In this Close Reading series, biblical scholars reflect on a passage in their area of expertise that has been formational in their own discipleship and continues to speak to them today.
I had just finished a class lecture on the theology of sin in the New Testament, and a student wanted to continue the conversation after class. Her pensive expression gave me some alarm. My mind began to race through all of the possible comments that may have offended her. After everyone had departed from the lecture hall, she confessed, “My brother is gay. He told my family last week, and I want to know what you think.”
My heart is filled with compassion in situations like these. Conversations about human sexuality are not simple. You do not just give people a few Bible verses and send them on their way, expecting all their problems to be solved. You have to patiently talk through their questions, concerns, and doubts. These sorts of dialogues are often laced with heavy emotions such as fear, guilt, pain, or shame.
As a New Testament scholar, I often find myself in off-the-record conversations about human sexuality. Whether it is in a discussion with a student, a former colleague whose son is dealing with gender dysphoria, or a pastor who is attempting to balance leading a welcoming church while upholding the teachings of Scripture, human sexuality increasingly comes up in conversations.
I am asked questions as if I know of something new or different from what has been understood and affirmed throughout Christian history and tradition: that God created male and female, and that sex outside of the confines of marriage between a man and a woman is contrary to biblical values.
Some gently start by testing me with hypothetical questions. “What do you think about …” is an innocuous way to gauge how I would react. Others may bring up the sexual sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and when they do, my mind does not rush to Genesis 19:1–28. Instead, I think first of Jude 1:7, where these cities are also mentioned.
Jude is one of my favorite letters in the New Testament. I was initially drawn to it as a student because it is a short book but is filled with passages that provoked my curiosity. It compelled me to think about the literary world of Judaism—books outside of the New Testament canon that were quoted and treated as Scripture.
Jude cites the Book of Enoch, talks about dream divination, mentions a story about the angel Michael fighting with the Devil, and inspires me to “contend for the faith” that was entrusted to me from my first day of being a Christian (vv. 3, 8, 9, 14–15). Prophets, angels, dreams … it cannot get more supernatural!
But today I read Jude in a new manner as a result of our contemporary challenges with human sexuality. Why? Jude is firm in his convictions. There is no middle ground. He addresses a church that had become lax in its spirituality and morality. It had lost sight of the teachings of Scripture and failed to apply the stories of the Bible to its present life. This led the church to misuse the grace of God and deny the lordship of Christ.
But although Jude is resolute and exhorts the recipients of his letter to contend for the faith, at the same time he also urges them to extend mercy to those who are struggling, including those dealing with sexual sin. This is why now, more than ever, this letter resonates with me as I navigate conversations about human sexuality and gender identity.
Discussions about sexuality and identity are complicated, especially as we walk in relationship with loved ones, friends, and church members for whom the topic is personal. For me, this is not simply a topic of abstract ethics or hypothetical situations. It is a conversation about real life. My church brothers, sisters, friends, and fellow ministers have earnest questions and struggles about their sexuality or how to address this topic.
And as Christians, it is our duty to passionately love all people, desire for everyone to know Jesus, and tirelessly preach and preserve the truth of the gospel that has been entrusted to us since the days of the apostles.
I believe Jude would resonate with our challenges if he lived during our time. In fact, the letter was motivated in part by Jude’s concern about people who were creating confusion in the community over the role of human sexuality.
In recent years, the Book of Jude has received much attention in some academic circles. Its sharp rhetoric, on a literal level, could be taken to an extreme and harm our witness as a gospel community of truth, grace, and love. As a result, some scholars are questioning how seriously (or literally) we should take the portrayals and problems he describes, such as calling the ungodly among his audience “blemishes” and “wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever” (vv. 12–13).
Is Jude really describing a situation that was occurring in that community? Or is this letter an example of “vilification rhetoric” that was also common during his time? For some, the letter’s language is too harsh and best ignored.
But as a person of faith who trusts and believes in the inspiration of all Scripture, I cannot ignore this letter. I keep coming back to it, and I know that it must have a place in our Christian formation and theological imagination.
Let’s imagine for a minute Jude’s pastoral situation. The recipients of his letter were Christians living in a context in which public expressions, legal protections, and opinions of human sexuality were very different from our society.
There were a variety of common and accepted sexual relationships and activities that included pederasty (men with young boys), effeminacy, self-mutilation, and legalized sexual slavery. Even when laws were passed prohibiting adultery, they applied only to Roman citizens. A Roman male could legally do what he wished to his servants because they were his property. The wider Roman and Greek culture did not consider sexual activity outside of the boundaries of marriage as a sinful act in the Judeo-Christian sense.
Additionally, there was no normalized sexuality in their society as we presume today. Differences existed among Greeks, Ethiopians, Scythians, Germans, and Jews. Every culture had its own views of sexual boundaries and taboos.
For instance, Plato’s Symposium describes Greek men who marry and have children not because they believe it is morally right or natural, but because they are compelled to do so. In fact, in ancient Athenian society, love between two males was considered the highest form of “heavenly love.”
Plutarch’s Lycurgus notes that Spartan men were known for having multiple wives because they believed that having many children would benefit the state. Monogamous relationships were not the norm. The Roman poet Tibullus wrote poems that expressed his desire for young boys. Catullus, another Roman poet, echoed similar sentiments and explored the realities of men who become women. And the men who engaged in what we would today define as homosexuality did not believe that their actions would impugn their identity or were wrong in themselves.
In their culture, these activities were part of their masculine identity, as scholar David Halperin describes. For the Greeks and Romans, many sexual desires or behaviors that we’d consider immoral today were presumed to be a normal part of human nature.
Though the culture is different, in some ways the situation of the church Jude addresses is similar to ours as we too discern how to obey God and be set apart as Christ’s church amid changing sexual norms (Lev. 20:26). But I am drawn to another aspect in the letter of Jude that causes me to rethink its place and importance for the Christian life today.
At the end of the letter, Jude seems to recognize that not all will agree with the assessment he gives for the community. He had already offered clear directions for the believers, including an exhortation to contend for the faith (v. 3) and to remember the words of the apostles (v. 17), as well as instructions on how to maintain a vibrant spirituality in the triune God. “By building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit,” he writes, “keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (vv. 20–21).
Jude anticipates that some would be uncertain about whom to believe and follow. And those who were uncertain were also persuadable. Simply because they had not fully made up their minds did not mean they would never decide. So Jude exhorts his readers to have mercy toward these people who are doubting. “Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear,” he writes (vv. 22–23). The focus here is on what Jude’s hearers must do for those who are not fully persuaded of faith in Jesus.
While he does not compromise on truth, Jude does not compel the readers of his letter to force those caught in the middle to agree with him. He does not authorize the community to punish those who are still wavering in their faith. Instead, they are to have mercy and do whatever they can to help those who are doubting to escape their situation.
What does it mean to have mercy? In the Old Testament, God’s mercy is an expression of divine loving-kindness. It moves God to act toward humanity with salvation and love. It is the reason why God established a covenant with the Hebrew people (Ex. 33:19; Hos. 2:19). In fact, God describes himself as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6, ESV).
This understanding of God as being merciful reverberates throughout the Bible. Mercy explains why God is so good to us (Isa. 63:7). It helps us understand why God does not immediately react toward us with judgment when we sin (Jonah 4:2; Zech. 1:12–16).
In Jewish literature and the New Testament, mercy is a divine posture and a response to a humanity that is in dire need. Most certainly, God is just and invites us to live holy lives. But even when God disciplines his people, he always includes mercy. God is the merciful one (Ps. 145:8). God saves us, not because of our actions, “but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5). As the apostle Paul states, “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Eph. 2:4–5).
Yet mercy is not simply a divine activity. Mercy is also the response of the righteous. It is the righteous who are expected to be merciful to all people (Prov. 14:31; 21:26). Jesus teaches us, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5:7). And in Jude’s letter, being merciful is the most suitable response to those who are struggling.
This letter teaches me that mercy is to be my response to those who are not yet convinced. It is the reaction we need to display, because it is how God treats us in our struggles and doubts.
Throughout the entire letter, even amid Jude’s quite strong denunciation of immorality (v. 4), he also talks about mercy. He hopes that the readers would experience “mercy, peace and love … in abundance” (v. 2); encourages them to “wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ” that would bring them to eternal life (v. 21); and instructs them to be “merciful to those who doubt” (v. 22).
Although conversations about gender identity and human sexuality may signal a new cultural shift today, this would not have been a strange conversation for the community that Jude addresses. Jude’s final exhortation to be merciful echoes within my soul every time pastors, students, and friends approach me with questions about what the Bible says about human sexuality. Jude teaches us that our responses to those who have sincere questions, struggles, and doubts should flow with both truth and mercy.
To be clear, in conversations with those who are struggling, mercy does not ask us to neglect truth or to condone sexual behaviors or gender ideologies that are contrary to the teachings of Scripture. That is not the mercy Jude describes. Instead, mercy means that we provide space and time for people to have another opportunity to turn their lives around, to seek the Lord Jesus, and to experience the grace of God.
Mercy means that we do not neglect Scripture’s teachings or forget the moral behavior required of us. Mercy provides the chance to acknowledge our failures. It gives us the opportunity to experience the salvation of God.
Without mercy, how would we ever experience the grace of God? How can others also experience God’s grace and healing if we do not respond to them with mercy?
Jude’s exhortation to be merciful reminds me to be patient and kind toward those who are questioning their identity or struggling with their sexuality. We already have the truth. Jude provides us with a plethora of Scriptures that support our convictions and understanding of human sexuality. But what good is the truth if we fail to also dialogue with and disciple people with mercy?
Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III is assistant professor of New Testament at Vanguard University.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.