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.

Booktober 8th: The ESV Reader’s Bible

[This is Day 8 of #Booktober! Stay tuned for more recommendations!]

What It Is: A multi-volume printing of the Bible that removes the chapter and verse numbering and any cross-references or notations, so that all you have is the text itself, with the occasional major section heading.

Why You Should Read It: When it comes to personal Bible reading, I tend to bounce back and forth between a simple format and a more complex one (like a study Bible with commentary notes). But the most pleasing experience I’ve ever had as a reader was with this “reader’s Bible.” The volumes are well-made and tactilely pleasing. The paper is high-quality with zero bleed-through. The type setting is spaced out and open, and the lack of chapter-and-verse divisions helps to encourage extended reading. Approaching texts like the Epistles in this format are a great reminder that these books were cohesive documents, not snippets of text with interstitial headings. Approaching your Scripture reading in this manner helps you hang onto the “big picture” of the text. The price-point for this set is a bit higher-end (you may be able to find it on sale for $60-80 over the holidays), but I think it’s worth it because it will be a Bible you will return to again and again for personal reading (as I have).

Friday Feed (7/10/2020)

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Hey y’all! Here are a few things I’ve found fun or interesting in recent weeks. Enjoy, and I’ll be back next week with actual posts! Seriously!

 

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

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[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!

 

 

 

A Few Tips for Fighting Dragons.

black steel helmet near black and gray handle sword
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week, I saw the following on Twitter, and shared it favorably:

Tweet

I received some pushback about how helpful this tweet actually was, and I appreciated the engagement that followed. To summarize my responses that afternoon, I took this comment to be a general statement that we should be careful not to ignore our pet sins as we take to social media to do battle for the sake of theological precision. In my mind (and I think, perhaps, that of the gentleman above), it was akin to tithing the dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters.

In the midst of that discussion, another friend asked for practical recommendations about how to battle the temptation to use pornography. I told him I was happy to try to oblige but didn’t have the time or space to do so fully at that point.

Today, I hope to provide a bit of insight into my own battle.

[Note: I’m writing here to Christians–followers of Jesus. If you’re not one, some of these recommendations might be helpful to you, but you won’t have victory over lust without first submitting to the One who came to free us from bondage to sin. If you want to talk about this, I’d be thrilled to do so. Hit me up.]

The Story So Far

Without belaboring the point, I was (like, statistically, many men in the church) secretly harboring an addiction to pornography for many years before I got married. Even as a Sunday School teacher and young adult ministry leader, I had a dark corner in my life where I both cherished and hated my secret sin. Finally, by God’s grace and the support and encouragement of faithful brothers and a loving fiancee, I was able to stop using porn. But that didn’t stop the battle against lust.

When you’re addicted to lust in a culture that bathes in it, you never leave the front-lines of the fight. The fight comes to you, at any time of day or night, when you least expect it. You could choose to cloister yourself away, cutting off all inputs of illicit imagery, but you can’t turn off the screen inside your head, the one you’ve fed for so many years, the idolatrous flesh that craves more. Even behind a monastery wall, you’d still have to mortify that rebel flesh–all the more so when you live out here in the world, trying to dodge messages and images of sexual enticement like Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix.

For over five years, I have been winning this battle, praise God. Not perfectly but faithfully. Not easily but determinedly. Grace upon grace.

Battle Tactics

“So what do you do?” my friend asked on Twitter.

The first and best answer is a spiritual one–truly facing what pornography addiction is. It’s sin, which is a small word with all of the torment and guilt and shame and destruction of damnation bound up in it. Sin against God, sin against the men and women who are both enslaving and enslaved in the porn industry. Sin against your spouse if you’re married. And to be honest, it’s this last one that drove home the rest of it in a flesh-and-blood practical way: looking into the weeping eyes of my then-fiancee/now-wife and confessing my sin to her just gutted me. Sinning against my wife wounds me in a way I didn’t anticipate as a single man.

So, if you are seeking freedom from lustful addiction, my brother or sister, run to Jesus. Look full into his wonderful face. Seek what Richard Baxter called “the expulsive power of a new affection,” the love for the things of God that pushes out the love of sin. Pray for God’s help. Meditate on and memorize the Scriptures. Devote your mind and heart and time to the things of God.

While reading a book about sexual purity isn’t a silver bullet (by any stretch–I’ve read an arsenal full of purity books), I can say that Heath Lambert’s Finally Free is far and away the best I’ve ever found–primarily because he centers the strategies on the realities of the Gospel. If you haven’t read it and you’re in this fight, you should grab it and work through it with a friend or accountability partner.

But I’ve got to be honest with you, reader: for me, most days, the spiritual practices I’m describing here–the “right answers” to this question–aren’t enough on their own.

This may be proof of where I need to grow in sanctification–likely it is. But in addition to seeking spiritual weapons to address this truly spiritual battle, I need additional help, in the temporal realm.

So here’s what I do to support that battle:

I have to be honest. That means when I sin sexually, I confess it to God, and then I tell someone–usually my wife. I look her in the eyes, and I tell her what happened. And when I do, I don’t use mealy-mouthed language or softened terms. I use biblical language, biblical categories. I use the words “sin” and “repent.” And admittedly, this is hard on the spouse who hears it. (My wife actually recommends a book for wives of men fighting lust called Reading Your Male by Mary Farrar. She says it was very helpful in understanding my perspective and experience.)

I have to be transparent. I don’t use web-access devices that aren’t monitored by some sort of software, and the weekly reports go to my wife. I made the decision that there can be no dark corners of my online life. My wife knows the password to my phone, and has access to the passwords of all my profiles. There is no need for “privacy” when it comes to my wife. I don’t see this as oppressive or stifling–it’s freeing. I know that I’m not alone, and I have someone watching my back. (This also requires that I trust my wife’s heart and intentions toward me. If you don’t have that trust, then there may be other things you need to address as well.)

I have to be discerning. This is the tactic that I think lots of guys struggle to employ the most. If you know you’re an alcoholic, you stop spending time in bars. If you struggle with addiction to food, you can’t hang out in dessert bakeries. And if you know you are tempted to lust, you have to stop feeding your hungry eyes with images that excite them. What this means in practical terms is that there are LOTS of things I don’t watch or listen to. I pass on the TV shows that everyone in the office is excited about, because I know that no matter how well-written or fascinating the story, I don’t want to see sexual content. I check the IMDB “Parents Guide” for content warnings before renting or going to a movie that I’m not sure is safe for me (even if it means accidentally finding out spoilers). Anything that is close to the line, I try to avoid. Do I miss out on stories that intrigue me? I sure do. There are TV shows and movies that sound exactly like the type of art I love, but I’m never going to watch them because it’s not worth it to me. It’s like the old parable: two wolves battle within you, but the stronger one is the one you feed more often. I make the choice, movie by movie, book by book, program by program, which wolf to feed.

I have to be self-aware/humble. This one is sometimes the hardest. Part of success in battle for me is recognizing when I’m weak. Actually, this is where transparency is also helpful, because sometimes it’s a comment from my wife or another friend that clues me in on a blind spot in my life. But in those seasons when I know I’m facing more temptation, and I sense those first signs of weakness in my resolve, I immediately ask for help. I ask for prayer. I invite people to check in on me more often. Let me caution you, though: don’t only use this tactic at the exclusion of the others, because you aren’t always going to catch yourself early, especially early on. You need other people around you. But over time, you’ll start to recognize patterns. You’ll sense things in your heart and mind that are possible warning signs (like anger, secretiveness, pulling back from community, lingering over those fluttering impure thoughts that pop in your head from time to time). If by God’s grace, you notice that you’re starting to slip in your mental purity, that’s the moment when you go on the offensive, pray for deliverance, and ask for help and support to fight all the more.

A Final Encouragement

I’ve already gone too long here, but I want to leave you with an encouragement:

God is not a liar. 

Seems obvious, right? But this truth is your rock, your firm foundation, as you fight this battle. Jesus will never leave you or forsake you. His will for you is your sanctification, and He will complete His work in you faithfully and fully. So, do not fear when you face hard days, even days when you stumble and fall. Get up, righteous man, righteous woman–dust yourself off and start running after Jesus again. Learn from your mistakes, guard against sin, and battle the dragon, for lo, his doom is sure.

And know that we’re running with you.

#30ThankYous “Day 25”: William Tyndale.

Brother William,

Not enough people know your story, even among the Church. Not enough people appreciate what you sacrificed, and what gifts you gave to your brothers and sisters.

I must confess (to my great shame) that in the ease and comfort of my 21st century life, I take for granted that I can look across the room and count almost a dozen copies of the Scriptures in my own language on my bookshelf. I even have copies of the Greek and Hebrew texts (though I have yet to learn how to read or use them!). I even walk around all day with a digital copy of the Scriptures in my pocket, yet almost never open it. (I’m all too quick to open up Twitter, on the other hand.)

And yet with all these options available to me, I’m ashamed to say that it is only in my 38th year of life that I will complete a full read-through of God’s Word within the calendar year. Point of fact, there were some sections of the Old Testament that I don’t believe I’ve ever read before this year.

I praise God that I’m developing more of a hunger to read His word. And I thank God for the work of men like you, who have labored and studied (even at the risk of their own lives) to make it possible for me to satisfy that holy hunger by feasting on the Word of God in my own language, along with the notes and comments of faithful preachers and scholars to aid my understanding. I don’t need to rely on a pastor or priest or pope to tell me what God has said, because I can take up and read it myself. What a privilege this is!

Thank you, William. I look forward to shaking your hand and thanking you in glory. Until then, brother, I join all the generations of believers who have come after you in thanking God for your life and work.

–Dave

The4thDave Reads: The ESV Reader’s Bible – Poetry

I started the year with a goal of reading through the Bible in less than a year for the first time ever. My wife had given me a gorgeous “reader’s Bible” set as a Christmas present, and I was excited to dig in and start reading straight through.

In the first 2 1/2 months of the year, I made quick work of the Pentateuch and the Historical Books by committing to reading 30 minutes a day, usually at the end of the day. I loved it! I was able to move through large sections of Scripture and just focus on the story and the overarching themes. During the few times I really struggled to make progress (I’m lookin’ at you, I-II Chronicles), having all of the names and places and histories fresh in my mind really helped to make the early part of the Old Testament come alive.

I started the Poetry volume with that same excitement, and zipped through the book of Job. However, when I started Psalms, I hit a slump. I wish I could blame my lost momentum on our family vacation and days of driving and visiting family. But the real problem was that my daily reading became very inconsistent, and I struggled with my approach to the text.

Reading 30 minutes non-stop is great for narrative, or even Old Testament case-law. But when it came to Psalms and Proverbs, I soon realized that plowing through it wasn’t helping me retain much. So I made the decision to read only 5 Psalms a day, and a page or two of Proverbs, with the hope of more meditation instead of mere completion. If I had stuck to it consistently, it would have taken me only 4-5 weeks. It took longer.

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I should take a moment here to talk about the reading experience with these volumes, and the effect of the type-setting and formatting. Each of the six volumes is bound in a stiff, cloth-covered hardback cover with a pleasant grain to it. The pages are printed on a creamy, white paper with none of the bleed-through or onion-skin feel that typical Bible pages have. It’s really a wonderful tactile experience, using this Bible. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I do. I’m not sure it would motivate me to pay full price for it (we got it at a steep discount), but it’s a nice luxury to enjoy and I’m thankful for it.

As for the layout and typesetting, there are minimal notations, limited primarily to the book title and major section headings (think 3-4 per book). This presents a challenge with books like Proverbs, in which you have a total of 2-3 headings inserted into the entire book, and the rest of the book mostly laid out as a never-ending series of couplets. This type of layout makes it easy to speed through without really stopping to ponder the proverbs themselves, and is one of the few instances in which having the modern addition of chapter divisions prevents a fly-over approach, because you are more likely to stop and reflect more often.

On the other hand, the editors decided to keep the Psalm divisions, which seems appropriate. So the book of Psalms is divided into the five “books” and then according to each individual Psalm. The lack of verse notations is particularly helpful here, because it then becomes a visual reminder that each Psalm is meant to be taken as a whole.

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All this to say, throughout the end of March and then into April and May, my Bible-in-a-year progress slowed to a crawl. I was reading inconsistently and in smaller segments. Once I finished Psalms and Proverbs (finally!), I was able to knock out Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon over the next 3-4 reading days.

I’m not sure how I would approach the reading of Psalms and Proverbs differently in the future, if I’m using the “reader’s Bible” format. I think those books may be best read with the divisions in place, in a “Psalms/Proverb of the Day” approach (in which you could read 5 Psalms and 1 chapter of Proverbs a day for 31 days). But how I read them is irrelevant if I’m not committed to do so consistently, rather than using my schedule changes and life events as an excuse to get lazy.

I’m slowly getting things back on track (and I’m halfway through Isaiah–woohoo!). Daily, consistent time in the Word is a habit I should have built years ago, and I’m glad, if nothing else, that I have the chance to amend that now.

“What’s Your Foundation?” (Matthew 7:24-27)

[This is the post-facto manuscript of my last Sunday School lesson/sermon at Champion Forest Baptist Church. I can’t think of a better way to end my time with that fantastic group. I hope this blesses you as well.]

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.

(Matthew 7:24-27)

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents a picture of the ordinary life of His disciples—while at the same time demonstrating how radically different that life appears to the rest of the world. Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon are an impossible task to follow on our own, but His work of redemption on the cross and resurrection from the grave accomplished this impossible task on our behalf, so that anyone who repents of their sins and puts their faith in the work of Christ is cleansed of their sins and credited with His righteousness, giving us right standing before God through Christ. Once we are born again spiritually and given the gift of the Holy Spirit living within us, we can seek to obey the commands of Jesus in the Sermon and live out this ordinary radical lifestyle by His power and grace.

Jesus closes out His sermon with a picture of two builders and two foundations. I’d like to make 3 observations and a final plea.

Observation #1 – Everyone builds their lives on something. 

Notice that the wise man builds on a rock. In the Old Testament, God is described as the Rock of His people (Psalm 18:1-3). Later, Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ is called the rock upon which the Church is built (Matthew 16:13-20).  In Luke’s version of this teaching (Luke 6:46-49), he includes a few more details: the wise man digs down deep to lay a good foundation. This wise person is the person who comes to Jesus, hears His commands, and obeys them. Remember, you can never obey God or please God apart from faith. So we can rightly recognize that the wise man is also someone who came to Jesus in repentance in faith (or, “poor in spirit” [Matthew 5:3]).

Don’t miss this: the wise man builds his life on Jesus and on His teaching. The foolish man builds his life on anything else—there is no middle ground.  Look at verse 26—the foolish man hears the words of Jesus as well! But hearing isn’t enough. James writes in James 2 that faith without works is dead. So our works follow our faith—we come to Jesus, we hear His words, and we obey them in faith.

On the other side of the coin, we can’t fall into the trap of the false converts in Matthew 7:21-23. Mere works aren’t enough either. Church attendance isn’t enough. Sunday school isn’t enough. These are exterior works. Jesus just said that mere works is not enough to prove that the heart has been changed. So what is being described here? A wise man comes to Jesus in faith, repenting of sin and trusting Him as Savior, and “builds his house” on the foundation of Jesus and His word. Living faith produces the fruit of obedience.

Observation #2 – The storm is coming.

Earlier, in Matthew 5, rain was a sign of blessing for this farming society. But in the Old Testament, storms are a symbol for God’s judgment.

In Ezekiel 13:8-16, we see that false prophets have reassured the people that no judgment was coming, but God declares that judgment for sin will come as a storm does. Hmm—false teachers, false believers, and a storm of judgment. Sounds like Matthew 7, doesn’t it?

Some see this storm as representing the “storms of life,” and in some sense, having a foundation in Christ does keep you firm in the normal troubles and struggles of life in a broken world. You will face the storm, but you will not collapse. But I think there’s something else at work here.

Jesus is speaking here of the last storm, the judgement of God against sin on the Last Day, the Day of the Lord. The question Jesus raises is: On the last day, will your house stand?

The Bible teaches that if we are in Christ, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1) and that all our sin was placed on Christ and judged at the cross (Isaiah 53; II Corinthians 5:21). So when the final storm comes, if Jesus is your foundation, He will secure you against destruction.  But anyone who is outside of Christ has no such protection from the wrath of God.

Observation #3 – This is an issue of life and death, not just “life improvement.” 

Building your life on faith in Jesus and obedience to His teaching is hard. It’s challenging, painful and may seem like loss in the short term.

Though popular preachers and teachers may say otherwise, we don’t come to Jesus or call people to Jesus because doing so makes things easier or safer in this life, or more materially prosperous.  If that’s why you follow Jesus, you’re not following Him at all. Your life is built on sand and bare ground.

We come to Jesus and build our lives on Him because we are sinners who have earned every drop of the storm of God’s wrath, and Jesus Christ is our only hope of salvation. Though we are by nature children of wrath, enemies of God and rebels against His kingdom, He has graciously made a way to cleanse us of sin and adopt us as His children, by grace through faith in Jesus alone—His death and resurrection securing our justification and hope of a future inheritance.

So here is my final plea: be reconciled to God. Repent and believe the Gospel.

Some of you may never hear me teach or see my face again. Let this be my final word to you: repent–turn away from your sin and self-rule–and believe the Gospel.

  • You may have grown up in church and read the Bible cover to cover.
  • You may be a rebel, running from God’s authority.
  • You may be wrecked with guilt, afraid of God’s judgment and not quite able to believe that God can be merciful.
  • You may be an upright person on the outside, trying to keep the rules and earn your place in God’s kingdom.
  • You may be a prodigal who has reached the end of yourself and is on the long road back home.

My message to each and every one of you is the same: repent and believe the Good News that Jesus the Son of God came to earth, lived a perfect life in our place, died for sinners, and rose again victorious.  If you have already believed it, cling to it as a beautiful promise of God—a guarantee that you are His.

Jesus died to save sinners. Do you understand that you a sinner? Then He died for you. Repent of your sin and believe in Him and be saved!

Because if you do not, on the Last Day, the rain will come, the flood will rise, the winds will blow and beat against your house, and your house, your life, will fall. And great will be the fall of it.

Today is the day. Repent. Believe. And be born again.