Friday, June 1, 2018

What is Faith? (Hebrews 11:1-12,17-19) by Grant Kay



Faith is a word that we use a lot as Christians. We are part of the Christian faith. We are told that we are saved by faith in Jesus. The bible tells us that God is faithful to us. And the author of Hebrews in chapter 11 tells us that all the great heroes of the Old Testament lived and worked “by faith.” Clearly, faith is an incredibly important part of our lives. Which makes it all the more surprising, then, that we often have a very murky idea of what faith actually means!

It seems to me, based on conversations I’ve had with many people, that most Christians today assume that faith is essentially the same concept as belief. Having faith in God means believing that he exists and that what the Bible says about him his true. This is not wrong, but it is incomplete. If faith and belief are the same thing, then why not just use the word belief? James 2:19 says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Clearly faith means more than simply believing certain things. Since we believe that it is faith alone that saves us, we had better be sure we know what faith is! Fortunately, the author of Hebrews gives us some clues as to the full meaning of faith. Faith includes three major elements: belief, trust, and loyalty.

Let’s start with the basics: First, faith does in fact include belief, which is what we most often think of when we think about faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Assurance and conviction are powerful words. They speak of a belief that seems close to knowing rather than believing. Yet we are also told that this is assurance of things that are hoped for, conviction of things we have not seen. Faith isn’t knowing something without any doubts. Doubt is inherently part of faith, because we are dealing with things that we have never seen and cannot see. Rather than pure conviction or knowledge, faith is believing despite the doubts, not without any doubts.

Verses 5-6 tell us, “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. For it was attested before he was taken away that he had pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” These verses tell us what living with true, faithful belief looks like. When we believe, we have hope, and we live with that hope in mind. Hope protects us from despair and defeat. When we live with believing hope, we live as if Jesus really matters, that what he said and did was true and right, and that means that the promise of eternal life is true and available to us.

So the first aspect of faith is belief, which leads to a life of hopeful living. This leads nicely to the second part of faith, which is trust. Trust is closely connected to belief. In essence, trusting someone means believing that they will do what they say. But it also includes a sense of safety. If someone is entrusted with something, it means that they are tasked with keeping it safe. So when I have faith in God, it not only means I believe in God, but that I offer God my life for safekeeping. I trust God to protect me, to care for me, and to do what he said he would do.

Let’s look again to Hebrews 11 to see what this means. The first example of faith the author gives us is Abel, in verse 4, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks.” What was it that made Abel’s offering more acceptable than Cain’s? In order to understand this, we have to go back to Genesis 4 and see that Abel offered to God the best, fattest sheep from his flock; while Cain offered fruit he’d picked up off the ground after it had fallen off the trees.

Cain offered something he could do without. Those fruits probably meant very little to him. Abel, on the other hand, offered the very best he had. Not only was this a sign of respect to God, but it would be very costly to Abel. He could have sold that sheep for a great price, or used it to breed a better, stronger flock, or otherwise. But Abel trusted God to provide, even as he sacrificed the most valuable thing he had. When Hebrews tells us that Abel had faith, it is not only belief but also a deep trust in God.

Noah is another example of trust. Verse 7 tell us, “By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.” Noah trusted that God would protect him and his family. He trusted that God would do what he said he would do. Noah endured ridicule from the people around him, and he endured the harrowing 40 days of the flood, because he entrusted his life to God.

What does a life with this trusting faith look like? It is a life without fear, a life of peace. To trust in God means that there is nothing to feat, because you are in God’s hands. We can do things that other people cannot or will not do, because if we are seeking after God then whatever happens to us is God’s will. Now, this trust is not an invitation to stop caring about our lives, or taking care of ourselves, but it is an invitation to stop worrying about the things we cannot control. And when we let go of that worry and fear, we will be able to truly love one another. It is hard to love other people when you are afraid of them. But faithful trust allows us to see every person as someone that God loves, rather than someone who might do us harm.

So far we have covered two aspects of faith. Faith is belief, which leads to a life of hope. Faith is trust, which leads to a life without fear. Finally, faith includes loyalty. When we say that someone is faithful to their husband or wife, we do not mean that they believe in their spouse, or that they trust their spouse, though those things are part of it. Instead we mean that they are loyal, that they have not cheated on them. A faithful person sticks by you, even when things are bad.

This is what the Bible means when it says that God is faithful. God sticks by his people, no matter what. Deuteronomy 31:8 says, “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” God never abandoned the people of Israel, even though they were unfaithful to God and abandoned him over and over again. God promises to be loyal to His people, and asks us to be loyal in return.

Thus the final part of our faith is loyalty to God. The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac demonstrates loyalty to the utmost. Hebrews 11:17-19 says, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. HE who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Abraham was willing to sacrifice the child of promise, the one that God had told him would make a great nation, in order to remain faithful to God.

This demonstrates what it means for us to have this loyal faith. Loyal faith is shown by a life of obedience to God. If we are truly loyal to God, if we are a ride-or-die part of God’s team, then we will obey what God has told us to do. This is an important part of the life of faith that I think many people misinterpret. Why do we do what God says in the Bible? Whey don’t we just live any way we want to? The answer is not because we are scared of going to hell if we disobey, or at least that should not be the answer. The Apostle Paul tells us over and over again in his letters that those who of us who have faith no longer need to worry about punishment from God! So why don’t we just live however we please?

The answer is that we do live the way we want to, because what we want is to be close to God! When we are honest even when it would be easy to lie, or when we wait until marriage for sex, or we forgive someone even though we would rather hate them, we do these things because we believe they are pleasing to God, they are what he wants for us. This is one of the biggest ways we demonstrate loyalty to God. We are called to obey God’s will, even when it contradicts the world around us, or our natural impulses. And as we grow in faith, we will grow in joy as we obey God’s commands, because what God wants will become what we want.

So many Christians silently ask themselves: how do I know I’m really saved? It seems to be one of the most common doubts we face today. Scripture tells us that we are saved by the grace of God, through faith. Now we know that faith is not simply belief: it is belief, trust, and loyalty. So if you are one of those people, silently wondering how to know if you are saved, I offer you the following suggestion. Does your life look like the life of faith I’ve just described? Do you live as though what Jesus Christ said and did were true, or do you feel unsure about the future? Do you trust God to take care of you, or do you live with a lot of fear and worry? Do you obey God with joy, or do you ignore God’s commands, or obey only out of fear of hell?

Truthfully, none of us lives this life of faith perfectly. Doubts overwhelm all of us at times. We all give in to fear and worry on occasion. Sadly, we all turn away from obedience to God sometimes in order to chase after other things. Yet a true faith is one that is growing. You might not be perfectly hopeful, peaceful, or obedient, but if you are seeking God then God will grow those qualities in you over time. Remember that even when we are unfaithful, God is faithful to us. He will not leave you or forsake you through the long journey of faith, even when you take a detour. The journey of faith may be long, but the best place to start is knowing that God’s grace allows us to believe in him, trust in him, and be loyal to him.

The Prayer of Faith (James 5:13-16) by Rev. Dr. Bryan Kile



Introduction

As James draws to the end of his letter, he speaks of one of the most important aspects of the Christian life.  Here he draws the reader’s attention to the power of prayer. / Some of you are well aware of the power that prayer has. Others may have heard of its’ power, but have never experienced it. Still others have never really seen its’ power or known anyone who has. 

Many of you have probably had a mother who prayed for you from the day of your birth or even before you were born. Some may have had mothers who were not women of faith. But for those of us whose mothers were faithful in their prayers, we can be very thankful. While some may have strayed for a time, you are here in worship now and hopefully each praying for your own children. I trust that all of us fathers here today are also praying for our children.

James says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  

He also reminds the people of the importance of confession; as someone has said, “confession is good for the soul.” 

So, today, I want to take a look at prayer and the power that prayer can have when prayed in real faith. Of course, there’s the frivolous prayer that is not given in faith and sometimes even in jest.  I’m reminded of the boy who was misbehaving in church and finally his exasperated father picked him up and carried him out of the worship service. Just as they got to the back door of the sanctuary, the boy called out to the congregation, “Y’all pray for me!”

James starts off talking about praying when you’re in trouble.  For some people that’s the only time they think to pray.  You know what I’m talking about, “Lord, get me out of this mess!’  “God, I can’t face this situation!”  “Jesus, if you get me out of this mess, I swear I’ll start attending church.”  That’s not what James is talking about. 

You see, we have to look at the full context of what he says in these verses.  James is talking about fervent, heartfelt prayer offered in faith that God will honor the request because He is able to do so.  There’s none of this, “God, if you can....”  “Father, I hope you’ll help me here.”

One of the things we see James attaching to prayer here is the importance of confession.  In the early church, and even before the time of Christ, it was believed that one’s sins contributed to their predicament.  Now sometimes, even today, we recognize that is true.  After all, how many times have people ended up in hot water as a result of their sinful actions or activities?  Maybe you’ve had that experience yourself, I know I have. 

Confession is an important part of healing, as well.  If we are burdened with a load of guilt, our mental state is not conducive to the healing of our mind.

So, let’s take a look at the power of prayer and what James says to do to appropriate God’s power by prayer.  I believe it would be safe to say that theologians and pastors across the globe – and across the ages – would agree that prayer is the most effective and powerful tool we have available in the church and in the lives of individual Christians. 

James says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray.”   He’s very matter of fact about it.  It’s almost like he’s saying, “Every Christian knows this, but I just want to remind you: Prayer is the powerful tool you have at your disposal when you’ve got a problem.”  I could spend the whole morning listing all of God’s faithful servants whose lives are recorded in the Bible. Those who, when facing a difficult situation, lifted their prayers up to God and were delivered. / One in particular I want to mention is Jonah after he disobeyed God’s call.  While in the belly of the great fish, he said, “When I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the Lord” (Jonah 2:7). Often we act the same way. When life is going well, we tend to take God for granted; but when we lose hope, we cry out to him. This kind of relationship with God can result only in an inconsistent, up-and-down spiritual life. A consistent, daily commitment to God promotes a solid relationship with him.

I could spend many more hours sharing with you the experiences of many other faithful servants from across the ages and even from my own lifetime who have discovered the power of prayer.  They range from the most critical need to the most mundane. But in every instance, people of faith have lifted their needs to God and through their own faith have experienced God’s fulfillment.  Jesus prayed often and for long periods of time.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, just prior to His arrest, so-called trials and crucifixion, Jesus prayed fervently.  He knew the power of God could save Him from that terrible ordeal, but He also knew he must remain within the will of His heavenly Father.  So, He prayed that God’s will be done. / Later, when Peter was in prison for preaching the Gospel, the prayers of the others locked away in a house somewhere else in the city brought the angel to release him.  As Thomas Watson said, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” 

I ran across this story of answered prayer told by a missionary to Zaire many years ago. It shows how, even before the prayer of faith was offered, the answer was set in motion. "A mother at our mission station died after giving birth to a premature baby. We tried to improvise an incubator to keep the infant alive, but the only hot water bottle we had was beyond repair. So we asked the children to pray for the baby and for her sister. One of the girls responded. 'Dear God, please send a hot water bottle today. Tomorrow will be too late because by then the baby will be dead. And dear Lord, send a doll for the sister so she won't feel so lonely.' That afternoon a large package arrived from England. The children watched eagerly as we opened it. Much to their surprise, under some clothing was a hot water bottle! Immediately the girl who had prayed so earnestly started to dig deeper, exclaiming, 'If God sent that, I'm sure He also sent a doll!' And she was right! The heavenly Father knew in advance of that child's sincere requests, and 5 months earlier, He had led a ladies' group to include both of those specific articles."

Over the years I have read numerous similar stories where people of faith have expressed their deep and immediate needs to God in fervent prayer offered in the faith that God would answer – and He did! / Many of you know that John Knox was a Scotsman who took the Presbyterian expression of Christianity to Scotland and from there it became the beginnings of the American Presbyterian Church. Mary, Queen of Scotland once said, “I fear John Knox's prayers more than an army of ten thousand men.” 

If each of us began to pray earnestly and sincerely for the people of the community in which we live, we would be amazed at the changes that would happen at the hand of God.  I’m not talking about a little “God bless our community” prayer, or a “God turn our community to You” prayer.  I’m talking about earnest, focused, ongoing prayer. Prayer that leads you to hear God’s voice telling you what you can do to bring about change in the community or the neighborhood in which you live. Prayer that counts on God to act and expects God to use the person praying, prayer that is offered by a person who is open and ready to be used. We could ask the same for this church.  That kind of prayer will bring about a changed church!

Many years ago, five young college students were spending a Sunday in London, so they went to hear the famed C.H. Spurgeon preach. While waiting for the doors to open, the students were greeted by a man who said, "Gentlemen, let me show you around. Would you like to see the heating plant of this church?" They were not particularly interested, for it was a hot day in July. But they didn't want to offend the stranger, so they consented. The young men were taken down a stairway, a door was quietly opened, and their guide whispered, "This is our heating plant." Surprised, the students saw 700 people bowed in prayer, seeking a blessing on the service that was soon to begin in the auditorium above. Softly closing the door, the gentleman then introduced himself. It was Spurgeon. It would be my prayer that you would create a group like that praying for your worship services.  There may be a few who are praying today, right now, for you who are present. 

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt,... you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21–22)

James also talks about prayer for healing.  He says, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.”   In one church I served, a young couple whose daughter had suffered an injury which paralyzed her, did exactly that.  They asked the Session members to assemble and pray for her healing.  It was not immediately apparent that He answered that prayer, there was no instant healing that they had hoped for.  But I am confident that God brought healing to that little girl in His own good time. 

Another time in the same church, a woman was told she had breast cancer.  Her daughter flew in from out of state as soon as possible.  Then they called me and asked me to come and talk with them and provide some comfort and reassurances of God’s love.  When we finished talking, we stood in their living room and the four of us joined hands and prayed fervently for her healing.  A few days later, she went to the doctor’s for a follow up exam prior to her choosing the treatment form to deal with it. The exam showed there was no trace of the cancer. 

There is one thing to note in James’ statement that is very important: He’s not saying that healing depends on the faith of the sick person.  He says the prayer offered in faith is what brings forth the riches of God to bring healing.  He’s talking about the faith of the one doing the praying.  When Jesus was ministering to the crowds one time, “Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  (Mark 2:3–5) Then Jesus healed the man. 

Prayer for healing doesn’t always mean from an illness such as cancer or heart disease or diabetes or an injury of some sort.  Prayer for healing can also be for healing from an emotional strain or a psychological problem or from some besetting sin such as addiction.  In the latter cases, especially, it is helpful for a person to seek out a trusted friend to join them in their prayers and to hold them accountable.  When we know that trusted friend is going to ask us on a regular basis about our success in overcoming the struggle, we are much more likely to do our part in overcoming the problem – because, not only do we know that God is able to help us, but we also know that other person is praying for us and trusting God to help and heal.  The one thing we must remember is that in spite of the awesome power of God to do anything, He will not help an unwilling person.  When Jesus was asked for healing by the paralytic at the Bethesda pool, the first thing He did before healing the man ,was ask him if he really wanted to be healed. (John 5:2–9)

Close

Wouldn’t it be awesome to have that kind of power? / You know something?  You have it, if you want it!  But you must have the faith that says “I know God can do anything, so I know He can do what I ask.”  But we must also remember that Jesus told us He would do it if it was the Father’s will. 

One of the keys to powerful prayer is to learn how to pray and to pray daily.  It’s not something that we save for the important moments, like a moment of critical need or a time of needed healing.  It needs to be a daily experience with God.  As prayer becomes a daily, even moment by moment, walk with the Lord, we grow in our relationship with Him and learn to express our faith in Him for all things.

We need to think in terms of walking with the Lord as a best friend.  Would a friend think much of our relationship with them if we only called on them, only spoke to them, when we were in deep trouble or sick?  I suspect that friend would question our commitment to the relationship.  Paul says we are to “pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17–18)

Early African converts to Christianity were earnest and regular in private devotions. Each one reportedly had a separate spot in the thicket where he would pour out his heart to God. Over time the paths to these places became well worn. As a result, if one of those believers began to neglect prayer, it was soon apparent to the others. They would kindly remind the negligent one, saying, "Brother, the grass grows on your path."

Friends, is grass growing on your path?  Are you keeping a regular time of prayer: conversation with God?  Are your prayers built on the faith that is confident that the Lord will answer; that he is waiting to give you the very best from His storehouse?  God’s power is available to you if you have faith, even faith as tiny as a mustard seed, said Jesus.  (Matthew 17:30)

I would lay two challenges before you this morning. First, make a concerted effort to be regular and active in your prayer life, to set aside a time when you will meet with the Lord on a daily basis and pour your heart out before Him.  Spend time praising Him, thanking Him and confessing before Him.  Then in faith make your requests known to Him.

The second challenge is to include in your prayers this church and its leadership. In this time of transition, lift up the committee members who will be leading the search efforts. Pray that God might use you to bring about exciting, powerful, life changes in the members and in the communities you serve.  While you are here at church, or on the Sundays when you are away or unable to be here, spend time praying fervently for the people who are in worship.  Pray in faith that God will touch them, and you, in a mighty way.  Then, in faith, watch what the Lord will do!

Prayer

Gracious and loving God, thank You for being our friend. Thank You for inviting us to come and talk with You. Thank You for being there with us through all the seasons of life. Help us, we pray, to be regular and open and honest in our times with You. Help us grow in our faith to know that You will answer our prayers in the way that is best for us and the ones for whom we pray. Hold us close and help us sense Your presence with us in our daily times of conversation with You. In Jesus name and for His sake. Amen.