Friday, May 09, 2003

The Dynamics of Faith in the Life of Abraham


I was inspired by David Heddle's May 8, 2003 post over at He Lives to dust off this teaching of mine from the past. Interestingly enough, his post was inspired by this one

Paul, James, and Hebrews

The New Testament records the shift of spiritual life away from legalistic obedience to law to life based on grace and faith. It also records the shift from a singularly Jewish religion to a religion that included both the Jews and the Gentiles. Both these streams of new thinking demanded a champion around whom the ideas could gather momentum and strength. The champion of the Law was Moses. The new champion of faith and grace became Abraham. Three authors in particular held Abraham’s life in the highest regard as an example of living by faith. These authors were Paul, James, and the Writer of Hebrews. One might imagine that studying Paul, James, and Hebrews would be easy with so much material drawn from a short well-known history of a great man. Not so! The three authors use Abraham in diverse and almost contradictory ways. Some great titans of Christian history have come close to saying that the only two of the three should have made the Canon of Scripture. Indeed Martin Luther, who considered James to be an “epistle of straw,” would gladly have settled for Paul and Hebrews. The challenge presented by the writings of Paul, James and the Writer of Hebrews is two-fold.

First, Paul and James seem to have contradictory conclusions regarding Abraham’s faith.

From Abraham’s life, Paul concludes:

For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law. (Romans 3:28, The Net Bible)

James, from the same man’s life, concludes:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

So! Is a man justified by faith or is a man justified by works?

Second, the Writer of Hebrews draws sweeping conclusions as to the content of Abraham’s faith that go way beyond a superficial reading of the Genesis text. For example, from where did he get the idea that Abraham was interested in  "the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:10)"

The purpose of this blog series is to examine these authors’ use of Abraham’s life of faith with a view for showing their essential unity. In particular this paper will show that:

  1. Paul is correct when he declares that Abraham’s faith was sufficient to bring about God’s promises in his life. I will show that his faith transcended obedience insofar as it pertained to the covenant the Lord made with him.
  2. James is correct when he says that Abraham’s obedience was necessary to bring about God’s promises in his life.
  3. Eternity is the mediator between the two.

Of course, Hebrews does much to bring faith and works together. The famous Hebrews chapter 11 contains vignettes illustrating the faith of past men and women. Each one begins with the phrase “By faith” and describes an action enabled by faith. Of Abraham he says, "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. (Hebrews 11:8-9)"

It follows from these three first century theologians that faith and acting go hand in glove. Faith is not passive acknowledgement of alleged fact or creed; it is the “stuff” of action i.e. a foundation for long term activity on God’s behalf and at His direction. Abraham’s story confirms this. And this we will see with great clarity over the next few days.

Monday: Obedience was the result of Abraham's faith.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2003

The Alpha Program

I have never made it clear in this web log that I am a lay person. By day, I am a mild mannered computer applications architect and designer. I specialize in scheduling applications for the paper industry. That is what I do to make a living. What remains of my time is spent with family and church. On the family side, I drive daughters around to dance classes; answer my youngest sons questions about life, the universe, and everything; and chat with my wife. On the church side, I teach 2 Bible weekly Bible studies and another bi-monthly study. I blog 5 days a week. On occasion, I fly to the Dallas/Forth Worth area to teach in a Bible Church. I live a full and busy life.

There is one more thing that I do, that has born much fruit. I direct a program called Alpha.

Alpha is not my invention. It was born out of Holy Trinity Brampton, an Anglican church  in the United Kingdom. Alpha is a 10 week course in basic Christianity and held over 15 sessions. Besides the weekly meetings there is a weekend away that concentrates on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Christian leaders who endorse Alpha include Bill Hybels, Leighton Ford, J. I. Packer, Bill Bright, Charles Colson, and many others.

In terms of growth. In 1996, there were a total of 202 Alpha courses conducted. In 2002, there were 5,893 courses held around the world. So far, 2003 has seen 6,130.

Alpha at my church began three years ago, when I attended an Alpha seminar. The local Salvation Army hosted the event. Attendees included Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterian, and Baptists. My team represented a local Vineyard church. There were charismatics and non-charismatics there. We were there to learn implement Alpha to provide new Christians with some basic training and have a forum for bringing people to the Lord.

At the beginning of an Alpha course, I give this little speech:

This Alpha course is used in many Vineyard churches like this one. It is also presented by Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists. It is used by denominational churches and nondenominational churches. Both charismatics and non-charismatics conduct these sessions. In other words, what you are about to see is that core of Christianity that all of us agree is true. I am amazed, and you will be also, that what we all agree is true is sufficient to know God through Jesus Christ and live a life that pleases Him. I would consider Cobb Vineyard to be low church. We dress very casually as the sandals and shorts worn by the worship team in the summer adequately demonstrates. The videos that you are about to see come from high church. The Reverend Nicky Gumbel is a minister in the Anglican Church of England. This Alpha course stretches across all Christians all over the world.

Each Alpha session begins with dinner. The purpose of this time is to meet and get to know the participants. There is a standing rule that religion is not discussed during dinner. Rather we are to talk on more general topics. This helps non-Christians feel more at home and welcome. Following dinner, I show one of the 15 videos taught by Nicky Gumbel. Following that and a short break, we have small group discussions on any topic that the group wants to talk about. For this part, I tell everyone that all questions are legitimate. I also tell the participants that they can be glad, mad, or sad. It is their time.

A year ago, I was leading a small group discussion. During the first meeting we go around the table introducing ourselves. I introduced myself with general comments. The next lady threw her dirty laundry on the table, speaking of her multiple divorces, addictions, and failures. She set the tone and each person, in turn, did the same. When it came back to me, I said tongue-in-cheek, "Clearly I have not intimidated you enough." That lady cried all through the 10 week course and came back for the next one. She only cried half the time on the second one. She is full of joy today.

In the Alpha course, I have seen people saved. I have seen most begin to move on in maturity. I would encourage those of you unfamiliar with this program to investigate it. You can begin by visiting their web site:

Friday: Abraham's Faith

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Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Hebrew Poetry

Since the psalms and prophetical sections of the Old Testament are often in a poetical form, we must give thanks to God for the His guiding hand in how Israel developed its poetry. The issue is translation. Consider the following:

There once was a lady named Bright
Who could travel faster than light.
        She went out one day,
        In a relative way,
And came back the previous night.

The above poem is a limerick. A limerick has a very definite style in meter and rhyme. Consider, now, the issues of translating the above poem to German or Hebrew. Could you maintain the rhyme, meter, and humor?

English poetry is very often based on meter and rhyme and this is what can make it so difficult to translate. Hebrew poetry is not. It is based on that juxtaposition of ideas known as parallelism. For example,

Listen, O heavens,
        and hear, O earth;
For the Lord speaks,
"Sons I have reared
        and brought up,

But they have revolted against Me."

An ox knows its owner,
        And a donkey its master’s manger,
But Israel does not know,
        My people do not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3, NASB)

Note the couplets in this introduction to Isaiah. "Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth;" You have the complementary verbs "listen" and "hear" along with "heave" and "earth." The two ideas coupled together communicate a desire for all of creation to hear. What makes it poetic is its arrangement. The prose equivalent would simply be, "Listen up heavens and earth."

Note the double couplet, "An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master's manger" / "But Israel does not know, My people do not understand." Ox pairs with donkey. Owner pairs with master's manger. Israel pairs with My people. Does not know pairs with do not understand. The first couplet pairs with the second couplet. The prose equivalent would simply be, "The people of Israel have revolted against me."

The parallelisms in Hebrew poetry can be complementary by which both couplets say the same thing is a slightly different way. Most of the couplets in Isaiah 1:2-3 are complementary parallels. But opposites can be paired as well, as the parallel couplets above show.

The poetic forms sets up an expected cadence that creates an expectation and increases the interest level of the message. The poetry of parallelism is also inherently translatable.  In translating Isaiah, certain plays on words are lost, but the essential flow of his message is not.

Whereas the couplets are easily observed, there is another poetic form that is a bit obscure. This form is know as a chiasm. The term is derived from the Greek letter Chi, which looks like the English X. A chiasm is named such because its parallel structure resembles an X. Here is a small example:

“Render the hearts of this people insensitive,
        Their ears dull,
                And their eyes dim,
                Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
        Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts,
And return and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:10)

See how the lines reference hearts, ears, and eyes and then reverse to reference eyes, ears, and hearts in reverse order. It has an ABCCBA pattern. It is possible to discern larger chiastic structures in the scriptures. Here is longer poem from Isaiah:

How the faithful city has become a harlot,
She who was full of justice!
            Righteousness once lodged in her,
            But now murderers.
                        Your silver has become dross,
                        Your drink diluted with water.
                                     Your rulers are rebels
                                    And companions of thieves;
                                    Everyone loves a bribe
                                    And chases after rewards.
                                    They do not defend the orphan,
                                    Nor does the widow’s plea come before them.
                                              Therefore the Lord God of hosts,
                                              The Mighty One of Israel, declares, “Ah, I will be relieved of My adversaries
                                    And avenge Myself on My foes.
                                    I will also turn My hand against you,
                        And will smelt away your dross as with lye
                        And will remove all your alloy.
            Then I will restore your judges as at the first,
            And your counselors as at the beginning;
After that you will be called the city of righteousness,
A faithful city.” (Isaiah 1:21-26)

This complex poem consists of a series of parallel couplets, which I have not bothered to indent. There is also a discernable chiasm here. Unlike the exact parallel of heart-ears-eyes||eyes-ears-heart, this is a chiasm of near opposites harlot-murderers-dross-rebels||foes-dross-judges-faithful.

There are even larger chiastic structures to see. Daniel 2 through 8 has the following structure:

Nebuchadnezzar's dream.
        Condemnation and rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abedbego.
                Nebuchadnezzar loses his sanity.
                Belshazzar loses his kingdom.
        Condemnation and rescue of Daniel from the lion's den.
Daniel's dream.

The chiastic structure is one clue that we have that the two dreams should be studied together.

Finally I want to close with what seems to be a discernable chiasm in the New Testament. Note the following outline of Ephesians:

Blessings in Heavenly Places.
        All Subject to Christ.
                Saved from our Former Life.
                        Unity of Jews and Gentiles.
                        Unity of the Body of Christ.
                Renewed to a New Life.
        Subject to One Another.
Battle in Heavenly Places.

Hopefully you have found this little treatise stimulating.

Friday: Not sure yet.

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Hebrews and the Gospel

This marks the third division of a series that introduces the Book of Hebrews. To start at the beginning, click here.

Closing Meditations

Today marks the final post in this series on the Book of Hebrews. I have not completely kept track of the time that I have spent on this one topic, but I believe that it approaches one month. Those of you who have followed it from the beginning understand that I have only scratch the surface. Today I will close with some comments about the father's discipline, and some personal meditations from this book.

The Father's Discipline

By faith we become the adopted children of God with Jesus as our brother. My wife and I have seemingly arranged to have a career in raising children. I have two sons, 27 and 25; two daughters, 15 and 13; and a final son who is 7. Before the last leaves home, I may well be collecting social security. They will always be my children. They make me glad and they make me mad, but they are always my children. When they live at home and they act unwisely or in disobedience, I correct them. I know what kind of people I think is good for them to be and I press them towards that.

Our heavenly Father does the job so much better. We hold on to things we should let go of. We get entangled in sin. We avoid the throne of grace. We harden our hearts against God and His purposes for our lives. We rebel and disobey. We are just like kids. If we belong to God, we can expect Him to intervene:

It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Hebrews 12:7-11, NASB

By His faithful corrections to our lives, we move to a state where we share His holiness and experience the peaceful fruit of righteousness. We experience it in our families, at work, and in our communities. It is something that we should expect and rejoice in. It shows that we are His sons and daughters.

Solid Food

There is a similar metaphor in Hebrews that concerns maturity. It contrasts a believer who needs milk, like a young baby, with a believer able to eat solid food. Here is what it says:

Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)

The writer of Hebrews was concerned by the low level of maturity of his audience. He had really expected better things from them. It seemed that may have even regressed. He wrote, "everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness." The believer who clings to faith alone for salvation and does not move on to pursuing a righteous life remains a baby. The believer who seeks the ways of God to live them is moving towards maturity. 

I love this phrase most of all, "solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil." This is a mouthful and needs to be chewed carefully. We hear the word of righteousness and then we apply it as it seems good. We examine the results of our decisions and actions. Was the outcome what we expected? Why or why not? How can we better understand and apply the word? We try again and examine again. Through practice, we begin to have an inward sense of the will of God in more and more circumstances. Our senses become attuned to what is right and what is good. It helps us chart a course between hard legalism and fluffy situational ethics.

Christianity with an Attitude

I still remember when I read the following verse and realized how far I was from its being a personal reality:

For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. (Hebrews 10:34)

Compared with the above, martyrdom is relatively easy. They terrify you, they kill you, and you are with the Lord for eternity. This verse talks about someone seizing your house and leaving you and your family on the street. You have to live the rest of that day, and the next, and the next. There is no hope at the end of a short ordeal. You have to persevere and endure. There are many attitudes that one might have in such a situation: 

  • Most people would experience anger, rage, and feelings of rejection. This would be the most natural reaction. Everyone would give you the space you need to feel this way and understand it.
  • Many Christians would accept the situation with some level of trust. This is a good thing and demonstrates faith. Spiritually speaking, this is a good passing grade.
  • Some Christians might even give thanks for the situation. As 1st Thessalonians 5:18 says, "in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus." I can imagine myself among this group. I would probably be very intellectual about this. God is great and He is in control, so I should say thanks.
  • The people that Hebrews addressed accepted the seizure of their property with JOY!! Think singing songs from the heart. Think praising God for being accounted worthy to suffer for the Name of Jesus the Messiah. Remember Peter and John after their flogging, and Paul and Silas in prison singing.

When I first read about such a response, I marveled and confessed my weak faith. I have made it a prayer for the last 5 years for this verse to become a reality in my life. It means that I need to comprehend the better and lasting possessions that I have in Messiah.

Final Words

So where has Hebrews brought us?

  1. Hebrews brings the Old and the New Testament together. It is the bridge between the two. 
  2. It gives us insight into the nature of what Jesus did for us and how.
  3. It shows the astounding glory of the New Covenant. It is the greater light.
  4. It expands our understanding of faith.

The New Testament would not be the same without this book. Make it part of you.

Wednesday: Hebrew Poetry

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Monday, May 05, 2003

Hebrews and the Gospel

This marks the third division of a series that introduces the Book of Hebrews. To start at the beginning, click here.

The Hall of Faith

For all its warnings, faith in Hebrews is always saving and permanent. Like the faith in James' letter, there is an expectation of a changed and growing life. Like the good soil in Jesus' parable, fruit is its natural and expected byproduct. And so we come to take a glimpse at Hebrews 11--The Hall of Faith. It has a familiar beginning:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval. (Hebrews 11:1-2, NASB)

Here is the concept of assurance, again. Our faith is living and is, itself, evidence of the eternal life with God that we hope for. It is our inner conviction that we have the truth and that it is worth giving up everything to walk in it. Faith has always been the way that men and women have gained access to God. In this light, Hebrews 11 tells of the accomplishments, by faith, of saint after Old Testament saint. Since this blog series is only a brief summary of Hebrews to whet your appetite for the book and provide tools for its understanding, I will not be going through these stories in any detail. Rather I have chosen to hilight the author's conclusions.

First, faith is the means by which we get to know God:

And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6)

Faith is the beginning of pleasing God. It is the basis for our coming to Him in prayer and expecting a response from Him. It lets us know that in our seeking, we will not come up empty handed.

Second, faith provides a proper perspective of the world around us:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

By faith we know that we are just passing through this world and its systems. What will the troubles and pain we experience today really matter after the first 10,000 years or so in the new heavens and new earth. Beyond these few steps and short path is an eternity to live with One who is eternally worth knowing.

Third, by faith we can see the substance of impossible realities:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.” He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

Abraham knew that God's promises rested in Isaac, but God had asked him to kill that son. Abraham, therefore, concluded that God would raise his son from the dead: at some point. The situation was impossible, except the assurance that faith brought to it of a good ending.

Fourth, faith and not obedience to the Law brings favor:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26)

Not one mention is made here of Moses and the Law. Hebrews 11 only mentions what Moses accomplished by faith.

Fifth, faith conquers in victory and defeat:

By faith, people of God have:

Conquered kingdoms Accepted torture
Performed acts of righteousness Been mocked, scourged, and jailed
Obtained promises Been executed, tempted, impoverished, and afflicted for the same of His name.
Closed lion's mouths  
Quenched fire  
Saw resurrections  
Put armies to flight  

Sixth, by faith the Old Covenant and New Covenant saints are perfected together:

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 11:39-12:2)

We who are alive today are running our races before a stadium of those who have run before us. By faith we can break their records and know that they will cheer our success and encourage us in our momentary failures. The finish line for us all is Jesus. At the crossing of the tape, we will be like Him.

Tuesday: Final Meditations

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