2018 is a year where I do not read the entire Bible. Instead, I take one book at a time and read it through 20 times. This year I’ve been making my way through Matthew (currently on the 14th reading) and one thing has stuck out more than everything else.
Jesus’s emphasis on faith.
Reading that aloud, it’s not shocking. The entire Bible is about faith. But it’s the way Jesus talks about it as recorded by Matthew that gets your attention. At least, it does for this guy with a Reformed theological leaning.
Back in early 2017, I talked about this seeming paradox in Scripture: how does my work contribute to my faith? I still hold to the idea that our faith comes from God. It is in fact a gift from him, as the apostle Paul points out in Eph 2:8:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Theologians (professional or amateur) have wrestled with this idea for a long time. I still prefer how Kenneth Boa puts it:
The biblical balance is that the spiritual life is both human and divine … we are responsible to work out, not work for, our salvation. On the divine side, God gives us the desire and empowerment to accomplish his purposes.
So God gives us faith, gives us new hearts and enables us to accept the gift of his son, who died in our place to face the wrath of God and take the punishment we were due for our sins.
But that does mean we are to live a soft life of no work.
Faith is a muscle to be exercised
I know this intellectually, but reading through Matthew this year has opened my eyes a little wider to the importance of faith. Here are a few examples that sure got my attention.
When his disciples are afraid of a storm (Matt 8:23–27):
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”
When touched by a woman with a long-term illness (Matt 9:18–22):
While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.
Healing two blind men (Matt 9:27–29):
And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.”
When walking on the water, Peter comes to join him (Matt 14:28–33):
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
After his disciples failed to drive out a demon (Matt 17:18–20):
And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
And the height of the tension is found towards the end, when Jesus curses a fig tree in Matt 21:18–22:
In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
What is the tension that I’m referring to? The fact that answers to prayers might be dependent on my performance. My level of faith, or the lack thereof.
I don’t have any firm answers to this tension. I know there is a balance between believing that God equips me with faith and does so in proportion to what I need in each experience in my life. At the same time, I’m to “work out my own salvation with fear and trembling” and to “believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him”.
But I often feel like the father in Mark 9. This is the same story I referenced above from Matthew 17 where Christ’s disciples struggle to exorcise a demon. But in Mark, we get a little more detail to that story.
And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
That is my cry. I believe, but I sure need Jesus to help with my lack of conviction, where my faith falls short. But, in the end, I always take comfort knowing that my Father provides.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.