Hebrews 11:29–12:3

Perfect Faith

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

August 14, 2016

 

This morning we continue our consideration of Hebrews 11, the faith chapter. Last week we saw how Abraham and Sarah expressed faith in God’s promises—despite their advanced years—not only by believing that God would bring about what he promised but also by acting on their belief. And a key component of their faith was that they understood that the LORD had called them to be exiles and sojourners, not only in going to the promised land of Canaan and living in tents but fundamentally in that earth itself was not their final destiny—but heaven was.

As the chapter proceeds, other notables of faith—others who took God at his Word and acted upon it—are also noted: Abraham’s children and grandchildren—Isaac,[1] Jacob, Esau (20–21); Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson (22); and Moses, the prophet and law-giver, as well as his parents (23–28).

Verse 29 picks up upon one of the key incidents in Moses’ life—when he led the people of Israel out of Egypt only to be faced with the barrier of the Red Sea which should have spelled their doom since the Egyptians were in hot pursuit. But, as we know, when the Israelites arrived at the Red Sea, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the waters parted so that they were able to cross over on dry land. And the waters parted only long enough for Israel to pass through but when Egypt tried to follow, all of those in pursuit drowned.[2] This too, was an act of faith demonstrated by obedience.

Verse 30 jumps ahead to the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to provide Israel with the land of Canaan. Here again God’s people believed and acted on God’s Word when he told them to march around the walls of Jericho for seven days.[3] And verse 31 tells of an important part of this fulfillment when, prior to God telling them to march in and take over the city, two spies were sent by Joshua on a reconnaissance,[4] and a prostitute named Rahab, who up to that point had not been a follower of the one true God of Israel, nonetheless believed in him and she, too, acted on that belief, protecting the spies from being discovered and so was welcomed into the nation of Israel, the fold of God. Consequently, though she was a woman of ill repute, in his epistle James commends Rahab as an example of a person who is righteous in that she demonstrated her faith by her deeds. He rhetorically asks, “was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?”[5] Not only that, but Rahab, again despite having been a prostitute prior to coming to faith, ends up becoming an ancestor from whom none other than our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, is descended[6] thus demonstrating that God is able—and does—use even those viewed as the least in any given society. God does not judge as humans judge. He doesn’t see us as we are but as he intended us to be.

Beginning in verse 32, the author of Hebrews mentions a few more worthies of the faith. He begins with representatives from the period of judges: Gideon,[7] Barak,[8] Samson,[9] Jephthah.[10] He moves on to the period of kings as represented by Israel’s most notable king, David.[11] And he ends with Samuel,[12] representing the prophets. Next we’re given a summary of the outcome of those whose lives were marked not only by faith in God but also by obedience to his Word. Beginning in verse 33 we read that they:

Conquered kingdoms (33)

Administered justice (33)

Gained what was promised (33)

Shut the mouths of lions (33)

Quenched the fury of flames (34)

Escaped the edge of the sword (34)

Had their weakness turned into strength (34)

Became powerful in battle, routing foreign armies (34)

Received back their dead who were raised to life again[13] (35)

Were tortured,[14] refusing release that they might gain an even better resurrection (35)

Faced jeers and flogging (36)

Chains and imprisonment (36)

Were stoned to death (37)

Sawed in two[15] (37)

Killed by the sword (37)

Went about in sheepskins and goatskins (37)

Were destitute, persecuted, and mistreated (37)

Wandered in deserts and mountains (38)

Lived in caves and holes in the ground (38)

So this faith chapter doesn’t simply provide us with examples of heroes of faith, of those who believed God, who took God at his Word; but it also provides us with the result of their faith, of their obedience to the God in whom they believed. Though it’s not a pretty or cheerful picture, yet because of their travails and hardship on account of the God whom they knew, loved, and served, we’re told in verse 38 that “the world was not worthy of them.”

What we see being underscored here is a point made last week. Namely, that because these fathers and mothers in the faith understood that earth wasn’t their final destiny, they were able, with God’s and one another’s help, to withstand anything life threw at them. Positively, they sought to make things on earth as they are in heaven by conquering kingdoms, administering justice, and routing foreign armies; but negatively, as a result of their faith, they had to undergo all sorts of suffering and trials, even death, for the sake of their faith. And this is why this earthly world was not worthy of them.

In verse 39, one of the most difficult aspects of people of faith is highlighted—though commended for their faith, none of them received what had been promised, thus again repeating that what was true for Abraham and Sarah, as we saw last week, ends up being true for all who commit their lives to follow and live for God.

And I’m suggesting that not immediately receiving what is promised is difficult because, as we’re winding up vacation season, isn’t it the case that one of the most enjoyable parts of a vacation is the planning and anticipation of it? The looking forward to a break in routine and change of scenery? Well for these faithful followers of God, earthly anticipation was all they had. What they experienced was all of the anticipation but none of the promise—at least this side of heaven. However, there was something even better awaiting them. In verse 40 the author of Hebrews actually places himself in this long line of faithful followers of God as he states that the reason none of them received what had been promised is because “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us they may be made perfect.” Isn’t this amazing?

Time and again we see how Scripture teaches that all who belong to our Father in heaven also belong to each other. But though we often focus only on those believers who are actively in our lives right now as comprising the “belonging to each other,” what’s being said here is even more all-encompassing for believers living during any period of time are not only connected to other believers living in their day but are also connected to all followers of God who have gone before us and who will live once our earthly lives are over. In God’s extraordinary plan of redemption, the faith of believers in the past is completed—is made perfect—in the faith of believers who are living now. So in ways we may never know while living on earth, the faith that you and I now display will similarly be made perfect in generations to come in the lives of those who aren’t yet even born. And this is part of the reason that though we are made for heaven, our earthly lives now matter because our fidelity now will be made perfect in the lives of future believers whom we’ll not meet until Christ returns.

This is a challenge, isn’t it? It would be so much easier if we could see the fruit of our faith now. In our darker moments it can be so very difficult to believe that our earthly lives matter to God or anyone at all. But they do. Isn’t this the message in stories like It’s A Wonderful Life? George Bailey, in a moment of financial despair, jumps off a bridge into an icy river on a cold, snowy December night, hoping to end his life. And by means of Clarence, an angel who is seeking to earn his wings, George is shown how drastically his life—this life he is seeking to end—has had a positive impact upon the lives of those around him: His former boss at the drug store would now be a pitiful alcoholic, in and out of prison, had teenaged George not kept him from accidentally, out of grief over losing his son in war, prescribing poison to a customer; George’s brother, a war hero who saved the lives of numerous others, would have died had George as a child not saved him in a sleighing accident; George’s wife, Mary, would never have married and they would never have had their three children had George never been born. And the list goes on. By means of Clarence George is given a great gift—that of seeing the impact his life has made for the good of so many around him.

Similarly, we can’t know how the Lord has and is and will use our lives and faith in and obedience to him to impact not simply those around us, but those who are yet to be born. In the opening verse of chapter 12, we’re reminded and exhorted, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” The word translated as “witnesses” here is the same word from which we get the word “martyr.” Many of those listed in the Hebrews 11 faith chapter, not only lived for their faith but also died for their faith. And as we’ve noted, what is also true is that they didn’t receive the final outcome of their faith until after they died and were welcomed home in heaven. And what is also important for us to remember is that these pillars of faith were ordinary people whose faith was often unpillarlike; their faith was often wobbly and imperfect. Yet God used them in both ordinary and extraordinary ways. So we should take courage at their example. I love this quotation from Billy Graham: “Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.” And this is the effect that reading about these ordinary, imperfect followers of God should have upon us; our spines should be stiffened as well.

If God could use Abraham and Sarah who laughed when he promised to make a nation of Abraham’s seed;

if God could use Rahab, a harlot, to set in motion the fulfillment of giving Israel a land;

if God could use David who committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah, killed—then maybe, just maybe, God can use us and whatever imperfections we may have, and whatever sins we may have committed. Because, dear brothers and sisters, ultimately a life of faith isn’t about God using perfect people of faith, but a life of faith is about a perfect God being fully aware of and knowing our fallenness and weaknesses—and using us imperfect people anyway. Even we cannot stand in the way of our perfect God bringing about his perfect plan of redemption. So let us take heart!

Now in addition to being inspired by these imperfect fathers and mothers of faith, the author of Hebrews points out some practical things we nonetheless can do as we seek to walk faithfully, as we seek to live lives given over to Christ who sacrificed his life that we might be empowered and enabled to walk with him. We’re called to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” The image here is that of a runner in a race—very appropriate as this second week of the Olympics in Rio has turned to track and field events. As a runner will demonstrate discipline and sacrifice in order to achieve the goal of winning her race, so should we as we seek the goal of being found good and faithful servants in Christ. Now the things that hinder our walk of faith are probably as varied as each of us present today—perhaps it’s being consumed with work—or the internet or television—or isolating ourselves, not availing ourselves of the fellowship with others—or not taking care of ourselves, not getting sufficient rest, exercise, and nutrition. Similarly, the sins that tempt and entangle so easily no doubt vary for each of us—perhaps its greed—or bending the truth or lying—or temptations to sexual sins in our sex-saturated society—or maybe it’s anger or violence—or alcohol or drug abuse—or undue pride in our own accomplishments. But whatever temptation may draw us to sin, we’re exhorted here to throw it off; to be self-aware enough to admit our weakness and turn away from temptations that could cause us to turn our backs on the God who made us and loves us so very much and instead turn to our beloved Father in heaven in whose image we’ve been made and in whom we find our true life.

Brothers and sisters, because of the Father’s love for us,

and Jesus Christ, his Son’s sacrifice for us,

and by means of the Holy Spirit’s sealing and indwelling us, Scripture tells us that you and I are new creatures in Christ.[16] In Christ we have died to our sinful nature and with Christ we have risen to our new natures, and have been imputed, credited, with none other than Jesus Christ’s righteousness, his holiness, not by means of our obedience, but his. But just because we’ve been given this new nature, we shouldn’t assume that holiness—doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our Lord[17]—will be easy. It isn’t. This side of heaven, holiness is hard work. So, negatively, we must work at turning away from those things that draw us away from God; and, positively, we must turn to Jesus—or, to use the language in Hebrews 12, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (1b–2). Holiness isn’t a once and for all deal; it requires perseverance; it requires steadfastness despite difficulties or delays in achieving the end of our faith, nothing less than eternal life with God and each other. And we can’t run this race by ourselves or on our own, but we need Christ in order to get there. But, fortunately, God in Christ has given us not only himself, but he’s given us his Holy Spirit that we might be holy even as he is holy; he’s given us each other to encourage and help one another along; and he’s given us his written Word that we might be able to return to it, and be fed by it, and be reminded in it of the truth of who God is and of how very much he loves and cares for us. Isn’t this why we heed his call to gather each week and turn to him as his family—so we can be reminded of and enjoy his goodness and we can be reminded of our need and be provided with his forgiveness?

And Jesus, as ever, provides such a wonderful example of how we’re to live our lives so we she should fix our eyes upon him and learn from him with full awareness that whatever our earthly situation may be right now, our destiny is joy. And for the sake of this joy of being united with God and each other, we, too, can endure anything thrown our way during our earthly lives. We would do well to remember that Jesus Christ lived a life full of temptation yet never yielded to sin. And he endured the cross for us that we might have fellowship with him and the Father in our union with him by means of his Holy Spirit whom he has given us. And Jesus Christ, after he lived and suffered and died a shameful death on the cross,[18] rose from the dead and ascended to heaven at the Father’s right hand where even now he is ruling over God’s throne in his rightful position as King over all the universe.

This one and only Jesus is our example who endured “such opposition from sinners, so that [we] will not grow weary and lose heart” (3). That’s how much he loves us. That’s how much he desires for us to know him and the Father’s love for us.

He knows how difficult life can be for he came to earth and lived a fully human life.

He knows how susceptible we are to weariness.

He knows how the calamities of life can cause us to lose heart.

He knows how difficult it is to live a life of faith in a world which views faith with contempt. But God in Christ nonetheless calls us to persevere—he calls us not to grow weary—he calls us not to lose heart—he calls us to stay focused on him. Because, in the end, we’ll see that it will all have been worth it. Our joy will be so great that even the greatest earthly pain we ever experience will be but a distant memory.

Brothers and sisters, as we see in this morning’s passage, perfect faith is not about God using perfect people, but imperfect people;

Perfect faith does not mean that those who follow God will be healthy and wealthy—the prosperity “gospel” is clearly wrong;

Perfect faith is acutely aware of the reality of the Fall;

But perfect faith acknowledges this reality in the hope—in the confidence—that something better awaits us;

Because perfect faith believes in a perfect God;

And because perfect faith believes in a perfect God, perfect faith seeks to do whatever it can to bring about his kingdom on earth even as it exists in heaven;

Further perfect faith embraces all who follow God in Christ as brother and sister;

And perfect faith seeks to bring others into the fold by loving them, however imperfectly, in word and deed;

Perfect faith is humbled by—and grateful for—the faith of those who have gone before us;

And so perfect faith prays for the strength and perseverance to be faithful as well;

Perfect faith has hope for future generations not because humanity is getting better and better, but because they, too, will be following the same perfect God who will help them in their weaknesses;

So, dear brothers and sisters, because “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. [Let us] consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that [we] will not grow weary and lose heart.”

Let us pray.

 

 

[1] Abraham’s offering up of Isaac in obedience to God is noted in vv. 17–19.

 

[2] This account is recorded in Exodus 14. Verses 21–23 highlight the dramatic provision by God: 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea.

[3] Joshua 6:2–5, 20 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in…. 20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.”

[4] This incident is recorded in Joshua 2.

[5] The section is from James 2:24–26: 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

[6] Matthew 1:1–6: This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:

Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

[7] Judges 6.

[8] Judges 4:6ff.

[9] Judges 13.1ff.

[10] Judges 11:1ff.

[11] I Samuel 16:1ff.

[12] I Samuel 1:20ff.

[13] I Kings 17:22, 23; 2 Kings 4:36, 37.

[14] Reformation Study Bible: “An apparent reference to events during the Maccabean revolt (c. 167–157 B.C.) which occurred after the close of the Old Testament, but which are recorded in 2 Maccabees 6; 7 in the Apocrypha.”

[15] Reformation Study Bible: “According to tradition, the prophet Isaiah died in this way.”

[16] 2 Corinthians 5:17–21: if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[Or Christ, that person is a new creation] The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin[Or be a sin offering] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

[17] Micah 6:8.

[18] Reformation Study Bible: “Crucifixion was so shameful a form of execution that it was forbidden to be inflicted on Roman citizens; in addition, the Jews believed that ‘everyone who is hanged on a tree’ is cursed by God (Gal. 3:13; cf. Deut. 21:23).”

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