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In Jude 23, the author instructs his readers:

save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

NIV (empahsis mine)

What does Jude mean by "mercy mixed with fear"? Fear of what? Or fear of whom?

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3 Answers

Though the NIV translates v23, "mercy mixed with fear", the literal Greek says, "mercy in/with fear".

Any fisherman will tell you that there is such a thing as a "healthy respect for the sea". This "respect" essentially boils down to being afraid (and rightly so) of what might happen to you or your boat at sea during bad weather. Often what we call "common sense" is basically a healthy fear of something: whether fear of being drowned by the sea, fear of being robbed when alone on the street at night, fear of kidney failure from picking and eating the wrong kind of mushroom, fear of getting burned by fire, or, as in v23b, fear of the garment polluted by sin.

The Bible is very clear that we must avoid sin at all costs. This does not mean that we avoid sinful people: rather, as v23b says, we show them mercy. Even though their garments are defiled by the flesh (i.e. they are stained by sin), it is our duty to help them. But in helping them, we must have a sensible fear of the sin by which they are defiled, and a godly hatred of their sin. Put in Pauline terms, when helping others out of sin, you must "consider yourself lest you also be tempted." (Gal 6:1).

Thus we see a threefold escalation in v22-23:
1) Have mercy on some, who are doubting
2) Save others, snatching them out of the fire
3) On some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh

Such threefold escalations are very common in Jude. All of this must be read in the context of the main theme in Jude: false teaching and the sin it causes and is caused by.

Summary: Be merciful to sinners, but you must fear and hate their sin, lest you be defiled by it.

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In Philippians 2:v 12 Paul tells us to,

Continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling

13 For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

God is working in us and we feel his mercy which we also show to the one's we are snatching from the fire.

"mercy mixed with fear" = salvation with fear and trembling

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We wear our righteousness like clothing. (The idea is very evident in Revelation 19:7-8.) So the idea is that we "get dirty" when we live our lives that are no different than the unbeliever. Please see Zechariah 3:1-5 or Revelation 3:3-5 to compare and contrast how dirty clothing in the Bible signifies disobedience in the life of the believer. The idea is that when our lives appear no different than that of the unbeliever (life of disobedience), then the result is that we "get dirty." Remember that dirt and filth are always associated with death (or so-called "sleeping" in the Bible). Please click here for a short discussion of how our clothing is sullied by such "sleep."

So when a believer returns to the fold of faith, that person is accepted. This acceptance is merciful acceptance. However, because the believer had compromised his living through the ways of the world, that believer is forgiven, but his credibility still may be an issue. (Please click here to compare and contrast forgiveness and subsequent credibility, or the lack thereof.) So when Jude says, "mercy mixed with fear" he is saying that the wandering believer is accepted back in the fold of faith; however, because that believer's clothing was dirty (that is, his testimony of God's righteousness before the unbelieving world was compromised), his credibility is an issue of concern. Irrespective, the choice of words "mercy mixed with fear" gives us the impression that we must provide the repentant believer the benefit of the doubt, but because "we hate the clothing stained by corrupted flesh," we are circumspect not as regards his forgiveness, but as to the credibility of the believer for immediate situations of trust in the fold of faith.

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