SOURCE: A few weeks ago in our Sunday night study of the book of Revelation, we heard this account of the death of a beloved brother by the name of Polycarp.
In the Asia Minor city of Smyrna, persecution broke out against Christians and some were put to death for their faith. But the agitated mob wanted to cut off the church there by getting rid of their leader, the now aged Polycarp. The believers hid Polycarp in a farmhouse. (The leaders there taught that one should not seek out martyrdom, but neither should it be avoided if there was no choice and it meant denying Christ).
The authorities found the farm house and came to arrest the old man. He welcomed his captors as if they were old friends and gave them food and drink. He asked for an hour to pray before being taken to the arena. They relented. The hour stretched into two hours. The officers, overhearing his prayers began to wonder what they were doing arresting an old man like this.
Polycarp was brought into the arena. Instead of Polycarp begging for his life we find the proconsul pleading with this aged bishop to just curse Christ so he would be released. Polycarp’s reply:
“Eighty and six years have I served Him, and he never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior.”
He was burned alive. The Christians present said there was a joyful radiance on Polycarp’s face as he died. Believers were allowed to bury his remains on February 22, probably in the year 155. Churches near and far from Smyrna observed this date in years to come and drew strength from the testimony of this old, old, man who would not deny Christ, no matter what it cost him. 1
He would not deny Christ. He would not follow in the footsteps of Peter.
I would not want to have the distinction of being known as the disciple who denied Jesus three times. That one sinful act has been lurking in Peter’s shadow for 2000 years. However, I am convinced that Peter’s failure of faith on that occasion has been used of God to inspire multitudes of believers to remain faithful to the Lord Jesus in some of the worst persecution imaginable. How ironic that Peter’s failure in faith has been an inspiration to generations of Christians to stand firm, even in the face of a painful death.
When we think of those like Polycarp who have been martyred for their faith in Christ, and how they have persevered through deaths that cause us to cringe, we wonder how. How can someone have such faith as that? I wonder if I would be so brave and so unmovable in my faith if they came looking for me and threatened me with death by fire?
Beloved, this is the very reason why our lives as believers in the Lord Jesus are often difficult. We are constantly being tested and our faith is perpetually being tried for the purpose of strengthening and growing our faith. I want you to consider a passage of Scripture with me for just a moment: Luke 16:10.
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. (Luke 16:10 ESV)
The fruit of the Spirit is faith. Every believer has some measure of faith. That’s why we’re called Believers. We have faith in Christ, we are trusting in Him to save us, we believe in what He did upon the cross to purchase us for Himself and deliver us from condemnation. By definition, you can’t be a believer without faith.
So it would seem, according to the words of Jesus here in Luke 16, that if we have been granted any faith at all, and if we are faithful in even the smallest and (apparently) most insignificant of situations, then we will be faithful in the weightiest and most serious of situations. Not infallibly so, but ultimately so. This is exactly what we believe the Bible teaches. The Baptist Confession boils it down very succinctly in this statement:
Those whom God hath accepted in the beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, and given the precious faith of his elect unto, can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved, seeing the gifts and callings of God are without repentance, whence he still begets and nourisheth in them faith, repentance, love, joy, hope, and all the graces of the Spirit unto immortality; and though many storms and floods arise and beat against them, yet they shall never be able to take them off that foundation and rock which by faith they are fastened upon; notwithstanding, through unbelief and the temptations of Satan, the sensible sight of the light and love of God may for a time be clouded and obscured from them, yet he is still the same, and they shall be sure to be kept by the power of God unto salvation, where they shall enjoy their purchased possession, they being engraven upon the palm of his hands, and their names having been written in the book of life from all eternity. 2
We are fastened upon the rock of our salvation, Christ, by the faith which God has granted to us. And He nourishes faith in us, testing us and teaching us to grow in our faith through the storms and floods. And even though we may lose sight of Him from time to time, He will never lose sight of us. He is still the same, and He will keep His promise to take us all the way to glory. Amen?
So rejoice in the testing of your faith. We are being trained and disciplined and matured in order that we might be good and faithful servants of our good and faithful King.
Now turn with me to Hebrews 11. We’ve talked about faith, we’ve seen the dictionary definition of faith, we’ve discussed how God grants us faith and causes it to grow. We’ve even looked at the failure of the faith of Peter and how his failure has been used of the Lord to inspire faithfulness in us. Now let’s look at an example of faithfulness and draw some positive inspiration from someone who did it right.
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. 4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. (Hebrews 11:1-4 ESV)
First, I want to focus on verse 1, the definition of faith. This is the Bible’s own definition which the Spirit of God Himself has supplied for us. According to this verse, faith has to do with things not yet realized or seen. Let’s think of it this way:
Once upon a time, way back when Johnny was a young child, he hoped for a new bicycle for Christmas. After what felt like decades of hoping and wishing and being good, Christmas day finally arrived with a shiny new bike under the tree. At that point, faith was no longer necessary. Little Johnny stopped hoping for a bike. His hope had been realized and he no longer needed to “walk by faith” believing Santa Claus (or his Dad) was going to make the delivery.
Now I am going to make a statement you need to consider: When Christmas day arrived, the bike became a reality and was no longer something that only existed in Johnny’s head. True or False? Johnny hoped and believed he would get a bike. And until the bike was seen, he still exercised faith and hope that he would get one. But suppose in spite of everything, Johnny didn’t get a shiny new bike. What should we conclude?
- Johnny wasn’t good enough and his parents told on him, or
- Santa Claus is a deadbeat, or
- There is no such thing as shiny new bicycles.
There are those within the very large tent of evangelicalism who teach that, like God, you can create reality by the power of faith. They say that, like God who created the universe out of nothing by the power of His faith, we can harness the power of faith and bring bicycles and Lambourghinis into our existence. So it may be Johnny didn’t get the shiny new bike for Christmas because he did not have enough power to faith it into existence. He just wasn’t enough like God, I suppose.
Beloved, regardless of how much Johnny may have hoped and prayed and had faith to believe he would get a bike for Christmas, his faith had absolutely nothing to do with the existence of that bike. This is how the Word of Faith Movement has perverted this entire concept of faith. In essence, they make a god out of faith, and they make God subject to the power of Faith.
Whether or not people believe God, believe in God, believe in Christ, believe the Bible, or believe that God created the world from nothing, neither their faith nor our faith has any effect upon reality, upon what is true. Faith does not determine what is real or true. Things do not exist because we believe they do. Something isn’t true because we trust that it is.
Hebrews 11:1 tells us faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. So let me ask you another question: How did Adam know God created the world? . . . Because he was there? Even Adam was required to believe that God had created him and the rest of the world. That has always been the case. Ever since the Garden of Eden, it has been necessary to exercise faith, to believe that God is our Creator.
Verse 2 tells us it was through this kind of faith that the people of old received their commendation. Because of their faith in things hoped for and unseen, people spoken of throughout the Old Testament Scriptures were commended by God. Like Abel. Look at verse 4.
4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. (Hebrews 11:4 ESV)
Abel’s faith resulted in a commendation, a good testimony from God. So the question is, “What was it that Abel believed? What did Abel hope for which he was convinced was true even though he had never seen it, which caused him to bring the kind of sacrifice that he brought to God?” Because that’s what we’re talking about: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Abel had that kind of faith and therefore brought an acceptable sacrifice. What did he believe that caused him to do that? Turn with me to Genesis 4.
1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. (Genesis 4:1-5 ESV)
According to what we read in Hebrews 11, Abel’s offering of a lamb was an act of faith but Cain’s offering of his crops was not. Why? Because of what he believed to be true, because of what he hoped for which he could not yet see. What did Abel have faith in that Cain did not believe? Whatever Abel believed, it resulted in this particular kind of sacrifice which God accepted, resulting in God’s approbation of Abel. Abel had saving faith and Cain did not. So what did Abel believe?
He believed God. Cain did not. Look with me at Genesis 2 and notice what it says beginning in verse 15:
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17 ESV)
This is God speaking to Cain and Abel’s father. If you eat of this tree you will die. Now chapter 3, verse 6:
6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6 ESV)
These are the parents of Cain and Abel who defied God’s command which led to their fall into sin and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. They were cursed by God. They lost Paradise. Now skip down to verse 22.
22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever–” 23 therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22-24 ESV)
The Garden is still there, the tree of life is still there, and they are prohibited from returning to it lest they live forever in their fallen sinful state.
Then in chapter 4 we see the story of Cain’s and Abel’s sacrifices and Abel’s death at the hands of his brother. There is no record of Abel speaking or saying anything. And yet the writer of Hebrews says he was a man who possessed saving faith because God approved of Abel’s animal sacrifice. It was because of Abel’s faith that he brought a sheep and not a tomato to the Lord. How did he know to do that?
Because of the actions of God on behalf of his parents. As a result of what God did, Adam and Eve did not die. They should have. God said they would. But they did not. Why? Because God provided a temporary substitutionary sacrifice for them, the life of an animal in exchange for the lives of our first parents.
21 And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21 ESV)
Abel understood the grace of God. Undoubtedly he was told by his parents how God had spared their lives. They could point Abel to the Garden where angels kept guard to prevent them all from re-entering and eating from the Tree of Life so as to make their fallen condition an eternal one. And surely Adam recounted the occasion when he saw God Himself, in the person of the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus, slaughter an animal, probably a sheep, and shed its blood in order to provide the skins that would clothe them and cover the nakedness that was the result of their rebellion.
Surely Abel knew all of this. And by faith, he understood there was an eternal life to be had which would be purchased by the blood of another future sacrifice. It was this faith that caused Abel to bring God an acceptable offering from his flock. By faith, followed God’s own example, doing what God had done, by taking the life of a lamb as a substitute for his own life. And God was pleased with it.
Abel believed God. He believed what he knew. He trusted what he was told as well as what he could see. The evidence of his faith in God to deliver him from the death his own father had brought upon us all was his animal sacrifice through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.
One more thing Abel believed, and it may be this is the most important thing. It was something the Lord Jesus said in front of Abel’s parents which I suspect they were sure to pass down to their sons:
14 The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15 ESV)
Abel believed that. He was told the entire story: What Eden was like, and there was this tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and how his Mom was tempted by the serpent. How she foolishly listened to his deceptions, and how she invited Abel’s Dad to join her in her deception. They told him how the Lord Jesus came looking for them, and how ashamed and afraid they were. They told their son how the Lord was upset with them, but He loved them and made provision for them through a sacrifice, the first death the world had ever seen because the wages of sin is death.
And they told Abel that one day, Someone would come and destroy the works of the Devil and crush his head under His feet. That is what Abel believed!
Does our faith look like Abel’s? I don’t mean we should be sacrificing animals in the back yard. But do we really believe what God has said so that it affects how we approach Him and how we think about Him? Do we not have the same hope Abel had, that one day the work of the Devil will be destroyed and the Lord Jesus will reign over all His people in righteousness and they will live forever?
And it would be wise for us to keep in mind that Cain heard everything and knew everything Abel did. He had access to the very same information as Abel. He even saw a sacrifice presented to God by his own brother that God declared to be acceptable. He was even told by God that he would be accepted if he brought a sacrifice like his brother’s.
But, obviously, he did not believe it. He did not listen to the word of God. And his actions proved his faithlessness.
Whether a person believes God or doesn’t believe God, one thing is certain. Jesus said it Himself: Thy word is truth. (John 17:17). Whatever God says is truth. I would strongly urge you and everyone else who may hear this message to believe that. Our faith must be in the word of God. That is saving faith.
Scripture covered:Galatians 5:22, Luke 16:10, Hebrews 11:1-4, Genesis 2:15-17, 3:6, 14-15, 21-24, 4:1-5, John 17:17
2. http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/1689lbc/english/Chapter17.htm. John 10:28, 29; Philippians 1:6; 2 Timothy 2:19; 1 John 2:19; Psalms 89:31, 32; 1 Corinthians 11:32; Malachi 3:6