A Word on Wednesday
BY PASTOR MATTHEW WOODS
“What is Faith For?”
What is faith for? What exactly is faith in Jesus supposed to do? Well, I was listening to another preacher the other day talk about Jesus condemning the fig tree in Mark 11. This radio preacher was suggesting Mark 11 as an illustration of what faith has the power to do. He was attempting to illustrate that faith “used properly” can command the tree as Jesus did. He suggested that a faith that can do things like heal and literally move mountains is a sign of a healthy faith. I found myself talking back at the radio beffuttled at what I was hearing. First, the preacher totally missed the point of Mark 11 which was an illustration of how Jesus will treat the hypocrisy of Israel. Mark 11 also illustrates the truth of James 2:26, “Faith without works is dead.” A fruitless faith is a dead faith. Second, does this guy really know what the purpose of faith in Jesus is really about?”
Not a Super-Power
Let me suggest first what the purpose of faith is not. Faith is not some kind of super-power. In my first couple of years as a pastor I had a charismatic friend who kindly suggested to me that my faith was not strong enough, or somehow incomplete because I could not speak in tongues. She also suggested that such gifts of the Holy Spirit were signs that each Christian should wear. I was quick to point out that my gifts were more along the lines of the Fruits of the same Holy Spirit, “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.” I will never perfect these fruits in my life but I still practice them every day. As one looks at the Sermon on the Mount it is these fruits of the Spirit that are to be practiced openly so that our “righteousness surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees” who were a good show on the outside but dead on the inside.
Not to heal disease
The purpose of faith is also not to heal people of diseases. To heal disease is certainly anyone wish. Jesus healed many and thought it was important to do so. As we know, Jesus healed many people. In Mark 5 an unnamed woman who needed healing reached out amongst the crowd and touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed instantly. Jesus confronts her with joy and says, “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus certainly healed countless people illustrating that illness was just as prominent then as it is now. Today we have the advantage of modern medicine which I would argue can do some amazing things. So, why doesn’t Jesus give us all the gift of healing? I say ask the Apostle Paul.
The Apostle Paul was certainly a man of faith, a champion in fact. And yet in 2 Corinthians 12 we hear Paul plead for the Lord to remove the thorn in his flesh. Surely, if anyone could or should be healed it would be Paul! The Lord simply responded, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Not even Paul would be exempt from the wounds of this world. But let me remind you that this does not mean God loved Paul less or anyone of us who suffer from disease. I could spend a lot of time discussing faith and healing but for our purposes here let it be said that the purpose of faith is not about healing our bodies.
Not To Bring Prosperity
Finally, the purpose of faith is not to be blessed with worldly blessings. The “Prosperity Gospel” preachers want us to believe that the sign of a strong faith is wealth, health, and prosperity. But I would submit to you that Mary and Joseph were as faithful as they came and they were not wealthy… but they were arguable very blessed. They struggled just to have enough for food on the table let alone any notion of a retirement. They were not blessed as the Pharisees would define blessed. Mary and Joseph were blessed in knowing Jesus personally.
For a Relationship in Jesus Christ
This brings me to the real purpose of faith. The purpose of faith is written in John 20:31. “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing in Him you may have life in His name.” The Purpose of faith is for us to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and by knowing Him be saved unto eternal life. Jesus’ goal for us is not to get comfortable in this world but to get home safely.
On Pentecost in Acts 2 Peter reminded the crowd that had gathered, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” The signs and wonders were to not the goal. The purpose of the signs and wonders was to bring attention to Jesus as the Christ. Jesus came to die on the cross and rise in the resurrection. This was God’s “deliberate plan.” Salvation from sin is the goal of our faith and that comes only by knowing Jesus Christ as “The Way, the Truth, and The Life” through His written Word.
That’s Not All
Is that all? No. While the purpose of faith is not super-powers that perform miracles, or healing, or prosperity, it is designed to produce fruit. Fruit only comes after the purpose of faith is fulfilled, which is to know Jesus. Yet we cannot know Jesus without our relationship with Him moving us to live for Him through the Holy Spirit. Hebrews 11 talks of such people who lived for the Lord because of their relationship with Him.
Heb 11:1 introduces a host of heroic faithful people by saying, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for” (Emphasis mine). In the list of heroes listed in Hebrews 11 we see those like Abraham and Rahab. Neither performed a miracle and yet these were giants in faith. The great claim to fame was obedience. If the Lord asked, they put their faith to action and did as the Lord commanded without hesitation and with supreme trust that it was the right thing even if they didn’t completely understand. Hebrews 11 teaches us that a faith in Jesus finds a way of expression. Faith in Jesus gives purpose to our actions.
Jesus says, John 14:12 “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” “Surely Pastor, Jesus is telling us that we will do great miracles just like Jesus.” I am not saying miracles can’t happen. What I am saying is that the purpose of faith in Jesus is not to do miracles but to know Jesus. Along with that, no one who truly knows Jesus can go through this life without serving Him either. The hardest works that Jesus did in His ministry were things like loving the unlovable, expressing forgiveness to those hard to forgive, and sharing kindness in His name to someone who is unkind. That’s heavy lifting to a sinful person like me and a miracle that a selfish sinner can express such grace. And yet to know Jesus propels me to do those things that Jesus did in spite of my sin—great things to one hungering and thirsting for such grace. The greatest miracle happens in any heart that comes to know Jesus Christ. That’s what makes Faith so incredible. It’s a gift to be shared.
“The Worst Sin”
Someone once said, “Men will allow God to be everywhere but on his throne.” Sin by its nature displaces God from being on the throne. The very first sin in Genesis 3 at its most basic is about a displacement; “You too shall be like God…” Sin ever since seeks to put self in place of the Lord, God. God by His very nature does not share his throne with anyone and none can take it from Him.
Satan tried. In a context that speaks of the death of the wicked by the hand of the Lord Isaiah 14 speaks about Satan’s failure to seize the throne by force from the Lord. In a series of “I will” declarations Satan vows to take the place of God. However, Satan like the violent, evil kings he manipulates will all fall to a point when they will be remembered no more (Isaiah 14:16-21). Imagine being in heaven and not even remembering our greatest enemy-Satan. Satan has fallen like lightening to the earth along with all of his fallen followers (Luke 10:8; Rev 12:9). But is this the worst sin for us?
Talk show host Dennis Praeger believes that the worst sin is taking God’s name in vain. He argues that the worst sin one can commit sins, “all in the name of God.” He writes; “In our time, there are, unfortunately, many examples of this. The evils committed by Islamists who torture, bomb, cut throats and mass murder — all in the name of their God — do terrible damage to the name of God.”
He continues: “It is not coincidental that what is called the New Atheism — the immense eruption of atheist activism — followed the 9/11 attack on America by Islamist terrorists. In fact, the most frequent argument against God and religion concerns evil committed in God’s name — whether it is done in the name of Allah today or was done in the past in the name of Christ. People who murder in the name of God not only kill their victims, they kill God, too. That’s why the greatest sin is religious evil.” http://www.dennisprager.com/worst-sin/
I like Dennis Praeger, but I do not believe this is the worst sin or that he is correct. He makes a good argument here for the damage sin does to the name of the Lord. But as a Christian I cannot equate the name of Allah with the name of Jesus Christ. If one is to believe the Biblical scriptures then one will come to understand that the scriptures do not allow the Lord to share His glory with anyone else because no one else is like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It seems to me that for the sake of argument, that if Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority and judge of the world then it is only His standard of things that really matters. Christians confess as much in the ecumenical creeds that it will be Jesus who “judges the living and the dead” not Allah, or even Pastor Woods. Philippians 2 says as much when it concludes with the declaration that “every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord the glory of God.” It would therefore, be inconsistent with faith for a Christian to elevate anyone else, or anything else, (even self) before Jesus.
Yet I believe that is what happens when many people determine what the worst sin is –“to them.” What I find is that many people think of a sin as the worst sin based on their feelings towards that sin. If we really don’t like pride, then we come down on arrogant people. If we really don’t like homosexuality we come down on that sin harder than if a son or daughter is living in adultery with a boyfriend or girlfriend—when both fall under the condemnation of the 6th commandment. If radical Islam decides to murder more people in the name of Allah but are harsh and hateful toward a coworker we may be tempted to put aside the words of 1 John 3:15, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”
We like to compare sins which usually means we reduce the seriousness of our own sins by elevated the sins of others. “I may be overweight but at least I’m not as big as so and so.” “I may have hit someone with my car while texting but at least I’m not as bad as a person who gets a DUI because they were not driving sober.” Our sin usually does not rise to the “worst” when using our own logic as the standard.
We like to define what sin is real sin. According to George Bernard Shaw the worst sin is indifference toward our fellow neighbor. Another once wrote that the worst sin is the one you think you can get away with. There are many ideas of what people believe are the worst sins.
The problem is simple. Sin always leads to the same thing; something gets broken. The problem with sin, as I have said for years, is that sin in any form tries to kill whatever it touches. Sexual sins for example have done more damage to more families in history than perhaps most other sins. Sin by its nature likes to hide and pretend to be a good thing while it destroys relationships, marriages, friendships, trust, and more. It acts as a friend while attempting to ruin you. Most of all sin by its nature likes to destroy our faith life through the back door of destroying relationships. For example in most cases of divorce in the congregation, the divorce happens and then both spouses are no longer seen in the worship life of the church. This, my friends is the goal of sin in the end. If Satan cannot get God off His throne he wants to keep you away from the throne.
Sin is a part of us all: Psalm 51:5 tells us, “I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” That’s pretty early. A sinful Adam and Eve produced sinful offspring. This is the image of the “Old Adam” in Paul’s discussion of 1 Corinthians 15. Our sinful nature produces sinful actions. All sin is paid for by way of the cross of Jesus. Even the worst of sins committed in the name of the Lord may fall under grace and find forgiveness.
So what then is the worst sin? The worst is also the saddest, the rejection of Jesus. Mark 3:28-29 says, “Truly I (Jesus) tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” (See also Matthew 12:31-32). The job of the Holy Spirit is to bring us to faith in Jesus. If we do not accept Jesus we have resisted the Holy Spirit and chosen not to be in a relationship with Jesus. This is the worst sin because to miss out on Jesus is to miss out on all that Jesus is giving too—forgiveness, new life, better marriages and relationships, peace, and eternal life. This saddest of sins is the absolute refusal to let Jesus in–let alone be on the throne. This is the worst.
Thankfully, if anyone is still sucking air the opportunity to know Jesus is at hand. Jesus is like that father of the Prodigal Son of Luke 15–anticipating, longing for you, to know Him. His grace is provided regardless of how bad or good you think you may be. You can be forgiven and welcomed by Jesus. In Jesus the worst things about us all are eventually erased and all that is left is the beautiful creature that He intends for us to be. So, instead of thinking about the worst consider the best, in Jesus.
Blessings on You in 2017
I am amazed at how fast time goes any more. Both my boys are young men. Yesterday they were just babies in Preschool. Over the years there have been many phases. “Shy Phases”, “football phases”, “long-hair phases”; micro eras, if you will, that once dominated our attentions and schedules. Like many I can look at my own life and see mirco eras; junior high, high school, college, seminary, being single, certain girlfriend eras, early married years, being a young father, being skinny once upon a time, having dark hair once, etc. One era transitions into another and when it does a sudden moment of revelation will hit me and I will realize that one era has effortlessly melted into another. I remember watching my boys get on the bus for the first time. That was strangely sobering as I realized I won’t have them with me all day at the office ‘terrorizing’ the church or making skid-marks with their bike tires in the fellowship hall. Suddenly now my wife and I are paying college tuition and including the boys’ girlfriends at family events. Huh? Who…ah…what…? The Bible says, life is a mist so these days I try not to miss much anymore.
Time has Context
Have you ever considered how important context is in time? For example, if we were to visit Jerusalem today we would not be under the same dangers as Joseph who had to run from Herod to Egypt with his family. Rome no longer carries with it the lingering emotions and oppressions it once held in Joseph’s time. Today a black woman would think nothing of riding in the front of a bus but not so in the 60s. Anyone who wants to visit Germany for the 500th anniversary this year can do so. An American wouldn’t even consider it in 1942 except to defeat Hitler as a soldier. In recent days fans mourn Carrie Fisher and her mom. In another era fans mourned silent movie stars like Charlie Chapman, Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino—names younger people are asking, “who?”. And if you want to take a flight to Egypt today it will cost you anywhere from 1500 to 5600 to ride on a airplane that can carry over 150 people at speeds of 500 miles an hour at 40,000 feet. In Joseph’s day, no
airplanes; just 200 miles of walking with a young wife and a brand new baby. With time context changes; we don’t dress like we did in the 70s and by next year already we will all wonder what the big deal was with Hatchemals.
When Joseph and Mary traveled 200 miles to Egypt their context changed rather urgently. Context includes culture, language, and things like idols. It is a life of exile from everything Joseph knew. Most likely Joseph traveled with his family to known communities of Jews within Egypt. Egypt is a place of fine stone work and trademark woodworking techniques that will benefit Joseph later in Nazareth. But for a mirco era it was an exile for Joseph and Mary from everything and everyone they knew. But note that they chose this context out of faithfulness to the Lord. The angel warned Joseph and Joseph acted upon the word given to him.
Jesus changed his context in order to change ours.
It is good to remember that Christ’s humility was an exile too, but it was also the path to His exaltation (Philippians 2:6-11), and ours. For Him, going down “by night into Egypt” (Matthew 2:14) was a further step of descent towards the nether regions of death. When we are in darkness: physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually – even in darkness like the darkness of Egypt – even there our beloved Jesus is with us (Psalm 23:4). There is no era, no period of time regardless of our context that Jesus is absent. God is with us whenever and wherever we go. This is good news because it also means that we are never in exile from Him. This also means that when our time runs out here we are given a new life altogether, an everlasting one, without all the concerns, troubles, and tribulations that come with each passing year.
Be Faithful in the Now
What happened years ago may haunt us, or it may bring us smiles, or may evoke a feeling of nostalgia, or it may just be a distant memory. Sometimes we can change our context by losing weight, changing jobs, etc. But a lot of times context just changes without our help such as with the effects of age. Truthfully, we can only live in the current moment. But I believe it’s a good thing that context changes.
I can imagine a happier Mary on Easter Sunday than on Good Friday. And Joseph…well, Joseph’s context changed many times, not always happily. His initial discovering of Mary’s pregnancy must have been very disappointing. Then in a dream the angel reveals the truth—She conceived by the Holy Spirit with her virginity intact. Then it’s off to Bethlehem, shepherds visits, circumcision eight days later in Jerusalem where he meets Anna and Simeon, then the Magi come, and then another warning to escape to Egypt in the middle of the night. But Joseph remained steadfastly loyal to his purpose, to Mary, and to Jesus. In the end his decisions protected his family and created a loving environment for Jesus to grow up in. Isn’t this the best we can ask of ourselves?
The Lord only asks for us to be faithful especially in the now. I pray to be a faithful father like Joseph and thank the Lord for His help when I could be better. I pray to be a good husband and a good pastor and thank the Lord for His help when I should do better. I pray for my boys to be faithful whatever their circumstances or context and thank the Lord for His strength when they are tempted to waiver. I pray for you to be strong in the Lord and give thanks that Jesus chose the cross to be with each of you and you with Him. This is what the Lord wants for us. He wants us to know the timeless fruits of our relationship with our Savior, Jesus because time eventually runs out. I can think of no greater legacy to leave than one of godly character like Joseph and Mary.
A lot of things may change this year but one thing remains the same yesterday, today, and in the future—Jesus. It is good to have an element of eternity in a world full of things that don’t last long. May this new year for you begin with a confidence that the Lord is with you in this era and in the next just as He has promised.
Blessings on Your 2017 Pastor Woods