Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16

The Solidity of Faith

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

August 7, 2016

 

This morning we have the privilege of considering parts of Hebrews 11, which, for obvious reasons, has come to be known as the “faith chapter” in Scripture. Now if we had to provide our own definition of “faith,” I imagine we would say things like faith is a hope—or a desire—or a wish—or a belief—that can be asserted but not proved. In other words, we tend to see faith as highly subjective, tied to the individual who has it. Likewise, faith is sometimes viewed as being in opposition to, or at least in tension with, “reason.” Given its disprovable nature, faith is reduced to something irrational akin to a personal wish fulfillment and hence as unreasonable.

Yet Scripturally “faith” has substance. It’s something solid. And it’s never viewed as being in opposition to “reason” but rather as highly reasonable. No, if faith has an opposite in the Bible, it is “unbelief” not “reason.” Listen to how the author of Hebrews defines faith in the opening verse of chapter 11: “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (1). “Confidence” sure doesn’t sound like a baseless wish or desire. The word “confidence” indicates certainty about what we believe. So, too, the word “assurance.” And it’s a little mind-bending for us because these words that we associate with solidity are linked here with words or concepts that we associate with uncertainty—namely, “hope” and “what we do not see.”

But “hope,” too, Scripturally understood isn’t simply a desire for something to be the case, but “hope” is certain because what we desire isn’t something of our own inventing, but something that God has disclosed to us by his Word and, because God is the source, his Word is ever true. So, too, the realm of the “unseen.” Though since the time of the Enlightenment and the advent of science those of us in the western world tend to accept as reasonable only that which can be proved by the scientific method, by repeated experimentation, and so relegate the unseen—the spiritual realities—to the private realm of opinion and feeling, it’s not so with Scripture. Though God is Spirit—he is real; though God is Spirit—in Jesus Christ he’s manifested himself, he’s disclosed himself in the flesh, in human form, so that we might know what God is like.

But what is interesting in these opening verses of Hebrews is that in verse 2 we’re told that this confidence in what was hoped for and assurance in what wasn’t seen is what the “ancients were commended for” (2). This is what those living prior to God’s eternal Son coming to earth were commended for. And what becomes evident as we read through this “faith” chapter is that what the ancients were commended for was for believing God—for taking him at his word. And this belief was displayed and confirmed by their actions, by their obedience.

Now the very first article of faith—the very first thing that God disclosed to the ancients, to the Old Testament saints, is that “that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (3). So in God’s design nature, the created world, should scream to us that God is real. If you ever wonder whether or not God exists, look around you:

Who made the sun that shines down upon us? God did.

Who made the trees and the flowers? God did.

Who made the stars in the sky? God did.

Who made the animals on the earth? God did.

Who made you and me? God did.

Though he is unseen to us, look how real God, who made the world we see, is. This is where Scripture begins in the opening verse of Genesis: “1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And it’s followed by a repetition of “And God said” and this simple action of God speaking brings all of creation into existence. Though he is Spirit; though he is unseen, he nonetheless was able to create a material, seeable, touchable world with but a word. And that material, seeable, touchable world should ever and always remind us that he who made it—that he who made us in his image—is as real as reality can get.

Having established that God is the source of all that exists, the author of Hebrews goes on to highlight not only that God is real but that he is personal. He is a Person who created his image-bearers to be in relationship with him. So we’re provided snapshots in the lives of a few exemplars of faith among God’s chosen people, the “ancients,” those through whom the LORD worked to bring about his plan of redemption. After acknowledging Abel (4), Enoch (5–6), and Noah (7), we come to the focus of our passage, Abraham, beginning in verse 8.

As we’ve noted before, the identity of Israel as a nation begins with Father Abraham for in his divine wisdom, God did not choose to favor any existing nation through whom all the world would one day be blessed, but instead chose to create a nation from this one man, Abraham. And I suspect that part of the reason for this is that the effects of sin upon humanity was such that humans would need to be taught from ground zero what a righteous life looks like. So by beginning with one man, the LORD was able to start from the bottom up in teaching this faithful saint his will and his ways.

Now one of the things that make Abraham so extraordinary is not just that he believed God when he first came to him but that he continued to believe God throughout the 25 years it took from the promise of an heir to the receiving of that same heir. When God promised Abraham, who was known as “Abram” at the time, that one day all of the nations of the world would be blessed through him, Abraham was 75 years old. And it wasn’t until he was 100 years old that his wife, Sarah, bore him Isaac in fulfillment of God’s promise. Throughout those years, Abraham believed that God would bring to fruition what he had promised.

In verse 8 in Hebrews another aspect of that initial promise is mentioned, namely a land in which the nation that Abraham would become, could dwell. “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.”[1] So Abraham not only believed God but his faith was made evident in his obedience, in his acting upon what God had told him. [2]

Verses 9 and 10 of Hebrews 11 elaborate on how unique it was for Abraham to follow God in this manner. “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. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Abraham left his home in Haran and journeyed to Canaan, a land already occupied, and lived in tents all because he believed God. All because he had faith in God. At this time Canaan was promised, but it wasn’t his. No matter. Abraham went and dwelled there in tents like the stranger he was. And so, too later, did his son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob, whose name would be changed to Israel. What the author of Hebrews reminds us of is the dual nature of Abraham’s faith—he believed that the earthly promised land of Canaan would one day belong to his as yet non-existent descendants, the people God would make from his seed, and, ultimately, he believed that his true home wouldn’t be an earthly city but a heavenly one. As God created the earthly city, so Abraham believed that he created the heavenly. And Abraham looked forward to his homecoming into the heavenly city one day.

Now if faith was required by Abraham to conceive a child of God’s promising at the age of 99,[3] this was even more the case with Sarah, his wife, who would have borne Isaac at the age of 90.[4] For Abraham to conceive a child was unlikely—this is indicated in his being referred to as being “as good as dead” in verse 12; for Sarah to conceive was nothing less than a miracle—a violation of, an impossibility due to, the laws of nature—for, as we’re told in verse 11, she “was past childbearing age.” Even allowing for greater longevity among some Old Testament saints, menopause had long been in Sarah’s rear-view mirror and childbirth, therefore, was a physical impossibility. And I don’t think the NIV does justice to Sarah by translating the Greek as “even Sarah” being enabled to bear children—Sarah was no better or worse than Abraham in regards to faith. But a better translation[5] is that Sarah herself “was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.” In other words, just as fathering a child was highly unlikely for Abraham given his age, so it was for Sarah who, similarly, was beyond her childbearing years. And, if you’ll recall, there was a bit of very understandable disbelief in Sarah mixed in with her belief. She laughed when she heard this promise, as did Abraham, by the way.[6] In Genesis 18:11–12 we’re told: “11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” Now I don’t mean to be too indelicate, but if, as has been indicated, the evidence of having faith is acting upon that faith in obedience, then the evidence that Abraham and Sarah believed God, that they acted on his promise, is that they did have this pleasure in their old age and so they knew each other in the biblical sense—and so Isaac, their only child together, was born when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90. Amazing grace, indeed!

In the end, despite their imperfect faith—in addition to laughing, Abraham initially assumed his heir, in keeping with the customs of the day,[7] would be his servant, Eliezer of Damascus. And, later, he impregnated his servant Hagar at Sarah’s request[8]—yet despite the imperfect faith of Abraham and Sarah, God still managed to accomplish his plan. Go figure. As we’re told in verse 12 of Hebrews 11: “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.”[9] Abraham and Sarah believed God. Abraham and Sarah acted on God’s extraordinary promise. And so Abraham became the father of all who believe, of Israel first, but also of non-Israelites, of us Gentiles who were later grafted into this one family of our father Abrahams’s faith and who are, as a result, now entitled to call God our Father.

Next, verses 13–16 of Hebrews 11 provide a summary assessment of these Old Testament followers of God—of these faithful disciples of God—of these believers in God—of these act-ers upon God’s Word. We’re told in verse 13 that “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.” The author of Hebrews is telling us, essentially, that none of these recipients of God’s promises lived to see the fulfillment of those very same promises. They didn’t live to see them because, first, their fulfillment lay in the future and, second, because they were also promises of heavenly realities, not earthly. Nonetheless all of these believers knew them to be true.

Notice the twist on faith provided here. Whereas normally we distinguish between walking by faith during our earthly lives and living by sight once we die and go to heaven, here we’re told that these ancient saints saw the things promised and even welcomed them, but they did so from a distance. So we can think of faith as a kind of sight, but one that requires binoculars, a belief in God’s Word, to bring its objects into focus. Further, these saints understood that earth was never intended to be their final home. While living on earth, they were but “foreigners” and “strangers.” They were in a country that, ultimately, wasn’t their own. For them earth was an unfamiliar place for they were made for heaven.

And, to underscore the point that this was in fact how these ancients understood their lives, we’re told in verses 15 and 16, “15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left,—[in other words, their own country]— they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” And this perspective, this understanding of their earthly lives, is why “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” And this city is a heavenly one where they would dwell with him forever. As God, who is Spirit, is more real than any of the material and physical things we may experience, so, too, heaven is more real than this earth we now inhabit. Harry Blamires, a British theologian who wrote a wonderful book entitled The Christian Mind, expresses this Scriptural understanding so well when he states that a prime mark of the Christian mind is that it cultivates an eternal perspective—it looks beyond this life to another and brings to bear upon earthly considerations the fact of Heaven and of Hell. Quoting Blamires, the Christian mind “sees human life and history as being held in God’s hands, the whole universe sustained by his power and love, the natural order as dependent upon the supernatural order, time as contained within eternity. It sees this life as an inconclusive experience, preparing us for another; this world as a temporary place of refuge, not our true and final home” (67). Isn’t that great? What an insightful summary of a biblical understanding of our lives—both earthly and heavenly—under God’s providence and care.

So what are we to make of all of this? If, in the end, the meaning of our lives is to be found not on earth, but in heaven, then what’s the point of our lives now? Well, I think that our challenge is to walk between the rock of believing that our earthly lives is all there is, is all that matters, and the hard place of being so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly good. Though our earthly lives and the decisions we make each day matter greatly in that they indicate whom we believe and therefore how we live, our earthly lives aren’t our final end or destiny for we were made for heaven. Heaven will be even more real than anything we have experienced or ever will experience during our earthly lives. Earth is the shadow; heaven is its source.

Listen to what Scripture says about this. In proclaiming Jesus Christ’s coming to earth, in fulfillment of what the prophet Isaiah foretold by God during Old Testament times, Matthew records that with Christ’s coming, “[10]the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” And Christ is that light. So, too, in Zechariah’s Song recorded for us in Luke, part of what Zechariah sings to the baby Jesus in the manger is “76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”[11] Brothers and sisters, because of the Fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, you and I and all who have lived since live in a world of darkness; we live in the shadow of death; we are in need of God’s salvation; we are in need of the forgiveness of our sins. But, fortunately for us, by God’s tender mercy, the rising sun has come to us from heaven to give us his light, to give us his truth, to give us his peace.

Jesus Christ is the means of our grounding our faith, of demonstrating the solidity of our faith. He who is God, he who is Spirit, condescended to take on human flesh, that we might believe in the Father of lights—and live true life, eternal life, not only during the earthly part of our sojourn but forever—with him—in heaven. For those of us living thousands of years after these ancients—as Jinsook reminded us last week—in the person of Jesus Christ this one God who formed the world at his command; this one God who is Spirit; this one God who chose to create a material, seeable, touchable world, himself became material, seeable, and touchable in the person of Jesus Christ. As John tells us in the opening verses of the first chapter of his epistle:

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.

This is the basis of the solidity of our faith—not subjective, but sure; not wish fulfillment, but certain. Our faith is substantial—it has substance—it is reliable because it is grounded upon a reliable God who made us and all the world and who desires that we know him. Our faith is grounded upon a reliable God who in Christ and in Scripture has disclosed himself and his will that we might know and enjoy him not only now but forevermore.

Our faith is solid because God entered history in the person of Jesus Christ, showing us the way to heaven, with himself as the means for entering there. Brothers and sisters, we were made for God, we were made for heaven. And in heaven we will no longer feel like the foreigners and aliens that we are but will be welcomed and embraced by our heavenly Father into his loving arms and the place prepared for us by none other than Jesus Christ, our Savior, Lord, and brother.[12]

Let us allow this biblical perspective to ground us.

Let us allow this biblical perspective to cultivate in us an eternal perspective on our earthly lives.

Let us allow this biblical perspective to encourage us.

Let us allow this biblical perspective to give us confidence in God and his Word.

Let us allow this biblical perspective to help us live in obedience to God’s Word as we seek to love him with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths and our neighbor as ourselves.

Let us allow this biblical perspective to help us live in the earthly shadows of death by the light of Christ who has conquered death and offers us his eternal life.

Let us allow this biblical perspective to provide us assurance about what we do not see so that we, too, along with the ancients—along with our Father Abraham—along with our Mother Sarah—may one day be commended for our faith that God may not be ashamed to be called our God and so make our joy complete.

Let us pray.

 

[1] This promise is recorded in Genesis 12:1: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’”

[2] Genesis 12:4: 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. See also Genesis 15:6 in which the promise is repeated and Abram’s response is recorded: Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

[3] Genesis 17:1–2: 1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

[4] See footnote #5 below, verse 17.

[5] This is an intensive use of αὐτos: αὐτὴ Σάρρα

[6] Genesis 17:15–17: 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?”

[7] Genesis 15:2–5: But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

[8] Genesis 16:1–4, 15–16: 1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress…. 15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

[9] Genesis 12:2–3: “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.”

 

[10] Matthew 4:16. The full passage is: 12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: 15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death  a light has dawned.”[Isaiah 9:1, 2] 17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

[11] Luke 1:76–79. The entire passage reads: 67 His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a horn[Horn here symbolizes a strong king.] of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— 72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” 80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit[or in the Spirit]; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

[12] John 14:1–3: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 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? 3 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.

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