Sometimes the Gospel message gets a little distorted from the original message. Sometimes instead of a full cob of corn, we're given cornflakes. Such is the case when faith gets confused with mere belief. How is it that such a critical point of our walk can become so muddled? Between mainstream Christianity and the Messianic movement you can find opinions ranging from "just believe these essential doctrines and go to heaven" to "faith = works or faith = obedience" to "you have to believe enough for faith to work" to "faith is something God does for you." What is faith really about?
Hebrews draws a vivid analogy from this week's Torah portion to illustrate a lack of faith and its disastrous consequences. The passage begins in the middle of chapter 3 talking about how Israel hardened their hearts and it cost them entrance into "God's rest." What we read in the Torah portion is that when Israel finally came to the border of the promised land, they stopped short. Someone said they should send spies in, so they did. The spies came back with the report: "It flows with milk and honey," they said. "However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there." The hearts of the people melted. "Let us go back to Egypt!" they cried. It was the same complaint they had made all throughout the journey. Only, this time they were serious. They even started looking for a leader to take them back (Num. 14:4).
According to Hebrews, the people were unable to enter the land for "lack of belief" or "apistia" in the Greek. If we dissect this, one might identify several key points:
One is that mere mental assent would not have been enough for the Israelites to claim the promised land. No matter how much they believed in their minds, they had to actually go up and fight to take possession of it.
Secondly, this was not a matter of Torah obedience. Israel was not kept out of the promised land because they failed to keep the Sabbath properly or because they kept Passover on the wrong day or even because of the idolatry of the golden calf (though that last one was quite close). While obedience was involved, it was only a very specific act of obedience--that of going up into the Promised Land.
Thirdly, mere obedience was not enough either. After their little rebellion and after God pronounced His punishment on Israel, the children of Israel decided maybe they could go up after all. They turned back toward the promised land not out of faith or belief or trust, but out of fear--fear of God's wrath upon them in the wilderness.
Then again, perhaps I am approaching this all wrong. I started out trying to write a doctrinal definition of faith, but knowing what faith is doesn't get us into God's rest either. What set Caleb and Joshua apart is that they had taken hold of the vision that God had set before them and they trusted in God to accomplish that vision. They saw the giants, just like everyone else. They probably felt the fear in their hearts, just like everyone else. But, they didn't shrink back. They cried to the people, "Let us go up at once!"
In Hebrews, "God's rest" serves as a label for the Messianic Era, the Kingdom of God. The author of Hebrews exhorts us, "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest." Let us go up and stake the claim for God's Kingdom at once. Let us trust in Him to bring about His promises. No giants shall stop us. For, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?" Nay, not even "death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:35, 39)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:15-16 ESV)