The elders at First Presbyterian Church of Capernaum assembled dutifully but none too cheerfully on a Saturday evening. Sabbath was over and no one was yet as strict on how to think of Sunday since Jesus had risen closer to dawn than the previous dusk. In any case, they simply had no choice but to make a decision before the Lord’s Day meal took place the next day. This was an emergency session.
Gathered round the table were six men. Four were lay rulers and one was a pastor. The four were something of local Christian celebrities for the area. At least, they were celebrities among those who were left since the disciples had left and virtually never came back to the region. Ananias, Joshua, Nathanael, and Simeon had been close friends for their whole lives. They had grown up in the area and become somewhat famous for their relationship to Jesus, not as members of his entourage when he was touring the countryside a couple of decades earlier, but as local supporters. They had gained a reputation because they had taken radical action demonstrating their trust in Jesus.
The pastor was a foreigner. Nicolaus had been raised as a good Pharisee in Alexandria who, upon converting to Christianity, had to flee from his own brothers who thought that they would be pleasing God to get him assassinated. He relocated to Asia and eventually become a pastor before a brief flurry of local persecution forced him to leave quickly. The caravan leaving that night happened to be heading south. One thing led to another and Nic (as he like to be called) found himself a refugee on the shores of the sea of Gallilee.
The visitor we will not name yet, except to mention that some others present had once damaged his property. His presence there was, humanly-speaking, quite coincidental. His mother-in-law had passed away and he had been able to return to deal with some estate issues. Since he was a nationally recognized Christian, everyone was glad that he had been free to return. If he had been busy with church work he would have refused to come, which would have caused more local grumbling in the area about the Gospel.
Nic spoke first. “I realize that it is usually appropriate for one in my place to preside over these proceedings,” he said. “But I have been among you as your pastor for less than a week. I know of many of the congregation from mutual friends or business associates across the lake” (actually, he said “sea,” but he was referring to Gallilee, not the Mediterranean, so I thought it best to paraphrase). “And,” he continued, “you know me by reputation, which is what caused you to take a step of faith and call me to be your pastor and teacher. Nevertheless, I have not been familiar with the person who we are discussing, whereas you three” he gestured to three of the four ruling elders, “have been life-long friends, and you, Simon, are his brother.” He turned to the visitor, “I understand you have met him as well.”
The visitor nodded but looked puzzled. “Ask any question you may have,” said Nic, picking up on the cue. “We are a small enough body that we can be somewhat informal.”
“Thank you,” said the visitor. “I understood you had relocated here three weeks ago after preaching and leading once or twice before.” Nic nodded, as did the others. “Then haven’t you actually met Jude?” the visitor asked. “My meeting with him, while memorable, was quite brief. He never even spoke. So, yes, I met him; but surely you shouldn’t downplay your own more recent acquaintance in comparison to something so brief and so long ago.”
“But I have never met him,” replied Nic. “Brother Simon, why don’t you explain to our honored guest what is going on. And also I will ask you to be the temporary president of our proceedings. I would rather one more familiar with Jude, one who I know loves him greatly, to take the leading part in this unhappy business.”
Simon nodded. Nic had told him before the meeting what he planned to do and he saw the wisdom in it. “Yes, our pastor has never met Jude because Jude has ceased attending Lord’s day worship. He attended sporadically for awhile, but my brother was not attending when our brother and new father Nic came to preach to us those days.”
The visitor said nothing but nodded that he now understood.
“So then,” said Simon, “since we have all confronted my brother today, and since he refuses to be present with us to speak any word good or bad or hear any final exhortation, there is nothing to do but name the offense that is known to all and make our ruling to be announced tomorrow.”
“Just for the record,” asked Nic, wanting the visitor to hear the answer, “how many times have you met with him about this?”
“Many more times than we have with any other offender of this sort,” said Nathanael, barely keeping bitterness out of his voice. “Not three times but three times three, and three times more than that if you count all the private individual attempts that have been made to divert Jude from his present path. The only possible complaint anyone could have regarding these proceedings is that they should have taken place long ago. He was our best friend for so long, and such a renowned person here, it was difficult to bring ourselves to this step.”
“Don’t bee too hard on yourself,” said the visitor. “You are here to do the right thing.”
“Then to name the charges…” said Nic, looking at Simon. He wanted to get the unpleasant business over with.
“My brother,” said Simon, picking up the hint, “has left his wife and abandoned his young children and has taken up with a “concubine”–or so he rationalizes his behavior–that is easily less than half his age. He has claimed the right the Pharisees teach and simply written out a divorce document. But even if that were legitimate, it is an known fact that he himself acknowledges that he was having an affair with this girl and also with others, purchasing various thrills with money that should have supported his family!”
“Then it is time to declare that he has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins,” murmured the visitor.
“Umm… ” Nic plainly felt uncomfortable interrupting. “Sir, with all due respect I don’t understand how we can say any such thing.”
Everyone looked at Nic in surprise.
“I don’t mean that he should not be declared an unbeliever!” Nic hastily clarified. “I mean that if he were ever forgiven then he would have never fallen away. Forgiveness is forever.”
Joshua laughed in a way that did not sound very happy. Anannias elbowed him, and the rest looked at him with startled expressions.
“Please forgive me, brothers and fathers,” he said quickly. “A certain bitter irony just caught me by surprise. One which I will respectfully share with all of us here in this assembly.” He hesitated for a moment, as one would expect of someone trying to gather their thoughts amid great emotional turmoil. Everyone waited for him to speak.”
“As I believe Ananias, Nathanael, and Simeon will confirm willingly,” Joshua began slowly, “I have been Jude’s closest friend. Since early manhood I believe I have been even more his confident than Simeon.”
He paused and Simeon decided to encourage his friend. “Yes, you are right. You’re own ill health at that time made it convenient for you to spend many hours with him in his room or on the roof when the weather permitted. Your brothers and mine would be out helping our parents. I often wished I could have a few of those hours.”
Joshua smiled grimly. “I can’t say the memory of them is all that pleasant at this time. He would spend many hours telling me what great feats he would do, what heroic actions, if he could only walk. And now that he is healthy, look what he has done with the Lord’s mercy in his life!”
“But let me get back to my point, brothers,” he said, stirring himself out of distant memories. “I bring this up to say that I began to suspect, or rather to feel that something was wrong, long before anyone else and even before any real evidence justified my admonishing him. But I did, as the time when all became clear approached, counsel him to avoid certain temptations and certain directions that could lead to death. He always told me that I had nothing to worry about, because “once forgiven, always forgiven.” Not wanting to turn friendly advice into a theological debate, I didn’t push the issue. But my testimony is this: that his confidence in this matter led directly to his carelessness.”
The visitor spoke up, “Did he never hear our Lord’s parable of the unforgiving servant? It would have taught him not to presume on past forgiveness and may have caused him to turn from his ways!”
Before anyone could answer, Nic spoke up, “What parable is that?”
The visitor looked surprised so Simeon told him, “Our pastor was well-acquainted with Scriptures that we have always had. But until he came here, his acquaintance with our Apostolic writings was limited to the letters Paul has written.” Without explanation Ananias got up and left the room.
“I did get a look at James’ epistle one night staying at the home of Philip,” interjected Nicolaus. “The sermon on the mount, which I am reading now, reminds me of many things I forgot about that letter.”
Simeon nodded. “Yes, Nic has just received a copy of Matthew’s Gospel and probably would have read further except he was called away from his studies to deal with this crisis.” Ananias came back holding a scroll and put it on the table. It was plainly titled so even the visitor, who had not seen that particular copy, knew what it was.
The visitor nodded. “That explains more than just his ignorance of the parable in which we were warned of having our forgiveness canceled.” He reached for the scroll and began going through it to find a passage.
Nic winced as if someone had scraped their fingers across a chalkboard (though I don’t know if anyone knew about chalkboards back then). “I will read the parable and submit to God’s word, of course brothers. But I understand parables are mysteries and need to be interpreted carefully. Until I am convinced I stand by my conviction that we must inform Jude that, assuming he never returns to us, he has proven that he was never forgiven of his sins.
“But he was, Nic,” said Simeon. “There is no point in denying it. We five were all there.”
Nicolaus looked confused.
“It is not just our testimony, actually,” said the visitor. “Here it is in black and white.” He pushed the open scroll to Nic. The visitor was right. There it was in the new Scripture:
And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
“You see,” said the visitor, who, if you haven’t already figured it out, was the Apostle Peter himself. “There is no way to do this except to declare that he has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.”
Nic opened his mouth. But then he closed it. The issues were clear before him and he had to make a choice. Was he now going to insist that this meant that Jude was guaranteed to repent. Had Jesus told him and everyone else in hearing distance that Jude was eternally predestined to inherit eternal life? Jesus had forgiven others, he was sure. Were these people singled out for the unique blessing of being told by direct revelation that they were predestined to life. Or was it still possible to warn them against the possibility of backsliding into sin and unbelief and the eternal consequences that would follow from an hardened, impenitent heart? To his credit, the idea that they might still inherit glory while dying as unbelieving apostates never occurred to Nicolaus.
“Maybe I should read that parable before I comment further,” he said, finally.
Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.