What Is Faith?
Matthew 15:21 - 28
The ten year anniversary of 9/11 has done exactly what anniversaries do, it has stirred up memories. Last Sunday Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus were all a buzz with folks talking about where they were, and how they were affected by the tragedy. Football games and Baseball games stopped to honor the brave men and women who have given their lives for the cause of freedom, or who died in the midst of an act of terrorism. Memories have a way of stirring our souls.
But it has done more than just brought back the memories of 9/11, it has also brought the discussion of faith back to the table. I understand that faith is an internal issue. Western culture tends to obsess on outward appearances rather than the things that go on inside of us. I guarantee you if you pick up a magazine today it is very unlikely that you will see an article dedicated to what Sandra Bullock is thinking. If anything good can come from tragedies it is that we have become a more introspective people.
Since it's in vogue to talk about faith in something more than a whisper these days, I wanted us to engage in a nine-week series called 3-ON-3. For three weeks we'll focus on faith, for three we will look at hope, and the last three weeks we'll take a look at love. Three weeks each on three internal issues that make a dramatic impact on how we live out our lives.
Today we will start in Matthew 15:21-28. We'll hear the text, and then pray.
This story has always disturbed me. Jesus essentially calling a distraught mother a dog? When I read this I think of the mother in Atlanta when we lived there. She was in a Wal-Mart parking lot when she placed her infant in the car seat of her van and walked a few feet away to replace her shopping cart. Someone snatched her baby and drove off with the frantic mother clinging to the side of the getaway car. The baby was later recovered, but think about that mother coming to Jesus, hysterical, hopeless, pleading, and Jesus calls her a dog. This story can really bother us when we visualize it like that.
I want you to notice the end of the story. The part where Jesus says, "Woman, you have great faith." The only other time He commends someone for having great faith is in Luke 7:9 when He heals the servant of a Roman officer and declares the officer has great faith.
The idea of faith invokes a lot of questions: What is faith, anyway? What difference does it make? How do we know when we've got it? And if we have it, is it like the faith of this woman in Matthew 15? Is it great?
In the Bible, the word faith almost always means trust, or reliance, or confidence in someone or something, usually God. But that isn't the only way the word is used. In the scriptures I see three different types of faith.
At it's most basic level there is what we might call Knowing faith. Some call it intellectual faith, but the word "intellectual" leaves a bad taste for a lot of us. Sounds like you'd have to have a high IQ to possess something called intellectual faith. So let's call it knowing faith.
Knowing faith is simply the mental agreement that something is true. It is the intellectual acceptance that something is a fact. When we say, I believe Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States, we are practicing knowing faith. When we say, I believe that gravity is the force that causes unsupported objects to fall, that's knowing faith. I believe there is a God. I believe that Jesus is His son. I believe the Holy Spirit dwells within Christians. Those are all statements of knowing faith.
We develop a knowing faith in basically three ways; 1) We accept the word of someone who is an authority on the subject, 2) We come to believe certain things to be fact based on experience, 3) Or we use our powers of reason.
I believe that Barack Obama is the current president of the United States. I believe that based on my experience of his presidency. I don't need the testimony of an authority and I don't need to use my powers of reason. I simply have to observe. I did not, however, experience Abraham Lincoln's presidency. I accept the authority of experts in the field of history and the reliability of other evidence.
But there are some things that neither experience or the word of an authority can prove. Think of a criminal trial, for example. A man stands accused of murder. No one saw him commit the murder, so there are no witnesses to say, "I saw him aim the gun, pull the trigger and murder the victim." There are, however, fingerprints on the weapon and both the prints and the weapon belong to the accused. The accused was heard to utter threats on the life of the victim in the days prior to the murder. The accused cannot account for his whereabouts during the time the murder was committed. The accused and the victim were seen together in a car leaving a restaurant one hour before the victim was killed. When the police came to question the accused, the first words out of his mouth were, "I didn't do it."
Using your powers of reason what might you conclude? He did it. You didn't experience him doing it. There isn't an authority that can tell you beyond all doubt that he did it. But based on the evidence at hand, you can reasonably conclude, "I believe that man is guilty as charged."
Knowing faith, then, is not some blind leap into the darkness. John Stott said, "To bring our minds under Christ's yoke is not to deny our rationality but to submit to his revelation." Knowing faith is based on the testimony of an authority, our own experience, or our ability to consider all the evidence and work toward a reasonable conclusion. And sometimes, all three.
The Bible talks about knowing faith. Jude 3 mentions the "faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints." Jude is talking about a body of teaching that has been passed on. A set of statements about God, His word, His work in the world.
Then there's James 2:19. "You believe that there is one God. Good. Even the demons believe that -- and shudder." James is confronting people who think that knowing the facts about God is enough to have a relationship with him. They claim to know a lot about God and in fact probably do. But there is no change in how they live. So he says to them, "Okay, so you have this knowing faith. You accept as true certain statements about God. For example, there is one God; great! The devil believes that."
In other words, the demons are orthodox. They believe that there is one God. Which tells us something about the limits of knowing faith. It isn't enough to save us. I'll put it this way; you can't be saved without a knowing faith. There are certain statements about God and His work in Jesus Christ that you have to accept as true in order to be saved. But simply acknowledging their truth isn't enough to save you.
To be perfectly clear, it isn't enough to just agree that there is a God. In fact, it isn't enough to even know and believe a ton of facts about God. There has to be more than the delivery, reception and acceptance of certain facts and information.
I think some of us assume that by virtue of our knowledge of the Bible and our belief that all of that knowledge is true that we are, therefore, people of faith. Are we? Or are we merely people of facts.
The prince of Grenada, an heir to the Spanish crown, was sentenced to life in solitary confinement in Madrid's ancient prison called "The Place of the Skull." Everyone knew that once you were in, you would never come out alive. The prince was given one book to read the entire time-the Bible. With only one book to read, he read it over hundreds and hundreds of times. The book became his constant companion.
After thirty-three years of imprisonment, he died. When they came in to clean out his cell, they found some notes he had written using nails to mark the soft stone of the prison walls. The notations were of this sort: Psalm 118:8 is the middle verse of the Bible; Ezra 7:21 contains all the letters of the alphabet except the letter j; the ninth verse of the eighth chapter of Esther is the longest verse in the Bible; no word or name of more than six syllables can be found in the Bible.
The Prince knew about the Bible, he probably more about it than anyone that had come before him. But what good was his knowledge? He was kind of like a tadpole. Have you ever seen a tadpole? A tadpole is a potential frog. It's mostly head and no body. If your faith is all knowledge and nothing more, then your no more a Christian than a tadpole is a frog. You may be on the right track, but you haven't arrived at the station yet. Knowing faith makes you a potential Christian.
So is has to be another level or kind of faith? We just noticed James 2:19 where the demons believe and tremble. Back up a few verses to James 2:14, What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, "You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works."
There is knowing faith and there is what we could call showing faith. The kind of faith that shows up in the way we live our lives. In 1 Thessalonians 1:3 Paul commended his readers for their work produced by faith. In 2 Thessalonians 1:11 he commended them for every act prompted by faith. They had accepted certain things as true and they were acting on what they had believed.
That's the difference between knowing faith and showing faith. It is one thing to say you believe certain facts to be true. It is another, to demonstrate your belief with your behavior.
Many of us in the room would sign a piece of paper that had a long list of statements about God, His word, His work in the world. But we aren't asked to sign a document. We are asked to live a life. Does the way you live show your faith? Or is your faith just all in your head?
I believe that it was Augustine who said, “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.” While I understand that we are saved by grace through faith, it is not enough to claim faith; there should be some evidence to prove your claim. I could tell you that I have children, and even if you were to come over to my house and not see the boys, you will still see the evidence of them by their toys, sports equipment, and their clothes. We can claim that we have faith all day long, but there should be some evidence to prove it. There should be some evidence to back up our claim.
It is foolishness to think that you can have a relationship with Christ and continue to live the same lifestyle you were living before you got saved. James would say that you are deceiving yourselves. It would be the same as a person who continued to live in poverty even after they won a million dollars. Their new standing will cause them to take action and leave their past behind. They’re going to go out and spend money!
No one has to change their life before they come to Jesus, in fact, you can’t change your life without coming to Jesus, but once you do come to Him, then He will change your life and cause you to leave their past behind.
There's one more type of faith we need to talk about, and that’s saving faith. Remember the woman in Matthew 15? The one Jesus called a dog? The one of whom he said, "Woman, you have great faith." Let’s look again at the story.
Jesus and his disciples are making their way through the region of Tyre and Sidon; Gentile country. They are Jews. Jews and Gentiles in those days got along about as well as Jews and Palestinians do now. A Gentile woman is following them, pleading with Jesus to do something to help her demon-possessed daughter.
I find this story more online with a God of love when I understand that this is a test going on between Jesus and His disciples. Jesus was using this to test the disciple’s prejudices and to show His love. The woman speaks directly to Jesus. "Lord, help me."
And He speaks to her and what he says is what the disciples were feeling. "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." They believed that. They believed that they are the children and this woman is the dog. That's their view of what's happening.
She says, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." Then what does Jesus do? He commends her and then He heals her daughter. Two things are going on in this story.
First, Jesus is confronting the prejudice and arrogance of his disciples. He is going to heal her daughter, but he wants also to heal them. They need to see that this woman is as much a child of God as they are. Just because she's from a different part of the world with different traditions and culture, makes her no less a candidate for God's blessings than they. Some of us need that healing, too.
If I were to write the sentence, "God loves everyone regardless of the color of their skin, the slant of their eyes, their country of origin," we'd all sign it. We believe that to be true about God. But do we live it? We have a knowing faith, but do we have a showing faith when it comes to breaking down the sinful racial, ethnic barriers that stand between others and us?
But something else is going on here. Jesus is drawing something out of this woman. She has a knowing faith. She believes that Jesus can heal her daughter. She has a showing faith. She has followed Him along the way and is asking Him to do what she knows he can.
But there is an even deeper faith in her. She has a saving faith. She is willing to say to Him, "I can't save my daughter. Only you can. You and you alone can heal her. And I am casting aside all my pride in the confidant hope that not only can you heal her, but that you will heal her. Just a crumb of your power, Master. Just a crumb is all it will take."
That's the goal of scripture. That's the goal of the Spirit. To take us from mere intellectual acknowledgement to total surrender. From knowing faith, through showing faith, to saving faith. When you can say to Jesus, "Lord, I totally trust you with my life. I will do whatever you say. I surrender all,".
Questions to Consider
What do you think about when you hear the word faith?
How would you define faith?
Jeremy said this morning that there were three types of faith: Knowing, Showing, and Saving. Do you agree with his descriptions or not?
Read Hebrews 11:1-16
How does this passage honor the “ancients”?
What type of faith is discussed in verse 3?
How can that faith serve as the groundwork for a deeper faith?
What is the connection in this text between faith and hope?
How would you describe your faith level?
What has your faith cost you?