October 30, 2016, How Do You Live? – Guest speaker Carroll Boswell
No recording is available for this sermon.
This is a week to focus on the short things of life. The gospel reading was about Zacheus, the most famous short person in the Bible. But the sermon is not on him. The sermon today is going to be on a short passage from a very short book in the Old Testament. In fact, I will be concentrating on not even a whole verse, but on the last third of a single verse in this very short book.
In case you are not familiar with this minor prophet, Habakkuk, here is a little background: we are short on information about the man. We do not know exactly where he lived or exactly when he lived. The best guess is that he lived in Jerusalem at about the same time as Jeremiah, just before or during the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. He identifies himself as a prophet, but his prophecy is not like that of most other prophets. They either addressed their words to the people and exhorted them to repent or to take courage; or made predictions about the coming Messiah. His prophecy is a series of two complaints that he made to God, and then God’s answers to him. It ends with a final prayer. The complaints are about how the evil Babylonians are destroying God’s people and how can God possibly let them get away with it.
Insert Habakkuk 1:12 to 2:4.
It is this one little part of a verse in Habakkuk, “but the righteous shall live by faith”, that is quoted twice by Paul. He used it as one of the two hinges of his explanation of the gospel that he preached; the other hinge was from Genesis 15:6, “And Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” If you understand this piece of a verse in Habakkuk and the verse in Genesis the way Paul understood them, then you will have gone a long way to understanding everything Paul said and why he said it. So let’s first read what Paul says about the passage in Habakkuk.
First insert Galatians 3:10-12.
Then insert Romans 1:16,17.
It seems plain enough. How could there possibly be different interpretations? It’s only eight words; there’s no room for different interpretations! Well, prepare to be surprised. Paul was the first one in Israel, that we know of, to interpret these eight words in our “obvious” way. For five hundred years after Habakkuk, the teachers in Israel read Habakkuk’s prophecy and no one thought of it like Paul did. What made the difference to Paul’s way of thinking? What gave him the right to say that all who had come before him had missed the point of the verse? There’s one thing. The event at the beginning of Acts 9. Paul was headed to Damascus to kill or imprison Christians because he positively hated that they believed that Jesus – the recently executed criminal – was the Messiah. It seemed to him to be the worst sort of swearing, of blasphemy against God. And as he arrived at Damascus, over the course of just a few minutes, every thing he had thought about Jesus, about God, about the Bible was changed entirely. It was that moment that allowed him to see this piece of a verse in Habakkuk in a way that no one before him saw it.
But even now that we all understand it like Paul did, we actually don’t. It may be hard to believe, but there are several ways that Paul’s interpretation is interpreted. Never under-estimate how clever people can be at disagreeing with one another. And being so central to what Paul taught, disagreeing on this verse might be more important than other disagreements. Let’s see how different interpretations can happen but thinking outside the Bible for a minute. Consider how you might answer if someone asked you, “How do you live?” It’s a simple question, but how you answer the question depends on what you think the person wants to know. That is exactly how different interpretations of the Bible come about. I can think of three possibilities for how people might understand the question.
Some people interpret the question as “What do you do for a living? What is your job?” Then when they read “but the righteous shall live by faith” they may hear it as something like “but the righteous shall make their spiritual living by their faith.” They think of faith as like the spiritual equivalent of a job, and righteousness is like the paycheck that you get at the end of the week. You get to Sunday, you have had faith all week, said your prayers, read the Bible, controlled your temper, did nice things for people. And now you come to church and get your wages. Your sins are forgiven, you are accepted, and you go back to work on Monday morning and start the next week’s work of faith. That is how the righteous “live by faith”. Maybe that is the way you have thought about it. It is a natural way to think, but it isn’t what Paul meant.
Other people interpret the question to mean, “How do you live? What is your lifestyle? Like a king or like a miser? Quietly or always on the run? Do you have a lot of stuff or do you like to travel light? Big fancy house or log cabin? Work-a-holic or couch potato?” These people read “the righteous shall live by faith” and what they think of is how they do things, how they appear to the world. They want to look and act the way a person of faith ought to look and act. For them faith is a matter of zeal, of enthusiasm, of looking respectable. Living by faith then is something like a politician campaigning. People will vote for Jesus or for the devil and you have to persuade them by your appealing personality and demeanor. This is more common than you might think, but it isn’t what Paul meant.
Still other people – and I am one of them – think the question means “What do you live by? What is your code? What are the essential principles that guide your choices?” What advice did your father or mother give you as a child that have become words that you live by? God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all – that is a word I live by. God is love – that is a word I live by. Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief – that is a word I live by. God will never fail you or forsake you – that is a word I live by. For these people, living by faith is a matter of trusting God to guide and defend you and teach you. Regardless of what may happen, you can trust God to be what Jesus says He is. For people like me, “the righteous shall live by faith” means “the righteous shall live by trusting Jesus to save them” – not just eternal salvation and going to heaven, but right now, day by day.
But you should always put a verse into its context. Habakkuk’s context is the coming destruction, or recent destruction, of his home by an enemy. The Chaldeans, the tribe that had risen to world domination and ruled from Babylon, totally destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem, they seized many of the people and carried them away to Babylon. The Babylonians were bad people, people who did not worship God, but worshiped the works of their own hands and their own power. They were giants in the earth. And in the middle of that destruction, the end of their world as they knew it, Habakkuk demanded some answers from God. In 1:13, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” Why does God seem to take the side of bad people and let them hurt good people? You may have had occasion to wonder the same thing. Regardless of who you support, you may be wondering the same thing when you think about the coming elections.
That is the question that Habakkuk asks from God and you can bet it wasn’t an idle question. Israel was being destroyed right in front of his eyes. And this is when God answers him with the verse we are considering now. But let’s look at the whole verse this time: “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” In other words, yes, they are proud and wicked people and they are destroying everything in the world that you love. But what God expects of the righteous people that are being swallowed alive is that they live by faith. There is no faith as a spiritual job to earn their way out of the destruction. There is no faith as putting on a show of respectability and zeal to maybe convert the Babylonian army. He is talking about His people, who must rely on Him and trust Him while they live through the destruction of everything around them at the hands of an enemy that God sent. He was asking a lot. But the righteous live by trusting God, period, no matter what.
And that is what Paul says is the model for us. The righteousness of God is revealed from faith and for faith, or from trust and for trust. Righteousness is revealed to you as you trust God in spite of calamity. Righteousness is revealed for trust, to help you trust God in spite of it all. It is like what Jesus said to Martha in John 11:35, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,” The word for believe is the same as the word for trust, and the same as the word for faith. He is the resurrection and the life. Whoever trusts Him, though he may die, yet he will live. That is what God’s answer to Habakkuk means.