Yesterday, April 24, marked twelve years for New City Church! God saw fit to raise up a new church in northeast Grand Rapids, and we’ve seen him do incredible things in our midst. Over these twelve years I’ve come to understand my role as the church’s lead elder as one of helping people die well. That doesn’t sound all that exciting and may even seem rather dark. Barring the Lord’s return, each one of us will die. We should die well, however. The only way to die well is to first live well, and to live well is to live by faith in Christ. To say this another way, my role and the role of my fellow elders is to help the church live by faith in Christ, that each one of us may die well when the time comes.
The short letter of Jude points us in the right direction for such a life. Jude began his letter by acknowledging he wanted to write a different letter yet found it necessary to write a letter of warning instead. He heard of false teachers infiltrating various churches and wrote to urge the believers to resist false teaching and to remain faithful to the apostolic faith they had received. Near the end of this brief letter he summed up his primary point.
But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. 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.Jude 1:17–23 ESV
Jude gives three instructions here. First, we must remember the warning of the apostles: false teachers will try to destroy the work of God. In every age of church history heretics have risen up to tempt God’s people away from the gospel of Jesus. We must hold fast to the faith once delivered. As Paul warned, if even an angel were to preach a different gospel from the one he preached, may that angel be eternally damned!
Second, we must secure our own faith in that truth we received. We must build up ourselves in our most holy faith—the very faith delivered to the apostles and from the apostles to us. Jude says to “keep yourselves in the love of God”. Jude is alluding to something his own brother said to his disciples: they must abide in him. We must root ourselves in Jesus and Jesus alone.
Third, we must rescue those in danger. Jude says to have mercy on those who doubt and even to snatch out of the fire those in significant danger of falling away entirely. Whatever the source of temptation, be it false teachers who directly contradict the truth of God in Christ or the things of this world that tempt us to wander from Christ, we must have mercy on those who struggle. We must leave the 99 in order to rescue those who have wandered quite far and are at risk of being lost.
We see these three instructions written in the first century are quite applicable to us today. We must remember the warning of the apostles as temptations to wander away from the gospel of Jesus abound. Sometimes it is in the form of direct false teaching. That is, often the temptation may come through some new teaching that directly contradicts the faith that has been believed everywhere, always, by all Christians. Oftentimes, however, the temptation is more subtle. We can tempted less by direct, overt teaching and more by the very subtle pull of unbelief. The truth is we can be our own worst false teachers! This unbelief can manifest itself in focusing on our circumstances rather than our union with Christ. Our present struggles can become the thing that identifies us rather than who we are in Christ. I suspect it would be much harder for New City folk to hear teaching that denies the deity of Christ, for example, than for us to begin to wonder if perhaps God has forgotten us, or is punishing us on account of present struggles. We would quickly recognize the error of someone who denies the coming resurrection whereas we might begin to wonder if we’re actually good enough to be followers of Jesus, for our struggle with sin is very real!
This brings us to Jude’s second injunction: we must build ourselves up in our most holy faith and we must pray in the Spirit! This is a communal activity. Jude is not calling us to engage in our personal quiet time, though that is a great idea! The pronouns are plural: build yourselves up in your—y’alls—most holy faith. We must build ourselves up together, in our most holy faith. Following Jesus is not something individuals do, but something we do together. This requires that we use our spiritual gifts to serve the church. We encourage one another and love one another and serve one another and teach one another and strengthen one another and correct one another. We participate together in following Jesus together by serving together and worshiping together and experiencing joys and sorrows together. In this way we build ourselves up in our most holy faith.
Finally, we must be on the look out for those who are struggling. Jude says to respond to those who doubt with mercy. When a brother or sister struggles to root his or her identity in Christ, we don’t respond with disgust or anger. We don’t respond with ridicule. In mercy we point one another to Christ, whether through exhortation or encouragement or teaching or simply walking alongside the one who struggles in faithful gospel friendship. Sometimes what we need is someone to just be there in the midst of the difficulty.
Part of having mercy is hating the garment stai
When Jude says to have mercy on those who struggle, this doesn’t preclude calling out sin! He says we are to hate the garment stained by the flesh. Love is not shown by overlooking sin. It is not mercy to ignore sin. Mercy is demonstrated by calling the struggling sinner to faithful repentance and by walking alongside him or her in the midst of the struggle! Nowhere does Jude suggest condemnation! Because his allusion is to Zechariah 3 and because in Zechariah 3 the Lord purifies the filthy garments, we must approach one another with the same mindset. In other words, we must contend for the faith once delivered even as we walk alongside the wayward sinner by clinging to the gospel of Jesus. The gospel is good news for the one struggling. The gospel is not a word of condemnation. While we must hate the garment stained by the flesh, we must not hate the one wearing it.
As I reflect back on the twelve years that New City Church has existed, it is readily obvious to me that this has been a work of the Lord. One of my “favorite” sins is pride (for that’s one I struggle with!). In my pride I would love to take credit for the genuine openness and vulnerability our people have together. Whether it’s a couple whose marriage is struggling or the man who is fearful of his medical condition or the concerns of a young couple seeking affordable housing or a man’s on-going struggle with lust or yet another parent’s angst for her children’s salvation or the painful loss of parents or grandchildren, New City folk share life together and while another person’s struggle may not be your particular struggle, we share these burdens together, doing exactly what Jude implores us to do. I wish I could claim that I planned this all along but the truth is I’ve never been a part of a church quite like this. I’ve had big dreams for New City but I never imagined this sort of community.
As I’ve shared before, like Timothy, when this church ordained me it claimed me. My life is not my own. I will continue to serve this church as long as I am able. As I look back over these last twelve years I sincerely hope the next twelve are like them—full of God’s faithfulness. I pray that God would enable this church to continue to remember the warning of the apostles, for each one of us can be—will be, at some point!—tempted by unbelief, whether in the form of false doctrine or by taking our eyes off Jesus. I pray that God would enable this church to continue to build ourselves up in our most holy faith by living together in genuine Christian community, serving God and his church with the gifts we’ve been given. I pray that God would enable this church to continue to show mercy to those who doubt, to save others by snatching them out of the fire of unbelief, to hate the garment stained by sin while loving those who wear them. I pray that God would raise up new leaders from among our men and women, to serve as elders and deacons, to lead the church in outreach and discipleship.
If God will continue to work among us, and if we will continue to heed Jude’s instructions, each one of us will die well, for we will have lived by faith until that day. This is the work God in Christ through his Spirit is doing in our midst. Happy Birthday, New City!