Part two of a new series exploring four essential steps to following Jesus. In this second part we look at the theme of ‘faith’ and explore what it actually means.
Last month we began a four part series looking at four of the foundational steps involved with following Jesus. As we saw last time when we looked at repentance, there is both an initial dimension to each of these steps, but then also an ongoing, throughout the rest of our lives dimension too.
When we talked about repentance—which is about changing our minds—we saw that there is an initial turning towards God when we first recognise who he is and what Jesus has done and how much we need to bring our lives into alignment with him. But that’s just the start. We spend the rest of lives needing to realign with God as, inevitably, choices we make—sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally—move us away from the path God would have us to be on. Repentance is a gift from God, always giving us the chance to get back on God’s path and into alignment with him.
Having looked at that first foundational step, today though we’re going to talk about faith. And where as last time I focussed more on the ongoing aspect of living a life of repentance, this time I’m going to focus on the initial aspect of putting our trust in Jesus. I’ll be honest, this wasn’t my original intention. The very fact we’re together in this space right now means that we’re a group of people who have taken that initial step of faith. So why talk about it?
What I found as I was reading, writing, and researching this message was a renewed desire to worship and give thanks as I looked afresh at the passages where the Scriptures talk about faith and how that opens the door to our salvation. And just because we may have taken that first step, doesn’t mean we don’t need to go back and celebrate that and remind ourselves of that moment. That is what can actually keep our day-by-day faith alive and fresh. That’s what I hope will be the case today. I hope we’ll all have a fresh glimpse of the wonder to salvation and the way faith has paved the way for that. And maybe, in the same way that, after many years of marriage, couples sometimes renew their original vows, some of us will be inspired to do something similar as we go back and look at that original step of faith.
I want to start today’s look at faith by spending some time exploring one of Jesus’ parables. We’ll use that to then frame how we look at some teaching by the apostle Paul in the letter to the Romans.
The parable of the wedding feast
(See Matthew 22:1-14)
In Matthew 22, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding feast. A king throws a party for his son and sends out invites to all of the guests—but everyone ignores the invitation. Even when the king sends his servants out to remind the invitees, they refuse to come.
The king then sends out more of his servants. They pass on the message to all the guests that the food is ready and everything is prepared, but everyone ignores the servants once again. Some of the invitees go back to getting on with their daily business, but others turn angrily on the servants, abusing them and then killing them.
The king is furious. He sends out his soldiers to have all of the murderers killed and then burn down their city. Then he decides to open the invitation to anyone and everyone. ‘The wedding is ready, but the guests didn’t deserve it’, he says. ‘So go to the roads leading out of the town, and invite everyone you find to the wedding.’ His servants then go out into the streets, round up everyone they find—‘bad and good alike’—and bring them to the wedding feast.
And so, at last, the wedding party is full of people enjoying the feast. But the king notices one person who doesn’t have a wedding suit on. ‘How did you get in here?’ he asks. The man has nothing to say for himself, and the king tells his servants to, ‘tie him up, hands and feet, and throw him into the darkness outside.’
Jesus then wraps up the parable with a single line: ‘Many are called, you see, but few are chosen.’
What does all this mean?
We need to understand that Jesus was telling this parable to Pharisees. Pharisees were a hyper-legalistic sect amongst the Jewish people. And when Jesus’ tale mentioned the invited guests rejecting the king’s invitation, the Pharisees would have quickly recognised he was talking about them.
The Jews were the people who God’s invitation into his kingdom was originally intended for. But as we now know, and as Jesus predicted, the Jews—his own people—rejected him. Not only that, many of them became complicit in his own eventual death, and that of many of the early apostles.
When Jesus told of the king’s invitation being rejected and his servants being killed, he was implicating the Pharisees directly. They would be guilty of rejecting God’s invitation and, as a result, face his judgement. (It’s no wonder Jesus had a habit of angering the Pharisees!)
In telling of the king then opening up the invitation to the wedding feast of his son to anyone and everyone, Jesus was describing how the invitation into God’s kingdom would be made available to all. Though Jesus’ mission was first and foremost to his own Jewish people, it was always God’s intention that the the doors would be opened to everyone (see Romans 1:16). The rejection of the king’s invitation—symbolic of the rejection of the apostles’ preaching about Jesus by many Jews—became the means by which this second invitation went out to everyone else.
We then have the wedding party itself. And at first sight, the casting out of the man not wearing the correct wedding garments seems confusing; harsh even. But though not stated explicitly in the parable, Jesus’ hearers understood that an invitation to a wedding by a king would have included all the appropriate garments to wear at the feast. To not wear those garments, gifted by the king, was hugely insulting.
On a deeper level, Jesus is posing the question: who are we putting our trust in? The wedding feast represents God’s kingdom, and God is inviting us to be part of it. But to accept his invitation we also have to receive his accompanying gift. The only way we’ll be welcome at the feast is if we wear the garments he provides, not something we think is good enough.
In the same way, our good works, and our own attempts at being righteous, will never be enough. Our clothes will never be acceptable in the king’s presence. We need his clothes. That’s to say, we need his righteousness, his covering, and his grace. We can’t earn these or work for them—they come with the free invitation. But we do have to choose whether we’ll receive them.
Many are invited, and many are welcomed into God’s kingdom and offered the ‘clothes’ of righteousness, but not everyone puts them on. Some people think their own clothes are good enough; others ignore the invitation completely. But those who, by faith, accept the invitation, put on the clothes, and head to the party, they are chosen. Sadly, all too few of them.
Faith and righteousness
(See Romans 3:21-4:5)
Having looked at that parable, I now want us to look at some of Paul’s teaching on faith and righteousness. What Paul writes is, putting it mildly, pretty dense, and technical in places. But if we read it slowly and thoughtfully, it’s hard not to be moved to worship as we reflect on just what God has done through Jesus and how faith has made it possible for all of us to know God and be one with him.
Before looking at these verses, it’s worth clarifying what Paul would have had in his mind when using the word that, in English, translates as ‘right’, righteous’, and ’righteousness’, and ‘just’, ‘justify’, and ‘justification’. These actually share the same root word and carry the same meaning. But the original meaning is hard to convey fully in a single English word. So when we see or hear these words, it’s important to try and keep at least two clear ideas in mind.
First, there is a legal dimension to the word. This gives ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’ the idea of the standing of a person in relation a the court’s decision. If the court finds in one particular party’s favour, that person is declared ‘in the right’.
Second, there is a covenantal dimension to the word. God’s righteousness is deeply connected to his faithfulness to the covenant he made with Abraham—and his being just in how he is faithful to the covenant i.e. he can’t simply overlook sin, but neither can he turn his back on his promise. And our righteousness should also be understood in relation to our inclusion in God’s Abrahamic covenant family.
So when see the words righteousness and justified in this passage in Romans, we need to keep these two thoughts together. Paul is writing about our legal status as being ‘in the right’—because of what Jesus has done, not anything we’ve done. And then he’s connecting that to our being part of the family he birthed by making a covenant with Abraham. A family that is not based on the law or works, and nor on the basis of the rite of circumcision or a physical family line; it is all on the basis of faith.
With that said, let’s take a look at Romans 3:21-4:5. There isn’t time to go through this in detail, though I’d encourage taking time for some prayerful reflection.
What should be readily apparent is how many parallel themes there are to the parable we just read. We see that God is God of both the Jew and the Gentile; his invitation may have been firstly for the Jew, but it has now gone out to the rest of us. And the basis of the door opening to one and all is the same: faith.
We are all declared ‘in the right’ by God’s grace, because of Jesus’ sacrifice. We’re redeemed because of his blood. And it’s all ‘effective through faith’. We are all invited to the wedding feast and we’re all offered the necessary wedding clothes that mean we can go in. As we’ve seen, righteousness is the clothing we need.
One final thought. The story gives the implication that it’s possible to go to church without having the necessary wedding clothes on. It’s possible to go to church without ever actually having put our faith in Jesus and accepted his righteousness as our clothing. We can go through all the motions of Christian behaviour, but we’ll eventually be found out.
As Jesus taught in Matthew 7, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
In other words, we turned up at the wedding feast but we never actually put on the clothes God gave us. We’re there on our terms and not God’s. We’re being religious, but we’ve not received God’s gift of righteousness and redemption.
So I want to encourage all of us to make sure we’re not in that position. And then I’d like us to make the most of our time of Communion today to rekindle our trust in Jesus and our faith in what he’s done. Let’s use our time of Communion as an opportunity to accept the wedding clothes that only God can give us.