This week our storytelling through the interdenominational set readings for October 30 is all about How Faith Comes — by Hearing and Believing What God Says.
We will hear appeals from the OT prophets Isaiah and Habakkuk who both cry out about harsh leadership and God’s desire for trusting, submitted faith — and how much He detests insincere religiosity, which is often a faith substitute.
There’s an arresting story about Jesus inviting Himself to stay with a notorious collector of Roman taxes who had become very wealthy from the excessive commissions he added to tradesmen’s tax burdens — but Jesus discerned that he wanted to be free from his life of corruption and loneliness.
And in Paul’s letter, encouraging his young assistant Timothy, we hear how he praises the persecuted fellowship in Thessalonica for growing in love for one another and in deep faith and trust in God, even as they battle with unrelenting opposition.
• See also The Living Word Bible Study with verse-by-verse commentary, short reflections and discussion questions — for home groups as well as individuals
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This is the down to earth practical story of how we apply a fundamental heavenly principle: trusting God in faith.
This is not head-knowledge or the religious faith of taking part in church rituals. It is knowing God, hearing God and taking Him at His word.
It has been said that faith is knowing… because we know, because we know, because we really know… that what God says is true.
Hope trusts in who God is. And faith trusts in what God says. It is defined by the tension between what we hear God saying through His Word, and what we experience in the spiritual fray of life on Earth. No one ever said that faith was easy. For most of us, it is really difficult at times, but that’s what faith is about — choosing to believe God rather than the circumstances. Being energised by that tension. This is brought out in the headline words from Psalm 119:
You are righteous, Lord, and the statutes You have laid down are fully trustworthy. Your promises have been thoroughly tested. Trouble and distress have come upon me, but Your commands give me delight. Your statutes are always righteous; give me understanding that I may live.
Psalm 119:137-144 excerpted
We might say, in today’s language of ‘tech’, that faith is like the operating system of heaven. Everything works by faith and nothing works apart from faith. Faith empowers us, and gives us true guidance when everything around is causing confusion.
People in the Old Testament were under a promise to live in a covenant with God dating back to the time of Moses. They were to live by what God said — with the help of prophets and priests — and they would receive His guidance, provision and protection. However, human beings make mistakes, and a system of sin offerings and sacrifices was established to enable people to get right with God. While they were finding their way into their new land, keenly aware of God’s presence guiding them, this worked. After they had become settled, and the country was secure from attack and becoming prosperous, it was too easy to forget their need of God, and their promise to worship Him alone. And then their lives were no longer led by faith in God.
This is where we, too, so easily go off track. Although we may claim to be people of faith, our lack of love and justice and spiritual confidence might deny it. God has both stern words to say about this false religiosity, but also kind and gracious words about how there is always a way back to Him — and as we know now, that is especially through Jesus. But back to the Old Testament and this same eternal, fundamental message comes through two different prophets, starting with Isaiah from Isaiah 1:
Hear the word of the LORD! Listen to the instruction of our God:
“When you come to appear before Me, stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable. Your worthless assemblies, feasts and appointed festivals I hate with all My being.
“When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide My eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!
“Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of My sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
“Come now, let us settle the matter. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 excerpted
The word that Isaiah was given by God was for the King and his court and it tells these leaders that they should uphold God’s righteousness and justice, with kindness being shown to more vulnerable members of society.
But note the word of grace at the end, where God sets out opportunity for a fresh start, a new relationship and a restoration of His blessing.
By contrast, Habakkuk’s word starts with his appeal to God about the violence and wrongdoing that was such a feature of the time — King Jehoiakin was notoriously corrupt and cruel.
“How long, Lord, must I call for help, but You do not listen? Or cry out to you, but You do not save? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. The law is paralysed. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”
I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what He will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
The Lord replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end, and will not prove false. Though it may linger, wait for it; it will certainly come, and will not delay.
“See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright — but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.” Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 excerpted
Habakkuk has positioned himself in faith as a watchman who will not leave his post until he has ‘seen’ or heard God’s answer. When the Lord’s revelation does come, he’s told to write it down so that he can repeat it. It’s like a slogan: the righteous ones are those believing God and living by faith in what He says.
Paul, writing to Christians in Rome and Galatia, and also whoever wrote the Hebrews letter, expresses this more succinctly: “The righteous shall live by faith”.
How do we tell if someone is right with God? Is it about them keeping all the rules and doing the right religious things? Or is it more about believing God and trusting Him? In Luke’s gospel, Luke 19, we come to the vivid story of the vertically-challenged but loaded tax collector Zacchaeus who wanted to see Jesus but, too short to see Jesus through the crowd, he clambered up a tree. Caught up in a corrupt system and its false rewards, he sensed that Jesus was his chance to become free.
As Jesus was passing through Jericho, a wealthy chief tax collector by the name of Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short, he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead, and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see Him…
When Jesus reached the spot, He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
So he came down at once and welcomed Him gladly.All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Luke 19:1-10 excerpted
Through prophetic insight, Jesus knows that this encounter is going to happen, and He looks up and names Zacchaeus. Shunned and rejected by other Jews, he hears Jesus, who he has never met, address him by name — and warmly. This undeserved love does something in his heart — as it always does — and he falls down before Jesus and calls him as “Lord”.
The crowd wouldn’t listen to him even if he did show them a change of heart — they had long branded him a cheat and an enemy. But Jesus points out that the faith he showed was like Abraham’s faith, and that made him a true descendant.
This was a face to face encounter with Jesus. That’s not an opportunity that comes to us, not was it for the believers in Thessalonica, which is where the Bible takes us next. For them, and for us, the presence of Jesus is spiritual, not physical, and it is by faith that we see and hear Jesus in our lives now.
The persecution these Christians were experiencing, which had caused Paul to flee for his life to Berea and then to Athens, was intensifying. It’s such a discouragement when what you are getting, seems the opposite of what you are praying for! But they weren’t allowing discouragement in — and Paul praises them for the way their faith and their love for each other is strengthening in this difficult time. Let’s hear how he commends them as he writes to them from Athens:
We thank God for you, brothers and sisters, because your faith is growing, and the love you have for one another is increasing.
Among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of His calling, and that by His power He may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness, and every deed prompted by faith.
We pray this, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 excerpted
When the going gets tough, the tough get going — and that’s faith. That’s trusting God, and not the circumstances. And it is a battle, because life as those who belong to Jesus, paid for and redeemed by His blood, are targets for the devil and his army of demons. They are out to demoralise us, to kill off the thing that they fear most: our faith.
And, like the Christians in Thessalonica, the more punishment we take, the more we resolve, to live by the opposite of that oppression — by faith and love. This tests our faith but it also strengthens it. That’s how we overcome — in Jesus. When God comes through for us, it is Jesus’ victory on the Cross — that we already took hold of by faith — that we celebrate. Those who belong to God live by trusting Him.
Paul also expressed the idea in a different way, when he wrote in Romans that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. That’s not just spiritual, it’s practical — it’s the number one way God speaks to us, and one of the best reasons to spend some time in God’s word every day. To be right with God and to live by faith, we need to be hearing His voice and knowing His guidance.
That’s how faith comes: by hearing and believing what God says.
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