A typical Greco-Roman letter begins with the author’s name, and the last New Testament letter meets this expectation. The opening words in v. 1 are:
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James
Visualize the phrases like this:
- a servant of Jesus Christ
- and brother of James
While New Testament letters mostly conform to a first-century rhetorical and epistolary pattern, the biblical authors invest theological meaning in the phrases that fill the mold. Put another way, the authors take in their hands a certain rhetorical mold and then add or omit what serves their agenda.
The beginning of Jude’s letter is important because of how he identifies himself. We don’t just find the name “Jude” followed by the recipients. There’s a twofold description (“servant of Jesus Christ” and “brother of James”) that distinguishes Jude from others who bear his name.
“Jude,” after all, was a popular name, most accurately rendered “Judas.” But that probably makes you think of the Betrayer of Jesus, right? Translators help us avoid that confusion by rendering the name as just “Jude.”
So how do the terms “servant” and “brother” help his readers know who’s writing to them?
First things first. Paul (in Titus 1:1) and James (in James 1:1) both identify themselves as servants of God. When a biblical author called himself a “servant of God” it was more than a humble posture. Old Testament background helps us see that “servant of God” was a title given to men like Abraham, Moses, David, and other prophets. A servant of Yahweh was set apart as the mouthpiece of Yahweh, his representative before people. Such a servant acted on God’s behalf, not according to his own will.
Therefore, when a New Testament writer calls himself a “servant of God,” he’s saying he belongs in the long line of Yahweh’s representatives. More than a humble posture, here “servant of God” is an office, a position of responsibility.
Look carefully at Jude’s first words. Where you might expect to find “servant of God” Jude wrote “servant of Jesus Christ“! This replacement indicates Jude’s high christology, but Jude hasn’t abandoned his monotheism. Far from it! God’s Son Jesus is divine, and to be his servant is to represent God himself.
More specifically, Jude is the mouthpiece of the Messiah; he is commissioned by the risen and reigning Son of God. The first description, then, “a servant of Jesus Christ,” is a claim to write with authority. The readers should heed the words of Jude’s letter because it comes to them as more than the concerns of a fellow Christian. These twenty-five verses have christological weight!
The second opening description, “brother of James,” clarifies further who this Jude (or Judas) is, for other men bear that name–such as the disciple Judas the son of James (Luke 6:16), the courier Judas Barsabbas (Acts 15:22), the Judas who lived on Straight Street (Acts 9:11), and Judas the brother of Jesus (Matt 13:55).
How does “brother of James” help narrow down the contending Judases? Normally a Jew would identify himself in relation to his father (“Jude, son of ____”). Moreover, this is the only place in the New Testament where a writer refers to a sibling as a way to distinguish himself. This fact, coupled with the simplicity of the unelaborated “James,” suggests that the readers were familiar with the man in view.
The readers would have recognized this “James” as the prominent leader of the Jerusalem church, a “pillar” according to Paul (Gal 2:9). This James was Jesus’ brother who believed after the resurrection (Matt 13:55; John 7:2-5; see especially 1 Cor 15:7).
Let’s recap. After Jude’s self-designation there are two further descriptions. To preempt the question “Why should we listen to Jude?” he writes that he’s “a servant of Jesus Christ.” His pen bears messianic authority! And to the expected question “Which Jude is this?” he clarifies that he’s the “brother of James.”
One final important point. If Jude is the brother of James and this James is the brother of Jesus, then the Jude (Judas) who wrote this letter is Judas the brother of Jesus. Does it seem surprising Jude didn’t mention this relation? He calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ,” but why not declare to everyone that he’s “the brother of Jesus Christ”?
Perhaps some people think that if they were related to Jesus and writing this letter, they’d mention their relation as an authoritative appeal: “You should listen to what I have to say, for don’t you know I’m Jesus’ brother?”
But Jude knows better. More important than biology is christology: Jesus is the Messiah! Jude’s authority rests not on the fact that he’s Jesus’ sibling but that he’s Jesus’ servant, which is why you don’t read Jude describing himself as the “brother of Jesus.” The brother Jude grew up with is seated at the right hand of God, and that preeminent status changes how he thinks about him.
So the readers should heed the words that follow v. 1a. As one under authority, Jude also writes with authority. His pen is a mouthpiece, and the written words are the words of Christ.