In the early 1970's, this nation became embroiled in what is perhaps its most enduring national scandal: the Watergate scandal. On June 17, 1972, five men broke into the Watergate Hotel, which at that time served as the offices for the Democratic National Convention. They were convicted on burglary and wiretapping charges and were soon revealed to have close ties to President Nixon. As more and more information was disseminated, it became evident that this break in was linked directly to the president. And so the press became vociferous in its search for the truth behind the scandal, which led to many tense and awkward moments with Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, who loyally tried to defend the President. In one exchange with the White House Press Corps, after Ziegler was caught in a bald-faced lie, he issued a modified statement, retracting a previous statement, by saying, "This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative."
If only it was really that simple. "These statements are inoperative. Please ignore them." But it's not really that simple. For there are not just "operative" and "inoperative" statements, there are truths and there are lies. And lies can be disastrous, diseasing, and damning things.
In our reading for today from the book of Jude, the brother of Jesus warns us against the dangers of lies and the false teachers who tell them:
Certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home - these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. (verses 4-7)
Certain men of Jude's day were denying the Lordship of Christ. And the lies that these men were teaching were far worse than the lies told by the White House during the Watergate scandal. For these lies were not merely matters of politics, they were matters of salvation.
Jude continues by giving three examples of the kinds of judgments which await these false teachers, each successive judgment becoming more intense. First, he recalls that the Israelites were "destroyed" because they did not believe. The Greek word for "destroy" is apollumi, meaning "to damn." This, then, was God's hellish judgment on these wicked Israelites. Indeed, Jude says exactly that when he then speaks of the rebellious angels who are being held in hell for their final judgment on the Last Day. But it is Jude's final example that is perhaps most striking: the judgment on these false teachers will be the same as that of Sodom and Gomorrah as they will "suffer the punishment of eternal fire." Interestingly, like the fires of hell, the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah were thought by the ancient Jews to be eternal. The first century Jewish historian Philo writes of these fires: "Unprecedented destruction... fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah in the ruins, and ashes, and sulfur, and smoke, and dusky flame which still is sent up from the ground as of a fire smoldering beneath" (Philo, Life of Moses, II:56). Apparently, the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah were still smoldering from some 2,000 years earlier even in the first century. This is the intensity of the judgment that awaits those who teach falsely.
How are we to guard ourselves against such false and destructive teaching? Jude answers, "Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (verse 3). The Greek word for "contend" is epagonizomai, from whence we get our English word "agony." Jude challenges us to fight so valiantly and vigilantly for the true doctrines of our faith that we agonize over orthodoxy. We should be determined to allow not even the slightest lie to creep in. And we should honestly address truth and falsehood in terms more straightforward than "operative" and "inoperative."
Do you heed Jude's call? Do you carefully distinguish truth from falsehood? Do you agonize over the true doctrines of our precious faith? I hope you do. Because this truth isn't just the truth about a politician, it's the truth about God. And that's truth that we should all be deeply interested in... and excited about.