Posted on Mar 31, 2009 by Tom Gilson
Some time ago a commenter here wrote,
The core problem is that religion teaches that holding absolute beliefs without evidence (aka faith) is a virtue.
Is that what faith is? No, actually not. The other day in a Bible study at church, I noticed a great way to illustrate the difference between this and true faith. There are four different accounts of the life of Jesus Christ in the Bible, known as the four Gospels (a word whose etymological roots go back to “good news”): Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of these presents a kind of narrative biography, mostly of the last three years of Jesus’ life on earth. No biography tells every detail of its subject’s life, and no two biographies of one person cover the same details. This is true of the Gospels.
All four Gospels tell of Jesus calling Peter to be one of his followers; in that they are all the same. Two of the accounts are very similar, and it is very likely that Matthew borrowed from Mark here:
Matthew 4:18-20 (all scriptures quoted from the ESV):
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
This looks a lot like the way some people conceive of faith. You meet someone or get some kind of idea or impression, and boom! you change everything you think about the world. There’s no evidence, no logic, no background, no thinking. Now, I do not mean to distort the purpose or message of these two accounts. If they do not teach a clear message about how faith is acquired, that is because that was not their authors’ intent. I mean this instead as an illustration of how faith can be misunderstood by those who think they have the full context, when in fact they do not. Let’s broaden our view to get a more complete picture, starting with the Gospel of John.
The next day again John [the Baptist] was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).
Here we discover that Peter’s brother had been a disciple of John the Baptist, and we know that John had been preaching about Jesus Christ. Peter had more than just a glance from Jesus to go on, he had very strong personal references. Interestingly, there are some scholars who think this event may have been a full year before Jesus came and called Peter, as recorded in the passages quoted above. Jesus seems to have had a one-year period of ministry in Judea (where Jerusalem is) early in his time of ministry. This event with Andrew was probably before that year, and the final call to Peter was probably afterward, when Jesus traveled the 70 or so miles north to begin his Galilean ministry. If that’s true, then Peter had plenty of time to think about this great man he had met, to ponder his teachings, and to hear of his reputation.
Even if that’s not the case, the picture we have in Luke tells us even more clearly what Peter was working from when he decided to follow Christ. He had seen Christ at work (Luke 4:38-39):
And he [Jesus] arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them.
And much more beyond that (Luke 5:1-11):
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
Peter never “left everything and followed him” until after he had had (possibly) a year to think through what he knew at first about Jesus, seen Jesus heal his wife’s mother, heard Jesus teach at least once, and seen Jesus perform the miracle of the fish. Peter’s faith in following Jesus was no blind leap. It was based on an experienced reality, on data he had had a chance to reflect upon. “If I leave everything to follow this man, will I end up a starving itinerant no-good?” he might have asked himself. But he would have known by then that Jesus was truly good, by his teaching; and that Jesus could certainly find food when he needed it!
Of course he still had to have faith to follow. He was trusting his whole life and future to this teacher Jesus, and to the God whom Jesus taught. But it was not belief against the evidence. It was belief based on evidences and experience. God can grant a person faith by directly relating to a person’s heart, and there is always that element in any person’s coming into a faith relationship with him. Still, a tried and tested faith knows from experience also that God is real and God is good. For some of us who have the inclination to explore it, our faith also rests on the trustworthy testimony of history, where the reports of Jesus’ life can be tested like any other historical report, and on evidences from nature, human experience, and philosophical reflection.
Faith is not a leap into the dark against evidence. It’s a leap into the light of God, based on knowledge and experience.