"Faith," and "Believing," versus "Trust"
Today, much of the Christian religion is built upon the idea of “believing” the Bible as the Word of God. Indeed, the word “faith” has come to be synonymous with the idea of religion. However, nothing in the Bible can support this idea of “believing” and “faith” because these words did not have the same meaning when Jesus taught.
Many Greek words have had their meaning changed by Jesus’s words, or more precisely, by the religious doctrines that have grown up around His words. This article looks at these two words. The first is the Greek noun translated as “faith” or “belief.” The second is the Greek verb translated as “to believe.” Today, both of these words are intimately connected to religious faith and belief. However, in Jesus’s era, no one would have heard them that way. As a matter of fact, those words had little or nothing to do with religion at the time.
“Faith” As Confidence in Honesty
The noun translated as “faith” is pistis (πίστις), which means means "confidence," "assurance," "trustworthiness," "credit," "a trust," and "that which give confidence." Jesus uses this word twenty-six times, usually in the context of trusting the truth about someone’s words, often his own. In the context of business, it means “credit,” that is, trusting someone to pay back a debt. Even Strong’s Biblical Concordance says that it means “conviction of the truth of anything,” but Strong’s goes on to say that, in the New Testament (NT), its meaning changed to “a conviction or belief respecting man's relationship to God and divine things.” Since it didn’t mean religious faith before the NT, it couldn't have been heard that way by those listening to Jesus.
This sense of “trust,” “confidence,” and especially extending “credit” to someone, true trust implies a willingness to act. This trust is not some internal, intellectual framework of thinking related to dogma. This concept must be the basis for our decisions to act. Our “beliefs” are not what we pay lip service to, but what we do, and how we act. However, this trust is necessary because we do not know the future. Trust always implies some uncertainty, and some risk. We don’t need confidence if we were certain of any outcome.
The evidence that this word had little to do with religious belief before the NT is overwhelming. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, pistis only appears thirty-two times. Most of those verses are about trusting people, not God or prophets, and many of those verses do not translate pistis into English as any form of “faith” or “belief.” The Greek word is usually used to translate the Hebrew word, 'ĕmûnâ (אֱמוּנָה) or a related word, which Strong’s defines as “firmness, fidelity, steadfastness, and steadiness.” This Hebrew word is often translated as “truth” in the KJV.
Whenever Jesus discusses “faith,” we make a mistake if we assume that he means having religious faith. He means simply having confidence in someone, someone’s word, or confidence as a lack of fear. This trust gives us the confidence to act. For example, Jesus seems to have invented the Greek word, oligopistos (ὀλιγόπιστος), translated as “you with little faith.” That word would have been heard as “little confidence.” He only uses this word six times, usually in the context of people worrying about something. We cannot act confidently if we are worried about the course of action.
However, pistis becomes much more popular in the writings of the other New Testament authors. They use it two hundred and forty-one times. It meant the same idea for them as it did for Jesus and his listeners: trusting the truth of something. Or course, this is because they were basing their entire way of life of trusting the words of Jesus. However, they use it to ask people to trust the truth of what Jesus said and what they said about Jesus. This idea of “trust” became the basis for the idea of “faith” as religious faith in modern languages.
“Believing” As Trusting in Honesty
The verb translated as “to believe” is pisteuo (πιστεοῦ). This is from the same root as the noun, pistis. Jesus uses this verb in sixty-nine verses. This means that he uses it more than the entire Greek OT, in which it appears only forty-eight times. Again, this is evidence that this word was understood to have little to do with religion. As with pistis, pisteuo is much more popular in the New Testament, where it is used two hundred and forty-one times. Notice that this is exactly the same number as the noun form, which is an interesting coincidence (if you believe in coincidences).
Pisteuo means "to trust, put faith in, or rely on a person," "to believe in someone's words," "to comply," "to feel confident in a thing," and "to entrust in a thing." If we look in Strong’s, we again see that its primary meaning is “to think to be true; to be persuaded of; to credit, place confidence in.” It only came to mean religious belief after the New Testament, a long time after Jesus and those writing the Epistles used it.
As we say with the noun form, pistis, Jesus usually used the verb in the context of trusting someone and especially the honesty of their words. It is interesting that when Jesus uses a negative with this verb, he usually uses the objective negative, the negation of facts. Since we are talking about an opinion here, you would expect him to use the negative of opinion, which is a different word in Greek (see this article). So he saw this trust as something more real and solid than mere opinion. It is trust that leads to decisions and action.
I think it is funny that Jesus’s main humorous catchphrase, “honestly, honestly, I’m telling you,” obviously relates to his ideas about trust and being trusting. Today, we often use the phrase “having confidence” to mean personal confidence and, if there was one thing Jesus demonstrated by his death, it was that he had confidence in his words, trusting that he would be raised from the dead. Of course, he said that his teachings were not his own but came from the Father (John 7:16).
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