Faith is the essential core of Christianity. It is given concise expression in the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Creed is an emphatic statement of belief and trust. But there is a third emphatic and essential pillar of faith, namely, obedience.
Besides the example of Enoch who walked with God (Gen 5: 21-24), the earliest demonstration of faith in the Bible is that of Noah. Genesis chapter 6 tells of God recognising Noah’s righteousness and tasking him with building an ark. In carrying out God’s instructions, Noah showed obedience in addition to his trust and belief in God. He must have been subjected to ridicule and harassment while labouring on the enormous task of constructing the ark. Yet he never wavered and adhered faithfully to God’s command.
Abraham’s obedience to God’s request that he sacrifice his only son, Isaac, again exemplifies true faith. He travelled all the way to the Moriah region with Isaac, built the altar, bound his son up and was on the point of killing him when the angel of the Lord intervened and stayed the execution of Isaac because God was satisfied with Abraham’s absolute faith. What is starkly and chillingly apparent is Abraham’s unflinching and unquestioning obedience to God. From the point of view of a parent, to be confronted with such a mission is unthinkable. Yet Abraham resolutely and calmly carried out God’s test of his faith. (Gen 22: 1-12). In the New Testament, James wrote of Abraham’s righteousness: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (2: 24).
The story of David and the Philistine giant, Goliath, is another remarkable illustration of faith. For 40 days the Israelites hesitated to meet Goliath’s challenge in battle. David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons was a mere shepherd boy. Summoned by Saul, David was adamant that he would confront Goliath. When Saul remonstrated with him on account of his youth and inexperience, David pointed out that he had fought off a lion and a bear that had seized a sheep from his flock.
But what really illustrated David’s commitment, belief and trust in God – his faith – was this statement: “The Lord, who has delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will deliver me from the hand of the Philistine.” So evident was David’s faith that Saul at once gave him his blessing (1Sam: 32-38).
In confronting the well-armed, nine foot tall Goliath, David’s courage and expression of faith is legendary. Armed with only a pouch of pebbles and his sling, David said: “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel. This day the Lord will hand you over to me and I will strike you down and cut off your head,” (1 Sam: 17: 45-46). And that is exactly what happened. Faith triumphed over adversity in a totally uneven contest. That episode is a fine example of St Paul’s statement that “we live by faith and not be sight,” (2Cor:5: 7).
The Book of Daniel has two exemplary illustrations of faith. Following Nebuchadezzar’s construction of an image of gold, 90 feet in height and nine feet in width, he commanded all peoples of his kingdom to fall down and worship the image at the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre or harp. Failure to do so would be punishable by death in a fiery furnace (Dan 3: 1-6). When it was reported that three of the Jews in Babylonian captivity, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were refusing to pay homage to Nebuchadezzar’s golden idol, they were summoned to appear before him. Steadfastly they informed Nebuchadnezzar as follows: “We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it.….But even if he does not, we want you to know that we will not serve your gods….” (Dan 3: 12-18).
Outraged, Nebuchadezzar ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than its usual temperature. So extreme was the heat that it killed the soldiers who cast Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the furnace. To Nebuchadnezzar’s amazement, the flames failed to singe even a hair on the heads of the three men. On his command they came out of the fire – completely unharmed. Their faith in God had saved them and converted Nebuchadnezzar as he exclaimed: “How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation” (Dan 4: 3).
Subsequently, however, Nebuchadnezzar’s failure to show obedience to God and his reversion to ways of arrogance and oppression resulted in God deposing him from his throne and exiling him to live like an animal. Only when he renounced the error of his ways and acknowledged God, was his kingdom restored (Dan 4: 28-36).
The prophet Daniel’s faith was put to the test when under the new ruler of Babylon, Darius, he refused to adhere to a decree requiring that all men pray to King Darius. As a result, he was cast into a den of lions. After a night in the den, Darius was astounded to see that Daniel was unharmed. His faith and trust in God had saved him and served to convince King Darius of the truth and righteousness of God (Dan 6: 10-28).
Job, as we know was the subject of a test God allowed Satan to impose by covering Job’s body with sores. Not only did Job suffer physical pain and extreme discomfort. He also suffered social alienation. Here is an excerpt from chapter 19 of his book: “My acquaintances are completely estranged from me. My kinsmen have gone away; my friends have forgotten me. My guests and my maidservants count me as a stranger; they look upon me as alien. My breath is offensive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own brothers. Even the little boys scorn me; when I appear they ridicule me; those I love have turned against me. I am nothing but skin and bones” (13-20).
Job’s suffering caused him to question his plight and for his faith to falter. But he never capitulated to doubt and allowed Satan to triumph. Instead, he insisted that: “As long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness and my tongue will utter no deceit……I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it” (27: 3-6).
Job’s righteousness and steadfastness defeated Satan. As Job said of God: “I know you can do all things, no plan of yours can be thwarted” (42: 2). For his obedience unto God, Job was richly rewarded: he was granted prosperity and greater material wealth than he had had before.
As Psalm 37 states: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun” (5-6).
Jeremiah warned that faithlessness leads to ruin. He urged Israel to acknowledge its disobedience and return to Godly ways; that by doing so, God would show mercy and to restore his favour. “Return faithless people and I will cure you of backsliding,” says the Lord (Jer 3: 12-13; 22).
In each of the afore-going excerpts, virtuous outcomes were determined by obedience to God. But as the Old Testament repeatedly demonstrates, disobedience to God has consequences – from the fall of Adam and Eve, the flood, exile in Egypt, Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho, Babylonian exile.
Faith is bedrock of the New Testament. John’s gospel is called the ‘Gospel of belief’ on account of his extensive reference to faith – some 98 times. The shining, unblemished, insuperable example of faith is, of course, Jesus. His unwavering obedience to his Father particularly in submitting himself to a death of indescribable agony and humiliation serve as an example second to none.
The relationships and associations people had with Jesus during his public ministry were all subject to faith in him. Of the many such occasions, let us consider some instances. The healing of the man with leprosy in Matthew chapter 8: contagious and incurable disease, lepers were social outcasts. It took courage and faith for that leper to dare to approach Jesus as he was in the midst of a crowd of followers. His words “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” are brimming with the definition of faith – belief, trust and obedience. Jesus instantly recognised that and cured him. The same absolute faith in Jesus was shown by the woman who had suffered menstrual bleeding for 12 years. Her conviction that she would be healed was so strong that she felt it necessary only to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak. Knowing her thoughts, Jesus praised her and healed her (Mt 9: 20-22).
The example of the Roman Centurion is astonishing because of his pagan culture. The modest and courteous way in which he addresses Jesus even had Jesus blown away by the expression of his faith: “Lord, my servant lies at home paralysed and in terrible suffering……I do not deserve to have you come under my roof, but just say the word and my servant will be healed’ (Mt 8:5-10). The servant was healed within the hour. As with the leper, the Centurion’s request reflected acceptance of whatever Jesus decided. The terms and conditions of faith were all there: belief, trust, obedience.
Yet for the apostles as followers of Jesus and, therefore, already possessing some faith, trust was lacking. It showed in the example of the storm on the lake. Fearing that the boat might capsize and that they would drown, the apostles woke Jesus from his slumber. He rebuked them with the words: “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” In other words, Jesus exposed their human weakness which allowed them to doubt that their safety was threatened despite his presence (Mt 8:23-26). Lapse of trust was shown by Peter when, seeing Jesus walking on the water during a storm on the lake, decided to try the same thing. But after a few steps his fragile human nature prevailed and he began to flounder and sink. Catching Peter by the hand, Jesus said: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 14: 25-31).
Obedience unto God’s will is no more resolutely demonstrated than on the Mount of Olives on the night Jesus was betrayed. Knowing what was going to happen to him, Jesus prayed to his Father: “If you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done.” So great was Jesus’ anguish that he perspired blood. An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. (Lk 22: 42-44).
There is supreme significance in this event. Just as Satan had tempted Jesus at the outset of his public ministry, so now he attempted to weaken Jesus and to thwart him from his mission as Savior. For Jesus, his anguish was not only at the prospect of the death he faced, but primarily at the prospect of his sinless state being smothered and overwhelmed by the sins of humanity and the wrath of God. He felt vulnerable at being severed from his Father during this ordeal; his human side, exploited by Satan, urged him to relent and to evade what was coming. But despite his sorrow and extreme trauma, Jesus was obedient to his Father’s will. Demonstrating obedience is thus the ultimate test of faith.
The early church
The death of Jesus shattered the faith of his followers. Of the eleven apostles, only John was present at the cross. The fact that Jesus entrusted his Mother to John’s care, showed that John’s faith was intact. Of course, Jesus’ resurrection and multiple appearances before his ascension served to rekindle faith in him. But, as we know, the apostles were in a very vulnerable position and were obliged to keep a low profile for fear of reprisals by the Jewish authorities. Nonetheless, with the exception of Thomas, they retained their belief in Jesus.
The refusal of Thomas to acknowledge the risen Jesus reflects human weakness and vulnerability. Filled with doubt, Thomas was unable to fulfil the requirements of faith – belief, trust and obedience. But when confronted by the risen Lord, his words are a tribute of the highest order – “My Lord and my God.” And in responding, Jesus pays the highest tribute to all who since that time have come to accept him: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20: 26-30). From this we see how belief is the fundamental premise of faith.
The infusion of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which Jesus had promised, not only stabilised faith and trust in Jesus and the mission he had entrusted to his followers, but it energised them in a way that continues to manifest itself to this day amongst many who preach and teach God’s word and all adherents of faith in Jesus.
Paul in his letter to the Romans provides guidance on how to live up to the requirements of faith. He tells us that while no human is righteous, by having faith in Jesus we are freed from the power of sin and placed in a right relationship with God in which we should strive to live lives that are pleasing to God. As Jesus stated in the Beatitudes, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10).
The 11th chapter of Hebrews recounts the examples of faith from Abel to Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, the prophets through to the martyrs for Christ. Faith, Hebrews states, is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see….without faith it is impossible to please God” (1; 6). And without faith, Hebrews tells us, it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God (3: 18-19).
In all of the above instances, faith was tested by adversity and strengthened by adversity. As Peter states: “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering…..But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet: 12-14). Where there is adversity in the world today, that is where Christianity is strongest. There are more martyrs for Christianity today in Asia and the Middle East than in Western countries where churches are poorly attended and little attention is paid to servicing faith. In one of the Emirates states in the Middle East, five services are held every Sunday, each one is filled to capacity. Yet in many Western countries, God has been banished from public life and substituted by man-ordained precepts. Such situations are tailor-made for ungodly life in which virtue is replaced by vice, righteousness is ridiculed and faith in materialism is exalted.
Where faith is under siege, we should recall Jesus’ warning that “if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first….. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (Jn 15: 18-19). Belief and trust in Jesus is the antidote to adversity and persecution. But above all, obedience to his ways and his will is the sure path to salvation.
Duncan Du Bois © September 2018