Jude 22–23 states, “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” (ESV).
In these two verses, Jude identifies three groups within the church that need special attention. Jude has admonished his readers to contend for the faith against false teachers who have crept in the church (Jude 3–4). He then went on to give a scathing sketch of what kind of people these false teachers were (Jude 5–16). Turning his attention back to his readers in Jude 17–25 (“beloved”), Jude deals with those in the church who have been affected by the false teachers.
In the headings that follow below, we will see how we are to minister to each of these three groups, and who exactly makes up each group according to Jude’s description of them.
In rescuing those who have been influenced by the false teachers, we must…
1. Show Mercy to Those on the Fence (Jude 22)
Jude commands us to “have mercy on those who doubt,” standing on the fence, so to speak, not sure of who to follow. To have mercy in this context is to have compassion and pity for those in the church who are vacillating in their faith. Smooth-talking false teachers have captured their convictions for a moment, but our gentle and loving approach may bring them back to sound thinking, carefully articulating truth in the face of error that they are considering. It is not merely a matter of winning their heads. A merciful approach will win their hearts.
2. Be Firm with Those in the Fire (Jude 23a)
Jude commands us to “save others by snatching them out of the fire.” Of its 106 uses in the NT, the verb “save” is typically used to directly or implicitly describe how God saves men through Christ (e.g., Rom 10:9). Only rarely is it used to described how one can spiritually save another (Rom 11:14; 1 Cor 7:16; 9:22; 1 Tim 4:16; cf. Acts 2:40). It is obviously not in the power of man to spiritually save the soul of another, but we could say that God sometimes uses the means of Christians to provoke their brothers and sisters in Christ to forsake false teaching and persevere.
Jude’s means of salvation is “by snatching them out of the fire.” These people are not just doubting whether or not the faith is true—they are now pictured as beginning to be burnt by the fire of judgment, implying eternal fire to come. Given the danger, the provocation to persevere in Jude 23 is not a half-hearted attempt to win back a brother. “Snatching” comes from the same word that refers to taking something by force (e.g., Matt 11:12; John 6:15; Acts 23:10). “Fire” speaks of the eternal fire for the one betrays a false profession by turning away from the faith (cf. Matt 3:10, 12; Heb 10:27; Rev 20:14–15). Just as Joshua the high priest was plucked as a brand from the fire and forgiven by God for his sins (Zech 3:2–4), so also God can use us to snatch others from false teaching and the eternal fire that would be theirs.
3. Show Mercy with Fear to Those Stained by the Flesh (Jude 23b)
Jude’s final command is “to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” We have considered showing mercy above, and now we see that this mercy is coupled “with fear.” Implied is a fear for God, but the context points to fearing the sinner’s sin—“hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” This group is not just doubting or even being barely burnt by playing with fire. This group is immersed in false teaching, stained for all to see.
“The garment” in Jude’s picture for sin is the inner garment that sits immediately on the skin. Being “stained by the flesh” details the picture further of a garment soiled by use. What remains of sin in us (“the flesh”) stains us from time to time (cf. Gal 5:16–17). If Jude has Zechariah 3:1–5 on the mind again, to describe Joshua’s garments as “filthy” as a picture of sin was to use a word typically used for excrement in the OT (Deut 23:13; 2 Kgs 18:7; Prov 30:12; Isa 36:12; Ezek 4:12). Just as Peter graphically described returning to sin as a dog eating its vomit and a pig wallowing in mire (2 Pet 2:22), Jude likewise shows us the ugliness of sin as excremental filth on our inner clothing. When showing mercy to those affected by false teaching, or even to the false teachers themselves, we must be cautious in our interactions so that we neither join or condone their sin.
False teaching abounds in our day. Sometimes it creeps into the church through false teachers. Should our brothers and sisters and Christ become influenced by it to one degree or another, may we deal mercifully with the doubters, snatch those in the fire, and show mercy with fear to those stained by sin.