Bible Book Studies: Hebrews 11

You just have to have faith!

We’ve all heard this at one time or another, and sometimes these words, or something like them, are offered with the intent to be an encouragement, but often feel hollow and empty. The author of Hebrews comes to a discussion of faith in Chapter 11, and to understand its point, we must remember the context.

I have maintained throughout this study that the author of Hebrews has as his main target audience Jews who are “seekers” – open to considering the idea that Jesus may indeed be the long-awaited Messiah. I pointed out in my previous blog that the author makes a shift in these last chapters to providing encouragement to those who have already accepted the reality of Jesus as Messiah. In this chapter, the emphasis is on maintaining an enduring faith.

We need to return briefly to Chapter 10:35-39 to find the “therefore” statement that Chapter 11 builds on.

35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37 For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; 38 but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” 39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

If you’ll recall, chapter 10 ended on the premise that a Christ-follower will face rejection, persecution, disappointment, etc. This “therefore” statement was intended to provide encouragement, along the same lines as “you just have to have faith”. Easier said than done! But the author recognizes this fact, because he strings together several Old Testament quotes with some New Testament principles to arrive at the statement in verses 37-38. The righteous one (Christ-followers) lives by faith without shrinking back. But the quote portion “yet a little while” comes from Haggai 2:6, in which a Messianic prophecy is made that took about four hundred years to fulfill. This is an example of God’s “in a little while”. So, the author is preparing his reader for the fact that our not shrinking back and endurance may very well be a very long time from our point of view. That’s why it is necessary for Chapter 11 to expand on this idea.

1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3 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.

The author begins with a simple definition of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen”. The terms assurance and conviction imply firmness or steadfastness of belief – a belief that is unwavering. Considered alone, the term translated “hoped for” may seem like wishful thinking, but it is a term very much like the one used in the second phrase – things not seen. Our faith is in something that extends beyond our physical senses, but to things that are real nevertheless. That’s why verse three is so important and amazing. The universe was created from things that are not visible. This implies creation ex nihilo, or creation from nothing. This is entirely consistent with our modern view of the origins of the universe and life. These entities arose from nothing like it that had previously existed (e.g. the Big Bang from an infinitely small singularity and the appearance of life from non-living matter – abiogenesis). These are great examples of facts that we accept without having any explanation for how the occurred other than through supernatural, God-ordained creation.

Unwavering faith is listed (in verse 2) as what the people in the Old Testament were commended for. He then embarks on a list of a few of these examples.

4 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.

This story comes from Genesis 4. Cain ultimately killed his brother Abel because God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s. The point, here, though, is that Abel’s faith endured until his death.

5 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. 6 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.

Enoch is a man about whom we know very little. All scripture says about him (Genesis 5:18-24) is that “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” Because of the way it is phrased in the Hebrew language, interpreters have consistently regarded this to mean that Enoch did not die a natural death but was simply taken by God into heaven. Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-12) is the only other person identified in the Bible as not dying a natural death but rather taken supernaturally by God. The point, though, that the Hebrews author is making here is not the manner in which Enoch’s life ended, but rather that his life is marked as one of faith that still resulted in his leaving this life behind.

All the rest of the people identified in this chapter have something else in common besides their faith continuing through to the end of their life… their flaws. That’s not to say that Abel and Enoch weren’t sinners. They were, as all humans are. We just have fewer details about their life.

7 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.

Noah’s life is described in Genesis 6-9. Like Enoch, Noah is commended for his faith in that he “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Noah and his sons may have taken as much as 60 or so years to build the ark and his faith was certainly tested throughout that process. God ultimately saved Noah and his family from the destruction of the rest of the human race in the flood, yet Noah still remained afterward to live another 350 years. With a total lifespan of 950 years, Noah certainly had an enduring faith. Yet he still died.

8 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. 9 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. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12 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.

This is a brief summary of the events spelled out in Genesis 12-21. Abraham was promised three things (for his offspring) by God – land, to become a great nation, and to be a blessing for all people on earth. It wasn’t until Abraham and Sarah were past child-bearing age that God gave them their son, Isaac, through whom these blessings would begin.

Then the author continues with his train of thought.

13 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. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 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.

Verse 13 is a key verse in understanding the purpose of this chapter. The main point in recounting these stories is not the great faith of the individuals, although that is important. The main point is that their faith persisted through their life and actually culminated in their death and the fulfilled promises that come after death. They saw what God had in store for their life after death and were awaiting that. This is the kind of faith God wants us to have! We are to acknowledge that we are strangers and exiles on the earth and seek a homeland, a better country – a heavenly one, which God is preparing for us. This is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” spoken of at the beginning of the chapter.

17 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, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Abraham understood that God’s promises extend beyond death and therefore had the confidence that God could work his plan for Isaac even if Isaac died (Genesis 21).

20 By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. 21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. 22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.

Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all exhibited this faith beyond death by looking ahead to what God would be doing beyond their years.

23 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. 24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. 29 By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.

These events are recounted in Exodus 2-14. Note that the author identifies Moses as having faith in Christ (vs. 26). The “reproach of Christ” is a reference to the rejection those who follow Jesus (God) are likely to experience. Moses chose to identify with his own people, knowing it would mean rejection by the Egyptians.

30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

Both of these acts of faith are found in Joshua 6.

32 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— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 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. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 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— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

This concluding summary picks out examples from the rest of the historical passages of the Old Testament.

39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

There are two statements that stand out in this final conclusion to the chapter.

  1. The individuals listed did not receive what was promised. Now, you can look at some of the individuals (Rahab, for example) who did receive what was promised in the short term. In her case, it was salvation from the destruction of Jericho. But the promise that she did not receive (directly) is the final and eternal salvation that would be provided through Jesus’ atoning death and his resurrection, conquering death on our behalf. However, Rahab’s faith (and the faith of all the others listed) was ultimately in the God who promises eternal salvation and they knew that He could be trusted to deliver on this promise. That brings us to the second significant statement.
  2. God had provided something better. This statement in verse 40 identifies the direct recipients of the “something better”, and that would be those who are able to know the name of Jesus and receive him as the fulfillment of God’s promise. When the author says “that apart from us they should not be made perfect”, he is saying that if Jesus had not fulfilled his mission, their faith (and ours) would be null and void. This is a theme that Paul identifies well in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19.

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Chapter 12 begins with another “therefore” statement, which we’ll look at next time.


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