As we worked through the Gospel Saturation Primer this past Spring during our Adult Ed class, one of the topics we considered was that of what a “successful” church looks like in practice. And though the first thing that often comes to mind is to equate a successful church with having many people in attendance, that would, in fact, be a wrong way of measuring success for in God’s eyes a successful church is one that, as his family, seeks to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and each other as ourselves.[1]

As I’ve continued to reflect on Hebrews 11 and the various individuals mentioned throughout this chapter, I couldn’t help but notice how our definition of successful faith may similarly be different from the faith expressed by those mentioned here. Too often we think of successful faith as faith that obtains what it desires:

I believe I’ll be famous one day;

I believe I’ll be rich;

I believe I’ll live to be 100;

I believe I’ll never get sick;

But as we noted last week these statements are more in keeping with magical thinking than they are with biblical faith. Biblical faith is faith that believes that God will do what he has promised even if that promise isn’t fulfilled during our lifetime. God never promises his followers fame or fortune or old age or health for nowhere in Scripture do we see believers being spared the effects of the Fall this side of heaven—though believers are enabled to withstand these effects by means of his Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence, Scripture, and the aid of other believers.

Now as we saw stated about Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah in verse 13 of chapter 11, “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.” Even on their deathbeds, these ancients believed that God is a God of truth and that he is a God of power who will keep the promises he has made. The fact that they didn’t receive the things promised but only saw and welcomed them from a distance underscores the fact that real though our earthly lives may be, heaven is even more real. Earth is but our temporary dwelling as we look forward to our final and permanent dwelling with God in heaven.

As the passage continues, Abraham remains the focus as we’re told about how he trusted God even to raise Isaac from death when asked to offer him up.[2] Next the faith of Abraham’s son, Isaac;[3] grandson Jacob;[4] and great-grandson, Joseph,[5] are noted. After Joseph comes the faith of Moses[6] as well as that of his parents.[7] And then we arrive at the beginning of our passage this morning in verse 29. If you’ll recall, a few weeks ago when we considered the book of Hosea,[8] we noted how important the event of the Exodus from Egypt was for the identity of the people of Israel. This event is alluded to here as we’re told: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.” And if we turn to the book of Exodus, we see that it’s possible both for people to have faith and to be afraid. Initially, as the Israelites were being pursued by the Egyptians, we hear more fear than faith in what they say to Moses:

10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”[9]

Yet Moses reassured them, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”[10] By the end of this account we see the Israelites’ fear of the Egyptians turn into fear of God as they place their faith in his greatness for “when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.”[11] Faith is about believing in the truthfulness and greatness of the LORD. God had said that he would deliver the Israelites and, despite their seemingly impossible circumstances, he did just as he had promised.

The next exhibit noted in this hall of faith is the battle at Jericho, verse 30: “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.” As stated in the book of Joshua, “1 Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in. Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men.’”[12] And, again, as the people followed the instructions for this conquest given by the LORD, their faith in him was rewarded and they were successful in following through with what God had promised. It wasn’t their might or planning or prowess that made them successful but it was their obedience to God and his words that brought them this victory.[13]

And part of that victory was due to the next person mentioned in our passage in verse 31: “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.” Prior to the conquest at Jericho Joshua had sent two men to spy it out who stayed at Rahab’s house. When the king of Jericho heard about this and sent her a message to bring the men out, she told him that the two men had already left—whereas in actuality she had hidden them under some stalks of flax on the roof. In exchange for sparing the lives of the spies, she told them:

I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt,[14] and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. 12 Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you.[15]

And the men agreed. This is how Rahab, a woman of ill repute, became one of the exemplars of faith[16] for she, a non-Israelite, believed in the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who made the heavens and the earth. And not only did she become one of the exemplars of faith but she also became an ancestor of Jesus. Her faith in God’s goodness and greatness trumped her having been a Gentile and a prostitute therefore she had the great privilege of becoming part of the lineage of our Lord Jesus himself.[17]

And here the author of Hebrews pauses again to note that those he’s spoken of are but a drop in the bucket of the grand book of faith. Seemingly speaking from the top of his head, he asks starting in verse 32, “32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched 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.” All of those named or alluded to here were those whom the LORD called and used to lead his people Israel when it was under his theocratic rule and guidance. In this sense their experience was unique for there no longer exists any earthly nation that rules and acts but by God’s bidding.

But as the list of some of these nameless saints of faith continues, starting in verse 35 we see listed some of the ways that those who have believed in God’s goodness and greatness have been willing to believe and follow him even to the point of death. And so we’re told positively, “35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again.” And negatively,

There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—….38 They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

So I have to stop and ask, is this our image of “successful faith”? Because if it isn’t, then we need to re-align our definition with what the Scriptures state. Again, successful faith isn’t successful due to our believing strongly that we will receive what we want—whether wealth or fame or power or health. No, successful faith is successful because it believes in the goodness and greatness of God even in—or perhaps especially in—the midst of great adversity, pain, and suffering. Successful faith is faith whose trust in God’s goodness and greatness is able to usher it from this life to the next. All of these named and unnamed saints in Hebrews 11 had successful faith; all of these named and unnamed saints had faith in the goodness and greatness of God. This is why the beginning of verse 38, which I skipped over, states, “the world was not worthy of them.” Though in the eyes of those who value power and prestige and money and fame, all of those listed may seem unsuccessful, in the eyes of God in whose image and for whom we are all made, they were successful. In the eyes of God, this earthly world wasn’t worthy of them and so our great God welcomed and embraced them to be with him forever in heaven.

Again, notice what is said about these saints beginning with verse 39: “39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” And with this we’re introduced to yet another characteristic of successful faith:

Successful faith not only believes in the goodness and greatness of God and his promises;

Successful faith not only believes that this good and great God will carry them over from this life to the next;

Successful faith not only is willing to wait until the next life to receive the fulness of the inheritance that has been promised;

But on top of all of this, successful faith understands that faith in God’s goodness and greatness is a shared faith, not an individual faith. These saints of faith understood that “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” Those of us living in the western world are so used to thinking of individual achievements; of picking ourselves up by our own bootstraps; of being captain of our own souls that we often miss the communal component of the life of faith.

But if we think about the broader teaching of Scripture, what is stated here makes complete and total sense. For if as Jesus taught, and as we noted earlier, the sum of the law and the prophets is to love the LORD our God with all of our hearts, souls, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves, then it only follows that the way in which we can best have faith in God is by loving and believing in him in community as the family he has made us. And further, if God is the God of the living, and therefore those who have loved and believed in him before our time continue to live and love him though they have died, then this communal component of the faithful is expanded even more. For God’s plan for his image-bearers involves us not only individually but also includes the fulness of all who have given their lives over to him—past, present, and future—until his plan of redeeming his people is complete.

It’s with this context in mind that we turn to the exhortation that begins Hebrews 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,….” And let me stop here a moment to note that to be a martyr is to be a witness—the root of the word martyr is to witness—so it is appropriate that having noted some who have died for their faith, who have died while still believing in God, in chapter 11, chapter 12 begins by referencing them. This cloud of witnesses includes any and all who have ever believed, loved, and followed the God who has disclosed himself, by his creation and his servants, to those whom he has made in his image. Dear sisters and brothers, you and I stand in a long line of faithful believers who were willing to believe in God for the sake of future generations—for our sake—that we might follow in their steps in our attempts to believe and love, and live and die for our gracious LORD. And because “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” we’re called to do three things:

First, “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” Successful faith calls us not only to believe in the goodness and greatness of God but also to emulate his goodness and greatness. Our gracious God calls us to be holy as he is holy—the very word translated “saints” from the Greek is the noun form of the adjective “holy.” Those who believe in God are his “holy ones,” his “saints,” who are called to be like him. And if we’re to be like him, we’re to turn away from sin and temptation and turn to him in all circumstances.

Second, “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,….” We don’t simply emulate God one time and then return to our own ways. No, we must work hard at holiness which is the goal, the finish line, to which he calls us. As is true with running a physical race, running the faith race marked out for us requires effort, training, and discipline. Negatively, it requires resisting sin; positively, it requires trusting in God’s goodness and greatness in all circumstances as well as loving and caring for those whom he’s placed in our lives;

Third, we are enabled to do this, as stated starting in verse 2, by “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. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Of any human that ever lived, Jesus surely had the most successful faith of all for he never wavered in his belief in God’s goodness and greatness and in his love for him; neither did he ever waver in his love for those he came to save. Because of his faith in God and his love for God’s children, God in Christ took on human flesh and willingly died for those who would believe in him. Why? Because he knew that it was only by his obedience to death, it was only by his taking on the punishment that was our due because of our disobedience and lack of love for God and others, that we would be able to be reconciled to our heavenly Father and have our hate or indifference or disbelief in him turned to love, and faith, and belief in him. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, knew that:

it was only by his dying for us;

and rising from death as the Father accepted his sacrifice on our behalf;

and ascending to heaven to rule at the Father’s right hand;

and sending us his Holy Spirit that we might be united to him, the Father, and each other forevermore,

that sin and death and evil would be overcome. And for the joy of having us be part of his eternal family, of “such a great cloud of witnesses,” Jesus did all of this—he “endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” where he is seated and ruling even today. To be our Savior gives Jesus joy; salvation causes him joy; he endured all he endured for the sake of the joy of saving all who believe, receive, and turn to him.

Dear brothers and sisters, ultimately Jesus is the key to successful faith. This is why we are exhorted in verse 3 to “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” If Jesus could sacrifice so much for us, then the knowledge of his immeasurable and unfathomable love for us should spur us on to live for him, come what may; knowing the eternal love of our gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should cause us to embrace his goodness and greatness so that even if we, like all of the saints who have gone before us, cannot receive the fulness of what he has promised until we die, we, too, can have a successful faith that will carry us from this life to the next.

Let us pray.

[1] Matthew 22:34–40:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” and Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

[2] Hebrews 11:17–19: 17 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, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[Gen. 21:12] 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

[3] Hebrews 11:20: By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

[4] Hebrews 11:21: By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

[5] Hebrews 11:22: 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.

[6] Hebrews 11:24–28: 24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 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. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28 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.

[7] Hebrews 11:23: 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.

[8] Sermon preached on Hosea 11:1–10 on August 4, 2019 on God’s Steadfast Love.

[9] Exodus 24:10–12.

[10] Exodus 24:13–14.

[11] Exodus 24:31.

[12] Joshua 6:1–2.

[13] Joshua 6:20–21: 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. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

[14] The LORD used Joshua in a way analogous to Moses by holding up the walls of the Jordan River that the Israelites might safely cross over on dry land. See Joshua 3:14–17: 14 So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. 15 Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, 16 the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.” This deliverance was repeated and commemorated by the LORD telling Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe, to take a stone from the middle of the Jordan. Joshua 4:10–13, 19–24: 10 Now the priests who carried the ark remained standing in the middle of the Jordan until everything the Lord had commanded Joshua was done by the people, just as Moses had directed Joshua. The people hurried over, 11 and as soon as all of them had crossed, the ark of the Lord and the priests came to the other side while the people watched. 12 The men of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh crossed over, ready for battle, in front of the Israelites, as Moses had directed them. 13 About forty thousand armed for battle crossed over before the Lord to the plains of Jericho for war….19 On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. 20 And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. 21 He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”

[15] Joshua 2:9–12.

[16] See also James 2:24–25: 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?

[17] Matthew 1:1, 5: 1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiahthe son of David, the son of Abraham:…. Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse,….