"What Is Faith?"
In John 1:12, the Apostle John writes: “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” What is this believing? What does faith involve?
Just before Jesus conversed with Nicodemus, St. John also tells us: “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn. 2:23-25). This little commentary by John raises the question, “What is faith?” Our Gospel today—Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus—answers that question.
What is faith? First of all, faith is not just seeing miracles and being drawn to the One who performs them. You see, miracles can often be misunderstood. Remember the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-15)? The crowd saw and realized the miracle Jesus had done, and so they wanted to make Him king. But they only wanted a “bread king”—a king who would satisfy their earthly wants and desires. So Jesus preached a sermon to them. He told them that He is the true Bread from heaven. He told them that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood would live forever. That’s what the miracle pointed to. But they would not believe that. So John tells us that many of them “turned back and no longer walked with him” (Jn. 6:66).
Also, faith is not just an interest in Jesus as a great Teacher. He certainly is a great Teacher, to be sure. That’s how Nicodemus first approached Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Many others said the same thing. There was the rich man who came to Jesus and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17). But then Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, and the man “went away sorrowful” (Mk. 10:22). Even the scribes and Pharisees recognized Jesus as a Teacher. One day one of them came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Mt. 22:36). But they were not really interested in His answer; they were just trying to trip Him up and trap Him.
So faith is not merely hanging on to Jesus as a miracle-worker or recognizing Him as a great Teacher. What, then, is faith? In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells Nicodemus that faith is a matter of being reborn. “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Nicodemus misunderstands. So Jesus says: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, faith is the work of God the Holy Spirit in us. Poor Nicodemus is still confused. So he asks, “How can these things be?” But a how question is not the right question. So Jesus points him—and us—to the what.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Faith is holding on to and trusting in the love of God, the love that gave His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to the world. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Faith is hanging on to and clinging to that love, no matter how strange or difficult things in our lives may seem.
So Jesus gives Nicodemus an example from their own history: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Remember the story? The Israelites were on their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land. As they were accustomed to do, they were rebelling against God and complaining about the bleak wilderness they were in. So God sent poisonous snakes among them. When the snakes bit the people, the people started to die. Then they came to their senses and repented. So God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole. That serpent on the pole would be their deliverance and healing. Whoever was bitten and looked at that serpent would live.
Now God could have simply gotten rid of the snakes. But He wanted to save His people through faith. He wanted them to believe Him and take Him at His word that if they looked up to that serpent on the pole, they would live.
Now, of course, that serpent on the pole was a sign that pointed ahead to something much greater. It pointed to the love that God showed to a rebellious world. It pointed to the Son of Man who was lifted up on the Cross. And whoever looks to this Cross will see God’s love wrapped up in flesh and blood—our very deliverance and healing from sin and death. Whoever believes in Him—holding on to Him, clinging to Him—should not perish but have eternal life.
Now God could have simply snapped His fingers and rid the world of sin and death. But He wanted to save us through faith. He wanted—and still wants—us to believe Him and take Him at His word that when we look to His only-begotten Son, we will live.
So, what is faith? Faith is believing the greatest miracle and teaching of all—that God loved the world in such a way that He sent His Son to suffer and die for all, so that we can have life in Him. It’s a life we were given when we were born anew and born from above by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. It’s a life that He puts into us every time we eat our Lord’s flesh and drink His blood in the Holy Supper. It’s a life that will keep and preserve us, no matter how difficult or trying our lives may be. It’s eternal life even now, life that will continue into the eternal kingdom that He has prepared for us.
Nicodemus may not have received all the answers he was looking for. We may not receive all the answers we look for either. That’s why faith is not chiefly about understanding. So we simply believe, hold on to, and cling to the love of God that He has shown us in Christ Jesus our Lord—a love lifted up on the Cross and raised from the dead. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!” That’s why faith simply cries out: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”