Turn with me to Hebrews 11. In Hebrews 11 we begin to have illustrations given of a point that was made back in Hebrews 10:39. You remember from the last study, as we looked at Hebrews 10:26-3, that the first part of that passage begins with another one of the warnings in the book of Hebrews. The warning against defecting from our allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, the warning against our turning our backs on Christ and seeking to fellowship with God in some other way. A warning against our taking lightly the person and work of Christ, a warning against our spurning the blood of the covenant.
But the end of that passage ends rather optimistically. Having given a very stern warning to the congregation, the preacher then says, “But look, I am hoping, I am expecting better things of you.” And as he explains that if you will cast your eyes on verse 9, he says this. “We are not of those who shrink back to destruction.” He is expressing his hope for the congregation. “We are not the ones who are going to fall away from the faith along the way.” He goes on to say, “But of those who have faith to the persevering of the soul.” And it is phrase that he is going to spend a chapter illustrating. He is saying, “Now, look, I’m not just talking about some abstract concept that ever existed in real humanity. I am going to show you person after person from the Old Testament, from the time before the Flood, from the times of the Patriarchs, from the times of Moses, and from the times after Moses, in the Old Testament, of people who lived by faith, persevering to the end of their course, even though they didn’t have some of the advantages that you and I have as Christians.
So Hebrews 11:1 and everything that follows in that chapter is directly connected to Hebrews 10:39. The author is going to give you a gigantic illustration of that phrase, “those who have faith to the persevering of the soul.” And simultaneously, it is an exhortation for us to exercise that faith which perseveres to the end. So let’s see God’s holy and inspired word in Hebrews 11.
Now Father, we do ask Your Spirit’s enlightening as we look to this passage. It’s so familiar to us. We love the ring of its words and we have, perhaps, studied in many times past the glories of its truths. But we ask that by the Spirit, that You would refresh us again with this truth. And even it if is a passage which we have traversed many times in our personal devotions, and under the faithful preaching of the word, we pray that You would yet again teach Your servants from Your truth. Remind us of things which we once knew but have forgotten. Convince us again of things which we believe and yet need strengthening in. And reveal to us new truths from Your word, truth which is old, old as Your own self, but new to us because we are ever learning of the glory of Your person and Your work and Your will and Your ways. We ask all these things in Jesus name. Amen.
The subject of faith is a very important subject for Christians. Faith is the instrument whereby we first receive the benefits of the gospel. But faith is also a prime instrument of the Holy Spirit in our ongoing growth in grace. We don’t get finished with faith when we first profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are just beginning in faith.
I am reminded of that wonderful sermon that Richard Pratt preached to us not long ago. He said he had gotten to that age where he is ready to coast on in to Heaven from here. And suddenly, there were new challenges in his life which caused him to cling just as tenaciously to his Savior now, as he has had in the past. And that is the truth of faith. We don’t have faith once in our lives, and then go on to something more important. God builds us up in communion with Him by faith. So faith is something that is grown and cultivated and something which attends us all our way and is very important for the Christian life.
There is nothing more important to be talking about at the beginning of the year than faith, saving faith, faith in the gospel promises, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And so I would like to look at this passage with you tonight, remembering with you again that the author of Hebrews is going to pile up the examples in his passage for the purpose of exhorting us to be those who persevere in faith. He wants us to continue on in the trust which we have in God.
He begins in this passage with the description of faith and also with an appeal to us that this faith which perseveres has been historically demonstrated in the lives of God’s people from time immemorial, all the way back into the Old Testament, he stretches and finds examples. And interestingly enough, people in very different circumstances and people of very different type who have yet persevered in faith. And though the specific situations of their lives were very different, they all share in common that saving faith which hopes for the promises of God and interestingly all of them in this chapter have not yet seen the fulfillment of these hopes. And so there is a lesson in that which we will talk about as we look at the passage together.
I. We must know what faith means and realize its role in our perseverance.
But first I would direct your attention to verses 1 and 2. And in those passages, the author teaches us that we must know what faith means and realize how important a role it has in our perseverance. Look at those words again: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it men of old gained approval.”
That passage is as close as any passage in the New Testament to a definition of faith. But it is really not a definition. It is more of a description of one aspect of saving faith. If we were going to give a fuller definition of saving faith, we would actually have to go to several different passages in the New Testament and put them together to speak about the different aspects of saving faith. Those aspects include a knowledge of the truth, a sure, a firm embrace of that knowledge; in other words, it is not just knowing the truths of the gospel so that you could list them. It is a real, personal embrace of those truths. You are not just saying, “Oh, I know that the church says that.” You are embracing those truths as something which you do not merely give ascent to, but which you believe with conviction.
Of course, faith is more than simply a cognitive knowledge and a volitional, a willing embrace of the truth. It is also personal trust in a personal God. Those three aspects, at least, knowledge and the embrace of the truth and trust, are three important aspects of saving faith that the New Testament talks about. We can see in our own experiences how important each of those are. If you have ever gone through a time when you have doubted certain aspects of the truth revealed in God’s word, remember from those struggles how it robbed you of your sense of assurance in the Christian life. And it was not until the Lord brought you through that particular wrestling that you saw your assurance come back to the kind of strength that you had experienced previously.
Then there have been other times where you have known something, you could have outlined it, you might even have been able to teach a children’s Sunday School class on that topic. And yet you had really not embraced that truth for yourself. In the context of a crisis that the Lord brought into your life, you suddenly have realized that truth in a way that you have never understood it before. You have experientially clung to that as if it were life itself. And suddenly you have embraced that truth. That is not just a truth that you can scratch up on a chalkboard, it is a truth that means more than meat to you.
Then there have been those experiences in which your personal trust in God has been accentuated when you knew that it wasn’t just an “It” out there, a force that you were relating to. But it was the one true personal God of Heaven and earth who was calling you into a saving relationship with Him which included real fellowship and communion. And your trust in Him was increased.
So we know all those aspects of saving faith. This passage is going to zero in on a couple of them. First, notice that the author takes us right back to the Old Testament. All the people that he lists trusted in God even though none of them experienced the fulfillment of the promises that God had made to them.
Think about that — that has such profound significance for us if we are in the middle of a personal crisis. You know, sometimes when you are in the middle of a personal crisis you can get in a mode where you say, “God, what are you doing to me? You are letting me down right at the point where I need You the most.” The author is going to take us right to a whole host of men and women who lived their lives in faith and not one of them saw the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to them. The author of Hebrews is going to tell us in the last verse of this chapter that God had designed His plan in such a way that they wouldn’t experience that fulfillment until you experienced that fulfillment. And yet they lived their lives in faith. What an example they supply for us. Because their faith had always to hope, their faith never came to rest in this life. It always had to look further down the line.
The hymns that we sang tonight all expressed that reality. Whether it was Psalm 42 and the psalmist going through a crisis and talking about how those mocked him and said, “Where is your God?” What did he have to do? He had to hope in something beyond his present experience. Or whether “It is well with my Soul” and a hope beyond the crucible of present experience.
The author takes us back to the Old Testament and makes it clear that these saints are precursors of us as believers in Christ. That is important because you remember throughout the Book of Hebrews, the concern is that some of these people are considering, like other friends of theirs, remitting their faith in Christ and going back to some form of Judaism. You see, in their minds they could say, “Okay, we are going to lay down this particular belief that we have had in Jesus as the Messiah and we are going to go back to the faith of our fathers.” The author of Hebrews in this chapter pulls that argument out from under them.
He says that if you go back to the faith of your fathers, you will find that that faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ. If you depart from Christ, you are not departing from Christ to the patriarchs, you are departing from Christ and the patriarchs to something else. He is going to argue in all these passages that these believers believed in the promises of God which were ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
He says, you can’t say I am departing from Christ and going back to the New Testament. If you do that you are departing from the Old Testament too. Because Old Testament believers believed in the promises of God for the Messiah. It’s a brilliant argument for people who are wavering in this area.
Let’s look at the specifics together. First, this description of faith. We must know what faith means and realize its role in our perseverance. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for — that phrase means faith is like the title deed of a house. The title deed is not the house itself. But the title deed assures you that house belongs to you. And so faith is something which underlies our hope guaranteeing its reality. It is the instrument which God has chosen to guarantee the realities of promises that He has made to us, but which none of us have fully experienced yet. We can say with the hymn writer that the “Hill of Zion yields a thousand sacred sweets,” even before we have walked the celestial streets. We know blessings in this life. None of us know all the blessings that God has promised to His children in this life. All of us have to wait for the “not yet.” There are many blessings we experience in life, but all of us have blessings yet in store for us in those days of glory.
The author is saying that faith is the title deed to your experience of those promises of God. Furthermore, it is the basis of our conviction of things which we can’t see with our own eyes. So he gives us a description of what faith is like. Faith is convicted, it is assured, it is certain of the promises of God and so it is able to hope even in things that are not yet seen in our own experience.
He goes on to say in verse 2, “For by it, men of old gained approval.” Now there is his chapter heading — “Men of old gained approval.” Look at that little phrase “by it.” You are going to see it repeated over and over in this chapter with one change.
From this time it won’t be “by it.” It is going to be “by faith.” Look down through the chapter at verse 3— “By faith.” Verse 4 — “By faith.” Verse 5 — “By faith.” Verse 7 — “By faith.” Verse 8 — “By faith.” And that refrain, “By the instrument of faith” is going to be repeated over and over. It is introduced in verse 2 — “By it, men of old gained approval.” Now he is going to say, “Let me give you a list, some examples of how those men of old gained approval.”
II. Faith is the vehicle that enables us to grasp the truth of God’s creation.
He begins in verse 3. He tells us “men of old” and then he takes us right back to the creation. It seems a little out of order. “Shouldn’t you have talked about creation first and then the men of old?” Well, no, because he is talking about the creation which is at the beginning; but he is talking about our apprehension of the creation which we see right now. And interestingly he is talking about something that has already been a controversy in his own time. You see, most of the Greeks in the world at that time did not believe that the world had been created, had been spoken into being by God’s divine decree.
Aristotle had taught them that the world had always been, because nothing from nothing comes. So, since there is something there now, there must have always been something. So, the Greeks believed in the eternity of matter, by and large. They wouldn’t have looked out at the world and said, “You know, the fact that the world is here testifies to us that there must have been some Supreme Being apart from the world and distinct from the world that brought this world into being. The author of Hebrews says, “You know it is by faith that you know, it is by faith that you understand when you look out at this world, that God did, in fact, bring it into being.”
Look at the language. “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” So in one sentence, it tells us that faith understands this world has not just always been. This is a repudiation of Carl Sagan 2,000 years ahead of time. When Carl Sagan said the cosmos is all there is and all there ever was and all there ever will be, the author of Hebrews is waiting there to say, “No, by faith, we understand that the world has not just always been the way it is now.” It did not generate itself, but rather, it was created out of nothing by God speaking it into being. And faith is the instrument which keeps you from looking at the world like a naturalistic pagan. Faith enables you to see something that you might miss if you are looking at it with the eyes of a man who wants to stand apart from God and judging His creation.
III. Faithful worship gains approval and an enduring witness.
He begins to give examples of men of old. Look at verse 4. He teaches us there that faithful worship gains God’s approval and an enduring witness. There we see Abel’s sacrifice and the testimony that results from it. By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain. The author of Hebrews us there at least this, that Abel’s faith distinguished his sacrifice from Cain and it was acceptable in God’s sight because of that heart attitude of faith which Abel had because he offered it to God; and, therefore God testified of his righteousness by faith.
How is it that though he is dead, yet he still speaks? Because his example of faith continues to be an example to those of us who have not yet achieved the promises of God, of a faithful man who remained faithful even though he was murdered for his faithfulness. You could look at the story of Abel and say his faith didn’t get him anything much here. It got him killed by his brother. You could say that seems kind of unfair. The author of Hebrews says, “No, look, Abel’s faith is an example of what some of God’s people will have to endure.”
You will endure injustices in this life. But you be like Abel, a man of faith, even in the face of the injustice of his brother’s murder of him and in consequence of that is an eternal testimony to faith and to God’s favor to those who have it.
Calvin speaks about this paradox of faith that in our life we are called to believe and yet sometimes it doesn’t look like that trusting in God profits us. Listen to what he says: “These two things apparently contradict each other. But yet they agree perfectly when we are concerned with faith. The Spirit of God shows us hidden things, the knowledge of which cannot reach our senses. Eternal life is promised to us, but it is promised to those who are dead. We are told of the resurrection of the blessed, but we know that we ourselves are involved in corruption. We are declared to be just by God, but sin dwells within us. We hear that we are blessed, but meantime we are overwhelmed by untold miseries. We are promised an abundance of good things, but we are often hungry and thirsty. God proclaims that He will come to us immediately, but He seems to be deaf to our cries. What would happen to us if we did not rely on our hope and if our minds did not emerge above the world, out of the midst of the darkness through the shining word of God and His Spirit? Faith is, therefore, rightly called the “substance of things which are still the object of hope and the evidence of things which are unseen.” The perspective of faith makes us look at those kinds of circumstance in our lives entirely differently than we would otherwise.
Have you ever been around a person whose difficult experience in life, whether it be something from childhood or in their present, has utterly turned them into a bitter person who cannot do anything but seeth. Yet you know someone else who has gone through precisely the same thing and are full of radiance and hope? What is the difference? The author says the perspective of faith here changes everything.
IV. Faith is the instrument whereby we receive intimations of God’s pleasure.
Then he goes on to give another example, very different. Here is Enoch in verse 5, whose faith led to the pleasure of God in such a way that he was taken home early. “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death and was not found because God took him up, for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up, he was pleasing to God.” In other words, Enoch’s being taken up apart from death was a witness that God took pleasure in him before he was transmitted and that pleasure which God took in him was by faith. Faith was the instrument in the communion of Enoch with God, which bore witness to the pleasure of God in Enoch and led to God taking righteous Enoch out of the world.
V. Christian faith is not “faith in faith” but faith in God.
Look again at verse 6. Here having spoken of Abel and of Enoch, the author stops to say without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him. The author here is, first of all, reminding us again of the essentialness of faith, the necessity of faith. It is impossible to have a living relationship with God, he says, without faith. It can’t happen. You can’t relate to God without faith, because faith is the vehicle, the instrument, that God has ordained to fellowship with Him by. So, he says it is impossible to please Him without faith and then goes on to say, “For the one who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him.” That is an important phrase because in that phrase, he is telling us that what He is calling us to is not faith in faith, He is not calling us to a leap of faith. We get a lot of that “leap of faith” language. You know, “You have just got to believe.” Believe in what? “Well, you have just got to believe.” That is not what he is talking about. He is not just saying, “Okay, you are down 35 to nothing, with 34 seconds to go. You have just to believe that can come back and win that game.” That is not what he is calling you to.
He is calling you to belief in an object. Faith is not in faith. Faith is in a person and in that person’s promises. He takes us to an example of that by saying that first you have to belief that He is. There is an object out there. There is one to trust in and that He is a one who rewards those who seek Him. In other words, He is going to fulfill His promises.
VI. Faith takes God at his word, despite evidence to the contrary.
What has he been talking about for the last couple of chapters? God’s oath and promises to us. Now he says, “Look, if you want to exercise real Christian faith, you have to believe in God. It is not just belief in belief. It is belief in God and you have to believe the promises that He has made to you.” That is Christian faith, believing in a personal God, the one true God and in the promises that He has made. Then he takes us to Noah. He says, “Look, Noah demonstrated faith too. He took God at His word, despite the evidence to the contrary.” It didn’t look like there was going to be any flood coming to destroy the world. “Yes, Lord, I will build that ark of salvation. Yes, Lord, I will endure years of years of mocking and laughter. Yes, Lord, I will do it.” Why? “Because I trust You and You have said so.”
You have seen the bumper sticker, “God said it, I believe it. That settles it.” Really, you know it ought to read, “God said it. That settles it.”
God said it to Noah and that settled it. And Noah’s faith flowed from that. His faith didn’t settle anything — faith flowed from what God had already settled. How had He settled it? Because He had said it to him. We have God’s word spoken to us. It settles it. Do we trust in it? That is what the author of Hebrews is calling us to do. He is calling us to trust in God and not turn back and to persevere in hope, even like these faithful Old Testament saints. May the Lord make that a reality in your own lives today. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word and we ask that You would write in on our hearts and etch it into our lives. For Christ’s sake. Amen.