Faith in Action
The passage we’ve read together today is a thrilling story. I hope you saw that as we read together. It starts with Saul, the king of Israel sitting under a tree whilst his tiny army sat around him. The Philistine army was running riot, you can see from chapter 13 and verse 17 that they had raiding parties unopposed. Not only that, but the Israelites, Saul’s army, had no weapons.
It’s clear from the passage we’ve read together that something remarkable happened here, isn’t it? I mean, this two-man SAS raid against all the odds was totally successful. But let’s not miss the point. This chapter is not a page out of a military manual, or a history textbook. Although much of this chapter reads like a story out of Boys’ Own Annual, short stories from children’s magazines don’t survive for three thousand years, do they?
Nor are military manuals, history textbooks or boys annual inspired by God. But this story is. And that’s why it’s worth our while in reading it, in studying it, and in hearing it preached. This story is supposed to teach us more than strategy, more than history. It’s supposed to give us more than excitement, it’s supposed to teach us about ourselves, it supposed to teach us about God.
So Jonathan’s remarkable victory was not due to meticulous planning, a stroke of genius or sheer good luck. Jonathan himself makes that clear. Look at what the text says. Verse six: “Perhaps the Lord will act”. Verse 10: “That will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.” Verse 12: “The Lord has given them into the hand of Israel.”
Do you see? It was the Lord’s victory, wasn’t it?
But let’s not forget how the Lord did it. He won the victory through Jonathan.
What enabled Jonathan and his little armour-bearer to achieve what Saul and his 600 men could not? It was faith. Faith that Saul never had. Faith that is expressed clearly in verse 6. “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”
I’m sure you already know that faith is vital to the Christian life. But how does faith express itself? How does faith grow and develop? We can answer those questions by looking at Jonathan’s faith. I have four points for you this morning, and they all come from that one verse, verse 6.
But before we look at Jonathan’s faith, I just want you to notice that Jonathan is not alone in this fight. I’m going to say a lot about Jonathan, but I’ll probably forget to say very much about his armour-bearer at all. So while it’s still in my mind, will you think about him for a moment?
This little armour-bearer is a great character. Do you know what an armour-bearer was supposed to do? I looked it up in a Bible dictionary. They are “personal servants who carried additional weapons for the commanders of Israel’s armies.” But that’s not all. “Another of their duties was to slay those wounded in the onslaught of their masters.” In other words, the armour-bearer would be there in the thick of the battle, carrying a heavy load of weapons, and fully involved in the fighting.
But do you know what’s unique about this armour-bearer? Chapter 13 verse 22 gives you the answer. “Not a solider with Saul and Jonathan had a sword or spear in his hand.” This armour-bearer didn’t have any arms to bear! And he certainly didn’t have any weapons to fight with. Yet this amazing man follows Jonathan into battle with those amazing words we read in chapter 14 and verse 7. “Go ahead, I am with you heart and soul.”
I mention this wonderful man, because I suspect that here this morning there are a lot more armour-bearers than Jonathans. In any church there are only a few who have the gifts and calling to say, “Let’s go up…”, “Let’s do this”. But I trust there are a lot of people who are willing to say, “Go ahead, I am with you…”
Could Jonathan have achieved this victory without the armour-bearer? Probably not. Would he have had the courage to go and fight, without the knowledge that his armour-bearer was with him. I doubt it.
So I want to encourage all you armour-bearers out there. That’s right, those of you who, like the armour bearer feel that you’ve not really got anything to offer to those who take the lead. Those of you who like the armour-bearer feel that you’ve got no weapons to fight with. Those of you who, like the armour-bearer are sure that history will not remember your name.
This sermon is for you too. You might need a Jonathan to follow. I’m sure there are Jonathans here. But, oh what a difference an armour-bearer makes. He may be empty-handed, he may be anonymous. But he’s willing, and he’s faithful, and he gives Jonathan all the encouragement he needs to be able to put his faith into action.
I’m going to let the armour-bearer slip into the background now. I kind of feel that’s just what he would have wanted. But let none of us think that Jonathan could have managed without him. Armour-bearers — thank you for your years of faithful service. Keep going! But you too can learn from Jonathan.
Do you remember I told you that I had four things to say about Jonathan’s faith?
The first thing is this:
Faith recognises who God is
Jonathan knows that if he is to have faith at all, it must be faith in God. It’s no good having faith in a vague concept. It’s no good having faith in a vague God. Jonathan’s faith in God must be clear, and therefore he needs to understand who God is. Look back at verse six, and in the middle you’ll see this wonderful phrase: ‘Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving’. Jonathan looks at who God is, and comes to the conclusion that God is a saving God.
Now Jonathan could have said many things about God. God is a loving God. God is a caring God. God is a righteous God. God is a just God. But here, he focusses on this one thing: God is a saving God. Can you see how his mind works? Israel needs to be delivered, to be saved. Is that something he can expect God to do? Absolutely, because God is a saving God! So it’s reasonable, he concludes, to have faith that he will save.
Sometimes we separate faith from reason. But that’s not what Jonathan does, and it’s not what the Bible teaches. Here, and throughout Scripture, we see that true Biblical faith is reasonable.
You see, there are some prayers which are so in line with God’s character, that it is reasonable to have faith that God will answer that prayer.
Do you see how we can apply this principle to our own lives? Let’s imagine some of the things that we might need to have faith about.
Perhaps you’re finding it difficult to have faith that God created the heavens and the earth. How could this principle help? We could recognise that God is an eternal God, he always has existed, even before time. We could recognise that God is also an all-powerful God, so we can be sure that is he is able to create the Heavens. We could remember that God is an all-knowing God, that is He alone is able to plan and design all that is required for this universe to remain in balance. So I would say that it is reasonable to have faith that God created the heavens and the earth.
Maybe you have more practical worries. Perhaps your prayer is that God will help you pay your bills at the end of the month. We could recognise that God is provider God - Jehovah Jireh. So if you have been working honourably in both the earning and spending of your money, then it is reasonable to have faith that God would help you pay the bills at the end of month.
Perhaps you’re praying for a friend or colleague would become a Christian. Is it reasonable to have faith that God would save that person? Here we’re getting right back to the passage, aren’t we? What would Jonathan say? I’m sure he would say this: “Yes, it is reasonable to have faith that God would save them, because nothing can hinder the Lord from saving. God is a saving God.”
You get the point, I’m sure. Let me repeat the principle. There are some prayers which are so in line with God’s character, that it is reasonable to have faith that God will answer that prayer. Now, there is another side to that coin. It is reasonable to have faith God to answer that prayer for Jonathan, but… well, you’ll have to wait until point four to find that out… but before you fire theological darts at me, let me assure you that I will get there.
But remember, if we recognise who God is, that will help us to have faith. And if we are struggling to have faith, one thing that we can do is to think about who God is.
Yet faith not only recognises who God is,
Faith realises what God can do
Look back at 1 Samuel chapter 14 and verse 6. Jonathan’s words include a wonderful phrase ‘Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf’. He realises what God can do.
Now if our first point rested on the facts, our second allows us to use our imagination. Jonathan is peering into the future. He’s surmising, he’s guessing, he’s wondering, he’s thinking about what God can do.
And he has a pretty good idea, because he does it alongside the first step. If you just realise what God can do, without recognising who God is, you’re going to get into a mess.
Have any of you watched the VeggieTales series of cartoons? In one particular episode Bob is explaining to Larry that God can do anything! “Great!”, Larry says, “Because I’ve always wanted to be a chicken!” As a kid, like Larry, I always believed that God could do anything. And that’s true. But in reality what God can do is defined by who God is. And I’m very glad of that. Because God is good, God cannot sin. Because God is pure, God cannot lie.
Anyway, back to Jonathan. I said here he’s using his imagination. Why do I say that? Well he could look at the situation, and find it to be completely hopeless. He could look at the Philistine numbers, and their weapons, at the strategic position at the top of the cliff, and conclude that there is nothing that can be done. Jonathan is on one side of a valley, the Philistine outpost is on another. The valley walls are not simply quite steep, but verse four tells us they are cliffs! Now I am not a military strategist, but I know enough to know that it’s not normally a good idea to attack someone who is at the top of a cliff.
When you’re climbing a cliff you can’t use weapons. You cannot even defend yourself. All it requires for your removal is a well-aimed rock dropped on your head. That’s the end of the SAS raid - the end of Jonathan.
Did he not consider these things? Well of course he did, Jonathan is no fool. But he realised that these problems were not problems for his God.
He realised that God could defeat 20 people with just 2 soldiers. He realised that it didn’t matter to God that the garrison was at the top of the cliff. He realised something which 1100 years later the apostle Paul committed to paper, that God ‘is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us’.
Likewise, we too need to realise what God can do. Once we’ve recognised who God is, let’s use our imagination! We need to realise that God can save those members of our family, even though they seem so far from the gospel — because He’s a saving God. We need to realise that God can get us through to pay day — because He’s provider God. We need to realise that God can give us assurance that we are saved — because He is our shepherd. We need to realise that God can help us to take a stand in our work — because He is the Lord of Hosts. We need to realise that God can use even us to win his battles — because He is the Lord Our Righteousness.
He can, can’t He?
Faith not only recognises who God is, and realises what God can do,
Faith remembers how God works
Now we’re back to reality. Jonathan has rooted his faith in the person of God - he’s recognised who God is. He knows that God can do immesuarably more than all we ask or imagine, so he’s used his imagination to the full, and he’s realised what God can do.
But before he takes action, he needs to make sure he comes back down to earth, and he doesn’t let himself get carried away on flights of fancy. So he remembers how God works.
Look back at 1 Samuel, and Jonathan’s words in verse 6. We’re looking this time at the very last phrase: ‘Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few’. Jonathan there is remembering how God works.
He remembers that sometimes God saves with many people. He’s perhaps thinking of the Israelite armies that fought the Midianites and the Caananites under Joshua. But he also remembers that sometimes God saves with a few people. Perhaps he’s thinking of Gideon, or Samson, or Moses.
But the point is that he’s remembering how God works. He’s gaining comfort, and gaining faith from what God has done in the past. He knows his Bible, he’s seen God at work in his own life, and he’s remembered how God works.
Now there are two things in what Jonathan says that will be of help to us as we remember how God works. The first is that Jonathan remembers that God works by using people. It may be a few people, it may be many people, it may be just one person. But Jonathan’s faith was boosted as he remembered that God works by using people.
If you’re struggling to have faith that you can have an impact on this world, then that’s a great thing that you can remind yourself about too.
Have you ever listened to a sermon when the preacher has told you about some amazing things? But at the end of the sermon you’re left thinking “There’s no way I can do that!”. Well, this isn’t one of those sermons.
Because if you want to be reminded that God works by using ordinary people, it’s really easy to do. Anyone can do it! All you have to do is read your Bible, and you’ll find that it’s full of people that God uses. On almost every page are people that God has used.
But, you might say, “Those are special times, and special people. I know God used those people, that’s why they’re in the Bible, after all! But I’m just an ordinary person, I’m just not like that.”
Well, I believe the Bible is full of ordinary people, but let’s pretend for a moment that you are right. Have we got any other evidence that God works by using people? Absolutely, just go to any Christian bookshop, find the biography section, and you see find dozens of books about people God has used.
But perhaps you’re still not convinced. “Ah, you might say”, clutching at straws. “But if you’ve had a book written about you that still means you’re a special person. That’s still no encouragement to me. I need to know that God works by using ordinary people.” I still disagree, most Christian biographies are about ordinary people. But let me indulge you regardless. Let’s dismiss all the books that have ever been written. Where else can we look to see that God works by using ordinary people?
Don’t forget the armour-bearer!
That’s right. The ordinary man and woman who fells they have nothing to offer. The person sitting a few chairs away from you. That older lady sitting near the back. The young man who’s only just been converted. The harassed mother who barely has time to look after her own children. This room is full of people that God has used, and is using.
But as well as remembering that God works by using people, Jonathan remembers something else about the way God works. Jonathan remembes that God works by using people in different ways. Or, as Jonathan puts is, sometimes he uses many people, and sometimes he uses a few people.
Jonathan doesn’t make the mistake of just looking at one Bible verse and saying that’s how God always works. Sometimes we do that and cause ourselves no end of problems.
Let me show what I mean. It’s a silly example, but I hope it will make the point.
For example, maybe your grandmother is very ill, and you want to pray that she would be healed. You want to have faith, so you try and remember how God works.
Perhaps you remember Elijah healing the widow of Zaraphath’s son. 1 Kings 17 tells us that he cried out to the Lord, then stretched himself out on the boy three times, and cried to the Lord again. Now if that was the only Scripture you read, then in faith you’d visit your granny in hospital, and stretch yourself over her three times. That would not be the right thing to do. Why? Because there are many other examples of people being healed, and that is not the usual way God uses to heal. So we remember that God uses different methods, but all of them require us to call on the Lord. But we should also remember that God sometimes works in other ways. David’s baby son became ill in 2 Samuel 12. We read there that ‘David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground.’ But then seven days later, his child died. We need to remember that sometimes God works by not healing, too.
Now that brings us nicely onto our last point, because Jonathan did not make that mistake. He knew that faith not only recognises who God is, realises what God can do, and remembers how God works, but also that:
Faith reminds us that God is sovereign
I’m sure you believe that faith is important. We believe that God wants us to have faith when we pray. We believe that we ought to have faith. Doesn’t Jesus himself say in Matthew 21:22 ‘If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.’
So perhaps you have prayed that your grandmother would be healed, that your friend would be saved, that you’d pay your bills and take your stand as a Christian. And you’ve tried to believe that God will do those things. But have you ever said this: ‘I believe that he can do those things, but I haven’t got enough faith to believe that he will.”?
It’s so hard to believe that God will do those things, isn’t it? Perhaps you say to yourself, ‘I do believe that God can do what I am asking, but I can’t believe that he will do it. I don’t have the faith to believe that.’
If you’ve ever said that to yourself, then I’m going to let you into a little secret. Some of you already know this, but for others of you this little secret could transform your prayer life.
What’s the secret for those who have said, “I don’t have enough faith to believe that God will do it?”. The secret is this: You don’t have to believe it.
That’s it? That’s the great secret that could transform my prayer life? That I don’t have to believe?
No, not quite. You do have to believe. But you only have to believe that God can, you don’t have to believe that God will. Do you believe that God can save your son whom you’ve been praying for, for years. You do? Great!
Do you believe that God will save your brother? That’s harder, isn’t it, but it does not mean that you haven’t got enough faith. Far from it, it probably means you’ve got more faith!
Look carefully at verse six again, and you’ll see what I mean. Look closely at that second sentence, because there’s a little work there that we often miss. Do you see it? It’s that little word ‘perhaps’.
If there’s one word in this sentence that makes me think that Jonathan’s faith is unshakeable, it’s that little word ‘perhaps’.
You might think it strange that to say ‘perhaps’ shows great faith. I mean if you say ‘perhaps’, it means you don’t really believe, doesn’t it? It means you have doubts. Well there are times when saying ‘perhaps’ does show that we don’t trust God, but that’s not how Jonathan uses it here.
If God has clearly promised something, then there is no need for the word ‘perhaps’. We never need to say, ‘perhaps the Lord will do what is right’, because He’s promised that He will. But there’s an awful lot of things that God hasn’t promised.
After we’ve recognised who God is, realised what God can do, and remembered how God works, it’s vital that we understand that faith must not be confused with arrogance. Faith does not dictate to God, as if the creator of the heavens and earth is a mere errand boy. Faith recognises its degree of ignorance, and knows it has not read a script of God’s divine plan for the future.
So here is Jonathan. He’s about to attack a Philistine garrison of about 20 men with just him and his unarmed armour-bearer. He’s going to attack up a steep cliff, and if any one of those 20 men spot him during his climb, then its game over.
Jonathan recognises who God is, realises what God can do, remembers how God works, but crucially faith also reminds him that God is sovereign. He adds that vital word ‘perhaps’.
‘Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf’. But Jonathan, a voice inside his head is screaming at him, perhaps he won’t! Perhaps you’ll catch them by surprise, but they’ll kill you soon enough. Perhaps they’ll be waiting for you. Perhaps the climb will be too hard, and you’ll be too tired. Perhaps one of the Philistines will see you as you’re climbing up the cliff. Perhaps you’ll die, Jonathan.
And what would Jonathan have answered? Yes, perhaps I’ll die. But then with a gleam in his eye, he would immediately have gone on to say, ‘But perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf!’
Faced not with 20 Philistines, but with one opportunity to witness to our friends, people like you and I are likely to say, ‘Perhaps they’ll just reject us’. Well, perhaps. But it’s not what Jonathan would have said. ‘Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf!’
Faced with praying for a sick relative, people like you and I are likely to say, ‘Perhaps we’ll pour out our hearts and raise our expectations, but she’ll never be healed.’ Well, perhaps. But it’s not what Jonathan would have said. ‘Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf!’
Faced with explaining what we believe about the Bible to our work colleagues, you and I are likely to say, ‘Perhaps we’ll become a laughing stock!’. Maybe. But it’s not what Jonathan would have said. ‘Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf!’
Faced with years of praying for and witnessing to our children who seems so opposed to the gospel, you and I are likely to say, ‘Perhaps we’ll be wasting our time’. But it’s not what Jonathan would have said. ‘Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf!’
You need great faith to know that the Lord might not act in the way we want him to, but we still go ahead and step out in faith anyway. It’s easy to act when we know we will get what we want. It’s much harder when we simply have to trust God to do what is best, whatever that may be. That requires great faith.
Fellas. Do you remember the time you proposed to your wife? I reckon most of you did it the old-fashioned way, didn’t you? So your first task was to go and speak to her father. “He never did like me.” “I know he doesn’t think I’m much of a prospect.” Your mind is full of doubts! But you must act, you can’t just do nothing! So you take your life in your hands and you ask permission.
There’s a long pause. Eventually, he gives you his decision. “I suppose there’s nothing I can do about it, anyway.” You almost wish he’d said ‘no!’. If asking his permission was hard, now you’ve got to ask your girl. Now ladies, let me tell you, you’ve got the easy task. All you’ve got to do is say “Yes” or “No!”. In actual fact, you don’t even have to do that. A big hug, or a slap on the face, and we’ll get the message without you even having to say anything.
But you don’t know what it’s like for us men! “Where should I take her?” “What date should I choose?” “What ring should I buy?” “What should I say?” “What if she says ‘no’!” And the most difficult question of all: “If she bursts into tears, does that mean she’s happy, or sad?”
So with doubts ringing in our ears, and a million and one ‘perhaps’s’ whirling around our brain we once more take our life into our hands, and ask that fateful question. How could we do it with all those doubts and questions in our minds? You know the answer already. Love without action is dead. And our love is stronger than all our doubts and fears and we are compelled to act.
So it is with faith. A strong, true, Christ-centred faith is stronger than all our doubts and fears — stronger perhaps because of all our doubts and fears — and we are compelled to act. Because like love, faith without action is dead.
You see God doesn’t want faith that is always certain, dogmatic, and arrogant. He wants faith that is real, faith that is trusting, faith that reminds us of his sovereignty. He wants us to have faith like Jonathan.
But remember I told you that we shouldn’t go to just one verse in Scripture and take a principle from that one verse. I’ve done it with just one word, here! Is that wise?
We need some backup from the rest of Scripture. How about the story of David when he prayed for his son to be healed. What were his thoughts? They’re recorded for us in 2 Samuel 12:22: ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ Who knows, indeed? David certainly did not know. But he prayed nonetheless.
In the book of Esther, Mordecai is encouraging Esther to take her life into her hands to save the Israelite people. Why? Because he is 100% convinced that God will not let her die? No, but in Esther 4:14 he says ‘who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?’. Who knows indeed? And do you remember Esther’s reply? Was she 100% sure that she would be OK? Not at all: “I will go… And if I perish, I perish.”
I want to close by saying something particularly to the people here this morning who are not yet Christians. To those of you who don’t yet have saving faith.
Perhaps you’ve listened this morning, and thought that you’d like this kind of faith. Perhaps you’re one of the millions of Britons who admire the strong faith that true Christians have, yet fear that you will never be able to believe to the same extent.
Well let me encourage you. Becoming a Christian is not about trying to work up enough faith until you’re able to cross the line and become a believer. If you try, you’ll never be able to do it. If you see strong faith in Christians you know, then remember that strong faith is born of an experience of what God has done — that’s what we’ve talked about already today, isn’t it? Each Christian you know, however strong their faith, was once just like you — with a weak, a non-existent faith, a faith that couldn’t act.
Maybe you want to repent, you want to believe, but you think you lack the faith. Don’t let it stop you! Take whatever faith you have. Whether it is 90%, 50%, or even 10%, take the little faith that you have and leap into the arms of Jesus Christ. If you do, I guarantee that he will take you and save you and rescue you, and give you all the saving faith that you need!
But before we finish, we need to go back to that SAS raid. We need to see the what happens to Jonathan, this man of faith.
Look at verse 14: Jonathan and his armour-bearer kill the 20 men in that outpost. They’ve done it! They successfully done what they set out to do. The Lord was with them! He did win the victory for them.
But God hasn’t finished yet, so keep reading. The very next verse is incredible: ‘Then panic struck the whole army — those in the camp and field, and those in the outposts and raiding parties — and the ground shook. It was a panic sent by God.’
Wow! Look at what God has done! Jonathan attacked just 20 men, and now the whole army is in chaos. Thousands upon thousands of men in total confusion, attacking one another with the Israelites in hot pursuit! Saul and his 600 men could never have contemplated it. I don’t even think Jonathan thought God would do that!
Isn’t it amazing what God can do with just one faithful man? With one man who is willing to say, ‘Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf?’
Now, to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us; to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.