Claims on God
An article from SVM Winter 2018
Jesus Christ well recognized that many would make their claim on Him. The sensitive reader may detect that the word “claim” is being used here in the not so positive sense of the word.
“But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say? (Luke 6:46).
This question seems to capture a chronic problem in Christ’s relationship with human kind. Christ knew many would be acknowledging Him as Lord–they would not deny His words in principle, or deny His sovereignty over them. However, in various ways, they would claim an interest in Him, and use His name and authority as they needed while ordering off the menu–they are not truly interested in His wishes, only their own. God must be approached in faith; if not approached in faith there is a tendency to go “Lord, Lord” on Him, doing this in the belief we are worshiping Him in some manner.
We want to be careful though: have we done this ourselves? We may want to assert falsely we are free of such behavior. We should try to leave no room to rule ourselves out of the “Lord, Lord” crowd in this discussion given the narrow and wide gate options.
As we go forward in this article, mistaken claims on God will become more evident. The way we will do this, however, is by first switching our attention to perhaps an expanded presentation of what faith is. True faith will powerfully enlighten us to know His will and our place in it. In so doing we will have help to avoid the “Lord, Lord” approach to our God. This article is for everyone.
An Expanded Appreciation of Faith
I believe it would be helpful to expand our interpretation of faith. Perhaps yours does not need to expand, but we should always appreciate that our understanding will evolve, even of things we may think we have all worked out, and expect to ride on that understanding into the future and beyond. It is all about growing, but faith is not something I believe we can fully grasp and define as believers. It is always ahead of us, and for good reason. The technical, or theological, understanding of salvation by faith in Christ alone seems to be a well understood teaching in Christianity. It has been well emphasized that although works are important, they are not in themselves a pathway to God’s acceptance. Having stated that, we are continually encouraged and even admonished to have “more faith” in this life, and because of that sometimes we feel we are chronically coming up short. I suggest faith is something we should not concern ourselves with in the way of measuring or quantifying it in some way. From experience we know that is a debilitating exercise we want to avoid, and we have not been called to live in a deficit condition. I have seen that if we get caught up in quantifying faith we compensate for it by pretentious attitudes that only lead to unhealthy fears. Therefore, this is not an article about increasing one’s faith. Perhaps that brings a sigh of relief.
All the correct doctrines in Christian theology in one’s possession cannot usurp or replace the essence of what faith is or what faith does.
This is simply by a biblical definition: faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1). I cannot see it, yet I am to live by it. Faith comes by hearing, but when I turn to see from where I heard it, I can’t see a thing. This article cannot increase your faith, as you can see the article with your eyes, however we may help expand our thinking somewhat to start to see the possibilities instead of focusing on our shortfalls.
Where did Faith Come from?
We may answer this question with “Well, it must come from God of course!” But we should not simply jump to this conclusion just yet. Like the disciples, have we not asked Him to increase our faith, assuming this is something He gives out on request? For now, we leave this question unanswered. We will examine this further in the following paragraphs. It is this writer’s hope that a broader understanding of how faith entered into existence will expand our thinking of God and the reality under which we live – by faith.
Again, we can understand the theological doctrine of salvation by faith, but faith itself cannot be narrowly defined by doctrine. It is not an artificial criterion that God created to evaluate or test us. Faith is something that comes from deep within us, deep within our hearts; it is beyond normal rational understanding and evaluation. Faith is living a life without actually fully knowing, yet it connects us with God in a very intimate way. So, when we begin to comprehend the life we are called to live, and compare it to the immense magnitude of what we do not know and what forces that are trying to derail us, we must concede faith itself must be more powerful than what we can imagine. We are going to try and imagine it anyway.
Perhaps if we start out small we can grow our understanding into something big. Experience says that even the smallest expression of faith in God does not go unnoticed. Let us try and illustrate.
And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:5, 6).
The disciples felt insufficient in their faith, but Christ’s point to them was not to worry about that so much, but instead use the faith they had, even if it is a little! A small expression of faith can work wonders and have a lasting and widespread impact, and can ultimately lead to an individual’s acceptance by God into His holy presence for eternity. Why such an emotional and passionate reaction to something even so little? Does not God deserve something more? To resolve those questions, we need to go way back in time, and before time.
The Father “purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9) to enhance His own life with His creation and through a family. We know this as it is His will to be glorified. Since it is impossible for Him to create anything greater than Himself, or accept anything less than Himself, He purposed in Himself to have more of Himself! That is, God wanted more God! (See also SVM Spring 2013 – Blessed for His Namesake)
When He did this, it set in motion something so grand in scale and scope that we are only now seeing glimpses of its unfathomable reality. He has put His whole life into this, and we see this expressed by sending His only Son to suffer and die for it, so that we, and all of creation, can be reconciled to Him in a personal way.
When we express faith in His Son’s work to have the capacity to save us, there is a divine reaction, a kind of emotional response, a joy even, resulting in a divine acceptance of the faithful. The Father senses an appreciation, even when expressed in the smallest way, for what He has done for us through His Son. Moreover, the continued belief in God’s saving capacity evokes God’s grace upon the believer. Salvation, ultimately, is not a technical thing, it is a love thing – He desires to totally accept us. To be saved is to be accepted.
In many Biblical accounts in which faith in God is expressed, there is an ecstatic response that we get the sense occurring in the Highest. Conversely, we look at faithless behavior and wonder why God responds to it with such grief and anger. Perhaps we can now get a sense why–it is a rejection. God’s grief and anger does not come out of principle, He takes it very personally, and as you grow in Christ, you will too.
Our Interpretation of Ourselves
I often conclude emails to brethren with “Your Brother in the Faith”. We say, “the Faith” because in reality it is our faith which defines us, because it is through faith we learn to know how God defines and sees us. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17 NIV).
When the righteousness of God is revealed it is not just a matter of understanding that God is righteous, doing the right things and being more fully understood as righteous. When God’s righteousness is revealed to you it affects your very being, your thoughts and your existence.
So, we now can expand on what it is to live by faith, as it leads to a transformation in how we interpret the scriptures, ourselves, and even one another, and we do not even know how it is happening:
And He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-29).
How do you feel about how you got to where you are? You have done your Bible study, overcome trials, observed the commandments, the Sabbaths, had your highs and your lows, but these things are not what actually transformed you. If you can explain your actual transformation, then that can be a problem. It was your faith in God, be it great or small that enabled His work in you that has led to a transformation. You can praise Him fully and be thankful. Only Holiness can beget perfection and holiness. You do not actually have to be told not to boast. Why would you? Pride becomes of much less danger to you. As the man who scattered the seed, you will see the progress. From this writer’s experience, Biblical interpretation is often a reflection of how we interpret ourselves. Through faith the believer can begin to connect with the great overriding passion of God – which is for Himself, and more of Himself. If we can connect with this passion, we can get a better perspective of how deeply motivated He is for all that He is and all that He does. This means we need to get away from applying our own motivations to the scriptures and His promises and become one with His purposes. This new empathy for God connects us in a way that allows us to perceive deeper the “Whys” and the “Hows” of God’s interaction with creation and His will for it that even goes beyond all the study of the scriptures we can possibly do. The scriptures do not teach you everything, but His abiding and His Holy Spirit will (John 14:26; 16:13; 1 John 2:27).
If we can do this, we now have a greater appreciation of faith, and a more wholesome way of looking at faith itself. By faith we no longer need to artificially make our Christian life work, and be tempted to compensate for things we might lack confidence in. We no longer have to try and figure it all out. We do not have to make claims that are not ours to make. We do not need to attach ourselves to self-assured leaders who make great claims of their own, seemingly on our behalf. We do not even have to attach ourselves to special doctrines that we feel make us unique or more obedient. We are not so focused on our needs anymore and will no longer have to go “Lord, Lord”.
So, with this above expression of faith, we will now revisit claims on God
Making Claims on God
One major claim on Christ came from Peter:
From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:21-23).
Christ’s rebuke should be taken seriously by all of us in considering our own motivations with God and His will. The careful thing to note is that the things of men can easily be disguised as the things of God, even as Peter thought to transform the situation in his own favor. Claims may transpire in various forms such as doing Him a favor, defending Him, expressing our own Biblical vindication before others and authenticating one’s own cause. Claims to have a special calling over other churches of God are also very common, often expressed in terms of a lineage from a past major church leader or through other doctrinal assertions.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
If we are to pursue Christ, our best chance of success is to identify what claim we are trying to make in this faith for ourselves. Peter, over time, took this lesson seriously and to heart as we will now see.
A Privileged Faith
It is interesting that after this account Jesus then gave His disciples an actual vision of His glory for them to witness. Therefore, I suppose if someone were to make a special claim on Christ it would be Peter, who walked with and was taught directly by Jesus Christ, and was a personal witness to His glory on the mountain. However, he realized he did not find it necessary to make any special claim on God for his own sake. We should pay careful attention to his introductory words of his second epistle:
To those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:1).
The Holman translation brings it especially home:
To those who have obtained a faith of equal privilege with ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:1 HCSB).
In the first chapter of his second epistle, Peter went on to remind his readers about the transfiguration on the Mount (Matthew 17). Though he personally witnessed it, he saw it as something to reaffirm their faith, not just his own:
And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts… (2 Peter 1:19).
Emphasized above are the key words we want to focus our eyes’ attention to as we may often speed through verses like these. We are highlighting the fact the glorious transfiguration was for them all to hope and believe in – as though we too can be excited and hopeful in the very truth the transfiguration expresses. We indeed have a faith of equal privilege. He then makes this global point to capture his message further:
… knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19-21).
No interpretation of God is unique to the individual. The believer is part of a collective, there is no need for anyone to set themselves apart from the brethren by making a claim to having a special or uniquely accurate interpretation about God and His will. There is no need to claim a unique relationship with God that we feel others need to know about and revere. If God is working with someone in a unique way it will be known by God showing His claim on him or her, not the other way around. If someone has had a special experience with Christ as did Peter, he or she will make it about the sisters and brothers, and not about advancing the self.
Religious leaders frequently state that God must reveal the truth of prophecy to “one man”. But what is better poof of divine revelation, one man’s prophetic interpretation, or numerous identical revelations to brethren in many congregations? Notice how God spoke not to Paul about his future, but to His prophets in every city:
“And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me” (Acts 20:22-23).
Prophecy by the will of men is a claim on God to set themselves apart. Prophetic ideas and speculations can be very captivating marketing techniques. Often times it requires use of the prophetic writings that have already been fulfilled or are not applicable. We should also note that an exalted prediction of the self in the Faith is also a prophecy by man’s own will. A church is not to use prophetic interpretation (claiming to identify with a favorable “church era” for example) to market themselves.
From Peter’s perspective, false teaching distracts and takes away the promise of the morning star in our hearts. We already have the sure word of prophecy; we do not need to make it “more sure” by gravitating to the special claims of others or start making our own claims as a result of our learning or our own experiences.
When Christ sets us free, we can be free indeed. Our goal in faith is to lay hold of that truth and praise God for it.
False Claim Symptoms
In my pastoral ministry, detection of underlying spiritual issues seems to be a key element in helping others in their walk. The underlying issue is disguised by certain manifest behaviors that are themselves disguised.
One in particular that seems to manifest itself, ironically, is the need for deep study of the scriptures. Study of the scriptures is vital, but it is the motivation behind it that can be the problem.
You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life (John 5:39-40).
Evidently, coming to the scriptures in hope of justification is not the same as coming to Christ, though the same scriptures speak of Him. What is the disconnect?
What was preventing the Pharisees from coming to Christ in a sincere way? They had plenty of knowledge, which appears to have led to a kind of self-assurance. Self-assurance is exposed when that assurance is threatened. But for now, instead of pointing our fingers at the Pharisees we should look at our own experiences and struggles to make this a teaching moment.
Have we been tempted to try to prove something about ourselves to ourselves when we study the Bible? There is a kind of self-justification that comes through study, though we would never admit to it. When we approach the scriptures, Jesus evidently sees that the proper way of doing this would be in such a way as if we were approaching Him and finding out what is motivating Him. Our motivation behind the study of scripture will affect its impact on us.
Group Bible studies often are very revealing. I have often heard various claims of revelation not for the sake of the hearers, but for the sake of the contributor. When Bible studies get contentious it reveals a disconnect from the Person of Christ – someone is asserting a claim of knowledge before the hearers. It can be deceptively self-assuring to pontificate in front of others for one’s own sake.
The ministry of SVM receives all kinds of letters and emails from people. Many are appreciative and some offer corrections and suggestions, and sometimes some have a need to express rebuke and dismay. A few in particular who have written to correct or rebuke this work are doing it for their own vindication as evidenced by the tone of the email or letter. Christ Himself characterized it best: “Assuredly I say unto you, they get their reward”– we can make our claims and be deceptively satisfied. We are not above correction, but if it is gracious in that they are contributing toward all of us to succeed, then certainly we are receptive. If we do not approach the scriptures in faith, there can grow an underlying sense of insecurity about our place in the faith itself.
But 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 diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6).
Seeking God in the manner that the writer of Hebrews has in mind has everything to do with the reward you are actually seeking. What is it you want God to do, or tell you? God rewards those who are passionate for Him and His will. When approaching the scriptures in faith we want to discover further who He is. The Pharisees wanted to discover eternal life and justification for themselves and, as a result, when the Law Giver was in front of them, there was no recognition.
Abraham–Father of the Faithful
The story of Abraham being called to offer his only son Isaac to God is a familiar one and holds a crucial element in Biblical history. I remember seeing it in children’s story books on the Bible, with an image of a bearded patriarch holding a knife near a bound young boy, looking skyward the moment the Angel intervened. There are interpretations of the event in terms of how Abraham was even able to consider such a thing, some upset with the horrific nature of the request itself. In light of the developed theme of this article, let us look closer at this event.
Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham…. (Genesis 22:1).
In isolation this scripture, and with what blessings would follow (verse 17-18), one may conclude that the test was to see if Abraham would obey Him to some uttermost extent, and thus allow Himself to bless Abraham so greatly, and proliferate nations of people to further His will. However, this is really not even near the big picture being demonstrated in this drama.
The writer of Hebrews had a sense of what had occurred:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called, concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense (Hebrews 11:17-19).
We have emphasized the writer’s words here, as God asked him to sacrifice his only son.
Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son — blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:15-18).
We can see that this foreshadowed what God will do Himself at the crucifixion, but what may not be so evident is that not only did Abraham obey God to the utmost, he also shared in a piece of God’s own heart, and thus found great favor, connection if you will, with the Creator. Abraham, 100 years of age with one precious boy to show for it, perhaps shared a glimpse of what God Himself was willing to do, even though he could not have known it at the time, but he had no need to – faith requires no full explanation. What really was in God’s heart that He also saw in Abraham? Maybe a closer look at Abraham’s life might help, and how we may recognize something about our own faith.
When we read that Abraham is the father of the faithful, it is not so much that he is a father of those who pass difficult tests of faith, but of those who appreciate God on a passionate level for His cause in all that He is doing – their hearts are in it, they have their hearts together with His.
The very aged Abraham, who saw all the futility in the toil of life and vanity in the pleasure of things; fatherless while he saw his contemporaries with grandchildren and great grandchildren in large numbers, especially in a time when offspring were one’s greatest heritage and gave a special meaning and joy to one’s life, all the while carrying the prior name Abram, which meant “exalted father”, with this burden of failure weighing on his heart, was finally blessed with a single child by Sarah.
Then after all this, he was called upon to destroy Isaac, his only precious son. He now was to offer up his whole life which he now had vested in Isaac, witnessing Isaac in anguish as to what he was experiencing, listening at his son’s appeals to stop. For Abraham, he was destroying his own self. Somehow, perceiving a greater purpose and willing, in a sense, to lose his own life. He had the faith to overcome this in the hope, not the demonstrated knowledge that he could see, having never witnessed a resurrection, that God could restore Isaac from the dead.
Abraham’s motivation was not to claim more promises, but he believed God based on the promises he had. Believing in God is to appreciate who He is – it is the essence of faith!
So we remind ourselves again of this:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
Our faith is tied not only to the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but to the passion behind offering up His only Son to do this. This same passion is what we experience today as we continue to identify with God through faith and as living sacrifices. Abraham is indeed the father of the faithful in spirit, as the faithful believe that the Father and Christ alone have the power over death and hell.
As Abraham named the place The Lord Will Provide, we see that God would never expect us to do something so horrible, but instead He would take that on Himself. The Pharisees and the Jews ensured others knew of their heritage to Abraham.
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:31-35).
“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you” (John 8:37).
Christ did not deny their heritage, and there is nothing wrong with that essentially, but a false claim of liberty is the problem. In reality, they were in bondage to the Romans; they were in bondage to their own sins! This false claim seems to have been built up to such an extent that there was no more room left for Christ. Pride in knowledge and heritage can oppose our continual need for a savior.
There are segments of Christianity that claim to be physical descendants of Abraham based on what evidence they can acquire in their research or what they have been told to believe by their religious leaders. In the New Covenant, genetic heritage of any kind is not provided as an advantage to the believer (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11), so it should be considered suspect as to why these claims are being made in the first place. If we are going to make this claim somehow, whether it is true or false, we should question our motivation: Is it pride? Is it extra security in salvation? Finding a favorable place in prophecy? Don’t be offended by the above suggestions, just be mindful.
There is more that we can say on this subject but we will end it here and perhaps develop the subject further in future articles. Have confidence in what the writer of Hebrews tells us we are doing:
…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).
The joy the writer speaks of is very much behind the authoring of our faith. He is our Perfect High Priest who can see the things we cannot, but someday we will.