Great faith

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

'First let the children eat all they want,' he told her, 'for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs.'

'Yes, Lord,' she replied, 'but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.'

Then he told her, 'For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.'

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mar 7:24–30)

Matthew's Gospel provides more details of this meeting and records that Jesus also told her she had great faith (Mat 15:28). There were only two people in the Gospels he said that about: the centurion in Mat 8:5–10, and this woman; and both were Gentiles.

The importance of faith

Jesus said a lot about faith. Some of it was encouraging:

…and some critical:

But why should Jesus be interested in people's faith? Because without faith it's impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). Everything we receive from God comes by faith—including our salvation (Eph 2:8); so faith is very important to us.

Heb 11 contains a long list of Old Testament believers who were commended for their faith; Jesus also commended two in the New Testament.

And, as we can be inspired to greater faith by reading what the Old Testament believers did, so we can be inspired to greater faith by reading what these New Testament believers did. We'll also find out what God regards as great faith.

Trials

Some Christians find that when they are born again, in answer to prayer, they receive additional blessings, such as being healed physically, or delivered from an addiction or financial problem.

It fills them full of praise when they realize that God is not only concerned about their spiritual needs, but also their physical and material needs as well. However, as time goes by, they find that their prayers aren't answered so quickly. Why is that? God is now testing their faith so it will grow and become strong.

1Pe 1:7 says that our faith, which is more valuable than gold, must be proved genuine by trials (usually prolonged difficulties or problems) for us to receive praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.

In the previous verse Peter suggests that his readers may have suffered grief in such trials already. The Greek word translated 'suffer grief' means to cause sorrow, grief or distress. The heat of trials refines our faith, just as fire refines gold—but they can be painful.

God often does the greatest work in our lives when things are difficult—sometimes when they seem impossible. That's when we have to draw on all our spiritual reserves and exercise faith in him—even great faith.

The centurion's faith

Read Mat 8:5–13.

What was so great about the centurion's faith? When Jesus entered his town he came to see him because his servant was paralysed and suffering terribly. Jesus said, 'I will go and heal him.' But the centurion said, 'Lord, I don't deserve to have you come to my home; just say the word and it will happen.' Jesus said, 'I have not found such great faith, even in Israel.'

In almost every other healing Jesus placed his hands on the person, or touched them in some way. Even the woman with the issue of blood touched his cloak to be healed (Mar 5:25–34). But not this time. Jesus didn't go anywhere near the man. The centurion's faith in him was so great that for Jesus to say, 'I will heal him,' was enough.

And, if you think about it, that is the faith we exercise. Jesus is not physically present on earth now; we speak to an unseen God we have never met, or touched, but have only experienced spiritually.

By faith we believe he exists (Heb 11:6), and by faith we believe that what he says, in his Word, he will do. Jesus regards that as great faith, and it's the kind of faith he wants us to have.

The Syro-Phoenician's faith

Read Mat 15:21–28 for a fuller account of our opening text.

Leaps of faith often occur when we are desperate. In times of trouble, when there is no one else to turn to, we cry out to God as never before. That was the case with this woman.

As soon as she heard that Jesus was in the area, she went to him and fell at his feet: 'Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me,' she said. 'My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.' Jesus didn't say a word to her.

Some Christians start to pray and then, after a while, when nothing happens they stop, concluding they are not praying in God's will. But not this woman.

She then started to cry out to his disciples, so much so that they asked him to send her away from them. Jesus said, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,' which meant that it wasn't God's will for him to minister to her, a Gentile.

I'm sure that would have stopped most of us. If we'd been praying about something and God had said, 'It is not my will to do this,' most of us would have stopped immediately and never asked again. But not this woman. 'Lord, help me!' she cried.

'It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs,' he replied. That was a rebuke: the Jews often referred to Gentiles as dogs, which were unclean animals. 'Yes, Lord,' she said, 'but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.' 'Woman, you have great faith!' said Jesus. 'Your request is granted.'

God is persuadable

What is being taught here? There are two things. Firstly, that we should pray persistently.

In Luk 11:5–10 Jesus taught that if we have a need we're to ask God—and we're to keep asking. The Greek verbs translated 'ask', 'seek' and 'knock' are in the present continuous tense, indicating continuous action—something we're to do, and to keep doing.

Jesus said that if we do that—if we keep asking—we'll receive all that we need: it's a promise from God. And our persistence will demonstrate our faith, just as it did with the Syro-Phoenician woman.

And secondly, it shows that God is persuadable.

When Israel had been in Canaan for a while they stopped worshipping the Lord and started to serve the gods of the nations around them; so God allowed their enemies to rise up against them and oppress them.

They cried out to the Lord, and he said, 'I'm not going to save you. Go and cry out to the gods you've chosen. Let them save you!' God had washed his hands of them (Jdg 10:6–14). But they repented of their sin, and kept crying out to the Lord; and in the end he could bear their misery no longer and raised up a judge to deliver them.

What happened to Israel was the result of its sin, but even then God was persuadable. He eventually turned from his anger and blessed them; but it took faith and persistence on their part, as well as repentance. Backsliders can be restored, but it's better not to turn from God in the first place.

There's no indication that the girl's demon-possession was a result of sin, but even so it wasn't God's will that Jesus should minister to her; but he did—because of her mother's faith. Make no mistake about it, faith is very, very powerful before God. Faith can move mountains, said Jesus; and he wants us to have that faith (Mar 11:22–23).

Michael Graham
September 2012

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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