Without faith, the Bible is only religious literature; without the Bible, faith is only inaccurate assumption.
I often use anecdotes in my messages, but I try to make sure they’re not evangelical urban legends. I spent some time researching one of them lately, just because I saw no version of it preceding 1994. However, I managed to track one version back to a California newspaper article dated 1915. It reads like this:
“In the old prison at the Place of Skulls, Madrid, many, many years ago the learned Prince of Granada, heir to the Spanish throne, was imprisoned by the order of the crown lest he try to usurp the throne. He was kept in solitary confinement for thirty-three years, and when death at last released him from this living tomb the following researches, taken from the Bible and marked with an old nail on the walls of the cell, told how his brain sought employment through the weary years: “In the Bible the word ‘found’ I found 1,853 times, the word ‘Jehovah’ 4,855 times and the word ‘reverend’ but once and that in the ninth verse, one Hundred and Eleventh Psalm. The eighth verse of the One Hundred and Seventeenth Psalm is the middle verse of the Bible. The ninth verse of the eighth chapter of Esther is the longest verse, and the thirty-fifth verse of the eleventh chapter of St. John is the shortest. In the One Hundred and Sixth Psalm four verses are alike—the eighth, fifteenth, twenty-first and thirty-first. Each verse of the One Hundred and Thirty-sixth Psalm ends alike. “No names or words with more than six syllables are found in the Bible. The thirty-seventh chapter of Isaiah and nineteenth chapter of II Kings are alike. The word ‘girl’ occurs but once in the Bible and that in the third verse and third chapter of Joel. There are found in both books of the Bible 3,586,483 letters, 773,693 words, 31,373 verses, 1,139 chapters and 66 books.”¹
When someone is stuck in a cell for decades with nothing but a Bible, we imagine a different outcome than trivia on steroids. And yet, a similar problem afflicts Christians in all kinds of environments where the Bible is regularly opened. Though we have multiple translations, and even delivery formats, physical, electronic, and audible, many of us still possess a feeble, inoperative faith, hardly able to withstand even simple challenges.
The dropout, or rather, knockout rate among evangelicals is unacceptably high. And we can’t keep blaming churches, preachers, materials, relevance factors, etc. We’ve certainly rigged Christian culture for maximal learning experiences, yet the Bible is not just a learning manual. Yes, it tells us what to believe, but then enables us to believe it.
First, by telling us what to believe, it brings us into alignment with the nature of reality itself. You might say the Bible makes our faith intelligent and accurate.
“For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them” (Heb. 4:2a).
“Us” refers to the church, and “them” refers to Old Testament Israel. Yes, Israel had a gospel, one that God gave through Moses:
Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, 17 and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey”’ (Ex. 3:16).
This promise was good news (gospel) to a race of beaten-down slaves. The promise of freedom and a superabundant land had been preached to them, and it gave intelligence to their faith. None of the Israelites thought they were going to ‘Vegas. They knew what to expect. God even gave a description for their faith to latch onto. The land would be “Flowing with milk and honey.” The imagery was supposed to appeal to their emotion, their desire to have it. Faith not only involves believing rightly, but wanting what is believed.
And then finally, they were to intentionally trust in God to get them there and get them in, as He had told them, “…I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you.” (Ex. 23:31).
Faith wasn’t supposed to be blind and ignorant. It had a certain shape to it (a land), a certain appeal (a good land), and a certain trust in God (“I will bring you up…to the land”).
This faith shape supplied the underlying theme of Israel’s journey out of Egypt. Before they even arrived, God was already giving laws concerning how they were to act in the land, meaning that in His mind, there was no doubt they would get in.
And yet “the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it” (Heb. 4:2b NKJV). Apparently, the entire time God was making promises to them about their destiny, a severe disconnect persisted. Within the people, there was no substantiation, that is, vivid anticipation, which chiefly characterizes faith (c.f. Heb. 11:1). Not to mention there was no trust in God, either.
When the people finally arrived at the border of the promised land, they were far from possessing an intelligent, passionate, resolved faith that could receive it.
Accordingly, those few who had gotten a sneak preview of the land, came back with a report worthy of Eeyore.
Num. 13:27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”
30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”
God had earlier proven Himself by freeing the Hebrews through devastating plagues upon their Egyptian captors, had parted the Red Sea for their escape, and sustained them in the wilderness with manna. It was this God who promised them entrance into the land. But when it came right down to it, His words had not profited the people.
The Bible tells us God was indignant at their faithless attitude. He turned the people around and led them back into the wilderness, where they wandered another forty years, until that unbelieving generation all died. None of the faithless ever entered, though out of the million or so of them, two individuals did—Caleb and Joshua—the only two who argued for entering the land that day. The only two who had mixed God’s word with faith.
Before their initial approach to the land, Israel only had a couple years of “word” at most. Our church has had ten—ten years of hearing the gospel. It has been a message not of a physical land, but something better—the incarnate God who lived on this earth, died for our sins, and rose in glory providing new life for the present, and the hope of our resurrection for the future. Ten years of hearing about the character and power of God, His absolute lordship and grace. That’s ten years of Sundays—520 times opening the Bible. Add weekly small groups and the number doubles to 1,040. Add personal times of listening to audio Bible, reading electronic Bibles on cell phones, or good old, hardcopy reading, and the number jumps into the thousands (hopefully).
In a way, we’ve been favored beyond Israel. God has given us so much time to mix the word with faith. We have absolutely no excuse if we show up in front of Him spiritually bankrupt. Hopefully, we’ve taken advantage of this kindness, and if we have another ten years, we’ll do more of the same.
But we’ve all found out how difficult it is to have faith, especially in the face of daunting circumstances. Where does faith come from? The answer again, lies with the Bible, for the very word that tells me what to believe, gives us the faith to believe it.
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
Faith is not a native product some people have by temperament. It has to come to us. If faith must come, that means it wasn’t ours to begin with. Furthermore, faith comes from hearing, and the word “hearing” signifies more than simply eardrums receiving auditory signals. It refers to the attitude of the potential receiver—simple openness to message content.
Yet in certain circumstances, when we arrive at a gathering of believers, our mood, opinions, anxieties, or simple distractions create a noise barrier that at heart level, deflects the word. An entire string of scripture that might have impacted your faith, may simply bounce off of you. Later someone asks, How was church? You shrug and think you could take it or leave it.
In the meantime, you wonder why giants continue to remain in your personal life, frustrating you, scaring you, blocking your way. They are mountains only faith can move, nothing else. Nor will God brush them out of your way. In fact, He seems determined to keep them there, until we learn to mix faith with word. And bound up in the word we are supposed to believe—yea, in the very same package—is the faith we need to believe it.
You’d think people who spend a lot of time with the Bible would have an easier experience with these things. Not so. A few years back, a talented young preacher started a church that quickly grew into the thousands. He became a hot commodity, writing books and being invited to conferences. Then I heard the church he started had fired him. Apparently, he’d become ego-centric, hard to get along with, proud, and arrogant.
Much later, when he, by the Lord’s grace, re-emerged, he explained what had gone wrong. His method of being in the Bible had at first consisted of coming to it, receiving it into his heart, then speaking it out to others. The Lord had blessed this Page-Heart-Mouth pattern. But an unfortunate habit grew of his leaving the heart—his mixing bowl of word and faith—out of it. It was a time-saver, and for such a busy, growing ministry, such streamlining seemed prudent.
His new approach involved going to the page, trusting his agile intellect to gather meaning, and then sharing it with others—Page-mouth-page-mouth. Though he skimped on mixing the word with faith, and still continued for a while to thrill others, he himself gradually ceased being affected. And eventually the applause stopped.
I don’t share this example for the sake of wagging my finger, but as a warning for the rest of us. If such a gifted servant could fall into these straits, how about we who only open the Bible half as much? And when we do manage to crack its pages, how often do we truncate the message by preferring the informational part of it only? Some of us like only the moral commentary. Others, the inspirational content. Some, the practical instruction. Yet God intends this Word, and the fullness of it, to become ours at heart level, the place of loyalty and love, of transformation, of passion and pursuit. Whenever we hear the gospel of the glorious Christ, God intends for us to profit every time.
No threadbare doctrine. No stale platitudes. No trivia.
Only an accurate word with an enlivening faith, mixed together.
¹ Lompoc Journal, “Facts About the Bible, Compiled by a Royal Prisoner in a Living Tomb,” Number 30, 10 December 1915.