“Reason is one thing and faith is another and reason can as little be made a substitute for faith, as faith can be made a substitute for reason” (John Henry Newman). Mr. Newman made this erroneous statement in the 1800s, and over a century of passing time has not eroded his sentiments from the mind of man.
The concept of “faith” has been misunderstood since the beginning of time. Most people understand faith as a fuzzy sort of hope, similar to a reverse fog that blurs the vision ahead, then disappears when the view clears. It’s just a hope that everything will turn out OK. Or it’s a wisp of cotton candy that is sweet to the taste when used to defend one’s lack of overt spirituality, justify a corpus of Pollyanna platitudes, or win an election, then melts away and is forgotten. Faith is usually set in contradistinction to reason or science. This is not the essence of biblical faith.
Faith is a trusting belief based on knowledge of past experience. If we know that a chair is made of a proven strong substance, we can have faith that it will support us. If we know that a doctor has successfully performed a certain operation, we can have faith that he can help us with the same condition. If we have eaten dozens of apples without getting sick, we can have faith that the next one we eat won’t hurt us. If we know that a salesperson has been honest in the past, we can trust him to not cheat us. If we know that God’s Word never changes and has never been proven false, we can trust what He says.
Luke singles out an elderly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth in his narration of Christ’s birth. This couple put their faith on display during some unusual circumstances, resulting in the birth of John the Baptist, who introduced Jesus Christ to the world.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had lived and proven God’s Word (Luke 1:5, 6). However, they had no children, which was a disgrace in that culture (1:7). When Zechariah, an Aaronic priest, was obediently performing his duties, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and promised the couple a child who was to be named John, was to be kept from alcohol, and would prepare people to meet the Lord (1:6¬–17). At first, the priest doubted, which would seem natural at his age (v. 18). The angel pulled rank and made Zechariah speechless until John was born (vv. 19, 20). That appears to be the last time Zechariah doubted the Word of the Lord!
Elizabeth, against all “reason,” gave birth on schedule (v. 57). Mary, her relative and the virgin mother of the Lord Jesus, was told by Gabriel that Elizabeth was pregnant, and she hurried to see her (v. 39). Obviously, from experience, she knew this promise would come true. Her faith was based on her own experience, which was based on her faith that God would send a Messiah.
When their relatives were going to name the baby after his father according to custom, Zechariah and Elizabeth insisted he be named John, as instructed (vv. 59–64). In faith, they followed through on God’s promises through Gabriel. When Zechariah’s tongue was loosed, he prophesied about God’s deliverance, “as he said through his holy prophets of long ago” (v. 70). His experiences and knowledge led to his faith in God’s Word. The rest, as they say, is history.
Zechariah and Elizabeth trusted the Lord enough to live for Him and with Him. This priest knew God’s Word which, at that time, consisted of what we now call the Old Testament. He knew the prophecies and the stories of fulfillment. The very existence and history of Israel and the temple were proof enough of God’s trustworthiness. The authority of the messenger, in this case Gabriel, should have been enough to convince him of the truth of the announcement of John’s birth and life. In fact, the angel was merely restating what was in the Bible that Zechariah knew, prophesied by the God he served. It’s almost humorous that he prayed for a child, then doubted when the answer came.
Faith is not wishful thinking or mere self-hypnosis. It is not based on whim or fancy. It is not predicated upon what we would like to believe, but it is based on what is already known and can be reasonably assumed. It doesn’t fly in the face of facts. It is, as the author of Hebrews says, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1, NASB). But it is based on the things that are seen and the One Who is not seen but known through what is seen: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Faith takes what we know and allows us to trust for what we don’t see or fully understand.
This elderly couple reasoned their way, by faith, from an impossible situation to fulfillment, via the God of the “reasonably” impossible.
Next time, we will look at another elderly couple who were expecting in a different way.
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