Confident Faith

Confident Faith

[Sing] “I have confidence in sunshine.

I have confidence in rain.

I have confidence that spring will come again!

Besides what you see I have confidence in me.”[1]

So sang Maria, the irrepressible young nun played by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, when she sought some much-needed courage to take care of stern Captain Von Trapp’s seven mischievous children. Now whereas I share her confidence that the sun will shine and the rains will come and that Spring will come again, I don’t always share her confidence in myself and my abilities. But fortunately Scripture doesn’t call us to show confidence in ourselves. In fact it’s just the opposite.[2] Scripture calls us to show confidence in the One in whose image—and for whom—we’ve been made.

Right at the outset of this well-known and much-loved chapter on faith,what is so striking is how easily it lives and breathes in the realm of what remains unseen and unfulfilled. Whereas philosophers throughout the ages have considered the question of whether or now the tangible world we see, touch, smell, taste, and feel exists in the manner that it appears to our senses, this chapter begins by forcefully describing strong belief in what is usually considered to be the intangible world of promise. We are told that faith is “confidence in what we hope for” and “assurance about what we do not see.” Yet how is the author able to juxtapose the seemingly opposite notions of “confidence” with “hope,” and “assurance” with “what we do not see”? Shouldn’t it be just the opposite? Doesn’t confidence have to do with certainty, and hope with uncertainty? Doesn’t assurance similarly have to do with certainty? But how can we be certain of what we don’t see? How is it possible to place these seemingly polar opposite words next to one another?

I think that part of the answer lies with understanding how faith is being spoken of here. Sometimes the emphasis of faith is placed on ourselves: I have faith; I believe strongly. When this is the case, the strength of faith is based upon the strength of the person holding it. Though Maria the leading character used the word “confidence” instead of “faith,” her words exemplify this kind of talking to oneself, of convincing oneself to override one’s greatest doubts and fears and proclaim instead, “I have confidence in me!” “I have faith in me.”

Yet the faith spoken of in Hebrews is far more substantial than a feeling that we whip up for ourselves. What makes faith in the book of Hebrews solid isn’t the ability of those holding it to convince themselves that it’s real but rather solid faith, confident faith, has to do with the One in whom that faith is placed, our Maker and LORD. As we’ll see, “what the ancients were commended for” in verse 2, wasn’t their ability to believe that the way they would like things to be would come to pass. If this were the case, then this chapter wouldn’t be speaking about faith. Instead it would be speaking about “magical thinking.” Magical thinking holds, for example, that if you imagine yourself to be rich, you will become rich; if you imagine yourself to be thin, you will become thin; if you imagine yourself as holding such and such a job, you will get it; if you imagine yourself healthy, you will no longer be sick. In essence magical thinking holds that our ideas, thoughts, and wishes—without fail—will influence the course of events in our lives and in the world in a causal manner.

But, again, magical thinking is not what the ancients were commended for. The ancients spoken of here were those who lived during the Old Testament time of promise prior to the New Testament time of fulfillment that was inaugurated when Christ, God’s eternal Son, took on human flesh in the person of Jesus to make right everything that had gone wrong at the time of the Fall. These ancients were commended for believing that the God who made them promises was a God who kept the promises he made. Therefore the strength of the faith of the ancients wasn’t tied to their desiring to influence events based on their feelings or wishes; no, the strength of the faith of the ancients was tied to the strength of the God who had made everything that exists and disclosed aspects of his character and will to them.

Notice that after providing a definition of faith the first article of faith stated in verse 3 is: “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.” In saying this the author of Hebrews has begun with the first truth God disclosed in Genesis, the very first book of the Bible,  in the very first verse: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”[3] And as we know, what follows this verse are a series of commands that demonstrate the power of God’s speech:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” …And it was so.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so.

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation….” And it was so.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night,…” 15 …And it was so.

20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created…. And God saw that it was good.

24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds….” And it was so.

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

This opening chapter of Genesis referenced in verse 3 of Hebrews 11 is the source of our faith in God, the God who made the heavens and the earth by his speech, who brought the world into being by his command. For before God made the world that we see, there was nothing to see for the world did not exist. This creating the world out of nothing is what theologians refer to as creation ex nihilo.[4] For in the beginning, God didn’t give shape to a shapeless mass. He wasn’t an architect but rather he created a world that prior to his doing so did not exist. And because his speech brought into being a world that previously was not, we are exhorted throughout Scripture to trust in God’s speech. As he spoke and different parts of creation came forth, so it is that whenever he speaks in Scripture, what he speaks similarly comes to pass. Therefore we can have confidence in what we hope if what we hope for has been promised by God; we can have assurance about what we do not see if God who spoke creation into being promised to bring it to pass. Again, the source of our faith is to be found in the source of our existence. Apart from God, this world would not exist; apart from God, we would not exist; apart from God, faith is impossible for he is both the source of faith and the object of faith; he is its beginning and its end.

Having established God as the source of faith, the author of Hebrews goes on to highlight chronologically from Scripture various exemplars of faith:

Abel in verse 4;

Enoch in verses 5 and 6;

Noah in verse 7.

These were some who predated God creating a nation from himself from Abraham. And notice how in verse 6, in speaking of Enoch’s faith, the heart of faith being belief in God is underscored as it states that “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.” Though this appears to be a self-evident statement it’s an important one for, again, faith has far more to do with its object—God—than with the one who holds it. If we believe God exists and earnestly seek him, he will reward our faith and assure us that he is real; that he is alive; that he is with us and for us. Or, as Jesus taught, if we seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness,[5] our most essential needs will be granted us.[6]

As we turn to Abraham—who, according to Paul, is the father of all who believe[7]—in verse 8, we learn some of the ways in which he exercised his faith in God:

First, “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.” In turning to Genesis 12, we see in fact how “1 The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you…. 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.”[8] Now did you catch that? Abraham was seventy-five years old when God came to him and told him to leave his country, people, and father’s household and set off to an as of yet undisclosed land. I find this remarkable for, as many of you know, I was born in Cuba and was but eleven months old when we arrived in the United States. And I’ve often wondered how my parents found the courage to leave their homeland as they sought to escape the abusive rule of a young Fidel Castro that  we might have a better life. When we left Cuba, my father was 47; my mother was 32; neither of them had any family in the United States; neither had ever visited the United States; neither was fluent in English. Yet they sought a better a life and therefore left parents, siblings, and friends with but the clothes on their back; they left the only country and life they had ever known and set out for another country whose language and customs were foreign to them. Yet remarkable though this decision may have been, Abraham’s was far more remarkable for prior to the LORD coming to him, he had no need or desire to leave his homeland. And yet he believed the LORD and in obedience left the only home he had ever known.

As stated in verse 9, “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.” The promise referred to is found in the verses between the two I read to you from Genesis 12. These constitute Abraham’s well-known call as after telling Abram to go from his country, people, and father’s household to a land he would show him, the LORD promised him: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”[9] This was the promise Abraham believed; this was the call he obeyed. Why? Verse 10: “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” In other words, the promise the LORD gave to Abraham was not only earthly but heavenly. Jesus, too, understood Abraham to have placed his faith in an as yet unforeseen future. Christ Jesus, who had testified concerning himself that he himself had existed even before Abraham,[10] said concerning him that he “…rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”[11] Abraham believed what God had disclosed to him even though the fulfillment of that promise lay thousands of years from his day.

But, second, it wasn’t only Abraham who placed his faith in God; it wasn’t only Abraham who believed in the promise God made for Abraham’s wife was also part of this call. As stated in verse 11, “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.” We’ve already noted that Abraham was 75 when the LORD initially called him. But Sarah was ten years younger than he. And what is even more remarkable that though at 65 she was already beyond childbearing age, Abraham and Sarah would have to place their faith in God, would have to believe in God’s promise, would have to trust in God for twenty-five years beyond the time at which he first appeared to them with a promise of an heir. For it wasn’t until Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 that Isaac, their son of promise, was conceived.[12] And even though the LORD had continued to speak to and guide Abraham in the intervening years, twenty-five years is a long time to wait for the fulfillment of a promise that even at its outset would have taken great faith to accept and believe. Yet as I stated at the outset, it’s more accurate to say that Abraham and Sarah had faith in a great God whom they knew would be true to his word. And indeed, as promised, Isaac was born when Abraham was a hundred years old.[13] As stated in verse 12, “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.” Dear brothers and sisters, you and I are part of the fulfillment of that promise; you and I are part of that constellation of stars and countless sand on the seashore that the LORD has seen fit to add to Abraham’s descendants.

Next the author of Hebrews pauses to reflect upon those he’s singled out: Abel,[14] Enoch,[15] Noah,[16] Abraham and Sarah.[17] And he observes starting in verse 13, “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.” Well, wait a minute, we might say. In the case of Abraham and Sarah didn’t we just see how they did receive the heir, their son Isaac, promised by God after a 25-year wait? True enough, they did. But the author of Hebrews is looking more broadly to the promise of an unknown land, to the “place” as we noted in verse 8, that Abraham “would later receive as his inheritance.” This never came to fruition during Abraham’s life but remained part of a promise believed but not received while he was yet alive on earth. Nor did the others mentioned fully receive what they had been promised for some promises God makes only find their fulfillment after we die. This is why people of faith, people who believe in God as their Maker and LORD, are ultimately “foreigners and strangers on earth.” As stated beginning with verse 14, “14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 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.”

And with that we’ve transitioned from speaking of earthly citizenship to heavenly citizenship. If our final destiny as those who believe in God and his promises is the heavenly dwelling he has promised to all who are his; if ultimately we were made to dwell eternally in heaven, then the earthly part of our sojourn is only a temporary one. For we’re being called here to set our sights on our final home, a better country; a heavenly country where we will no longer need to demonstrate faith in God’s goodness and greatness for we’ll know him and his goodness face to face; we’ll know him and his greatness by sight.[18]

Dear sisters and brothers, do we believe this? For this is the promise we’ve been given to believe. Jesus Christ, God’s Son who came to earth in the flesh that we might know him and love him and live for him, wants us to have confident faith in him. He wants us to have confident faith in the promises he made. And the most consequential promise he made was that we can conquer death by believing in him who has conquered death on our behalf. The question he posed to Martha when asked if she believed her brother Lazarus would rise again from the dead is the one he poses to us. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”[19]

Jesus wants us to believe this. Jesus wants us to believe him. God in Christ came to earth that we might believe that he is God who by dying for us and rising from death, is able to give us the eternal life that only he can give. This is why he told his disciples, “1 Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. …I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[20] Again, do we believe this? For, again, we’re not called to have great faith; we’re called to have faith in a great God; we’re called to have faith that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, who came to earth not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.[21] This is the unseen reality that we’re called to believe. This is the promise we can have confidence in because it’s a promise made by the God who made us for himself. It’s a promise we can be sure of not because we want or desire it to be so but because God in Christ is the one who has made it. And because God in Christ has made it, it is sure to come to pass.

That our citizenship is finally a heavenly one is a perspective found not only in the Old Testament and not only in the book of Hebrews, but also among the disciples who knew Christ Jesus best. And Peter reflects upon the difference our heavenly citizenship ought to make in the way in which live our earthly lives as he exhorts believers in his first epistle,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice…. 17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear….[22]

And again, Peter exhorts, “11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”[23]

So, too, Paul in writing about the reconciliation Christ Jesus brought about between Jews and Gentiles, or non-Jews, tells how Christ

14 …himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,…. 15 His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility…. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,…. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

In dying for our sin, Christ has taken it away and replaced it with his righteousness, giving us his Holy Spirit, his eternal life, that we might know and love our heavenly Father now and forever. Because we are now Christ’s temple he is our home now and he will continue to be our home even when we die. This is the source of confident faith. If we believe this, we will please God who “rewards those who earnestly seek him.”[24]

So let us trust in God’s speech; let us trust in Christ’s speech.

And let us turn to him now in gratitude and prayer.

[1]  I Have Confidence by Richard Rodgers from The Sound of Music.

[2] See 2 Corinthians 12:8–10: Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

[3] Genesis 1:1.

[4] See also: Psalm 33:6, 9:By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth…. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.; Acts 14:15: Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.; Romans 4:17: As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

[5] Matthew 6:33.

[6] Matthew 6:29–32 speak of clothes, food, and drink.

[7] Romans 4:11–12, 16: 11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised…. 16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.

[8] Genesis 12:1, 4.

[9] Genesis 12:2–3.

[10] John 8:56–58: 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” 57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” 58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

[11] John 8:56.

[12] See Genesis 17:15–17, 19: 15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” 17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?…” 19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.

[13] Genesis 21:1–3, 5–7: 1 Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him…. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

[14] Hebrews 1:4.

[15] Hebrews 1:5–6.

[16] Hebrews 1:7.

[17] Hebrews 1:8–12.

[18] 2 Corinthians 5:7: For we live by faith, not by sight.; 1 Corinthians 13:12: For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

[19] John 11:25–26.

[20] John 14:1–3, 6.

[21] John 3:17.

[22] 1 Peter 1:3–6, 17.

[23] 1 Peter 2:11–12.

[24] Hebrews 11:6.