Fight Valiantly! Contending Words
Posted by Lee Gatiss, 7 Mar 2019
Lee Gatiss looks at some of the words the Bible uses to describe contending for the faith. These Lent posts are also available as video podcasts on our YouTube channel.
Today in our Lent series on fighting valiantly for the faith, we’re looking briefly at the words used to talk about contending for the faith. To contend, in the Bible, usually implies some form of opposition. The English Standard Version uses “contend” words in the Old Testament to translate several Hebrew verbs which are used in the context of striving, quarrelling, fighting, struggling, provoking, or coming to blows.
For example, “the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen” (Genesis 26:20). Dathan and Abiram contended with Moses and Aaron and even “contended against the LORD” (Numbers 26:9). God told the people of Israel not to provoke (or contend with) the people of Esau (Deuteronomy 2:5), while Joash asked those who wanted to kill Gideon, “Will you contend for Baal?” (Judges 6:31). In Psalm 35:1, King David prays, “Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!”
This sort of conflict and contention is part of the nitty gritty of human life after the Fall. Greek versions of the Old Testament translate these words with verbs meaning to judge or condemn, or to conspire against and attack, or to go to law against someone. This is more than simply making a case for something, the way we sometimes say, “I contend that Manchester United are the best team in the Premiership” or “I contend that taxes should be lower.” In the Old Testament, contending is vigorous and often violent.
We see a similar pattern in the New Testament. Here, the English word “contend” is used to translate verbs with a range of connotations such as “to protest violently” or “contend sharply” with severity and thoroughness. For example, in Acts 23:9 the scribes of the Pharisees take Paul’s side in a debate against the Sadducees; they contend and “a great clamour arose” it says. It’s so bad that the tribune thinks Paul is going to be torn into pieces!
The Lord Jesus himself, however, implied that his servants are not to contend in a violent way for his kingdom, as if it were an earthly kingdom. He says to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).
Jude and Paul also use variants of that Greek word for struggle or contending: agonizomai. In the ancient world this meant to compete for a prize, especially in the public games, but also in poetry competitions, politics, or court cases. So it was not always violent or about physical aggression. Though it does involve a contest of some kind. In Jude 3 the word used is epagonizomai, meaning to fight for something, “to exert intense effort on behalf of something.” That’s what it means “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”, in the context of false teaching.
The NIV translation also uses the word “contended” in Philippians 4:3 to describe the work of two women who worked with Paul. They contended at his side “in the cause of the gospel” with other co-workers. This translates another Greek word (sunathleo), a sporting “athletic” metaphor with the sense of “to work together with” or “to toil together with someone in a struggle, implying opposition and/or competition.”
Paul also uses the word agonizomai in Colossians. Here he speaks of contending with all the energy Christ works in him, for the Colossians and those at Laodicea. This is about straining, making an effort for something. Paul contends by means of gospel proclamation in order to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28-29). Interestingly, Paul is contending for the Laodiceans and Colossians despite having never actually met them. So contending is something that can be done from a distance, presumably by prayer and by working for someone behind the scenes — as Epaphras “wrestles in prayer” (Colossians 4:12). In Luke 22:44, a similar word is used of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he prayed, and Paul asks the Romans “to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me” (Romans 15:30). So prayer is contending.
When Paul speaks about fighting the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7) it’s the same word for contending that he uses. In Hebrews 12:1, though the idea of struggle and effort is the same, the picture is of a race, rather than a wrestling match: “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” says the writer. The picture a few verses later in Hebrews 12:4 is of a struggle with sin (as opposed to a human opponent): “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (as Jesus did). Such language conjures up images of exertion and suffering, with a goal in mind.
So with all of these words, there’s a basic thrust of working or competing for something, often in a context of opposition, with varying levels of strength and vigour — from what seems to be a positive teamwork idea through to a more violent or aggressive type of contention, which isn’t commended.
Some kind of contending seems to be inevitable: this fallen world is an arena for wrangling and wrestling, struggle, and conflict. Some of this may be for noble causes, and some of it not so much.
Questions for Reflection
1. Why did Jesus not encourage his followers to physically fight for his cause?
2. Why do we not usually think of prayer as a form of fighting for the faith?
3. How can our personal struggle with sin be part of contending for the gospel more widely?
Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.
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