Why is Contending for the Faith Necessary?
The Missouri Baptist Convention has published a new resource called The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith. The 275-page book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in print from the MBC. But we also want to make each of the 16 chapters available online. This post features the last portion of Chapter 5: I Found it Necessary: Going from Good to Better in Defense of the Faith.
Previously: Chapter 5: I Found It Necessary: Going from Good to Better in Defense of the Faith
Dear friends, although I was eager to write you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write and exhort you to contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all. (Jude 3)
Jude expresses great concern with these words: “I found it necessary to write and exhort you to contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” (v. 3b). He places on hold his plans to write about the common salvation grounded in the person and work of Christ in order to address an urgent matter. “Circumstances had arisen that demanded immediate action, thus presenting an emergency situation. Jude addressed himself to a recognized problem, and exhorted the believers to respond with positive determination.”
The Greek word translated “necessary” is anagke and means by constraint, compulsion, distress, or hardship. In other New Testament passages, the term is used to describe the influence of other persons, circumstances, or a sense of obligation or duty.
For example, in urging the Corinthians to share their financial resources, Paul writes, “Each person should do as he has decided in his heart – not out of regret or out of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7 – emphasis added). In his appeal to Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave, Paul remarks, “But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will” (Philemon 14 – emphasis added).
The writer of Hebrews addresses his audience with an appeal to consider the superiority of the new covenant ministry in Christ. About the law’s requirements for the shedding of blood, he writes, “Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves to be purified with better sacrifices than these” (Heb. 9:23 – emphasis added).
And in regard to a Christian’s duties to the state, Paul remarks, “Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience” (Rom. 13:5 – emphasis added).
For Jude, the necessity to write an urgent exhortation comes not from peer pressure or an obligation to fleshly authority. Rather, it appears the Holy Spirit has stirred Jude’s heart and caused him to grieve over the manner in which his beloved friends are allowing false teachings to seep into the church. They must not sit idly by while interlopers undermine the first-order doctrines established by the eyewitnesses of the life of Christ.
Warren Wiersbe comments, “I must confess that I sympathize with Jude. In my own ministry, I would much rather encourage the saints than declare war on the apostates. But when the enemy is in the field, the watchmen dare not go to sleep. The Christian life is a battleground, not a playground.”
Exhort and contend
Like Paul, who writes that “an obligation is placed on me” to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 9:16), Jude senses a heavy burden that compels him to address false teachers in the church. He and his readers are not able to share a common salvation if they lose the doctrinal truths that define it. Therefore, Jude exhorts them to contend for the faith.
The Greek word parakaleo (exhort) conveys the idea of encouraging, urging, or appealing. By exhorting his readers, Jude is not scolding them; he saves his scathing rebuke for the false teachers that have infiltrated the church. Rather, he is gently, but firmly, counseling them to stop being observers and start being defenders. They have witnessed the influx of false teachers into their congregation, but evidently have not taken action to confront them. If they don’t do something soon, the first-order doctrines are likely to be lost.
But what, exactly, is Jude exhorting his readers to do? Contend. This is a strong word that translates the Greek compound verb epagonizomai, found only here in the New Testament and translated “earnestly contend” in some translations. The simple verb agonizomai first meant to compete in an athletic contest, and then, more generally, to fight, struggle, or strive. It’s where we get the English transliteration “agonize.”
Reading through the New Testament, we see that the apostles invest themselves heavily in teaching sound doctrine to followers of Jesus and preparing church leaders to defend their congregations against “savage wolves.” In his tearful farewell to the Ephesian elders, Paul urges them, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among whom the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. And men from among yourselves will rise up with deviant doctrines to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each of you with tears” (Acts 20:28-31).
Even though they must contend with Jewish lawyers, Roman rulers, Greek philosophers, and miracle-working sorcerers, the apostles engage in their fiercest battles inside the seemingly safe confines of the confessing church. That’s where the greatest challenges to Christianity lie. The church has withstood – and even flourished under – persecution, but it threatens to bleed out from the self-inflicted wounds of false doctrine. Jude senses this and urges his readers to “agonize” in defense of the faith.
He does not suggest a violent response to false teachers, and neither do the apostles. Peter encourages us with his balanced plan of attack, urging us to “set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
What is “the faith”?
Finally, by earnestly contending for “the faith,” Jude is not referring to saving faith or trust in God’s promises, although he would heartily agree they are important aspects of our rest in the sufficiency of Christ. Rather, Jude is writing about the body of doctrine that defines Christianity – principally the first-order issues that pertain to our common salvation.
Luke writes about this in Acts 2:42, as first-century believers continually devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. Further, Paul instructs Timothy to protect the faith – the sound words the young pastor has heard from Paul. He is to guard the treasure entrusted to him through the indwelling Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 1:13-14).
Jude further wants his readers to know that “the faith” is firmly established and unchanging. The work of Christ is finished. He is seated at the Father’s right hand as our Mediator and Intercessor. He has sent the Holy Spirit to convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment, as well as to regenerate, baptize, indwell, seal, fill, comfort, and lead His own. He is preparing a place for us in His kingdom. And He is coming one day in power and great glory to fulfill all things. The gospel of the kingdom is written in the blood of Jesus and confirmed in the empty tomb. It is “delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 3b).
The Greek word hapax, rendered “once for all,” means something completed one time, with lasting results. John MacArthur writes, “Through the Holy Spirit, God revealed the Christian faith to the apostles and their associates in the first century. Their New Testament writings, in conjunction with the Old Testament Scriptures, make up the ‘true knowledge’ of Jesus Christ, and are all that believers need for life and godliness.”13
So, who are the people with whom Jude’s readers must contend? In the next chapter of our study, Jude offers a graphic introduction.
Next: Chapter 6: Who Are Those Guys? How Apologists Identify False Teachers