Beloved, while I was giving all diligence to write unto you of our common salvation, I was constrained to write unto you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints (Jude 1:3).
Jude would have much rather written a different letter than the one he wrote. Perhaps he wanted to speak about the hope and joy he shared with his fellow believers; maybe he wanted to remind them of the story of what Jesus had done for them and the promises of what He would do in the future. Regardless, more pressing issues were at hand.
Teachers promoting false doctrines and practices were afoot. They sought to turn God’s grace into sensuality, denying the truth regarding Jesus (Jude 1:5). They defiled the flesh on account of their vain imaginings and rejected proper authority (Jude 1:8). They reviled that which they did not understand and lived according to their “instincts” (Jude 1:10). They grumbled, were never satisfied, boasted, and sought their own advantage (Jude 1:16). And they were not afar off, leaving Christians alone; they remained in the midst of the Christians and sought to advance their ideas among them (Jude 1:12).
Many such teachers were likely advancing Gnostic ideas, professing to have “greater” and more esoteric “knowledge” of spiritual truth than can be found in the pages of Scripture. These teachings did not respect the unity of the body, soul, and spirit; they were especially dismissive of the body. Some later Gnostic groups would insist on strict discipline upon the body; other groups, however, taught that whatever one did in the body would not touch or tarnish the soul, and it became powerful justification for committing all sorts of immorality and doing whatever felt right.
This was not the same message which Jesus and the Apostles promoted. Jude felt compelled to remind the Christians of that important difference.
He encouraged the Christians to “contend” for the faith (Jude 1:3). To believe, maintain, promote, and teach the faith is not automatic; it takes effort. In the face of false doctrines and idols it will be quite the struggle to stand firm in the message of Jesus. Christians must resist the temptation to compromise the message, to distort the message through emphasizing some aspects over others, and to water it down to seem more palatable. Christians must also stand firm against the attempts by others to adapt and manipulate the faith, whether people claim to have received superior insights or deny some of the claims made regarding Jesus and the faith in Scripture.
While maintaining and promoting the faith will demand struggle, it need not demand contentiousness or ungodliness in argument. There are good reasons why Paul lists contentiousness and outbursts of anger as works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). We are to make a defense for our hope, but it must be done with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). One cannot promote the Gospel with one’s words if one’s demeanor, attitude, and perhaps even conduct are more consistent with worldliness, ungodliness, and the Evil One!
Jude has good reason to exhort the Christians to contend for the faith, because it is “the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3). The novel interpretations and “insights” of the Gnostics were not part of that which was delivered “once for all.” We can see the core message of the Gospel declared from the very beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:14-38; the next twenty years would show the advancement of that message first just among Jews but then also among the Gentiles. Thus the implications of the Gospel and to whom it should be promoted were clarified in those first few years, but the message remained the same (cf. Galatians 1:6-9). God did not intend to make continuous revelation regarding the Gospel and how we are to follow after Jesus; the very fact that Jesus lived for a particular period of time, died, was raised from the dead, but then ascended to the Father exemplifies this. What more can be known about the nature and character of Jesus that is not somehow already revealed by Jesus and the Apostles? What more is necessary to promote the Gospel than was necessary when Peter, Paul, and the others promoted it in the first century? If it is all about following after Jesus and to walk as He walked (1 John 2:6), what can be added to what has already been established?
The message was delivered to the saints, and these are Jude’s concern. He wants to make sure that they remain in God’s love, seeking Jesus’ mercy, and seeking to show mercy and to save others in return (Jude 1:20-23). They are to stand firm against the false teachings promoted in their midst, but they must always remember how God is the Judge, and we all remain in need of grace and mercy (cf. Romans 14:1-13, James 4:12, Jude 1:20-21).
There have always been people who have sought to distort the message of the Gospel for their own ends; there always will be. Therefore, believers must engage in the struggle to maintain, preserve, and promote the faith delivered once for all to the saints. We must not compromise it, distort it, or water it down, but we must also never betray it by using ungodly methods while struggling to defend it and advance it. Let us contend for the faith, honoring and glorifying God through our thoughts, attitudes, words, and deeds!
Ethan R. Longhenry