Monday, 9 March 2009

How Teaching Builds & Restores Faith

Heb 11.1 tells us that faith is ‘the substance of things hoped for...’ Hope is therefore the blueprint of faith. And hope deals with our expectations, our expectations of God, of life and of each other. When those expectations are not met we get disappointed and our faith takes a knock. How do we deal with those kinds of scenarios? Is there a way to move forward? Further how can we position ourselves to help others that are struggling with disappointment and unfulfilled dreams?

In our series on how people come to faith we have come to see the power of sharing a personal testimony and awesome impact of moving in prophetic revelation. But remember that these things seldom work in isolation. More often they work together and we can find ourselves flowing from one to the other, almost unconsciously. We now come to the point where I would like to unpack how teaching can be a powerful means of building and restoring faith.

Luke records a wonderful story in chapter 24 of his gospel. Two disciples are on a journey to a town nearby to Jerusalem called Emmaus. It is seven miles away. It is Easter – resurrection day, but their minds are in a bewildered state. They are in a downcast mood as they rehearse to one another the events that have just transpired that weekend. Suddenly a stranger draws near. It’s Jesus. But somehow they don’t recognise him. In fact Luke makes a point of saying, “But their eyes were restrained so that they did not know Him”, Luke 24.16.

Disappointment always affects our vision. It has a restraining power that stops us seeing clearly. It clouds our understanding so that we don’t really comprehend the truth of a situation. Such was the case with these two men. I want to use this story to show a process that Jesus used to bring them back to a point of faith. It has seven steps to it.

Step 1 – Jesus drew near
One of the greatest gifts we can give to another person who is downcast or going through inner turmoil of any kind is the gift of our presence. Jesus did not demand anything from them. He didn’t even care at this point that they didn’t recognise him. It is phrased beautifully by Luke, “Jesus Himself drew near and went with them”, Luke 24.15. We often speak of discipleship in terms of following Jesus. That’s great when we are in a place of faith or faith has been awakened. But here Jesus went with them. Sometimes in life we have to follow others in order to understand their world, their situation – their pain. Jesus did that. It allowed Him to see that they were sad and needed help.

Step 2 – Jesus asked questions
Asking questions is a great way of understanding another person’s perspective. It gives them the opportunity to explain themselves further. It gives us the opportunity to listen. This too is a great gift to give another person. Listening to another person tell their story requires concentration and openness on our part. It would have been so easy for Jesus to just ‘tell them straight’. Instead He goes on a journey with them. He plays ignorant of the events that He has been the centre of in order to help these men come to a new place of understanding – a new place of faith. Notice too how open ended the questions are. They require more than a simple yes or no response. The questions invite dialogue, Luke 24.17-18. They are free of any pre-judgement, criticism or censure.

Step 3 – Jesus allowed them to speak out of their disappointment
I am a great believer in the language of faith – so long as it reflects the reality that is in our hearts. If that is absent we become parrots. We become echoes with no true voice of our own. The language of faith is ultimately the language of the heart. It must be real there – for with the heart one believes, Rom 10.10. These men were in a crisis – a faith crisis. Before beginning to teach them, Jesus listened to them. He understood where they were coming from. He did not presume to speak into their situation before He understood their need. They were disappointed, they were sad. He could see that. But why were they sad? I have no doubt He already knew the answer to this question, but it is a wonderful lesson for us that, in humility, Jesus took the time and trouble to let them speak, to share their disappointment. Luke 24.21 is the crux of the matter for them, “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel...” Having heard their story, listened to their perspective and understood their dilemma Jesus now moves to the next stage.

Step 4 – Jesus challenged their unbelief
“Oh foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Messiah to have suffered these things and to enter into His Glory?” Luke 24.25-26. This is a full on challenge, which He then unpacks. Notice His assessment of them – they are ‘foolish’. They had not understood the wisdom of God demonstrated through a crucified and risen Messiah. Further they were ‘slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken’! It wasn’t that they didn’t believe; it was that their faith was selective. They believed some of the words of the prophet’s words, but not all that they had said. The prophecies about the glories of the coming Kingdom and the Messiah putting an end to all rule and authority – these were popular in the time of Jesus. But Is 53 – the song of the suffering Servant, that was a different matter. It didn’t quite fit their vision of a victorious Messiah. Finally Jesus asked His own question which is highly rhetorical. Once you see God’s wisdom and understand the full council of God it all makes sense. It couldn’t have happened any other way!

Step 5 – Jesus explained the scriptures
Notice that it is only now that Jesus begins to teach. Like a good farmer He prepares the ground first. I confess to being slightly jealous of these two men, (later I’ll explain why I think we can have the same experience today!). To have the resurrected Jesus take such a Bible study where He is no longer instructing His disciples to keep things secret until after the resurrection must have been awesome. He begins at Moses and all the Prophets. Later in the same chapter He reminds all the disciples, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me”, Luke 24.44.

This represents the threefold Jewish division of the OT books. They were; the Torah, the first five books of Moses. The Prophets; made up of Joshua, judges, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve Minor prophets. The Writings, of which the Psalms was the first in that section, consequently it became a synonym for it. This also included, Ruth, Esther, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, 1&2 Chronicles and Daniel. Jesus in effect covered the entire OT as we know it today showing how He fulfilled prophecy through shadows and types in the sacred text. He wanted these two disciples to have their faith grounded in God’s word. Jesus would be leaving them, but under the guidance of the Spirit, they would have the means of continuing to grow in wisdom and faith through the scriptures. Further Luke says, “He opened their understanding that they might comprehend the scriptures”, Luke 24.45. And this function has now been given to the Spirit – so that even today we can encounter what these two disciples experienced on the Emmaus road, John 16.12-15.

Later in the story they relate what happened on the inside as Jesus taught them, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road and while He opened the scriptures to us”, Luke 24 32. Truth explained has a powerful way of igniting the heart. Whilst the events of that weekend where totally out of the ordinary they were not unforeseen. This restored their Hope and galvanised their faith.

Step 6 – Jesus tested their hunger
This is a fascinating part of the story. They finally arrive at Emmaus and Jesus indicates that He is going farther. What will they do? Thank Him? Say goodbye? Carry on as before? The encounter for them has been life changing. They cannot simply let this ‘stranger’ go further without offering hospitality. “They constrained Him....” Imagine that. Jesus is constrained by their words. Why is this? I believe He was testing them to see if they had a deeper hunger. Despite the fact that He is still hidden from them they know something is different about this man. And in asking Him to stay they open the way for a deeper encounter to take place.

Step 7 – Jesus vanished when their faith was restored
Luke’s simple record of what took place next reminds us other times when Jesus did this. The first time was with a crowd of 5,000 men, Mark 6.41. The last was when He celebrated communion, when Jesus broke bread with His disciples on the night of His arrest, 1Cor 11.23-26. This simple fourfold act; He took bread, He blessed it, He broke it and He gave it to them; is like a mini parable in itself. Like Jesus we take what is available, what is insufficient for the needs around us and we give thanks. We do not look at what is in our hands; we look to the one who can multiply what we hold. Our confidence in Him is expressed through thanksgiving. We break it. And in breaking it we are reminded that He was broken. Yet His brokenness was enough for the whole world. All can be fed. All can be satisfied. Finally He gave. This is the ultimate proof of a loving God; for He is a giving God. He holds nothing back, not even His dearly beloved Son. So in giving we touch the very nature of God. We give out of what we have received, given thanks for, because it is now surrendered to God and allowed to be broken. It is often in brokenness that the needs of others are met.

I’m sure as Jesus stretched out His hands to offer them bread they would have seen the nail-scars. Two remarkable things happen in a moment. In an instant their eyes are opened and they know Him but before there can be any exchange or further dialogue He vanished from their sight, Luke 24.31. And that is the point of the story. Faith has been rekindled and they don’t need to see Him. For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, Heb 11.1. His truth is burning in their hearts. The word has taken root. Immediately they arose and travelled all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples of their encounter. Imagine that! The day is almost over. They are tired. They eat with Jesus but then they suddenly realise – it’s all true. Their faith is reignited and they are re-energised. So off they go.

When the truth takes hold of us it has a way of ordering and re-ordering our steps. What once seemed difficult can become a joy. What once appeared hopeless can become a new opportunity for the Kingdom of God. This happened to these two men. They couldn’t wait to pass on the Good News; “The Lord is risen indeed....” Luke 24.34.

The beauty of this story for me is the gracious way Jesus handled them. He knew when to draw close and He knew when to leave. His intervention was just long enough. Too short and they would have been left with only stirred hearts. Too long and they would have become too dependent on His personal presence. He was showing them how to truly live, rooted in the promises of scripture; a pattern that every disciple since then has to learn. My prayer is that we will grow more and more to be those kinds of disciples and that, in turn, will help along the way those who have hit disillusionment; teaching Biblical truth to them with the same sensitivity Jesus showed.