What am I Seeking when I Study the Old Testament?
The short answer to this question is “God.”
I was first moved to study the Old Testament by a scholar who exhibited a communion with God through the text. He was a poet and convicted me of the inexhaustible wealth of the Hebrew Scriptures. He showed me that it was more than just a series of books that talked about God, but it was a meeting place to come face to face with the Creator of the universe.
The purpose of Bible study is experiencing God and growing into his mission. This goes for scholarly and devotional reading alike. No matter our exegetical abilities, when we read the Bible we ought to concern ourselves with knowing God. Ideally, close readings, attention to detail, and scholarly inquiry only deepens our understanding. Certainly, God is beyond our comprehension, but we are not left without a clue. The more we study Scripture, the more opportunity we have for knowing the fullness of God.
I seek to know Scripture like I know an old hymn. I want to know the lyrics, the historical references, the metaphors, the poetic rhythms. But it is not just for study sake; I want to sing the song. As the great Zion song says, “I heard their song and strove to join.”
Admittedly, I sometimes find myself devoting vast amounts of time to the study of the minutia of Scripture that does not seem to have much to do with knowing God. I sometimes miss the forest (God) for the trees (particular texts), but the right corrective to this is not to ignore the trees. Even the minutia, properly framed, filters up to knowing God more fully. I will attempt to illustrate with a few examples.
Wrestling with God through text criticism
Text criticism gives us a window into ancient interpretation. [There’s a good explanation of text criticism HERE.] Sometimes variants in the manuscripts are just scribal errors, but often variants reveal disagreements or shifts among interpreters. For example, Job 13:15a, is translated by the NRSV as “See, he will kill me; I have no hope,” but the ESV has “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” The reason for the difference is a textual variant: the Hebrew word here is lō’ meaning “not,” but another ancient tradition reads lô meaning “to him.” The two Hebrew words sound identical. So does Job say that he does not have hope or does Job say that he will still hope in him? I think that it is fairly clear that the NRSV is more in tune with the book of Job and the variant “in him” is a later effort to make Job seem less despairing. But back to our question, what does this variant have to do with knowing God? Simply put, we cannot make the big points without observing the details. In this case, we get an insight into how our ancestors in faith heard and wrestled with the character of Job. Job is a book about the human experience of suffering and how one relates to God in the midst of suffering. This small little word matters to the portrayal of despair. In my experience, it contributes to my own wrestling with God as I observe injustices and resolve to speak to God without restraint. So the text critical question filters up to wrestling with God when the realities of injustice hit home. One can certainly wrestle with God without knowing Hebrew or this text critical issue, but the closer we look the more we bring to the table.
The awe and wonder of wordplay
I love wordplay and a good poetic turn of phrase. For example, in Isaiah 5:7, a parabolic song about a failed vineyard concludes with God expecting mishpat (justice), but getting mishpaḥ (violence), expecting ṣedaqah (righteousness) but getting ṣe‘aqah (an outcry). This pair of wordplay is obvious in the Hebrew and contributes to the richness of the poem. What I love about close study of the Old Testament is that it slows me down and draws my attention to the creative detail of Scripture. God is a poet. The better we understand His poems, the fuller our communion with Him.
I do not study the Old Testament to prove or disprove its history or to contradict science. In my experience, these are unfruitful and misguided pursuits for the most part. Additionally, my primary reason for studying the OT is not to establish doctrine. Doctrine is important, no doubt, and the Old Testament certainly espouses doctrines, but these are typically secondary gleanings from the primary story of God among His people.
I study the Old Testament to learn from Israel’s witness to the character and actions of God, so that I might more fully understand the wonders of God’s work in the present. I want to sing the song of the Old Testament, which not only requires me to learn the lyrics and the tune, but also to join the chorus. The text hymns its King in strains divine. I hear the song and strive to join.
Lance Hawley is an Assistant Professor of Old Testament and biblical Hebrew at Harding School of Theology in Memphis. His research focuses on the book of Job and Hebrew poetry. He also has a major interest in biblical law and biblical canon as essential topics of study for followers of Jesus. Before joining the HST faculty, Lance served as a church planter in Madison, WI for ten years. He has a passion for the spiritual formation of missional communities.
Lance and his wife, Laura, have three children.
This week’s guest post on the 2018 Blog Tour comes from Dr Mark Adams. His blog is really well done, so do yourself a favour and check it out HERE.
“It was in the last place I looked.”
One of my least favorite expressions follows an anxious search for keys, wallets, and phones. Having scoured the house, the office, or the last place someone visited, when they find what they’ve been seeking, they might exclaim, “Wouldn’t you know it? I found it in the last place I looked for it!”
My inner response is always, “If you’ve already found it, why would you continue looking?” Nobody ever says, “Hey, now that I have my car keys in hand, I’m going to check a few more places to see if they’re there, also.” While there are aspects of our Christian journey that involve a continual seeking and searching, such as a deeper understanding of God’s inexhaustible love and mercy, there are some things that we should stop seeking the way that we had before we were Christians. Here are three things that Christians can stop seeking.
- You can stop seeking people’s applause and approval.
The great goal for which all Christians are striving is to stand in the presence of God, and to hear God say, “Well done!” We earnestly seek God’s applause. In Christ, we are confident that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This frees us to live out of our joy and appreciation for the love God has poured on us with lavishness.
Likewise, it matters to us that people can see the good things that we do because of our faith, and even if they don’t join us, they can still glorify God because of what God has done through us. We care that people will assume things about God because of what they see in us.
Even so, as Christians, we need not seek people’s applause and approval the way that the world does. If your sense of self-worth and happiness derives only from what people think and say about you, you’re going to be drinking from a water source that will generally leave you thirsty. People are fickle. They can love someone one minute and turn on them the next minute for a variety of reasons these days, and the function of the always-present smartphone combined with social media only exacerbates and hastens the problem. If you subject your well-being to the hands of people who are chasing after popularity of their own, no matter how much you’ve been liked or admired, you’re still going to have to keep seeking their approval.
Do you understand that God loves you as his own, irrespective of any other factor you could think up or present? Even if your walk involves the occasional stumble or tumble, you rest safe in the Grace of God whose love for you existed even before you did. You can stop seeking people’s applause and approval because God has the final word, and God loves you dearly. As he demonstrated in Christ, he would rather die than try to imagine Eternity without you there.
- You can stop seeking to establish your value through your own competence.
I struggle with anxiety if I feel underprepared for a situation. I work on my sermons and classes far in advance. I try to study every angle of something about which I believe people might ask me. I’ve always worked hard to be a resourceful person, to whom people feel they can turn if they need knowledge and insight. Sometimes, this can become an idol.
Your idol may not be an idol of knowledge, but there are probably other ways you try to establish your worth through what you can do. Are you the person who can get things done? Are you the person who always directs or volunteers in a certain way? Are you the person on whom everyone has to depend when they need a certain thing?
It is one thing to be a valuable asset because of your love for the greater community. It is another thing to share your gifts and talents, but to have strings attached for what you expect in return. It is a blessing to be able to share, to give, and to inspire. But when we must be seen a certain way because of what we can do, we have stopped relying on God for our sense of worth and have settled for an idol, who will leave us unsatisfied. Your gifts are yours for the building up of the body of Christ. Use them for the good of others, and stop seeking to establish your worth through what you can do, rather than through the way God has valued you.
- You can stop seeking to prove your worth through your possessions.
Christians in the West have a hard time letting go of our cultural tendency to buy things for their status rather than for their usefulness. Name brands, vehicle sizes and features, and a variety of clothing and personal ornamentation do and will continue to grab the world’s attention. It is this tendency, I believe, that Paul is addressing when he warns about the importance of dressing with modesty. Even though he would probably be in agreement with our general aversion to dressing overly “sexy,” Paul is concerned that when a person shows off their value through what they use to clothe themselves, they necessarily exclude and demean the poor among us who have no ability to succeed in a contest of possession acquisition.
Let us not forget that those of us who have been baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ. Jesus is our brand. Jesus is our identity. Jesus is our greatest treasure and our highest hope.
Before you make your next purchase, you might ask yourself:
- Is this valuable for how it is useful, or for how it will make people see me?
- Does my displaying of this item potentially alienate someone who can’t afford one of the same?
- Do I get uneasy at the thought of people not seeing me as successful for wearing a lesser brand?
Until we stand before God, may we always seek God with a holy hunger. May we never exhaust our desire to learn and embody God’s love. But for now, let’s remember that we’ve already found what matters most. We can stop worrying so much about what other people think about us. We can quit trying to prove how strong we are on our own. If we were really so strong, we wouldn’t have needed a Savior. We can stop distracting people from a treasure of ultimate worth by obsessing over things we know we’ll be donating to Goodwill next year. One of the many ways Jesus lightens our burdens is by helping us to release what we no longer need to seek.
Dr. Mark Adams is the preaching minister for the Kings Crossing Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married to his wife Carolina, whom he met when the two of them were students together at Harding University. He is also a graduate of Lipscomb University. You can learn more about Mark at his website: https://kingdomupgrowth.com
This is the 4th post on the 2018 Blog Tour. I first ran into Jonathan many moons ago when we were both involved in campus ministry. Now we both preach for churches in neighboring states. I hope you find his thoughts encouraging, and take a few moments to visit his blog.
As soon as I heard the theme for this year’s blog tour, my mind immediately went to a short passage in Matthew 6. I love this passage. First, I like it because the ancient conceptualization of the human eye as a “lamp” is intriguing to me. Second, the passage is really about the notion of focus and the idea that what you seek is ultimately what you find. So, let me share the passage with you, taking into consideration the overview provided by Matt in his post pertaining to the Sermon on the Mount.
6:22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
So, let’s have some fun! It only seems right to share some pictures with you and ask what it is that you see in the picture?
Here is the first one…
And the second…
And one more…
Now, to the passage. The eye was seen as the body’s lamp because just like lighting a lamp allowed you to see the room in the dark, so to opening the eye allowed you to see the world. So, if you had a healthy eye, you could see pretty well. However, if you have a “bad” eye, that is an eye that is unhealthy, then you can’t see very well. Blindness was a condition in which the eye couldn’t be “switched on” and so the body could not move about in the light…but stumbled around in the darkness.
In context, sandwiched between the warning not to store up materialistic treasures where moth and rust destroy, and thieves steal; and the reality check that a servant cannot serve two masters at the same time—our eye as the lamp passage serves to tell us that the ability to see and to focus on what is right in the sight of God is extremely important.
In the pictures above, there isn’t a right answer! Congrats! You saw a duck or a rabbit in the first picture based upon the aspects of the picture you focused on. In the second picture, you either saw a young woman or an elderly woman again based upon the aspects of the picture you focused on. In the third picture, you either saw a vase or two side profiles looking at each other depending on your eyes’ focus. It is a fun experiment to do, and perhaps you saw both options in each picture. (Or you can go back and try to see the other option)
When it comes to the eyes of faith that Jesus asks us to develop in his Sermon on the Mount, the aspects of life you focus on really do matter. Jesus asks us to focus on people and relationships instead of stuff and possessions…heavenly treasure that makes us rich in the ways of God. Jesus continues that we cannot serve money and God. Our eyes must be healthy, they must be focused, and they are a gateway to our, “shining before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
So, what are you seeking?
- If you were to evaluate what your eyes tend to watch, what would it be? Another way to say it, what catches your eye?
- Would you say that you have “blind-spots?” What are persons and things that you might fail to see?
- When people use you as a “lamp” to light up the darkness…what do they see from your good works?
- How healthy are our eyes of faith?
Your eyes may just reveal it all!
Jonathan Woodall is the minister for the GracePointe church of Christ in Elizabethtown, PA and blogs on the church website www.gracepointechurchofchrist.org and on his personal page at www.jonathanfwoodall.com. He is the spouse of Hayley and they have two children–Brynn and Aidric. Jonathan has also served as a worship minister, campus minister, and adjunct instructor of communication.
God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes. – Ecclesiastes 7:29
In one respect I think we can say that people are always searching for something. There’s some unmet need, some empty place that needs to be filled, some missing component that has left our hearts lacking. Epic poems and long novels have been written about the search for that unidentifiable something. So I do stipulate that this is a realistic expectation for many. Most? I don’t know.
“Overstimulated and Overwhelmed” is how one article describes the condition so many are facing today.
“This overstimulation can come from a variety of sources including excessive noise, multitasking, and cluttered surroundings. Overuse of electronic media is a modern phenomena particularly linked to issues of anxiety, depression, and isolation. This is unfortunately wide-reaching, as the average American spends most of their waking hours (about 11) on electronic media and internet.“
Can we make the case that we are so intent on searching for meaning and connection with God that we’ve exhausted ourselves? Or could we make the case that we’ve exhausted ourselves and the search is no longer interesting to us. We’ve given up.
…There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. – Romans 3:11
Maybe it’s just me, but American Christians (some? most?) are suffering a slump of sorts. Any search we can identify seems to be on hold while we explore some of those ‘many schemes’ the wise man wrote about in Ecclesiastes. Sometimes I feel that the spiritual search has fallen off of our radar while we seek fulfillment and excitement elsewhere. If that’s true, why is this?
Could it be that we have taken our eye off of the Savior? Instead of intentionally being committed disciples of Jesus, we sought to have bigger, better, brighter experiences in life, in relationships, in worship. Something to make us feel something. Have we chased after the experience but forgotten to love and serve the people around us in the name of Jesus?
“I began to wonder if what we were doing in evangelical circles had more to do with redeeming ourselves to culture than it did with showing Jesus to a hurting world, a world literally filled with outcasts.”
― Donald Miller, Searching for God Knows What
God has promised that if we search for HIM, He will be found. Jesus said that if we seek the Kingdom first, our other needs would be met.
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.- Jeremiah 29:13
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. – Matthew 6:33
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. –Hebrews 11:6
For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. – Luke 11:10
If you are feeling empty these days, look in the mirror and ask that person if they have been searching for God with their whole heart. I can’t prove it, but I think there are many people suffering from a spiritual emptiness they cannot identify. It’s not that they do not desire God. It’s more than that. It is that somehow the noise and distraction of life has kept them from desiring to desire God. The search for the Search has been put on hold. Indefinitely?
How do we break out of spiritual disenchantment and renew the search for the Search? How do I learn once again to be captivated by the beauty of the Savior and in awe of the power of the Father and feel the fire of the Holy Spirit? I hope you’re not looking for something to dazzle you here. I can’t offer you more of the stuff that has us numbed to the Spirit’s call. I can only think we must go back to basics.
Have I been spending time in the Word? I’m going to suggest paper, not screen. Too many distractions and temptations when we’re staring at the glow. Break free.
Have I asked God to reignite the passion for Kingdom living in my heart? Am I talking to Abba about the distance between us?
What have I done for someone else lately? Not for pay, not for recognition, not for anything except the opportunity to serve.
Have I been quiet? No TV, no small screens, just me and God and… no words. (It’s ok if you fall asleep… fall asleep in His presence… He loves you. You can grow in this area of listening prayer.)
Am I walking alone or do I have fellow disciples to serve, study, pray and love alongside?
Contemporary Christian music group, Building 429, sang a song about The Space In Between Us. That’s what we’re trying to bridge. Regaining the search for the Search is my desire for us.
God, for the days when I’m so distracted by the world around me and in front of me, give me the energy and strength to turn it off, turn away, and turn toward you. Grow within me the burning desire to know you more completely and serve you more faithfully. I not only desire to seek you, I desire to desire to seek you. Thank you for knowing what that means. Amen.
John Dobbs is the preaching minister for the Forsythe Church of Christ (http://facoc.org) in Monroe, Louisiana. He can be found on Facebook, followed on Twitter (@johndobbs) and read on his blog (http://johndobbs.com). He’s been married for 31 years to the lovely Maggy. He has two children and two grandchildren.
I’m glad to share the first guest post on our 2018 Blog Tour. Matthew challenges us to examine our hearts, our motives and our priorities. While the Sermon on the Mount is not a checklist, it does encourage us to examine our hearts. HERE is one guide to an introspective self-examination based upon Jesus’s words in Matthew 5-7. ~ Peter
“You are what you love.” That’s the title of a book by James K. A. Smith that has challenged my life, particularly my heart. I’ve learned that my heart isn’t always focused on what it should be, regardless of what my actions show. This realization led me to the Sermon on the Mount, one of Jesus’ longest teaching passages in Matthew 5-7. Some view this passage as a checklist we need to keep to please Jesus. But viewing the Sermon on the Mount as a checklist shows you’ve missed the point.
Take a look at this summary of the teachings in this passage:
– Attitudes (5:1-12)
– Actions/Witness (v13-16)
– Righteousness (v.17-20)
– Conflict (v. 21-26)
– Marriage and Adultery (v. 27-30)
– Divorce (v.31-32)
– Honesty (v.33-37)
– Revenge (v.38-48)
– Giving (6:1-4)
– Prayer & Forgiveness (v.5-15)
– Fasting (v.19-24)
– Worry/Self Dependence (v.25-34).
That’s a lot of topics! It seems Jesus has something to say about nearly every part of our lives. But Jesus isn’t addressing a bunch of topics here. In reality, he addresses one topic and applies it to many different areas. What’s the one topic? The heart.
Let’s look at one two more statements. In Matthew 5:16 Jesus says “…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Yet chapter 6 starts with “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.”
How are we supposed to keep both of these? There’s no way to check these off a list. Logic says you cannot do both, but it all boils down to what our heart is seeking. Are we honoring God and glorifying Him, or showing off and honoring ourselves? If the heart is in the right place, we are doing exactly what Jesus wants. It all boils down to 6:21- “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Smith puts it this way: “…if the heart is like a compass…then we need to regularly calibrate our hearts, turning them to be directed to the Creator, our magnetic north.” In other words, what we do shapes us into who we become. The life of a Christian should be drastically different than a non-Christian. So how are we doing? Do we have a heart seeking God, or are we chasing after the world? What you love shapes your life. So, what are you seeking?
It’s time for a heart check. If we orient our heart toward seeking God, our attitudes will be God-focused when we’re mistreated (5:1-12). If our hearts are right, we will be salt and light (both of which are elements that change every situation they enter) for God’s glory (v. 13-16). If our hearts are seeking Christ and his righteousness, we will want to be righteous in our actions (v.17-20). If our hearts are seeking the Father, we won’t mistreat our brothers and sisters (v.21-26). If our hearts are centered on the covenental Creator, we will honor our spouses by remaining pure and committed to each other (v.27-32). If our hearts are on the God of justice, we will show love and honesty, and not seek revenge when we are wronged (v.33-48). If our hearts are pure we will give generously, not for our own glory, but to honor God (6:1-4). If our hearts are right we will pray heartfelt prayers that lift up others and don’t glorify ourselves…we’ll forgive others as we’ve been forgiven (v.5-15). If our hearts are right we’ll focus on God because of our want of relationship with him, not to impress others (v.19-24). If our hearts are right we’ll rely on Him for our needs without worry (v.25-34).
“You are what you love.”
What does your heart seek? Do you seek after the things of God, or chase after whatever the world calls important? Jesus reminds us to “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Keep your heart focused on God. Keep honoring Him in everything you do. Seek him first and foremost. Only then will you have the true heart of a seeker.
Matt Stidham is the Preaching Minister for the East Side congregation in Snyder, TX. He and his wife Jennifer have three beautiful children. You can connect with Matt on Facebook (@matthew.d.stidham), on Twitter (@MatthewStidham), or at his blog – http://www.crosseyedchristianity.wordpress.com.
Incarnation and Imitation
The incarnation revealed what is possible when a human moves in God’s will, and by God’s power. In Jesus, God acted, but also demonstrated what human action in the name of God looks like. “For I have set you an example, “Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you”. Yes, this line’s context (John 13:15) is somewhat particular to his servant gesture of foot-washing, but the following discourse makes clear that this practice is barely the tip of the iceberg. Everything Jesus does and says is a demonstration of God’s work and will in the world, and the disciples are being invited to share in that way of being in the world. The point of the incarnation is to say, “This is what happens when divine action/being meets human action/being.”
Moments later, Jesus expresses to his disciples that they have perceived God’s will as revealed through Jesus’s words and actions, and have even had their status before God changed because of it: “The servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Jesus is revealing God’s will and work, and then inviting them to join into that same will and work, becoming fruitful by honoring his command to “love one another as I have loved you.” God is at work among humanity in the human form of Jesus, so that humanity might be able to learn how to work on behalf of God in the world.
What’s Faith Got to Do with It?
This is all well and good as a bunch of theological talk, but is still missing a critical piece: faith. This all occurs in its context in a crisis moment, and the disciples will forget their loyalty to Jesus before we can scarcely turn the page on the conversation. However, before their abandonment, we get a preview of what will come to pass after the resurrection. It is yet to be tested by the crucible, but we get a taste of the faith that will be solidified when the disciples witness his defeat of death. In John 16:30 we read the climatic confession, “we believe that you came from God”. That curiously-worded affirmation of faith is more central to John’s gospel than is easily recognized.
“We believe that you came from God” sounds like a basic thing to affirm about Jesus, but for John’s gospel it is the critical point. Everything up until chapter 12 has been constructed to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the one sent from God. It’s a theme hiding in plain sight, captured in language like being “from God” or “from heaven”, or in Jesus’s talk about being “sent”. The fascinating turn of the fourth gospel is that it takes this basic affirmation of Jesus’s origin and uses it to launch the mission of the disciples. Just as the father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples (20:21), and when they are doing the will of God, they have access to the same divine power that Jesus put on display. What’s the connection between what Jesus did and what the sent disciples will do? Their faith.
In coming to believe that Jesus is from God, the disciples also come to believe his invitation to share in his divinely originating power and mission. They too become “from God” because now they are “from Jesus”. John tipped his hand early on that this was God’s work in Jesus: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) In the wake of the resurrection, the disciples can truly become brothers of Jesus, sharing the same Father and God (20:17).
The Victory of Faith
There’s an old church song, “Faith is the Victory” which draws its language from 1 John 5:4-5, “…this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” The song implies that the victory is one that we, Christ’s disciples win over our enemies. However, the greater truth is that it is Jesus who becomes victorious over his enemies because of our faith. See, we may not have noticed the connection between this text (1 John 5) and John 16:33, where Jesus says to his disciples: “Take courage; I have conquered the world!”. Notice how the announcement is peculiarly located—Jesus proclaims his victory before the events of either the cross or the empty tomb. What has happened at this point that evokes this claim? It is the confession of faith from the disciples—this constitutes Jesus’s victory over the world!
Now that they believe—or perhaps better, now that they are coming to believe—Jesus has won a foothold in the world. God’s work will continue. The gospel embodied in him will be embodied in his disciples who now participate in his mission. Jesus, the Sent One, will become the sender, and the faith of his disciples will become a gateway for the power of God to work goodness in the world.
Our faith is much more powerful than we know. It is not just a vehicle for our comfort or empowerment. It is a vehicle for divine action. It is the connection point at which God’s people become partners by God’s Spirit, agents of God’s creative agenda in the world. Faith is the engine translating God’s will into human action and the restoration of God’s creation.
It is easy to underestimate our faith. I often perceive mine to be quite a weak thing—apparently much smaller than even a mustard seed. But in the hands of Jesus, even our broken faith creates enormous possibilities, and becomes a tool in God’s mission.
(If you would like to walk through a study of the “Sent” theme in John, consider the following texts in their context: 1:12-13, 3:2, 3:13, 3:17, 3:31-34, 4:34, 5:23-24, 5:36-38, 6:33, 6:46, 6:57, 7:27-29, 8:14-16, 8:23-26, 8:42, 9:4, 9:29-33, 10:36, 11:27, 12:44-45, 13:3, 14:24, 15:21, 16:27-30, 17:8, 18:36-37, 19:9, 20:21. This list is not exhaustive, and perhaps the better approach is to simply take a highlighter to a fresh copy of the gospel and mark each time the theme shows up. I assure you, you will not have to travel long between occurrences! I would love to say that the theme is plainly stated in literally every chapter of John, but alas, chapter 2 only yields 2:9, which I hold to be playful language on the theme—but I’ll let you decide for yourself.)
Steven Hovater: Four kids. One wife. Seventeen hobbies. A coach’s whistle. Lots of thoughts about God and food. The spiritual gift of volume. Blogs at stevenhovater.com, and preaches in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
Words do not stay the same. The definition or influence of a word can change over time. Sometimes they are overused and lose their power. Words that were once quite meaningful can become meaningless. Christianity is a religion that relies on certain words. The Bible is a story, and you cannot tell a story without words. Some of these words are essential to Christianity, and yet Christianity is a religion that has been around for many, many years. Christians have clung to important words while also dealing with an ever-changing world where the meaning of words can change.
Faith is one of the most significant words belonging to Christianity, but what does it mean? Over the years, many have equated it with belief. For these individuals, faith is the same as mental assent, but I believe a careful reading of the Bible will prove this definition to be inadequate. Certainly, belief is an element of faith, but it goes deeper than what a person may hold to be true.
Several times in the Gospel of Mark, faith is contrasted with fear (Mark 5:36). One of the most famous stories where this occurs is when Jesus calms a storm (Mark 4:35-41). You can imagine how frightening it would be to be on a small boat in the middle of a lake during a storm. Your boat could be capsized by the wind and waves. You would be susceptible to lightning strikes. You would essentially be helpless until you could reach shore. This is the situation that the disciples found themselves in. They were scared, and through it all Jesus slept. Finally, they decide to wake him. He calms the storm, and then says, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40).
If faith were merely belief, then fear would have no power over it. It’s possible to believe and at the same time be afraid. Faith is more closely related to trust. When we trust, fear goes away. This is what Jesus was looking for in the boat. The disciples were believers, but they did not have trusting faith. If they would have had faith in Jesus, then they would not have been afraid.
The contrast between faith and fear that Mark provides is helpful in evaluating our level of faith. It might be difficult for some to gauge their commitment to God adequately. We are great at critiquing others and not so great at self-criticism. However, if we think of fear as the opposite of faith, then it is much easier to identify areas where we are afraid. Wherever we find fear, we will likely also find a lack of faith. If we fear the political future of America, then we need to trust that God is sovereign over all. If we fear our neighbors who do not look like us, then we need to seek to love them all the more while trusting that God has created all people in his image. If we fear what will happen to the economy or where our next check will come from, then we need to trust that God will provide.
Radical faith is when we put our trust in God even when the future seems uncertain. We see this in story after story in the Bible beginning with Abraham. What we discover from Scripture is that God is always faithful. It would be difficult to trust in a chair that looks weak and fragile, and that has never been set in by you or someone you know. There would be no reason to trust the chair. However, if you saw a big sturdy chair that always provided a safe and secure seat for anyone who rested in it, then you would have no problem trusting the chair. God gives us every reason to trust him. We can always depend on God.
Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications. You can find regular blog posts on the Start2Finish platform HERE.
I was in the cemetery at my grandmother’s resting place. This particular memorial park was an exclusively flat-stone only grounds, and each stone had a metal vase that you twisted out of the middle of the stone and turned over to display flowers. My aunt had tried to pull it out for Mother’s Day, but it was stuck. I was down on my hands and knees using a pocketknife trying to pry the vase free, it wasn’t budging! I look over and my daughter is on her knees with her hands folded. I asked what she is doing and she responded, “I’m praying that God will help you get the vase unstuck.” Frustrated and very sweaty, I was baffled because I was sure the good Lord had more important things on his plate than helping me turn a vase over…I mean, God doesn’t really work that way does he? When I returned to my car, I was blown away that at the very moment I was working, prying, and feeling defeated by a gravestone, my seven year old was praying.
Sometimes the things we perceive as strengths can become the most restrictive shackles to our faith. I think the ancient story of Adam and Eve still plays out in us…you see, I was reminded in that moment and many others that I have chosen to feast on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moreover, I have studied the Bible and with that understanding comes the “shackle” of trusting myself to define not only if something is good or evil, but if God is likely to act or not act in a given situation. I think there are too many times where my familiarity with God through the Bible allows me to arrogantly move without an element of trust—to serve before prayer, as if God already affirms what I have decided to do.
As I reflect on this type of “faith,” I think it is why I tend to accomplish only the things I am naturally good at doing, never venturing into the unknown, uncomfortable, or uncontrollable. Those ministry opportunities or missions are just too sizable for my skills…it would take more than what I have. I believe that true faith gives LIFE (like the other tree in the garden) and often moves beyond our knowledge, skills, and experience.
Products of a fallen and broken world, I think that all of us come to God with a shackled faith of some sort. And I must admit that I like my shackles because they provide me with a way of understanding faith and they allow me to know that I am growing in faith.
Whenever I ask the question, “Does God really work that way?” I am beginning to see that question as a growth question because it is a direct attack on my knowledge and experience. When I reread the scriptures asking the question, “What does the Bible really say about this?” I see this question as a challenge to my study and the past interpretations. And when I finally take an opportunity to trust God and lean on God, when I find myself on a plane to Africa, having dinner with a stranger, opening up a Bible study, or praying that God would intervene in our heroin crisis…I realize that God is in the process of breaking my shackles and setting me free to trust him more.
We all have shackles, and God calls us anyway. As I think about what it means to live an unshackled faith, I think about the New Creation described at the end of Revelation. I think about all of the brokenness we have, all of the obstacles that make us cry to God to increase our faith, relieve our doubts, and give us greater perseverance. But there is great day coming when our faith will become sight. John says that God will, “…dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
Today we battle our shackles, but we learn to trust God, to believe God, and one day our hope is to be unshackled, face to face with God Almighty, Creator of the unbroken world!
Prayer: Creator God, call us to greater works and allow us the opportunity to trust in You more and more as that great day gets closer and closer. Our desire is to be set free from the shackles that hold us back. I pray that you reveal to me the limits of my faith so that I can identify my shackles and receive healing and wholeness from You. Come Lord Jesus, so that our faith can become sight and our brokenness can be fully restored. Lord God make all things new and that includes me, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Jonathan Woodall serves the GracePointe Church of Christ in Elizabethtown, PA. He is married to Hayley and they have two children. Jonathan spent ten years in campus ministry at Soma Memphis serving the University of Memphis and served as a worship minister at the White Station Church of Christ. Jonathan has a desire to see the church reach the next generation and is particularly drawn to the communication of God’s story through preaching and teaching, especially as it pertains to our contemporary context. Jonathan’s blog can be found at www.jonathanfwoodall.com and the church website is www.gracepointechurchofchrist.org (PS – if you are coming to Hershey, PA for a vacation or whatever, come worship with us!)
John Dobbs moved to Monroe, Louisiana, just a couple of months before I moved to New York almost 10 years ago. We have stayed in touch through the years and I’m constantly encouraged by his friendship and love for Christ and His church. I hope you’ll be encouraged by his thoughts as we continue the 2017 Summer Blog Tour.
Who am I to do such a thing?
I’m not good enough.
I don’t have what it takes.
Someone else would do it better.
When you have visions of great things you’d like to do for God, are your visions followed with thoughts like those above? If so, you are not alone. Those are the kinds of statements made by some of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, just before God used them to do incredible works. Men like Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah were normal people of faith being unshackled to do amazing things empowered by an awesome God.
I believe it is one of the tasks of faith to name the shackles that bind us and keep us from the things we would like to do for God. In naming them, we identify the reality and pry apart the grip they have on our lives. What is keeping you from doing something for God that you have dreamed of but never taken steps toward?
EXCUSES If you are like me you get defensive when someone identifies your perfectly good reasons as ‘excuses’. We need to be honest with ourselves. Are we making up excuses so that we do not have to experience the potential of failure as we try to do something great for God?
I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child. – Jeremiah 1:6
SHAME Maybe we think that if we try – and fail – in service to God that this is somehow a terrible thing. Jeremiah preached for forty years without a single recorded positive response to his messages. He struggled, but he didn’t quit trying.
I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. – Isaiah 6:5
SIN The biggest shackle of all. We feel unqualified because we wrestle with sin – and maybe one ‘besetting sin’ – that just won’t go away. As we attempt to glorify God in our lives how easy it would be for someone to point out our flaws. They could paint us as a hypocrite. Sin takes feelings of shame and rationalizing excuses and forms a weapon that destroys our hearts.
Who am I … What am I supposed to say? – Exodus 4:11,13
I encourage us all today to stop letting our shackles keep us from an exciting journey of faith. Yes, we need to name our shackles and identify them as weapons – weapons our enemy is using to diminish our work for God.
No weapon fashioned against you will succeed, and you may condemn every tongue that disputes with you. This is the heritage of the Lord’s servants, whose righteousness comes from me, says the Lord. – Isaiah 54:17
Read again the powerful armor God has provided every Christian to withstand the weapons of the enemy in Ephesians 6:10-18. Remind yourself of the power of the cross and the assurance of the resurrection to defeat sin and give you new life. Ultimately everything we do for God is not controlled by our hands. He uses us in ways we couldn’t have guessed. His surprises keep us attentive as we walk by faith. We will begin to notice that we are not, by our efforts, directing God’s work. When we walk by faith we are falling into His works in such a way that the old excuses, shame, and sin are remnants of the shackled life that is now free.
Be mindful that no one does this perfectly. Don’t ever let a failure keep you from taking the next step with God. He’s never used anyone who wasn’t a failure in some respect or another. Remember that you do not have to see the end of the story, you just need to walk in the story.
We live by faith and not by sight. – 2 Corinthians 5:7
John Dobbs is the minister of the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, Louisiana (http://facoc.org). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter (@johndobbs, @facoc) and Instagram (@bigpoppa1130). Weekly sermons can be heard at http://forsythechurch.podbean.com/ (or on Forsythe’s podcast on iTunes). Even with all of that social media, there’s a special place in his heart for his blog located at http://johndobbs.com. Happily married to Maggy for 30 years with two children and two grandchildren.
The second stop on the 2017 Summer Blog Tour is in Timothy Archer’s Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts. Enjoy the read as Tim reminds us of Jesus intention when he talked about faith.
It was one of those moments. Jesus challenged his disciples to show forgiveness to others, even if it means forgiving them seven times in one day. The disciples saw the challenge and responded: “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5)
I’m not entirely sure what they hoped to get from Jesus, but I suspect they recognized the gap between Jesus’ teachings and their own abilities.
So Jesus responded by saying that faith doesn’t have to be huge; even a tiny amount can move mountains.
Then he told them a parable:
“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’ Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:6-10)
I think he was saying, “You don’t need more faith; you need more faithfulness.”
In other words, theirs wasn’t a head problem. It wasn’t an intellectual need. It wasn’t even a lack of commitment. What they needed to do was put their faith into action. Or, more specifically, put their faith into obedience.
Hebrews 11 is the great chapter on faith. We read about Abel, Enoc, Noah, Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Jacob, and the rest. In almost every case, when we read about their faith, we read about something they did. We see their faith in their faithfulness.
Faith is more than an emotion. It’s more than an intellectual exercise. It’s something that you can observe. Faith is belief in action. Faith is being willing to listen to God and follow his lead, no matter what.
Faith leads to action. I can believe that a man is a doctor, yet still have no faith in him. But if I do have faith in a doctor, then I will follow his instructions. It is no special credit to me if I do what the doctor tells me to do; it is merely a symbol of the faith that I have in him.
If you’d like to have greater faith, then I believe the key is to take what faith you have and put it into action. Find ways to serve others. Tell people about what God is doing in this world. Meet needs and better your community.
Because you may not need more faith at all; you might just need a bit more faithfulness.
Timothy Archer has coordinated the Spanish-speaking Ministries for Hope For Life / Herald of Truth Ministries since 2006. Tim’s latest book, Church Inside Out, helps churches motivate their members to be actively ministering to the community around them. You can follow Tim’s personal blog at: http://www.timothyarcher.com/kitchen/.