Chapter 11 of Hebrews is a discourse on active faith; interesting when you consider that it comes right after the warnings of chapter 10 against losing our faith.
Who said faith and works were mutually exclusive?
That faith and works were somehow in opposition to one another is a presupposition of men, not a Biblical concept, for in the Bible, the two go hand in hand. This is not to say that we can ever earn our salvation by works; of course not! Salvation is by grace through faith. Yet, there is a definite linkage in the Scriptures between faith and action that many seem to miss. I think they might miss this connection because they consider salvation the end of the story, but as we have seen time and time again, it is the beginning.
In this chapter, the author begins with a very brief discussion of what faith is:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.
By 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.
Of course, we all know verse one as the classic definition of faith, and it is this faith that the Old Testament heroes were commended by God for having. It is also the faith that we have in Jesus Christ, for we are certain of His Truth even though we have neither seen nor touched Him. Verse 3 gives us an example of faith in the creation of the universe at God’s command. The universe is made of what was not seen, for no one saw Him give the command, and the universe came into being where before there was nothing at all.
Verses 4-7, which you can refer to at your leisure, refer to several Old Testament characters, and reminds us of their active faith, and then the author comes to Abraham:
By 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. By 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. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And 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.
When God called Abraham to pack up the household and leave his homeland, he had no idea where he was going, but he went because he had faith (Action). When he finally arrived in the promised land, he made his home there even though he was a stranger in that place and knew no one, because he had faith in God and His promises (Action). Abraham and his descendants were confident in God’s promises of a great nation, and they acted accordingly. Abraham believed God actively, and as a result Sarah bore him the son of promise and because of Abraham’s active faith, God fulfilled His promises, in spite of Abraham’s mistakes and miscues. This is what faith can do when coupled with God’s covenant promises.
Why do you suppose the author took this detour from the rest of the letter, and why here?
Let’s consider the structure of the letter first. In chapters 8-10:18 we saw an amazing recitation of all that God has done for us in Christ, with the superior high priest, superior sacrifice, bringing about a superior covenant with superior promises. We also saw how all of this replaced the old shadows of the old ways. This was followed by a section of warnings, and now faith. This all makes perfect sense, because all that the author has been sharing was there to help the recipients of the letter hold onto their faith in terrible times of trial. At such a time, more than in normal times, it would have been critical for them to understand that their faith is active rather than passive, for none of the characters discussed in this chapter were mentioned because of the way they clung to their faith while sitting at home on the couch. They are all heroes of faith because they put their faith into action.
I tell people who have lost their faith, “You can always hope until your faith returns.”
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