“And this is my prayer: that your love might overflow more and more in knowledge and all discernment.”
And so, out of Paul’s love for his friends in the church in Philippi, he offers up his prayer for them as they seek to grow in their spiritual maturity. He begins with a prayer for agape love…there are several different words in the Greek to reflect different aspects of love; agape love reflects the idea of a sacrificial love that loves regardless of whether the love is reciprocated on the part of the beloved. Ultimately, it is the love demonstrated by Christ who died for the sins of the elect while we were yet dead in our sin and in rebellion against the King of Heaven. It is also the kind of love that all believers are to strive toward as we live our our lives in community…as the old hymn based on John 13:35 goes: “They shall know we are Christians by our love.”
But notice something. Often Christians seem to end there when they talk about God’s design for our lives. There is an assumption that we are just to love one another, love the world, and all will be happy. And what we end up with oftentimes is this mushy, sappy, love that has no real backbone to it. Yet, Paul does not end his prayer here. Paul asks that the agape love that the church would have would indeed overflow (arguably a reference to Psalm 23:5), but that it would overflow in knowledge and discernment.
In other words, love does not stand on its own, but is guarded and guided by something else in the life of the believer. The term that Paul uses for knowledge is ejpi/gnwsiß (epignosis), which is typically used to refer to a knowledge of the transcendent — a knowledge of that which is outside of you, whether moral or spiritual. And while the term ai¡sqhsiß (aisthasis), which we translate here as “discernment” only shows up once in the New Testament, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is found 22 times in the Book of Proverbs (no great surprises there). Thus, according to Paul’s prayer for spiritual maturity, love does not stand alone, it is accompanied by both the knowledge of God and the discernment that comes from the fear of the Lord.
The idea virtue seems to have been replaced by freedom in our culture today. People champion personal expression and personal pleasure over the idea of chivalry, honor, integrity, and duty. People seem to value personal experience over transcendent truth. And that shift is a dangerous one for the culture; more significantly, it is our calling as a church to pull the culture back from the edge of the cliff. But we cannot do that unless we, as Christians who make up the church, also embrace a Biblical model of knowledge and discernment that guides and guards our love. May indeed Paul’s prayer for the church in Philippi be a prayer that we embrace in our lives and may we strive to cultivate the knowledge of God (found in the scriptures) and godly discernment (begun with a fear of the Lord) in our lives in every way.
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that there was a hierarchy of values in terms of what was worthwhile for individuals and society to pursue. For Aristotle, the highest value was the knowledge of truth for its own sake. Of course, Aristotle was an Empiricist, which means that his real interest in “Truth” has to do with what one can observe with one’s senses or through the use of observational tools. Some might be tempted to simply label this, “science,” but such a label would shortchange both science and Aristotle’s view. Much of science is based on the use of reason built upon basic presuppositions and Aristotle recognized that observation could be applied to things outside of the realm of what we would typically classify as science (metaphysics, for example).
Aristotle’s second value was the discovery of practical knowledge—what Christians and Jews typically refer to as wisdom. This is the kind of knowledge that can guide one to live a life well and skillfully. For Aristotle, this was exemplified in the Four Cardinal Virtues of Greek thought: Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation. Finally, the value at the bottom of Aristotle’s list was that of learning to be skilled in Technique—what we would refer to as technical or vocational skills. These are the skills by which one would earn a trade.
I began to reflect on these ideas for two reasons. First, I heard a contemporary philosopher argue that our modern culture has turned Aristotle’s hierarchy upside down—that those who our society values the most (based on their paychecks) are those who demonstrate a high degree of skill in technique and those who are valued the least are those whose life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake. Thus we live in a society where professional athletes, popular musicians and actors, and skillful doctors (again, technique with the surgical instruments) are the wealthiest class and preachers, teachers, and philosophers make up one of the poorest classes in society. The second reason that I began reflecting on this idea is because I happened to be teaching on Augustine’s approach to the Four Cardinal Virtues of the Greeks. Ultimately, Augustine affirmed these virtues as Christian virtues, but only when they were joined by faith, hope, and love—especially love.
Thus, I began asking the question, if I had to construct a hierarchy of values for the Christian life, how do I think that they would be reflected in the Christian life. One might be tempted to begin, as Aristotle begins, with a knowledge of truth for its own sake. Jesus said that his purpose in coming to dwell with men was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). God, of course, is the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16) and those who reject God suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). In addition, those who have no knowledge of God (as truth resides in God) destroy themselves (1 Corinthians 1:34). Also, the implication of scripture is that it is the knowledge of God that allows his people to be faithful (Hosea 6:6) and when there is no faithfulness in the land, it is joined by a lack of the knowledge of God (Hosea 4:1).
Yet, it seems to me that a higher virtue sets the stage for the knowledge of the Lord. When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the very Son of God, Jesus’ response is not to congratulate him on that knowledge, saying it was the highest virtue, but Jesus instead said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah” for this knowledge came from “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). There are two things that need to be brought out from this verse in light of understanding Christian virtue. First of all, the source of the knowledge of God is God himself, not something gained through a human pursuit—and if something has a source, or a precursor, it ought not be seen as the “highest” virtue. Secondly, Jesus does not say, “virtuous are you,” but he says, “blessed are you.” The Greek word for virtue, ajreth/ (arête), refers to one’s moral excellence or other attributes that make one praiseworthy. Yet, blessedness, maka/rioß (makarios), has to do with one’s internal state as a result of their relationship to God. Thus, Jesus can say, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake…” Similarly, Peter’s blessedness does not come from anything he has done, but because of what has been done to him.
Now, we may be tempted to engage in a discussion of regeneration, but since the purpose of a hierarchy of virtue is to give us something of merit to pursue, such a discussion does not seem to have a place here as regeneration is something that God does in us which in turn precipitates a response of faith and repentance in the believer. Our temptation, too, might be to jump immediately to the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and to Peter’s instructions on how to build up our faith (2 Peter 5-7), but again, these seem to have their source in a virtue that is more primary.
And that brings us to the question, what then does the Bible present as primary? The logical answer seems to be that the highest virtue is the fear of the Lord. We are told in scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10) and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). The fear of the Lord gives life and health not only to the individual believer, but it is also a sign of a healthy church (Acts 9:31). And then, out of the fear of the Lord proceeds the pursuit of the other Christian virtues.
“They are a stain to your love feasts, eating without fear, shepherding themselves; they are waterless clouds, blown by the wind—unfruitful trees in late autumn—twice dead and uprooted. They are wild waves at sea, foaming up their own shame, wandering stars for whom the dark gloom of eternity has been kept.”
Eating without fear: These men have fully engaged in the “love feasts” or the aÓga¿ph (agape), which given its context both here and in historical literature, is most likely what we call Holy Communion today. Paul writes a stern warning against those who would approach the Lord’s table in an unworthy manner and goes as far as to say that those who do eat and drink judgment upon themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). Unbelievers sometimes balk when we fence the communion table, preventing them from participating, but we do that not to exclude them, but to save them from imminent judgment. To the unbeliever, the communion cup is a cup of poison and judgment, it should be understood that it is a blessing that we withhold communion from those who would take it wrongly.
But this warning is important for believers to here as well as unbelievers. This is because those who would come to the communion table still holding sins or hatred against a brother, being unrepentant, also heap judgment upon themselves. We need to come to the table with great joy at the privilege that has been offered to us, but at the same time, we should approach God with fear and trembling, trusting in his grace and not taking that privilege and gift for granted.
Shepherding Themselves: These men have assumed the role of pastor without any concern or care for the sheep—they just want a paycheck to satisfy their own lusts. If a shepherd is not vigilant, the sheep will soon be devoured. These men are reckless with the flock that they tend and are more interested in the condition of their bellies than the spiritual condition of their flock.
One of my fears is that when we ordain men to the Gospel ministry, we pay more attention to the facts they know than to the man’s character. This is a recipe for disaster. Robert Murray M’Cheyene once stated that the greatest need of his congregation was his personal holiness. How true that is!
Waterless clouds: A cloud that is without rain may look pretty from a distance, but when up close you will quickly realize that they have no substance. They are valueless and will drift along with the winds of change. Oh, how this speaks of many American pastors today! How many ministers of the Gospel really cherish the Gospel they have been called to preach? How many would lay down their life to preserve the truth of the Gospel? How many pastors have the spiritual depth and density to truly feed their congregations? When sermons are filled with fluff, it is likely that the preacher is filled with the same. Jesus said that those who would come to him in faith would become fountains of water (John 7:38). As the Holy Spirit waters the believer in abundance, the believer’s cup runneth over with rivers of living water. To use the language of 2 Peter, these men are dry wells.
Fruitless trees: Not only do these trees bear no fruit, making them useless, but it is late in autumn and they have no sap in their veins to nourish growth and they are uprooted, never to see growth again. These men are twice dead, they are dead to sin here on earth and they are dead spiritually, an enemy of the giver of life. As Jesus said, the branches that do not bear fruit will be cut off, and they will wither and die being separated from the sap, and then, they will be thrown into the fire (John 15:1-8). Friends, our Lord has told us that we are to judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), these men are not only bearing no fruit, but there is no hope for them to bear fruit—they are twice dead. Be alert to those who would come in your midst in a like manner.
Wild waves: The ocean waves are loud and chaotic. Their shame and immorality is like the foam at the top of a breaker. They rage wildly in their sin without trying to hide it. They crash to the shore and they toss everything and everyone caught in their breakers around wildly. There is no safety to be found in these waters, only destruction. Remember that even in Jude’s day the sea was a place of danger and mystery, and so too are these false teachers.
Wandering stars: The language of stars is often used of angels, and in the context of verse 6, this implies that the false teachers will share the same fate as the fallen angels. They will be lost in darkness and damned forever. The believer will spend eternity with Christ, the unbeliever will spend eternity separated from Christ. Christ is true light and apart from him there is no light at all. Flames, weeping, gnashing of teeth, the worm consuming, separation from all that is good and right, and darkness—not a pretty image.
And none of this paints a pretty picture of the people who have become leaders in the church to which Jude is writing. This is a dark time for them. These men are destined for Hell in more ways than one and the church has fallen into their trap. Yet, these descriptions are sadly contemporary. Many churches, as well as whole denominations, have been seduced by men like this. We must be ever vigilant that we do not allow anyone to lead us or our congregation down such roads. We need to be keenly aware of who we ask to lead us. We need to watch to see whether these men are ones who will build up Christ’s body or only their own. We need to see whether they will bring unity or discord. We need to see whose agenda they are working toward. And most importantly, we need to see whether their life is pointing toward Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. These are not only questions that should be asked of pastors, but should be asked of all the members of Christ’s visible church. And, we absolutely must be asking them about our own lives.