Cain, Balaam, and Korah (Part 1)
I want to take a look at a single verse in the book of Jude.
But first, we need to set the scene with some context.
We don’t go to the book of Jude very often. In the original Greek, it’s only 461 words long, making it the fifth shortest book of the Bible, so that’s part of it. But it’s also not a particularly encouraging or uplifting book, either.
There’s a reason for that. As the gospel began to spread and the early Church began to grow, new philosophical and spiritual ideas also began working their way into the Church. These ideas started mixing with Church doctrine, gradually warping and corrupting the core message of the gospel.
When Jude wrote his letter, Church members were beginning to be seriously affected by some of those ideas. He’s pretty clear from the outset that this wasn’t a letter he wanted to write—it was a letter he had to write.
Early on, he writes, “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
He wanted to write to them about the salvation we’re all looking forward to as Christians, but instead he “found it necessary” to urge them to “contend earnestly” for the foundational principles of the Christian faith. This is stronger language than it looks like in English. He’s essentially saying he felt he had no choice but to write this letter, that the brethren needed to contend, struggle, wrestle for the faith that had been delivered to them.
Why? “For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:5).
Bible commentaries will describe these “ungodly men” with some fancy-sounding words—proto-gnostics, libertines, antinomians—but we’re not digging into those ideologies today. The context we have here is enough to understand the kind of person Jude was writing about.
These were men who were abusing the grace we’ve been given through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They either believed that God no longer held Christians to any kind of moral standard, or else believed that their sins gave God an opportunity to show extra grace. That’s the train of thought Paul shot down when he asked, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!” (Romans 6:1-2)—or “May it never be!”
And so Jude feels compelled to write a letter to the Church, because these immoral, ungodly, lecherous human beings are peddling their twisted version of Christianity. Jude tells the Church, “No, this isn’t the faith that God delivered to us, and if you don’t fight for that faith, these men are going to trample all over it.”
And that’s just the first few verses! Jude also says, “These are spots [the Greek there means “hidden reefs”—not a stain, but something dangerous lurking below the surface, waiting to destroy entire ships] in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 1:12-13).
No one had to ask how Jude really felt about these men and their view of religion. He calls them “grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage” (Jude 1:16).
But what really fascinates me about this epistle is in verse 11: “But these speak evil of whatever they do not know; and whatever they know naturally, like brute beasts, in these things they corrupt themselves. Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah” (Jude 1:10-11).
I have wondered about that verse for years.
Cain, Balaam, Korah.
Why those three men? The Bible is filled with dozens of rogues and villains. What about Ahab, or Sennacherib, or Nebuchadnezzar, or Saul, or Haman? Did Jude just reach into a jar of rotten Bible characters and run with the first three he pulled out?
I don’t think so. He’s very intentional in his choice of words here. There’s a progression, an order to this. They have gone in the way of Cain. They have run greedily in the error of Balaam. They have perished in the rebellion of Korah. They have gone, they have run, they have perished. The way, the error, the rebellion.
And when we look at the Greek, there’s an added layer of depth here. “The way”—probably not surprising, but it’s talking about a road, a path, a journey. The way of Cain is a lifestyle, a road we can choose to travel.
“Run greedily” is interesting, because the verb here is actually about pouring out water. They have poured themselves out in the error of Balaam, without restraint. And “error” is interesting too, because in English, we might talk about an error the way we’d talk about a mistake, an accident. But this word isn’t talking about “the whoopsie” of Balaam. The Greek word here deals with wandering or straying, and implies the delusion or deception that results from it. Jude is saying they’ve poured themselves out into deception or delusion for the sake of gaining something. The English Standard Version says they’ve “abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error,” which is a pretty accurate translation.
And then when it talks about the “rebellion” of Korah, the word there literally means “speaking against.” The King James Version calls it “the gainsaying” of Korah, which is a word we don’t really use anymore, but it helps highlight that rebellion isn’t just an action; it’s an entire campaign. There are a lot of words moving behind the scenes before the action ever happens.
So that’s sort of a high-level overview. The way of Cain, the error of Balaam for profit, the rebellion of Korah. But it still leaves us with a lot of questions, and I think the best way to explore those questions is to look at the stories of these three men and see what lessons we can learn from their lives.
To be clear, I don’t think any of us reading this are antinomians or libertines or Gnostics. I doubt that any of us are turning the grace of God into lewdness or denying the power of God the Father and Jesus Christ.
But what Jude gives us here is a roadmap, a path that any of us could choose to walk down if we’re not careful. It begins with the way of Cain, pours us out into the error of Balaam, and rushes us headlong into the rebellion of Korah.
It’s worth taking some time to understand this progression so that we can steer clear of it.
Over the next three weeks, I want to ask two questions of each of these stories:
What exactly was the problem Jude was highlighting, and what template should we follow instead?
Next week, we’ll start with Cain.
Until next time,
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