What is Faith?


Luke 8:40-56

Text Comment

v.40     Jesus returned from the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee where he had been when he delivered the man from the legion of demons in the previous episode.

v.42     Jairus was the official responsible for the arrangements of the synagogue services and a leader among the local council of elders. Jairus knew of the Lord’s power to heal and naturally went to him in his desperation, but he didn’t have as strong a faith as the Gentile centurion of the same town who had sought healing for his servant. That man had understood that the Lord did not actually have to come to his house to heal his servant. His word would be effective no matter where hit was uttered.

            Only Luke, of the three synoptic Gospel writers, tells us that she was an only child. Luke was sensitive to details like that. Imagine the scene in a narrow street, with a large crowd pressing around the Lord.

v.43     A human touch here. Luke, a doctor himself, doesn’t tell us, as Mark does, that she had spent all her money on doctors and that far from helping her, her condition had only worsened. Can’t you see Luke hunched over his manuscript thinking to himself, “Well, I don’t need to add that extraneous detail.”

v.44     This woman had a condition that was both embarrassing and socially isolating, as it made her ceremonially unclean and so anyone who touched her became unclean. She was shut off from religious and social life. She approached Jesus in a crowd and touched him surreptitiously both to avoid having to explain her condition in the hearing of others and to avoid the reproach of people who couldn’t help touching her in the press of bodies.

v.45     Given the press of people it must have seemed a curious question. Peter typically speaks for the others. The fact that Jesus didn’t know is one of the many demonstrations both of his true humanity and of the fact that in the Gospels it is Jesus as a man who is ordinarily the subject of the narrative.

v.46     This is all very mysterious as must be so much of what the Lord did during his ministry? How could he have healed without knowing that he had? How could power have gone out of him without his willing it to happen? Who can say? Some have suggested that he knew precisely what had happened and for whom the healing was intended and that this question is just a means of bringing the matter to everyone’s attention. But that seems to me a highly unlikely interpretation of his words. Nothing in the narrative suggests that he already knew the answer to his question. But so often readers of the Gospel mix the Lord’s natures and assume that, as God the Son, he knew everything. As God the Son he did; but as a man — and in the Gospels we see him almost exclusively as a man — he did not.

            In any case, while we’re thinking of Jesus and this woman don’t forget Jairus facing this unwanted interruption, holding onto the Lord’s robe, pulling, desperate for Jesus to forge ahead and attend to his daughter.

v.47     She had probably turned away in virtual ecstasy: twelve years of misery had come to a sudden stop. She knew she had been healed. And now she was exposed. She came trembling. What would the crowd say? Would her healing be revoked? Would Jesus be angry at her attempt to steal a healing or because she had made him unclean by touching him? It must have been a bad moment for her.

v.48     The ESV has the Lord telling her that her faith had “made you well,” but the wording is exactly the same as in 7:50, where the Lord told that woman “Your faith has saved you.” Her healing was a sign of something greater the Lord had done for her. That is further indicated by his telling her to go in peace. On the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ that’s virtually an assertion that she had God’s blessing now resting upon her life. She has the blessing of God upon her. It was a kindness to her on the Lord’s part to say this publicly because it indicated that she was no longer someone who needed to be avoided.

v.49     It is not hard to imagine Jairus’ despair. The Lord had been nearby, almost to his home (Capernaum was a small village after all), and then this interruption. In stopping to treat a less serious medical condition and then taking time to talk about it, a life had been lost,  the life of his only child.  I wonder what he thought about that poor woman who had brought the Lord to a halt.

v.50     Again “she will be healed,” is the same word as in v. 48. She will be saved. Healing is a kind of salvation but it is also a picture of a far greater salvation.

v.51     Peter, James, and John were unquestionably the Lord’s innermost circle of disciples. But there may be a practical consideration at work here as well. Some of his disciples needed to witness what was about to happen and indeed make a record of it when they wrote the Gospels, but when the girl woke up she should not be surrounded by a crowd of strangers.

v.53     The girl was dead, as the people knew and as the phrase “her spirit returned” in v. 55 indicates. But when Jesus is involved, death is really only sleep, an interval, because one will awaken to life again.

v.55     This is a lovely touch: the Lord’s practical sympathy and interest. Everyone else was overawed, but he knew, after her illness and death-throes, she would be ravenously hungry when she awoke, healthy again, and the Lord immediately thought of that and prepared for it. The Lord both knows your needs – all of them – and cares to meet them!

v.56     The story was going to spread, but the less eyewitness testimony from direct participants the better. The miracles spoke for themselves but too many were being misled by them to think thoughts about Jesus that weren’t true; they were missing their deeper meaning and drawing the wrong conclusions from them.

These two miracles belong together, not only because they were woven together in the actual event, the one as it were an interruption of the other, but because the Lord turned them both into lessons in the power of faith. He told the woman with the issue of blood, “Your faith has saved you.” And he told Jairus, after receiving the news of his daughter’s death, “Only believe and she will be saved.” We have here, in other words, by the express teaching of the Lord, a lesson about faith. That is particularly important because, as we have seen, some of the Lord’s miracles were performed without any exercise of faith on the part of the beneficiary. The widow at Nain neither sought nor expected the Lord to raise her son to life again; but he did, on his own initiative. The feeding of the 5,000, when we get to it, will be another miracle performed without reference to anyone’s faith. No one expected it; no one asked for it; no one even imagined it beforehand. But on several other occasions the Lord drew attention to the fact that the faith people invested in him was what brought the miracle to pass.

That was the case with the paralyzed man whose friends let him down through the roof to get him to Jesus. We read in Luke 5:20 that when Jesus saw their faith he healed the man after first forgiving his sins. In chapter 7 it was the centurion’s faith to which the Lord drew attention after he healed his servant. And, no doubt, it was the leper’s faith in 5:12-14 that brought his healing, though the word is not used. When he said to Jesus “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,” he was exercising the same faith in Jesus as did the paralyzed man and his friends, as did the centurion, and as did Jairus and this woman.

But what is faith? In English “faith” and “belief” or “believe” are two different words; I mean they belong to two separate word groups. There is no common spelling that links the two words though they mean similar things. But in Greek the words belong to the same word group and have simply the variations in spelling you expect of a noun and a verb of the same word group. The noun, “faith,” in v. 48 is the Greek πίστις and the verb “believe” in v. 50 is the Greek πιστεύω.

But what is faith? The term is, in fact, in many languages and certainly in English very elastic. Think of the way in which the terminology of faith is used today.

  1. It can mean simply optimism. “Have faith” can mean little more than “keep your chin up.”
  2. Or “faith” can mean a treacly sort of sentimentalism, over-sweet and cloying. When I was young a popular song went this way: “I believe – there is the language of faith – for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows. I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows.” Such belief we could call “wishful thinking.”
  3. In our day “faith” is used in social and political contexts to describe people who have some sort of so-called “religious” commitment. We talk about “faith-based” charities, about “people of faith,” or the “faith community,” as if you could use the term meaningfully to describe a group that included Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians but left out certain other people. The Tacoma News Tribune has a once-weekly column in which questions “of faith” are put to leaders of the “faith community” and we’ll be treated to an answer from, say, a Baptist preacher and a Buddhist monk. The illusion thus created is that the difference between a Christian and a Buddhist is of a different class than the difference between a Christian and an atheist, though I would be interested to hear someone from the paper attempt to explain why that is? Faith in such usage is an utterly empty term; if it can describe a Christian and a Buddhist, it can be used for every conceivable human viewpoint, including that of atheism, which, after all, is likewise a faith-commitment. An atheist believes there is no God. He is also a man of faith!

 

The every-ten year survey of the religious affiliations of Americans was released this past week. Predictably Washingtonians rate near the bottom, only some 34.6% of them claiming some religious affiliation sufficiently important to get them to a church, synagogue, or mosque from time to time. But one liberal Protestant minister, the executive director of Associated Ministries here in Tacoma, is not worried by such a statistic. He was quoted in the paper as believing that the vast majority of “people of faith” in Pierce County have chosen not to join a faith community. Rather, he thinks, they experience their spirituality through personal devotions, in the environment, at book clubs or at the local coffee shop. That, he said, reflects the culture of the Northwest.  [http://wwwthenewstribune.com/2012/05/2127723/new-study-washington-ranks-45th.html]

Again, if faith is what we share with the Northwest’s outdoor-loving, non-church attending, God-indifferent coffee-swillers, then the term has become meaningless. Something that can describe everything, describes nothing in particular.  Christians always, but perhaps especially today, need to be sure that they know the correct definition of their most important terms and stick with those definitions and do not allow them to be hi-jacked by a culture that has a vested interest in blurring the distinction between one thing and another. It is a Western and American intellectual conceit that Buddhists and Christians are both “people of faith” in a sense in which the academics and media types are not. Baloney! Everyone “believes” some fundamental things about life.

G.K. Chesterton once reminded his readers that words can have many meanings. “For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.” One might use the word “good” in very different ways. You must be alert to that. T.C. Hammond, the 20th century theologian told his students that their first responsibility was to define their terms. [Nelson, 108]

So what is faith? In the Bible faith is a very particular thing. Some people have it, some people don’t. Some people have more of it than others. So what is this faith? Well, even in the Bible the terminology of faith can be applied to different thing. “Faith” can sometimes be used as a synonym for the truth that is to be believed. In Jude we are summoned to contend for the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” There faith refers to the Gospel, the message we believe.

But most of the time in the Bible faith is the confidence, the reliance placed by a human being in the truthfulness and the power of God or Jesus Christ. There is in faith a personal commitment, composed of trust that the Lord can meet a need and an expectation that the Lord will be willing to help as he alone can. I could take the time to prove this to you in a variety of ways. In the Bible faith is shown to be a personal commitment to Jesus, a reliance upon him, a placing of our lives in his hands by the way in which faith is in various places likened to “coming to Jesus” or “waiting on the Lord” or “receiving Jesus” or “looking to Jesus” or “laying hold of Jesus” or “calling upon Jesus.” This same view of faith is found in the synonyms that are here and there substituted for it: words such as “love” and “hope” or even “submit” and “obey.” But we needn’t examine all of that evidence now because by the Lord’s own testimony we have in this incident a description and account of real faith at work. Here we have biblical faith in action. Here we can see what it is. Faith is the confidence, the reliance that Jairus and the woman placed in Jesus. It was in part the knowledge they had that Jesus could heal the sick, a knowledge based on the sheer weight of evidence that he had already done so on many occasions: lepers, paralyzed people, people possessed by demons, people dying of various diseases, and so on. But it was also their confidence, I’m not sure exactly where that came from, maybe from the same eyewitness testimony, that Jesus was never unwilling to help when asked. And so they went to him to seek the help he and no one else could provide. And they were not disappointed.

People think of faith often as what is necessary when one cannot prove or see the Lord. And there is a sense in which that is so. Paul speaks twice in his letters of Christians living by faith and not by sight. There is a difference, of course. Faith, in Hebrews 11, is defined as “the conviction of things not seen.” There is a sense in which that is absolutely true. But the fact is, Jairus and this woman both exercised faith in Jesus and they could see him, touch him, and hear him. Jesus calls their confidence in him faith, no matter that he was standing right in front of them.

Now the importance of all of this lies in the fact that this specific definition of faith – the reliance we place on Jesus Christ to do for us what we cannot do ourselves, to save us in every respect – has such important implications and applications. This kind of faith, or faith of this kind, has consequences.

  1. It is, for example, the death, the end of all thought of self-salvation.

 

What is perfectly obvious in both these cases of healing is that the healing was performed by Jesus and with a power he wielded and he alone could wield. Faith may have connected these two to Jesus and to his power but it was Jesus who made the woman well and Jesus who raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. The woman had, we are told, exhausted all hopes of finding a cure by any other means. The doctors couldn’t help her and anyway she was broke. But then came the reports, one after another, about the astonishing works of power that Jesus of Nazareth was performing throughout Galilee. She probably paid little attention at first a natural reserve that somebody who has been told too many times to do this or that begins to build up but after a second report and a third she began to wonder. What are these people talking about? Perhaps then she actually met someone who had been healed, perhaps even someone she knew, someone whom she knew had been sick and whom she could tell was now fit as a fiddle. So she made her way to Capernaum to find this Jesus and when she found him he was in the midst of a large crowd of people. Perhaps she had thought she might find him alone and she could have a private word with him about her situation. Fat chance of that any longer!

So she took her chance. She had heard too much about Jesus’ power to heal to go home without making an attempt and so she fought her way through the press of people, making everyone she touched unclean, and got close enough to touch his robe and suddenly, somehow she knew she was healed. She could feel it in her body. Twelve years of this had made her an expert in reading her body and she knew her disease (probably a uterine hemorrhage) was gone. And then Jesus told her that her faith had saved her. Well she knew better than to think that her faith had the power to heal twelve years of bleeding. Jesus had done that. But her faith, her confidence in Jesus’ power to heal had brought her to Jesus and made her push through the crowd until she was close enough to touch him. Indeed, thinking that just a touch would be enough was itself some measure of her confidence in the power Jesus had over disease. To say her faith had saved her was shorthand for saying her faith had availed her of Jesus’ power.

It is, I suppose, theoretically possible that God might have established some other condition for salvation, some other instrument by which to lay hold of the power of Christ. Perhaps it might have been running a sub-ten second 100 meter dash. His grace would then have made it possible for his chosen ones to run the race that fast while no one else could. And by now we would be used to seeing little children, pregnant mothers, aged grandparents streaking down the track at world-record speed, to the mystification and the offense of the unbelieving world. “Why can they run so fast?” We might even see, though rarely, people rise from their deathbeds to make one glorious dash down the track only to break the tape in under ten seconds and then collapse and die.; such would be the so-called deathbed conversion. Since no one could run such a race apart from the grace and power of God, salvation would still be all of God’s grace and completely God’s gift. But it wouldn’t be as clearly and obviously God’s power and God’s gift as it is when someone turns to Jesus and asks him to do for him what he cannot do for himself.

It is all so clear when it is by faith. Jairus came to Jesus begging for help; the woman came to him just hoping to get close enough to touch his clothing. These people knew where the help they needed was to be found and so they went to him. We have here a picture of the salvation of every human being.

It never would have entered either of these dear people’s minds to think that they had effected the healing by their own effort or by their own faith, as if faith in and of itself has such wonderful power. That’s the way the term is being used in our day. Faith! Just faith! Whatever faith is, whatever the word means to you, faith will rescue you, faith is what will deliver you. No! Faith is reliance on Jesus to do what he can do and only he can do. He did what he did for them for one reason and one reason only: because they thought he could and would! Faith is the saving grace it is because it is our personal reliance on the Savior.

  1. It is faith — salvation is by faith — also because its weakness does not nullify the effect. That is to say salvation by faith is salvation by Christ and the proof of it is that the weakness of our faith does not nullify its effect.

 

The woman’s faith wasn’t what it might have been. She should have come to Jesus openly and declared her need. The leper did. He also was unclean, isolated.  Many others had by this time. She was embarrassed and afraid. But it didn’t matter to Jesus. He was happy to help her even if she had, as it were, snatched a miracle without asking. This woman was, if you can think of it in these terms, the only impolite person in all the miracle accounts of the Lord. Jairus’ faith was not as strong as the centurion’s faith had been. Jairus was apparently under the impression that Jesus had to appear at his daughter’s bedside to affect the cure. The centurion knew better than that and he was a gentile. He had asked the Lord to cure his servant from a distance, sure that he could. I suspect Jairus had been crushed when well-meaning friends brought him the news that his daughter had died. His hopes were dashed; it was now too late. He had either not heard of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain or he simply hadn’t the faith to imagine such a thing being done for his daughter.

He was ready to turn and leave Jesus there in the midst of the crowd of people and make his sad way home to comfort his grieving wife. Too late for his daughter! Almost, but not quite. His world had come crashing down. The Lord’s remark in v. 50 suggests that Jairus may actually have thought, as we can well imagine him thinking, “If only I had got to Jesus sooner. If only I had been more insistent. Why, this woman got her healing by forcing her way in.” It was Jesus who told him not to despair and to continue to believe, which, in the context, meant, “You think it is too late, but it is not. My power is not limited in that way. You were right to come and get me. You’ll see.”

And what did Jairus think as they made their way home? Did the woman who had been healed follow along to see what would happen? I suspect, don’t you, that she was more confident than Jairus was; given what had just happened to her.

But then, the six of them entered the room where their daughter lay still and growing cold and in a few moments Jairus’ world has been turned upside down. Do you see? The greater thing, the raising of the dead, the most stupendous thing, the most wonderful deliverance was granted to the one of the two with the weaker faith.

There is proof, if proof were needed, that the nature of faith – this reliance we place on Jesus – is simply to connect us to him and to bring his involvement into our lives. Jesus is not hostage to our faith. He performed miracles when no one’s faith was involved. But when faith was present – weak or strong – he acted.  Let a man or woman turn to Jesus for help, really turn, and it is enough. He will act and it is his acting, not our believing that tells the tale. Our reliance is on him, not on the strength of our reliance on him.

The old writers used to remind their readers of this fact because they were so aware of the temptation to let this understanding of faith slip from our minds. Jesus said, “Your faith has saved you.” But they reminded their readers that it wasn’t their faith that was crucified for them. It wasn’t into their faith that they had been baptized. It wasn’t their faith that promised to be with you to the end of the world, to hear their prayers and answer them, to forgive their sins, and at last to take them to heaven. Your faith can’t do anything of those things, but Jesus can and will. Your faith in Jesus is simply your acknowledgement of that fact. The way the word is used nowadays makes it obvious that people are making this very mistake about faith, as if it were faith in and of itself. It is not faith, it is Jesus. It is not believing; it is the one you are believing in and relying on!

All of us are, in a hundred ways, like Jairus and this woman. We are in great need of big things and small things we cannot ourselves supply; but we know of someone who can meet our needs, not only is able to meet them, but is willing to meet them. There is something supremely sensible in the summons that is addressed to us everywhere in the Word of God: there is someone able and willing to help you, rely on him.

That is what faith is: my reliance, your reliance on Jesus to do for me and for you what we cannot do for ourselves. That and that only is what Christians mean by faith.

People who have been Christians for a long time know how easy it is for faith to become something other than that: an idea, a set of principles, a cluster of religious habits. But look at Jairus and this woman; look hard at them and remind yourself again what faith really is — the faith by which you get started in the Christian life, the faith by which you live it every moment of every day — relying on Jesus to do for you what you cannot do for yourself.

These people were in the happy place of realizing their utter helplessness and terrible need: it was easier for them in some ways to place their reliance on Jesus because they had no alternative. Well, they did; they could have doubted the stories they heard, the testimonies that so many were giving of his healing power; they could have refused to lower themselves to beg for help.

But what they did is what you and I must do and do every day. As Robert Murray McCheyne, the saintly Scottish pastor once said: “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” He meant for you to do that every day, every hour. Why? Because as another wise man put it: “Faith is nothing less than the power of God placed at the disposal of man.” [A. Monod, Farewell, 30-31]

How can he say that? Because we do not have a record of one single instance in which someone came to Jesus for help and was turned away. And as he himself once promised: “he who comes to me I will never cast out.”