Sunday Sermon: “Contend for the Faith” (Jude 1-4)

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[Background/Disclaimer: The following sermon was delivered at Cornerstone Community Church in Montgomery, TX, on 07/11/2021. I adapted the section covering verses 3-4 from an earlier sermon I preached on 6/20/2021 at my home church, University Park Baptist Church, in Houston, TX.

In preparing for that first sermon, I relied mainly on the ESV Exegetical Commentary covering the epistle of Jude, Matthew Henry’s commentary on Jude, and various available study Bible notes. While I try to cite any direct quotations, I also want to acknowledge the background assistance of these study helps, in case there are any turns of phrase or linguistic connections that I may have appropriated without realizing and acknowledging it.

I’m sharing this sermon manuscript solely as a blessing to my readers in their personal spiritual walk, and I hope it is edifying in that regard.]

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I’d like to open this morning with a lengthy, but I think beneficial, quote:

“The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in the columns of church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.”

J. Greshem Machen, Christianity and Liberalism

Machen wrote this opening paragraph to Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. It seems that not much has changed in the last 100 years. At this moment in the life of the Evangelical church, we are hard pressed on all sides to be very broad-minded and tolerant when it comes to doctrine and practice, urged from both without and within to focus on what we agree about instead of what we disagree about, when it comes to the world around us. Machen disagrees, suggesting that what matters most is what we’re willing to fight for.

Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the epistle of Jude and thinking about why we as Christians are called to “contend for the faith.” This morning, we’ll look at the first four verses, which encompass the introduction and main thesis statement of this powerful letter.

For those taking notes, the outline has 3 points: 1) A Chosen People (v.1-2); 2) A Change of Plans (v.3); and 4) A Church in Peril (v.4).

Let’s take a look at the full text:

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,

To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ:

May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Jude 1-4 ESV

A Chosen People (v.1-2)

This letter begins the way many of the other epistles do, typical of first-century correspondence: we have a statement of whom the letter is from and to whom the letter is written. In verse 1, we see “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” Well, who’s Jude? For that matter, who’s James? What we know from the writings of the early church is that this James is James the half-brother of Jesus, the writer of the epistle of James in the New Testament and the apostle who eventually became one of the elders of the Jerusalem church, taking over for the more famous disciple and apostle James (Son of Thunder, brother of John) after that James was martyred in Acts 12.

So what do we know about this James? He was the son of Mary and Joseph, and at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t seem to believe Jesus was the Messiah. In Matthew 13, we see that Jesus goes back home to Nazareth to teach, and the response of the crowd is, “Don’t we know this guy? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy?” In verse 55, it continues, “And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” So James (and by extension, Judas or “Jude”) are half-brothers of Jesus, sons of Mary and Joseph.

Jude identifies himself as the brother of James, so that the readers know who is speaking—but notice that he didn’t call himself the brother of Jesus. Instead, he calls himself Jesus’s servant (or, in the Greek, bondservant or slave), just as James does in James 1:1. And notice also that Jude calls Jesus “Christ”—Messiah, Anointed One. What would have caused such a change in Jude, and in James?

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

I Corinthians 15:3-7 ESV (emphasis mine)

Seeing your older brother working miracles, teaching with wisdom and authority, and then coming back to life after being brutally crucified would probably do the trick! Now, Jude isn’t just the brother of “Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son”; he’s the bondservant and slave of Jesus the Risen Messiah!

Who is Jude writing to? He doesn’t indicate a specific church or region. Some commentators point to context clues to suggest it may be specific churches in Israel or nearby regions—churches with lots of Jewish believers who would recognize the references to the Old Testament and other Jewish works throughout the letter. However, I would suggest that while Jude certainly had a specific audience in mind, his greeting and message to all of us who are in Christ, because they are universally applicable to the church in every age: “To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for [or by] Jesus Christ.” We could spend all day on this one verse, because there is such richness in it. But I want to take just a few moments to help you see why it’s so important that we know who we are when we make our stand. If you are a born-again disciple of Jesus Christ, this is who you are:

  • You are called. The God of the Universe chose to reveal Himself to you and to draw you to Himself through the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in John 10 that His sheep hear His voice. Because you have been called by God, you are now His, you are in His hand, and nothing and no one can take you out of it. You have been adopted by God and have all the rights and privileges that come with that adoption.
  • You are beloved of the Father. You are loved by God—all 3 persons of God, the Father, the Son, the Spirit. Our position in Christ gives us security and confidence that we can approach the throne of grace boldly, not only because we are cleansed from our unrighteousness and given the righteousness of Jesus, but because we are truly and completely loved by God.
  • You are kept for Jesus Christ. Those whom God calls, God keeps. Those who are born again to new life are secure in their salvation. We’ll spend some more time at the end of the series talking about this, but let’s just revel in this reality for a moment.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:28-39 ESV

What beautiful promises we have in just this one verse—a verse that, let’s admit it, we’re tempted to gloss over.

Then Jude gives an initial blessing in his greeting in Verse 2: “May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” As if his previous comment weren’t enough, Jude prays that God would not just grant his readers mercy, peace, and love, but that they would have these graces in abundance—that they’d be multiplied to them! Throughout the New Testament, we see prayers and promises to this effect: the gracious generosity of God toward His people, granting them mercy, peace, and love in Himself, which they then extend and display to the world!

After this beautiful introduction, we move on to the main message of Jude’s letter in verse 3.

A Change of Plans (v.3)

In the first phrase of verse 3, we see a change in plans. “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation…” Jude tells us that his original intent for writing was pastoral and didactic—his desire was to write about theology. He tells his brothers and sisters, beloved of the Father, that he was very eager to expound on “our common salvation.” He wished to establish the faith of the believers by reminding them of the truths of the Gospel taught by the apostles—the very faith he describes as being “once for all delivered to the saints.” We don’t know what that epistle would have looked like. Perhaps, like Paul, he would have talked about how there is no distinction or favoritism when it comes to who has access to God in Christ Jesus, or how all believers have the same Father and the same Lord and the same Spirit and the same baptism. Maybe Jude would have reminded the churches what his brother Jesus taught about the narrow way of salvation and the call to all who were willing to come and drink from Him the water of life. Perhaps Jude might have commented on Peter’s letters that reminded the church of the rich blessings of salvation and the calling to live as holy exiles.

We have no indication what his specific focus might have been, because as he considered taking up the pen (or, possibly, dictating to his personal scribe) to write to the scattered churches, he was moved by the Holy Spirit to address a different matter. He says that he “found it necessary to write, appealing to you to contend for the faith…” Rather than focusing on the more uplifting topic of our salvation, Jude is compelled to sound a warning bell for the churches. This was his duty as a servant of the Lord, a responsibility that Paul writes in Titus 1:9 is laid upon every minister of the Gospel:  “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Don’t miss that two-part requirement: a faithful elder/pastor must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught—the “faith once delivered to all the saints”—AND be able to rebuke those who try to subvert it. In this passage, Jude is calling out not just to church leaders but to all believers to contend for the faith.

Commentators indicate that the word contend here has a grammatical root from which we derive the English word “agonize.” This is a word from the athletic arena, as wrestlers and combatants grapple and strain and struggle and fight for ground. This word “contend” is not a word with a clean and wrinkle-free jersey; “contend” here is a sweat-soaked and blood-stained word. It’s similar to the phrasing in Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 9 to run the race to win, and his declaration in II Timothy 4 that he has fought the good fight and finished the race, in keeping the faith. Jude is pleading with the believers to fight, to wrestle, to struggle for the sake of the unadulterated and undiluted faith, the true word that was handed down to them from Jesus and His apostles.

What is this precious word? It’s the word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that begins with bad news: All people are sinners by nature and choice, and all of us deserve the just wrath of a holy God for our rebellion and sin. But Jesus, the son of God, came to us, born of a virgin, born under the law, lived a perfect life of holy obedience and complete righteousness before God, and then died in the place of sinners as a sacrifice for sin, taking on the guilt of our sin and the wrath of God against it, satisfying justice, dying and then rising again 3 days later, in victory over death and as a sign that the penalty for our sin has been paid. Now, we who turn away from our sins and believe on Jesus as Savior AND Lord, trusting in His death and resurrection in our place, are credited with Jesus’ perfect righteousness and have peace with God in Him. When we are born again from death to life, we receive the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance, we are sanctified bit by bit, remade day by day into the image of Jesus, and looking forward to the last day, when we will be raised up with Him, freed of all trace and effect of sin, to live forever in perfect communion with God and His people!

That’s the message that Jude urges his hearers to fight for. Not a social program, not a political strategy, not an ideological agenda: a declaration that Jesus is Lord of all and an invitation to all who have ears to hear to repent and believe this good news.

My friend, if you don’t know this Jesus or believe this message, I’m thrilled to get to tell you: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Are you a sinner? Turn from your sin and rebellion and run to Jesus! There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. He is your only hope. Don’t put this off another day, even another hour, because you truly don’t know for sure how much life you have ahead of you. I’m begging you—come talk to me after the service, for the sake of your very soul.

So, why was Jude compelled by the Holy Spirit to sound the alarm and call the churches to stand firm and fight for the faith? Because Jude recognized they were in danger. That’s our third point.

A Church in Peril (v.4)

Look at the beginning of Verse 4: “For certain people have crept in unnoticed…” Jude knows that there are false teachers who have worked their way into the churches. These spiritual saboteurs didn’t kick open the front door, announcing their apostasy openly. As John MacArthur puts it, the phrasing here describes someone who slides in through the side door, making his way among the flock, before his works become plain.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to believers; throughout the New Testament, we have been warned about it by Jesus and the apostles. Four examples:

  • Jesus warns of wolves in sheep’s clothing and false teachers (Matthew 7:15-23)
  • Paul warned the Ephesian elders as he was leaving that they would eventually be infiltrated (Acts 20:25-31)
  • Paul tells Timothy in II Timothy 3 and 4 that apostates will arise even within the church, and that in the last days, false converts will be drawn to false teachers that please their appetites (II Tim. 4:1-4)
  • In Peter’s second letter (which covers many of the same themes as Jude), he warns of false teachers who infiltrate the church in much the same way (II Peter 2:1-10).

Are we surprised that the sons of the Serpent have the same methods as their slithering father, who smoothly approached Adam and Eve and hissed, “Has God really said…?”

I was reading recently some of Charles Spurgeon’s articles in which he described the Downgrade of evangelicalism in his day. In one piece describing the slide of certain churches into error (often by name!), he noted how it usually wasn’t the lead pastor who would fall into theological error directly; instead, these men erred by not being vigilant in whom they welcomed as guest speakers or whom they hired as assistant ministers. They welcomed false brothers to come alongside them in ministry, excusing or ignoring the occasional red flag in that person’s teaching, until finally the older minister would retire and be succeeded by these younger men who were steeped in theological liberalism and humanism. The lack of watchfulness on the part of the shepherd and the flock allowed the wolves to enter the sheep pen.

This is a danger we should be on guard against, even among “conservative” denominations and associations, as some people, even some influential voices, decry calls for doctrinal clarity and accountability as “the leaven of the Pharisees” and a rising tide of “fundamentalism.” But we must not let fear of being called “legalists” cause us to run into the opposite ditch of becoming complacent about what we affirm together as believers. By all means, let us strive to be kind, winsome, and humble in what we proclaim and how we communicate, but our efforts to be gentle or welcoming must NEVER come at the expense of compromising or downplaying what the Scriptures clearly state.

In our text, Jude is sounding the alarm that the churches should be on the alert against these false teachers, and it would benefit us, as it has every generation before us, to mark these characteristics in our minds. In verse 4, Jude describes the false teachers in 4 ways:

  1. They were long ago designated for destruction:
  2. They are ungodly people;
  3. They pervert the grace of God into sensuality
  4. They deny their Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

First, these false teachers were designated for destruction; the wording here is that their doom was written out beforehand, warned about in the past. Jude is pointing to the various Scriptural warnings (including the ones we’ve looked at already) about the destiny of all those who corrupt the truth of God’s word for selfish gain. Beyond that, these false teachers were designated for destruction in that their fruits showed they were themselves “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” as Paul describes in Romans 9—doomed by their rebellion against the truth to face the wrath of God for their wickedness.

Second, the false teachers are ungodly people: Their lives and lifestyles were oriented away from God and toward selfish gain. They are irreverent, impious, disregarding or even mocking what is holy. Later, in verse 18, Jude describes them as “scoffers, following their ungodly passions.” It should always put us on alert when a professing teacher of the Gospel is happy to make light of the things of God or mock what is holy.  

Next, Jude writes that they pervert (or twist/replace) the grace of our God into sensuality: Even while they pretend to be spiritual leaders and faithful teachers, their actions reveal their true desires. These false teachers abuse the very concept of grace by using it as an excuse to indulge in sensuality—a shameless flaunting of immoral behavior, usually in regards to sexual sin. These people push the boundaries of what is appropriate or acceptable, under the guise of “spiritual freedom.” They are driven by their passions and lusts and often struggle (and fail) to hide their sinful hungers—all the while claiming “grace” as a cover for sin. Consider how Paul rebukes this thinking in Romans 6. Throughout the Scriptures, the people of God are called to live holy lives—and the standard of holiness is set by God, not by the culture around them. Yet these false teachers abuse the grace of God for their own selfish ends and teach their followers to do the same.

Finally, they deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ: The rebellious nature of their false doctrine ultimately leads to a denial of the lordship of Jesus (either directly or indirectly) over the life of the believer. Jesus said in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call me ‘lord, lord’ and not do what I tell you?” False teachers pay lip-service to the lordship of Jesus but deny it by their lives because they refuse to obey the commands of Jesus. In some cases, they may even deny their Lord and Master by creating a false version of Jesus to worship and serve in His place: a counterfeit Jesus who excuses sin and perversion, who feeds their ego and looks the other way when it comes to their greed and selfish desires. Like the Israelites bowing before the Golden Calf and calling it “Yahweh,” false teachers present a false Jesus that promises everything and demands nothing, a pseudo-Christ who just so happens to look like HE was made in OUR image.

Jude goes on in his letter to describe these false teachers in greater detail, before closing out the letter with exhortations to the churches to stand firm and build themselves up in the faith, but for now, we will stop here and spend the rest of our time considering how these warnings apply to the church in our day. Because we should make no mistake: this is a warning bell that should be ringing in the ears of every generation of Christians until Jesus returns. Our enemy hasn’t taken a vacation; he is still seeking to steal, kill, and destroy. He is still sowing weeds among the wheat field. And he’s still sending out false teachers to try to ensnare true and false converts in a web of deception.

So I want to close with some applications and exhortations for you, brothers and sisters:

Hold fast to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

You may have heard it said before, but the way that federal agents learn how to recognize counterfeit money isn’t by spending their time looking at fake bills but by extensively studying the authentic ones. Beloved, we have been graciously given the very words of God, in a book preserved through the ages. We have no reason not to study it, to fill our minds and hearts with it, to know the truth and be able to distinguish truth from the “almost-but-not-quite-truth” or the “truth-plus-a-little-something-else.” And we don’t study the Scriptures merely to increase our knowledge (this was the error of the Pharisees in John 5, who studied the Scriptures thinking that this is what would give them eternal life); we study the Scriptures because we want to know the God who wrote them. When my wife writes me a little card or encouraging note, I don’t put it away without opening it and say, “Thank you so much. I appreciate your thinking of me.” Of course not! I read it and take in its meaning; why? Because I adore my wife, and her words reveal her heart and mind to me. How much infinitely more does the perfect, inerrant, sufficient, authoritative Word of God reveal to us who He is and what He expects of us! Christian, we are to be people of the Book. That is our first and greatest defense against the schemes of false teachers. We need to be diligent to learn these precious truths, so that they shape our thinking and speech.

Be careful whose voices you welcome as your teachers.

We live in a world that is jam-packed with messaging. All day long, we are being bombarded with ideas and suggestions from marketers, influencers, and would-be teachers. Every single piece of media we consume, from books to music to visual entertainment to social media feeds, has a specific worldview behind it. We cannot be naïve about this. We must—MUST—be on guard about which voices we are giving our attention to. Everything we take in and engage with needs to be run through the filter of “Is this true? Is this consistent with what God says in His Word?”

I want to speak a word here specifically to the men in the church, to the husbands and fathers. As a husband and father myself, I want to urge and exhort you my brothers to stand guard over the eyes and ears, the hearts and minds of your household. You are responsible as the spiritual leader of your home to guard your wife and children against those who would try to lead them astray. And I’m not saying that wives or even children are helpless or unable to discern truth from error—not at all; in fact, that should be one of our goals, to teach, train, and help them do just that. And there is a great blessing in having a godly wife who is equally vigilant over herself and her children. My wife recently encouraged me when she watched a movie before showing it to our daughters, and later told me she decided against it because she recognized the subtle worldview implications that were hidden inside the otherwise sweet and innocent-looking cartoon. She understands how media can catechize our children in ways we don’t expect.

Men, we must not follow the pattern of our first ancestor Adam, who passively stood by as his wife was lied to by a false teacher telling sweet little lies about who God is and what He has commanded. We need to be paying attention to what voices come into our homes, into our car radios, into our children’s electronic devices. I’m not calling for a locked-down, 1950’s hyper-fundamentalist “keep out the world” approach either. I spent part of my childhood in that kind of church. That well-intentioned approach doesn’t work. What I’m talking about is active participation in advising and exhorting and supporting your wife, in taking the lead with her help to train your children to engage the world as Christians, to think Christianly, to be good Bereans and measure everything against the Scriptures. We dare not check out and back off, because we’re too busy or we want to avoid conflict in our homes over certain media. Men, your family is being hunted. Our enemy is a predator who wants to ensnare and drag away the hearts and minds of you, your wife, and your children. I’m not being overdramatic. I’m telling you the truth. Let’s get serious about this.

And that even means having a discerning ear when it comes to voices that claim to be Christian. Did you pick up on this from the text? These aren’t teachers from the outside, trying to lure the believers into worshiping an obvious idol. These are false converts, using the language of Christian faith as a cover for worldly philosophy and practice. In other words, we can’t let our guard down when we turn on Pureflix or tune the car radio to the local Christian station. Some of the most damnable heresies are smuggled into our homes through the “safe for the whole family” programming we are fed under the banner of “Christian.” No matter how many times a song says the name Jesus, we need to listen carefully to make sure they’re talking about the right one!

Again, please don’t mishear me: I’m not trying to create an extrabiblical code of conduct or confuse the commands of God with the traditions or cultural preferences of men. But, brothers and sisters, we who have been called, redeemed, and kept by God, who live in this world as strangers and pilgrims, need to remind ourselves what the Scriptures say: anyone who loves this world and its system and its wicked ways does not have the love of the Father in them.

Speak up when it comes time to take your stand.

Finally, we should heed Jude’s exhortation in verse 3: our brother urges the Church then and the Church now not just to hold onto the faith, but to contend, to struggle, to wrestle for it. This means there comes a point where we must engage the people and ideas around us with what we know is true.

This contending isn’t a physical struggle; we’re not called to wage a holy war and physically destroy those who oppose us—that’s not the way of Christ. Rather, as Paul writes in II Corinthians 10:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”

This means that, in the arena of ideas, Christians are called to contend for the truth of God with the weapons God gives us in the way that God commands us to do so. In our generation, as in past generations, the plain truths of the Scriptures are called into question. Today, the Bible’s teaching of God’s design for human sexuality and holy marriage is denied or contradicted as being hateful and harmful. The truth about how the blood of Jesus tears down the dividing wall of racial hostility and gives us new identities in Christ is called insufficient, simplistic, or even oppressive. The insistence that Jesus is Lord of His Church and that we must in all things obey God rather than men is considered by some to be subversive and dangerous. In the marketplace of ideas, we should be ready for these doctrinal truths that we hold to be mocked, opposed, or even shouted down. This should not surprise us. Yet here we stand; we can do no other.

But in the midst of our contending, let’s not forget what we’re fighting for. We are not merely culture warriors; that’s not our true calling. We have not been given a divine mandate to save western civilization or American culture; that’s not our true kingdom. Our king has given us marching orders, based on His having all authority in heaven and on earth, to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that King Jesus has commanded us. That’s our mandate. That’s our mission.

Saints, contend for the faith: in your hearts, in your homes, in the world. To God be the glory.

Friday Feed (7/23/2020)

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Happy Friday, readers! Here are some interesting finds from the last week:

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Happy weekend, friends. Do me a favor, if you will: take a moment over the next few days, and tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. They need to hear it more often, and it’s good for us to say it more often.

Also: remember that every day is a gift from God; remind yourself to receive it with thanksgiving and put it to good use.

I’ll be back next week with another Twilight Zone commentary (because I enjoy them, even if none of y’all read them!) and a few other fun things. See you then!

S(Tu)nday School: What’s the Deal with Joel?

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Photo by Jose Aragones on Pexels.com

[You can find the introduction to this #SmundaySchool series here.]

Sorry for the brief delay; yesterday was my birthday, and I was otherwise occupied at the car repair shop for much of the day. (#Adulthood!)

But we are BACK with the next installment in our #SmundaySchool discussion of the Minor Prophets! This week, we’re taking a brief look at the key themes and ideas in the Book of Joel.

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The Background and Context of Joel

The book of Joel was written by “Joel, son of Pethuel” (1:1), a prophet of Judah. It’s hard to put a date on this book, because there are no clear context indicators. There are a couple of theories about when to date the events Joel describes. Some take the descriptions of divine judgment as describing a post-Babylonian-exile scenario (mid-500s BC), while others argue that certain context clues and literary characteristics, plus the lack of naming specific nations, leads to a pre-Assyrian-exile date (placing Joel’s ministry in the same general era as Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, and Isaiah). Some scholars argue it was likely written during the reign of Joash (as recorded in II Chronicles 23-24). At any rate, the timeless quality of the book doesn’t take away from the main message.

The Content and Message of Joel

Joel is composed of 3 chapters that can be broken down as shown:

  1. Judgment on Judah (1:1 – 2:17)
    1. Locust Invasion (Chapter 1)
    2. Military Invasion (?) – (2:1-17)
  2. Salvation through Judgment (2:18-3:21)
    1. Mercy on God’s People (2:18-32)
    2. Judgment on Their Oppressors (3:1-21)

There are 2 key interpretive challenges when it comes to the book of Joel. I’ll note them without going into much detail, but it’s good to be aware of the different ways to read this book:

  • Is Chapter 1 describing literal locusts?
  • Is Chapter 2 describing a literal army?

While scholars argue both ways from literary context, I think the best reading is YES to both questions: that God used natural calamity as a warning of coming military conquest.

The Key Themes and Applications of Joel

There are 3 key themes in Joel’s message to God’s people in this period:

  1. The day of judgment is coming. Joel repeatedly uses this phrase “the Day of the Lord”–a phrase that is repeated throughout the writings of the prophets. This “Day of the Lord” is a day of both judgment and blessing, and Joel shows both aspects of this day in his prophecy.
  2. God uses calamity to chasten His disobedient people. Again we see that God is sovereignly controlling the natural world for His purposes. He sends the locust plague to His people in order to get their attention and cause them to turn from sin and call on Him for help. When it is clear they will not, He must up the ante with more painful and difficult circumstances.
  3. God promises to forgive and restore His repentant people. We see this repeated theme as well in the Minor Prophets. Though God disciplines, He also shows mercy. What He takes away in His wrath, He can also restore in His kindness.

So how does the book of Joel apply to Christians reading it today? The same themes carry forward pretty easily:

  • Even the locusts are God’s locusts. God is sovereign over both natural and man-made calamity, and uses them both for His ends. (2:10-11)
  • God is just and wrathful–but He is also compassionate and merciful. (2:12, 13, 25) If we are being disciplined for sin, we can repent and find mercy and even at times restoration of what has been lost due to our waywardness.
  • No injustice or wickedness will escape the judgment of God. We can take comfort that final justice is certain. (3:1-3)

The Gospel Arrows in Joel

As in all books of the Old Testament, we can see arrows and hear echoes that point us ultimately to the promised Messiah. Joel is no different. A few ideas for your consideration:

  • The mercy of God is demonstrated to His people, even though they are just as guilty as the nations around them. This is a clear reminder that when God saves an individual, it’s not because of the good they have done or the favor they have earned, but solely because of God’s gracious and unmerited favor.
  • God promises to dwell in the midst of His people again. This is glimpsed in Jesus, the Immanuel, who tabernacled among us (John 1:14). This will be culminated in the New Heavens and the New Earth, where God will live among His people and be their light (Revelation 21:23).
  • God promises in Joel 2 to pour out His spirit, and says that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (2:28-32). Peter quotes this prophecy at Pentecost in Acts 2, saying that it has been fulfilled with the giving of the Holy Spirit at the birth of the New Testament church.

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That’s all I’ve got! Short and sweet this time, but I hope it helps to give context to you as you read the book of Joel this week! (Hint, hint!)

#SmundaySchool will be back next week (Monday, hopefully!) with a discussion of the book of Amos!

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Your Turn: Do you have any thoughts or observations from your reading of the Book of Joel? Are these overviews helpful to you? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

S(m)unday School: What’s the Deal with Hosea?

Photo by Jose Aragones on Pexels.com

[You can find the newly-updated introduction to this #SmundaySchool series here.]

You may be familiar with the basic outline of Hosea–at least the first couple of chapters: God tells the prophet Hosea to marry a “woman of ill repute” (depending on the translation, this could be referring to an adulteress, a prostitute, or just a woman who is prone to be unfaithful). He does so. And it’s about…God and Israel, somehow?

Yes. But it’s about so much more. Let’s get into it.

The Background and Context of Hosea

The author of the book is Hosea, son of Beeri, likely from the tribe of Issachar and probably lived in the Northern kingdom of Israel. The book was written (as all the Minor Prophets were) in the era of the Divided Kingdom of Israel. Hosea would have been a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah and Micah in Judah. Hosea’s ministry was long; it covered the reigns of Uzziah/Azariah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah in Judah, and the final several kings of Israel (starting with Jereboam II) until it was conquered. The length of Hosea’s ministry is not exactly known, though likely at least 35 to around 70 years (around 755ish to 680ish BC).

A lot happened in Israel and Judah during this stretch, and it informs how we read Hosea. (You’ll find the Biblical record of this period in II Kings 14-20 and II Chronicles 26-32.)

In Israel, Jereboam II had military success against Syria, and “brought political peace and material prosperity, along with moral corruption and spiritual bankruptcy” (MacArthur). When Jereboam died, he was followed by a succession of bad kings, one of whom joined with Syria to attack his fellow Jews in Judah. Four of the six kings that followed Jereboam were killed by their successors or their supporters. Along with all this political upheaval, the nation of Israel was corrupting the worship of YHWH with pagan practices and idolatry, including Baal worship (the pagan god of sun, storms, and fertile crops, among other things).

This were only slightly better in Judah. King Uzziah developed leprosy after wrongly assuming the role/duties of the priesthood. Jotham followed YHWH but condoned/allowed the idolatry to continue. Ahaz reached out to Assyria for help when Israel and Syria attacked, and then basically imported a lot of Assyria’s religious practices into the worship of God in Jerusalem (even as far as copying some of their temple architecture and designs). Hezekiah led a revival of true worship of YHWH that held off the destruction of Judah for a while, and during his reign was miraculously rescued from Sennacherib’s army by the angel of the Lord.

The major event that occurred during Hosea’s ministry was the conquest and fall of Israel in 722 BC. The writer of II Kings provides some stark but insightful commentary on this event. Take a moment and read that.

The book of Hosea, then, is a warning of judgment that went unheeded, yet contains glimmers of hope.

The Content of Hosea

The big idea of the book of Hosea is: “The unfaithfulness and rebellion of God’s people cannot outlast God’s faithfulness and compassion, even after incurring His righteous judgment.”

The narrative breaks down into 2 main sections:

  1. The Unfaithful Wife and Faithful Husband (Chapters 1-3)
  2. The Unfaithful People and Faifthful God (Chapters 4-14)

The first section is likely much more familiar than the second, but I’ll summarize as a review:

  • God tells Hosea to marry Gomer (as we’ve discussed, a “woman of adultery,” however you define that), as a living metaphor for God’s covenant relationship with Israel.
  • She has children (some of which may not be Hosea’s) and their names reflect God’s promise of impending judgment.
  • Her unfaithful wandering reflects Israel’s idolatries, and God describes how He will chasten His people in order to woo them back.
  • God tells Hosea to go redeem and rescue his captive bride.

In the rest of Hosea (chapter 4 onward), Hosea and Gomer are not the focus. God lays out His charges against Israel and Judah:

  • Their idolatry is spiritual adultery–they are breaking covenant with YHWH to seek the favor of false gods.
  • The priests and spiritual leaders have led the nations astray.
  • Their corruption is deep: bloodshed (for example, the betrayal/assassination of rulers), fickleness, mixing of pagan worship with the worship of God, and looking to pagan nations like Assyria to be their rescuers.
  • Baal worship is a major theme: Israel has rejected YHWH and set up altars to Baal (possibly seeking fertility rites for a good harvest).
  • Israel is arrogant in its sin, and it’s influencing Judah to do the same.

Take a moment to read Hosea 8 and see if you can trace these themes throughout.

God promises that judgment is certain, though He still calls His people to turn back and repent. In the midst of His judgment, however, God still loves and has compassion for His covenant people–He is chastening them so that they will return to Him and be restored. Once God’s judgment of His people is complete, he will in fact restore them. The book ends like Psalm 1 does–with a description of 2 paths to take, one of righteousness that leads to life and the other of sin that leads to destruction.

So what does Hosea mean, and what can we apply today as followers of Jesus?

The Meaning and Application of Hosea

Hosea had 3 key themes for the original audience:

What about now, centuries later? What can Christians learn and apply from this prophetic text?

  1. Don’t miss the scandal of the marriage OR the scandal of the covenant. God covenanted Himself with a sinful and stubborn people and made us His bride. Meditating on His compassion and our unworthiness should make us grateful and humble.
  2. We who have tasted this New Covenant in Christ Jesus are still tempted to chase after other loves and serve other masters. We should regularly consider where we seek our comfort, our safety, and our confidence, to make sure we are not “looking to Assyria for aid instead of to our Lord.
  3. God sometimes uses hardship and even devastation to pull us back from spiritual ruin; but His discipline is always for our good. We see in Hebrews 12 that we are disciplined to sanctify us and to warn us.
  4. We dare not presume on our salvation by taking sin lightly or dismissing or downplaying God’s holiness or wrath–lest we demonstrate we are not, in fact, part of His people.
  5. God is longsuffering–He will never turn his back fully on His chosen people.

Please hear me, reader: If you are right now in rebellion against God, I implore you to repent and seek His mercy and grace right away. Do not wait! While there is yet time, turn back in repentance and cry out to Jesus for mercy!

Gospel Arrows in Hosea

Finally, how can we see glimpses of the Gospel in the book of Hosea? Here are a couple of points for consideration:

  • In Hosea, we see the faithful husband who redeems His unfaithful bride and makes her His own. This is certain what Jesus does for His blood-bought people: He rescues from bondage, pays the price of our freedom, and takes us into His house to be His bride.
  • You may notice in reading Hosea that a familiar phrase is found in Hosea 11:1–“out of Egypt, I called my son…” While this text is looking backwards to the Exodus, the gospel writer Matthew notes that it is also fulfilled by the flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt to escape the ravages of Herod, and then their eventual return.

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So there you go, a quick summary of the context, content, and themes of Hosea. I would encourage you to read the book of Hosea this week with some of this information in mind, and I pray it is a blessing and encouragement to you.

If you have questions or comments, please leave them below. Otherwise, I’ll be back on Wednesday with the next round of #52Stories reviews!

What’s the Deal with the Minor Prophets? [UPDATED]

brown concrete columns during day
Photo by Jose Aragones on Pexels.com

I’ve been kicking around the idea of sharing Bible teaching/notes on Mondays–for example, posts inspired by or based on my teaching/preaching notes. Consider today’s post a sneak preview of this new blog series, called “S(m)unday School”! 

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This fall, we began a Sunday school series at church on the Minor Prophets. I’ve been wanting to teach through this much-neglected portion of the Old Testament for a while now, and it’s been a blast so far.

If you’re not familiar with the Minor Prophets, they consist of 12 letters/documents located at the end of the Old Testament. Historically, they were written over the course of about 400-500 years, after the high point in Israel’s royal history, during the period of the Divided Kingdom and the two Exiles.

The Minor Prophets are called “minor,” not because they’re less important, but because they are shorter than the four prophetic books that precede them in the Old Testament (called “major” prophets). These 12 books (varying in length from 21 verses to 14 chapters) are warnings to God’s people in Israel and Judah (as well as those in exile) and/or the nations who have oppressed and defeated them.

You may be asking yourself, Why study the Minor Prophets? Let’s get real: For most Christians, these are the pages in your Bible that still stick together and crinkle when you turn them, because they haven’t been cracked open before (except for perhaps Jonah and a few passages in Micah or Malachi).

At any rate, I’m so glad you asked! Let’s start with 3 great reasons for studying the Minor Prophets: 

  • They’re in the Bible. This should be obvious, but: If you’re a Christian and you affirm that the entire Bible is God’s word given for God’s people to point us to the Gospel of Jesus, bring us to repentance and faith in Him, and then show us how to live as His followers, then the Old Testament matters. All of it. So we shouldn’t pretend like some sections of it are optional.
  • They’re often overlooked or cherry-picked. This is a terrible way to read and interpret Scripture. Rather than just picking out the half-dozen verses or sections to visit repeatedly, we should be studying these books as a whole, in context, to understand fully what God was saying to His people then, and what He says to His people now.
  • Their message still resonates. The writings of the Minor Prophets still resonate today, not only because they are divinely inspired (though that surely is enough) but also because they were delivering truth in the midst of troubled and troubling times. As we face troubled days of our own, we can find hope and help from these short books.

So maybe a better question is, why don’t we read the Minor Prophets more often? My guess is it’s usually one of these reasons:

  • The poetic language can be confusing. I mean, locusts? Plumb lines? Random priests? Calling people cows? It’s all very strange to modern ears. Plus, there are references to people and cities that we aren’t familiar with, so the strangeness of it all can be a turn-off.
  • The Minor Prophets don’t seem to be organized chronologically. The fact that the Old Testament is organized by genre rather than by time period makes it a little more challenging to figure out who these prophets are and when they served.
  • Frankly, they’re kind of depressing. Lots of wrath, lots of suffering, lots of hopeless language. If you don’t know where to look for light, the Minor Prophets might feel like a bit of a drag.

While these reasons are understandable, they’re just not good enough to justify avoiding this theologically rich and deep section of Scripture.

So, here’s my aim in this series: Each week, I’ll upload a post covering one book of the Minor Prophets that will provide you with the tools to read and understand these books for yourself, so that you will grow to love God and His Word more.

In each post, you should be able to find 5 things:

  1. Context (authorial/historical background)
  2. Message (what the book says)
  3. Meaning (what it meant to the original audience)
  4. Application (what it teaches believers today)
  5. Anticipation (how it serves as an arrow pointing forward to Jesus)

Next Monday, Lord-willing, we’ll look at the book of Hosea. I pray it’s a blessing to you.

If you have follow-up questions, feel free to ask those in the comments. I’ll do my best to address those when I have opportunity.

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10/5 UPDATE:

I realized I should have put a few more details in this intro post, so here you go:

My Study Tools: I don’t have a lot of resources at home, so most of my study tools were the notes found in the ESV Study Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible, the Gospel Transformation Study Bible, Dr. Jim Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, and Matthew Henry’s Bible commentaries. I also pull a few articles from the Crossway, 9Marks, and Gospel Coalition websites for context. I’ll try to note sources whenever I include quotes, but since I’m pulling from teaching notes that aren’t annotated, I ask that you forgive me for the lack of detail and assume any good stuff came from someone else.

My Assumptions: I try to be mindful of the assumptions I make going into teaching/writing, so I figured I should clarify a few of those now.

I’m an evangelical Christian, so I believe that the Bible is the word of God–authoritative, inerrant, infallible, perfect in all it teaches, and fully trustworthy. That means I approach the Scripture from a historical-grammatical hermeneutic, seeking to exegete the text rather than read my own perspectives into it. I will always try to interpret Scripture with Scripture, and if anything is unclear or confusing, that’s my lack of understanding or communication, not the text’s.

Engaging in Debate: If you have a different interpretation of the text, or want to disagree on some of my details or historical context description, please engage respectfully in the comments, and I will seek to respond in the same manner. We may not always agree on these matters, but I’m willing and happy to address questions as best I can. I may not always know the right answer, but I’ll do my best!

Please note: Comments that are profane, obscene, insulting, or unproductive may be blocked, removed, or disemvowelled. My page, my house. Play nice.

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Your Turn: Do you have a favorite book of the Minor Prophets? Why is it your favorite? Post it in the comments below!