The Faith that Counts: Hebrews 11.1-31

Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral 8 July 2018 – led by Paul Beasley-Murray

FAITH DEALS WITH CERTAINTIES

Hebs 11.1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. GNB: “To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things that we cannot see”. Or in the somewhat lengthy paraphrase adopted by Eugene Peterson: “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd

i.e. to say “I believe” is the same as saying “I am sure” “I am certain”.

So much so, that we can be “sure of the things we hope for” GNB). In our use of the word today, “hope” is often a synonym for uncertainty: e.g. we hope that we will have good weather when we go away on holiday, but we can’t be sure, especially if we holiday in England. But in the Bible the word “hope” is synonym for certainty: to say that as Christians we have the hope that one day we shall spend eternity with Christ is not wishful thinking, rather it is a definite expectation.

How can be so sure? It is precisely because of what God in the past has done for us in Christ, that we can be certain of the present and of the future. This understanding of faith is found in an earlier passage of Hebrews. There the writer likens our hope in God to “a sure and certain anchor of the soul” (6.19), Just as an anchor secures a ship to the ocean floor, so our faith links us securely with God. Faith is not just believing that God exists; it is about anchoring ourselves to that God and knowing that we are secure in him both for now and for eternity. Whatever storms life may bring, both in living & in dying, we know that the anchor of faith will hold us firm in God.

When we believe, we don’t shut our eyes to reason or logic. Faith does not involve the surrender of our critical faculties. On the other hand, faith does deal with things which are beyond reason & logic. As the writer to the Hebrews goes on to say, “faith is the conviction of things not seen” – GNB: to have faith is… to be certain of the things we cannot see”.

Yes, when we put our trust in the Lord Jesus we do take a leap of faith, but that faith is not a blind leap of faith into the dark.

In the first place, faith deals with past certainties.

  • Faith, e.g. affirms that God made the world & that what he made was good: “By faith we understand the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are”(Hebs 11.3). Such a statement went against the then current belief that the world was created out of existent matter, which was flawed & evil.

  • Faith also affirms that God has redeemed the world in the person of his Son. “Let us hold fast to our confession [of faith] – for “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God” (4.14)

However, in Hebs 11 the focus is not on the past, but on the future: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (11.1). So the writer to the Hebrews says of Abraham & the other men & women of faith: “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God ids not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them” (11.16).

Abraham & the other past heroes of faith had their sights on the future.

FAITH AUTHENTICATES ITSELF IN THE PRESENT

If faith is to be meaningful at all, it must relate itself to the present. If we really believe that God has got the greatest of futures lined up for us, then surely this should affect the way in which we live our life in the present.

Faith leads to action. Hebs 11 it seems to me is not just ‘a call to faith’ (so NEB), but a call to action. This chapter is a roll-call of men and women who put their faith in Action: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and many more (11.4-28) – but also of many more too.

By faith… by faith…” This phrase occurs 18 times, and begins each sentence. The author of course is intent on making a point – and the point is this: he wants his readers to understand that God’s people have always lived by faith, believing that they would one day receive God’s promises which they could not see except through the eye of faith. However tough the life of faith may seem to you, God is not asking of you anything which he has not asked of his people in the past – time and again God’s people have exhibited perseverance and trust. Note too that the examples chosen tend to be examples of people who rejected earthly success and security and demonstrated their faith in God’s promises.

Abel.

11.4: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain” – I always feel sorry for Cain, the underdog. The story of Cain and Abel in Gen 4.2-10 does not mention his faith. The question arises: in what sense was his sacrifice more acceptable? Presumably because of the faith and righteousness involved.

through his faith he still speaks”. This may be an echo of the Genesis story, which says that Abel’s blood cried out from the ground to God (Gen 4.10), but here it is his example of faith and righteousness that continues to speak.

Enoch

11.6: “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death

Gen 5.24 says that “Enoch walked with God”: i.e. he obeyed God and followed his ways. 11.7 says that “he had pleased God

Noah

11.7: “By faith Noah, warned by God ab out events yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark…” Witherington: Noah’s ‘folly’ turned out to be a symbol of God’s judgment on the world

Abraham – together with Isaac & Jacob

Abraham is singled out for special mention – he is the example of faith par excellence: vv8-20 are devoted to him. More space is given to Abraham than to anyone else, even including Jesus, in this hall of faith. Four times the phrase “by faith” is applied to him (vv8, 9, 11,17).

Three episodes of his life are singled out:

  • His setting out from Ur of the Chaldees

  • His becoming the father of Isaac

  • His willingness to sacrifice Isaac

Linked with Abraham is also the faith displayed by Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, all of whom expressed their faith by believing there was a future for their family and people. Thomas Long says: Joseph: “staring into the grave… saw grace”

11.8: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out not knowing where he was going.”

When God called him, Abraham was living a comfortable life. He was a citizen of Ur of the Chaldees, which the discoveries of archaeology have shown was a thriving ancient city.

The Bible makes clear that he was a wealthy man, so he no doubt lived at the time in one of the magnificent town-houses which have been unearthed in Ur. But then God intervened in his life – “God called him to travel to an unknown place that would become his home” (The Message). And Abraham exchanged his comfortable home in a pleasant town for a tent in the desert. Why? Because Abraham believed that God had something better in store for him. “He was waiting for the city which God has designed and built, the city with permanent foundations” (11.10). There must have been times when that took some believing. It wasn’t easy being a nomad for God.

11.11: “By faith he received the power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren”. Interestingly at this point translations vary: indeed, according to a note in the NRSV this verse could be translated: “By faith, Sarah herself, though barren, received power to conceive”. Frankly it seems to me that both were involved!

11.17: “By faith Abraham, when put to the test offered up Abraham…He considered the fact that God is able to raise someone from the dead – and figuratively speaking he did receive him back”. Although perhaps allegory at this point may be involved, the conclusion is based on Abraham telling his servants that he and Isaac would return from the mountain.

Moses

From Abraham the author moves on to Moses, and here again we have the same three-fold structure:

Three episodes of his life are singled out:

  • By faith Moses was hidden by his parents

  • By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter

  • By faith he left Egypt

This is then followed by three further incidents involving people connected with Moses:

  • The Israelites by “by faith” crossed the Red Sea

  • The Israelites who “by faith” encircled the walls of Jericho

  • Rahab, the prostitute, who “by faith” received the spies

To return to the hiding of Moses in the bulrushes, this of course is an example of his parents’ faith – and yet it involved him: “they saw that the child was beautiful” (11.23). In the LXX we read that as a baby Moses was “beautiful before God”: this suggests not just physical beauty but being well-pleasing to God.

Moses’ refusal to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter: although this is not mentioned in the OT, nonetheless it indicates that Moses was a man who refused short-term gains or the short-lived pleasure of sin, but rather chose hardship with God’s people. Sin here is equated not with immorality, but rather with luxury, self-indulgence

He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (11.26) – this is anachronistic – Moses lived before Jesus. The most we can say is that Moses is here described as a ‘visionary’ who foresaw the coming of a suffering Messiah. ~The point that the author is making is that Moses “by faith” identified with the greater purposes of God, “looking ahead to the reward” (11.26)

By faith he left Egypt” (11.27)- almost certainly this is a reference to the Exodus, and not his earlier flight into Midian which was occasioned by fear. “He persevered as though he saw him who is invisible” (11.27) – it is possible that this is a reference to the pillar of cloud and fire that went ahead.

Faith, we tell our children, is “forsaking all I trust him”. How true this was of this succession of heroes. They exercised extraordinary faith. They did so because, Hebrews says, they regarded themselves as “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (11.13).

Questions for discussion

Now I’ll give you something to believe”, the White Queen remarked. “I’m just one hundred & one, five months & a day”. “I can’t believe that!” said Alice. “Can’t you?”, the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath & shut your eyes”. Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying”, she said. “One can’t believe impossible things”. “I dare say you haven’t had much practice”, said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast…”

  1. Is a Christian another White Queen, save in a different guise? Is faith self-deception? A shutting of one’s eyes to logic & reason and believing the impossible? What is faith?

  2. How certain can we be of our faith?

  3. How real is your faith? How real is my faith? Have there been times in your life when have you taken a ‘risk’ for God?

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