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.
All 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, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, 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.
“These people,” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their families, lived in a time and place where the fullness of God’s promises to them had not entirely come to pass, and they looked forward to complete fulfillment to their dying days, but they did so with joy, for the fulfillment of God’s promises was never in doubt; they lived by faith. They saw from a distance, but they held on. You’ll recall that our author said that the Old Covenant worship was but an illustration, a shadow of the reality to come. Here the author uses the words “at a distance” to describe the same thing, for the reality of all of God’s promises came in the person of Christ.
There’s something really interesting developing in these verses, something that is very relevant for the original recipients of the letter, and very relevant for us as well. Did you notice that the author keeps pointing out that they were foreigners? They were strangers in a strange land when Abraham and his household entered the promised land, for there were already people there with a different culture, different language and different values. Abraham had followed God to a place he didn’t know, and where the inhabitants didn’t know him. But that isn’t the point the author is making. Notice verse 13, “…they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” It wasn’t just that they had left Ur and travelled to Canaan, they had left the kingdom of this earth, and entered a covenant with God. They were no longer like the other people in a way that is much more significant than mere language and culture, for they have become people of God, in an environment that was in rebellion against God. Returning to Ur wouldn’t bring them home, for they were no longer citizens there, their orientation was now a heavenly one, and they could only look forward to the day when it became a reality.
Now, consider the implications of this upon the Jewish Christians in Rome during Nero’s persecution. Even if they had lived in Rome all of their lives, even if the State recognized them as Roman citizens, they had been transformed into citizens of a different realm, for in Christ they had become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. They were now strangers in a strange land, a land that was in open rebellion against God… and Rome was acting the part. Rome persecuted them because they were of God now; that’s what the world does and it should surprise no one. Yet through this trial, they had thus far remained faithful to their new Kingdom, and in the course of that, they had declared a testimony for Christ, and as we now know as we study the past, the Gospel spread rapidly by their testimony of faith in Jesus even in the face of terrible persecution. Thus, God was not ashamed to be their God.
The historical context of this is very interesting, but it also cries out to us in an important way. What is it telling us…? It tells us that we, too are strangers in a strange land, for no longer are we citizens of an earthly nation; we too are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and we too have a role to play in its development. As Paul tells us, we are its Ambassadors here on earth; what will our testimony be?
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
What an amazing thing Abraham did when God told him to sacrifice Isaac! The author brings this out in these verses, and let’s just stop and think about it for a moment. God’s big promise to Abraham was that he would have offspring greater in number than the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore, pretty amazing considering his age. The greatest promise of all was that through his seed, all nations of the earth would be blessed, and when the son of promise finally comes along, nothing short of a miracle in itself, God tells Abraham to sacrifice him… and Abraham was about to do what God had told him to do; now that is putting faith into action!
I can’t imagine what Abraham must have been thinking… I really can’t; but our author tells us, and apparently it occurred to Abraham that if God made this promise, and then told him to kill the boy, God must have a plan to raise Isaac from the dead. His faith was so strong, he wasn’t thinking that God had changed His mind. So, in a way, he did receive Isaac back from the dead, for at that critical moment, poor Isaac was a dead boy walking.
By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.
By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.
By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.
By 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.
Take a close look at these “by faith” verses…. very close. What do they all have common, other than “by faith”? It’s no trick, there is a clear pattern…
Each one of these “by faith” incidents is directly related to covenant faithfulness. The main things mentioned about Abraham related to the land promise. In the verses above, it’s the son of promise. Isaac and Jacob verses are referring to their covenant birthrights. Joseph was concerned about the exodus, also a promise of the covenant. Moses was no ordinary child, because God would make another covenant with him… and later we’ll see more about Moses.
All of these people were imperfect, and the truth is that some of them were very imperfect. All, however, placed their priority on their covenant relationship with God, over all else, and when things were tough, that’s where their hearts were to be found. The really big question is this: What does that tell us about God’s priorities in relation to our sins?
In case I haven’t made this quite clear enough, let’s go about this in a slightly different way. None of the patriarchs was a saint. A few of them were a mess, and I’m including Abraham in this group. How many times did he allow Sarah, the woman who was to bear the son of promise, go into the harem of a pagan king? Not once, but twice! Now I haven’t been so perfect in my lifetime, but I most certainly have never done anything like that, have you? Probably not… Yet Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, because Abraham, in spite of his faults, placed his highest priority on his covenant with God; in this area, he was faultless. The same can also be said of his son and grandsons.
Back to the original recipients… Everything in this letter is in the context of covenant. Just think about all of the amazing things we’ve learned about the New Covenant in Hebrews. Think about what we’ve learned about our relationship with God in Hebrews. With all of that in mind, can you see what an insult it would be to God if we, after all He has done, and after all He has given to us, would turn our backs and walk away from this covenant relationship when the going got tough? You see, these warnings aren’t so much about our petty sins which are already forgiven anyway, they are about protecting and maintaining our covenant relationship with God.
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.
In these few verses, the author of Hebrews reveals something truly incredible: Moses knew about Jesus!
That knowledge accounted for some of the actions that Moses took, and the author cites the fact that Moses made a choice to be numbered among the Hebrews rather than to continue in his place of privilege in the household of Pharaoh. Moses “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt” and so he left the slave masters and joined with the slaves. Moses placed his priority in line with God’s covenant purpose, not because the New Covenant was in effect, for it was centuries in the future, but because God’s covenant with Abraham was in effect, and it contained a promise that the people would be set free from bondage in Egypt, a promise that was made over 400 years before the time of Moses.
In this, Moses was forward-looking, to his reward, to the exclusion of his current peril on the earth. How might that have inspired the original recipients of the letter? How might that inspire us?
It was by faith that he both left Egypt and incurred the anger of Pharaoh, and later that he applied the blood of the Passover.
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.
The people Moses led had their moments of faith too, as when they crossed the Red Sea, but sadly they more often drifted away from their faith, and never received God’s land promise; even Moses rebelled and could only gaze upon the Land. But Joshua and Caleb never lost their faith:
By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.
By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
The story of faith is an amazing one indeed, and it is a story that you and I are part of. What role will we play?