In Jon Bloom’s book “Not By Sight”, he talks about Peter walking on the water. You remember the story in Matthew 14 where the disciples are rowing across the Sea of Galilee when Jesus comes up to them walking on the water. And after getting over the shock of seeing him, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28).
And, of course, Jesus says, “Come” and Peter steps out onto the water and begins walking toward Jesus until he saw the wind and the waves all around him, and he became afraid and began to sink.
But Bloom points out something in his book that I’d never really thought about. He said, “Have you ever noticed that Peter the Rock didn’t sink like a rock? The last time you jumped into a pool, how gradually did you sink?”
You see, when Peter’s faith shifted from the firmness of Jesus’ word to the uncertainty of his circumstances, Jesus let him sink slowly. And that was a good thing for Peter. Because it gave him time to cry out to Jesus. And when he did that, Jesus caught him by the hand and he said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)
But there’s a very important question that I think needs to be raised about this story – What was it that held Peter up, what was it that allowed him to walk on the water? And you may be tempted to say that it was his faith. But I would suggest to you this morning that that’s not quite true. It wasn’t Peter’s faith that kept him afloat. It was Jesus.
And Peter knew that. That’s why he didn’t just jump out of the boat on his own. He asked Jesus to command him to step out. And Jesus then honored Peter’s faith by commanding the water to bear his weight.
Now, you may think there’s really no difference between the two and it’s all just a matter of semantics. But I would suggest that there is a difference and, in fact, it’s a very important difference. Because the faith we need to have is not faith in our faith, but faith in Jesus. Let me say that again because it may take you a minute to get your mind wrapped around it — the faith that we need to have is not a faith in our faith, but a faith in Jesus.
Now, if you don’t quite understand the difference, hang in there because I’m going to come back to this in a little bit and explain further what I mean by that.
But it is very important that we ask ourselves the question, what do we really believe? And how strongly do we believe it? Faith is, of course, one of the most important concepts in all the Bible. Faith has been fundamental to man’s relationship with God from the very beginning. In Hebrews chapter 11, that great chapter of faith, we see the importance of faith in the lives of Abel and Enoch and Noah and Jacob and so many others.
And, of course, faith is fundamental to our salvation and to our continuing relationship with God. If there is one word that sums up what our response to God should be, that one word would have to be “faith.” That’s why John 3:16 says concerning Christ, “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It’s why Paul says in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.”
The word translated “faith” or “believe” occurs about 550 times in the New Testament. It is very possibly the most frequent command given by God.
And so, in view of that, you would think that faith would be one of the best understood Christian concepts. If any word could be easily defined and explained, then faith would seem to be that word. But my experience tells me that’s not the case.
I. What is Faith?
If you were to ask in a typical Bible class the question, “What is faith?”, there would probably be an awkward moment of silence. Somebody might speak up and say, “Well, faith is believing.” But when asked what belief is, the response would be, “Belief is faith.” And that obviously doesn’t help us much.
Mark Twain once said that faith is “believing what you know ain’t so.” And that’s definitely not a good definition of faith. In fact, someone with some insight into the scriptures might quote Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The NIV translates this verse, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” And that’s a good definition. But it still leaves faith as an abstract, vague concept.
Someone else might speak up and make the observation that faith expresses itself through works. Quoting from James 2, they would correctly say that a faith that doesn’t do anything is dead and lifeless. And while it is true that living faith expresses itself by way of actions, that still doesn’t define what faith itself is. Faith will show itself through works, but someone can do all the right things without having faith.
And so, none of those responses really give us a good working definition of faith. So I want to start this morning by talking a little bit about what faith is.
I normally don’t like to use an English dictionary to define a Greek word, because so often there a big difference between how a word in used in the Bible and how we use it in our everyday language today. But this is one time that I think the English dictionary gets it exactly right. The very first definition of faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” I don’t think there’s a better word to use to understand the concept of faith than the word “trust”.
On several occasions, Jesus said to those who asked him to perform a miracle, “May it be done according to your faith.” That’s what he said to the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant in Matthew 8 and to the two blind men who cried for mercy in Matthew 9, to the ruler of the synagogue whose daughter had just died in Mark 5, and to the father of the demon-possessed child in Mark 9. “May it be done according to your faith.”
In each of these situations, those individuals trusted Jesus and his ability to help them. But Jesus wanted to know just how much they trusted him. Because, you see, there are different levels of trust. It’s possible for us to have a lot of trust in someone, or we may have just a little bit of trust.
Those of you who are parents understand this well. If you need to leave your children in someone else’s care for a while, there are some people you would trust fully. You could leave your kids with them without a second thought and have the full assurance that they are in good hands. There are other people whom you trust a little. You might trust them to watch your kids for a short time in an emergency. And then, of course, there are some people you wouldn’t trust at all.
You see, there are different levels of trust, and therein lies the problem for most Christians. Because we often wonder — What level of trust is acceptable to God? We all believe that we have faith, but how do we know if we have “enough” faith?
And I suspect that all of you have asked that question at some point in your life. Because I think all Christians are plagued by periods of doubt. Most of us would readily admit that we don’t have enough faith. We can relate to the apostles to whom Jesus said so many times, “O you of little faith!” And I think every conscientious Christian would say, “I’d like to have more faith than I do.” We’re like the father of the demon-possessed boy who said, “I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
And, as a result, we tend to be uncomfortable placing the confidence of our salvation in our ability to believe. We know that we need to “trust God” and we do, but the problem is — we worry about our level of trust. If we could achieve a level of trust that’s way up here, if we could have “complete” faith in God every day of our lives, we’d feel pretty good about our salvation.
We would feel good because we have attained the “perfect” faith. In other words, we tend to put our faith in our level of faith.
The problem is – none of us are likely to experience that level of absolute faith. There are times in our lives when we’re going to have doubts. There are times when the trials and difficulties of life that come our way discourage us, sometimes even to the point of despair. Some of the sacrifices God has called us to make, we make reluctantly. By the things that we do, the things that we say and the things that we think, we’re continually reminded of our spiritual inadequacy.
And so, in light of all of this, Christians tend to not ask themselves the question, “Do I believe?” but rather, “Do I believe enough? Do I have enough faith?” Which brings us to the heart of the issue concerning the subject of faith. Is a saving faith determined by the amount of faith a person has, or by the kind of faith he or she has?
II. Looking to Abraham
For an answer to that question, I’d like for us to look at the life of Abraham. I want to warn you in advance that this is a two-part lesson, and I’m going to be raising a lot of questions this morning that won’t be answered until next week’s lesson, so you’re all going to have to plan to come back next week to hear “the rest of the story.”
There are a lot of great things that could be said about Abraham. But, of all the things that could be said, none of them matches what God said about him. In Romans 4:16, God tells us that salvation is available today to those who have the “faith of Abraham.” This nomad, this guy who traveled around living in a tent, had a faith that God said is our model for our faith. Now it’s hard for me to adequately explain just how incredible that is.
When it comes to trusting people, we recognize the need for there to be a basis for that trust. I have often made the statement, and believe it to be true, that trust has to be earned. If someone we know has broken our trust in some way, it will take a while for that trust to be re-built.
And so, for us to trust God is a relatively easy thing to do. Because God has proven himself over and over throughout history. Every time he has made a promise, he kept that promise. Every time God said he would do something, he did it. God has definitely earned our trust.
But Abraham didn’t have that level of confidence. And Abraham had faith without the benefit of having a written Word of God. He didn’t know about God’s plan for the redemption of mankind. We understand God’s promise to bring about a blessing through Abraham, but Abraham didn’t.
We know that the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham was achieved in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We understand that God’s ultimate objective was the opportunity for all people on the face of this earth to find salvation in Christ. We have the benefit of being able to look back and see how God was working throughout history to keep that promise.
But Abraham didn’t have any of that. And yet, it is Abraham who is the ultimate example of the faith which God wants in his people — not Moses, the man who led the Israelites out of Egypt and gave them God’s law; not David, the man after God’s own heart; not Elijah, the great prophet who was received up into heaven without experiencing death; not any of the other great prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Rather, it was Abraham who trusted God in such a way that he is held up as an example to us all.
The New Testament repeatedly refers to Abraham as the great man of faith. There are nearly 75 references to Abraham in the New Testament. Any time a New Testament writer wanted to teach a lesson on the importance of faith, Abraham was the model.
• When Paul taught in Romans 4 about the righteousness which exists through faith, he pointed to Abraham.
• When Paul taught in Galatians 3 that both Jews and Gentiles receive God’s promises through faith, he calls us sons of Abraham.
• In Hebrews’ roll call of the people of faith in chapter 11, one section pays tribute to Abraham’s travels and another to his offering of Isaac.
• When James taught in chapter 2 that obedient works are the natural expression of a living faith, it was Abraham’s faith that was held up as an example.
Now, if God spent that much time looking to Abraham as an example of the kind of faith we ought to have, then it seems to me that we need to learn as much as we can about his faith.
Because I’m convinced that when we properly understand Abraham’s faith which was account to him for righteousness, then and only then will we understand the kind of faith which allows us to be considered righteous by God.
A. The Call from Ur
The story of Abraham begins in the city of Ur in the land of Mesopotamia. We know from archaeology that, for centuries, the city of Ur had been a great city. It was a royal city and a cultural center. Now, that’s significant because it means that God’s request for Abraham to migrate from Ur was not a small request. His leaving Ur meant leaving a city that was prosperous, filled with opportunity, and provided safety and security. But Abraham was called by God to leave Ur.
But, you may not have considered the fact that Abraham did not do exactly what God told him to do. Reading in Acts 7, Stephen is giving the history of Abraham, and he starts with these words: “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran.” (Acts 7:2-4)
God told Abraham to “leave your kindred, leave your family”. But we know from Genesis 11:31, that when Abraham made his move, his father Terah went with him. You say, what’s so bad about that? It’s his father. Come on, surely God didn’t expect him to leave his father behind. He was close to 200 years old! Oh, but I’m very confident that that’s exactly what God intended. There are several scriptures that lead me to this conclusion. Because they give us a glimpse of what’s going on “behind the scenes” and help to explain why God wanted Abraham to move in the first place
When Joshua was giving his famous, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” speech in Joshua 24, he started with this statement: “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. (Joshua 24:2). I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that verse before, or if you’ve ever thought about the significance. But Terah and his family served pagan gods prior to God’s call of Abraham.
Now if we put together all the pieces of information that we have together, it would seem that when God first called Abraham, Abraham was under the guidance and oversight of the family head, Terah. Religiously speaking, they were a polytheistic family – that is, they worshiped a variety of gods. Ur was especially known for worshiping the moon god. But, then God told Abraham to leave Ur, to leave his family, and to go to a place God would show him — a place that would later turn out to be the land of Canaan, over a thousand miles away.
And Abraham have enough faith to believe the message which he received from God and that faith led him to do what God asked him to do. He had sufficient faith to forsake the pagan gods to follow the true God who called him. He had sufficient faith to leave Ur and all of its advantages. He had sufficient faith to migrate in the direction which God directed him. However, he either chose not to leave the oversight of Terah, or Terah would not permit him to leave the family and his oversight.
In fact, it’s quite possible that Terah did not allow Abraham to leave alone. Terah may have decided that the family must go with Abraham. There are a couple of things in the text that seem to indicate that. One is in Genesis 11:31 where we read that Terah “took” the family on the journey, which seems to indicate that he was in charge. And then Terah, Abraham and all the rest of the family stopped in Haran, far short of where God wanted Abraham to go, and they lived there for a number of years. In fact, they lived in Haran until Terah died.
Now, considering all these circumstances, Abraham had tremendous faith in God while he lived in Ur. It was a faith which led him to accept the guidance of God and to migrate to a new home hundreds of miles away. However, at this point Abraham did not have a faith which was accounted to him for righteousness.
B. The Call From Haran
After Terah died, God came to Abraham a second time. This time, Abraham did exactly what he was told and his father wasn’t there to hold him back. Abraham was 75 and Sarah was 65 when God called him the second time. It was basically the same message he gave Abraham in Ur: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1). Once again, Abraham was told to leave his country (which was now Haran), to leave his kindred (those who had migrated with him and those who had been born there), to leave his father’s house, and to go to a place which God would show him.
And, in return, God promised that he would make of Abraham a great nation, that he would bless him, that he would make his name great, that he would bless his friends and curse his enemies, and God would bring a blessing to all families on the face of the earth through him.
But, in order to receive those blessings, Abraham had to obey God and leave. We don’t like leaving stuff behind. We like the familiar, the comfortable; we like knowing what will be, some level of predictability in our lives; let alone all that stuff we accumulate.
And so, I want you to see that God’s request presented several major challenges to Abraham’s faith. First of all, he had to leave his family. There are a lot of people today who are so close to their family that they would never leave their family for any reason, not even for God.
Secondly, Abraham had to leave the place he had settled – a place where everything was familiar and comfortable.
Something we may not appreciate in our very mobile society today is that, in Abraham’s day, to leave your family and homeland was to leave your source of security. To be among family was to have a “safety net” of protection. That’s one reason why there is so little teenage rebellion in third world countries. Children know that to be removed from their family would result in danger and poverty. By commanding Abraham to leave his home and his family, God was forcing him to depend solely upon Himself.
Thirdly, and perhaps most difficult, Abraham had to leave what was known for something that was unknown. God didn’t tell him anything about his destination. In fact, the Hebrew writer says, “He went out, not knowing where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8). Abraham didn’t know where he would end up or how long he would stay there. And I don’t know of very many people today who would make a move like that with so little information. “Sueanne, pack your bags. We’re moving.” Where to? “Can’t tell you. You’ll see when you get there.” Now I’m not saying Sueanne wouldn’t be willing to do that. What I am saying is that it requires a very high level of trust in someone.
Then, fourthly, Abraham had to believe that God could actually cause his barren wife to conceive. In fact, the key factor in God’s ability to keep his promises was his ability to enable Sarah to conceive a child. We’re told in Genesis 11:30 that “Sarai was barren.” If Sarah did not conceive and bear a son, there could be no great name, no nation, no descendants to possess the land, and no blessing to come upon the families of the earth. The pivotal point of all the promises of God was Sarah’s ability to bear Abraham a son.
And so, once again, Abraham possessed a remarkable faith. He did leave his family and the security of Haran for an unknown destination. He traveled to Canaan, and he trusted that God would protect him.
But, Abraham’s faith was far from perfect. When a famine forced Abraham to travel to Egypt, he was afraid that the Egyptians would kill him in order to marry his beautiful wife, Sarah. And so, in Genesis 12, he told the Egyptians that she was his sister and deliberately hid the fact that she was his wife. He even went so far as to allow another man to take Sarah to be his wife all because Abraham didn’t trust that God would take care of them.
Abraham’s faith in God was great. But, it was still not the faith which God accounted to him for righteousness. Not yet. Next week, we’ll continue looking at Abraham’s life and we will find out at exactly what point in his life that Abraham had that kind of faith (and I think you’ll be surprised to find out when it was) and then we’re going to talk about how we can have the same level of faith in our lives.
I remember when our children were younger – much younger — they would sometimes go up a stairway a step, maybe two, and jump down to the ground. If they were daring — as Joshua often was — they might even jump from the third or fourth step. But any higher than that was just a bit too much. And they would never jump from that height — unless dad stood at the bottom of the stairs. Then they had to believe that I would catch them when they jumped.
In order to make the jump, they would have to be convinced of several things. First of all, they had to know that dad was there. It meant having a basic assurance that dad would not move – that he would be where he promised and would stand where he said he would.
Secondly, it meant believing that dad could catch them if they jumped. It meant being convinced that dad had the ability — that his arms would be strong enough to catch them.
But there’s one more thing that was needed. They needed to trust that dad actually would catch them when they jumped. And only when they were convinced of all those things would they let themselves go.
Faith is a lot like that. We have to know, to be assured that God is there. We have to believe that God can save us, that he has the power, the ability and the desire. And then we have to believe that God actually will save us, and to do that, we have to trust him to keep his promises.
And it is only when our faith reaches that point that we have enough trust in God to “let go”.