In our last episode, we looked at an alternative way of interpreting Genesis 1: 1-2 based on an idea developed by ancient Jewish sages. Today I’d like for us to look at another biblical concept in the light of how at least some ancient Jews saw things—the idea of “believe.”
The concept of believe is found all over Jesus' teaching. To start with, let's look at an incident from Matthew chapter 17. As background to this incident, there is a large group of people gathered to see Jesus, and a man comes up to Jesus, bringing his son. He tells Jesus the boy is an epileptic and has severe seizures. He says he took the boy to Jesus' disciples, but the disciples could not cure him.
Jesus rebukes a demon, it comes out of the boy, and the boy is cured. And then it says this: “Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ’Why could we not cast it out?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your unbelief. For assuredly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.’"
In Mark chapter 9 is another account of this incident. In Mark’s account we find Jesus telling the man, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
Let's look at another incident in Matthew. This one is from chapter 21. It's morning and Jesus is hungry. He and the disciples are walking around, and they come upon a fig tree. Jesus goes up to the fig tree, hoping to find some figs to eat, but doesn't find any figs on it. He says to the fig tree, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again,” and immediately the tree dries up.
The disciples wonder how the tree dried up so soon. Jesus says to them:
“Assuredly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' it will be done, and whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
Let’s look at something else. In Luke chapter 8 is the account of how a man named Jarius comes to Jesus and tells Him his daughter is very sick. He wants Jesus to go heal his daughter. Jesus sets out to go, but while He is on the way, He gets delayed when a woman touches the hem of His garment and is herself healed of a bleeding disorder. By the time Jesus gets on His way again, a messenger has come from Jarius' house telling him not to bother having Jesus come, for his daughter has died. Jesus hears this, turns to Jarius and says, “Do not be afraid. Only believe, and she will be made well.”
All these passages we’ve looked at have the same theme—all things are possible to him who believes; faith as a mustard seed can move mountains. There are other passages in the Gospels where Jesus says basically the same thing—what you believe will be done. What you pray for will be granted, if you believe it will be.
This is something Jesus talked about many times. These statements are very clear. You don't have to spend hours studying and interpreting them. They are clear, flat-out statements from the mouth of Jesus Himself. But yet these are some of the most troubling statements in the entire Bible.
The reason they are so troubling is simple: Jesus plainly says it, but in our experience, we know it is not true. We've asked for something and believed we would get it but didn't. We had faith, but what we wanted and asked for didn't happen. I daresay there's not a single Christian in the world who has not had personal experience with that.
Why, then, did Jesus say it so often and so clearly if it's not true?
That's a question Christians have struggled with, and they've come up with various answers to explain it.
Some point to James 4: 3 where it says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” People take this and say that you don't get what you ask for because you ask for your own selfish motives and not in accordance with the will of God. They back this up with First John 5: 14 which says, “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us and if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions we have asked of Him.” So you don’t get what you ask for, even if you have faith that you will get it, because what you ask for is not in accordance with God’s will.
Other people, though, take a different approach. They use First John 3: 22, which says, “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” They back this up with John 9: 31, where some of the Jews said, “Now we know that God does not hear sinners.” From these passages people say that the reason we don’t get the things we ask for, even if we have faith that we will get them, is because we have sin in our life.
Still other people take another route. They point to James 1: 6, where it says, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt.” They back that up with what Jesus said in Matthew 21, “If you believe and do not doubt…” From these, they say that the reason we don't get the things we ask for, even though we have faith that we will get them, is that, although we believe we will get them, there is a little bit of doubt. We must ask in complete faith, with no doubt whatsoever.
These are the most popular explanations people offer for why we don’t get what we ask for even if we have faith we will get it—we ask for the wrong reasons, or we have sin in our life, or we don't have complete, total faith.
I'll tell you though, I've heard those explanations all my life, and I've never believed them. I've always looked at them as excuses. I mean, think about it. If you have to ask for 100% pure reasons, and if you have to be 100% without sin in your life, and if you have to have 100% faith with not even one iota of doubt, then why would Jesus have bothered to utter those words in the first place? He would have been talking about requirements that are impossible for anyone to fulfill.
Let's face it. No one is going to have 100% pure reasons; no one is going to be without sin in their life; no one is going to have 100% faith, so why would Jesus even have brought the subject up if those were the requirements? I don't think He would have. He would have been wasting His breath. That's why I think all these "reasons" people have come up with are merely excuses.
What, then, was Jesus talking about when He said things like, “For assuredly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you"?
I'll be frank with you. I don't know for sure. This is one of the things in the Bible that I have wondered about and wondered about for years. I know I don't accept any of the popular explanations we talked about earlier. I don't think any of those are right. I don't have an answer to this. All I can do is tell you some of the things I think about related to this, when I'm trying to make sense of these things Jesus said.
First, I think of the use of the word "believe" or "faith" in the New Testament. Here is a good place to point out that there is no difference between “faith” and “belief” in the Bible. The same Greek word is used in all instances, it’s just that in English translation, sometimes it gets translated as “belief,” while other times it gets translated as “faith.” Some Christians get in complicated discussions about the difference between faith and belief, but in the biblical sense, there is none. It’s just one word in the Greek manuscripts.
So having said that, let’s look at the use of this word for faith or belief in a certain context. Part of John 3: 16 says, “That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In Acts, Paul told a man, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.”
There are about 150 passages in the New Testament that connect salvation, or going to heaven, with believing in Jesus. The Bible presents believing in Jesus as a decision you make. It's never presented in the Bible that believing in Jesus is a feeling you acquire or that believing in Jesus is something you do after seeing some sort of proof. The idea in the Bible is that you decide whether or not you are going to believe in Jesus.
That might not make sense to us, because we don’t think of believing as a decision we make, but that’s how it’s presented in the Bible, at least in the context of believing in Jesus. Think for a minute what that means. It means you make the decision. That means you are not an actor playing a role that has been written for you; you write your own role. Since believing in Jesus is something you decide whether to do not, you write your own script. You write your own part.
No one writes your part for you. You are not an actor playing a role that someone else has written. You make your own decision. You are the one that determines it.
That's what "believe in Jesus" in the context of salvation implies.
Let's take that idea and transfer it over to what Jesus said about belief or faith in another context, where He said, “Assuredly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you."
We can look at that as Jesus telling us that in our lives we are not actors playing a role that someone else has written for us. We’re not even actor playing the role God has written for us. Instead, we write our own script. We determine our own role. You can interpret this as Jesus saying, “You are the one who decides whether that mountain is here, or whether it is over there.”
That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? It would seem that the mountain is either here or there no matter what you want. It would seem that the mountain is where it is, and what you want doesn’t have anything to do with it. That's one way of looking at it.
But what if there’s another way of looking at things? What if we take the position that what Jesus is really saying is, "Reality is within you." Of course, we don't have a record in the Bible of Jesus saying "reality is within you,” but we do have a record of Jesus saying something very similar.
In Luke chapter 17, the Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom of God will come. Jesus replies that people won't go around saying “here it is” or “there it is“ because, He says, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”
What in the world does that mean?
Well, we know that Jesus was born into at least a partially Jewish culture around 2000 years ago. There's a lot in that ancient Jewish culture that is reflected in the teachings of Jesus. But Christians don't always see those things because they've never really looked at the different strains of thought in ancient Judaism. Most Christians have no idea about all the different strains of Jewish thought back in Jesus' time. They don't get talked about in popular, institutional Christianity, and so very few Christians recognize the traces of them in the New Testament. But they're there.
We'll take a look at one of them. But first, let’s look at Judaism in general. Within Judaism, there is something called the Torah. You've probably heard that word before. It refers to the first five books of the Old Testament—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those five books formed the foundational basis of ancient Judaism. But the complete concept of Torah in Judaism was wider than that. It includes those five books plus two other things. These two other things contain ancient Jewish thought about the books of the Torah.
One of those other things we talked about in the last episode, when we talked about the concept of "ages" in the Bible. We talked about the writings of ancient people called the "Jewish sages,” and we saw that those writings are interpretations of the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. The writings of those sages form what is called the "Talmud." That’s the second part.
The third part consists of writings called the Zohar. The word Zohar refers to writings which are said to explain the mysteries and secrets of the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. The study of those mysteries and secrets is called "Kabbalah" within some strains of Judaism. Kabbalah refers to what some Jews consider to be mysteries and secrets hidden in Genesis through Deuteronomy.
In the 1800's and early 1900's, Kabbalah—these mysteries and secrets—fell out of popularity within most of Judaism, due largely to science, which takes a dim view of stuff like that. But in the late 20th century, interest in Kabbalah began to renew in parts of Judaism. Maybe you’ve heard of the term "Hasidic Jew.” That's a term that refers to a sect of Judaism interested in Kabbalah and that, at least to some degree, follow the practices and teachings of the Zohar. They are technically called "Kabbalahists." Of course, Kabbalahist thought was around during the time of Jesus. It has existed, according to Jewish tradition, in one form or another, since the very beginning of Judaism.
What is it concerned with? Well, remember we talked about the Talmud. The Talmud is concerned with man's obligations to God. It’s about God's laws, God's rules and regulations, how God expects people to live. But the the Zohar is about the relationship between the spiritual and the physical. It's sort of the reverse of the Talmud. The Talmud is about our relationship to the spiritual. The Zohar is about the spiritual's relationship to us—how the spiritual interacts with the physical and how God interacts with us.
In the writings of the Zohar, we find a particular way of looking at reality. According to this view, physical reality, that’s the world around us, is an illusion in our minds. True reality lies in the spiritual dimension. The physical dimension is not true reality; it’s just an illusion contained in our minds.
In this line of thought, the spiritual realm is called the Upper World, and the physical realm is called the Lower World. The Upper World is where true reality is. Here in the Lower World, where we are now, we only experience part of reality, only a fragment of what is actually around us, because our human senses are only able to perceive a tiny bit of what is actually there. In other words, this idea says that there is much more going on around us than we ourselves can hear, touch, feel, and see.
Imagine a worm that is born inside a radish and lives its whole life inside that radish. The worm never gets out of the radish and never sees anything outside the radish, so it has no perception of anything outside that radish. To the worm inside the radish, the radish is the entire universe; the radish is all of reality.
According to this idea, we're like the worm trapped inside the radish. Since the radish, or the physical universe, is all we ever see or feel, we think the physical universe is all that exists. Since we only perceive a small part of reality, we think that the small part we perceive is all that exists. What the Kabbalahists attempt to do is break out of that radish, so to speak, break out of the limitations of what we can perceive with our human senses and begin to perceive a hint of the spiritual around us, in other words, begin to perceive true reality.
These ideas are complicated, and I’ve just presented a simplified version, but the important thing related to what we're talking about today is that according to this line of thought that was found in ancient Judaism, including the Judaism of the time of Jesus, what we experience as reality is not really real. It's an illusion in our minds. True reality is very much different.
Remember that these ideas were around at the time of Jesus. It may be that some of Jesus' sayings that don't make sense to us, like “the Kingdom of God is within you,” “do not fear, only believe,” “if you have faith as a mustard seed you could say to this mountain move from here to there and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you” may be reflecting these ideas.
It could be that these sayings of Jesus are telling us we don't perceive things as they are but only as they appear to be, and things as they are, are actually a lot different than they appear to be.
You might think this idea is weird. And it may be. It’s certainly different than we usually think of things. I'm not saying that Jesus' teachings definitely reflect this kind of thought. I don't know one way or another. But I think it's a possibility to consider. As weird as this stuff sounds, to me at least, it makes more sense than the other alternatives we've talked about.
It makes more sense than saying, “You don't have enough faith,” or “You have sin in your life,” or “You're asking for the wrong reasons.”
I knew a woman who had a daughter who had a severe neurological disorder since early childhood. As an adult, this girl could not walk. She was in a wheelchair and couldn't do anything for herself. Her mother related how one day some people from their church came over to visit. A woman from their church walked over to her daughter and said, “If you had enough faith, you could get out of that wheelchair and walk, because that's what the Bible says.” This woman told me that absolutely devastated her daughter, as you can imagine.
There is a family around here whose young daughter disappeared without a trace a number of years ago. I'm sure her parents and others have prayed many times over the years, asking God to let their daughter be found OK, but that hasn't happened. Would you want to tell them the reason that hasn't happened is because they have hidden sin in their lives which causes God not to hear their prayers, or it's because they don't keep God's commandments, or it's because they don't have enough faith?
I wouldn't. But what I could tell them is this: Maybe things aren’t really as they appear to be to us. Maybe we're not seeing the whole picture. Maybe, just maybe, the whole picture is not as bad as it seems to be.