31. Belief

Short Meditations in John 7:  31.  Belief

Jn 7:31  Still, many in the crowd believed in him. They said, “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?”

There are times, possibly because they deserted him at the Cross, that we think that few people believed in the Jesus, but John challenges that belief. First, his disciples: “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (Jn 2:11) Then others: “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.” (2:23) Also Samaritans: “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” (4:39) Families: “the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.” (4:53) Generally: “Still, many in the crowd believed in him,” (7:31) and, “Even as he spoke, many believed in him,” (8:31) and, “And in that place many believed in Jesus,” (10:42)and, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him,” (11:45) and, “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed.” (12:42)

Isn’t that amazing! It started with the disciples, picked up many Jews who saw what he did, included Samaritans, other specific people touched by him, then the crowd, specifically the Jews, and finally even Jewish leaders!

Far from receiving rejection, John shows us that in fact all along the way there were people becoming believers. The fact that most of them did not appear to be there on that last morning before Pilate, or perhaps were overawed by the directions of the religious leaders of the Temple, including the High Priest, does not mean that people’s hearts were not being changed.

None of the Synoptic writers picked up on this for perhaps they were too busy simply putting together the basics of what had taken place in those three years. It was left to John, after decades more of pondering on exactly what went on, to pick up on this. It also fits with his overall goal stated near the end: Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:30,31). It is perhaps no coincidence that the word ‘believe’ occurs 84 times in John, but only 9 in Matthew, 15 in Mark and 10 in Luke.  

In verse 31 we see the start of the final phase in the chapter where questions are asked, and we see how the tension builds and the authorities are moved to act- but don’t!  But there are lots of believers!  

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13. A People of Faith

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 2 – A Different People

13.  A People of Faith

Heb 11:6 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.

Lk 18:8  when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Rom 10:17  faith comes from hearing the message

Faith? I have a feeling that as we come to this subject we come to the heart of the challenges that I find confront me as a leader and as I let my eyes wander over the congregation of whom I am a part today. But it is also at the heart of what it is to be a true Christian. It is this subject of ‘faith’, and it is vital that we distinguish belief from faith.

Faith & Belief:  Now we must not confuse faith with belief. The apostle James nailed this one. Listen: faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (Jas 2:17-19) We started this particular Part by considering that all Christians are believers (Study 9) but see what James says: (i) Faith has to be accompanied by action.  (ii) Deeds alone are not a substitute. (iii) Belief alone is not adequate. Faith is belief in action.

Belief, the Starting Point: In that previous study no.9 I noted that there has to be a body of belief which led us through into this new life, and we considered believing that Jesus is the unique Son of God who has to be our Lord and Saviour. It is that initial belief that motivates us and which the Holy Spirit uses to convict us so that we come to a point of surrender and repentance. That initial believing and that initial action is what theologians call ‘saving faith’, it is the belief plus action that opens the door for God to come and declare us justified (which we will go on to consider in the next study) and adopted (the subsequent study) and then indwelt by His Spirit. We tend to be a little casual in our language and so we often just call Christians ‘believers’ (as I have done previously) but the reality is that ‘belief’ is just the starting point and the ongoing life is – if there is to be any reality in it – a life of faith. So what does that mean?

Faith comes from hearing: One of our verses above from Romans 10 suggests that, not only is faith belief in action, it is action in response to God. God speaks, we hear and we respond. THAT is faith. Now if you are stuck in unbelief you will say, “But I can’t hear God.” Yes, you can. There are different levels of ‘hearing’. For instance Rom 10:17 that we only partly quoted, goes on, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” Where do you find that “word about Christ”? In the Gospels in the New Testament. The apostle Paul declared, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe,” (1 Thess 2:13) and thus put his own speech on the level as that of the prophets of old, and was therefore ‘the word of God’. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.” (Heb 13:7) Then of course there are Paul’s famous words, “All Scripture is God-breathed.” (2 Tim 3:16) If God breathes it, it is His word.

We ‘hear’ when we read the Bible, we hear when we hear a preacher or a prophetic word brought, we ‘hear’ when the Holy Spirit whispers truth into our hearts and minds – but it depends on the state of our heart.  You could listen to a preacher and say, “What rubbish!” despite the fact that he was anointed and spoke with God’s authority. You can open the Bible and randomly read and nothing happens. On the other hand you can feel spiritually hungry and pray, “Lord, please speak to me through your word,” and suddenly it goes alive and you are challenged and transformed. So faith is also a heart response – a right heart response – to what you hear. If you have set in your mind that God doesn’t speak then you won’t hear.

A Personal Story: Relationship with God, which is what faith is all about, can touch our hearts and minds and emotions. I was recently reminded of something that happened to my wife and I many years ago. We belonged to a little evangelical church. We knew little of the life of the Spirit, even less of gifts. One day we heard some news about someone in our family, someone not particularly close and also many miles away. I found myself strangely disturbed by this news and felt in real anguish for them. This feeling carried on and I shared it with my wife and said I had a feeling that I was feeling what God felt for this relative. She responded negatively, “That’s presumptuous, we can’t feel what God feels.” Well we had an ongoing conversation about this that went on and off for the next three days. It was three days later that we attended the church prayer meeting and during the course of it, the pastor’s wife brought this ‘prophecy’. It wasn’t directed so no one else knew it was for us but in it the Lord said very clearly that He had been listening to us and, yes, He had shared His heart with me so that what I had been feeling was from him. It then got scary, because the prophecy went on to literally quote things we had both said in this ongoing three-day conversation, giving point by point answers to what we had both said!  That woman spoke out in faith; we heard it as God speaking by faith. That was relationship, that was communication with God.

Belief then Faith: Consider for a moment the first of our starter verses from above: “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.” (Heb 11:6) Do you see that? Belief in God comes first but it is clear that the writer means a belief that goes into action – seeking God – and that action is faith. Indeed, as Christians, everything we do is supposed to be by faith. My starting point is turning to God. I do that freshly every morning. For me, my personal practice is first thing in my ‘Quiet Listening Time’ to declare my submission to Him and reliance upon Him, for His salvation, His direction and His presence. I present me and my family to Him with thanksgiving. And I listen. That is just my practice. These days I have learnt to have a notebook beside me and I jot down the things that start flowing in my mind. I get guidance for the day or the days ahead. Look at the verse again. Do I hear complaints that “God never rewards me”? Is it because we don’t “earnestly seek him”?

Ready for Return: Finally, let’s pick up that verse we’ve mention before, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) I’ve said it before, but I find that a real challenge. The things I wrote about in study no.4, ‘Wondering about Fitness of Purpose’, make me feel we are rushing towards this Doomsday scenario and I wonder how much more the Lord will allow, and I wonder if He will use these things to bring the catastrophes that are spoken about in the book of Revelation. Godless mankind has brought into being – and is in the process of bringing into being – means of self-destruction in ways and magnitude never dreamt of a hundred years ago. Whether it is then, or simply when He calls us home, will He find in us a people of faith? Not a people who live by rules or rituals but a people who live out of a living relationship with the One True God, mediated by His Son who sits at His right-hand ruling in the midst of his enemies, and enabled by His Spirit who indwells all true believers. A people of faith? THAT is ‘church’.

Next we will go on to see what happens to us that make us different when we come to God through Christ and are born again.

(Here again at the end of this Part we provide an overview of the series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

5. Family Isolation

Short Meditations in John 7:  5. Family Isolation

Jn 7:5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him.

In the previous two studies we have been picking up on the point that Jesus, within his ministry, as the Son of God under the direction of his Father in heaven, nevertheless a) came under pressure from people, i.e. particularly his family, and b) attended and used the various Feasts that were part of Judaism. In the previous study we particularly picked up on the point of his family not believing in him. That is clearly accentuated by our verse today. It comes as a stark declaration, and it is around that verse that we now focus.

What Jesus experienced, he warned us to expect: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (Mt 10:34-36 quoting Micah 7:6)

It is a sad but inevitable experience for the believer. He or she comes to Christ but finds that the wonder of their experience is not shared by their family and there, instantly, there is division. When I first came to Christ and sought to share what had happened with my unbelieving parents (nice and good people) they failed to understand. In the fulness of time my mother eventually encountered the Lord in a lovely way, but my father held out and, indeed, on one occasion in a discussion about Jesus declared, “You’re of the devil!” (A little ironic!!!)

Time passed and he was clearly set in his unbelief and clearly no longer wanted to talk and I found myself praying and asking the Lord for wisdom as to what to do. “Write him a letter,” came the guidance so I wrote a letter, seeking to be as gracious as possible laying out the basics of the Gospel and concluded it, “Dad, no one else in the family knows I am giving this to you and I will not say anything more to you about my faith, so I just ask you to read what I have written here and think about it in your own time.” To cut a long story short, he came to the Lord in the fulness of time without me having to say anything more. To the best of my knowledge my sister, with whom I had shared extensively never made a profession of faith.

And that is the heart of it, division comes with belief and our job then becomes to share as graciously as possible with our lived ones, in whatever ways we can find the grace to do it, but we can never guarantee that loved ones will come through. We can pray, seek God’s wisdom and share, but the outcome is never automatic. When unbelief continues, the best we can do is seek for God’s grace to be loving and full of grace, respecting others, whatever the outcome.

69. Outright Declaration

Short Meditations in John 6:  69. Outright declaration

Jn 6:69  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Peter has just said that Jesus has the words of eternal life, and we considered that briefly, but why could he say that? Because of what he says now, that they now understand that Jesus is “the Holy One of God”. Now that is an interesting description and I suggest that it does not mean “You are the Son of God” as we would now say. Yes, he does say at one point, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” (Mt 16:16) and John identifies him thus in his Gospel – written a lot later to remedy the earlier omissions (see Jn 1:49, also 3:18, 5:25, 10:36, 19:7, 20:31) but mostly the apostles seem reticent to call Jesus the Son of God until a lot later on (e.g. Acts 9:20, Rom 1:4,9, 5:10, 8:3,29 etc.) For now, Peter gives Jesus that more general title, “the Holy One of God,” meaning in their terms, the Messiah, but that is sufficient; Jesus is the miracle worker, the healer, the deliverer, the amazing teacher from God, the anointed one from God and that is sufficient for Peter to be able to say, “Lord, we’re with you!”

Again, note he speaks for the others: We have come to believe….” and no one chips in, “Hold on Pete, that’s going a bit far.”  No, these committed hard-core followers are in agreement: they’ve seen it all, heard it all, and they are convinced.

Note also the process: “We have come to believe.” That’s honest. When they were first called, there was something about Jesus that made them follow, but as the days passed and they saw and heard it all, they were utterly convinced. Yes, there was going to come a time when they were all in total confusion and fear when he was crucified, but for the moment, they are sold on him, and it has grown and grown as the have followed him. The depth of belief that I have today is much, much deeper than I had over fifty years ago when I first came to Christ. Why? I have read, I have listened, I have watched, and I am convinced. We start from a basic belief, but he will build on that.

But I am also intrigued by the middle of the verse: “We have come to believe and to know that…”  It’s those two sets of words; there is a significant difference between ‘’believing and ‘knowing’, and it indicates the growth that takes place in us. When we ‘believe’ something we are making a basic declaration of acceptance about something. We may not have concrete ‘proof’ but we have sufficient evidence to enable us to say, “I believe.” But ‘knowing’ is different. If I say, “I know this is true,” I am adding a confidence, an absolute assurance that this IS what is. The evidence may not have changed but in this instance my encounters with Jesus (God) leave me with Peter. We know!

36. Unbelief

Short Meditations in John 6:  36. Unbelief

Jn 6:36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 

I believe the challenge of unbelief to be the greatest challenge that the modern church faces. It is not a case of ‘total unbelief’ but certainly of ‘partial unbelief’. It is exhibited, I believe, in two primary ways. The first is theological but that doesn’t mean to say it is confined to theologians. Many of us work of the basis of “I believe what I understand or what I feel comfortable with”, and thus if we come across verses of Scripture that are challenging, we find ways of writing them off. I simply ask, do you believe every word of the New Testament’s teaching? If you have problems with such verses, for example, as Jn 14:12 or 1 Cor 14:5 and make excuses why they don’t apply to you, you are in ‘partial unbelief’. The second way unbelief is exhibited is in the ‘social church’ mentality. This portrays church as a nice place to go where we follow set, comfortable-formula services that leave us happy and contented – and unchallenged!

Earlier Jesus has said, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent,” (v.29) and he had already chided them, “you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (v.26) In other words, you saw the miracle that I performed but instead of praising God for the wonder of it, you are simply self-concerned, thinking how you can get more bread from me. You are entirely materialistic in your thinking and you miss the spiritual wonders going on under your noses!

Moreover, that ‘sign’ should have made them focus on Jesus and, instead of wanting to make him king so that he could keep on providing for them, it should have set them thinking about who he actually was, the one from heaven with the authority of God to bring in the kingdom or rule of God. That is a rule to bring about God’s will, not their will. The ironic thing is that the outworkings of His will and their will is basically the same – their blessing, but God knows it is bigger than simply providing a regular meal for them. That is only a tiny part of the package!

To receive this blessing that we have just referred to relies on them coming to belief in Jesus as the Son of God who has come to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth through his eventual substitutionary death on the Cross. But that understanding is only going to come in slow stages, the first of which is simply coming to a realisation that he is the Son of God. That they are struggling with and that is what so many struggle with, remaining self-concerned and blind to the wonders seen in the Gospels. May it not be us!

29. To Believe

Short Meditations in John 6:  29. To Believe

Jn 6:29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

“But I want to DO something!” That, if we are honest, is the cry of most people who want to be spiritual or religious. Yesterday we talked about people who want to follow the rules, but sometimes it is more than rules: “I want to be spiritual, so I want some liturgy,” or “I want to be spiritual so I’m going to fast.” Now those are not ‘rule’ issues unless you call them personally applied rules, but they are more attitude issues, outlook issues, believing that we need to ‘do’ or need to be active if we are to achieve any sense of ‘being spiritual’.

And that is where Israel came unstuck because everything about their culture was what I have elsewhere referred to as ‘God-orientated’, especially in Jerusalem and Judah, less so in Galilee. In Jerusalem you would constantly be conscious of the presence of the great temple that Herod had enhanced, you would be aware of the priesthood round and about it, and the religiously inclined groups within society like the Pharisees who focused on the Law and the Sadducees who focused on the temple. The air almost was religious and religion meant doing things, like going to the temple, buying an animal and having it sacrificed. All very religious.

Andthen Jesus comes along and says ‘Believe’. That’s all. Believe. Oh, yes, thereis a lot more to follow but the starting place is simply to believe. In fact ifbehaviour didn’t change you could be excused for thinking someone did notbelieve. There is a sense where there is nothing different here from thecenturies before when the Law called for a response to God but if your heartwas not God-inclined, then really whatever you did was a sham, a pretence. Ifyou truly believed in Yahweh then your life would reflect His holiness. But now it gets worsefor it is not merely to believe, it is to believe in the one He (God) has sent.You didn’t have to have a great intellect to understand that Jesus wasreferring to himself. So to be religious, to be spiritual, is to believe inJesus.

Believe what about him? Believe he is who he said he was – and that is where John’s Gospel comes into its own for it, uniquely, says lots of specific things about who Jesus is, and who he said he was. Yes, they are often quite oblique so that they require a seeking heart to understand them – I am the door, I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life, I am the resurrection, I am the bread of life, I am the good shepherd, I am the light of the world. Wow!That needs thinking about, but perhaps it might be summarized by his other descriptions, directly or indirectly, the Son of Man and the Son of God. This is our starting place for belief.    

7. Pleasing God

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 7.  Pleasing God

Heb 11:5,6   For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 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.

The fact that the Lord took Enoch directly to heaven appears to be the evidence  or reason that the writer said he was “commended as one who pleased God.” This leads him on to make this simple statement about faith that without it, it is impossible to please God. What a devastating blow to the self-righteous and the person who would do good and be religious in order to please God! For at its simplest, faith is simply responding to God, but all these other things are attempts to get to God and manipulate God to approve us, but that never works. He is not impressed by all our self-centred efforts, they are not faith, simply further expressions of our sin.

How terrible to suggest that the nice ladies who ‘go to church’ because it is the socially respectable thing to do, are sinning in their behaviour. How terrible to suggest that the MP (or Senator) who goes to church to win the approval of his constituents is sinning.  But both are true. Religion that stems from our thinking, our ideas of what is right and proper is meaningless in God’s eyes. The Bible says “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer 17:9) The inner workings of our mind and will (the heart) are a constant expression of self-centred godlessness. They are self-centred because they start with what we think. They are godless because they do not pay attention what God thinks.

So he makes this ‘outrageous’ statement that without faith it is impossible to please God.”  But that is not the end of it for he gives us the reason why that is so, starting with that word, ‘because’. Note the sentence that follows and then we’ll look at it in parts: “because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” There are four elements to that that tell us a lot about faith.

First, it starts, “anyone who comes to him,” not anyone who gets all philosophical and not someone with a great social conscience and not someone taken up with the wonder of religious sacraments or ritual, but someone who comes to Him. Faith is found in those who come seeking God – and only them. Turning up in church every week can easily not be faith if it is pure habit motivated by social niceties. Faith is found in seekers of God. Are you and I seekers after God?

Second, there is a belief element to it: “must believe that he exists”. That sounds so obvious but it is fundamental. Faith starts with belief in God. I would like to add, “must believe that he exists here and now in this room” I say that because I think many Christians, if only they were able to be honest, would have to say that they believe in God, but most of the time He’s in the next room. In their thinking they focus on themselves. In their reasoning they focus on their own intellect, in their planning they think for themselves about themselves, if considering pleasure they think what they can do to make themselves feel good. God is not in the same room. If you say ‘He exists’ it doesn’t mean He exists in the Andromeda star system. It means He exists, here on this planet, in this country, in this town, in this home, in this room, with me. Nothing less than that fits this statement by the writer to the Hebrews.

Third, there is a ‘living God’ element to it: “and that he rewards.” i.e. He does things  This is not a passive God model, this is a God who interacts with human beings and says things to them and responds to them. But it’s massively bigger than just that – see that word ‘reward’.  A reward is something good, something of value given in response to something (yes, we can talk about rewards of evil as well) and so yes, we usually look forward to a reward. This speaks about a giving God, a God who wants to do good by us, who wants to bless us, decree good for us. I am convinced that many of us have the “hard man” mentality of Jesus’ parable (Lk 19:21).  One of the greatest changes that can come about in a church is when we realise that God actually IS a good God, a giving God.

Fourth, there is our response to that Good News, “those who earnestly seek him.”  You will seek after God for one of two reasons and both are good. First, you sense your need that you feel only God can meet, a yearning that only God can satisfy. Second, you start to really believe He is a good, loving God who has good plans and purposes for you and you want to enter into those plans and purposes but you can only do that by coming close to Him and hearing from Him.

But note also the word ‘earnestly’. This means not half-heartedly. Do you remember in the first study in this particular series we examined James’ teaching where he said, “when he asks, he must believe and not doubt.” (Jas 1:6) It’s the same sort of thing. If you don’t seek God earnestly, it means you are not sure about why you are doing it, you are not sure He is a good and loving God who rewards His children, and so God waits, holding back His blessing until you come close to Him, which will be when you seek Him earnestly.

So what have we learned about faith in this verse? It is a whole-hearted seeking after God and responding to God which pleases Him. Anything less than that…..