This article can also be read in The Expository Files.
Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion (Jude 11).
If Hebrews 11 is the “hall of faith,” then Jude 11 is the “hall of faithlessness.” Jude wrote his letter to expose the faithless people who were perverting the grace of God (v4), denying Jesus (v4), indulging in the sexual immorality of Sodom (v7), rejecting divine authority (v8), and blaspheming God and his people (v10). Somehow people like this had “crept in unnoticed” (v4) into churches. “Woe to them,” Jude proclaims. He then gives three woeful examples of faithlessness.
Hebrews 11 describes Abel, who “offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain” (v4), while Jude tells of “those who walk in the way of Cain.” Hebrews 11 tells of Moses, who “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (v26), but Jude describes Balaam who abandoned what was right “for the sake of gain.” Hebrews 11 exalts the faithful men and women who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (v16), while Jude condemns the faithless men and women who desired to return to Egypt and perished in Korah’s rebellion.
What can we learn from the hall of faithlessness?
The Way of Cain
The first record of sacrificial offerings finds the shepherd Abel bringing from his flocks and the farmer Cain bringing from his crops. “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Gen 4:4-5). There is speculation as to why God preferred Abel’s offering. It seems unlikely that God merely preferred sheep to plants, since the Law of Moses would later include grain offerings. The commendation of Abel in Hebrews 11 helps us here. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb 11:4). The Hebrew writer emphasizes that Abel’s faith commended him to God. Based on God’s response to Cain’s offering, we can safely infer that a lack of faith caused God to have no regard for his offering. Add to this the detail that Abel gave the best of his sheep to God (Gen 4:4)—a detail not given about Cain’s offering.
After the rejection of his sacrifice Cain became very angry, a hot anger that could be seen on his face. Even after God’s warning of sin crouching at the door, Cain opened the door wide. Sin had only been introduced into the world in Genesis 3. But we open chapter 4 only to find vain worship, anger, jealousy, murder, and lying. After confronting Cain about the murder of his brother, God pronounced serious consequences on the first murderer (Gen 4:11-12).
Jude warned Christians about those who walk in the way of Cain. This is a degenerative path leading away from God. It begins with basic heart problems: conceit, disregard for God, and a short-temper. Often when that bad heart is placed next to a good one, the heart problems are exposed. “The wicked detest the upright” (Prov 29:27). That disdainful anger is allowed to stew and becomes jealousy, one of the most destructive emotions. “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” (Prov 27:4). Once jealousy has taken root, actions like murder are only a short step away. While we may chide Cain for his deplorable actions, Christ informed us that he was not interested in the mere avoidance of murder, but the roots of anger and jealousy (Mt 5:22). The way of Cain is not some distant road traveled only by murderers, but a daily temptation for all those struggling with toxic emotions.
The error of Balaam begins with king Balak of Moab. As he saw the Israelites encroaching on his land, he became nervous about this new threat, and called for a prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites. However as Balaam prepared to travel, God issued to him a stern warning not to curse his blessed people (Num 22:12). Not only did Balaam’s four oracles neglect to curse the Israelites—they blessed God’s people! King Balak was outraged. “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have done nothing but bless them” (Num 23:11).
If the story of Balaam ended there, he would not find himself in the hall of faithlessness. But King Balak does get his wish: the Israelites find themselves under God’s curse. In Numbers 25, they begin to worship Baal and associate with Midianite women, so God became angry with them and a plague was sent among the people. In Numbers 31 Israel takes their vengeance on the people of Moab and Midian, and our old friend Balaam pops up again—he is killed alongside the kings of Midian (Num 31:8). Moses sheds light on exactly what transpired: “Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord (Num 31:16).
Through perhaps a whispered suggestion, Balaam told King Balak how Israel could be hurt: “send them some of your women. Give them an idol. If they accept them, their God will become angry with them.” Balaam’s motive was greed. The rest of scripture confirms this motive. No Moabite was allowed into an assembly of the Lord, “because they hired against you Balaam the son Beor…to curse you” (Deut 23:3-4; Neh 13:1-2). As Peter described the motives of prophets and teachers who had forsaken God’s way he said, “They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain for wrongdoing” (2 Pet 2:15).
Jude warned Christians of those who had “abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error.” Balaam’s error was turning his back on God for the sake of money. Balaam had received genuine revelation from God, yet the allure of money held greater appeal than the truth of God. We live in a time and place where we are expected to abandon everything for the sake of gain. We forsake our families in the name of career advancement. We neglect our worship assemblies for the sake of overtime. We give up wholehearted service to our Lord for the sake of mammon (Mt 6:24). That is the error of Balaam!
The rebellion against Moses led by Korah probably has its roots in the rebellion of Numbers 14. The people had believed the report of the faithless spies about Canaan and lacked faith in God’s promise. The cry of that rebellion was, “let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Num 14:4). Korah may very well have been that leader the people were clamoring for. The slogan of Korah’s rebels was, “all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num 16:3). There was a grain of truth to that; God had said they were a holy nation (Ex 19:6). However God had in fact exalted Moses and Aaron to lead his people.
There eventually came a showdown between Korah and Moses. Moses proclaimed that if the instigators of Korah’s rebellion died natural deaths, they would be justified in their claims that Moses was no more an authority than the rest of the people. “But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord” (Num 16:30). As soon as Moses finished issuing his challenge, his prediction of v30 was vindicated as Korah and his co-conspirators were destroyed.
Jude warned Christians about those who might repeat the sins of Korah—in particular, rebellion. The antonym for rebellion is an unpopular concept: submission. Submission is unpopular because it means that someone is greater than I. Korah’s rebels were obsessed with their own holiness and exalted stature as a nation, not the God who did the exalting. Korah also refused to respect the authority God delegated to Moses. Korah thought that he knew better how to run things than Moses. But Moses’ decision making was not the problem. Neither was God. Korah’s rebellious attitude was the problem! Those full of pride, self-importance, and conceit will always struggle submitting to someone else’s will—even God’s. Jesus issued this criterion for entrance into the kingdom: “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:4).
Jude reminded Christians of these three faithless men because there were still people walking in their faithless ways. Today we can observe those who walk in the way of Cain, abandon themselves for the sake of gain like Balaam, and rebel against God’s authority like Korah. “Woe to them!”