Biblical Faith, Part One

Biblical faith1

When you say the word “faith” to people, it conjures up different images in people’s heads. For example, for some people, “faith” is believing with your whole heart that you are able to do something really difficult. For others, “faith” is trying to believe in something unbelievable. Still others think “faith” is a word related to another word, “impossible,” as in: When you’ve done all you can do and it still won’t start, what you need is faith! In our self-centered culture, we tend to associate “faith” with ourselves – it’s that certain “something,” that je ne sais quoi, that kicks in when all else has failed. But any definition of “faith” that excludes what the Bible teaches is inadequate at best, and wrong at worst. And in the Bible there are several aspects to the word “faith.”

In Galatians 1:23, we read about what some Judean Christians said when they spoke of Saul, whom he tried to destroy:

The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. (NIV)

“Faith,” then can be a confession, like the Apostle’s Creed, the simple articles of our Christian faith.

For the Gospel writers, “faith” had as its object Jesus Christ; “faith” is synonymous with believing in Jesus Christ:

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31 NIV)

And another aspect of “faith” is the idea of having to appropriate it, or “claiming” salvation in Jesus Christ. God saves a sinner through faith.

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Romans 3:21 NIV)

So defining “faith” is a little more complicated than we thought.

The simple nature of faith

Fortunately for us, the writer to the Hebrews demonstrated sheer genius when he wrote about the essence of faith. For him, the easiest way to understand “faith” was to define it within the context of certain people – “the ancients,” he called them, but we call them “heroes” – who exhibited faith. These people lived a life defined by Hebrews 11:1 –

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1 NIV)

J.B. Phillips in his translation put it like this:

Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see. (Hebrews 11:1 JBP)

But Hebrews is not talking about a selfish hope, like having faith that dear old Dad will buy you a new car because you graduated from college. Faith shouldn’t be confused with presumption; that God must do what we want Him to do. There are plenty of Christians who live very disillusioned lives because God won’t conform to their wills. Indeed, faith takes God at HIS word, it does not demand that He listen to ours.

Both in the NIV and JBP, the word “confidence” was sometimes translated as “title deed” in apostolic times. Faith, then, is like a “title deed” to what God has promised. It is the firm assurance and conviction that God will do what He has said He would.

Many of the Hebrew Christians to whom this letter was written were becoming discouraged and restless because it seemed like God was ignoring their prayers; that He was unaware of their trials. This is very common among Christians, who like things done quickly. When it seems like God isn’t hopping to it to answer our prayers, we bemoan that God has forgotten us or that He doesn’t really love us. But the very fact that we pray – and continue to pray in the face of terrible situations and circumstances – is proof that God is at work even when we can’t see it or even doubt it sometimes.

“Faith” is not a shadow or a feeling, but EVIDENCE of things not seen; of promises yet to be fulfilled.

Knowledge of faith

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. (Hebrews 11:3 NIV)

The world may say, “Seeing is believing,” but the Word of God says the exact opposite: “Believe and you will see.” An example of this “title deed” aspect of faith is verse 3: the creation of the universe. Nobody was there to see it happen, but believers in God “understand” or “have knowledge” that God created it out of nothing. We believe it happened this way because our faith tells us it happened this way.

The metaphysical part of this verse, “what is seen was not made out of what was visible,” is not an insignificant add-on but a major thought of great theological import. What seems real to our senses is actually a product of that which our senses tell us is unreal! So faith, then, is not believing in fairy tales and in a make-believe world, but the opposite. The knowledge acquired by way of our faith has shown us the real truth: there exists an invisible world and our world came out of it. That’s a deep well!  True faith is not a kindergarten-level religion, but so deep and profound that the so-called wizards of smart can’t even grasp it. But you can, because you have faith.

Worship of faith

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. (Hebrews 11:4 NIV)

It’s interesting that Hebrews 11 and its “heroes of faith” list begins with a martyr: Abel. Abel came to God “by faith.” Not only to we acquire knowledge by faith, but faith is the only means of approaching God and of receiving God’s approval.  Cain brought God some fruit from his fields as his offering and Abel took his offering to God from among the firstborn of his flock. Both offerings had to do with the externals of religion but God only accepted one: the one offered “by faith.” Abel’s offering was made in accord with the revealed Word of God but Cain reasoned that his would be “just as good.” There was no faith involved in Cain’s offering, just effort. He thought he was doing his best, but God doesn’t just want our best, He demands that all of our worship be done according to His revealed will.

Oddly enough, while God accepted Abel’s offering, He didn’t stop Cain from killing him. If you’re looking for your rewards in this life, you’ll be disappointed. Abel was a martyr, yet he showed us the way and still speaks to us this very day. Living a life of faith may not always be easy; it may be rugged life indeed, but pleasing God is what matters.

A life of faith

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. (Hebrews 11:5 NIV)

The word “taken” is literally “transposed,” as in from a lower key to a higher one. We don’t know anything about this person, Enoch, except that he “pleased God.” His whole life is only four verses long (Genesis 5:21 – 24) and ended with his being “taken” away. Whether or not he accomplished anything of note is, apparently, unimportant. The important thing was that he walked with God. A couple of verses in the New Testament gives us a little more information:

Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all of them of all the ungodly acts they have committed in their ungodliness, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 14, 15 NIV)

So while Enoch was some kind of prophet, the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t mention that. The most important thing that could be said about Enoch was that he “pleased God.”

It seems as though Enoch left this world in a way like no others: God took him home but he didn’t experience death. One day this man of faith simply couldn’t be found. It’s a difficult thing to understand, but as the writer to the Hebrews might say, we need to have faith. Speaking of faith, the part faith played in Enoch’s life and translation was indirect. Faith itself doesn’t translate any of us into Heaven. It was Enoch’s walk with God that was by faith; his reward was not experiencing death.

Yet, in a way all believers who are walking with God by faith have been translated!

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13 NIV)

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:6 NIV)

Faith is indispensable

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6 NIV)

This is a principle for the ages. If Enoch had not kept on believing, he would not have kept on pleasing God. The inescapable law of God’s Kingdom is simply this: His subjects must have complete and unwavering confidence in Him – in His goodness, His wisdom, His mercy and grace, His power. All other offerings are of no value to God if this kind of faith is lacking.

How indispensable is faith? Richard Taylor said it best:

We are not kept by feeling but by faith, because only by believing God can we be pleasing to God.

So Christians, then, must believe that He is real and believe that He is what He says He is: a rewarder. God is not a distant deity. He is involved in the lives of His people to the point where He sees how you live and He rewards you accordingly.

Live in faith

Noah was guy who had boat-loads of faith. Seriously!

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith. (Hebrews 11:7 NIV)

What was it that kept Noah going? Why did he keep on building a boat for 120 years, preaching doom all that time and receiving only ridicule in return? It was his faith that caused Noah to act. In keeping with the theme of this chapter: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1 NIV), Noah’s faith is emphasized because the warning he received from God was “of things not yet seen.” Noah didn’t have NOAA. He didn’t have the Old Farmer’s Almanac. All he had was a Word from God. And that was enough to motivate him to do what God had told him to do.

Faith leads to obedience

Like Noah, Abraham stands out as one of the greatest examples of a man of faith. He did what you probably wouldn’t. In answer to the call of God, he left his home and set out on a journey that would last a lifetime.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. (Hebrews 11:8, 9 NIV)

Today, we’d call a man who did what Abraham did crazy. But Abraham showed us something very important: Faith does, it does not question. Faith follows the Word of God, not the opinions of man. Abraham wasn’t crazy, he was simply doing what God had told him to do. Abraham was promised a land; a home of his own and for his descendants,  yet he himself never lived to see it. Even when his wife, Sarah, died, Abraham had to buy a burial plot from some Hittite settler.

The man was promised a land – a nation – yet he lived in tents until the day he died. From the moment he left Ur, Abraham did not have a permanent home, but he kept on looking for it. His faith proved God’s Word to be true. Onlookers might have wondered about Abraham’s sanity after all the years of wandering around looking for the land God had promised him, but Abraham was a man of faith, not sight. His spiritual sight took him far beyond the land of Canaan to the celestial city.

Like Abraham, we are only pilgrims on earth. Like Abraham, we are citizens of the great City of God. And like Abraham, living here below requires faith. To the Israelites, God said, “Go forward.” They did and the waters parted before them. God always makes a way for the faithful. Jesus called Peter to walk on stormy seas, and he took a few steps – Peter did what no man had ever done: he walked on water. But more importantly, he took Jesus at His word. The obedient follow Jesus anywhere.

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19 NIV)

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