lest we also be tempted."
So what is the point of this verse as I now understand it? Simply this: When rubbing elbows with sinners like yourself, who are currently in a really dangerous spot and need spiritual rescue, of course you need to show them mercy! That's a command. And of course you're likely to feel a certain revulsion if the sin offends you...but be revolted at the sin only. Love the person and show mercy to him despite those feelings! Don't let those feelings stop you from showing mercy! And be humbly aware that you're in the same boat with this guy. Unless you're God (and you're not), sin is contagious to you! You can easily be tempted and fall into the very same sin that you're trying to help him escape. So you must be gentle with him, and fearful of your own sinfulness...not rudely condescending to him and fearful of his sinfulness. No plugging your nose here.
This verse is a call to be like Christ, and to bring people to Christ, the only one who gently, lovingly touches sinners like us and makes us clean.
Sinners like us.
This is a beautiful verse.