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Hebrews

Faith

Hebrews 11

This is one of the richest passages in all of Scripture. It is done in the “string of pearls” method, in which Paul gives us little, tantalizing reminders, with the assumption that the student will fill in the details. Perhaps he had better students; perhaps he was a better teacher.

1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for.

3By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

4By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.

5By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

7By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

8By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

11By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he£ considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

17By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring£ will be reckoned.”£ 19Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

20By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

21By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

22By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.

23By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

24By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. 26He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

29By faith the people passed through the Red Sea£ as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

30By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days.

31By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.£

32And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37They were stoned£; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—38the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Dictionary

In this passage Paul gives us many examples of faith. But he also includes some thoughts on just what constitutes faith. We shall examine these first, to lay the groundwork for things to come.

Verse 1: Faith is …

It’s almost a dictionary definition of faith. This is extremely useful, as we often think of faith as an intellectual endeavor – only. It is not. The intellect must be committed, but the entire human being must participate.

  • Sure of hope. This is not an exercise in wishful thinking. Indeed, when exaggerated, this becomes a form of “name it and claim it” teaching. But in proportion we see it this way – that the Christian is given hope by the power of the Resurrection and the promise of the return of our Lord. The question is, do we act like we believe this? For example, do we keep ourselves set apart, knowing that the Day of Judgment is coming?
  • Certain of things unseen. ’”Where is this God you keep talking about? I don’t see him.” I’ve never seen a geometry teacher’s point, either. You know, the one that has neither width, depth or breadth? But I believe in the concept; I’m certain it exists. Am I as certain of the righteousness of God?
Verse 6: Without faith…

Wisdom is often gained in the negative. If you burn your fingers, you learn. So Paul tells us here the consequence of a lack of faith. It is simply this: whatever you do, you cannot please God. Why?

Consider that Paul often uses the metaphor of a marriage relationship for the relationship of Christ and his church. What happens to that relationship when the wife stops trusting her husband? Soon there is quarreling and anger. But see what happens next: at some point the wife will decide to “smooth things over.” She puts on an attractive dress, does her hair nicely – in short, all those things that please the male eye. But what reaction does she get? “What did you do that for?” No trust, no relationship. It’s a characteristic of all personal relationships – and the relationship with God (faith) is indeed personal.

It sounds obvious, therefore, that we must believe that God exists. Remember that in the Scripture “believe” must also mean “committed.” Does our belief that God exists make any difference in our daily lives? Or is God just a convenient fiction which makes you happy? “I’m glad that works for you” is the denial of the ultimate reality.

But there is more. Not only does he exist, we find here one of his basic character attributes: He rewards those who seek him. It could not be otherwise, for God is love. Consider it from a lower level: God is not the recluse who does not care for his people; he cares deeply. But like a parent who has a wayward adult child, he waits for us to seek him.

Verses 14-16: Looking for…

One of the things you must decide as a Christian is this: are you seeking a destination on earth, or are you on a pilgrimage through this life? The church has had many who have taught that we are looking for things in this life. These preach “name it and claim it” or “possibility thinking.” It is not new. But the clear teaching of the Scriptures is that this is the wrong objective.

We are, as this passage declares, “aliens and strangers” in this world. Did you ever feel that you just didn’t fit in with the “in” group? We’re just passing through – at least I am. How strange, then, that so much of our effort is spent in making the church look like just another social club. There’s a key thought there: this world will always present us with opportunities to go over to that view.

But see what that means: it says that we are ashamed to name God as our god – if it means not using my ski boat on the river during the summer weekends (see you in October, preacher). But if we are ashamed of him, what does he think of us? And if we are not?

Verses 39-40: Commended – but not received

We may pursue the things of God during this life – and often not see them come to fruition. It can be frustrating.

A story is told of D. L. Moody. He had a friend who was not a Christian. For thirty-five years, I’m told, Moody spoke to him about Christ. The man eventually accepted Christ – at Moody’s funeral. Sometimes our successes are like that. But despite the result, God still shows his approval of our efforts.

The Day is coming. Many of us will meet our reward there, for the first time. My father’s father knew me only as a little child. I have only one souvenir of his existence, an old and battered mug he gave me. But he was a devout Christian (and an excellent Sunday School teacher, I’m told) and I know he prayed for me. I hope I have provided a satisfactory answer to those prayers.

Faith in What?

We sometimes encounter those who have faith – but in who knows what. Often, it’s faith in having faith. This is not our Lord’s intention.

In what God has done

We note that Paul has included the understanding that we have faith that God created. It is an important point. Our faith should not be an abstract hope with no basis in fact. It’s like a marriage: I can’t prove my wife is faithful – but I trust her. I trust her because she’s proven to be trustworthy. There is evidence behind the faith.

In this faith, one of the great evidences is the awesome grandeur of the universe. The first thing revealed to us in Scripture is that God created the heavens and the earth. Such power is his; it is still his today – and we can count on Him.

Abraham is an example of such: he was going to sacrifice Isaac because he reasoned that God could raise him from the dead. That’s faith in what God has done – and can do.

Faith in his righteousness

Tell me something: do you think Adolf Hitler got everything he deserved in this life? Or, for that matter, Mother Teresa? No? Then those of us with faith in God know that there will be a day of reckoning and reward. It’s just that his books aren’t closed yet.

Noah had that faith. He built the ark when all around him said God wasn’t paying attention to mankind. Moses had the same faith too, in rejecting the pleasures of Pharoah’s court. Do we believe in his righteousness?

Faith in his promises

Abraham was told of the promised land; Joseph told that his body would wind up there. Both believed and obeyed, even though they would not see the results in this mortal life. They had faith in the promises of God, finding him to be trustworthy.

There are two ways in which we might view this. First, there is the trustworthiness of God for those things he has placed in Scripture. We read; we should believe (and act on it). For some, there may come a time when God will promise you something personally. He has done that for me; I have been waiting for it for over ten years, now. But he is faithful in his promises; even if I die first, he will deliver.

Faith in his command

Often in Scripture we see a man given a direct command – and then finding what he thinks is a better way. But Israel put the blood on the doorposts, and was saved. The walls of Jericho came down right on God’s schedule.

With such examples, why is it that we persist in “adjusting” the Scriptures? You think we don’t?

  • The Scriptures actually do teach a wife’s submission to her husband – but we don’t.
  • The Scriptures teach that divorce is reprehensible to God –but we don’t.
  • The Scriptures teach that envy (in the poor) and greed (in the rich) are sins – but have you heard anything of this lately?

What do you think our Lord would say to our excuses for not following his commands?

The Impact of Faith on Others

We often think of faith as “something you do in your solitude.” (Do you really have that much solitude?) We need to recognize that our faith is visible, and influences others in many ways.

Conviction of sin

Paul cites Noah here – he acted on God’s revelation against sin; others did not. We must do the same. Whether or not our actions embarrass someone or not, we must do what is right. If that convicts someone of sin, praise God.

Often, however, we find that our actions seem to influence no one. One very good reason for this is that the conviction of sin may take some time, and we may be just one link in the chain. Things may not happen immediately.

That’s all the more reason to remain faithful – even the smallest and least of Christians can do this, and the example observed may be the pivot point of another person’s life.

Encouragement for others

Moses set a great example of encouragement; we often think it’s just for church leaders. But consider:

  • Have you ever been in a hospital corridor with someone who was losing a loved one? Sometimes we need to borrow faith from those around us when the storm arrives. We should be there for the storm.
  • Another way is in good deeds; we should encourage each other to do such things (example is a good method).
  • Once in a while, however, we are in the “high visibility” situation – every one is watching us, wondering what we will do. Then comes the test of faith.
Spreading the faith to others

It didn’t take Rahab too long to get the point. We can do this in a number of ways:

  • We can pass the faith along to our children and grandchildren – by living it every day.
  • When we see those who are righteous at cost to themselves, we can commend and encourage them.
  • And in all occasions, we can put God first. “Love God – and do as you please.”

The Test for Us

I suggest three tests of faith for you this day:

Longing for that country

If you don’t have the feeling that you don’t quite fit in this world, I would challenge you to ask, “why not?” We are aliens, strangers in this world. We should have a sense of community with the church – especially the church over all times – and a sense of sojourning in this world.

Do you see at a distance?

Do you take the long view, the eternal view of life? Here’s a little help in answering that question:

  • Are your energies focused on the things of this world? Possessions? Promotion? Earlier retirement?
  • What’s your attitude towards death? Yours? Your loved ones?
  • Are you patient with God’s justice, or do you feel the need to take vengeance yourself?
Do you sacrifice for the Living God?

Sacrifice? What could I give up for God?

  • Do you sacrifice the pleasant things of life for God? Or do your possessions own you?
  • Do you sacrifice your time to God? In particular, how do you feel when someone takes your time from you because they know you will treat them with love? More than that, do you give your time willingly to those in need?
  • Do you sacrifice your own self for God? For example, can you share with others the depths of your sin which embarrass you so much?

You say you have faith. Don’t show me; show God.

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