Hebrews: By Faith

by David Felker on November 1, 2020

Hebrews 11:1-40

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Please turn with me in your Bible to Hebrews chapter 11. We have been in a Sunday night series in the New Testament book of Hebrews. This evening we come to Hebrews chapter 11. And before we jump in and read, something to help orient us to our text.

In recent years I have become interested in old family photos, and my grandmother and my mother have really done a labor of love to my family where they not only keep up with all sorts of old photos but documented all of them. And I remember, for example, when I graduated from college that my mother gave me an old photo album and on all of the pictures on the back she would write who it was in the picture. I mean some of these people I had never known and are now gone. She would write the occasion and the context and the location and just all of that. And looking through old pictures, I think that we have all had this experience where you look through old family photos and there’s one that stops you in your tracks. And so I can look at a photo of my dad as a child, or I can look at a photo of my dad’s dad as a young man, or I can look at a photo of some other relative and it will stop me dead in my tracks because I know the expressions. I know the smiles. It’s a David Felker expression and smile. And I remember as a child when it was the day for Christmas family photos and I remember that was a day when my mom would use my middle name because she would get so upset. She would say, “David Lanier, wipe that expression off your face! Give me a better smile!” And I think that we’ve had the experience where a parent’s friend or someone who knew our relatives will look at us and they’ll say, “You are the spitting image of…” or, “You look just like your father or mother or grandmother or grandfather” or whatever. And we love it or we don’t, but we have this DNA that we show up with.

And this fall we are in the book of Hebrews. You remember the context of the book, the original audience of this letter is tempted, they are in danger of drifting and hardening and dulling. They’re tempted to leave Jesus and to go back to Judaism in the midst of persecution. And so the irony of our passage, the writer, it’s kind of like a family picture book – these snapshots of the faith, of their Jewish ancestors, of these patriarchs, these Old Testament heroes – to show them this is what this faith looks like lived out. And so strong faith or weak faith, Hebrews chapter 11 is like looking at the DNA of God’s people. This is the family of faith. And so for the people of God it’s like looking at an old photo album. Hebrews chapter 11. And so before we jump in and read, let’s pray and ask for God’s help as we consider it. Let’s pray.

God of all grace, we pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts would be pleasing and acceptable to You, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. And we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Hebrews chapter 11, beginning in verse 1. This is God’s Word:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

Amen, this is God’s Word.

There’s a story of Dr. R. C. Sproul when he was a seminary professor and he would, at the beginning of class, he would spontaneously call on one of the young seminarians to pray. And so panicky and petrified as you might imagine, the student would pray in front of the class and then this theological giant, Dr. Sproul, would gently offer any theological critiques or corrections to the prayer that was just prayed. And the story goes that as the semester went on and student after student was called on to pray, there was a growing trepidation and a fear about it, as you might imagine. And the story goes that later into the semester Dr. Sproul called on a young student to pray and with all of the heads bowed, this student, he prayed, “Our Father,” and then he paused, and then he said, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come,” and so on and so forth. He prayed the prayer that cannot be corrected. It can’t be critiqued. It’s Jesus’ prayer. It’s the Lord’s Prayer.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience if you’ve been in a Bible study and the leader asks the question, “What’s faith? What is faith?” And someone says, “Well I like to think about faith like this.” And someone else says, “Well my youth director used to talk about faith like this.” Someone might even open up to even an Old Testament narrative, maybe the life of Abraham, and pull out some helpful things about faith. And then there’s someone who has actually memorized the text that gives us the definition, Hebrews chapter 11 verse 1. It can’t be critiqued. It can’t be corrected. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; it’s the conviction of things not seen.” The Bible doesn’t always give definitions of some of our big Bible words. I can’t think of a place in the Bible where it says, “Evangelism is…” and it provides a definition. Or, “Justification is…” and it provides a definition. Those are big Bible words. But it does here with faith.

If you consider the context, look right before our reading at the end of chapter 10. Remember the recipients of this letter, we’ve said they’re in danger of drifting and hardening and dulling. The author is charging them to go on. And if you look at the end of chapter 10, the author writes in verse 39, “We are not those who shrink back.” “We are not those who shrink back and are destroyed, but those who have faith.” So that’s really what we’re seeing in chapter 11. He directs their gaze here to this great and glorious family; this family of faith. To their DNA as the people of God. To this hall of fame of faith. So this isn’t, as Sinclair Ferguson said, this isn’t a scientific or theological definition of faith here in verse 1 that exhausts everything that could be said about faith. But the author is saying here is how faith works. This is what it looks like. This is what we see in this family. From verse 4 to verse 38, this is what we see in this family of faith.

And so in many ways, their questions are our questions. “Are you drifting? Are you hardening? Are you dulling? Are you in danger of shrinking back? Are you filled with anxiety? Are you filled with shame? Are you exhausted?” Well if so, then how do you grab hold of this faith? How does Hebrews 11 verse 1 faith become real to you? How does it become yours? How do you grab hold of this? And that’s why I’m grateful we not only have in verse 1 this description, but then we have story after story after story of what it looks like to grab hold of this faith; what it looks like to make it yours. And so we’re going to ask two questions of this text tonight. The first and more briefly, “What is faith?” And then second, and where we’ll spend more time, “How does one live by faith today?”

What is Faith?

And so first, “What is faith?” The world is not divided between people who have faith and people who do not have faith. We’re all people of faith. The question is, “What kind of faith?” Is it Hebrews 11 faith? Is it Biblical faith? Is it saving faith? And we all carry a lot of assumptions about faith and what it means to have Biblical faith – that faith is blind, that faith means leaving your brain at the door, that faith involves not thinking. We carry a lot of inaccurate assumptions of Biblical faith. We read in verse 3 that faith understands. And so we all have all sorts of assumptions but our author says that Biblical faith, verse 1, is “the assurance.” It’s “the substance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” In other words, faith holds onto, even in the dark, faith holds onto the promises of God. Faith holds onto the promises of God. Our catechism says it like this. “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace where we receive and we rest on Jesus Christ alone for salvation.” It’s a receiving and it’s a resting on Jesus.

You see this word a number of times in this chapter, the word, “commended.” And so it’s at the beginning in verse 2, verse 4, verse 5, and then it’s repeated if you look all the way at the end in verse 39. In verse 39 we read, “All of these,” covering everyone in the chapter, “All of these were commended through their faith.” And so this is the bookend of the chapter. Now “commendation” in the military or at your place of work is something that you have earned. But literally this means they have received, they have received a good testimony. God gives a good testimony. God gives us assurance. God says, “You have what you need to be rightly related to Me.” And so Biblical faith, Ephesians 2 even tells us, “is a gift.” Faith doesn’t earn. It’s not meritorious. It’s not about measuring up or being good enough or getting your act together. It’s not a good work that you produce, but saving faith receives. It is the act of someone drowning. You throw them a life-ring and they receive it. It’s someone going hungry and they receive bread that saves their life. It can be characterized as something that receives.

But what does it receive? John Calvin put it this way. “Faith is a firm and certain confidence of God’s benevolence towards you.” So faith is a firm and certain confidence that God loves you. So faith is being able to say with the psalmist, “This I know, that God is for me – not based on my usefulness; not based on my productivity or my performance or my beauty or my attraction. This I know, that God is for me.” You might have heard it said before that faith is like your windshield – that we look through it at what’s important. Imagine if you were driving tonight to church and you’re on 55 and you’re focused on your windshield and not on the road. That would not go well. It’s almost certain that you would crash if you get preoccupied with your windshield because you were looking at something that was intended to help you look through at what’s really important. And faith is like that. This is the way that faith operates in our lives. Faith is not that which we are to look at, but rather through. So faith is important because it helps us see God and all of His goodness to us. It is the access point for receiving all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ. So faith is like open hands, of receiving and resting.

I have a daughter, Jane, who’s fourteen months. And this is where I think it’s helpful to imagine multiple times a day Jane demonstrates what faith is all about. When it’s mealtime and it’s game time for her, and she puts her game face on, but Jane can’t cut bananas. Jane can’t pour apple juice. Jane can’t make PB&Js. She’s receiving and she’s going on to receive. Every day she comes open handed. She comes to make a mess, but she receives and she goes on receiving with open hands. Faith is receiving and resting on Jesus alone with open hands. Faith receives and rests without reserve, without backup plan, without confidence in yourself; on Jesus alone. “This I know, that God is for me.” So that’s the first thing.

How Does One Live by Faith Today?

Second, “How does one live by faith today?” What does it look like as it gets worked out in life? And we see this in verse 4 to verse 38 as the author parades before us example after example, sixteen examples I think by name, so many others that are referenced by stories, all of them that grip us and get under our skin and help us. They act as light in the darkness. They give us stamina. And we see here these are people just like us. These are people just like us who live by faith. And we see in verses 1 and 2 that this is fleshed out again in these heroes of the faith, that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for;” so things that are not yet; things that are future. And then faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” And so you live by faith, by trusting God to do what you cannot see because it’s future. And you live by faith in trusting God to do what you cannot see because it’s invisible.

So we’re going to look at both of those for just a second. Faith, first, reorients our present in light of that future, the future promises. And so the author is telling us that our faith has this future component to it. Author Philip Yancey put it like this. “Faith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” And we see again and again here in this text that faith takes things that are in the future and makes them real to our hearts. That faith takes things that are down the road, in the future, and holds onto them and makes them reliable to our hearts. And so things that haven’t happened yet, things that are unseen, that are down the road. And so you see this in verse 7 with Noah. “Noah was warned concerning events as yet unseen,” verse 7. And so Noah had this conviction of things not seen. He had a conviction about God’s promise, about this coming flood, and that’s what faith does. We see it all throughout this chapter. Different characters, different people, and they’re all looking forward; they’re looking forward to this better future. And so faith takes what is down the road and makes it real to our hearts.

Matthew Henry says it like this. “Faith has a clear and strong eye.” “Faith has a clear and strong eye and it sees promised mercy at a distance.” Faith has a clear and strong eye. Matthew Henry goes on to say that “Faith has a long arm.” So it’s got a clear and strong eye but it’s got a long arm and it can lay hold of blessings at a great distance. That’s the life of faith. A clear and strong eye; a long arm. That is faith.

If you look in verse 13 – I think this is helpful; I love this verse – “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised but having seen them and greeted them from afar.” I think this helps us. This is like at Thanksgiving. You welcome someone into your home. You greet them, you embrace them, you show hospitality to them and you’re nourished by their presence. That’s what they did with the promises of God by faith. They greeted them from afar. They embraced the promise into their lives, into their hearts, to own them, to expect them, to count on them, to await them, to live in light of the promises. That is what faith does. It brings the promise present to your heart. And so faith furnishes you with the grace to accept, to taste and see that what God is bringing, the things that are coming from His hand, are better than the things that are now. And that future, that future promise that’s down the road, cannot be robbed. It cannot be robbed from us. That’s faith.

One minister told the story, he said imagine a young father late at night and he hears something on the monitor. And so he rushes into his son’s room. It’s the middle of the night and his son, his young son is anxious and he can’t sleep. And he says to his dad, “All the other boys on the block have a bike and all the other boys at school have a bike. I don’t think I’ll ever have a bike.” And so of course this loving father, he grabs his son and he says, “You’ll get a bike for your birthday. Go to sleep.” And thirty seconds later, what’s the son doing? He’s snoring. He’s out like a light. Why? He’s resting in the promise of his father because he knows, “If my father has given the promise, it’s as good as gold.” The bike is as good as his. That’s faith. That is holding on to the promise of God. “Because my Father has promised it, it will surely come to pass.” And so that vision of the future, that faith in what God is going to do, that begins to sustain you even when you lose things on this earth that are precious to you. When you lose things that you are poor without. When you lose things that are expensive to you. You can live in the light of that future because your faith is in the faithfulness of your faithful God. So faith reorients the present in light of the future.

Second, you live by faith in trusting God to do what you cannot see because it’s invisible. We see this really throughout this text. Faith is the conviction of things not seen; they’re invisible. And so you find in verse 8 that “Abraham went out not knowing where he was going.” Moses, verse 26, “chose the reproach of Christ over the fleeting pleasures of sin because by faith he considered it greater wealth.” And you think about all of the promises of God that you cannot see. That you are fully forgiven – you can’t see that. That you are robed in Jesus’ righteousness. That there is no condemnation for you. You’re a beloved child of God. You’re clean from all your uncleannesses. You have a new heart. A new spirit within you. You’re rejoiced over with singing. You are being renewed in your inner being. You have the smile of God. You have the intercessory prayers of Jesus Christ. You have the Spirit helping you in your weakness. You can’t see that. You have the hope of glory. You will see God. He will keep your feet from stumbling. Those are promises but you cannot see them. So then and now, the people of God live by faith. They hold onto those promises even though they can’t see them. “We look to the things,” Paul says, “that are unseen, that are eternal.” And so just like that little boy who was able to rest, he was able to rest in his father’s word, he was able to rest in his father’s promise – “Because if my dad promised, then I can bank on it.” And so faith holds onto the good promises of God even when we can’t see it, even when we can’t see what’s ahead of us, even when we don’t know how the story’s going to end. Faith trusts the character of God even in the face of circumstances that we can’t make sense of.

And so maybe it looks like this. While some of you have lost someone precious to you – you’ve lost a loved one, you’ve lost a spouse, you’ve lost a parent, you’ve lost a child – and those promises feel so far away. They feel infinitely far away. Maybe you are scared. Maybe you’re sad. Maybe you’re alone. Maybe you’re afraid. Maybe you’re in the deepest pit of despair and you’re in the dark and those promises feel so far away. “Why God? I don’t understand. Why chronic pain? Why cancer? Why infertility? Why dementia? Why death?” Death is all over Hebrews chapter 11. “God, I do not understand.” And those promises, they feel infinitely far away. And faith is holding onto the faithful promises of the faithful God. And as you hold on, as you bank upon God’s promises alone, verse 16 says this. Verse 16 says that “God is not ashamed.” God is not ashamed of you. God is not ashamed to be associated with you. He’s not ashamed to call Himself our God. He delights in, finds joy in, He loves being known as our God.

I’ve got two kids here at the Day School. I’ve got a son who’s in kindergarten; a daughter who’s in K4. And I see teachers and students and support staff, administrators. I’ll teach chapel at the Day School, I coach basketball at the Day School. I bump into people all the time who do not know my name. But they know, “That’s Marshall’s dad. That is Finley’s dad.” And that is an honor to me when I’m called that. It is an honor for me to be associated with those two little guys. That is an honor to me. I take so much joy in that.

Isn’t it remarkable that God says, “When you abandon everything for the sake of the invisible, for the sake of the future, and because you believe in My goodness, you hold onto those promises,” isn’t it remarkable that God says, “I’m not ashamed. I’m not ashamed to call myself your God. I will come through for you in every way imaginable. You will lose nothing. You will gain everything.”

Let me close with this. If tonight you feel like you are drifting and hardening and dulling, and if tonight you don’t know if your faith will hold up and you don’t know if you can hold onto those promises that are future, that are invisible, you would say, “My faith is fickle. My faith feels flimsy. My faith feels flaky.” Then what do you do? If you don’t know if your faith will hold up, then what do you do? Where does the author go right after our reading? What does he say at the very beginning of chapter 12? This is a well-known couple of verses. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely. Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”

Professor Jerram Barrs of Covenant Seminary, that’s our denominational seminary, he remarked that as you read the last Harry Potter book, he said, similar to The Chronicles of Narnia, the last Harry Potter book is kind of a meditation on the last months of Jesus’ life as Jesus is preparing Himself to go to the cross, to sacrifice Himself. And the Harry Potter books tell the story of Jesus, but kind of like Emily Dickinson says, “they tell its slant.” But they tell it beautifully. And the author, J.K. Rowling, says herself that before she published the first book she knew where the seventh one, the last one, was going. She knew it was headed towards sacrifice, self-sacrifice for love; that it was headed towards resurrection from the dead to defeat evil.

But in the final book there’s a chapter called “The Forest Again.” And J.K. Rowling stated that this was the chapter of all of the books that brought her the most grief to write – “The Forest Again.” And what happens in that chapter, Harry Potter knows that he must sacrifice himself to defeat evil, to save his friends. And so Harry slips away. And so he goes away from his friends, he goes away from the great climactic battle, and he walks into the forest. And so the forest in these books is, I think, portrayed very similarly to how the Bible speaks of the wilderness as the place of danger, the place of death, the place that belongs to the other side. And so Harry is walking into the forest alone. And this is the first time in all of the books really that Harry has been alone. And he’s walking alone and he’s walking to his death and Harry doubts. Harry becomes faint-hearted and weary and weak and scared. He doesn’t know if he can finish. He doesn’t know if he’s brave enough to die for his friends. And when he’s there in the forest, a cloud envelops him and it’s a cloud of his friends, his dearest friends who have died. It’s actually his mom and his dad and an old professor and a mentor of sorts. So really four of the people that Harry was closest with. And Harry asks them – again, he’s about to walk into his death; his faith is faltering – and he asks them, “Why are you here?” And his mother says, “We never left.” And then Harry says, “Will you stay with me?” And this may be my favorite line in the book. His father says, “Until the end.” “We’ll stay with you until the end.”

Harry needed that cloud. He needed that cloud of his friends really to carry him to the finish line, to shepherd him the rest of the way. He needed a cloud of witnesses in order to finish the mission. And of course so too do we. We have it. That’s what Hebrews chapter 12 says. We have that cloud. When we confess our faith together with The Apostles’ Creed, we say this, that “I believe in the communion of saints.” And saints are any and all Christians – those still living but those who have died in the faith; they’ve died in the Lord. And they are all the living and the dead. They are all our cloud of witnesses. We are united to them because they and we are united to Jesus. And so we sing about this in, “The Church’s One Foundation.” This “mystic, this mysterious sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” So not only are they with us, but Jesus is with us because Jesus is the last on the list. You read through all of these people in Hebrews chapter 11 – Jesus is the final witness. He’s the ultimate witness to the faithfulness of God, to finally and eventually make good on all His promises. He is the founder and the perfecter of our faith.

And so surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, we wait for things that are in the future, for things that we cannot see. These promises of God to be fulfilled. We take hold of them. Things that we can’t see. They’re invisible. And we say, “This I know, that God is for me.” We lay everything aside. We bank everything on the promises of Jesus. And so do you have faith tonight? And if not, how do you get it? That’s the good news. Faith is like my fourteen month old, Jane – open handed, receiving and resting, banking everything on Jesus and His benefits, Jesus and His promises. Not based on your beauty, your attraction, your productivity or performance, but on Jesus and His work. This is faith in Jesus. And that’s an invitation.

Let me pray for us. Let’s pray.

Our great God and heavenly Father, we pray for the millionth time or for the first time that You would enable us to rest in Jesus. We pray that Your promises would nourish us and refresh us and sustain us tonight and all of our days. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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