Initial Faith Is Not Enough; We Need Staying Faith

Most Christians are familiar with the account of Peter walking on water. It’s such an iconic story, in fact, that most non-Christians in our society have at least heard of it. But other than recording something that actually happened, why did Matthew include that in his gospel? It’s not meant to inspire us to literally walk on water; in Acts 27, for instance, when Paul’s boat gets shipwrecked, it never occurs to him to get out and walk to shore.

No, the story of Peter walking on water shows us how to continue what we start in faith. That’s as relevant of a lesson for me as it is for someone who has been a Christian for 3 weeks.

1.  Initial faith is not enough; we need staying faith.

Can you imagine the courage it took for Peter to step out of his boat and onto the water? Not many of us would be thrilled at the prospect of trying to walk on water, but Peter was a professional fisherman, so he had spent countless hours at sea. He knew as well as anyone that people just don’t walk on water.

Yet when Jesus called him, he stepped out. This must have been a mammoth moment of faith. None of the other disciples ventured to go with him. But just a second later, Peter is sinking. When Jesus says to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” he isn’t talking about the intensity of Peter’s faith, but about its duration.

Peter’s faith, when it started, was incredibly strong. His initial faith was incredible. The problem was that it just didn’t last very long. Without staying faith, it wouldn’t matter how strong that initial faith was. Initial faith is not enough: we need staying faith.

2.  We find staying faith at the same place we found initial faith.

Where did Peter get that initial surge of faith? What moved him from the relatively safe confines of the boat to the unpredictable surface of the water? It came from two places:

First, a vision of Jesus. When Jesus approached the boat, the disciples had begun to panic, thinking that he was a ghost. But Jesus replies, “Take heart, it is I” (Matthew 14:27). “It is I” translates the Greek phrase ego eimi—literally, “I am.” The one approaching their boat in the middle of the stormy night was none other than God himself. When Peter saw that the great I Am was standing on top of everything that terrified him, he was filled with faith to follow him.

Second, Jesus’ command. Jesus explicitly called Peter out of the boat. And Peter figured that it was more important to obey Jesus’ command than to focus on the circumstances. The Word of Jesus was larger to Peter than the waves rising up against him. Peter is not so much walking on water as he is walking on the promises of God; he’s not so much standing on the waves as he is standing on the character of Jesus.

3.  Ultimately, Jesus’ faithfulness is more important than Peter’s faith.

The point of Peter walking on water is not to demonstrate the greatness or weakness of Peter’s faith. The point is to demonstrate the greatness of God’s grace.

When I read through the parallel accounts of this, I noticed that Matthew is the only one that talks about Peter walking on water. Mark, for instance, has the story of Jesus walking on water, but Peter isn’t even mentioned. Scholars tell us that Mark’s gospel was directly influenced by Peter, so in Peter’s version of this story, he edits himself out.

Why? At first, I thought that Peter might have been ashamed of his wavering faith. But I think it’s more likely that Peter didn’t mention himself precisely because Jesus’ faithfulness is more important than Peter’s faith. This story doesn’t give us an example to emulate, but a Savior to trust.

When we call out to Jesus—even if it’s in fear, even if it’s imperfect, even if it’s from a lack of faith—he hears and he helps. So when we waver, we don’t need to question the quality of our faith. We need to put our eyes back on Jesus. To embrace his character again. To hear his command again. To throw ourselves on his abundant grace, again and again and again.

 

For more, be sure to listen to the entire message here.

5 Things God Teaches Us in the Tragic Deaths of Ananias & Sapphira

The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 lets us know that despite the explosion of growth in the early church, they had moments of weakness, even gross sin. I believe that their deaths serve as a warning to the Church today, and that God has a lot to teach us—if we are willing to hear:

1. In the church, there are two kinds of people, and it’s nearly impossible to distinguish them from the outside.

On the outside, Ananias and Sapphira look just like another church member named Barnabas (introduced in Acts 4). Barnabas had just sold his property and brought the money to the apostles, and to the casual observer, Ananias and Sapphira were doing the same thing.

But deep in their heart lingered a love of money and a desire for people’s praise. So they conspired together to present a portion of their money while passing it off as the entire amount. This is worlds apart from the attitude of Barnabas, but looks very similar.

We may be able to get away with this sort of duplicity for a while, but if someone looks closely, the lies are there, threatening to undo everything. And even if they don’t . . .

2. We cannot hide from God.

It may be difficult for us to distinguish between a truly repentant heart and a seasoned faker, but nothing is hidden from God. The Holy Spirit knows our thoughts as if they were being played through a loudspeaker or being displayed on a screen.

That is why despite fooling everyone else, Ananias and Sapphira were still found out. There are no locked doors or hidden closets for the Holy Spirit.

A day will come when every secret will be proclaimed from the housetops (Matt 10:27). Do we really believe this? Are we ready for it? Ananias and Sapphira had known this . . . but they forgot it. They became so consumed with the praise of others that they forgot the only One whose praise really matters.

I can’t see inside of your heart to discern whether you’re a Barnabas or an Ananias. But the secrets of your heart are not secrets to God. When you proclaim with your lips that “Jesus is Lord” and live as if his law doesn’t matter, don’t deceive yourselves into thinking that you’ve successfully tricked God.

3. The closer we are to grace, the greater the offense of sin.

Not everyone who lies gets struck down immediately for their sin. So why did Ananias and Sapphira? A couple of reasons:

First, their deaths—like much in Acts—serve as a sign. God takes something that is true in the kingdom of God and puts it on physical display. We see this most often through the healing miracles, but it is equally true of this judgment.

God doesn’t do this with everyone who lies to the Holy Spirit today. But that should not cover up the fact that this death is a picture of how God feels about it. It is a glimpse of the future judgment for all who share in the heart of Ananias and Sapphira.

Second, Ananias and Sapphira had seen the activity of the Holy Spirit so closely that the seriousness of the sin increased. Think of it like the temple: the closer you are to the holy place, the more significant is every blemish.[1]

These people had seen the mercy of God firsthand. Ananias’ name, in fact, means, “God is merciful.” They had likely been witness to the death of Christ itself! And yet despite being recipients of such great grace, they spurned it for the praise of men. Do not take holy things lightly!

4. Fear is a part of worship.

Unsurprisingly, these dramatic deaths caused a great deal of fear (Acts 5:5, 11). But we may be shocked to see that even in light of this, “more and more people believed in the Lord” (Acts 5:14). Fear is an integral part of worship.

For those of us familiar with the idea of an infinitely loving God, this is a jarring realization. But God’s love only makes sense when we know the magnificence of his glory and the might of his power. That is why John Newton wrote, “Tis grace that taught my heart to fear.” As the fear of God increases, so does the sense of his love, because we understand more fully what we have been saved from.

My favorite definition of the fear of God is awe mixed with intimacy. We are invited into the closest possible relationship with God, but this intimacy must never overshadow the majesty of who God is.

5. Sin is a deadly serious matter to God.

If we’re honest, many of us find God’s actions here offensive—but that merely reveals our ignorance of our sin and God’s holiness. We shouldn’t ask the question, “Why did they die?” Instead we should wonder, “Why do we remain alive?”

Yes, God is patient with us and slow to anger. But as R.C. Sproul says, we forget that God’s patience is designed to lead us to repentance, not to become bolder in our sin. If Jesus really went through the tormenting hell of the cross to redeem us, and we neglect that in pursuit of our sin, what will it be like to stand before God? “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3)

 

For more, be sure to listen to the entire sermon here.



[1] N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone: Part 1, 79.

Four Ways God’s Spirit Speaks to Our Spirit (Part Two)

This is the last of a four-part series about the Holy Spirit. Check out part 1 , part 2 , and part 3.

These are working sections from a book manuscript I just completed for Zondervan. We’re in the editing process right now, so your thoughts are welcome.

3. Holy Ambitions

Sometimes the Spirit of God works in us by stoking the fires of a particular, holy ambition for a particular ministry or need. The fire of passion for God to do something in your generation, or on your campus, or in your family, grows to a fever temperature inside of you. It’s less of a “word” from God that it is a holy discontent with a situation, a broken heart over injustice and pain, or a burning passion to see God glorified.

For example, Scripture does not record God ever telling David that he wanted him to fight with Goliath. God did not summon David to a “holy huddle” in the pasture in which he said, “OK, David, there will be a giant there, and he will say this… and then you get  5 rocks, and then…

“David simply found himself in a place with a defiant giant, burning with holy zeal. He assumed that meant God wanted him to fight. Furthermore, God gave David no assurance that he would defeat Goliath on that day. David simply believed God wanted him to fight the giant and trusted God with the outcome.

In the same way, God never told Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego that they would be delivered from the fiery furnace if they challenged King Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship the golden statue. I’ve always thought they went into that encounter with a curious mixture of certainty and uncertainty. Just look at what they said to Nebuchadnezzar:

Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us from your hand, O king.

Certainty!

But they also say,

“Yet, if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

“Yet, if not…?” Uncertainty.

That mixture of certainty and uncertainty is what we often feel when the Spirit of God pushes us forward into a venture in his name. It’s a holy ambition—a passion pushing us a certain direction.

Here’s another one: I can’t find anywhere in Acts that God tells Paul to go to Rome to preach the gospel. Acts 19:21 tells us that Paul “resolved in the Spirit” to go to Rome, but I’m not totally sure what that phrase means, and, based on the commentaries, neither is anyone else. It seems to mean that Paul had yearning to go to Rome that he perceived to be the impulse of the Spirit.

Later, God directly affirms it through a vision (Acts 23:11), but it began as a yearning in Paul’ spirit. Acts 17:16 says that while Paul was killing time in Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy his spirit was provoked within him when he saw how given over the city was to idols. He proceeded to preach one of the most famous sermons ever given, a spontaneous sermon that has become the basis for countless evangelistic methodologies for the years. No one would doubt that this encounter and the sermon that came out of it were from the Holy Spirit. In saying that Paul did this because “his spirit” was provoked within him, Luke was not trying to say that this was Paul’s work, not the Holy Spirit’s, but that the Holy Spirit used Paul’s spirit to indicate to Paul what he wanted him to do.

Because the believer’s spirit has been united to God’s Spirit, unscrambling where our spirit stops and his begins is an impossible process. When we let the Holy Spirit have his way in us, our emotions become melded to his. So as Paul burned with holy zeal to go to Rome, he began to speak with near certainty about God wanting him to do it.

First Samuel records the heroic story of Jonathan and his armor bearer taking on an entire garrison of Philistine soldiers single-handedly (14:1–6). Most intriguing to me is how Jonathan invited his armor bearer to join him:

Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.” (1 Samuel 14:6, NIV).

Perhaps? If I were the armor bearer, I’d probably have said: “Uhh… I’m sorry, bro, but if you are inviting me to take on an entire, fortified garrison of trained Philistine soldiers, I’m going to need more than your perhaps.” But the Holy Spirit was in Jonathan’s holy zeal, and God gave to Jonathan and his armor bearer a great victory on that day (1 Samuel 14:11–15).

I spent two years living as a missionary in Southeast Asia. Shortly after I left, the worst tsunami on record swept onto the island, killing more than 100,000 people. When I returned and stood at the very spot where the tsunami had come ashore, I sensed God telling me that he would send a wave of salvation through that same area, and that our church was to continually place people there on the ground believing it, waiting for it to happen.

Not every ambition in our heart comes from God, but God certainly uses holy, burning desires like those as a compass to point true north for your life, to show you where he wants you to go and how he wants you to be involved in his mission. You likely will experience it as a holy discontent—a conviction that God wants something different than what the situation currently is. You sense him inviting you to lay hold of his willingness and release his power.

For example, in your spirit, you sense that God is not ok with:

  • An unreached people group with no access to the gospel
  • A career field with little to no viable Christian witness
  • Hundreds of foster kids in your community who pass from home to home with no one to ever love them consistently
  • Thousands of girls being turned over to the sex slave trade in Southeast Asia
  • Millions of babies being murdered each year in the name of freedom of choice
  • A school in which God’s name is regularly blasphemed
  • A career field in which no one walks in the fear of God
  • Kids in your community growing up without the fear of God

…and you know he is inviting you to do something about it. This can be very similar to the experience of calling we discussed earlier.

I don’t have a specific chapter and verse for many of the things to which I believe God has called the Summit Church. But I burn with a holy passion to see 1000 churches planted out of our church; to see 5000 missionaries raised up from our church and sent out; to baptize 50,000 people in the Raleigh-Durham area and to help start over 100 community organizations to minister to broken parts of our city; to see God bring a gospel awakening to a Muslim nation. These are areas of deep, holy discontent for me. So I’m going to keep charging up that hill until God tells me to stop.

4. Dreams and Visions

God spoke throughout Acts in dreams and visions. Nothing in Scripture indicates that he has entirely stopped speaking in these ways. We may have reason to believe they do not happen as frequently, but that’s not to say they have quit happening altogether.[1]

I’ve never personally been given a revelatory dream, but I know firsthand of too many of them to sweep them away as the nocturnal musings of people with overactive R.E.M.’s. Here’s just one I’m personally acquainted with.

I had lived in Southeast Asia a few months when I received a phone call from a man I had never met named Mahmud. Mahmud explained to me that he had had a very important dream and he believed that I was supposed to help him interpret it. In his dream, he wandered aimlessly in an endless field. This field, he told me, seemed to him to symbolize his life. He felt alone, without purpose, true companionship or direction. Yet after walking for what seemed like days, he heard a voice behind him call his name. There he saw a man who, in his words, “was dressed in shining white clothing. I could not look on his face, because it shone like the sun.” This heavenly man reached into the sash of his robe and pulled out a copy of the Gospel and tried to place it in Mahmud’s hands. “This,” the man said to Mahmud, calling him by name, “will get you out of this field.”

Mahmud refused. Mahmud was a faithful Muslim, and he had no desire to possess or even read anything Christian. He woke up in a cold sweat, heart beating quickly, feeling very afraid. He said he felt as if he had rejected a prophet and did not know what to do.

When he fell asleep the second night, he found himself again in the field. Again, the “man” appeared, offering Mahmud another copy of the Gospel. And again Mahmud refused. The third night when Mahmud went to sleep, the man was there waiting on him. “This, and only this,” he said to Mahmud, “will get you out of this field.” With trembling hand, Mahmud took the Gospel from the man.

Mahmud then said to me, “My friend tells me that you are an expert in the Gospel. Can you interpret my dream for me?” No joke. That is what he said.

Now, I was raised in a very traditional Baptist home, and dreams or visions were not part of our standard religious repertoire. So, I said, “Mahmud, I don’t believe in visions and dreams.” Just kidding. For the next two hours, I explained the gospel to him. Though he still had questions, he didn’t really doubt the answers I offered. After all, he’d been instructed by a divine messenger to listen! When he said yes, I asked him if he knew what such commitment might cost him.

“Mahmud,” I said, “You might lose your job. You might get kicked out of your family. This commitment to Christ might even cost you your life.”

I’ll never forget what he said next. He smiled and said, “Of course, I know all that. That is why it took me over a month to come talk with you, because I knew that if I became a follower of Jesus, it might cost me everything… but I know that was Jesus speaking to me in that dream. And I’ll go anywhere with him. If it costs me everything, let it come.”

I do think there is something to the idea that God might do this less in places where access to the Word of God is easy and open, but I find no reason to doubt that God, whenever he so chooses, can speak to us through dreams and visions.

God’s word to us is most clearly spelled out in the Bible, but he also moves in our spirits by giving us particular burdens, special insights, holy discontents, and supernatural dreams. As we follow them, we follow him.

Be Cautious, But Not Cynical

As I said earlier, it’s okay to be a little skeptical, not believing everything you hear about what God has said to person, or even everything you personally feel. To be honest, I probably don’t believe 60 percent of the “miracles,” “visions” or “God told me” reports that I hear. But don’t let that caution turn into cynicism.

Sixty years ago D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said,

There is no question but that God’s people can look for and expect “leadings”, “guidance”, indications of what they are meant to do …Men have been told by the Holy Spirit to do something; they knew it was the Holy Spirit speaking to them; and it transpired that it obviously was his leading. It seems clear to me that if we deny such a possibility we are again guilty of quenching the Spirit.[2]

And then, speaking of those who prefer to critique and mock everyone who claims to hear from the Spirit, he says:

God have mercy upon them! God have mercy upon them! It is better to be too credulous than to be carnal and to be smug and dead.[3]

That’s good advice for any Bible-loving Christian to heed today.

With God, Not For God

The Christian life is something you do with God, not for God. That’s a theme we return to in this book again and again. Jesus did not merely issue an assignment; he invited us into a relationship. Christian prayer, therefore, ought to be a two-way, not one-way conversation—less the presentation of a catalogue of needs and more a dialogue with a person. Thus, instead of merely praying to God, we ought to pray with God. Prayer is something we do in and with the Holy Spirit.

Not every missional need in the world is your responsibility. But God has a particular, special assignment for you. His Spirit wants to lead in you it. You could not bear the weight of the whole mission. Only he can. So he gives gifts and assignments to his body as he so wills, and he invites you to follow.

Find your calling. In which direction is the Spirit’s compass pointing true north for you? Get heading that direction. Tell that mountain to move. And prepared to stand amazed.[4]



[1] The writer of Hebrews says that “(Our great salvation) was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, [4] God also bearing witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit…” (Hebrews 2:3–4 ESV). God seems to have given the apostles an unusual endowment of supernatural powers for a time to authenticate the fact he was speaking to the world through them. But we see the regularity of these spectacular occurrences dying down even through Acts. In Acts 3:1–11 Peter heals on demand. He didn’t pray about it or even ask God to do it. He just said, “Be healed.” But in 2 Timothy 4:12, toward the end of his ministry, Paul said, “Trophimus I have left at Miletus sick.” That doesn’t mean he doesn’t ever do these things anymore, just that we should not expect them to be as regular or normative as they are in Acts because that was, by any definition, a unique time.

[2] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Sovereign Spirit: Discerning His Gifts (Carol Stream, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986), 89–90.

[3] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Sovereign Spirit: Discerning His Gifts (Carol Stream, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986), 83.

[4] 1 Corinthians 12:11; 4:2.

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