Jesus, Faith and Knowledge

Hebrews 11:1-2

April 15, 2018

I want to talk to you this morning about ladders — I trust that is something to which we all can relate. Ladders, of course are tools that allow you to climb from one level to another and reach things that you could not ordinarily reach on your own. Just recently, some of the men used ladders in the sanctuary to replace burned out light bulbs in the chandeliers and a couple from the Historical Committee used ladders to climb up to the bell-tower and take pictures of the bells there. On a smaller scale, some of you have bunk beds and use ladders to climb into the upper bunk and others of you have used smaller ladders to paint ceilings or reach things in tall cabinets.

So, I want you to imagine not one but two ladders here this morning and we are going to give the ladders names to keep them straight. The first (on my left) we will call “reason” and the second (on my right, we will call “faith.”

Both ladders, as it were, lift a person up from one level to another, but the question the text grapples with this morning is what is the relationship between these two ladders. Do they work together or are they separate from one another? Are they connected at all or must one leave the one to climb the other? Do certain kinds of knowledge, per say, only come from faith or reason or do we use both for all things?

You made a decision to come to church this morning…was that a faith decision or was that a reasoned decision? Or, was it both?

Let me give you an example: the typical atheistic argument is that faith and reason are two separate ladders and really, reason is the only real ladder that one can gain knowledge about the world from — faith is more of an imaginary ladder to them. So, for example, “Bill Nye the Science Guy” has said on numerous occasions that unless we as a culture give up our reliance on faith and religion, we will cease to be able to continue as a world leader in technology. Do you see what he is saying? Reason is the only ladder that one can use to acquire reliable knowledge… Of course, history does not support Mr. Nye’s claims as some of the greatest technological advances were developed by men and women of faith.

Now, to be fair, there are some atheists that are perfectly happy for you to retain the ladder of faith — so long as you keep it hidden inside your church or your home. Why? Because again, they think that this ladder we call “reason” is the only source of reliable information about the world around us. 

Yet, understand that it is not just atheists who think this way. There was a man who lived a long time ago, named Thomas Aquinas, and he taught that faith and reason were both valuable but that they were separate ladders. So, if you were studying mathematics, you would use the ladder of reason but if you were studying religion, you would use the ladder of faith, stepping back and forth between ladders.

Another man who lived a long time ago, Søren Kierkegaard, took Aquinas’ ideas a little further and said that these two ladders of faith and reason were spaced a bit apart and that if you were to move from one to the other you needed to take a “leap.” By the way, did you ever hear someone talk about a “leap of faith”? You do know that doesn’t come from the Bible, right? It comes from Kierkegaard…

By the way, this idea of a leap of faith is the basis for liberal Christianity because it suggests that faith conclusions can be utterly irrational and still accepted. This also ties in with the statement that “Faith is blind,” which again is another non-Biblical phrase. But essentially it says the same thing — that reason is not necessarily in relationship with faith.

Now, don’t misunderstand me — to the unbeliever, the actions of a Christian are always irrational — think about it, you come to worship every Sunday to sing praises to a God we cannot see and to listen to the teaching of a book thousands of years old. They might understand the notion of hiring a pastor to be a kind of community counselor, but the rest is utterly irrational to folks such as that. 

But, to the believer, all of this is utterly rationale.

So, a point of application: if you tend to say, “Faith is Blind” or “Take a Leap of Faith”, well…stop it…Stick to Biblical language when you speak of faith.

And for those of you who have been in my confirmation class, you know that I have told you that the Bible’s definition of faith can be found in Hebrews 11:1. And, in light of the language found here, faith and reason are ladders that are inseparable from one another.

Solomon writes much the same when he pens the words: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Knowledge.” (Proverbs 1:7)

Or, perhaps to put it another way: all genuine knowledge requires faith (as well as reason).

The author of Hebrews lays out this idea in the verses we read this morning, but first, if you remember the language of last week, true faith perseveres — it endures trials and tribulations — and if one is going to genuinely endure, ought not it be based on a rational ideas? I mean, isn’t a mark of insanity the belief in things that are irrational?

So, let’s start with the definition of faith we find here:

“Faith is the essence of that which is hoped for and the proof of that which is not seen.”

Let’s break this down…

The word for “essence” (or assurance as some Bible’s translate it) refers to the underlying proof of something — a guarantee — on which hope can be built.

Sadly, we in the west have a distorted view of hope and we hope for all sorts of things that have no basis in reality. We often say things like, “I hope I win the lottery” or “I hope I pass this test I didn’t study for” or “I hope I win the race.” You get the idea…

In Greek, this idea of hope is different — it looks toward an end with the reasonable assurance that something will happen.

So, in the Greek world, it would be natural for me to say, “I hope you like the meal I prepared for you.” Why? Because I have made a meal you like, seasoned and prepared it well, etc… I have a reasonable assurance that you will like that which I have made.

So, on what evidence is the Christian hope built?

— on the promises of God

— on the Character of God (as God cannot lie or change)

— on the finished work of Christ

— and even on the testimony of other believers (like that which will follow in the rest of this chapter) for what is your witness other than you telling how God has been constant in your life.

Science is all about empirical testing — the author is looking and saying, “Scientists, you seek evidence for faith? Here it is — all of these persevered in faith and you see the way God has worked in them.”

Faith is the essence of what is hoped for… but it is also the “proof of that which is unseen.”

In the last 15 years or so, with the popularity of the CSI television shows, the idea of forensic science has gone mainstream. For me, it was watching old reruns of Quincy that introduced me to the idea.

The goal of the forensic scientist was to present a reasoned sketch of what took place in a crime by looking at evidence — even though the scientist was not present during the committing of the crime. Or, as another Forensic Scientist from fiction said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever you have left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

The forensic scientist seeks to prove that which is unseen…sound familiar?

So, faith is neither blind nor is a sight that opposes reason. It sees the evidence which we ourselves, in our natural sight, might not see using reason alone. So, imagine the two ladders once again, instead of being separate, they are intertwined together, for the Christian never stands on one or the other, but on both — they are never separated.

So, back to our question about coming to church this morning? Was it a faith answer or a reason answer? If you thought properly, it was both.

Now, you may be inclined to ask what of the Apostle Paul’s statement that we walk by faith and not by sight? Does that contradict what we are discussing here? No. if you look at the context of 2 Corinthians 5:7, you will discover he is speaking of a different matter. He talks about being present in his body and absent from the Lord and thus, in being so, he walks by faith and is encouraged. In what is he encouraged? He is encouraged because it is his faith that gives him proof and assurance that while he cannot see God, he is doing God’s will.

So, how is this worked out in practical ways? I want to start with what it does not look like by correcting an illustration that many pastors use and abuse…

In the third Indiana Jones movie there is a scene where a chasm lays before our heroes which they need to cross. Eventually, being led to a spot, Indy steps off into mid-air, but lands on an invisible bridge, which he later throws dirt on so people can see it. And I have heard pastors triumphantly say, “See, that is faith!” No, friends, that is not faith…not at least as the Bible describes it.

Faith works in this way: upon finding the spot where one should cross, Indy, knowing God’s promises to be true, should have thrown out the dirt before stepping off the cliff…not jumping into thin air, but using reason and resources to see the evidence of God’s handiwork.

Do you see the difference?

How about in our lives? Let me take an example from my own life. Look, we all face times of trial and doubt — spiritual valleys as it were — and pastors are no exception to the rule. When I suffered a stroke two years ago, the two things affected the most were my speech and my left hand. For a preacher and a writer, there could not be a more devastating prognosis…

And while I had the support and encouragement of many here, I also had to come to terms with reality myself. Yet, I knew the promises of God and God’s call on my life to serve him with my gifts. And I knew that God’s purposes are to conform his people into the image of his Son and that those purposes are good. And there is strength in that.

And folks, we all have different callings as we are different parts of the body of Christ, but we are all part of the same body and the promises are given to the whole, not just to some parts. That means when you face your doubts, you can draw strength from the promises…and the evidence of those promises in the lives of believers around you who have walked the road ahead of you.

—it is the essence of what is hoped for

— the proof of things unseen…

That, folks, is faith…and it is a faith that is reasonable…which brings us to verse 2:

“For in this the Elders were spoken well of.”

In this what? Faith

Who are the elders? Believers from the past as are described in the rest of the chapter and who are also in the broader church.

In other words, not only ought we live and walk in this reasonable faith, other believers in ages gone by walked through life in this reasonable faith as well. And that is a legacy that the Christian is called to live in and to leave behind — the good witness of a steadfast faith. Everything else passes away with time.

Two ladders: faith and reason — these are bound together as one — that’s the only Scriptural understanding of them…

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