The Fifth Law: Active Faith Releases God's Power
Hebrews 11Let’s begin by reviewing the first four laws of the spiritual life:
Law 1: He’s God and We’re Not.
Law 2: God Doesn’t Need Us But We Desperately Need Him.
Law 3: What God Demands, He Supplies.
Law 4: What You Seek, You Find.
Each law covers a major area of our relationship with God and leads to a personal response. Once we know that God is God and we are not, we submit ourselves to his authority. This principle leads us to worship and praise. When we realize how desperately we need God, our logical response is to confess our sins and cry out to God for his mercy. This law introduces us to such concepts as human sinfulness, humility, and the importance of prayer. The good news of the gospel comes in the Third Law. Here we reach out with the empty hands of faith to receive what God offers us. This principle teaches us about God’s love, compassion, mercy and grace, and leads us to gratitude, joy, and the deep confidence that God will give us whatever we need, whenever we need it. It provides us with hope in hard times and calls us to respond with praise and a life of glad obedience to God who has lavished us with the riches of his grace. The Fourth Law brings us into the realm of spiritual motivation. It washes away our flimsy excuses and challenges us to seek God’s kingdom above everything else. Here we encounter the power of the Holy Spirit and the importance of our daily choices.
Without Faith You Cannot Please God
The Fifth Law moves us into a new area: Active Faith Releases God’s Power. Faith is the most prominent word in religion. Sometimes the word refers to an entire religious system, such as Christianity or Islam or Judaism. In other contexts it refers to a body of doctrine, i.e., “Keep the faith.” But most of the time faith refers to our personal response to God. The “faith” of the Fifth Law is not a religion or a set of doctrines, but rather our daily, moment-by-moment trust in God. When our faith is put to work, when it is active and not passive, it releases God’s power in us and through us.
We know from Hebrews 11:6 that without faith it is impossible to please God. No matter how religious you may be, if you do not have faith, you cannot please God. This may come as a surprise to those who have trusted in their religiosity to get them to heaven. But God looks on the heart, and what he looks for is faith. You can be baptized, go to church, give money, attend Sunday School, read your Bible, fast three times a week, sing in the choir, and even be a missionary, but if you do not have faith, you will not please God. Faith, genuine faith that comes from the heart, matters more to him than anything we say or do.
Everything by Faith
Faith is never meant to be a one-time experience. In our circles, it is tempting to fall into that trap because we put so much emphasis on being saved by faith. We talk about accepting Christ, receiving Christ, trusting Christ, and giving your heart to Christ. We challenge people to respond in faith to the gospel invitation. This is well and good, but sometimes we leave the impression that having been saved by faith, the rest of life is up to us. Not so! The same faith that saves us is the faith that carries us from day to day as we make the journey from earth to heaven. That’s why the Bible says, “The just shall live by faith,” and we are told that the gospel reveals a righteousness that is “by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:17). The whole Christian life is a life of faith. We are saved by faith, kept by faith, and we walk by faith, endure by faith, rejoice by faith, serve by faith, love by faith, sacrifice by faith, pray by faith, worship by faith, and we obey by faith. We get married by faith, and we have children by faith. (When I remarked in the last service that we get married by faith and have children by faith, there was a hearty “Amen!” from the audience). All that we do, we do by faith.
The question before us in this sermon is both simple and profound: What is faith and how does it work? This is a crucial topic because I think we often don’t appreciate how precious and how precarious is the life of faith.
I. Faith Defined
In the entire Bible there is no clearer instruction on faith than Hebrews 11. Most of us know it as the “Hall of Fame of Faith.” Here we have a long list of Old Testament heroes, most of them introduced with the phrase “by faith.”
By faith Abel (v. 4).
By faith Enoch (v. 5).
By faith Noah (v. 7).
By faith Abraham (v. 8).
By faith Isaac (v. 20).
By faith Jacob (v. 21).
By faith Joseph (v. 22).
By faith Moses’ parents (v. 23).
By faith Moses (v. 24).
By faith the people (v. 29).
By faith the walls of Jericho fell (v. 30).
By faith Rahab the prostitute (v. 31).
And he doesn’t even have time to mention the individual exploits of “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets” (Hebrews 11:32). They and all the other heroes of the faith are summarized in this fashion: “Who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again” (Hebrews 11:33-35a). That’s a wonderful list and we can all think of the great biblical heroes who did these things. But that is only part of the story. Verses 35b-38 record the trials of faith: “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
Who are these poor, benighted souls? What have they done to deserve such punishment? The writer simply calls them “others.” They are “others” who lived by faith. These men and women who endured such torment were living by faith just as much as Noah, Abraham, Moses or Joshua. Their faith was not weaker. If anything, their faith was stronger because it enabled them to endure incredible suffering. They are not “lesser” saints because they found no miracle. If anything, they are “greater” saints because they were faithful even when things didn’t work out right.
Moving Against the Tide
Verse 39 gives us a summary statement of the whole list: “These were all commended for their faith.” As we stand back and study this list, three factors quickly emerge. First, though these individuals are widely separated by time and space (and by personality and individual achievement), they are joined by one common factor: What they did, they did by faith. And this is why they won God’s approval. There isn’t much that joins Abraham and Rahab except this: At a crucial moment in life, they each acted in faith. God saw their faith and rewarded it. Second, living by faith often meant moving against the prevailing tide of public opinion. Noah built an ark, Abraham left Ur, Moses rejected Egypt, and Joshua marched around Jericho. The same principle holds true today. If you decide to live by faith, you will definitely stand out from the crowd, and you may face opposition and ridicule.
Third, Hebrews 11 demonstrates that the life of faith is not a rarity. It’s easy to look at Enoch or Noah or Joseph or Moses or David and say, “I could never do that.” Down deep in our hearts, we have believed a lie that the life of faith is restricted to a few “special” people. We think we could never qualify to have our names added to the list of Hebrews 11. But that’s the very reason this chapter is in the Bible, so that we would know that these are ordinary men and women who did extraordinary things simply because they had faith in God. They are made of the same stuff as us. The life of faith is within the reach of every believer. If we desire it, we can live like this too.
Hebrews 11:1 offers us a concise definition of faith: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” I personally prefer the traditional King James rendering because it is more picturesque: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The word “substance” is an unusual word that refers to the “essential nature” of things. It was sometimes used of the foundation of a house and outside the New Testament was used for the title deed to a piece of property. Faith is the “title deed” to things in the future, things hoped for, things promised by the Lord. It is confident assurance that what we hope for will some day come to pass. The word “evidence” refers to legal proof in a courtroom. Faith is proof to the soul that enables us to see things that cannot be seen by the naked eye. By faith we “see” what would otherwise be invisible.
Let me pause for a word of application. There is a sense in which living by faith requires a measure of holy discontent. You’ve got to want some things that you don’t have in order to have faith because faith always deals with things “hoped for.” If you’ve already got everything you need and want and desire, and if for you all the promises of God have already come true, and if you’ve reached a state of spiritual perfection, if all your prayers have been answered, and if all your loved ones are saved and serving the Lord, if there is no lack anywhere in any area that you can see, you don’t need faith because you’re living in heaven already and you just don’t realize it. If you are satisfied with the current state of affairs, then you can skip this sermon altogether because it doesn’t apply to you.
On Sunday I was late entering the second worship service because of something that happened while I was walking through the basement corridor to enter the sanctuary. A man in tears stopped me and asked if I could talk to him. I didn’t have any time right then so I asked if I could pray with him. Through his tears he said that he had spoken with his son the night before and had learned some heartbreaking news. The details are both personal and tragic and I didn’t have any easy answers for him. We prayed and I left to enter the service. Later I reflected that as long as we live in a world where fathers get bad news from their sons, we will need faith. As long as marriages break up, and children suffer, and as long as the killing continues, and our leaders disappoint us, and as long as there is hatred and violence and prejudice and all manner of evil in the world, we will need faith because the “things hoped for” have not yet come to pass.
What, then, is faith? Think about these three words: Believe, See, Do.
Faith believes what others do not believe.
Faith sees what others do not see.
Faith does what others do not do.
True faith is never passive. True faith moves us to act, to do, to try, to build, to attempt, to expand, to say “no” to sin and “yes” to righteousness, to join, to speak out, to move forward, to dare to dream beyond our means, and to walk around Jericho again and again until at last “the walls come tumblin’ down.” This week at our Promise Keepers meeting, one of the men offered this definition: Faith is “outrageous trust in God.” I like that. “Outrageous trust” is what you have when you build an ark hundreds of miles from any body of water. “Outrageous trust” compels you to leave your home not knowing where you are going. And “outrageous trust” sends you into the Elah Valley to face Goliath. Have you ever been in a situation where you needed “outrageous trust” in God? If not, I think your Christian life has been too boring!
II. Faith Illustrated
Let’s pause for a moment and take a closer look at the case of Moses. The heart of his story is found in Hebrews 11:24-27.
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.
Note the five words that tell his story: Refused … chose … regarded … perservered … saw. He said “no” to one thing because he chose to do something else. He made that choice because he regarded God’s promises as true. He found the strength to endure 40 years in Midian because he “saw him who is invisible.” Everything hinges on the first word: He “refused” to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. That may not seem like much to us but it was a life-changing decision for him. Recall that when Pharaoh’s daughter found him floating in a basket near the shore of the Nile River, she rescued him and raised him as her own son. That meant he received a complete Egyptian education in science, history and philosophy. It meant he was trained to be a leader of the nation. It meant he was raised in the lap of luxury, having the best of everything at his fingertips. Some scholars suggest that in those days the line of succession passed through the daughter of Pharaoh. If so, that means that Moses was in line to become the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. The upshot is this: Moses had everything he wanted and everything that most people would give anything to have. He had power. Clap his hands and in came a dozen men to do his bidding. Clap again and servants delivered trays of food. Whatever he wanted, he could have.
Here is the irony of it all. When he got to the height of his power, he gave it all up. Refused it. Relinquished it. Let it all go. It was not an easy decision to make because he knew that no one, least of all Pharaoh’s daughter, the woman to whom he owed his life, would understand. It seemed foolish, as if he was throwing away his whole future. By any normal standard, it didn’t make sense.
“If they suffer, I will suffer.”
Note how the text puts it. “He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God.” It doesn’t call them “the Jews” or “the Hebrews,” even though those terms would be accurate. Moses didn’t make his decision on a racial or ethnic basis. It’s as if Moses stood in front of the Egyptians and said something like this: “You thought you knew me but you didn’t. I’m not one of you and I’ve never been one of you. I may look like you and talk like you and dress like you and act like you, but down deep in my heart, I’m a different person. All these years in your midst haven’t changed my basic identity. Those Hebrew slaves who seem so troublesome to you, I’m one of them because they are the followers of the true and living God. Though you hate and despise them, they are my people and I cannot stand by and turn my face away while they are suffering. If they are hated, I will be hated too. If they suffer, I will suffer. If they are mistreated, then I will be mistreated with them. What happens to them will happen to me. I will no longer live as if I were an Egyptian because I’m not. I am a follower of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and it’s time I cast my lot with my own people.”
And with that one act, Moses committed what we might call today “career suicide.” He gave up the riches of Egypt and the “pleasures of sin for a season” in order to join the motley band of Hebrews who were so hated by the Egyptians. And he found the strength to endure the persecution because he “saw him who is invisible.” That’s one of the most remarkable and revealing statements in the entire Bible. It appears to be an impossibility. How do you “see” an invisible person? The whole point of being invisible is so that no one can see you. If you can be seen, you are not invisible. But God was invisible and yet Moses “saw” him. How? Two words. “By faith.” Moses had faith and his faith gave him sight. And he saw the God who is invisible.
The Egyptians didn’t see. But Moses did. That’s what faith can do.
Seeing Beyond This World
What exactly did Moses see? The text says he was “looking ahead” to his reward. Let me explain it this way. Moses knew there were two worlds and he could choose to live by the values of either one. There was the world he could see, the world of Egypt, the world of the senses, the world of money, power, sex, pleasure, fame, self-gratification, the world of military power and brute force. That was the world where Pharaoh ruled as king. As far as the Egyptians knew, that was the only world there was. The “gods” they worshiped were nothing more than an extension of their own perverted values. But there was (and is) another world. That’s the invisible world of the spirit, the realm of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, the angels and the saints. It’s a world that is ruled by righteousness and entered by grace.
Now here’s the kicker: Those who live for this world will have the reward this world offers. They will live for 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 or maybe even 90 years. And they will have as much fame or wealth or power as they can amass. Their reward from this world will be in this world. And when they die, all that they lived for will die with them. They will be buried in a box in the ground and have nothing substantial to show for their time on planet earth. But (and this “but” makes all the difference) those who live in this world by the standards of the eternal world have an entirely different experience. Like Moses, they may suffer in the short-run but when they die, the party is just getting started. They enter into “the joy of the Lord.” And frankly, those who live in this world by the values of the next one will have deeper joy and greater satisfaction even while they are rejected and ridiculed by those around them.
Somehow Moses saw all of this. He figured out that it wasn’t worth it to live for Egypt. The “pleasures of sin for a season” didn’t measure up against the joy of serving the Lord even if that meant temporary suffering and putting up with a bunch of crabby Jews for 40 years in the wilderness. It just didn’t matter. For him, there was only one choice. He would suffer with the people of God. Period. End of discussion. If the people of Egypt didn’t like it, or if they didn’t understand it, so be it. He might have been Pharaoh if he had stayed but that didn’t bother him in the least. If he had stayed in Egypt, we would never have heard of him and I would be preaching about someone else today.
So the question is, in which world do you want to make your mark? If you want to make it big in Egypt, good luck. Have at it. You will have your reward, and you won’t be happy when you get it. If you want to live for the next world, you can, but it will cost you something in the meantime.
Mozart’s Head or a Dancing Girl
Let’s return to the statement that Moses “saw him who is invisible.” Faith sees what is really there even though others see nothing at all. Faith believes what is true even though others don’t believe it at all. By faith we see reality, which means we see beyond the world around us. But that concept should not seem strange at all. After all, the most beloved hymn in the world ("Amazing Grace") contains this line, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
By faith we see what others do not see. Have you ever looked at one of those 3-D pictures that contain hidden images? When you look at the picture, all you see are wavy lines or dots or perhaps marbles or stars or pieces of fruit. But if you look at the picture up close, and if you throw your eyes out of focus and turn your head a bit cockeyed, suddenly out jumps Mozart’s head or a dancing girl or a giant bird. Since I have less-than-perfect eyesight, I have trouble with 3-D pictures. Usually the only thing I can see is a bunch or lines or something that looks vaguely like a head of cabbage. To my consternation, my wife Marlene can almost always see the “hidden” image. But just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The “hidden” image is there whether I see it or not. It’s the same way with the life of faith. The “hidden world” of eternal reality is there whether we see it or not. And by faith we “see” it even though the people of the world do not.
After my sermon on Sunday, a friend sent me this: “Faith sees the invisible, believes the incredible and receives the impossible.” That’s seems to fit Moses’ experience very well, and it all starts with seeing the invisible. If we can do that, then we will be able to believe the incredible, and in God’s time, we will receive the impossible.
Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees,
And looks to God alone.
Laughs at impossibilities,
And cries, “It shall be done.”
III. Faith Applied
As we come to the end of our study, we can draw three important conclusions about the nature of faith.
A. Faith is not a feeling but a conscious choice to believe what God has said.
We will never progress in the spiritual life as long as we stay on the plane of our feelings. If Noah had waited until he “felt like” building an ark, he might never have laid the first piece of gopher wood. And if Joshua had waited to “feel like” marching around Jericho, those walls might still be standing. Feelings are important but they are not the basis of true faith. When you are in a hospital waiting room while a loved one is in surgery, you may or may not feel positive. In that moment, you must consciously choose to believe that God is who he said he is and that he will do what he said he would do. And you’ll probably have to make that choice a hundred times a day. Faith chooses, then acts, and then the feelings follow.
B. Faith acts even in the face of doubt and opposition.
If we wait until all the circumstances are in our favor, we’ll probably wait forever. David didn’t wait for Goliath to go blind. He trusted God and walked down into the valley to face the giant. If we wait for our doubts to disappear, we’ll have to wait a long time. Someone said that faith is “belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part.” Sooner or later, we all have to “act on the belief part.” Abraham did. Moses did. Samuel did. All the heroes of the Bible “acted on the belief part.” You can too.
But what if you face that proverbial “leap of faith?” What then? The following quote from Barbara Winter cheered me up when I ran across it this week: “When you come to the end of everything you know, and are faced with the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing one of two things will happen. Either there will be something solid for you to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”
C. Faith sees what others do not see.
All week long I’ve been thinking about my friends Mike and Betsi Calhoun. Mike is the director of the Bible club ministry for Word of Life. In January we ate lunch together when I taught for a week at the Bible Institute in New York. Their daughter Misty died a week ago Thursday in a huge pileup of cars on Interstate 75 near Ringgold, Georgia. Misty was only 24 years old, recently married, and recently moved with her husband Bryan to Chattanooga, Tennessee. They had been very active in the ministry of Calvary Chapel in Chattanooga. Marlene and I have known Mike and Betsi for many years and our thoughts have been with them in the days since we heard the news. Speaking of Misty’s faith, Betsi commented that she lived so much for eternity that it wasn’t surprising that she slipped away so early to live there forever. And on March 16, the Atlanta Constitution carried an article about the wreck that contained this quote from Mike Calhoun: “We are not blind.” He went on to say that although Misty is gone, they know she is in heaven and that they will see her again.
“We are not blind.” We know what has happened.
“We are not blind.” We know where she is.
“We are not blind.” We know we will see her again.
Is this just wishful thinking? Is it just the broken heart of a father speaking about his daughter? Oh no, a thousand times no. My friend Mike Calhoun has discovered what Moses found thousands of years ago. We are not blind, our eyes have been opened, we see what has happened, and we see beyond it to the eternal realities that cannot be taken away. The pain of death cannot cancel the promises of God. Mike and Betsi have seen “him who is invisible” and they know the truth.
Philip Yancey’s Definition
My favorite definition of faith comes from Philip Yancey who said, “Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” So many things in this life make no sense to us. I imagine that every person reading this sermon has a few very deep and personal questions that defy all human answers. We want to know why things happen the way they do and why couldn’t things have happened some other way. It would be wrong to say that faith provides all the answers. It doesn’t. Perhaps in heaven we will fully understand, or in heaven our desire to know will be transformed by our vision of the Lord. By faith we see things that are invisible to others and by faith we believe in advance those things that right now make no sense but one day will make perfect sense because we will view them in reverse.
The world says, “Seeing is believing.” God says, “Believing is seeing.” We believe, therefore we see.
Wherever He Leads
One final word and I am done. Biblical faith is never faith in faith, as if we were believing in our own powers of logic or self-persuasion. Faith can never be stronger than the object on which it rests. Since our faith rests on the Lord Jesus Christ, the essence of faith is following him wherever he leads. Here’s a little acrostic that has helped many people:
Following Christ can be risky business. You may wonder if everything will work out right if you follow Jesus. It depends on what you mean. When Todd Beamer finished saying the Lord’s Prayer with the attendant who took his phone call from United Flight 93 on September 11, he turned to the men with him and said, “Are you ready? Let’s roll.” By faith he put the phone down, started down the aisle toward the hijackers, ready to face his destiny. In the struggle that followed, he and his fellow passengers lost their lives but they saved the nation from an even greater tragedy. Did it work out all right for him? I think from heaven he would answer yes.
“Nothing Bad Happened to Them.”
A month ago I heard Jim Bowers speak at Moody Founders Week. Last April he and his wife, Roni, and their children, Corey and Charity, were shot out of the sky by a Peruvian jet that mistook them for drug traffickers. Of all the bullets that were fired that day, a single bullet pierced the fuselage of the missionary airplane, hit Roni in the back and entered the head of seven-month-old Charity, killing them both instantly. Speaking of that terrible moment, Jim Bowers said, “Nothing bad happened to them. They got to heaven quicker than we did.” Is that faith or fantasy talking? I submit that those are the words of a man of faith who out of great personal loss has “seen him who is invisible,” and the sight has transformed his life. Even the worst tragedy doesn’t appear that way when viewed from heaven’s perspective.
I think we can safely draw three conclusions about those who live by faith:
1) They will see great triumphs and endure great trials.
2) They will be misunderstood by the world.
3) They will be glad they did what they did in the end.
Our call is not to understand but to follow Christ wherever he leads, whatever it costs. And the word of Christ to all of us is always the same, “Come, follow me.” Try it out. Come to him. Put your life in his hands.
To be a disciple of Christ means to get on the “Jesus road” and follow wherever it takes you. No guarantees, no deals, no special promises. You simply walk that road every day, following in your Master’s steps. Don’t be afraid to follow Jesus. You’ll never regret starting down the “Jesus road.” You’ll only regret that you waited so long to do it.
Are you ready to follow Jesus wherever he leads? That’s all he wants. Someone may ask, “What if Jesus asks me to do something I can’t do?” He will! He will! He will! If he only asked you to do something you could do, you wouldn’t need him. I promise you this: If you decide to follow Jesus, he will ask you to do the impossible, and then he will help you do it.
Our part is simply to take the next step. Just take the next step God puts in front of you. You don’t have to see the whole plan or even see ten steps down the road. Faith means taking the next step in front of you and leaving the rest in the hands of God.
Faith is the law of the kingdom. And active faith releases God’s power. Every blessing of the kingdom is available to those who put their faith to work, moment by moment, day by day, one little step at a time.
By Faith Noah …
By faith Abraham …
By faith Moses …
I wonder if other names could be added to that list. “By faith Ray.” “By faith Elizabeth.” “By faith Carlos.” “By faith Seth.” “By faith Alex.” “By faith Karen.” May God give us steady courage to follow the Lord so that some day our names might be added to the long list of men and women who lived and died by faith. Amen.
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