Bible Study 101–Part 5: A Word Study on “Believe”

How does the Bible’s reference to the verb “believe” in James 2:19 and John 3:16  help us understand distinctions between general knowledge and saving faith?
We will approach this word study on believe through three important lens: observation (what the text mentions), interpretation (what the text means), and application (why the text matters).  
In terms of observation, James 2:1-26 references “‘the 12 tribes scattered among the nations’ (James 1:1)…[and] has a marked Jewish flavor”1 even through the audience is primarily Gentile.  The chapter focuses on the doctrine of justification by faith; more specifically, the important distinctions between works and faith.  James plainly states that while the quality or quantity of good works do not inherently prove our level of faith or guarantee salvation, our faith in God causes us to do good works that magnify Him.  Simply put, faith is not earned; it is the means through which we are saved (Ephesians 2:8-9 NASB).
I addressed observation of John 3:16 in a previous blog entitled Bible Study 101–Part 3:  Abbreviated Bible Study of John 3:16 Using Hermeneutics and Exegesis.
Next, let’s look at interpretation.  One of the pivotal verbs in James 2:19 and John 3:16 is believe which occurs 243 times in the New Testament.  In 233 of the 243 references, including these verses, it’s Greek form,  pisteuō,  involves either thinking or knowing something to be true or having Christian faith leading to salvation. 2  These distinctions are at the very heart of our word study.
James 2:19 speaks to those who are familiar with but don’t have a personal relationship with God: “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (emphasis added).  James points out demons’ belief in God as an act of acknowledging the existence of God because they’ve seen him before.  How so? Ezekiel 28:12-19 and II Peter 2:4 tell us that God cast out Lucifer and one-third of fallen angels–Satan and demons–from heaven.  
Yet demons’ acknowledging the truth of God’s existence isn’t enough to save them.  Consider the demon-possessed men’s reaction to Jesus recorded in Matthew 8:29 which includes a question:  “What business do we have with each other, Son of God?” Notice how the demons identify Jesus’ deity. Does this result in their salvation?  Do they accepting Christ as their Savior? Not at all. In fact, Matthew 8:30-34 recounts how Jesus casts out the demons into the bodies of pigs nearby.
In contrast to the superficial familiarity of demons’ belief in God mentioned in James 2:19, we see belief leading to saving faith in Christ according to John 3:16.  The phrase “that whoever believes in Him [Jesus] shall not perish, but have eternal life” refers to the total understanding of the verb pisteuō mentioned earlier.  In this case, saving, Christian faith comes when we not only know or acknowledge the existence of God but also recognize Jesus Christ as the means through which we can be saved (Hebrews 11:6).
How does this word study apply to unbelievers and believers?  Our conversations with unbelievers should ultimately lead to asking the question Do you believe in God and in Jesus Christ?  While important, it’s too vague.  One question should be: In which God do you believe?  For example, some people have a dismissive attitude about a “supreme being” and are fully comfortable planning the game of semantics.   Paul addressed this flawed logic in Acts 17 when addressing Greek citizens at Mars Hill. Acts 17:22 reads in part “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.”  Paul’s language about “religious” is strikingly similar to arguments made by unbelievers today: people think it’s fine to believe in any god as long as you believe in something.
Paul counters this argument by providing an apologetic defense of the Gospel by talking about the Greeks’ proclivity to build idols to false gods. Acts 17:23 reads “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” Paul painstakingly explains how the true God of the bible isn’t unknown but is knowable.  We would be wise to follow this approach.
The second question we should ask people is In which Jesus do you believe?  Some have no problem acknowledging the historical Jesus–the man who’s a rabbi, good speaker, son of a carpenter, social activist and even a prophet.  While true, this doesn’t go far enough. Believing or coming to saving Christian faith involves people recognizing the deity of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the trinity whose death, burial, and resurrection occurred for the sins of humanity–past, present, and future.
So the question on the floor is what do you believe?
Blue, J. Ronald. “James.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck. Vol. 2. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985. 816. Print.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) 1997.

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