From Unbelief to Disbelief to Faith (Sabbath School 3-31-2017)

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From Unbelief to Disbelief to Faith (Sabbath School 3-31-2017)

Peter’s journey with Jesus displays a pivotal aspect of discipleship: growing in faith. In fact, in his second letter, Peter makes this point (2 Peter 1:5–7). Like a diamond, there are facets of faith, that move us from unbelief (absence or rejection of belief) to disbelief (unwillingness, or inability to believe that something is the case) to a living faith in Jesus. In the book of Matthew Peter’s experience stands out because it describes an experience unique to Matthews portrayal of Peter as he grew in his faith from the boaster to the believer.

Why do we Doubt?

The answer of faith addresses the problem of doubt. So, why do we doubt? I was on a flight with a well-known evangelist in a foreign country. Something went wrong, and the tickets of the group I was in were lost, so we had to wait for new tickets to be printed. Long story short, the evangelist and I were the last two waiting for our tickets, and it seemed as if we were going to miss our international flight back to America and be stuck with no connection during a time of heightened tension in the country. His reaction made me question my notion of faith. I asked myself, “When things get tough, why do I doubt?” Why is faith so easy to talk about, but so hard to live with? Faith seems to be one of those words that look good on a Christmas picture frame but is often tried in the mundane routines of life, the unexpected challenges we encounter, and the conflicts that make us uncomfortable in the home, on the job, or in the church.

It is possible to be confident in that religiosity, yet live in disbelief. Peter started out his journey with Jesus as a religious man, but as the gospels detail, he struggled with disbelief. For some, they start from a place of unbelief; they reject God’s offer for a relationship for a variety of reasons. Regardless of a religious sentiment or the lack of one, the problem of true belief just looks different, but it’s a problem all the same. The fact is we never really know the depth of our unbelief, disbelief, or belief until it is tried.

You Too Can Walk on Water

Like I said, it preaches well, but for anyone who has ever faced a life-threatening situation, the terror is palpable. I once got lost on Mount Sinai and almost fell off a cliff to my certain death. The threat of death cleared my mind like no other experience. It wasn’t a grit your teeth and pray a silent prayer moment. As my foot searched for something to hold on to, groping in the darkness of spirit, I cried out “Jesus, I don’t want to die like this”, and miraculously my foot caught hold of the cliff’s edge and I climbed down the huge boulders and tight ravines (I still have the scars on my arms as proof). I understand the fear of death Peter felt when he started going under the water and cried out “Lord, save me” (Matt 14:30). But, is it necessary to face death for our faith to be tested or to grow?

Mark wrote down Peter’s eyewitness account. A brief comparison between Mark’s version and Matthew’s version brings to light some points of fact and perspective.[1]

Why did Mark (or Peter) leave out Peter’s trek on the Sea of Galilee? I don’t know, but Jesus’ question is pivotal in the book of Matthew, “Why did you doubt?” This verb is only used twice in the book of Matthew and where it shows up teaches us about faith. As Matthew tells us Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid,” and Peter actually got out the boat! Peter’s experience is a lesson in growing in faith. Moving from unbelief (they thought Jesus was a ghost, thus bringing a challenge to their knowledge about Jesus), Peter then moved to disbelief (he looked away from Jesus because of his inability to believe he was walking on water). Finally, the disciples all express belief (they worship Jesus). According to Mark, Jesus saw them struggling beforehand. Jesus’ actions reflect a plan to give Peter that opportunity to step out in faith, to put into practice what he had known of Jesus up to that point. It always amazes me that they were having this discussion during a storm. So, the question about doubt was during the threat to faith. The point is that after that experience they saw Jesus for who He is, though for a moment, until the next opportunity to grow in faith.

Faith: The Miraculous vs. the Mundane

I asked earlier whether it is necessary to face death to have our faith tested or grow. I suggest not. Peter’s journey continued as he was faced with a paradox. After making a miraculous proclamation about who Jesus is (Matt. 16:17), Jesus tells them He is going to be killed. What an odd thing to hear after you have come to a point in your life of encountering Jesus only to have your hopes dashed. Yet, it is not usually the glamorous experiences that show us whether we really believe; it is often the mundane routines of life and the paradoxical experiences that challenge us the most. By all appearances, Jesus was about to establish what the prophets spoke of with such vigor, a new messianic age of peace and prosperity. Surely, a welcomed thought considering the pressing presence of Rome and the corrupt Jewish leaders. Jesus spoke of suffering and death, which for Peter and the Jewish people had become routine. His rebuke of Peter suggests a fact of the life of faith­—the things of God demand the abandonment of our will to His, and that always means submission and often suffering. Usually suffering is not correlated with faith like moving mountains. Yet, after all his experiences with Jesus and seeing Jesus’ faith, these become the major themes of his first book. Suffering (in its noun and verb form) occurs 17 times in 1 Peter, and the verb is the same, pascho “to suffer,” which is used in Jesus’ prediction of His death in Matthew 16:21 (cf. Mark 8:31; 9:12). The other word submission is just as much a test of faith today in our hyper-independent society.[2] How do Christians grow in faith? In suffering and submission, we learn that God is sovereign even when our hopes are dashed because He knows the end from the beginning and will bring His faithful to an expected end.[3] That is Peter’s conclusion in his second book (cf. 2 Peter 3).

Do We Still Doubt?

Coming back to that word, doubt, Matthew uses it at the end of his gospel. After Christ has risen and shown Himself to His disciples, Matthew tells us “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17).[4] Even with all the evidence of a miracle, it is possible to doubt. Whence cometh faith? As we read through 1 and 2 Peter by God’s grace we will grow as we learn to daily surrender to God’s will; often commonplace, yet without faith, it is impossible to please Him.

Click the link to read the Sabbath School Lesson for this week, “The Person of Peter.

Click here to read more commentaries on this quarter’s Adult Sabbath School lesson.

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Notes.

[1] I suggest comparing the whole story. I have bolded some key differences.

Matthew 14:22–33

“And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.””

Mk 6:45–52

“And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

[2] 1 Peter says, be subject to human institutions (2:13), servants, be subject to masters (2:18, in a Greco-Roman context of servitude), wives be subject to your own husbands (3:1, 5) for everything is subject to Christ (3:22).

[3] Hence the well-known quote by E. G. White, “In reviewing our past history, having traveled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God! As I see what the Lord has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.” LS 196.

[4] E. G. White states that the doubters were among the five hundred believers. She states, “Thomas recounted the story of his unbelief, and told how his doubts had been swept away. Suddenly Jesus stood among them. No one could tell whence or how He came. Many who were present had never before seen Him; but in His hands and feet they beheld the marks of the crucifixion; His countenance was as the face of God, and when they saw Him, they worshiped Him. But some doubted. So it will always be. There are those who find it hard to exercise faith, and they place themselves on the doubting side. These lose much because of their unbelief.

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Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.