Jude writes to his church that they are to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” He wanted to write to them about their common salvation, but because evil people had snuck into the church, he was forced to write a different kind of letter.
The description of these people is scathing. They were “shepherds feeding themselves” (v 12) instead of the flock, a clear allusion to the fact that they were in leadership (cf. the Pastorals). They were worldly people, causing divisions, and were “devoid of the Spirit” (v 19).
Can you imagine? Non-Christians in leadership positions in the church seeking the things of the world (perhaps like power and prestige)? I can, and so can many pastors with whom I have spoken over the last several years.
Specifically, they were teaching that sanctification did not matter, perverting “the grace of our God into sensuality,” and were in some way deficient in their Christology, denying “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (ESV, v 4). In other words, they were denying some of the core doctrines of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (v 3).
Just as Timothy had learned in Ephesus, so also Jude’s church learned that Paul’s prophesy that “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29) is in a real sense paradigmatic of what can happen in any church. I find myself welcoming opposition from outside the church, because the spiritual warfare that exists inside all chuches is much more insidious and much more difficult to fight.
So what are we to do? Part of the answer is found in the word “contend” (v 3). You can see the NASB and NET struggling a bit with the relatively weak “contend” (ESV, NIV, RSV) when they write “contend earnestly” (“earnestly contend,“ KJV). NLT has “defend.” TEV has “fight.” NJB has “fight hard,“ which actually is the right translation.
Buried behind the English is the strong επαγωνιζομαι, which BDAG defines as “to exert intense effort on behalf of something, contend.” But “contend” can be so weak as in “to assert something.” Louw and Nida are closer when they give us, “to exert intense effort.”
Jude is telling the church that it is time to take the kids’ gloves off and duke it out. This is not the time for caution and reserve. It is war. Whenever I read Jude I think of John Piper’s admonitions to accept a war-time life style. It is war, and the battle is both within and without the church. For Jude and many churches, the fieriest battle lie within.
I first started thinking about Jude when I found that Preterism was being taught within the church where I was serving. I had never heard of it before, and the idea that all eschatological hope was fulfilled in 70 A.D. and that there was no necessary eschatological future for the church astonished me. (Perhaps there are different flavors of Preterism, but this is what was being pushed in our youth group.)
The problem was that unlike Jude, the three people teaching this were good people and one especially had had a strong and positive influence on my oldest son. But in working through Jude and seeing when and how we deal with false teaching convinced me that this was a theological error that was too significant to ignore or even deal with gently.
I preached a three-part series on Jude, established the policy, gave the people a chance to talk with me and change their mind, and when they did not, they were released from service.
Was this too much? No, because the eschatological hope of Christ’ return and the effect that has on our lives is so central to the Bible that to remove it leaves us with a faith that does not agree with the faith once for all delivered to the saints. You can’t even take communion, which proclaims the Lord’s death “until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
I took no joy in this process, but Jude says that we must at times “fight” for the faith.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.