Belief - Part 1

Genesis 15:1-18a, Abraham's belief counted as righteousness

Galatians 3:1-14, 22-26, We are children of God by faith in Jesus Christ

Romans 4:1-22, Belief counts as righteousness for both Jews and Gentiles

Mark 1:1-15, The first thing Jesus says is, "Repent and believe the good news."

John 20:18-31, The Gospel of John is all about believing

Exodus 4:1-9, 27-31, Signs are given so that we might believe

Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10, Jesus was amazed by the centurion's faith

2 Timothy 1:1-14, Not what, but whom do you believe?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, The good news of God led the Thessalonians to faith

Romans 10:1-17, Faith comes by hearing God's word proclaimed

Jude 1:1-8, 19-25, Here faith has become The Faith

Jonah 3:1-4:11, Belief and repentance lead to forgiveness

Mark 9:14-29, All things are possible for the one who believes

More of Belief

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The relationship among a Hebrew root, a Greek root, and three English roots gets complicated.

Introduction: Fellow reader Rob thinks it would be interesting to do a study on "belief." Rob does about 90% of the work to prepare the study tips for the website, so guess what? We're going to do a study on belief! The Hebrew AMN, the Greek pist-, and the English belie(f) and faith- are almost always talking about exactly the same thing. For the next couple of months, we'll try to figure out what that is. Together, the various forms of these words occur in the Bible more than 600 times, but we're just going to look at a sample of them.

As usual when we study a particular word or idea, it gets complicated rapidly, as I've tried to show in the illustration above. In some contexts, the English words belief, faith, and trust all mean the same thing, and in other contexts, they all mean something different, or any two may overlap. Belie(f) can become belie(ve) or belie(ver) or (un)belie(vably). Trust can be either a noun or a verb, and it can take various prefixes or suffixes to make other, related words, like trust(ful) or (dis)trust or trust(worthy). We hope our faith doesn't turn into faith(lessness)!

The same is true of the Hebrew root AMN and the Greek root pist-. Depending on the vowels, prefixes, or suffixes, they can be nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. AMN is translated into Greek as pist- almost all the time (but not all the time). They are both translated into English as belie(f) or faith - most of the time, and as trust- or even other words altogether some of the time.

As usual, there are a few other Hebrew and Greek words that get translated as belie(f), faith-, or trust- once in a while. In this study, however, when you see any form of any of these three English words, it will be AMN if the scripture is from the Old Testament, and pist- if it's from the New Testament. I'll try to remember to use italics and hyphens to show you what English words come from either one. If some other Hebrew or Greek word entirely comes out as faith or belief, I'll warn you.

Genesis 15:1-18a, Abraham's belief counted as righteousness (10/10/22)

One of the most theologically important statements in the entire Bible is "And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness." Even so, you've heard the expression "Trust but verify." Abraham asked for some verification, which is what all the livestock and fires are about. These are symbols of a suzerainty covenant [SUE-zer-en-ty], which is a binding agreement between unequal parties.

Galatians 3:1-14, 22-26, We are children of God by faith in Jesus Christ (10/11/22)

One problem in translating the AMN and pist- words is that English doesn't always have the words! Here Paul is discussing salvation using pistis, a noun, and pisteuo, a verb. In English we have the nouns belief and faith, and we have the verb to believe, but we don't have the verb to faith. We can't "faith God," so many translators switch over to believe. When you look at various translations, vss. 5 and 6 show clearly that the two English words are interchangeable in the biblical context: Whether we call it faith or believing, Paul is talking about the same thing throughout, as the context shows. Someone has told the Galatians, who were Gentile Christians, that their faith won't be complete until they keep the entire Law of Moses, i.e., they should become Jewish Christians. Paul says, no, Gentiles who have faith in or believe in God through Jesus Christ are already the children of Abraham and heirs of the blessings promised to him. (Actually, he says, "NO! Are you people crazy? " but that's just Paul.)

Romans 4:1-22, Belief counts as righteousness for both Jews and Gentiles (10/12/22)

Paul is again reasoning from Genesis 15:6, but this time he's applying it to both Jews and Gentiles. Paul's theological position is that Abraham was made righteous through belief/faith in God while he was still uncircumcised. He and Sarah gave rise to the mighty nation of the Jews, who of course are justified by faith, just like Abraham. The Jews in turn brought forth the Messiah, Jesus. Because Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, the Gentiles may also be justified by belief/faith in Jesus. Thus the Gentiles are also made righteous - just like Abraham.

Note especially vs. 20, "No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith." These are negative and positive forms of pist-, but English doesn't have the word "unfaith." The translator could have said, just as accurately, "he grew strong in his belief," although I can't find any versions that do that. On the other hand, I found five that have faith/faith and a few that have a different word altogether for the first part of the verse, like doubt.

Mark 1:1-15, The first thing Jesus says is, "Repent and believe the good news." (10/13/22)

The primary reason that the news media are full of bad news seems to be that bad news sells and good news doesn't. Certainly I look around in my daily life and see mostly good things happening, or at least neutral things, that never get reported. I just don't see that many bad things happening, but when I read the paper, oh my gosh! Bad things everywhere! Does it make the papers when the Asbury Pie Cafe distributes tens of thousands of dollars to local food charities? Probably not. How about when a local restaurant goes bankrupt? Probably.

The Bible is the good news of God's love for us, his children. "Gospel" means "good news." Mark was the first gospel to be written, and the very first thing that Jesus says in Mark is "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news."

John 20:18-31, The Gospel of John is all about believing (10/14/22)

Here's a little table for you of the occurrences of pistis and pisteuo in the Gospels:
Faith/belief, noun,

Believe, verb,

Mark, Matthew, Luke






The difference would be even more striking for believe if we left out all the duplicate verses in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. When you read the Gospels, you might come away thinking Mark, Matthew, and Luke care about both faith and believing, and John cares only about believing. The correct conclusion is that Mark, Matthew, and Luke write almost as much with nouns as with verbs, and John writes with the verb and never uses the noun at all. You might also conclude that John cares more about believing than Mark, Matthew, and Luke put together, and you could well be right about that.

Your lesson from this is twofold. First, don't base your theology on the way a person writes. Second, the Gospel of John is all about believing! He says exactly this when he finishes up, in John 20:30-31.

p.s. I have to add this because I know you are asking, "Teacher, why do you say John finishes up in John 20:31?" John 21 is an addendum, apparently in response to the question, "Teacher, didn't Jesus say you wouldn't die?" John was finished at the end of Ch. 20, but he had to write Ch. 21 to quell the rumors; see 21:23.

Exodus 4:1-9, 27-31, Signs are given so that we might believe (10/17/22)

There's a subtle difference, in English at least, between "I believe you" and "I believe in you." The first one means "I accept that what you are saying is true," and the second one means, "I have confidence that you can or will do this; I trust you." When Moses first meets God in the wilderness, he's worried that the people will not accept what he's saying, as in 4:1 and 4:5, but God is more concerned that the people will have confidence that God is able to rescue them from Egypt. The signs that Moses is given to show to the people - the staff, the leprous hand, and the Nile water that turns to blood - bring the people to believe that God can accomplish what he claims to be able to, as in 4:31.

Scripture, particularly in the New Testament, tends to distinguish between "signs" and "miracles." Signs tend to be given to people that need to be brought to faith, and miracles tend to be given to people who have faith. I think. Let's keep an eye out for this distinction during our study on belief and see if I'm right or smoking something.

Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10, Jesus was amazed by the centurion's faith (10/18/22)

We're going to read about the centurion twice, once in Matthew and once in Luke. The details differ, but what the centurion says and what Jesus says are nearly the same in both accounts. Mark does not have this story. Most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke, who wrote later than Mark, both had access not only to Mark's Gospel, which they typically quote verbatim, but to another source called Q (for the German Quelle, or "source"). We don't have Q, but it seems to have been a compilation of sayings from Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke also had their own independent sources. That would account for why the actions are different, but the sayings are the same.

So let's talk about what Jesus and the centurion say. Jesus agrees to go to the centurion's house and heal the servant, but the centurion says that it is not necessary for him to come: all Jesus has to do is give the order. The centurion doesn't say that he has faith, only that he understands about orders. Jesus says that the centurion has faith because he has complete confidence in Jesus' ability to accomplish something just by saying the word.

Fun fact: A centurion was in charge of (nominally) 100 soldiers, just as there 100 cents in a dollar and 100 years in a century.

2 Timothy 1:1-14, Not what, but whom do you believe? (10/19/22)

You have to pay very close attention when you're reading Paul. For example, look at vss. 8-12, which is all one sentence:* Don't forget that you must read in context. Sometimes Paul's context is several chapters long. If you just grab something out of the middle, you can easily end up with exactly the opposite of what he is saying.

Anyway, look again at the last part of vs. 12. Paul doesn't say, "I know what I believe," which we hear a lot, both in and out of church. It probably is good to be clear about what you believe (especially when you're listening to any kind of advertisement). However, Paul says, "I know whom I believe," which is much more important. Saving faith depends on whom you believe, not what you believe. Keep this in mind the next time you're tempted to argue about theology.

* The complete sentence from the English Standard Version:

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, The good news of God led the Thessalonians to faith (10/20/22)

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy were in Thessalonica for about three weeks (Acts 17:1-3). A number of people converted to the Way, which angered a number of other people. There was an uproar, during which the new believers smuggled Paul and his friends out of town, to Berea. Some of the Thessalonians weren't ready to let it go; they followed and caused trouble in Berea, too. The Berean Christians put Paul on board a ship for Athens, where he waited for Silvanus and Timothy to join him.

Well, as you can imagine, Paul was worried about the little church he had left behind after being with them such a short time and in such turmoil. It turned out that their new faith was strong enough that it became well known throughout Macedonia and Achaia, which are now mostly Greece.

Romans 10:1-17, Faith comes by hearing God's word proclaimed (10/21/22)

Here's another long, complicated argument from Paul. I'm sure that your high-school English teacher talked a lot about "transitions," and nowhere is attention to transitions more important than in the letters of Paul. Here Paul first contrasts the righteousness that comes from obedience to the law with the righteousness based on faith.

He goes on to discuss how one comes to faith, and notice that he puts everything in reverse order in vss. 13-15. First, somebody like Paul has to be sent to preach the good news. Then people to whom the preacher has been sent have to hear the good news. Then they have to believe in the one of whom they have heard, i.e., the Lord. Then they have to call on the one in whom they have believed. Finally, "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." Therefore, Paul concludes, "faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." Make sure that the words people hear from you promote faith rather than impede it.

Jude 1:1-8, 19-25, Here faith has become The Faith (10/24/22)

If I tell you that later today I'm going to call a taxi and go to the supermarket, and I tell my husband that I'm taking an Uber to the grocery store, and he tells my son that I got a ride to go shopping for something for dinner, the message - and my action - is the same in all three cases. We are seeing that exactly the same word, the verb pisteuo, can be translated as "I believe"; or as "I have faith," where it has become a noun; or as "I am faithful," where it has become an adjective. There's also pistis, the noun "belief" or "faith," and an adjective, pistos, "faithful." The take-away lesson is not that you can't trust your translator or your translation. The lesson is that (1) reading more than one translation will usually give you a better understanding of what the Bible is saying, and (2) you can't base a theology or doctrine on one word in one translation. (Well, you can, because it has been done, but you shouldn't.)

The early believers in Jesus were called "followers of the Way," and what they believed was "the good news." They "believed" or "had faith," and those two ideas are equivalent. We still have faith, but we also have a faith, i.e., Christianity, and others may have another faith, e.g., Judaism or Islam. In this usage, "faith" is almost equivalent to "religion." Jude is one of the later New Testament writers, and notice how he uses "faith" in both ways. In vs. 3, he talks about "the faith that God has once for all given to his people." This clearly isn't just my belief in Jesus, this is what I'm supposed to believe about Jesus: the Faith. Then in vs. 5 and I think in vs. 20, he is talking about the belief or lack of belief that individuals have. Keep the faith, bro.

Jonah 3:1-4:11, Belief and repentance lead to forgiveness (10/25/22)

Today's reading is one of the times where the English distinction between believing and having faith in might have been useful if ancient Hebrew had had two words. As it is, we have to decide from context what AMN means.

Of the twenty times that the Bible mentions Nineveh, eight are in the book of Jonah, and three more refer to the book of Jonah. Nineveh was a pagan Assyrian city that the Bible calls "that great city," which is consistent with Wikipedia's statement that it was the largest in the world for several decades. The prophet Nahum also preached against Nineveh. Jesus said that the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah (Matt. 12:41, Luke 11:32), but neither Jesus, Jonah, nor Nahum says that they converted to the worship of God.

So the context seems to be that the people (and cattle!) of Nineveh accepted Jonah's message as true and expected that God was powerful enough to deliver on his threat of destruction, but not that they accepted God as their own deity. They repented at least temporarily, however, and God forgave them, at least temporarily.

By the way, forget the whale. There is no whale, and the great fish isn't all that important. The plant is important. Jonah is sorry when the plant dies, and God says, "Shouldn't I be sorry if people are going to die??"

Mark 9:14-29, All things are possible for the one who believes (10/26/22)

I chose this passage specifically because it contains the noun apistia/faithlessness/unbelief. The father says, "I pisteuo/believe, Lord; help my apistia/unbelief!" (Think about "moral" and "amoral.") I'm a little surprised that John didn't pick this story up, because he's all about belief vs. unbelief; I guess he figured that Mark, Matthew, and Luke had it covered.

If you've ever had one of those days where you know you have faith, but you just don't think you enough faith right this minute, or maybe none, you have to feel for this dad. If he hadn't believed that Jesus could help his boy, he wouldn't have brought him. When Jesus tells him "Have faith!" he cries out, "I do, but I don't! Help me!" We've been there. It's good to know that Jesus can work with our doubts.

More of Belief
Belief - Part 2
Belief - Part 3

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