Hebrews 11 & James 2:1-25.
“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
God’s Faith-enabling Presence
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. 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.”
In Hebrews 11 we see ordinary men and women of faith doing extraordinary things that are way beyond their personal ability. In seeing this we realise, yet again, that the Bible is not so much about great men or women like Abraham, Moses, Deborah and Paul, but about the God of Abraham, Moses, Deborah and Paul.
In reading of the men and women of faith in the Bible we need to be careful not to measure our own faith by what we see them doing, because if we do we will more than likely end up belittling our own lives and miss an important point.
God does not tell us about great men and women of faith so that we then become discouraged and feel small and insignificant. Instead God is showing us that faith comes from knowing Him: the One who his always present if we would but open our spiritual eyes and see Him (Rom 10:17). Therefore it is not our feelings or ability but His faith-enabling presence that enables men and women to root themselves in Him, feed on what He says and does and walk in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
In light of this it does not matter whether this exercise of faith is giving a glass of water in His name, or running an evangelistic mission; the point is that it is God who encourages us to do all things through spending time with Him and not rushing out with our own plans or agenda.
Through the work of Christ we are part of an everlasting Kingdom and serve One who sees nothing in our lives as trivial and serve a God who often turns in in unexpected places and unexpected ways.
“I have a vivid memory of the advent of the third millennium. It was New Year’s Eve 1999. I was at a party with graduate students and young professionals dressed in East Coast black with chic haircuts, hip glasses and sophisticated accents. All eyes were on the large-screen television. positioned cameras on the frontiers of time zones around the world, transmitting images by satellite. The first celebration: the island of Tonga.
The Tongan villagers in native dress danced on a beat around a large bonfire. What a contrast to my urbane gathering. We expected the Tongans to break into traditional, perhaps animistic, ritual or song. But instead the Tongan people began a beautiful tribal dance and started singing with uplifted hands from Handel’s Messiah: “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord. And of his Christ, and of his Christ. And he shall reign for ever and ever.””
K. M. Kullberg in, ‘Finding God beyond Harvard,’ pages 99-100.
Faith is more than intellectual assent and feelings
“…Your faith without works is dead.” James 2:26.
The above verse is written to struggling believers from a Jewish background (James 1:1 who had probably made a quick exit from Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen, which had resulted in widespread persecution. Added to this, there would have been many questions in the minds of these believers. For example, how were they to relate to their Jewish neighbours who had not accepted Christ and how were they to relate to the Gentile community around them? Where was God in all this and why had He let such things happen? In many ways they, like so many of us, can grind to a halt when trouble comes along. We ‘talk the talk’ but have forgotten how to ‘walk the walk’ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Then again, we may be those who have mentally assented to the gospel yet never put our trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Such faith, James said, is dead – it is not really faith at all. Faith is much more than intellect.
We all know of occasions when life has got a little tougher than expected. At such times we need to know the presence of our Father and not just have ‘head knowledge’ concerning scriptures. After all, there is a big difference between having a note in our pocket that says, “Your father loves you” and having our Father present with us and helping us in all that we do.
Faith is not simply a matter of intellect; however, it will become just that if we do not seek to engage with the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter whom Jesus sends to live with all believers (John 14). The Holy Spirit is the One who energises our lives and strengthens natural abilities (Gal 5:22f) so that we can live the life we have been called to. Unfortunately, it appears that many of those whom James wrote to had little more than an intellectual knowledge of God. Yet faith is more than intellectual knowledge and it is more than the feelings that some mistake for faith. You cannot drum up faith.
Empowering ourselves is not the answer
Over the last twenty years or son I have run yearly youth trips to Dorset and on one of those trips we visited a man who had a passion for archery.This man, whose name I cannot remember, had bows from all over the world, varying in age from 400 years and those he had just finished making.To our great surprise he demonstrated the power of some of his bows including one that had a pull of 140lb which shot an arrow so fast that none of us could see it until it hit the target.
Sometimes what we consider as faith can be little more than our view of life powered by good intentions and emotions that we then fire in God’s direction in order to get Him to act in a the way we think He should. In reality, this faith is more in what I think a perceived outcome should be and is not faith in God. Yet without true faith, it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6).
Jesus said that whatever we ask for in prayer, we will receive if we have faith. He also said that if we have faith as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20; 21:22), we would be able to say to a mountain, “be removed into the sea”. Yet how often do we receive what we have prayed for? If we are honest, there are many prayers that don’t appear to be answered and this produces a whole host of different ‘harvests’ at times. For example, the harvest can be seeking to drum up more faith or assuming that God doesn’t really listen to us as much as He does to others. Then again, we could end up thinking we are not good enough or we give up because we have become so confused that we don’t really know what to pray. The danger with this sort of harvest is that we become closed to the leading of the Spirit. Instead, we need to recognise that God is always willing to help us in our weakness.
“…In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.”
Where does that mustard seed of faith come from?
“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you.
We are servants who are called to serve the One who has all power and authority. In recognising this, we need to understand that we cannot move mountains by assuming the Holy Spirit is simply a power to tap in to in order to get things done. We are called to meet with God through praying and seeking His will. In light of this, the mustard seed of faith is a gift from God – it is God revealing how He wants us to walk in His power and authority in a given situation.
“Faith is not merely doing something; it is receiving something. It is not the earning of a reward, but the acceptance of a gift. Living by faith does not mean doing without or not doing at all; it means doing his will. It is a walking with God into new territory as Abraham did. It is obeying God when the request seems incongruous to all known facts, as in Noah’s life. The life of faith is not optional it is obligatory…the just shall live by faith.”
Dr J. Cornwall in Back to Basics page 123.
Throughout scripture we read of faith (Heb 11:3ff), yet the reason that anyone can have faith in God in the first place is because God wants to be known. We see this truth right from the outset of Genesis where man is made in the image of God (Gen 1:27); man who understands something of God’s creation (Gen 2:19) and finds grace and mercy because God initiates conversation after Adam and Eve sinned and hid from God (Gen 3:19).
From Genesis to Revelation, we find God reaching out and communicating with man in ways that invite man to respond in faith (eg Isaiah 1:16-18). For example, in Numbers 12:7-8 we find, Moses, being spoken of as ‘faithful in all God’s house’. Yet without the burning bush (Ex 3:2ff), subsequent conversations (Ex 3:5ff) and God’s continuing disclosure of Himself, (Ex 3:14) Moses would have remained in the desert. Whilst it is true that Moses had to put his trust in God, he could only do so because God was about His work of grace, mercy and reconciliation in the first place: He shows us someone we can hold onto – God!
In his book, ‘Wake Up America,’ Prof Tony Campolo writes of the faith of a Korean couple whose son, In-Ho-Ho, was murdered in Philadelphia. In-Ho- Ho, a University graduate, was killed by a group of homeless boys whilst mailing a letter to his parents. His parents travelled to America for the trial and asked for an opportunity to speak after the ‘guilty’ verdict was announced. Tony then writes:
“Before a stunned audience, these parents begged for mercy for their son’s murderers. Not only were they devoid of any “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” mentality, but they wanted to help these despicable young men. They begged the judge to release their son’s murderers to them so that they could give the boys the home and care they had never had. They were Christians, they explained to the judge, and they wanted to show something of the grace they had received from God to those who had done them such grievous evil. The judge, who newspaper reporters claimed had a reputation for being hard and unemotional, had tears in his eyes as he explained. “That is not the way our system of justice works.”
Prof T. Campolo in, ‘Wake Up America’ pages 47-48
God seeks to encourage us in our faith; encouraging us to see Him and trust in Him. For example, in the story of Gideon we find a man who raised an army of 33,000 men, yet then had them reduced to 300 by God (Judges 7). I’m sure Gideon must have felt a little uncomfortable when this happened, yet Gideon would have ended up far more uncomfortable if God had left him with his own ‘strength’ (33,000 men). Although Gideon must have felt uncomfortable, the whole purpose of God was to encourage Gideon to see that everything really was of God. If Gideon had won a war with 33,000 men, it might look as if they had done the job themselves. Taking victory with only 300 men and accompanying signs and wonders revealed that it was God alone who brought about victory through His people. In a sense, Gideon had a mustard-seed sized army, yet trusted God and found victory and freedom. The key to faith is knowing God and being open to His leading.
A few weeks ago I talked with some evangelists who had recently returned from Belarus. Whilst conducting a gospel campaign their tent-meetings had been closed down after the local priest accused them of drug dealing! The next day some of the evangelists went to the Mayor in order to see what could be done. They had heard that it was his birthday so they decided to take a present with them. On getting to the office the Mayor’s secretary accepted the present on his behalf just as he walked out of his office. He was really pleased to receive a gift and invited them in and offered them tea and chocolates. It was then that the evangelists told the Mayor that they were from the tent mission. His countenance fell and he told them that he had heard the reports from the Police and there was nothing he was prepared to do about it.
The meeting ended at that point yet as they were leaving a word of knowledge came to one of the Evangelists and he asked the Mayor if he had a neck problem. He said “no” and was then asked if anyone in his family did, to which he said “yes, my mother” He was then asked if anyone had a back problem and he said, “My father.” The evangelists then asked if they could pray for his parents and went on to do so. The Mayor then looked at them and said, “I cannot change the order but if you carry on with your mission that is your business…no one will trouble you.”
The tent-mission continued but on the last day the Police drove up and said they had been told there was trouble at the tent. It later transpired that the local priest had phoned the police and complained. The evangelists told the police there was no trouble and that the Police should leave. They also told the Police to phone Police Headquarters and speak to their senior officer. They did so and he told them to tell the evangelists to leave. They then managed, by the grace of God, to get the Police Chief to phone his boss. After talking to him the police looked at the evangelists and said, “We have to leave.”
Why so many of Paul’s prayers are about knowing God
Think of a young child who runs into their home having cut their hand so badly that it required stitches. Initially the pain and the shock may be so great that the child holds their hand to their chest and doesn’t want anyone to look at it. Eventually, they are going to let their mother or father look at the wound because they know and trust their parents. As we go through life, we need to spend time encouraging people to get to know God because it is only God who can bring healing and wholeness to those who have often put up many barriers to prevent themselves from getting hurt.
When we really know a person, it becomes easier to be open and honest with them and this explains why so many of the Pauline prayers are about getting to know God rather than complex prayers about how to get out of this or that situation, and so on. Note, for example, Paul’s prayers concerning the church at Ephesus - a city known for its worship to false gods. Paul knew that the only way the church was ever going to overcome darkness was through resting in God’s grace, mercy and love and remembering that they were very much a part of God’s plan.
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on the earth is named. I pray that according to the wealth of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner person, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, so that, because you have been rooted and grounded in love, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”
Paul never produced reams and reams of plans and methods about how to get people out of difficult situations, yet sadly, there are many that do this today. If we are not careful, we can all spend too much time listening to well-meaning people who are more like Job’s comforters than anything else.
The words of Job’s comforters, whilst containing elements of truth, started to lead Job along a path of his own making and therein lay his real problem. In reality, the authority of God had preserved Job’s life, had he but known it. Job struggled, as we all would have, yet God then stepped in; the ‘Faith-enabling One’. As with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God intervened in Job’s situation by reminding him of just who God really is (Job 38) and who Job belongs to. It is in focusing on the Lord that Job found the strength and resources to overcome as God enabled Job to re-engage with Him.
In Ephesians 3, Paul speaks of getting to know God more and finishes that part of his letter by saying…..
“Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Faith speaks about being rooted in the work of God
In the Hebraic mindset, the word faithful speaks of ‘firmness’ since it is the Lord who speaks with certainty, enabling all people to see things as they really are. These people were also, through God’s loving-kindness, able to see exactly who God is in His work or redemption and could then place their trust in His nature and character. It is because of God’s great acts of grace and mercy that David could say…
“I will sing of the Lord's great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness (firmness) known through all generations. I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you established your faithfulness (firmness) in heaven itself.”
All too often we can have more faith in what we think God is going to do in a given situation rather than in God. Yet in reality, real faith is firmly anchored in God’s nature and character first and foremost and not in what we think should or should not happen.
Seeing the need to be rooted in God explains why some of the Hebraic pictures of faithfulness are of a tent peg in solid ground, or that of a tree rooted and established in God’s promises (e.g. Psalm 1). God’s words, actions and promises clearly reveal His nature and character as One who is full of loving-kindness.
Being rooted in God’s love means recognising and receiving His love. We are all loved, but our thoughts and actions sometimes prevent us from receiving this love. If I live with faith in what I think should happen without any reference to God, then I quench my ability to receive this love which is always present.
A missionary once wrote of a time when, as a young evangelist, he got frustrated after a meeting where no-one seemed to respond. He was exhausted and went out and sat under an apple tree. Of that time, he wrote, “The Lord seemed to come to me and say, “You’re tired, aren’t you? “ “Yes,” I replied, “I am, because I have worked hard.” “And you are out of patience aren’t you?” “Yes, because these people seem unresponsive.” Then He quietly said, “Do you see this apple tree? How does it bring forth fruit? Does it work itself up into a stew trying to be fruitful? Or does it simply keep the channels open, taking in life from soil and sky and allowing life to flow through itself into the fruit? And is it not all unstrained? Then if you’ll not fret nor worry about results, but simply keep the channels open, letting My life flow through you, then you will bear fruit naturally without strain of drain.” I arose relaxed and released. I didn’t have to succeed – I only had to keep the channels open. God did the rest.
Rushing along in our own strength and doing things our own way is not faith
I can’t remember where I found the following story – but it makes a good point to me. Doing things that seems good to me may be anything but good!
One day a man found a cocoon of a butterfly with a very small opening in it. The man then sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. After a while, the butterfly looked as if it had got as far as it could and stopped making any visible progress. The man decided to help the butterfly and carefully cut the cocoon open with a pair of scissors. The butterfly was now free but had a swollen body and small shrivelled wings.
The man continued to watch the butterfly, expecting to see the wings enlarge and expand to support the body which would contract in time. Yet neither happened and the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shrivelled wings.
What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand, was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening was the way that fluid was forced from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it had left the cocoon.
There are times…
There are times when we can find ourselves under pressure as we walk through life. It is at these times that we need to remind ourselves of what God is like – that He is our Father (Ps 68:5) and the Master of every situation.
Sometimes our heavenly Father allows us to go through difficulty because it is through this that we move from intellectual knowledge to faith as we learn to engage more fully with God. He is the God who is always there; who says that He will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb 13:5) and has given the Holy Spirit as a deposit and guarantee (2 Cor 5:5, Eph 1:14) of the things to come. In Him alone do we find the victory that is ours in Christ.
At times we get caught up with what we think should or should not have happened and end up struggling with doubt and insecurity. Sometimes the ‘step’ of faith that is required, is simply standing still and submitting our lives to God and allowing Him to take control. We have been brought into freedom (Gal 5:1) and are to stand firm in Him (Eph 6:14).
God offers the hand of friendship
God continually reaches out to man and in Jesus’ life we see what friendship is all about. Friendship is about being where others are; it is crossing the road and standing with them. Take for example the widow of Nain (Mk 5:34), Zach the tax collector (Lk 19:5) and the thief on the cross (Lk 23:43). In Jesus we see God’s offer of friendship and the One who is emotionally involved in His creation (Mk 1:41, 6:34, Jn 11:35).
The ‘Voice of the Martyrs’ recently spoke about how Jesus reached into the life of an Islamic State killer. The man had been killing Christians but had started dreaming about a person in white who said, “You are killing my people.” At the same time the fighter started to feel sick and uneasy.
Shortly after this, and just before he killed another Christian, the man reached out with his Bible and said, “I know you are going to kill me but I give you my Bible.” He killed the man yet picked up the Bible and later started reading it. That night Jesus appeared to the Islamic State fighter and told him to follow him. This story came to light when the Christian group Youth with a Mission were contacted and asked to go to speak to an Isis fighter who wanted to know about Jesus. That story is on-going right now as I write (June 2015). God continues to reach out in what, to many, are extraordinary ways.
The woman at the well
In Jesus’ approach to the Samaritan woman (John 4:7ff), we see God’s loving-kindness and the offer of friendship as He reaches out to a person marginalised by both ethnicity and lifestyle. This unnamed woman had gone and drawn water during the hottest part of the day because there would be less chance of bumping into anyone or having to run the gauntlet of accusing eyes and whispered words. It must have been a surprise for her to find a Jewish rabbi at the well and one who started speaking to her when others would have avoided all contact.
The power and love of Christ impacted the Samaritan woman’s life and she could not keep the encounter with Jesus a secret. The revelation was too important, too life-changing and had birthed hope into her innermost being. She went and told others that this man, Jesus, knew everything she had ever done (John 4:39-40), yet had not rejected her. Her faith had come about because Jesus had arrived at the place where He knew He would find her. Her subsequent testimony allowed many others in her community to place their trust in Jesus.
Friendship is more than liking someone; friendship desires the best for others and God wants the very best for each of us. Friendship is seeing beyond the things that separate and the difficulties and hardships in life, and reaching out with genuine concern and desire for fellowship. This is the sort of friendship that God reaches out to us with, through the work of His Son, and we are called to see this and to live by faith in Christ Jesus (Rom 1:17), whilst being empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:15,26).
Jesus encourages us in our faith
In the gospel of Mark, we read of a father bringing his demon-possessed son to Jesus. The disciples had not been able to set the boy free and the man was struggling badly. He wondered if Jesus would help him and in reply, Jesus said that everything was possible to those who believe. The distraught father then said, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” (Mark 9:23-24).
Jesus did not rebuke this struggling father for a lack of faith, nor did he tell him to increase his faith. Instead he healed the boy, thus birthing greater faith into the heart of a struggling parent.
On another occasion, a leper came to Jesus saying “Lord if you are willing, you can make me clean.” (Matthew 8:2). Perhaps the leper was a little unsure of whether this Rabbi would want to heal him because he lived in a society that often thought illness was the result of sin in the life of the sick person or his or her parents. Over the years, this sort of thinking can affect a person’s life and so this struggling and burdened leper was not sure whether Jesus would want to heal him. Jesus met this marginalised man at his point of confessed need by saying, “I am willing” and healing him.
Another person we find struggling on one occasion is, John the Baptist, when during his imprisonment he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah. Prior to this, John had proclaimed the coming Messiah, yet may have had ideas tainted with the view of a leader who would restore Israel. If this were the case, then he would not really understand why he was now in prison. Perhaps his trust wavered a little, yet he did not let it eat away at his heart; he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was indeed the Messiah.
In His reply, Jesus did not berate John but sent John a picture which would encourage and uplift him. They would encourage John because they spoke of the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy concerning the Messiah.
“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."
Jesus encourages us to see God as He really is
In all of the parables, Jesus seeks to engage the hearts and minds of those who had lost sight of what God was like and encourages people to really think things through. For example, on one occasion He reasons with the disciples as He effectively says, “Look if you though you get it wrong so much of the time are still able to give good gifts to your children, then why do you seem to have a problem in understanding that your Father, who is perfect, is also willing to give you more of the Spirit?” (Luke 11). On another occasion, He speaks of the kingdom of God as being like a landowner (Matt 20f) who goes out in the hottest part of the day (at great inconvenience to self) in order to help people. Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of God as a Father who runs to greet the prodigal son (Luke 15).
We may not always know what we are going through, yet we can always have deep trusting faith in the One who goes through life with us – the Shepherd (John 10) who does not leave His sheep and seeks to draw us to Himself (Ex 33:14; Matt 11:28) and encourage our faith. For example, think about the disciples on the road to Emmaus and see how Jesus encouraged their faith (Luke 24:13ff). Then picture in your mind’s eye how Jesus encouraged a doubting Thomas who struggled, but remained open to God (John 20:24ff). Next, look at how Jesus encouraged Peter whilst having breakfast with the disciples by the Sea of Galilee (John 21). God actively encourages us to have faith in Him, yet do we realise this or have we given up and stopped focusing on Him because things have become difficult?
From God’s written word, we see that we are not trivial or insignificant in His eyes. We see that we are totally accepted through Jesus Christ and are indwelt by His Spirit. We also see that Jesus accepts even a short, stumbling prayer. We have been purchased at a great price (Rev 5:9), adopted into His family (Eph1:5), seated in heavenly realms (Eph 2:6), indwelt by His Spirit (2 Tim 1:14).
If we do not keep our eyes on God then we begin to lose sight of the right way to live and can start to tolerate things that have no place in His world. An extreme example of the danger of this is as follows:
“Most crimes are hard to carry out the first time, be they stealing or murdering one’s fellowmen. But practice makes perfect – and insensitive. The Nazis gassed millions of Jews with as little compunction as the average person has when he kills a fly. No doubt the first gassings a concentration camp commandant carried out upset him. But this wore off with time… our hearts become gradually the more hardened; our eyes slowly become the more blind the more we practice repression of guilt. The deafness of our understanding ears becomes the more profound, the further we go into practicing sin against our conscience.”
Prof A.E. Wilder-Smith in, ‘The Drug Users’ p 161
In Isaiah 1:5-7, we see a graphic picture of God’s people living in their own strength and yet throughout Isaiah, we can read of how God really wants to help his people. Let us fix our eyes on His love for us (Heb 12:2).
“He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young.”
It is because of God’s love that we can have faith
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”
If God had not taken the initiative in reaching out to man, then He could never have been known, and we would not have had the opportunity to have faith in Him. In Jesus, the living Word of God, we see the All-Powerful One taking our sin and pain and making it His personal responsibility. This was always what Jesus had intended to do because when God created the world, the unseen cross was already upon His heart. As Peter clearly states in his letter to Christians struggling with the threat of persecution…
“He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.”
1 Peter 1:19-20
It is precisely because of God’s love that we can have faith; hence His presence is a faith-enabling presence to those who really want to know Him. In realising this afresh, let’s be encouraged to hand our whole life over to Him and see ourselves in light of what He has done. In doing so, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit will cleanse, renew and strengthen us in the victory that Christ alone procures and freely gives to those who seek Him. The impact of His word can be graphically seen when looking at how He speaks to a wayward Israel about blessing…
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
God encourages Abraham in his faith
In Genesis 20, we find one of many incidents in Abrahams’ life where God encourages faith. In this passage we find Abram passing off his wife Sarah as his sister (for the second time), due to his fear of a pagan king called Abimelech. It is as if events have built a mountain of difficulty for Abraham and he’s losing sight of who he is, and more importantly, who it is that is with him. Now look at how God encourages Abraham to focus on God again. God does this through initially intervening and speaking into the life of King Abimelech through a dream. God’s intervention in Abimelech’s life was going to challenge Abraham and get him back on track with God. God spoke into Abimelech’s life and said:
“Now return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die."
Imagine how Abraham must have felt when the pagan king he had tried to fool comes to him with words from God and a reminder of just who Abraham is: a prophet. At the same time, God protects Abraham from retribution since it is Abraham’s intercession that is going to spare Abimelech’s life!
The One whom we serve is a faith-encouraging and faith enabling God. It is because of God’s love for us that we can have faith in Him. Even when pressure sends us off along the wrong path, God is still gracious and merciful.
God encourages Jacob to have greater faith
There are many examples throughout scripture of how God encourages His people to have faith in Him, and another occasion where we see this is in Genesis 25. It is in this chapter that we find Jacob (supplanter/ heel grabber) wrestling with the angel of the Lord and then being given a new name (Gen 32:22f), God later confirming this name (Israel) at Bethel (Gen 25:10).
At the time of his wrestling match, Jacob is a 97-year-old schemer who has not yet grasped the concept that God’s gifts are gifts of grace and that the land he is going to claim is also a gift from God that cannot be earned. His wrestling is, in a spiritual sense, the role-playing concerning what his life was like.
In a very real sense, Jacob’s wrestling looks back over all the years of conniving, from the way he rushed into grab Esau’s birthright (Gen 27:5ff) and disguised of himself as Esau in order to obtain blessing (Gen 23:37).
In all areas we see that Jacob was a man who worked with God – which is quite different from being a man whom God could work with. Jacob sought to bring about the way of the Lord by the way of the flesh, and this character trait was deeply imbedded within him. Eventually, after wrestling all night, Jacob is permanently injured with little more than the touch of his opponent’s finger. Jacob asks the angel for a blessing and the angel begins by asking Jacob what his name is. In doing this, he is forcing Jacob to admit what he is really like since his name spoke of his nature and character at that time.
What Jacob needed to recognise was that God is all-sufficient as God establishes the chosen nation, and Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, speaking of having power with God and of being one who strives with God. God is in the business of changing us from a man or a woman into being the man or the woman that God always intended us to be.
“But instead of merely blessing him, his opponent changes Jacob’s name thus announcing Jacobs new character and destiny. Similarly, Abram’s name was changed to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah to presage the long-awaited fulfilment of the promise of the birth of a son (Gen 17,5,15). Here Jacob’s rebaptism as Israel is equally significant, for Israel is of course the name of the nation and in granting it, Jacob’s opponent reveals the true import of the encounter, “For you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Prof Wenham, Genesis, p296.
Israel proceeds to call the place where he had wrestled with the angel, Peniel, meaning ‘face of the Lord’, recognising that this had been a divine encounter. However, whilst Jacob’s new name is conferred upon him immediately, he (Israel) still has to learn how to walk in the power and authority of the Lord. In God’s dealings with Jacob (and also with all of His people) we see matchless grace and amazing patience towards those who are often slow of heart when it comes to believing in God. It is through God’s encounter with man and His faith-enabling words that we are able to grow in faith in Him as we walk in the Spirit.
Tony Campolo used to host a radio show in Philadelphia and one of his guests was a young woman called Nancy. Nancy was confined to a wheelchair yet had a unique ministry to hurting and lonely people in the city through running adds in the personals section of a newspaper. The ad reads: “If you are lonely or have a problem call me. I am I in a wheelchair and seldom get out. We can share our problems with each other. Just call. I’d love to talk.” Tony writes, “The results are astounding. Each week at least thirty calls come in. She spends her days comforting and counselling people. She has become someone to lean on for hundreds of people with problems.” When Tony asked her how she became crippled she told him that it was through trying to commit suicide. She had been living on her own, hated her job and was continually depressed and so she jumped out of a window. She went on to tell him that the second night she was in hospital Jesus appeared to her and told her that she’d had a healthy body and a crippled soul but from then on she would have a crippled body and a healthy soul. She then said that she gave her life to Jesus there and them. “When I got out of the hospital, I tried to think of how a woman like me in a wheelchair could do some good, and I came up with the idea of putting the ad in the newspaper. And the rest, as they say, is all history.”
Tony Campolo in ‘Wake up America, pages 87-88
God encourages His people to have faith through Elijah’s intercession at Carmel
In the lead up to the confrontation between Elijah and Baalism, King Ahab (874BC – 853BC) is on the throne during a period of national darkness. Ahab’s wife was Jezebel, the Canaanite daughter of Ethbaal king of Sidon who had established Phoenician worship with thousands of prophets of Baal and had killed many of Israel’s genuine prophets. Nothing is going according to plan for Israel and the people are confused and caught between two belief systems; and then Elijah calls everyone to Carmel.
In the ensuing battle on Carmel we could assume that the power of God simply smashed the power of the enemy and then ‘dragged’ a wayward people home like a parent would a troublesome child. Yet this is not the full picture. The truth is that it is not raw power alone, but the compassion, love and grace of God that triumphs in such a way that rebellious people are brought to their knees and raised up in new strength. In His words and actions, God destroys the lies of the accuser and sets people free as they embrace the truth (John 8:32).
“… (some people) imagine Christ overcoming the devil at the end of a spiritual duel by his superior strength; or they speak about the elimination of evil, swallowed up by love, as if it were some kind of chemical operation of absorption or dissolution, one being disarmed by the expiatory blood which alone washes away sins. The power of the devil over human beings is that of accusation, as his name, Satan, the accuser, indicates (Rev 12:10ff; Col 2:14ff)”
Henri Blocher in, ‘Evil and the Cross’, page 131.
In 1 Kings, we read of God taking the initiative in instructing Elijah to call the prophets of Baal and Asherah to Carmel along with people from all over Israel (1 Kings 18:9-22). In looking at what Elijah has to say, we see that the real problem is not the power of the enemy, but the wavering heart of a people group who were swayed between two different worldviews. It is important to note that whilst the prophets of Baal and Asherah may have been empowered by darkness, the real problems for the believer begin when he or she starts to believe a lie. Apart from this, we see the power of uncertainty and recognise that the enemy needs our uncertainty in order to maintain his illegitimate power.
Elijah tells the people to choose who they were going to serve, but they said nothing (v21). There had been the subtle erosion of truth going on for decades. Apart from this, many would have been too scared to say anything positive about the God of Israel in the presence of false prophets and a king under the thumb of his pagan wife, Jezebel.
The people were wavering and not willing or not able to take a step of faith, having lost sight of God through allowing situations and circumstances to dictate what God was really like. The God of Israel was the absent God and probably the weaker God given that Jezebel had put to death so many prophets.
As we have previously been saying, all too often we have faith in what we think God is going to do in a given situation, yet real faith is firmly anchored in God’s nature and character first and foremost. Remember that some of the Hebrew pictures of faithfulness are of a tent peg in solid ground, or that of a tree rooted and established in God’s promises (e.g. Psalm 1), which so clearly reveal His nature and character as One who is full of loving-kindness.
Elijah encourages the false prophets to do their very best and to do it for as long as they liked. Scripture reveals that these false prophets ended up in a frenzy of activity as they sought to get the storm-god, Baal, and other so-called deities to act. In a sense, the mocking of these false gods was a means of showing that these so-called gods were unimportant and without any legitimate power. We also note that Elijah challenged Baal on his so-called strong points. Baal was supposed to be the god of fire, portrayed with lightening in his hands, and also the god responsible for drought and rain. In his goading, Elijah wants the prophets of Baal to do their very best in order to show that Baal is not going to be comparable to the God of Israel in any way whatsoever. The Lord of Israel is the eternal One who breathes life and resurrects. He is the maker of heaven and earth and there is no one like Him.
“By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.”
In God’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal and Asherah we see, yet again, his love for a wayward people; the love of a Shepherd going after lost sheep. In Jesus, we see that this love is a costly love and reveals the lengths God is willing to go to in order to restore creation to its rightful position with Him.
After midday, Elijah instructed Israel to repair the altar of the Lord in order to instigate the afternoon sacrifice that Israel should have been keeping. This sacrifice, like all sacrifices, recognised that God is the provider of all good things – including salvation. The place of salvation contains nothing of man and this is underlined in the way that the altar was made of uncut stones. This usage of uncut stones followed the instructions given to Joshua (Joshua 8:31). Using dressed stones and tools to make an altar would be to defile the place where everything was of grace and not of works (Exodus 20:24-25).
Elijah then has the altar doused in water three times. Presumably, at a time of drought, this would have been seawater. Some may think that this was done purely to prove that Elijah did not somehow ignite the tinder-dry wood with a spark, however, the complete consummation of the sacrifice was going to reveal the supernatural origin or the fire anyway. So perhaps something else is being shown in the usage of seawater – something to do with Asherah.
On occasion, Baal’s counterpart, Asherah, called the Lady of the Sea (appearing as this in the Ras Shamra literature found in 1928 by a Syrian farmer) was called upon. Baal had already proven to be of no consequence and perhaps the prophets of Asherah were now being shown that the ‘Lady of the Sea’ was powerless to prevent the consummation of Israel’s sacrifice by fire. In other words, “your gods are nothing: you cannot bring fire, yet neither can you prevent the fire of the Lord.”
In all that transpires, God reveals that He is both present and in charge and about His business of reconciliation and restoration. In all that God does, we do not see sporadic, isolated pockets of blessing, but the continuing outworking of God’s plan of redemption, of which we are all a part. It was not only for Israel’s benefit alone that God performed miracles, but also so that surrounding nations could see the one true God and find salvation through His work alone.
"Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”
In God’s intervention at Carmel, Israel was released from double-mindedness and the resident evil is put to death. The Deuteronomic law stated that the heavens would be shut if Israel worshipped false gods (Deut 11:16-17), yet now, in God’s gracious intervention through Elijah, the people returned to the Lord and the blessing of rain resumed after Elijah prayed.
To those who had lost sight of the redeeming work of God, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and a tax collector. In this parable (Luke 18:10) we see that it is the tax collector who is acutely aware of his failings. He would have been regarded as a traitor to his own community, and undoubtedly made more money than he should from, in many people’s minds, a very lucrative trade. Yet here he is praying in the Temple and recognising his guilt. Jesus then says that this is the sort of person who will be raised up: one who confesses his sin and does not build upon his own actions as if they could earn merit from God.
Throughout the gospels, we read of many of those who were on the wrong side of the Law being drawn to Jesus. In Jesus they could see someone different and find a power and authority that did not come to destroy, but lift then up whilst not denying their sin. Through recognising and understanding God’s great love, hurt and damaged people are able to lower the barriers that have been put in place and move towards healing and wholeness. In Jesus, marginalised people found Someone who was genuinely interested in them and did not only see them by way of what they had done wrong. Here was a man who offered a way back to life as it should really have been from the beginning (John 10:10).
Don’t stand in your own strength
Faith isn’t just about intellectual belief; nor is faith trying to drum up some sort of emotional strength to get God to do things. Faith involves being honest enough to acknowledge our weaknesses, whilst holding on to who God is in nature and character.
The person who stands in his own strength eventually gains nothing but trouble, but the one who calls out to the Lord with an open heart will be lifted up and in doing so, points to the grace and mercy of God. For example, in Genesis 15:5-6 we read that against all odds, Abraham believed in God and it was credited to Him as righteousness.
In the actions that were birthed out of his trust in God, Abraham was lifted up by God and eventually gained a maturity that enabled him to triumph over circumstances and walk in victory. Ultimately, this victory belonged to God and had been present from the very beginning, yet needed to be accessed by Abraham.
Abraham’s relationship with God was based on faith which God credited to him as righteousness; it was not based on good works or through the adherence to the Law. We are made righteous through faith in the work of Jesus, the Righteous One (1 John 2:1) and in Him we can (if He desires it) do things totally beyond our natural ability.
God is not looking for our intellect or personal skills first and foremost, He is looking for our obedience and availability. This can only truly come about as we see Him as He is and place our trust in Him. We cannot be available if we are not willing to serve and we cannot be available if we are always caught up fighting our battles in nothing more than our strength. We are to be uplifted, strengthened, encourage and enabled to do all things according to God’s will because He has drawn us into His story.
Iaana Matei is a Rumanian Christian woman who, in the last eleven years, has helped 420 victims of child prostitution. She began her work with a £200 donation which she used to rent a flat for three teenage girls who had been kidnapped and sold into the slave trade. In 2010 Iaana won the Readers Digest Magazine for services to others and today her organisation, ‘Reaching Out’ is financially supported by another Christian organisation called, ‘Make Way Partners.’ In writing about her work on one occasion Iaana said, “I am not doing this work for God, I am doing it because of God. We are human beings. God put us on this earth to care for each other and that is what drives me.” It is God who strengthens us in all things; it is because of His work that we can walk in His strength.
The Power of the Holy Spirit
“Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?
1 Corinthians 3:16
God has intervened in our existence and His power is always present where His truth is spoken in word and deed. From this, we see that our faith is the evidence of God’s power working in and through our lives by His Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit we only have an intellectual knowledge in our heads and a set of self-empowered emotions that can’t fully unravel the hurt and rebellion in our lives, or help us grow spiritually. We need to be open to the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is the One who extends the life of Christ into our lives.
In speaking to His disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus said “…will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever.” In doing so, Jesus was comparing the Holy Spirit to Himself and to His own ministry, which was personal. The word that Jesus uses for ‘another’ means “one that is exactly the same in every way”. In other words, if I said that I had a Ford Focus car and then said that I had another one as well (in the way Jesus uses the word ‘another’) it would be exactly the same – mileage for mileage, scratch for scratch and so on.
The Holy Spirit is a person; He is a Teacher, Guide, Comforter, and Advocate. He is the Helper and Intercessor, the Enlightener and the Sanctifier of the whole Church as well as of individual believers. (Luke 12:12; Acts 5:32; 15:28; 16:6; 28:25; Rom 8:2,14-16; 15:5 2 Cor 2:13; 3:16; 12:3-13; 2 Cor 3:16). Paul encourages the struggling church at Ephesus to have faith in God as he says to them…
“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession — to the praise of his glory.”
It is through our acts of obedience that come from love that we are able to receive more of the blessing of the Holy Spirit through our lives. Note that Jesus says, “If you love me you will obey my commandments” knowing full well that there is a big difference between obedience and obedience that comes out of a mind that loves God and is surrendered to His ways. For example, the second prodigal son went through all the actions of an obedient son, yet still had a heart that was full of resentment. Likewise, a person who needs a heart bypass can exercise as much as they like, and eat all the right food and yet still die of heart failure. There are many people who go to church and who live a morally upright life and who then assume they are walking in the Spirit (Gal 5:16) yet are not. We need to engage with God from the heart first and foremost and not from outward actions.
“You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord for ever, for the Lord, the Lord, is the Rock eternal.”
In all things, Jesus wants to help us see just what His Father is like and just how much the power of the Holy Spirit is present to help us in all areas of life. Even if we have but a small glimpse of God (a mustard seeds’ worth), He will help us to see more, receive more and reach out in His power and ability. This will come about in increasing measure when we take time to know God, rather than just assume or guess what He will or will not do. There are still too many Christians who wrongly assume that God is not interested in them because of this or that event that occurred in their lives.
Faith is our response to God, which is only possible because of the touch of God on and around our lives in the first place. As we grow into maturity in Him, He moulds and shapes our hearts so that we become our true self and naturally start desiring the things that are good and true. So let’s slow down and make time for meditation on the word of God and ask God to help us grow in the bond of friendship that He gave us through all that He has done and is doing.
“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
2 Peter 1:3-9
We finish with the words of an article taken from a UCB daily reading to which I have added more scriptures. I pray that it encourages you as it did me.
You say, “It’s impossible.” God says, “…What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). You say, “I’m exhausted.” He says, “But those who wait on the Lord, shall renew their strength…” (Isaiah 40:31). You say, “Nobody loves me.” He says, “…I have loved you with an everlasting love.” (Jer 31:3). You say, “I can’t go on.” He says, “…My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9). You say, “I can’t do it.” He says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). You say, “It’s not worth it.” He says, “…We will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal 6:9). You say, “I can’t forgive myself.” He says, “…in Christ God forgave you” (Eph 4:32). You say, “I’m afraid.” He says, “…God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power…” (2 Tim 1:7). You say, “I can’t handle this.” He says, “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you…” (Psalm 55:22). You say, “I’m not smart enough.” He says, “…if any of you needs wisdom, you should ask God for it…”(James 1:5). You say, “I’m all alone. “ He says., “…I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5).
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