This week in The Living Word we’re talking about Getting Better at Faith by Learning to Live in Partnership with God, based on the Bible readings set for October 16, 2022, in the interdenominational Revised Common Lectionary. There are links to the readings at the end.
We’ll look at a visionary, far-seeing announcement made by Jeremiah, and hear in Jesus’ words the kind of faith that doesn’t take ‘ No ‘ for an answer; and we’ll learn with Timothy about the kind of faith on the rock-solid foundation of God’s word that faces down opposition.
The scene is set by some words in Psalm 119 which give a clue to where this is going: “How sweet are your words – I gain understanding from them; therefore I hate every wrong path.”
When God’s words are alive and active in us, it creates a kind of unique partnership. We gain a sense of where God is going as He leads us — and we know that’s the good path, the one we want to stay on.
Dr Jonathan Romaine, widely regarded as the leader among Reformed Jewish rabbis in the UK, spoke this week on BBC Radio 4 Today about how Judaism was a ‘doing ‘religion.
• See also this week’s TLW Bible Study (Oct. 16) which offers verse-by-verse commentary on the main readings with short reflections and questions. Ideal for individual study or for home groups or neighbourhood Bible studies.
• Watch this week’s 15-min storytelling video
Widescreen format for desktop (YouTube)
Widescreen on the TLW Facebook page:
Tall format for mobile
Christianity, by contrast, is not so much a ‘doing’ religion as a faith relationship. Those who open their hearts to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gain a new revelatory spiritual life through trusting Him in the sacrifice He made on the Cross to pay for our sin. That’s not a payment we could ever make, and neither could we aspire to know God personally — except through Jesus.
The ‘doing ‘– perhaps being fruitful would be a better term – comes through, and as a result of, this faith relationship, which establishes a partnership between God and us.
The objective – to know God and to enjoy His love and presence – is not very different in these two approaches. But the way of achieving it for Christian is very much easier. Jesus has done the really hard work for us!
Some supposedly-Christian churches fall into the trap of advocating a ‘doing religion’. They emphasise the Bible’s teaching as God’s commands to be kept, and the penalties for not doing so are spelt out. And it can be read this way, even in the New Testament which both looks back to Old Covenant Judaism, and at the same time looks forward to the new life in the Spirit which was to come. The teaching in Acts and the letters is written with the assumption that hearers have had that experience, of knowing Jesus and being guided and enabled by the Holy Spirit.
When we hear Scripture and are looking back to the Ten Commandments, it sounds legalistic — a lot of rules — and it doesn’t seem to make life any easier. When we hear God’s words while looking forward beyond Pentecost to this time of the Holy Spirit enabling and empowering and giving understanding, we realise that by living it together, we can do it together!
That’s faith. No one says faith is easy. But we can learn to work with God, by learning how God works.
Jeremiah, the prophet active at the time of the exile, saw ahead to a time when this new partnership would be a reality. He compares it with the rules and precepts handed down in the giving of the law on Mount Sinai and subsequently. This was the Old Covenant and every Jew had to learn, clause by clause, how that worked. What Jeremiah saw was a New Covenant which didn’t work by keeping external rules, that defined what not to do that was wrong. It worked in almost the opposite way, of spiritually changed hearts that gain an intuitive sense of what God wants — an inner witness that can choose to do right.
Let’s hear this in an excerpt from Jeremiah 31.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord… “when I will watch over Israel and Judah to build and to plant,” declares the Lord. I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah — not… like the covenant I made with their ancestors, because they broke My covenant.
“This… covenant… will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people… because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest.”
“For I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:27-34 excerpted)
As Jeremiah wryly expresses, rules end up getting broken, and rule-breaking carries costly consequences. The religious rituals of loyalty act as reminders, but not as instruments of achieving it. It is coming to a holy God in a remote and tentative way.
What Jeremiah saw was quite different. He said “It will not be like the Old Covenant I made with our ancestors…” but “I will be their God, and they will be My people… They will all know Me, from the least… to the greatest.”
The complicated hierarchies and separated castes of religious attainment would be superseded.
* Restrictions to live under become release and freedom;
* Rules to remember become our realisation of what is good;
* Rituals to perform are swept away in a personal relationship of knowing God that needs no reminders of loyalty.
What is confusing for us is that the gospel accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus sit at an In-between time: the very end of this old covenant period and anticipating the very beginning of the New Covenant. This was only to come into place after Jesus’ death and resurrection. His teaching for the disciples was the teaching that they would live in and give to others after He was gone. Only He would not be gone, but very much present, although not visibly, His Spirit acting as His Presence among them. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and it is equally correct to call Him the Spirit of Jesus.
The ‘impossible’ demands of the Sermon on the Mount, the amazing reversals we see in the gospels, and the high aspiration for Jesus’ disciples (including us) all make sense as a possibility when framed by the enabling and empowering of the Holy Spirit. What the disciples learned to do while Jesus was with them physically, they would find themselves doing with Jesus present in a different way — now a spiritual presence.
When Jesus comes again, He wants to find us doing the things that He has taught us to do, just as if He is visibly present with us and showing us the way. That is because, through faith, He still is! The story He told, which we hear from Luke 18, brings that expectation out with particular clarity:
Jesus told His disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
He said: “There was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And… a widow… kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? (Luke 18:1-8 excerpted)
No one says that faith is easy. This is the kind of faith that doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. It’s the kind of faith that knows what stands up, and what doesn’t, in the kingdom of God. And there is no room for injustice or prejudice in the kingdom of God. The widow in Israel is a good picture for us to learn from. She is legally powerless, but can still threaten to give the dishonest judge a black eye, and she knows that she has the might of God’s justice on her side.
For us, it starts with us realising that in ourselves, we are powerless. God will let us do what we think we can do, until we surrender and acknowledge that apart from Him we can do nothing.
The story emphasises that God wants to bring about justice for His own who cry out to Him. If we have received Jesus as Saviour and Lord, we are counted as His own. Bu what we are “crying out” also makes a difference. Asking Him for justice is not wrong. We start at that point. But faith knows that God wants to bring about justice. Faith agrees with Him about the priorities of the kingdom of God. Faith rises up to give the spirit of indifference and prejudice a black eye, and to demand the release of what is promised. Faith transforms human powerlessness into God’s purpose.
No one says that faith is easy. It takes practice. The spiritual battle is always present. What time is it draws near, at time is it receipt. But we have to be on the front foot, listening to God, ready to do what he shows us to do. The foundation for this is God’s word, or Scripture, which we have in 66 books of the Bible. Where, in all that, is God speaking to us?
We join Timothy, a young but biblically literate and Spirit-filled minister who is getting a revision lesson from his mentor, Paul. He needs to stand firm, and to be able to teach and correct robustly from an immovable foundation of God’s truth, in a situation where his youth is making him a target of ungodly manipulation.
But as for you, continue in [the Holy Scriptures] that you have… [long] known, which…make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
[So before] God… I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction.
When people want to suit their own desires, they will gather… teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear [rather than sound doctrine]. They will turn… away from the truth… to myths. But you, keep your head… endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, [and] discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 excerpted)
This is the faith that comes from the rock-solid foundation of God’s word that faces down ungodly opposition.
The people who are causing difficulty for Timothy in Ephesus have their descendants with us today. Those who have a working knowledge of the Scriptures, and put their trust in them as the foundation for what God speaks to us today, are often ridiculed as ‘fundamentalists ‘. It is intended as a slur, in the same way that the term ‘Christian’, ‘little anointed one’, was intended in the first century as a sarcastic criticism of those who had the spiritual confidence of disciples. Change the tone of the comment – and it becomes a compliment. Similarly, a ‘fundamentalist’ is someone who competently grasps the fundamentals of Christian faith — “a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 NLT). This is exactly the path Timothy is being exhorted to pursue.
The Passion Translation brings out clearly how this works.
“God has transmitted His very substance into every Scripture, for it is God-breathed. It will empower you by its instruction and correction, giving you the strength to take the right direction and lead you deeper into the path of godliness.” (2 Tim. 3:16 TPT)
The number one way that God speaks to us today Is still through His word. His eternal word ‘lights up for us’ to become His living Word, giving us direction in the here and now, as the Holy Spirit reminds us of something half-remembered and gives it a fresh emphasis for the moment.
Timothy knew that. Where both he and we find encouragement helpful, is not allowing ourselves to be shunted away from our fundamental reliance on what we know God has said, and therefore the foundation of our confidence in hearing what He is saying now.
Timothy found himself in a spiritual battle – and that is completely normal. He felt powerless in the face of dismissive opposition, like the widow in Jesus’ story. He probably said to himself: ‘No one says that faith is easy!’ But Timothy had been well trained, and he knew how faith works.
Implied in the Bible passage we have read, and clear from the wider context, are three key attributes that Timothy possessed, and which are exactly the same for us.
- Timothy had been brought up knowing Scripture. He was a humble fundamentalist and he knew that God-breathed truth was his firm footing.
- We often know some Scripture before we know Jesus. But Timothy was clearly one who had come into a personal relationship with the Father through Jesus. He was spiritually renewed and alive.
- His mentor, Paul, had made sure he was filled with the Spirit of God, gifted and anointed, and could rely on the leading and revealing of the Holy Spirit.
This is the assumption of this Bible passage. It is the assumption for us reading the gospel story in Luke 18. What we experience in our faith partnership with God today, is the same thing that Jeremiah expressed all those years earlier.
Jeremiah’s prophecy is much quoted in the book of Hebrews chapters 8, 9 and 10 which go into detail about why the New Covenant is a far superior agreement, how it has rendered the Old Covenant obsolete (religious-minded people take note of that), and how it has become a powerful and practical faith partnership experienced spiritually in our hearts.
And Timothy’s reminder, Jesus story of the abused widow, and Jeremiah’s astounding prophecy all exhort us to do what God wants from us most of all — to partner Him by taking Him at His word and allowing Him to guide and direct us.
Lord, we are so aware that faith is vital but also fragile. What do we count as faith may be a mere religious devotion that falls far short of the believing, responsive action that You need from us. Forgive us where we fall short, we ask.
And we agree again that You do need us. The kingdom of God, where people are becoming aware of Jesus and giving their lives to Him as He has given his life to them, is Your plan and purpose – but our mission, as the infantry You are relying on, to make it happen.
Fill us afresh with your Holy Spirit, grow in us a heart of wisdom and revelation of the knowledge of You, and protect the faith you have put in us, from the knocks and shocks of the unspiritual world You send us into:
That we may be seen by others as those who know Jesus and who, in love, are empowered to make Him known. To His glory we pray, Amen.
Bible readings for October 16 (interdenominational lectionary)
Psalm 119:97-104 — Why we might want to live well
Jeremiah 31:27-34 — The new covenant written on submissive hearts
Luke 18:1-8 — Our persistence in prayer is what God is looking for
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 — How to stay true in the face of difficulty