Messy Faith

James 2:25-26

May 23, 2016 | Ray Pritchard

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“And in the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by a different route? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:25-26).

Some stories in the Bible don’t quite fit.
This is one of them.

Daniel in the lion’s den fits.
Rahab the harlot doesn’t fit so well.

We admire David for killing Goliath.
We’re not so sure about Rahab telling a lie.

We teach our children to sing “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho.”
I don’t know any songs about Rahab.

And yet . . . Rahab hid the spies and sent them on their way.
That meant Joshua got the crucial information he needed.

She ended up saving her whole family.
She gave birth to a son named Boaz who married Ruth.
She was David’s great-great-grandmother.
She shows up in Matthew 1 as part of Jesus’ genealogy.
She made it to the “Hall of Fame of Faith” in Hebrews 11.
She becomes an example of living faith in James 2.

Did I mention she was a prostitute and a liar?

Real faith is always mixed with very human imperfections.

Faith can be messy at times. True faith is rarely as neat and clean as we make it out to be on Sunday morning. Real faith is always mixed with very human imperfections. If you doubt that, just take a look in the mirror. You have faith, or at least you try to have faith, or you muddle through as best you can. How close to perfection are you?

That’s my point.

Though Rahab was far from perfect, her name shows up in an honorable way in the Bible.

Messy faith is better than no faith. Let’s start there as we think about Rahab. What can we learn from her story?

# 1: Faith Can be Found in Unlikely Places

Rahab had at least four things going against her:

First, she was a Gentile. That meant she had no part in the covenant God made with Israel. To use New Testament terminology, she was a foreigner to the grace of God, literally and spiritually. She had no connection with the promise God gave to Abraham and his descendants. She starts this story as a complete outsider.

Rahab was an unlikely candidate for salvation

Second, she was a woman. That meant she had little legal protection and no real standing in her society.

Third, she was a pagan. Her family had no doubt been raised with the idol worship common to all the Canaanites. She had no knowledge of the Torah and thus no understanding of the sacrificial system.

Fourth, she was a harlot. The word refers to a woman who sells her body for sexual uses. It is sometimes translated as prostitute. We have a variety of words in English to describe what has been called “the world’s oldest profession,” but they all go back to the same place. Rahab sold her body for money. There is no need to cover it up or pretend it means something less offensive. In fact, it’s important for this story that we know the truth. Rahab might seem to be the last person in whom you would find saving faith. But that judgment (which church people make almost without thinking about it) reveals how little we understand about the grace of God.

There is no need to cover up the truth.
Rahab was a prostitute

A woman guilty of repeated sexual sin might not seem like a good candidate for salvation, but appearances are often deceiving. Not every church member is as righteous as they appear on Sunday morning, and not every sinner is as far from the kingdom as we sometimes assume.

Though Rahab did not realize it, the Holy Spirit had been working in her heart, preparing her for the moment when the spies would show up at her door. There is a lesson here if we will only pay attention. God has his people everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. You wouldn’t think a “fallen woman” in Jericho would end up in Hebrews 11, but that’s exactly what happened.

God has his people everywhere!

Let me put it this way because I need to remind myself of this truth: God often saves people I wouldn’t save if I were God. Which is yet one more reason why I’m glad he’s God and I’m not. My “grace” has definite limits; his does not. He will save the most notorious sinner who turns to him. That even includes self-righteous church people like me. As Philip Yancey points out, if we say, “There is grace even for people like Rahab,” we have unconsciously put ourselves in a different category. The real truth is, there is grace even for people like Ray Pritchard.

That’s my plan, by the way. The grace of God for people like me. It’s the only way I’ll ever get to heaven.

# 2: Faith Shows Itself in Unusual Ways

We find the heart of Rahab’s story in Joshua 2.

As the Jews entered the Promised Land, the walled city of Jericho stood directly in their path. There was no way around it. They could never live in the land unless they somehow conquered the Jericho with its system of double walls that repelled all invaders.

Rahab lied to the king

Joshua decided to send out two men to enter the city and spy out the situation. When those two men entered the city, they made their way to Rahab’s house. Because she was a prostitute, it would not have been unusual to see men coming and going at all hours of the day or night. But they weren’t as discreet as they thought. Someone saw them, realized they weren’t from Jericho, and reported them to the king. He sent a message to Rahab ordering her to turn over the spies.

But she lied to the king.

She sent word that the men had already left the city and she didn’t know where they had gone. But that wasn’t true. Instead, she hid them among the stalks of flax on the roof. Believing Rahab’s lie, the king sent soldiers on a fruitless chase into the surrounding countryside. Meanwhile, Rahab gave a powerful statement of her faith to the two spies still hiding in her house.

Rahab gave a powerful statement of her faith

First, she declared God had given them the land (Joshua 2:8).
Second, she said fear had fallen on the city (Joshua 2:9).
Third, she recounted the miracles God had done at the Red Sea (Joshua 2:10).

Fourth, she declared her faith in the sovereignty of Israel’s God. The heart of her confession comes in Joshua 2:11, “The Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.”

Fifth, she asked that her family be spared during the coming invasion (Joshua 2:12-13).

The rest of the chapter tells how the spies agreed to her request, how she hid them and sent them out of the city of Jericho with specific instructions about how to avoid the king’s soldiers. Eventually the spies made it back to their lines and reported to Joshua the entire land was filled with fear.

Rahab’s “works” were not religious deeds

What sort of faith is this? Rahab’s faith did not involve what we might call “religious” acts. Sometimes we read James 2 and think the “works” he calls for start and end with religious habits, such as Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, giving, and so on. While those things are vital for a growing Christian life, Rahab’s example shows us James is thinking about things like kindness, generosity, hospitality, and caring for those in need. Nowhere in the Bible do we read that Rahab said a prayer, learned the Torah or offered a sacrifice. She must have done that later when she joined the people of God, but it is never mentioned.

Rahab was a hero because of her “non-religious” acts. She heard the truth about God, she believed it, she testified to it, and that faith led her to act courageously in the face of great danger.

She hid the spies, lied about it, and then sent them out secretly.

Rahab didn’t hesitate!

We may debate about the morality of her lie (and that’s a useful conversation to have), but neither James 2:25 nor Hebrews 11:31 raise that issue. In a moment of great crisis, she became a traitor to her own people and joined the people of God. If discovered, she would have been immediately put to death. Debating about her lie is a luxury we have 3500 years later. In the most important moment of her life, she didn’t hesitate and didn’t debate anything.

She took her stand for the Lord.
She protected his people.
She made provision for her whole family.
She risked everything in the process.

She became a traitor to her own people

That’s why James uses her as an example of living faith. Her faith was not dead. It was very much alive. Rahab wasn’t the only one who knew about the advancing Jewish army. The entire land had heard the news and was in a state of panic. They knew what Rahab knew but did nothing about it. The Canaanites were like the demons who “believe and tremble” (James 2:19). Only Rahab had true faith that moved her to action.

God bless Rahab.
We could use more courageous believers like her.

There is one more lesson we can learn from her life.

# 3: Faith Receives an Unexpected Reward

We can list the results of her faith this way:

First, she was justified. That means God declared her righteous. James 2:25 says she was “justified by works.” Don’t be confused by that. Her faith in God, as simple and uninformed as it was, led her to take action. We can just as easily say Rahab was justified by faith because her faith was so alive that she risked everything to save the spies, herself, and her family.

Second, she was spared when the battle came. We all know how Joshua “fit the battle of Jericho” because we learned that song when we were kids. We know how the Jews marched around the city for seven days and how “the walls come a-tumblin’ down.” But Joshua 6:25 adds this detail:

“Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, her father’s household, and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent to spy on Jericho, and she lives in Israel to this day.”

At God’s command, the city was totally destroyed and everyone in it was put to death. Everyone, that is, except Rahab and her family. Her faith saved her whole family.

Her faith saved her family

Third, she was added to the nation of Israel. As a result of her heroism, a Gentile woman, a Canaanite who had been a prostitute, was added to the people of God. She lived among the Jews for the rest of her life.

Fourth, she was included in the line of Christ. Matthew 1 contains a genealogy that starts with Abraham and ends with Jesus. Here is Matthew 1:5-6:

 Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab,
Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth,
Obed fathered Jesse,
and Jesse fathered King David.

We don’t know much about Salmon except that he married Rahab. Some think he was one of the two spies. That may be true, but we can’t be sure. What matters is that Rahab not only left her life of sin, she married a godly man and then gave him a son named Boaz. You can read his story in the book of Ruth. If you follow the genealogy on down, it means Rahab the former prostitute became the great-great-grandmother of King David.

She was the great-great-grandmother of King David

A thousand years later, Jesus was born. Rahab is part of Jesus’ family tree. If you know Jesus, one day you will meet her in heaven. And there at last she will be no more Rahab the harlot. She will forever be known as Rahab the child of God.

Fifth, she was honored as a woman of faith. We’ve already seen what James said about her. But don’t forget Hebrews 11:31:

 By faith Rahab the prostitute received the spies in peace and didn’t perish with those who disobeyed.

She not only made the book, she was listed along with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and the other great heroes of Israel. Both James and the writer of Hebrews note that she was a prostitute. Did they do this to shame her? No, they did this to magnify her faith, thus showing that no one is beyond the grace of God.

Why Abraham and Rahab?

Why did James choose Abraham and Rahab as his two examples of living (James 2:21-26)? Abraham is easy to understand; Rahab not so much. Perhaps James wanted to pick examples at the extremes:

One was a man; the other a woman.
One was a Jew; the other a Gentile.
One was a revered patriarch; the other was a redeemed prostitute.
One was ready to sacrifice his son; the other hid the spies.

Though different in many ways, and separated from each other by hundreds of years, they had this in common. What they did, they did by faith.

Abraham and Rahab both lived their faith

Abraham offered Isaac. Rahab hid the spies. Both events were largely hidden from public view. Only Abraham and Isaac knew what happened on Mount Moriah. Rahab hid the spies and sent them off in another direction so they wouldn’t be caught.

Neither knew the outcome of their faith before they acted. Abraham didn’t know about the ram in the thicket when he raised the knife. Rahab wasn’t expecting Jewish spies to drop by for a visit.

Both were heroes in the eyes of God.

Two Enduring Lessons

We can learn two lessons from this:

First, you never know when the test will come. Abraham couldn’t have foreseen what God wanted when the Lord told him to take his son and go to the region of Moriah. Likewise, when Rahab awoke that day in Jericho, she had no inkling that two men were about to show up who would change her life forever.

Living by faith is risky business

Second, living by faith is always risky business. It’s not as if Rahab thought, “If I hide these spies, I can become David’s great-great-grandmother” or “I’m going to be in the Messiah’s line.” Life doesn’t work like that. She probably never lived to meet David. She never read Matthew 1. She simply did what she did and ended up saving her whole family.

When I read this story, I’m reminded of Todd Beamer and the other heroes of Flight 93 on September 11. That morning all the passengers boarded the flight in Newark, expecting an uneventful flight to California. But fate intervened in the form of terrorists who took over the plane. Then came the split-second decision and the declaration, “Are you ready? Let’s roll.”

You never know when the test will come.
You won’t have a lot of time to decide.
You can’t foresee the results in advance.

Faith takes action!

True faith trusts God, takes action and leaves the results in his hands.

So we are left with the story of Rahab. It’s rare to meet someone with that name. It’s almost as if “Harlot” is her last name. In the eyes of God, Rahab is an honorable name. She made the book precisely because she was a woman of faith. Her past did not define her future.

I cannot end this sermon without remarking on the miracle of God’s grace. The Canaanites built a thick wall around Jericho to keep people out, but no wall can keep God out. No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Even in the midst of judgment, God reaches out and saves a harlot who turns to him in faith.

No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace

But think of all the men she had slept with.
Think of all that sin.
Think of her stained reputation.
Think of her past.

God says, “I know all about her past, and it doesn’t matter because she believed in me.” Not that sexual sin doesn’t matter. It matters greatly. After all, she is still called Rahab the harlot. But she is free now, and forgiven, and on the road to heaven.

Only unworthy people go to heaven

So what’s your sin? You may be reading this sermon and right now you feel unworthy to go to heaven. If so, I have wonderful news for you. Only unworthy people go to heaven. The people who think they are “worthy” end up in hell. So if you’ve been sleeping around, or messing around, or fooling around, or making one stupid mistake after another, I’ve got good news for you. Your sin makes you an excellent candidate for salvation.

Remember . . . If God can save Rahab, he can save anyone. That includes you. And just for the record, I would rather be Rahab the harlot on my way to heaven than to be Sally the Sunday School teacher on my way to hell.

We’re all messed-up people

We started out talking about messy faith. That certainly describes Rahab, and it describes the rest of us too. If you wonder why there are so many messed-up people in the Bible, it’s because that’s all God has to work with. All the perfect people are in heaven. Let me end by calling to mind one sentence from a familiar gospel song called To God Be the Glory The second verse goes like this:

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood.
To every believer, the promise of God.
The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.

Don’t let your past keep you from Jesus

How true it is. Rahab proves it, and you can prove it too by coming to Christ right now. Don’t let your past keep you away. Come to Jesus! Your sins will be forgiven, you will be saved, and your life will never be the same.

When the old-time preachers would give an invitation, they would say, “Won’t you come?” “Won’t you come to Jesus?” Let me make that same invitation to you right now.

Won’t you come?
Won’t you come to Jesus?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?