“Defend the faith,” wrote Jude, “the faith that God has once for all given to his people.” No one has done that better than Athanasius. Born in 296 to Christian parents in Egypt, Athanasius was ordained to the ministry just as a heretic named Arius was teaching that Jesus Christ was not divine. Christ, said Arius and his followers the Arians, was created higher than angels but inferior to the Father.

Emperor Constantine convened a church council in Nicaea in 325 to settle the issue, and Athanasius attended. The young man strongly agreed with the council’s decision. Jesus is God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all divine — one God existing in three names. God, Athanasius believed, became a man and died to provide our forgiveness.

Athanasius soon afterward became bishop of Alexandria. But Constantine, still troubled by the rancor, ordered him to allow Arians to join his church. Athanasius refused, kicking over a hornet’s nest of intrigue. Traveling to Constantinople, he planted himself in front of Constantine’s horse, grabbed the bridle, and demanded the emperor retract his order. Instead, he found himself deposed.

After Constantine’s death, Athanasius returned to Alexandria, but not for long. The Arians had him exiled again in 339, and he spent the next several years in Rome, where his teaching attracted crowds and his writings an eager audience.

He returned to his church in 346. Thousands welcomed him, the city ablaze with torches, and his enemies retreated. But only briefly. On February 9, 356, as Athanasius led midnight worship, 5,000 soldiers stormed the church and the doors began buckling. Athanasius calmly asked his assistant to read Psalm 136 then slipped out a side door and escaped to the Egyptian desert.

He was later restored to his church, only to be exiled a fourth time. But he soon returned and ministered until his death at age 77. Seventeen of his 45 years of ministry had been away from his congregation. But today we owe enormous gratitude to Athanasius. He devoted his difficult life to protecting orthodox doctrine and to defending the faith that God once for all gave to his people.

My dear friends, I really wanted to write you about God’s saving power at work in our lives. But instead, I must write and ask you to defend the faith that God has once for all given to his people. (Jude 3)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Feb. 9.

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