|Series Theme: Focusing Faith|
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 1. So what is faith?
Heb 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
I need to start this new series of meditations with a confession, well, perhaps two confessions. The first confession is that I have often sat in church services and wondered, “What about this is faith?” Now that wasn't always a negative denunciation of sterile ritual, but an honest desire or appraisal to know what, in what we were doing, was genuinely faith and, as we'll see as we go on, I have been surprised that there was more of faith in our services than I had thought. The other confession is that I sometimes sit and ponder and wonder how much faith plays a part in my own life and that has had more negative overtones, and yet by the very fact that I am writing these meditations suggests an element of faith, which we'll see in the days to come. I'm not sure where this is going but I suspect we may need to look at what is faith, why is faith important, how does faith come, is faith static or does it grow, and no doubt a few more things about ‘faith'.
The starting place has to be the so-called ‘hall of faith' in Hebrews 11 and the writer's opening statement, our verse above. Faith he says is being sure about something, about being assured of something. There is a confidence about faith. There is a sureness about faith. It is not wishy-washy half-hearted wondering. To reflect on that more fully we perhaps need to turn to the apostle James' letter.
The apostle James, while not actually using the word faith in the opening part of his letter, clearly has it in mind when he speaks about our needing wisdom: “ 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6 But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” (Jas 1:5-8)
Verse 5 builds faith as he says we need to ask God for wisdom because he says God gives (a) generously, (b) to all and (c) without finding fault and (d) He will give it when we ask. Do you see that? God is a generous giver, you don't have to earn wisdom, He's got lots of it and is very happy to give it away. Moreover He is very happy to give it to anyone who comes to Him asking, “to all”. Further He is not going to interrogate you to check to see if you are good enough or up to it, He isn't looking for faults in you that will put you off getting His wisdom, He simply will give it when you ask.
Now after you have read that verse, hopefully you are feeling confident about asking God for wisdom (the knowledge of ‘how to'). It may be that there have been other negatives in your life that quench belief but in the absence of those things, something will have risen in you that says, “Yes, I CAN ask God for wisdom.” That is faith, a sureness about a course of action which has been brought about by the word of God (James' writing) and no doubt prompted and confirmed by the Holy Spirit as I encouraged you. When you go away and ask the Lord for wisdom for some aspect of your life now, that is faith. It came by God's word, it stirred the truth in you, witnessed by the Holy Spirit in you, and brought a confidence on which you act.
But James knows that not everyone is open like this, hence verse 6: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” Doubting has no place in asking and getting, doubting has no place in faith. Remember the two key words at the beginning – ‘sure' and ‘certain'. You cannot be sure and certain AND doubt. If you doubt, nothing is going to happen. God responds to faith – He responds to you responding positively to His word coming to you, bringing in you a sureness. You see, to take the example above, when you ask for wisdom but are uncertain about it, you spend more time thinking about your doubts than taking notice of thoughts that may be coming from God. It's not that God doesn't want you to have the wisdom for the situation; it is that you clutter your mind with doubts (unbelief) and so CANNOT hear God. When you are sure and certain, you ask God for it and then listen and, with an open, believing heart, suddenly ideas start flowing in your mind and you realise you have the answer to your problem that needed wisdom. You HAVE the wisdom!
You can recognize faith when you are alert to these sorts of things. You have faith when you suddenly know “It's true!” or “He's here!” or “Yes, I can do it because He's said so!” You suddenly recognize a confidence that wasn't there previously. You have a gift from God (which we'll see some way down the line) and it is a confidence in Him; what He says IS true. That is faith Now of course there was another whole side to our starting verse – the ‘hope' and ‘unseen' part of it, and we'll look at that in the next meditation.
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 2. Faith in the Unseen?
Heb 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
In our first study we considered, from the so-called ‘hall of faith' in Hebrews 11, that faith is being sure about something, about being assured of something. We went on to use James' opening teaching to show how it must be without doubts. We concluded with noting that our verse above has another whole side to it – the ‘hope' and ‘unseen' parts which we will now consider.
If I buy a new car and pick it up from the dealers, I know that the dealer will have filled up the tank and done everything to ensure the car will drive. The fact that I had a test drive in it before I actually bought it means that for me to now get into this car and drive it away is NOT going to be an act of faith. There is nothing unseen about this.
Now suppose one day I have a dream and in it I see a neighbour drop in and ask me to heal him (or her) from some particular affliction. I wake up and the dream still seems so vivid. I ponder on it and wonder if it was God speaking to me. Then there is a knock at the front door and it is that neighbour. I am astonished. They come in and we chat and in the course of our conversation they share they have this particular affliction. I say, “That's interesting. Did you know in the Gospels in the Bible Jesus healed someone of this same thing?” “Wow,” they respond, “I wish he was still around.” “Well, he is in one sense in that I am his representative. Would you like me to pray and ask him to heal you?” I reply. My friend looks a bit uncertain but replies, “Well, yes, if you would,” so then and there I simply ask Jesus to set my friend free and I command the affliction to go. I open my eyes and they have tears running down their face. “I'm healed! How wonderful. Thank you.”
That was faith. Let's examine the components of what happened. I ‘heard' God in a dream. At least I thought that was what it might have been. But then the dream starts happening as my neighbour turns up. I am now alert. But even more, my neighbour starts talking about the very affliction I saw in the dream. I am now really on edge. This has to be God! Something is rising in me. I test the water a little more and talk about Jesus in the Gospels. How will they take that? Are they ready for this? Yes, they are! I step out of the boat and pray for healing and of course, they are healed.
Faith doesn't come in a vacuum. Yes, the object and outworking may be things you can't see yet with your physical eyes, but often the Lord paves the way by speaking and then by lining up the circumstances. What was the ‘unseen' thing here? Their being healed, for it was still future up until the moment I prayed. In that situation the key was the Lord speaking to me through the dream. It was then strengthened by the circumstances lining up, but it still required me to step out and do something that in any other circumstance people would call silly or presumptuous. I mean I can't heal anyone but I BELIEVE that God can and does. Why do I believe that? Because I've read it many times in the Bible, and I believe the Bible is one form of God speaking to us and faith starts with God speaking.
When the writer to the Hebrews said it is about “being sure of what we hope for” he nailed the crucial thing about faith – it is about action in respect of something that either is not yet or has not yet happened. It is a future thing. Faith acts now to enable God to move and change a future thing. I am sure I've given this example before but it is so strong in my mind, please forgive me for reusing it. It happened many years ago when my wife and I were leading a two week summer mission for Scripture Union.
We had just taken over leadership and would have a team from around the country of about fifteen to twenty young volunteers. However the accommodation that had been used in previous years was no longer available and we enquired and enquired but could not find living quarters for one, let alone for this number. We had rung the local Tourist Information Office and they told us that because it was peak holiday season all accommodation across the area was already taken. However one day I was walking into work in the City when I sensed the Lord speaking to me. Out of the blue crossed my mind, “In my Father's house are many rooms, I have prepared a place for you.” As a young Christian I knew Jesus spoke such words in John 14:2 but this was an inaccurate quote and so without more ado I thought back, “But Lord your word says I go to prepare a place.” Back came, “Son, I have said what I have said. I HAVE prepared a place for you.”
I shared it with my wife that evening and decided we needed to write to all the volunteers (before e-mail!) and explain that we had no accommodation but believed God said He had provided it, so we were going. Would they check with their parents and if they felt happy about it, join us on the start day on the Welsh Coast . My wife and I set off twenty four hours early to see what God was going to do. Yes, there was nothing around but when we checked in on one of the smaller caravan sites on the edge of the village, the owner said, “Well, we are renovating two old buildings out back, turning them into future holiday chalets, one is complete and the other mostly complete, we could let you have those for the fortnight if you like, and we do have one rather old caravan that doesn't usually get used but is serviceable that you could have.” Wonderful! Most of the team sorted! We tried the biggest caravan site in the area who said, “Well yes everything is booked up but we do have one that for some reason isn't taken.” Done! When the team arrived at midday we were able to accommodate them all. Interestingly that first caravan site with the two holiday chalets became our home for the next seven years.
I wish I could say I have faith like that every day but the thing about faith is that it is often scary and uncomfortable and, as John Wimber famously said, should perhaps better be spelt R-I-S-K. Nevertheless it is a key element to the Christian faith, as we shall go on to consider more in the coming days.
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 3. Faith in God
Heb 11:3 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.
One of the things about faith is that it is so obvious we probably hardly ever think about it, and it is that everything about faith is to do with God. It is so fundamental that if you took away this one thing then there would be no grounds for, or no need for, faith. It is that we believe that He exists but, more than that, that because of that it affects everything else we do in life.
It is a strange thing isn't it, that all round this world there are people who believe in something more than mere physical or material existence, or in word, a spirit realm. That is the point of commonality for the world religions but after that they part. One world religion believes in millions of gods, another believes in a harsh God who is to be utterly feared and another…. Well we don't need to go through them all; the point is that the sort of God you believe in determines the sort of life you live.
There is something else here we should clarify, and it is that believing on its own is not faith. The apostle James had a thing about this and chided his readers, “ You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder.” (Jas 2:19) This was part of his teaching that faith without works is dead. A majority of people in this country say they believe in God but the evidence of their lives shows clearly that they do not let that belief impact their lives. No, faith is acting out of that belief. The writer to the Hebrews in verse 1 added, after his opening statement about faith, “This is what the ancients were commended for,” and the following verses go on to develop into what we call the hall of faith, a listing of many of the Old Testament heroes who were heroes because they DID things. They lived out their lives in response to their belief that there is a God and that He communicates with us and has revealed something of Himself to us, and therefore that provides motivation for our lives.
And yet strangely verse 2 of Hebrews 11 lays out a belief but puts it in faith form, if I may put it like that: “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.” Note that he doesn't even start with “By faith we believe there is a God”. The Bible so takes that for granted that it never seeks to prove it. Every page of the Bible testifies to that truth, and it starts out, “ In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1). It doesn't say, “In the beginning there was God,” but it moves immediately into what God did. Why? Why doesn't the Bible do it like that?
Well let me give you a couple of testimonies. Throughout the Christian period of my life I have always thought it important to have a strong apologetics base, i.e. to know the reasons for our faith and so on. I have in the past spent many hours talking with non-Christians about why there is a strong foundation to believe. I remember one person I ‘argued' with for five hours (no exaggeration) and at the end of it, these were their exact words: “I have heard everything you said, and I understand all that you have said, and I am convinced by all that you have said, but I like my life of sin, as you call it, and I want to carry on with it,” and with that they got up, said goodbye and thanks, and left. Intellectual argument was not enough.
There was another person, a girl, I spoke to for a long time and again it was not getting anywhere. Eventually I said, “I tell you what. How about conducting an experiment. I believe there is a God and for a few minutes I want you to humour me and pretend you do as well. I am going to suggest I pray briefly and then I want you to pretend He is here and you pretend to talk to Him in prayer and see what happens.” It took a minute or so for her to eventually agree to this ‘silly experiment' but we closed our eyes and I prayed briefly and finished with an ‘Amen' to indicate it was her turn. There was silence for a moment or two and then she started, “God if you are here I would like to….” and then she stopped and all I heard was a sobbing. I opened my eyes and she was looking at me. Through her tears she sobbed, “He is here! He is real!” Passing by her intellect she stepped into the realm of the spirit only to find God there.
Actually she stepped out on my faith and found her own faith. I remember John Wimber once saying that in the Gospels when you looked at all the instances of healing, somebody had faith. When the four men dropped their friend through the roof, it was their faith, not his, that enabled Jesus to heal him. God honours faith, if you like, because it starts with Him.
Going back to our starting point, “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.” The point is that you cannot PROVE that. The evidence all points to that but at the end of the day you have to take a step of faith that says, “I believe that….” My wife teaches philosophy of religion and deals with the various arguments for God, the Design Argument, the Cosmological Argument and so on. They are good for philosophy but they are only helps. None of them PROVES God exists. We pile the evidence up – and there is a lot of it – and say, the evidence suggests that it is more likely that there is a God than that there isn't a God.
That's as far as you can go, but then at some point, those who become Christians say, “I believe and that belief is going to shape the rest of my life”. It is of course a belief that goes far beyond God as Creator for it has to include God who became a Saviour of the world. But hold that one crucial point for the moment (we'll see more tomorrow) that reading the first verses of the Bible is inadequate for faith. It is the starting point, but our lives are changed when somehow, something says, “This is true, this is so true my life must change." That ‘something' is faith and it comes from a combination of God's word plus God's Spirit, plus an open heart. More tomorrow.
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 4. A Big Bang
Heb 11:3 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.
If you are a Christian, at some point in your life there came a big bang. Your life was disturbed. It may have been very simply when a Sunday School teacher was teaching and you suddenly realised you had a need and you had to ask Jesus into your heart to be your friend. It may have been in your teenage years where you suddenly found yourself convicted that you were not the good person you thought you were, and even though you had made a commitment as a child you needed to make something much deeper, much more meaningful now. Both those descriptions, that are fairly common for Christians, describe my wife. Or perhaps you were in your twenties and somehow or other you heard the Gospel and realised that the speaker was describing your very inadequate life, a life that fell short in so many ways, and realised you and God were poles apart and that needed to change, and you bowed and prayed and surrendered to God and took Jesus as your Lord and Saviour. That again is fairly common for Christians, and that was me.
I remember a man I knew at work, late middle aged, a good friend but an atheist, and an out and out atheist who made fun of my beliefs. To cut a long story short he found himself sitting at the back of a half hour lunchtime Bible Study I was leading in the basement of our workplace and it just happened to be on John chapter 3, all about being ‘born again'. I don't think I was at all persuasive but half an hour later this hardened atheist walked out a born-again Christian. What happened? A big bang! Something exploded his hardened beliefs of years, and the truth got to him and something in him said, ‘yes, this IS true,” and on the basis of that he committed his life to the Lord. Just like that.
What I have been describing is what theologians call ‘saving faith', that inner urge that will not be satisfied until it has ‘sealed the deal'. How does it work? I believe it works first with a hungry heart. Second it works when that hungry heart is confronted with the truth of God's word. Third it works when the Holy Spirit says to that person, “Yes, this is true. You know it is true. You know you have to respond to it. You'll never be happy until you do.” Well it may not be those exact words but the sense will be there. It is what we call ‘conviction'. It is a sureness about something unseen, a strong hope about the future, and as we respond to it, it is what we call faith. There has to be the response to the word, to the truth, otherwise it isn't faith, but when you came to Christ you had saving faith and it was helped by the Holy Spirit.
Now you may guess that I've also been setting you up to look again at our verse above, about believing that all things were made at God's command. We believe this because the Bible says it – God spoke and everything came into being. We live in an interesting part of history where science has talked itself into a corner and is now feeling embarrassed. When I say ‘science' I really mean modern scientists. A hundred years ago it was different to today. A hundred years ago I believe the general consensus was that the universe had existed for ever. That made no sense to us because our minds really can't grasp the concept of ‘for ever' but that's where they left it.
Since then scientists have said, no, there are signs that the world is expanding and if you work backwards there must have been a time when there was a big bang and everything came into being. In fact we can work that out back to the second after it happened. We're fairly sure about that. OK, supposing that is so, what was before the big bang. Well says this atheistic scientist, we don't believe in any mythical being so it happened out of nothing. Pardon? Nothing? You mean ‘nothing nothing' as Christian apologist Dr. Francis Schaeffer used to say? One moment there was absolutely nothing, no energy, no vacuum, not even a single molecule, and the next moment that was matter flying in all directions getting bigger and bigger and eventually turning into life-giving organisms to produce what we today call ‘life'? You ask me to believe that? Can you explain that? Well, no, but that's where we've got to.
And they are embarrassed because they know that for centuries science has taught that for there to be ANY movement there has to first be a mover. For anything to happen, there first has to be an originating ‘something' but if there was materially nothing (and a material world includes energy) then that ‘something' had to be something other than the material world we know today. It does not prove God's existence but it strongly challenges the atheistic scientific viewpoint which is in limbo at the present.
Do we need to squabble over how God did it? Seven days of revelation, seven periods of twenty four hours or seven eras? Don't divide yourself from your brothers and sisters over something that cannot be proven , but rejoice in the fact that GOD made everything. For myself, the theory of evolution has so many holes in it that I am happy to leave people who do believe in unguided evolution in the same way I would leave flat-earth people – hang around long enough folks and one day you'll stand before the Creator of all things and then you will KNOW – but of course that is a statement of faith!
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 5. Faith or Formality
Heb 11:4 By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.
Cain and Abel have always raised questions in the mind. Why did God accept Abel's offering but rejected Cain's offering? That is the fundamental question mark behind their story and in a sense, at first sight anyway, everything else flowed from that, But was that how it was, I wonder?
“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” (Gen 4:2-5) Note first of all Cain brings ‘some of the fruits of the soil' which has a somewhat casual feeling about it. Yes, the word ‘some' is also used of Abel but here it is completely different because he is bringing what would have been considered the best portions of meat from more than one of his animals. ‘Some' of the firstborn indicates more than one, so Abel's gift is both high quality and abundant or generous. God looks at the heart and is blessed by what He finds in Abel but is distressed by what He finds in Cain. Indeed Cain's heart is revealed in his response which was anger. Cain becomes synonymous with those with wrong hearts against God (Jude 11) while Abel is named among the people of faith who come to God with good hearts as noted in our verse above.
We may also look at what follows in the Cain and Abel story for the Lord warns Cain not to let a bad attitude prevail (Gen 4:6,7) and yet Cain goes and kills Abel. A bad heart doesn't just start one minute; it is there long-term. Everything points to Cain coming with an attitude that is lacking. We don't know what it was that get the two of them bringing an offering to God but Cain seems to come out of duty or formality, something he ought to do. (Perhaps Adam or Eve had suggested it).
Abel on the other hand comes with a wide-open heart that likes the idea of giving to God so comes generously and so when the writer here speaks of him being a man of faith, we are considering heart issues. Faith comes out of an open heart. If you are a critical, even judgmental sort of person you are unlikely to be a faith person. If you are someone of low self-esteem, you are unlikely to be a faith person. A faith person comes with an open heart that does not judge others or be critical of others because they are aware of their own weaknesses and propensities to getting it wrong. They will be a person who has realised the love and goodness of God towards them and surrendered to that and will know that in Christ they have all things and can do all things, so when a faith opportunity is presented they leap at it.
Do we see something fundamental here? Faith doesn't come at odd moments; it is there as the outworking of a heart that at some point in life surrendered to God, facing the reality of their own failure and receiving Jesus' work on the Cross on their behalf. Yes, they were born again and the presence of the Holy Spirit now indwelling them opens a whole new world of possibilities. For the apostle Peter it was the opportunity to walk on water but for all the disciples it was the opportunity to get involved with the work of Jesus and see people healed when they prayed and demons be cast out when they commanded (e.g. Lk 10:17) These were acts of faith but they came out of lives that had first responded positively to Jesus call to “Follow me.” Once they did that there was a whole heart change (they were not perfect) that opened up a new world, the kingdom of God on earth!
So the starting point is that Abel is a different heart person to Cain and so when he brings his offering it is an act of faith: he's heard the instruction to give to God and so he does it gladly, presumably desiring to bless God, and God spoke well of him. His actions were right and proper and good and therefore as acts in response to a heart moved for God, they were acts of faith. The message version of this verse is interesting, particularly the first part: “By an act of faith, Abel brought a better sacrifice to God than Cain. It was what he believed, not what he brought, that made the difference. That's what God noticed and approved as righteous. After all these centuries, that belief continues to catch our notice.”
The Message emphasises that it was what was going on in Abel's mind (and heart) that was all-important – it was God directed, with God in mind, aiming to please God. Cain was focusing on the act – I suppose I had better do this . He didn't have good feelings about God; he was more caught up in what he felt he ought to do. Every second of getting the stuff out of the ground and bringing it was an effort. Formality and duty are like that, but faith is a flow that fulfils and feels good – because it is! “he was commended as a righteous man.” Faith is a righteous expression.
I admit to not liking the end of the Message version's v.4, it doesn't seem strong enough. Our verse above read, “by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” How about J.B.Phillips interpretation of that ending: “ And though Cain killed him, yet by his faith he still speaks to us today.” In other words his actions, even though he is now dead and gone, still demonstrate to us what faith is all about. It isn't about formality, it isn't about duty, it is about an open-hearted response to God that is good. If we feel, ‘I ought to be a person of faith', we've blown it from the start, we've missed the point. Faith is what flows from an open heart for God when it catches the word from God, whether it be a quiet prompting of the heart or a screamingly loud message through preaching or prophecy, and responds with that same good open-heartedness. How wonderful!
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 6. Walking with God
Heb 11:5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.
Each one of these examples of Old Testament saints who exercised faith teaches us something different about faith. Abel, we read yesterday, “ was commended as a righteous man.” (v.4) Clearly he pleased God and similarly above we see that Enoch “pleased God”. I like the Message version of this verse: “ By an act of faith, Enoch skipped death completely. “They looked all over and couldn't find him because God had taken him.” We know on the basis of reliable testimony that before he was taken “he pleased God.” He skipped death. That's a fun way of putting it, isn't it.
Let's read the original account of what happened, it's remarkably short: “ Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” ( Gen 5:24) It's one of the most intriguing verses of the Old Testament. Apart from a few genealogy verses that's all we read of him there, but what a lovely little picture. It's probably been imagined hundreds of times – every day Enoch went out walking with God and one day God said, ‘we're closer to my home now than yours, you might as well come home with me'. We don't know if that's how it happened because we aren't told; there is just this simple little statement that he walked with God and then God took him to heaven.
But the interesting bit is that, from the Genesis account, he “walked with God”. When you walk with someone there is a sense of intimacy, of being alongside them, going where they go and no doubt sharing with one another. One of my fondest memories of traveling abroad on ministry trips is not so much the meetings but a number of times just going out for walks with local pastors. It's on such walks as those, just ambling where the mood takes us, that barriers come down, fears are shared, doubts are aired, hurts are revealed, and hearts are opened, and real ministry takes place.
But walking with God is a faith activity because we cannot see God. Many years ago I wrote a series about ‘Walking with God'. So many things can happen when we just amble through life with God. For the disciples with Jesus it seemed a never ending adventure, never quite sure where going with the Master would lead to next.
I am always intrigued by the time when Jesus was teaching down by the Sea of Galilee and then we simply read, “Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre .” (Mk 7:24) Hold on, at best that was about a forty mile walk, probably somewhere between a two or three day journey, maybe four days even. And Jesus seems to give no indication why they are going there. John tells us in his Gospel that “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (Jn 5:19) i.e. Jesus went where His Father in heaven indicated. On that occasion the only ministry he appeared to do was in respect of one women with a demon possessed daughter. Immediately after that encounter we read, “Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon , down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis .” (Mk 7:31) Presumably he did ‘stuff' in each place but we aren't told; mystery ministry.
So Enoch, we presume, walked with a sense of God with him, with his heart turned towards God and communed with God and talked with God. Now of course it may not have been literal ‘walking' because when we say someone walked with God it can just mean that throughout their life they just had that God sense, that God awareness, and their heart was turned towards God.
The apostle Paul spoke about Abraham, “he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” (Rom 4:12) We'll come to Abraham later. In another place he wrote, “You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.” ( Col 3:7) meaning that was our way of life before we came to Christ. The apostle John used similar language: “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” (1 Jn 1:6) and then “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” (1 Jn 2:6) This idea was clearly familiar to him: “And this is love: that we walk in ob edience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” (2 Jn 1:6) and “It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth.” (3 Jn 1:3) (A good little sermon there of three ways we are to walk!)
The key summary point is that walking is the same as living with, going along with, being one with, so going back to Enoch when it says By faith Enoch was taken from this life , it means that because he walked a life of faith, he was simply taken home by God. He clearly stood out in his generation as a man on the same path as God who obviously pleased God because of that and appeared never to die (like Elijah) and was taken straight to heaven. His expression of faith, we will say again, was walking or living with a sense of God with him, with his heart turned towards God and communing with God and talking with God. That's what faith is all about, not just doing the occasional thing energised by faith but living in the constant awareness of God with us. That awareness, I suggest, will be life changing. If we are constantly aware that He is with us, it will curtail our ‘old life' attitudes and activities, and it will open up whole realms of opportunities to be led by Him. May it be so!
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 7. Pleasing God
Heb 11:5,6 For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
The fact that the Lord took Enoch directly to heaven appears to be the evidence or reason that the writer said he was “commended as one who pleased God.” This leads him on to make this simple statement about faith that without it, it is impossible to please God. What a devastating blow to the self-righteous and the person who would do good and be religious in order to please God! For at its simplest, faith is simply responding to God, but all these other things are attempts to get to God and manipulate God to approve us, but that never works. He is not impressed by all our self-centred efforts, they are not faith, simply further expressions of our sin.
How terrible to suggest that the nice ladies who ‘go to church' because it is the socially respectable thing to do, are sinning in their behaviour. How terrible to suggest that the MP (or Senator) who goes to church to win the approval of his constituents is sinning. But both are true. Religion that stems from our thinking, our ideas of what is right and proper is meaningless in God's eyes. The Bible says “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer 17:9) The inner workings of our mind and will (the heart) are a constant expression of self-centred godlessness. They are self-centred because they start with what we think. They are godless because they do not pay attention what God thinks.
So he makes this ‘outrageous' statement that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” But that is not the end of it for he gives us the reason why that is so, starting with that word, ‘because'. Note the sentence that follows and then we'll look at it in parts: “because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” There are four elements to that that tell us a lot about faith.
First, it starts, “anyone who comes to him,” not anyone who gets all philosophical and not someone with a great social conscience and not someone taken up with the wonder of religious sacraments or ritual, but someone who comes to Him . Faith is found in those who come seeking God – and only them. Turning up in church every week can easily not be faith if it is pure habit motivated by social niceties. Faith is found in seekers of God. Are you and I seekers after God?
Second, there is a belief element to it: “must believe that he exists”. That sounds so obvious but it is fundamental. Faith starts with belief in God. I would like to add, “must believe that he exists here and now in this room” I say that because I think many Christians, if only they were able to be honest, would have to say that they believe in God, but most of the time He's in the next room. In their thinking they focus on themselves. In their reasoning they focus on their own intellect, in their planning they think for themselves about themselves, if considering pleasure they think what they can do to make themselves feel good. God is not in the same room. If you say ‘He exists' it doesn't mean He exists in the Andromeda star system. It means He exists, here on this planet, in this country, in this town, in this home, in this room, with me. Nothing less than that fits this statement by the writer to the Hebrews.
Third, there is a ‘living God' element to it: “and that he rewards.” i.e. He does things This is not a passive God model, this is a God who interacts with human beings and says things to them and responds to them. But it's massively bigger than just that – see that word ‘reward'. A reward is something good, something of value given in response to something (yes, we can talk about rewards of evil as well) and so yes, we usually look forward to a reward. This speaks about a giving God, a God who wants to do good by us, who wants to bless us, decree good for us. I am convinced that many of us have the “hard man” mentality of Jesus' parable (Lk 19:21). One of the greatest changes that can come about in a church is when we realise that God actually IS a good God, a giving God.
Fourth, there is our response to that Good News, “those who earnestly seek him.” You will see after God for one of two reasons and both are good. First, you sense your need that you feel only God can meet, a yearning that only God can satisfy. Second, you start to really believe He is a good, loving God who has good plans and purposes for you and you want to enter into those plans and purposes but you can only do that by coming close to Him and hearing from Him.
But note also the word ‘earnestly'. This means not half-heartedly. Do you remember in the first study in this particular series we examined James' teaching where he said, “when he asks, he must believe and not doubt.” (Jas 1:6) It's the same sort of thing. If you don't seek God earnestly, it means you are not sure about why you are doing it, you are not sure He is a good and loving God who rewards His children, and so God waits, holding back His blessing until you come close to Him, which will be when you seek Him earnestly.
So what have we learned about faith in this verse? It is a whole-hearted seeking after God and responding to God which pleases Him. Anything less than that…..
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 8. Righteousness comes by faith
Heb 11:5,6 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith .
The sense of guilt (and even shame) is so often seen in human beings that we might almost think it is a natural characteristic of being human, this sense of not quite having made it, of getting something wrong. Of course we try to cover it up and steel our conscience against such things but on occasions of rare honesty most people will confess to having a sense of guilt about something. But there is something about this sense and it is that we human beings have this awareness of right and wrong. Of course we have been through a period in history where some have said everything is relative and therefore there are no fixed rights and wrongs – well, at least people say that until they have been wronged by another and then it is different!
The Bible uses this word ‘righteousness' and perhaps the most simple definition of it could be ‘the state of being right in God's eyes'. We would all like to think that we are all right in God's eyes, because, after all, God is loving and so turns a blind eye to our imperfections doesn't He? But no, actually He doesn't. So much human behaviour, and indeed religious behaviour, is given over to trying to be ‘good people' If not good in God's eyes (because atheists struggle to pretend He's not there) then at least good in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us. We do like to put on masks to cover up the real person who is there.
It is clear when you read through this hall of faith in Hebrews 11 that the writer is working chronologically through the key Old Testament figures and so it is not surprising that he next mentions Noah, but what is surprising it that he mentions him in the context of righteousness. If we know our Old Testament we perhaps might not expect that to get mentioned until Abraham but, no, Noah is spoken about in the context of both faith and of righteousness.
For those who try to pretend the account of the flood is fictional this passage comes as a wake-up call to its reality. The Son of God spoke of him as an historical figure (Mt 24:37,38) as did the apostle Peter (1 Pet 3:20). In fact Peter in his second letter referred to Noah as “a preacher of righteousness.” (2 Pet 2:5) Interesting!
Explaining Noah's faith, the writer speaks of his actions in terms he expressed earlier in the chapter, “when warned about things not yet seen.” Faith, he said earlier, “is being … certain of what we do not see.” The Lord told Noah to get ready to cope with a coming flood by building a large Ark. The flood was a future event: it had not yet happened and so when Noah responded and “built an ark to save his family,” he was responding to God's word and that was faith.
Now Noah's faith was not something in isolation, it was something he did in the face of the godless and unbelieving world around him. Building the Ark may well have taken a couple of years and so even if Noah hadn't actually challenged his neighbours outright, his activity building the Ark would have brought comment and questions, but ultimately no one said, “Can I come along please?” Simply he and his family responded. In that “he condemned the world.” Belief in God was possible for all people but only Noah believed and responded to God.
Perhaps we need to see the realities of the state of the world as laid out in Genesis 6: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” (Gen 6:9) Before he did anything in respect of the Ark he was seen to be a righteous and blameless man, and in that he stood out, for look at the description of the rest of the world that follows: “Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence . God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their way s. So God said to Noah, "I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.” (Gen 6:11-13)
Now I am not going to get into whether the Flood was worldwide or local, the main point is all about that state of the earth and why God was acting against it – and how Noah stood out. He was already, please note, a man of faith in that he, like Enoch who we have already considered, “walked with God”. But now the writer to the Hebrews emphasises his faith by the way he responded to God's call to build an ark and thus stood out from the rest of the world. I like how the Message version puts it: “His act of faith drew a sharp line between the evil of the unbelieving world and the rightness of the believing world.” The Living version is also good: “Noah's belief in God was in direct contrast to the sin and disbelief of the rest of the world.”
But as we noted at the beginning, his act of faith was also equated with righteousness and he “became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” He was seen as being right in God's eyes for his act of faith, being obedient to God's leading. An heir is an inheritor. Yes, that is going to become clear in the case of Abraham later on, but it is almost as if Noah is the forerunner to ‘justification by faith', that is seen in Abraham. In other words, although it had not yet been declared or made clear yet, that was what he was experiencing by his act of faith. Faith is thus always equated with righteousness.
It was Habakkuk who declared, “the righteous will live by his faith.” (Hab 2:4) A righteous person – one living in the light of God and being accredited as righteous by God – will be a person of faith. We will see this in various New Testament verses - Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11, Eph 2:8, Heb 10:38.
Christians are first of all believers, but life flows in them as they respond to belief and that is faith. Faith is belief in action. Noah exemplified it by his belief in God which led him to ‘walk with God' which led him to ‘hear' God and then hearing he responded to God (building the Ark) and thus revealed both righteousness and faith to the rest of the world who were condemned by their absence of either thing. Don't be just a believer.
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 9. The start of a story
Heb 11:8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.
Every story has a beginning; this was the beginning of Abram's story. One day he became conscious that he was hearing God. I still find it sad that for many modern Christians they can accept these words about Abram but deny they are possible for themselves. When did God stop being a God of communication? The whole Bible testifies to this. Perhaps the bigger issue for many modern Christians is not so much the “I can't hear God” but “I don't want to hear God because that might put a demand on me that I don't want.”
Perhaps the truth of this – for such people are Christians and so they did hear God when they were genuinely saved and they do hear God and respond to Him through sermons and such like – is that they are not sufficiently secure in their faith to be able to claim they heard God – even though they did! If that is you, claiming that God spoke to you doesn't make you a super-saint above everyone else, just that you are an ordinary Christian – by New Testament standards at least. God can speak to us through sermons, through prophecy, through reading the Bible, thoughts while we are praying, words from other Christians, through circumstances and not doubt other ways as well.
The fear that some of us have is that we are unsure about God and therefore we would rather make excuses about not hearing than trust ourselves to a God we think is hard and might ask hard things of us. It's more likely to be our uncertainty of God's absolute love for us than about anything else. When we were first saved the conviction we first felt was probably more about our failures than about God's wonder, the wonder comes second and depending on the sort of church we belong to and the sort of teaching we get, we either hear about that wonder, or we don't.
The amazing thing about Abram (as he was before his name was changed to Abraham) was that he was a pagan living out in the area of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq ), the area from which the wise men or Magi came seeking Jesus. It was always an area that was known for its seers and so we don't know how Abram heard God but one way or another he heard sufficiently clearly for the ‘message' to be written down: “The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen 12:1) Note the tense of Genesis 12:1 – “had said”. It looks back.
The story is intriguing and starts in the previous chapter: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran , and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan . But when they came to Haran , they settled there.” (Gen 11:31) Terah, Abram's father appears to be the one who led the family from Ur with the intent of going to Canaan (the eventual ‘Promised Land') but settled in Haran, a city on the way, which is why, when we get into chapter 12 we read, “So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and….Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran…. and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.” (Gen 12:4,5) Now whether the originating word came to Abram back in Ur and he was the one who got his father to lead the family out, or whether Terah caught the sense of God's intents and set out but gave up at Haran , we don't know. All we do know is that God spoke to Abram – in Ur or Haran – and Abram heard and responded.
The enormity of this act of faith is noted by the writer to the Hebrews when he says, “ even though he did not know where he was going.” The message had been “go to the land I will show you.” That ‘will' indicates a future thing. You start going Abram and I will show you the land. Clearly they must have had some sense of direction and whether the reference to Canaan back in chapter 11 was in retrospect or they heard that as their destination to start with is not certain. The big issue is that, “Abraham, when called to go …. obeyed and went.”
That sums up faith really – God says and we do it. That is faith. It starts with God speaking and is followed by us acting and then there is an outcome which is yet in the future and is in God's hands. The outcome for Abram was that he would have a new land to live in. As the days went on God made it more and more clear that this land would be his land and the land of his descendants, and of course it has been a land that the enemy has sought to challenge ever since.
So to summarise, dare we ‘hear' God? Are we sufficiently secure in His love that we can trust that whatever we hear will be for our good and a blessing to us? I have often commented in these meditations (and see the prior brief series on Jeremiah for this) that whenever I have the privilege of bringing a prophetic word from God to someone, so often the response in them is, “Who me? Surely not.” It happened only yesterday when we were praying for healing for a lady who we know from a distance and as we prayed the Lord gave me a lovely word for her. Afterwards she thanked us and I saw that same look of uncertainty in her eyes as she went that said, “Surely that can't be true? That was too good to be true.” And that takes us back to what I said earlier. Maybe the crucial issue that is before some of us as we go through these thoughts about faith, is whether I dare believe and trust God. Faith is responding to God. You can trust Him. We'll say some more about this as we follow Abram's story through. This was just the beginning of it.
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 10. Is this it?
Heb 11:9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.
This is the second of four ‘faith' things in respect of Abraham that the writer to the Hebrews covers. It is easy to miss it but the fact that Abraham “made his home in the promised land ” is quite amazing; we'll explain as we go along. To get to his new home he has had to leave his old home. It's rather obvious but important. Home had been Ur . He had grown up there and it was familiar. The thought of going somewhere else is challenging. Will it be similar to here? Will I like it? What will it be like?
Going and being “a stranger in a foreign country” for the first time raises questions in the mind. It is easier today with the Internet able to show you images of that country and there is always plenty of information about whatever country it is you want to find out about. I remember the first time I flew out to Malaysia to teach, part of a team. I really had no idea what to expect. A friend of mine went on a similar ministry trip to Nepal and suffered with culture shock for the first week; it is a very real thing.
So God has told him to go and he set off, stopped at Haran but eventually carried on and he arrives in Canaan . Is this the place God meant for us or have we got to travel some more?
When we talk about God leading us by faith, what are we expecting Him to lead us into? What do we think we are going to find ‘when we arrive'? Do we have expectations, good or not so good? Some things are very simple and so we simply hear and do and that it is and we move on to the next thing, but suppose it is something bigger. Suppose it is moving on to a new job or a new career or, like Abram, a new place that we feel the Lord is leading us to? What were you expecting? Suppose you find something different from what you were expecting? Consider what happened to Abram. There were three things that would make him wonder.
First he encountered different people: “Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” (v.6) Faith so often has to do with people and the question that arises is how will these people respond to me? These are Canaanites and they have different gods, in fact they have gods and I have the One true God? Faith for us so often means interaction with people and the same sort of questions will arise in us. How will these people respond to me? What are they like? Who or what are their gods? How will they respond to my God?
Whatever the questions they ultimately boil down to the same fundamental question – am I in the right place, but somewhere along the line the Lord will bring reassurance: “The LORD appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.“ (v.7) Ah, that's not quite what I expected – my offspring? Well yes, the Lord works on a long-term plan and our part is only a part, there is more to follow always. This step of faith may seem big for us but I have to tell you it is only A step and there are more to follow, but you're in The Plan and God is with you!
So he's apparently in the right place and has built an altar to worship the Lord, a sign of permanence, but am I to stay here or move on? Is there more to take in this experience: “From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.” (v.8,9) i.e. he kept going. The second thing about faith here is that we don't settle! This may have been an amazing experience and I am truly blessed having come through it, but this is not a placer to settle. Faith can grow, our experiences can multiply, our lives can mature, we move on!
So far so good, but, “Now there was a famine in the land.” (v.10) What? It has suddenly gone pear-shaped. This placed that seemed so good initially suddenly seems to be putting pressure on us. We have a problem. What do we do with it? How do we cope with it? Yes, that is precisely the problem and it is a learning situation we have been presented with. The third thing about faith is that so often the Lord leads us into a learning situation and that may be in the very act of faith or in the circumstances resulting from your act of faith. The sensible thing at this point would be to ask God for wisdom but Abram is only in the very earliest stages of his relationship with the Lord. He has yet to learn that, and its absence is going to get him into trouble which you'll see if you read on in Genesis.
For Abram t his is only the first part of the fulfilment of God's words to him. He's stepped out and followed the leading and left his home land and journeyed to the new land. In the new land he has been exploring what is there but in the course of that he finds himself in trying circumstances. The good news is that although he doesn't do very well in those trying circumstances the Lord doesn't give up on him and He doesn't give up on us as we sometimes stumble around in the waters of faith.
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 11. Expectancy
Heb 11:10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
In verse 9 the writer to the Hebrews had almost made a point when commenting that Abram lived in tents. He was a nomad of no fixed abode. We noted in that previous meditation that he travelled through the country, either unsure of where he should be or searching for something better. And that summarises how life so often is for us, we are unsure where we should be and searching for something better.
Our motivations may be varied. The person who constantly wants a bigger and better house, car or job may just be an insecure person who needs this sort of thing to make them feel worthy. They want to be looked up to and therefore they have to climb constantly upwards. But for other people there is this same sense of ‘something more' but that is all it is, a sense that out there, there is yet something more.
It is the tension of the Christian life, having a sense of contentment in all that God has provided for us, yet also a feeling that there is yet more to come. No more is this so than when we are confronted by a situation that could either stay the same of we could seek God for something better and then have to step out in faith for it. Because we know that God has always got something more, there will always be this almost subconscious feeling of what should I be reaching out for?
Yesterday's meditation was all about expectations and this is really just a continuation of that. We saw, “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” Not only was Abram a tent dweller, an alien in a foreign land, but so were Isaac and Jacob. They all had the promise that one day this land would belong to them, a place where their descendants could settle and built permanent dwellings. Of course when you put a lot of dwellings together you have a city, thus he now goes on to speak of Abram looking forward to a city, a place of settled permanence in contrast to the tents in which the patriarch lived.
But there is more to it than that, he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” The fact that he describes it as a city “with foundations” suggests that this is more than physical foundations but a place whose origins go right back in history. This is a city built by God for people. From Exodus onwards the Bible shows us God working to create a special people, a people who stand out in the world, a people who will reveal Him to the rest of the world, a people who are all the same, God's people, relating to Him, drawn together by Him, all showing something of His character within them.
Later on the writer will say, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24) It is a place where God, His angels and His people dwell together and it is possible because of all that Jesus has done. It is something clearly in the back of his mind for still later in the book we read, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Heb 13:12-14) i.e. Jesus was executed on the Cross outside the city, a sign of their rejection of him; thus we too are to leave the place of our habitation in the world – the old Jerusalem – and join him in the world's rejection because any experience of community here in this world is temporary but the real community of God's people is still yet to come in its fullness. We have a form of it now but the fullness is yet to come.
We see this in John's vision in Revelation: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…. And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." (Rev 21:2-4,10) God has on His heart a new community of His people who will dwell with Him in eternity and it will be a community where there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”
That is the ‘something' each of us finds deep within up. Solomon wrote, “I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccles 3:10,11) Every human being has something inside them that yearns for more. The person who encounters the Lord, as Abram had, finds in them that this becomes crystallized into a yearning for fellowship with the Lord or a community in which the Lord resides in eternity. Why? Because we now have the Holy Spirit indwelling us and He conveys to us the longing or end goal that that Lord has on His heart for us. Thus when we encounter the Lord by faith (as we all have to as Christians) then we find this yearning within us that comes from the Lord, for a city, a stable community of God with His people that we will eventually experience at the end or outworking of His plans for us. The more we sense Him the more the experiences of community today will feel inadequate; like Abram we will sense something better with the Lord than we have today. It is all part of the faith package.
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 12. Faith against the odds
Heb 11:11,12 By faith Abraham, even though he was past age--and Sarah herself was barren--was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
In unpacking these verses there are various aspects to be considered. First of all God made a promise. We find it first in Gen 12: “I will make you into a great nation.” (v.2a) There is more to the promise but that is the basic aspect of it. The significance of this promise is only realised when you read a few verses earlier, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.” (Gen 11:30) So here is Abram, this simple pagan who appears to hear God telling him to leave his homeland and go to Canaan and, ‘oh, by the way, I'll make you into a great nation.' Not just a little nation, but a great nation. But my wife is barren; we cannot have children. Now that may have gone through his mind at some point and all the more because Sarai was past child-bearing age, but in the long-term it did not put him off.
The promise of a land and of becoming a nation seem to come together and we are told, “Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran,” (Gen 12:4) and so if the word had come to him back in Ur, it may have been some years before that, but it would seem he was at least seventy when the promise first came. Later we read, “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.” (Gen 21:5) At least twenty five years, if not more, passed between the word coming and the word being fulfilled.
Now not wanting to be too indelicate about it, to have children a couple need to have sexual relations and if you have been promised you'll have children, you keep on and keep on – for twenty five years. I cannot think what Sarai must have felt about this. The more the years pass the more impossible it must seem and therefore the more futile it appear, and yet Abram carried on hoping. Yes they go through the disaster involving Hagar (Gen 16) but the actual fulfillment that involves Sarai doesn't happen for a long time! Yet, for some reason, Abram is sure he has heard God and he believes what he has heard and acts upon it. So first of all they start out from Ur and second they start trying for a child again. This is double faith.
The Hebrews writer marvels over this, “even though he was past age--and Sarah herself was barren,” and “as good as dead,” (which sounds a bit hard but was essentially the truth as far a child-bearing was concerned). Those were the facts, they were both too old, humanly speaking. These facts that make this impossible keep getting put before us as if to say, it doesn't matter how impossible a situation appears, if God speaks into it, it is no longer impossible!
But this is the thing about faith, “faith is being sure of what we hope for ,” (v.1) and it is a hope that is based upon something. Most of the time we focus on the end product – “was enabled to become a father” and with “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” – but the reason that came about was “because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” What kept Abram trying throughout those twenty five years or more? He trusted in God's faithfulness. How incredible!
It is indeed incredible. We have the whole Bible that builds our faith but Abram had nothing – except what he was hearing directly from God. Next time you doubt what you are hearing, remember Abram. Now of course the truth is that after that initial hearing from God that resulted in Abram leaving Ur, there were a reasonable number of times when God spoke and moved on Abram's behalf and each of these would have built this sense of security, this confidence in God's faithfulness, this sureness that if God says something He will do it.
The Lord acted on their behalf down in Egypt (Gen 12:17-20), he had a reassurance from the Lord about the land and his offspring (Gen 13:14-17), and reassurance about his son in a dream (Gen 15:1-5) and it was at that point that we read those famous words, “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15;6) After this the Lord reassured him about the land again (Gen 15:7-19) making a covenant with him that was quite spectacular. After the birth of Ishmael the Lord again came and reassured Abram (Gen 17:1-8) about being a mighty nation and then instigates the covenant of circumcision with him (Gen 17:9-14) and then reassures them both about the child again (Gen 17:15-22). All this happened while Abram was 99 and the Lord changed his name to Abraham and tells him his son is to be called Isaac. Subsequently the Lord appeared to them in the form of three men and yet again reassured them about the child who will be born in a year's time (Gen 18:1-15). By my counting that is seven times (the perfect number in scripture) that the Lord came and reassured Abram.
There are three points to make here. First, the time between a promise and a fulfillment may be lengthy and in that time the Lord simply looks for your faithfulness – “full-of-faith-ness”. You go on believing and you go on acting in the belief that it will come. The second thing is that the Lord will bring reassurance and encouragement along the way. Very often, I have found, the same prophetic word may come to a person three times, if not more. The Lord knows we need the encouragement. The third thing is that in the waiting period it will be a time in which the Lord will go on teaching you and changing you. They will not be wasted years. You will be a different person by the time the word is fulfilled. Sometimes the word cannot be fulfilled unless we are changed. At other times our being changed is just part of God's general plan for us and the fulfillment is not dependant on it.
There are two verses that may help you if you are in a waiting phase. First, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 3:10) The heavenly powers look on with wonder as they see God's grace being worked out in you and they praise Him for it. Your faithfulness brings praise to God in the heavenly realms. Second, “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2) Jesus coped with the Cross by looking beyond it. You and I can cope with waiting by looking to and beyond the fulfillment. See it and praise the Lord for what will come. That is faith.
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 13. Faith and Waiting
Heb 11:13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.
I confess to always feeling when I get to this verse that it is premature. The people he has mentioned so far have been Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abram, but there are a lot more to come. I wondered why it did not come later. It is perhaps that focusing on Abram brought this thought out into the open – for he hasn't finished with Abram yet. He has already spoken of Abram as a dweller in tents who was looking forward to a city and perhaps it is that as he thinks about this in relation to Abram, he realises it applies to them all in actuality. Indeed, “ All these people were still living by faith when they died.” (v.13a). Please note the ongoing sense of the verb here. It wasn't a case of them exercising faith once or twice in their lives; no, they were people of faith, they believed in God, they trusted in God and they based their lives on God. Everything about them was God orientated. If we cannot say the same thing, we see ourselves as less than the New Testament expects of us. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” it wasn't just at weekends or on months with an ‘r' in the month. No, it was all the time. Faith is at the very heart of being a Christian, it involves 100% of our lives. That is what makes us different from the people who fill in surveys and say they are a Christian but it actually has no impact on their lives.
But then he says something quite devastating about the lives of these people he is laying out before us: “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.” (v.13b) It's like, in a desert, they saw a mirage, the place they were yearning for and they rejoiced that the reality would come to them one day. Isn't that what it is like? We get frustrated with life. We know it could be better. We sometimes wonder what a world without sin would be like? What would my community be like if everyone was kind and considerate to each other. The world round about me may never think of those things but I do. I sense they are possibilities and I yearn for them. Perhaps it starts with my church: I sense great possibilities of the things the Lord would love to do with these people. I look at a church I know down the road and they have so many good things going for them, but there is so much more they could become if they only opened the door to the Lord more fully. But then, as we're often told, we're in a war and we have to contend with Sin and Satan and the ungodly world, and these ‘possibilities seem to remain just out of reach.
And then we hear teaching on sanctification and we are told we will never be truly perfect in day to day terms until we go to glory, and life is thus a mix of triumphs and disasters, times when we get it gloriously right and then terribly wrong (unless you sit in the safe shallows keeping your head down, hiding from the world).
Perhaps we are younger people and we are full of vitality, life, vibrant hopes and expectations, and yet they get tinged with frustrations as we see all that is going on around us and we see indifference to needs fuelled by self concerns for comfort and pleasure and the good life, or even injustices that no one seems to be concerned about and we think, “Why?” and we yearn for something better.
Or perhaps we are getting older and we are starting to creak and have aches and pains and we think, ‘No one told me it would be like this,' but it is and we suffer infirmities and then start looking into the mirage of eternity and realise how much better we will then be – but we then turn to the Lord for grace not merely to get by but to triumph in the weeks, months and years we may yet have.
All of these things align us with these saints the writer to the Hebrew is talking about who, “admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.” (v.13c) The very fact that they turned to and heard God marked them out as different from the rest of the self-centred, godless world taken up with themselves, struggling and striving to do the best for themselves. No, these people sense there was something better that God had. And “People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own,” (v.14) a country that is different, better. If we put it in children's fairytale book form, if we could wave a magic wand and change everything, how would we change it? The moment we give an answer we align ourselves with all I have been saying, we know it could be better.
It has to be particularly in respect of Abram that the writer says, “If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.” (v.15). Remember Abram had merely heard a whisper in his spirit, a whisper from God that said leave here and go to a place of my choosing and that was enough for this man who perhaps was already feeling jaded about the life he found in his homeland. He went, he left, he didn't stay, “Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (v.16). Anyone who really thinks about this, about the frustrations of living on this Fallen World, will yearn for something better and, as they encounter the Lord, they will realise that such a future must be a heavenly one, and God delights in such people who are both aware of the reality of this present Fallen World, and who also catch sight of something better that is coming in eternity.
For much of the time we simply find ourselves focusing on the negatives of this world and we battle with them. It is only as we sit at His feet and sense His peace that we realise His world in eternity must be so much more wonderful and we realise that is our home, the place we will return to in the fullness of His time for us. Amazing! This is a faith environment, we have faith dreams, and we sense a faith mirage because a) it is unseen and b) it is future and c) it is what on a good day we hope for and d) on an even better day we are sure about. Oh, yes, this is all about faith.
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 14. Faith and Letting Go
Heb 11:17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son
I am going to be very honest at the outset of this study: I am not sure I could have done what Abraham did with Isaac, but then I have two caveats that make me feel better about that. First, I believe the matter of God testing Abraham in this way was a unique event. There is no other indication throughout scripture of God asking us to sacrifice (literally) a loved one. Second, I believe Abraham had special grace to enable him to do something that was unique. Let's see what is behind this story and what it can say to us today.
First see it in the big picture, all that had happened to Abram, now called Abraham. There were several stages to his life so far. First there was leaving home at God's prompting. He heard God and left. Second, there was settling; he arrived in Canaan and despite some rocky early days he settled there. Third, there is the amazing miracle of being able to have a son at the age of a hundred and when his wife was well past child-bearing age. It is the phase of new life and the couple are overjoyed by it. Years pass and then we come to this incident. Did God want Isaac killed? No, He just wanted Abraham's complete trust.
The enormity of this is seen in verses 17 and 18 of Hebrews 11: “He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." His entire future is wrapped up in Isaac and yet God says kill him. There is the lesson for us as Christians: the Lord wants us to trust Him with our futures. This is enormous, because all round us the world is working away to provide for their futures and to achieve meaning by achieving great things in the long-term, but then the Lord comes to us and says, “Trust me with your future.” We often say when we come to Christ, it has to be as Saviour AND Lord, and the Lord part means he is sovereign over what we do, where we go and what we eventually achieve.
Perhaps the nearest the language of sacrifice goes is in Paul's writings: “I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” (Rom 12:1) I like the Message Version's enlargement of that: “So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” It's simply handing over the rule of the whole of your life to Him instead of being self-motivated. I also like the little clarification: “God helping you.” The truth is we can do nothing meaningful in the spiritual realm without Him helping us.
Now of course the enemy leans over your shoulder and whispers negatives into your thinking: “Oh you don't want to have anything to do with this stupid talk of self-sacrifice; that's Old Testament superstitious stuff, not for the twenty-first century.” Oh but it is when you understand Abraham's thinking behind what he was prepared to do. We may think he was crazy to contemplate doing this but he had come to a place of realising that he was dealing with the Creator God who could do all things.
He had learned something when he had encountered Melchizedek king of Salem who was described as “priest of God Most High,” (Gen 14:18) and “he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. (Gen 14:19) See how he described God and in what follows we see that Abram picked up on this: “Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you.” (Gen 14:22,23) This was the first time that Abram put a title or description to this God he had been listening to, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.
Abraham had come to realise that God could do anything and this is why our writer now says, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Heb 11:19) When you give God your future, you die to your ambitions, but here is the wonderful thing, we are talking about a God of resurrection. In the fourth phase of his life with God Abraham has arrived at the resurrection phase where God can bring to life all our lost hopes and dreams and bring something even better to us than we could ever have dreamed of.
Here is the challenging part of this: I wonder how many of us will get to heaven and then (if the Lord allows us to look back) realise we had always lived in second best and had never achieved our full potential in Him because we had never come to the point where we could leave it all in His hands.
Many years ago my wife had a very serious accident and was rushed into hospital with blood pouring from her. They took here into the Emergency Room of A&E and was able to hear doctors talking urgently and desperately about not being able to stop the blood pouring from an artery. As she lay there she realised that potentially she was about to die and cried to the Lord, “Lord what about my three children, how will they cope?” and in that room a quiet still voice replied, “Don't you know that I love them more than you do?” Amazingly the blood flow was stopped and her life was saved. We can leave our future in His hands because He loves us more than we do! Moreover His power is greater than ours and He can achieve more in us that we can on our own.
Faith is about trusting our Lord with our family and our future. I am at a point of life where the Lord has spoken prophetically over me of yet better things to come, but I am still waiting. Even this morning I cried out to Him about this and then my eye was caught by a flip-calendar given to me at Christmas and today's reading had this on it: “If our hopes seem to be experiencing disappointment right now, it simply means that they are being purified. One of the greatest stresses of life is the stress of waiting for God. Continue to persevere spiritually.” Apt! We've given Him our future and we're waiting for the blessing. Be patient and persevere. It will come. He IS faithful. He is the God of resurrection who, at the right time and in His way, will release life and blessing. Living in the good of His love until that happens is what faith is all about. [Postscript: four days after writing the above testimony, the Lord opened two doors I had almost given up on! Hallelujah! Within the next week there were three other areas where I had asked for encouragement and the Lord sent them - one from Australia, one from the USA and the other from somewhere else in this country! Awesome!]
Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith' : 15. Faith and the Future
Heb 11:20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.
If you want to know about blessings and curses, for the rules you go to Deuteronomy 27-29 but if you want to see the practice go and watch old man Isaac. Let's just take note first of all what happened with Isaac and his boys. It has a strange start: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, "My son." "Here I am," he answered. Isaac said, "I am now an old man and don't know the day of my death. Now then, get your weapons--your quiver and bow--and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die." (Gen 27:1-4) I have often pondered why did Isaac want his favourite food before he blessed his oldest son? I can only conclude that it was a bit like when David played his harp to sooth Saul or they would play music to release the spirit of God in the prophets. It speaks to the unity of spirit and soul in us I think. Isaac knows he has to bless the first-born son and the nice food provided by this son would in some way make him feel good, and feeling good would open him to God's Spirit so that he could bless him.
So what is a blessing? It is a prophetic declaration of goodness over another; it is expressing the heart of God, His goodness for that person, and because it comes from God it is in fact more than simply a declaration of God's intent, it is a decree to make it happen. Pronouncing a blessing is a profound thing – but of course it is an act of faith. It is a sure belief being spoken out that this is God's intent for this person.
Now because of the dysfunctional aspect of Isaac's family, Rebekah and Jacob conspired to con old man Isaac who was virtually blind, to pronounce the blessing over Jacob and not Esau. Now in fact Scripture makes it clear that it was God's will for Jacob to receive the blessing of the first-born son and the interesting thing is that Isaac knows that having pronounced it over Jacob he cannot just do it over Esau. No when it comes to light what has happened and Esau turns up to be blessed, Isaac responds, “Your dwelling will be away from the earth's richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck." (Gen 27:39,40) It is true prophecy in both cases.
Now the crucial issue for our studies was that Isaac believed that as the Patriarch he could speak out a blessing over his son and it would be done. When Isaac realised what had happened he said, “I ate it just before you came and I blessed him--and indeed he will be blessed!” (Gen 27:33) It is no coincidence that we later find old man Jacob leaning on his staff and blessing his children in the same way and we'll consider the different aspect of that in the next meditation.
The vital issue here is that a human being can be a channel that opens the door to the future for another human being. The modern day New Testament prophetic gift is the later almost equivalent to this. Remember Paul taught the Corinthians, “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (1 Cor 14:3) It may, usually perhaps, have a future dimension to it, what the Lord will be leading us to become or into, or it may be a declaration for the present that requires immediate action, but whatever it is it should strengthen, encourage or comfort, and those are all things bringing the goodness of God, which is what a blessing does.
But then I said it is an ‘almost equivalent' but not every prophetic word will bring about what it speaks for some words are conditional – “The Lord will do this, if you will do that.” It is not a guarantee of what will happen in such a case. However there are cases where the word says the Lord will do something and that is nearer to a blessing that we have been considering.
If we are sensitive to the Lord then if we are used to praying over one another, there will be times when we are able, by faith, to speak words of blessing over another person when the Lord is wanting to bring special encouragement to them. For example, the words, “The Lord bless you with a generous spirit” indicate the Lord is imparting a gift of faith specifically in respect of giving to others. Or perhaps the words might be, “The Lord bless you with a heart of compassion,” indicating the Lord is imparting a special measure of compassion to that person, no doubt to open up a ministry to the needy. If we take Solomon as an example, it is likely that there is already an element of that in the person and the Lord is just increasing it in their awareness so they can step out on it and do the things on God's heart. Solomon clearly already had a measure of wisdom to ask the Lord for wisdom to rule his people. The Lord knew that and perhaps that is why He came to Him in a dream asking what he would like. He imparted greater wisdom to that which was already there in embryo form. Often such a blessing will do just the same.
Whatever these things are – words of blessings, words of prophecy, words of wisdom, words of knowledge – they are all spoken out by faith. We sense the nudging of the Holy Spirit and we speak them out and become a link in God's plan to bring this particular thing into being on the earth, through another. They come by hearing God and the speaking them out is an act of faith.