Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6

One of the most quoted verses about Abraham is Genesis 15:6. This is a key verse that is used in the discussion about being saved by faith apart from works — the central point of the Protestant Reformation. It was Abram's "believing" that gave him righteousness in God's sight. From this verse, Christians historically have emphasized the importance of believing God's promises, instead of working to earn our salvation.

But it is important to understand that the key word, emunah, which we translate "believe," has a different emphasis in Hebrew than we tend to hear. In English and in Greek (pistis), its primary meaning is to assent to a factual statement, to agree with the truth of certain ideas.

The word emunah does mean “to have faith,” but it has a broader meaning that has implications for what God calls us to as people of faith. It also contains the idea of steadfastness or persistence. Exodus 17 tells us that Moses raised his hands all day long until the Israelites won a key battle. It says that his hands remained steady (emunah) until sunset. In this sense the word means “steadfast.”

The word emunah is also used to describe God’s faithfulness:

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful (emunah) God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. (Deuteronomy 7:9)

If we look back at the verse about Abraham's emunah, it should tell us that Abraham believed God's promises and had a persistent commitment to God, which was displayed in his faithful life — waiting 25 years for a son, and then offering him back to God when he was asked to do so.

This has implications about what it means to be a Christian. I used to wonder why God saved certain people just because they decided to adopt one particular set of beliefs over another. But as James pointed out, Satan himself believes the truth about God and Jesus (James 2:19); and just knowing that doesn't redeem him! But while Satan may have the right beliefs, he cannot say that he has emunah — a committed faithfulness to the Lord. What God asks for goes beyond an academic decision to believe that a certain set of facts are true. He wants faith in his promises that results in steadfast faithfulness to him.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.  Luke 10:27

The command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind is the greatest commandment. It is part of the Shema, the prayer that Jesus and all Jews since have prayed morning and evening to commit themselves to follow the Lord. When we think about those words, we tend to pass by the phrase "heart and soul" quickly, probably thinking that it means that we should love God with our spirit and emotions, and very passionately.

Our understanding can be enriched by understanding the word “soul” (nephesh) better. Nephesh means “life” as well as “soul.” So the Jewish interpretation of "love the Lord with all your soul" is actually that we should love God with all of our lives — every moment throughout our lives. Loving God with all our nephesh, “life,” is the opposite of being a one-hour-a-week Christian whose thoughts are largely filled with distractions of work, politics, hobbies, investments, sporting events, and enterstainment, as many of us are today. While all those things are good, squeezing God in as an afterthought is exactly the opposite of this phrase of the Shema.

A further traditional interpretation of “with all your nephesh” is the idea that we should love God even to the point of sacrificing our lives for him. If Jews are able, they will quote the Shema at their death to make a final commitment to their God. In fact, there is a powerful story told to illustrate that idea. Rabbi Akiva, a greatly respected Jewish rabbi who lived in the first century AD, was tortured to death publicly by the Romans because he refused to give up teaching and studying the Scriptures. It was the time of saying the morning Shema, and during his torture, his students heard him reciting the Shema instead of crying out in pain. His students called out to him, "Teacher, even now?" The dying rabbi said, "All my life I have wondered about the phrase that says 'Love the Lord your God with all of your soul,’ wondering if I would ever have the privilege of doing this. Now that the chance has come to me, shall I not grasp it with joy?" He repeated the first verse of the Shema, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone," until his soul left him.

This is what Jesus was calling us to, and what he did himself: He loved the Lord - and you and me - with all of his life, until he breathed his last.

 ©2004 En-Gedi Resource Center, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the ministry.  
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