In part 2, we focused upon the apostle Matthew’s life as an illustration of active faith. Matthew’s biographical story is likely more dramatic than yours or mine, but our faith should be active too. Another way to think about this is to say our faith should be living faith. James 2 uses that kind of language as he contrasts living faith against dead faith. The contrast is powerful and simple. Living faith is active, it moves, and it shows itself to be alive. Dead faith is pictured as a mere verbal assent without any movement or action to prove itself to be faith at all.
Talk is Cheap…
Let’s consider two examples of the contrast that James 2 draws out so well. Exhibit A: John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet, the forerunner of the Messiah, is at the Jordan river doing exactly what God had called him out to do. He is “The voice of one crying in the wilderness” preparing the way of the Lord. His message was essentially, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This enigmatic preacher was leading people to confess their sins and then to dunk them into the Jordan river as a means of preparing for the coming King. Did this baptizer receive everyone and anyone who would listen? Surprisingly, no. The Pharisees and Sadducees came to the river Jordan to see John, but they were not exactly welcomed with open arms. John the Baptist seems to publicly embarrass them by likening them to snakes and seems to question their motives for being at the gathering. John wants “fruit” to accompany their repentance.
Exhibit B: The apostle Peter standing among thousands of his countrymen on the day of Pentecost, preached what is commonly referred to as the first Christian sermon, less than two months following the crucifixion of Christ. Peter preached a fiery sermon about the persona and work of Jesus and as he was coming to a close his audience recognized their sinful rejection of their Messiah and asked, “What shall we do?”. How would Peter respond? Peter says “Repent and be baptized.” Peter connected repentance and baptism, but why? We might say, because “Talk is cheap” or verbal assent without action isn’t living faith. Peter wasn’t teaching baptismal regeneration, but he was acting in a similar way to John the Baptist. Baptism wasn’t going to be the cause of their faith, but rather the effect. Baptism was their “fruit” that would accompany their repentance.
Why would baptism be the “fruit” to accompany repentance in the mind of Peter? For these first century Jews to submit themselves to the act of baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, they were clearly taking their stand with Jesus over and against the established orthodoxy. If they are correct and Jesus is divine, then they will be eternally blessed. If they are wrong and Jesus is a blasphemer, then they will be eternally cursed. You see, baptism was for that moment in time a true act of submission that publicly declared oneself as a follower of Christ. This is exactly what faith does; it acts in submission to its object. Christian faith acts in submission to Christ.
“Talk is cheap” is an idiom that we are all likely familiar with. Saying “I believe in Jesus” doesn’t usually cost us anything. Praying a prayer to accept Jesus into your heart doesn’t really cost you anything. Verbal affirmation of belief isn’t necessarily actual belief. True belief, or living faith, has real effects. Faith changes the way I think, feel, speak, and act. That is what we call “fruit.” Fruit isn’t the cause of faith. Faith is the cause of fruit.
The Road Less Traveled…
Robert Frost, the great American poet, wrote several famous poems, but none more so than “The Road Not Taken.” In this poem, he began by drawing you a picture of a path that diverged into two separate ways. Frost eventually concludes with this beautiful line, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” That poem has resonated with countless Christians who feel the similarity between their Christian experience and the reality that Frost so eloquently described. Jesus’ way, the path of Christ, is undoubtedly a road that is less traveled.
We all have a natural desire for comfort and ease, but Jesus’ way is simply not the path of least resistance. Jesus Himself made that crystal clear as He said, “If any will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” That phrase “take up his cross and follow” would likely have had a very different impact on his original audience in comparison to us modern readers.
There is a common idiom that we have all likely heard. Picture this; a friend is dealing with a very unpleasant situation and as they near the end of their heartbreaking story they say, “we all have a cross to bear.” This modern use of Jesus’ phrase is very different than how Jesus’ first audience heard it. People living in the first century had a very graphic and terrifying perception of a cross. A cross wasn’t an unpleasant circumstance of life. The cross was the most horrific instrument of death anyone in the ancient world had ever seen. When Jesus described following Him was like taking up a cross, the plain meaning would be akin to saying, “following me is going to require your death.”
Jesus said What?…
Many people are under the impression that Jesus’ words are always palatable, but the reality is very different. Jesus is often offensive, controversial, and authoritarian. Even a surface reading of Jesus’ own words will reveal He was unapologetic in His personal divine claims of Himself. For example, Jesus claimed to be the authority, and not simply a single source of authority among others. Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus described the final judgement of all peoples at the end of His sermon on the mount, and claimed that He would be that eschatological judge. In Jesus’ description of the final judgement, He clearly warned that entering into eternal life or eternal destruction was based upon His own judgement. Are Jesus’ words always carefully crafted to be swallowed most easily? No. Jesus’ words are often heavy and unmistakably serious.
So then, when Jesus tells His followers that to walk His path will require their life, what does that mean? First, Jesus isn’t speaking strictly literal. He is clearly not telling people in order to follow me you must be physically crucified or die as a martyr. He is not trying to radicalize people into sacrificing their life in some holy war against the Romans. Second, Jesus is speaking metaphorically. He does this most famously in His own parables. This metaphor is meant to help us to understand that following the way of Christ requires a true submission of one’s entire life. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, would famously describe that submission as dying daily. This willful submission to Jesus is a natural result of believing He is God incarnate, He is gracious, and He is the absolute authority.
Long live the King…
Jesus is the authority. Every eye will see Him, every knee will bow to Him, and every tongue will confess Him to be God Almighty. In the early church, Christians were being persecuted in part because they would not acquiesce to the Roman authorities in confessing Ceasar is lord. The Christians would not participate in the Roman Emperor cult and instead proclaimed in opposition, Christ is Lord. Why? Because these early believers held the deep conviction that Jesus is God and King. Therefore, they would not yield in their submission to their true potentate no matter the consequence. They willfully submitted their lives to Jesus in the face of certain death.
There are many titles given to Jesus, and maybe none so clearly represents to us the divine majesty of Jesus quite like “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” It is our blessed privilege to submit to our King as our new found identity by grace through faith is summed up in the designation given to us of “his people”. We are the King’s people. He is our Champion, Protector, Provider, and our King. As we travel the way of Christ, we gladly carry our cross seeking to imitate our glorious resurrected King.