Are we supposed to Believe God, Believe in God or Follow God? Are those three sets of words all different? Or do they all mean the same thing? Well, it depends. When were you born? What culture do you live in / come from? Most important, are you willing to learn what they meant when they were said? In some cases, that’s almost two thousand years ago. In others, several thousand years ago. We need to look at what they meant when they were said, in order to understand what they mean today.
I first wrote this many years ago. Back then I didn’t have the ability / knowledge to look up the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek words from which our translated Bible come from. I also didn’t have the resources to look up cultural meanings and traditions.
Since then, I’ve spent time learning about the Hebrew culture of the Old Testament, the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time, and the rich meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words in the Old and New Testaments. Learning about how Jewish people view their Scripture – and yes, the OT is their Scripture – has been especially enlightening.
I’ve come to realize the problems with the original approach. And it’s not just me. It’s very much the “American way” of reading the Bible. Too much is “lost in the translation”. So, I’m going back and filling in the gaps. And I’m starting with this one. Because I’ve come to learn the significance of those sets of words. What they mean to us today is far different from what they meant when they were said. And the potential impact on us today is huge. It could even be the difference between us being sheep or goats. (if you don’t get that reference, it will be explained soon.) It depends on how we interpreted those words.
For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
Deuteronomy 30:16 NIV
The passage above clearly means to follow God. The question we’ll examine here is whether “believe” and / or “believe in” have the same intent as this passage from Deuteronomy.
Is this a life or death issue? Or is it just semantics?
To answer that question, let’s get some context. It comes from a passage that the NIV subtitles –
The Offer of Life or Death
Dt 30:11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
Dt 30:15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
life and prosperity – versus – death and destruction. No wonder the NIV authors used a subtitle of The Offer of Life or Death.
But don’t mistake this as justification for the so-called prosperity Gospel. There’s no such thing in the New Testament. This is from the Old Testament. Rewards and punishments were much more immediate back then. That was the time of the Old Covenant. With the New Testament we also have the New Covenant. Rewards and punishment come in the next life – not necessarily this one. If anything, Jesus promised His followers trouble in this life.
Dt 30:17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
Again, we see the difference in rewards for the Old and New Covenants. In the early years of the Israelites, the reward they looked forward to was to enter the promised land, after being freed from slavery in Egypt. With the New Covenant, the reward is eternity with God.
Dt 30:19 This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Finally, God makes it clear that following Him is the way to life and blessings.
The question for us has to do with the words “believe God” and “believe in God”. Does either or both of them also lead to life and blessings? Or is one or both of them the path to death and destruction?
The sheep and the Goats
At the beginning, I referenced the sheep and the goats. They are like the New Testament version of the offer of life and death from the previous passage.
Mt 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Mt 25:34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Mt 25:37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
Mt 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Mt 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
Mt 25:44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
Mt 25:45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Mt 25:46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
This is one reason to pay attention to not only what we believe, but whether or not our lives show that we act in the way that should follow from what we claim to believe. If we say we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, do we also know what He said about the way we should live? Then, are we looking for Him – and living out His commands when we see Him? I’m talking about things like going to church, giving money to the church, being nice to people in church – stuff like that.
But then, as soon as church is over – we’re different. After all, it’s not like we’re literally going to run into Jesus during the week. The problem is that Jesus says in this parable – yes, we are going to run into Him all the time. He says it twice. whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me and whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.
The things we do, or don’t do, are the difference between being the sheep or the goat. Between going to the right or the left. Between eternal life and eternal “death”. Please, keep that in mind as we go through the rest of this article.
Sometime times it says “believe”.
Searching the 1984 NIV for the word “believe” yields 150 results. Not all of them refer to God – some refer to believing (or not) other people. Twenty of them are in the Old Testament. The other 130 are in the New Testament.
Jn 5:36 “I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, 38 nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. 39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
Other times the Bible says “believe in”.
Searching the 1984 NIV for the words “believe in” yields 27 results. All of them have to do with believing in God. Three are from the Old Testament. The other 24 are from the New Testament, and refer specifically to Jesus. For instance,
Jn 6:28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jn 6:29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
This one says “believe in the one he has sent“, the first one says “believe the one he sent“. They sound different. But are they?
Still other times it says follow.
Searching for the word follow gives even more results – 182 times. Again, not all of them have to do with God. The Old Testament has the word 123 times, leaving 59 in the New Testament,
Mk 1:16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”
So – which one is it? Believe God, Believe in God or Follow God? There must at least be some concept of “believing” involved. Otherwise, why would they follow Jesus?
Would you believe – All Of Them – Believe in God, Believe God and Follow God?
Yes – I really said “All of them“.
And I don’t mean like pick and choose the one(s) you want.
I really mean all – as in every one of them.
Let’s look at a fig tree as an example. Jesus talked about fig trees, and even used one as a teaching example. We read about them in the Old Testament. And they are used as an example in Revelation. The following background information on fig trees is from the Word in Life Study Bible –
The fig tree is indigenous to the Middle East, growing well there in stony soil. It can produce three distinct crops of fruit in a year: autumn figs, which are the main fruit (Jer. 8:13); winter figs, which ripen in the early spring if they survive the winter winds (Rev. 6:13); and summer figs, which usually ripen in late summer and are the most tasty (Jer. 24:2).
Fig trees take years to cultivate properly (Prov. 27:18). They mature very slowly, which is why their destruction was viewed by the Israelites as a disaster (Jer. 5:17; Hab. 3:17). Word in life study Bible. (1996). (electronic ed., Je 24:2). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
So let’s use an analogy here, and look at the fig tree as a representation of us. It’s a reasonable thing to do. Jesus used the parable below to show how we are like seeds.
The Parable of the Sower
Mt 13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
Remember – Jesus had a large crowd here. He wasn’t speaking to a bunch of people who were following Him around from place to place throughout His ministry. Or those who would follow Him just while He was in the local area. And certainly not just His inner circle here. No – this was an unusually large crowd. So big that Jesus had to go out onto the lake in a boat to be able to talk to all of them!
And it wasn’t a feel good message either. It was a tough message. Some of the seeds were eaten up by birds before they even had a chance to get started growing. Others started to grow – then quickly died for lack of nourishment. Others started to grow – but were killed off by other plants that grew even faster. Finally, some actually grew and produced fruit. Not a message of overwhelming success. More failure than success. Seems kind of depressing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, also all too real and all too true.
But was it about seeds and plants? Or was it something more?
For those who thought it was about seeds and plants – those are the very ones who were eaten by the birds. Although they heard the words – maybe even thought it was a great story and would be useful for when they drop seeds to grow plants – they didn’t really hear the meaning. Which is why Jesus says He who has ears, let him hear so often.
They missed the point, which Jesus later tells His inner circle –
Mt 13:18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22 The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23 But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
So we see – Jesus is using the seeds to represent us.
So let’s keep that thought going and see what happens if we are a seed for a fig tree. Then we can see what happens to the fig tree in various places in the Bible. That will give us specific examples of seeds falling in the path – seeds sprouting but dying – seeds being overwhelmed – and seeds growing to mature trees – and finally whether those trees actually bear good fruit (or not).
Very first reference to fig trees
We see fig trees very early in the Bible. Eve ate from The Tree Of The Knowledge Of Good And Evil. She gave some to Adam – and he ate as well. And then they realized they were naked. So they made clothes from fig leaves.
Ge 3:6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Sorry. It’s not good. At least, not good enough. God can – and did – do something better.
After passing judgment for what happened – but before casting Adam and Eve out of The Garden of Eden – we see this happened –
Ge 3:21 The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
God made better clothes for them. Even though they had disobeyed God. More than that – they rebelled against God. They had wanted to be like God. But even after that – God made better clothes for them.
What we see here is that our attempts to do things on our own – with the fruits of our own labor and knowledge and ignoring the gifts from God – we come up short. Right from the very beginning. Using the leaves from the fig tree – fruit from the seed that represents us – isn’t as good as what God provides for us. And the amazing thing is that even though we rebel against Him – He continues to love us and try to give us more good things – that we too often reject.
If that reminds you of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross to save us – you’re getting the point.
Fig trees in the Promised Land
Check this out – the next time fig trees are referenced in the Bible, where Moses writes about the Promised Land –
Dt 8:6 Observe the commands of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and revering him. 7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; 8 a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; 9 a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.
Wow – sounds good doesn’t it? And the fig trees are going to be in the Promised Land. Does that mean all of a sudden everything we do – since the fig tree represents us – is going to be as good as the things from God?
Well – that depends. It doesn’t depend on God. It depends on us.
Look at the very first verse – Dt 8:6 Observe the commands of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and revering him.
There’s a condition to what happens in the Promised Land. We have to observe the commands of God – walk in His ways – and revere Him. If we do those things – then the promises of what are to come will indeed happen.
But if we don’t – then something else is going to happen. To be sure – the NIV title for this section is called Do Not Forget The LORD.
And what happens if The LORD is forgotten?
Dt 8:19 If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. 20 Like the nations the LORD destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the LORD your God.
Oops. Now we’re back in rebellion territory, just like with Adam and Eve. To be sure – this isn’t God being mean and arbitrarily destroying things and people.
No – this is the people’s choice. We can remember God. Observe God’s commands. Walk in God’s ways. Revere God.
Or we can ignore God. And we know full well what the results of either choice will be. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Unless we forget Him.
And even that’s up to us. It’s up to us – the ones who have ears to hear and a mind to understand the message to be sure that The LORD isn’t forgotten. To the extent that we don’t do that – to the extent that we who know the Truth, who know God – don’t help others to remember – we help to kill those seeds that never grow and produce fruit. Yes – it’s on us.
Fig tree in Proverbs
Pr 27:18 He who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit,
and he who looks after his master will be honored.
This is a very similar message to the one above. The fig tree, from the time it’s first planted and grows from a seed, requires tending. And the one tending that tree needs to look after his master, and must first know who the master really is. God is our master. Should we choose to try and substitute another, then we’re in trouble. And our tree will ultimately die. Whether there is any fruit from the tree depends first on whether we recognized our true master. And then second whether or not we followed Him.
And again, to the extent that we fail to recognize follow or true master (God), then our tree will have no fruit. Or it will have bad fruit. As a result other people (other seeds) will die. It’s not just ourselves that are affected by our decisions.
Fig tree in Song of Songs
This one really gives some idea of just how much God loves us –
SS 2:13 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.”
Early fruit, as we saw above, the summer figs are the most tasty. That represents us when we truly remember to Observe the commands of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and revering him. The reference is someone to their lover. Not because God views us in the same nature that we would a lover, but because that’s generally the most intense emotional love that we feel. In fact, our love pales in comparison to His for us, but it’s the best analogy that we could relate to.
This is what will happen when we remember – and follow God.
There’s a theme here, just in case you haven’t noticed –
- We have to remember God. Without the remembrance of what we were told in the Bible, then nothing else can possibly follow. Believe in God.
- We have to know God’s commands, know that He loves us, know how to follow Him. If we don’t know these things, then nothing else could possibly follow. Believe God.
- Even after believing in God and even after believing God – we have to observe His commands, walk in His paths, and revere Him. After all – remembrance and knowledge without action still leaves us pretty much where we were before attaining the knowledge. Maybe we’re “smarter” – but we haven’t really changed at all.
Today’s theme – versus the Biblical theme – Believe in God, Believe God or Follow God
All of that makes great sense in terms of the way we think today. However, remember what I wrote at the top: I first wrote this many years ago. Back then I didn’t have the ability / knowledge to look up the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek words from which our translated Bible come from. I also didn’t have the resources to look up cultural meanings and traditions.
This is why I have to update the article. Because to the Hebrew / Jewish people of the Old Testament, that’s not the way they understood the difference between believe and believe in. It was different.
Let’s look at how the Old Testament people view the concepts of believe God and believe in God. While we’re doing that, keep in mind that The very people Jesus was addressing were, for the most part, Jewish. It was their culture Jesus was talking about. Not ours. So we need to understand enough about their culture to also understand how those words apply to us today.
From dictionary.com, here’s how we view the word believe today:
verb (used without object), be·lieved, be·liev·ing.
- to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so.
So it’s confidence about something. But without proof.
The thing for Christians though, faith is the things that bridges that gap between only being confident without proof – and knowing that something is true and therefore can be believed. See Can I trust what I think I know? for more on that thought.
When we get to “believe in”, here’s how that phrase is used today.
verb (used with object), be·lieved, be·liev·ing.
- to have confidence or faith in the truth of (a positive assertion, story, etc.); give credence to.
- to have confidence in the assertions of (a person).
- to have a conviction that (a person or thing) is, has been, or will be engaged in a given action or involved in a given situation.
- to suppose or assume; understand (usually followed by a noun clause).
We see pretty much the same definition, except that someone or something is attached to the belief.
In other words, for a Christian, believe in God. So they actually have the same usage – believe and believe in, when they are used in reference to something related to God.
In fact, if we look at the Hebrew and Greek words for believe and believe in, we see a similar thing. Similar – but not identical.
The Hebrew word translated as believe is:
539 אָמַן, אָמַן [ʾaman /aw·man/] v. A primitive root; TWOT 116; GK 586 and 587; 108 occurrences; AV translates as “believe” 44 times, “assurance” once, “faithful” 20 times, “sure” 11 times, “established” seven times, “trust” five times, “verified” three times, “stedfast” twice, “continuance” twice, “father” twice, “bring up” four times, “nurse” twice, “be nursed” once, “surely be” once, “stand fast” once, “fail” once, and “trusty” once. 1 to support, confirm, be faithful. 1A (Qal). 1A1 to support, confirm, be faithful, uphold, nourish. 1A1A foster-father (subst.). 1A1B foster-mother, nurse. 1A1C pillars, supporters of the door. 1B (Niphal). 1B1 to be established, be faithful, be carried, make firm. 1B1A to be carried by a nurse. 1B1B made firm, sure, lasting. 1B1C confirmed, established, sure. 1B1D verified, confirmed. 1B1E reliable, faithful, trusty. 1C (Hiphil). 1C1 to stand firm, to trust, to be certain, to believe in. 1C1A stand firm. 1C1B trust, believe. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
The difference comes in the level of confidence. In today’s definition we see the lack of proof as part of the definition. As mentioned, for Christians, this is where faith comes in. With the Hebrew word, we see the same concept for Jewish people. We see concepts like verified, surely, trusty. confirm. This is because God is trustworthy. The Jewish people know God can be trusted, because they can verify it by His past actions. They can confirm it. That’s missing from today’s definition.
The Hebrew words translated as “believe in” are the same word as believe, with a preposition (today’s word “in”) between it and some word for God. So we see a similar, but not identical, meaning for “believe in” back in the Old Testament times as what we use today. The exception, again, has to do with the certainty of that belief, as opposed to the lack of proof in today’s usage.
When we move to the Greek words in the New Testament, we see the same concept as the Hebrew of the Old Testament.
4100 πιστεύω [pisteuo /pist·yoo·o/] v. From 4102; TDNT 6:174; TDNTA 849; GK 4409; 248 occurrences; AV translates as “believe” 239 times, “commit unto” four times, “commit to (one’s) trust” once, “be committed unto” once, “be put in trust with” once, “be commit to one’s trust” once, and “believer” once. 1 to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in. 1A of the thing believed. 1A1 to credit, have confidence. 1B in a moral or religious reference. 1B1 used in the NT of the conviction and trust to which a man is impelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative and law of soul. 1B2 to trust in Jesus or God as able to aid either in obtaining or in doing something: saving faith. 1BC mere acknowledgment of some fact or event: intellectual faith. 2 to entrust a thing to one, i.e. his fidelity. 2A to be intrusted with a thing. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
The same level of trust is there, but missing from today’s usage for belief. We also see something that many would consider an oxymoron – intellectual faith. And yet, isn’t that exactly what Jesus is talking about when He says things like:
Mt 22:37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
So when a Christian thinks about believe and believe in, we may very well think of the same usage as the Hebrew and Greek words of the Bible. However, when today’s non-Christian thinks about believe and believe in, they are probably thinking of something along the lines of the dictionary.com definition. It’s a reasonable assumption, since dictionaries tell us what the common usage of a word is in our time.
I believe (as in know) it’s important for Christians to realize that when we talk to non-Christians, they have a different view of what our usage of this very common word – believe – really is. Otherwise, it’s like we’re not only reading from a different page, but we may as well be reading a different book.
Now that we’ve seen the usage for both believe and believe in, there’s one more thing to point out. Both have an element of faith and of doing something. There’s action that comes along with believe and believe in. In the case of a Christian, that action is to follow Jesus. So we really see these three sets of words coming together to actually show us one thing. It’s a combination of believing Jesus, and therefore following Him. Either one – belief or following – without the other, is not the action of a true Christian believer. We should want to do both – believe and follow – if we’re truly Christian. Not to be saved. But because we are saved already.
BTW – There are 25 references to fig trees in the Old Testament. You are invited to check them out. However, in the interest of keeping this from getting even longer – I’m going to move on to Jesus’ time and what He said and did related to fig trees.
New Testament References
Jesus curses a fig tree
We read this in Mark –
Mk 11:12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
Mk 11:20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
At first glance, one may wonder why Jesus cursed the tree. After all, it wasn’t the season for figs.
However – it also wasn’t the season for fig trees to have leaves. And a tree with leaves should have fruit.
So clearly – something was wrong.
Think about what that means for us, since the fig tree is supposed to represent us. All of us. Including me. And you, the reader. If we think we’re Christians, if whatever we’re doing causes Jesus to say that to us, we’re in big trouble. This parable should make us want to be always evaluating our lifestyle to be sure we’re producing good fruit. That we’re on the right path.
Please keep something in mind. Doing things isn’t required in order to be saved. However, the things we do – and we all do things – are evidence of whether or not we really believe, believe in, and follow Jesus. So it’s not like we’re left wondering whether or not our beliefs are correct and if we’re walking the right path.
The parable of the fig tree
In Luke, we read –
Lk 13:6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
Lk 13:8 “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”
Remember – the fig tree takes years to bear fruit. However, eventually there should be fruit. If not – something’s wrong with the tree.
Again, think about this tree representing us. Once we say we want to follow Jesus. it’s not like we’re instantly full grown / mature Christians. (For more on that, please read Pop Tart Christians). Becoming a mature, grown again Christian is a process. It takes time. But if we go too long with nothing happening, we have to believe that we’ve lost interest. And very possibly, never really had it to start with.
A tree and its fruit
To see what this all means, let’s look at something Jesus said about a tree and its fruit –
Mt 7:15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Mt 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
To me, that last verse is one of the scariest statements in the Bible. Jesus telling me ‘I never knew you’ – those are the worst possible words I could ever hear being directed at me. That they are said to anyone at all is sad. That they would be said to someone because of me – something I did or didn’t do – also very sad. And if we believe Jesus – we believe in Jesus – we really follow Him – those words will not be said because of us, to anyone.
But they will be said. Not to a few. But to many.
A good tree bears good fruit. One who believes / believes in / follows Jesus will bear fruit. The lack of fruit must lead us to question whether or not we are really doing all those things.
A bad tree bears fruit. One who doesn’t do those things – will bear no fruit. Either that, or they’ll give bad fruit. Neither is good.
In the case of bad fruit – we take others away from following – believing – believing in Jesus.
In the case of either bad fruit or no fruit – we are taking away any possibility of us leading others to Jesus.
Let’s bring the fig tree / fruit analogy full circle
A tree that yields no fruit fails to fulfill its purpose as a tree. That tree would be cut down. Why? Not only is it not fulfilling its purpose, it is taking away nutrients from the trees around it – likely causing those trees that might bear fruit to not grow properly, meaning they will have either bad fruit or no fruit at all.
In the same way – people, including Christians who don’t believe and follow God’s commands – including the great commission to reach out to others – aren’t bearing fruit. And we are likely causing other people around us to be just like us. Especially for those who claim to be Christians – but bear no fruit – do nothing to bring others to Jesus – we aren’t fulfilling that part of our purpose as Christians – even though we promised that we would. Think about that. When we commit to follow Jesus – and don’t follow through – we lied to God! What exactly do we then expect from Him? Hint – maybe He never knew us.
No matter how much we may try – and maybe even succeed – to convince ourselves that we are good fig trees and bear excellent figs – Jesus knows the truth.
In the end
In Revelation, we read this of the end times –
Rev 6:12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
Don’t worry about the imagery surrounding the end times. It’s not the point here. I only really include it for context to show that this truly is the end. The point is the part about the figs –
as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind
From earlier in this article, you may remember this –
winter figs, which ripen in the early spring if they survive the winter winds (Rev. 6:13)
Whether it’s the end of time – or the end of someones life – when the end comes, the chance to bear good fruit and have that fruit ripen is over. Done. Ended. Whatever it is at that time – that’s all there is.
If we have produced good fruit – it will survive the winter winds. If we have truly followed God – that will be known after we die. If we have not – that will also be painfully obvious.
But it goes further. If we have produced good fruit – if we have truly followed God and we have led others to follow Jesus – they will also produce good fruit – they will have also followed Jesus – and they will have led still others to Jesus. And on it goes.
The more of us that don’t produce good fruit – the more of us that don’t lead others to come to believe / to believe in / follow Jesus – the more other people that will also fail to produce good fruit – the more people that will fail to even remember God – let alone believe / believe in / follow Him. And on it goes.
Merely believing in versus following
Jn 12:44 Then Jesus cried out, “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. 45 When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.
Jn 12:47 “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. 48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. 49 For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. 50 I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
What we see here in John’s Gospel is Jesus starting with someone who hears His words. Maybe we believe them – maybe we don’t – but we heard them. Those who do believe Jesus’ words believe in Him. Finally, He moves on to “keeping” those words – following and living by them.
There’s that process we saw earlier. We hear Jesus’ words. We want to become a believer. We are a true believer when we reach the point of believing in Jesus and following Him. And yet, all along, regardless of what our culture says today – Jesus and the people of His time saw all three of those as one continuous process. We really should believe that the same is intended for us today. Believe / believe in / follow – all are part of one thought. One process. Growth.
The Hebrew / Jewish view of believe, believe in and follow
All that above is well and good. But what happened to the sinner’s prayer? You know – something along the lines of:
“Jesus, I now realize I have sinned against you. Please forgive me of my sin. Please come into my life and change my heart. I want you to be my Savior. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.”
And when an unbeliever says that, they’re told they are now Christian. And saved. That’s so not Biblical.
From what we learned above, we see believe, believe in and follow as a process. Especially now – process seems to be everything. Processes. Systems. It’s how we’re taught to think.
But – remember – these modern words didn’t exist back then. They had no concept of our modern day processes and systems.
That flies in the face of the so-called sinner’s prayer. So I want to take it back to a detailed look at the Hebrew / Jewish beliefs about our believe, believe in, follow process. Of course, as I said, they didn’t have that “process”. What they did have though was God’s word. The starting point for them was something we read of often in the Old Testament:
I will be their God …
The first time we read “I will be their God” is this exchange when God selected Abram – made a covenant with him – and changed his name to Abraham.
Ge 17:3 Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5 No longer will you be called Abram ; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
I will be their God and they will be my people
The next time we read the words, although not the next time the concept appears, is this:
Jer 24:4 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 5 “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. 6 My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. 7 I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.
Notice – it now says they will be my people.
If we go back and look for God calling Abraham’s descendants His people, we read things like this:
Ex 3:7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
Of course, this comes from the time when the Israelites, God’s chosen people, were slaves under the Egyptian Pharaoh. God’s people had turned away from Him. And so God figuratively “turned away” from them. They became slaves. When the people called out to God – turned back to Him – He sent Moses to rescue them.
That’s a perfect example of I will be their God and they will be my people.
The people believed God. Although they either ignored or forgot the part about God will take care of His people – they still knew it to be true. That’s why, in their time of great distress under Pharaoh, they eventually called out to God.
They even believed in God. When the Israelites called out to God, they knew God would answer their cries. They didn’t call out to Him – return to Him – in vain. They fully expected God to rescue them. They trusted God.
And they followed God. Here’s the thing. The Israelites didn’t fail in the believe or the believe in part of what we call a “process”. Where they did fail is in the doing part. The action. The part about following God. They’d invariably end up following other gods. Disobeying God’s commandments. In Biblical words – turning away from God.
So what the Jewish people came to learn – over and over and over – is that all three things were necessary. That, in reality, in order to be God’s people, these three things that we try to separate out were in fact one thing.
Belief without the act of following was useless. It doesn’t matter what we believe, if we don’t have any action to go with it.
Believe in – trust in – without the act of following was also useless. We can believe that God exists. We can even believe that God can take care of us. However, what the Jewish people learned so many times – and what we are seemingly not learning very well these days, is that we need to ask. If we turn away from God, He will turn away from us. Figuratively, of course. In order for us to “return” to God – we must cry out to Him and follow Him.
All three are required. But the Jewish way of thinking is that all three were actually one. They were inseparable. Any of them, without all of them, did not lead to God being their God – because without all three, they were not God’s people.
Jesus was Jewish – and so were the people he was addressing
Yeah – we probably all know Jesus was Jewish. But many also try to read the Bible like Jesus was talking to us today. He wasn’t. He was a Jew talking to other Jewish people. And we really cannot understand what He said unless we realize that. And it was nearly 2,000 years ago. So, we still can’t really understand what Jesus said unless we put ourselves in the position of a Jewish person at that time.
Yes – that means we need to believe, believe in and follow.
We really shouldn’t be surprised by that. After all, remember what Jesus said about “fruit”. We looked at that earlier. But let’s consider it as part of a series of things He said.
Jn 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. …”
Somehow, we expect to be able to pull out this verse from everything else around it. And then we turn it into – say the sinner’s prayer and believe Jesus is the Son of God – and you’re saved.
Sorry, but that’s not what it says.
And as we’ve seen, believe Jesus is the Son of God is only part of the Jewish view of believe, believe in, follow. It’s just not enough.
Trust in God
After Jesus told His disciples that He was going to be betrayed and would soon be leaving them, Jesus also said this:
Jesus Comforts His Disciples
Jn 14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
It’s one of the few times Jesus actually used a word that we directly translate as trust. However, the concept of trust runs throughout what He says.
Looking at John 3:16 and this passage on trust, we see two things.
- Faith without any reason is blind faith. Only knowing the common, and incorrect, feelings on John 3:16 and the alleged “sinner’s prayer” – which exists nowhere in the Bible – is very close to blind faith, if not actually blind faith.
- Faith without trust is wishful thinking.
As with the Hebrew / Jewish people in the Old Testament, we can see that blind faith and wishful thinking won’t get us very far. But when we bring in actions – deeds, in Christian-speak – then we complete the thought of “follow”. As in when Jesus told multiple people, “come, follow Me“. And, by the way, learn to do what He did.
Fruit and the Great Commission
We looked at the passage on “fruit” earlier. And mentioned the Great Commission. As a reminder – here’s the Great Commission:
The Great Commission
Mt 28:16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Obviously, that’s action for those who already believe / believe in.
But notice what Jesus is telling His disciples in this passage.
- Remember, the disciples already believe Jesus – to an extent. They don’t yet have the Holy Spirit, so they don’t understand everything. But they have seen the resurrected Jesus, so there’s a whole lot more than they ever had before.
- They also trust Jesus. While they had pretty much lost trust right after the crucifixion, they now had a greater level of trust than ever before.
- They were now to go out and do something. Action. But look at the action.
- Teach people. No blind faith here. By the time they start to perform this commission, the Holy Spirit is with them and will be with the disciples they “make”.
- Baptize them. Trust begins. The Holy Spirit is now available to the newly baptized people.
- Make disciples of them. They will be people who also perform this same process with other people.
Jesus is telling them the Jewish perspective of “I will be their God and they will be my people“.
Christians should know Jesus.
Christians should trust Jesus.
And Christians should follow Jesus, in actions.
Faith without actions
This is why James says the things he did about faith without deeds. Note – it’s faith first – then deeds because of that faith. It’s not the other way around.
Faith and Deeds
Jas 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Jas 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
Jas 2:20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless ? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
Jas 2:25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
That’s the whole thing – believe, believe in, follow.
Jesus was Jewish. The people He came to save, the ones He talked to – were also Jewish. And they understood this concept of what we today call believe, believe in, follow. Not in those words. They used the Hebrew language and Aramaic for the most part. But they knew the concept.
They also knew that any one or two of those concepts was useless. Just as James points out.
Today, too many of us have lost the relationship between those words – believe, believe in, follow. We think that somehow any one of them is a “ticket to Heaven”.
Sorry, but that’s not what the Hebrew / Jewish people knew or believed.
And it’s not what Jesus said.
So if we really want to be disciples of Jesus – true believers – we should / must have the same outlook on I will be their God and they will be my people as the Jewish people. As Jesus.
It sounds so hard
Yes – it does sound hard. Sometimes it seems impossible.
The truth is – it is impossible – if we try to be our own fig tree. If we choose to not believe / believe in / follow. It doesn’t matter which word we use. They’re all really the same, as we’ve seen. The point is, if we choose to try to follow Jesus on our own – it is impossible. Why? Because if we try to do it on our own, we’re following ourselves. We’re following the “god” that we created in our image. That’s backwards.
As James said –
Jas 3:9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
However – as Jesus said about the rich young ruler to choose to not follow Jesus –
Mt 19:23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Mt 19:25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Mt 19:26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Returning one last time to the fig tree analogy – it’s only by remembering God, walking in His ways, and revering Him – that we can produce good figs. And it’s only by doing that same thing – believing, believing in, following Him – that we can save ourselves and others.
By believing, believing in, following Him – anything is possible. Because it’s not us doing the impossible, but God Himself working through us.
If we don’t give Him the chance to work through us – He won’t.
If we do give Him the chance – then we get the promises from Revelation –
Rev 2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Rev 2:11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
Rev 2:17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
Rev 2:26 To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—
Rev 2:27 ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter;
he will dash them to pieces like pottery’—
just as I have received authority from my Father. 28 I will also give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Rev 3:5 He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Rev 3:12 Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Rev 3:21 To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Yes – many people think of Revelation as a book of doom and gloom.
I think of Revelation as a book of incredible hope – incentive to do the impossible – not only for myself, but for others.
It’s a reason to want to be the best fig tree possible. With God – we can be the fig tree of the Promised Land. We can bring health to other fig trees. And we can all look at Revelation not as a book of horrors – but as the book of hope.
How about you?
Image modified from one by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay