Remember where we are now. In the last half of chapter 10 our author, our preacher really, had turned from his exposition of the superior priesthood of Jesus Christ to another sustained passage of exhortation or application. That has been his tactic throughout the sermon, to alternate exposition with application, as good preachers will. In that exhortation he urged his readers, the hearers of his sermon, not to give up but to hold fast to Christ to the end. Only those who persevere in faith in Christ, he told them, as he has told them many times in his sermon so far, will receive what God has promised. Faith, being the great need of the hour; faith being precisely what was wavering in this Jewish Christian community, he has now turned to bolster their faith by the example of those who went before them, believing what could not be seen and persevering in that faith until the end.
Last time we took the two definitions of faith that he gives us in the early verses of the chapter (v. 1 and v. 6) and the three ante-deluvians (Abel, Enoch, and Noah). Now we go on with his list of examples.
v.8 The next set of examples is taken from the patriarchal history. Naturally, Abraham figures largely in this chapter as the Bible itself draws attention to his faith and to the blessings that came to him because he trusted in the Lord in defiance of the evidence of his eyes.
v.9 He lived, in other words, as if it were to be his land, even though he did not possess it and would not in his lifetime, apart from a small burial plot he bought. He made his home there even though he had to live in his home as if he were a stranger in someone else’s country.
v.10 Now the argument takes a very important turn. We might have expected the preacher simply to make the point that Abraham believed that the Promised Land would one day be his, in the sense that it would belong to his family, his offspring, because God had promised that to him. And, then the preacher would say, and, look, it did eventually come to Abraham’s descendants. Abraham was right to trust God’s promise, even if it took a long time to be fulfilled. But our preacher, instead, goes on to say that Abraham never thought that the Promised Land, as a piece of real estate, was what had really been promised to him. Oh, it had been promised, to be sure, and would one day be occupied and taken possession of by Abraham’s descendants, we know that, we know that so well we don’t even have to mention it. But that is not the main thing. The main thing was always heaven, of which the Promised Land was but a sign and seal. Abraham was looking for an inheritance with Enoch!
Now, this is most important and is a perspective to be repeated in the rest of the chapter. What is imperative to realize is that this author is most definitely not saying that the OT saints believed for worldly things, like the real estate of Canaan, while we Christians of the new epoch can believe for more spiritual things. Their eyes were fixed on the land of Canaan whereas we have lifted our eyes to heaven itself. Christians preachers, who should have known better, have often said that, but it is precisely what this preacher does not say. He says, rather: they were looking for the same thing in the ancient epoch that we are looking for today. And, therefore, we must endure in faith as they did, for that is the only way to receive the promise of God, the fulfillment of which remains future for us today just as it did in the days of Abraham.
v.11 Now, to be sure, there were instances in Abraham’s life, as there are in ours today, in which the power of faith is proved more immediately, in this life, in this world. In Abraham’s case, it was the birth of Isaac, against all odds humanly speaking. This mixture of perspectives will be found throughout the chapter. Our faith is vindicated by the Lord’s blessing in this world, even as it continues to look past this world to greet the world to come from afar.
v.12 Which, of course, was just what God had promised Abraham. Events in Abraham’s life vindicated his trust in the Lord, even though the great thing that had been promised was still not yet given and had not been given at the end of Abraham’s life.
v.13 Once again, the main thing that faith looks for, the consummation of salvation in Christ, this they did not receive but looked for to the very end of their lives in this world.
v.16 Canaan was no more the true homeland these believers sought than it was the true “rest” for Israel, even after she had taken possession of the land. (4:8-9)
v.19 The supreme demonstration of Abraham’s faith as an invincible confidence in the promise of God and God’s faithfulness to his Word – even in defiance of appearances – was his willingness to offer up Isaac in sacrifice.
v.22 One generation after another died in the certainty that God would fulfill his promise and keep his Word.
v.23 As so often with the great figures of biblical history, Moses’ faith first lived in his parents. There is information here in v. 23 that we do not have in the account in Exodus 2.
v.26 The short-lived pleasures of the Egyptian court were not to be compared with the eternal inheritance of those who trust the Lord and do his will. The striking reference to Moses suffering disgrace “for the sake of Christ” is very important. Of course, “Christ” is not mentioned by name in Exodus. It is our preacher who is telling us that it was, in fact, Christ for whom Moses suffered, which, of course, agrees with his own perspective and that of the entire NT. He has already told us that Jesus built the house in which Moses was a servant. It was Jesus who delivered his people from Egypt at the Exodus, Christ who provided for Israel in the wilderness; it was Christ’s glory on Moses’ face when he came out of the Tent of Meeting, and so on.
v.27 The flight to Midian is here regarded as an act of discretion, not of panic. And while Moses fled he continued to look to God to keep his pr
v.30 Time after time in Israel’s history, she was delivered in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, by taking God at his Word and acting accordingly.
v.31 It is faith and faith alone, not natural descent or membership in the church that qualifies a person to share in God’s inheritance. It is good for the Jewish Christians to be reminded of a Gentile prostitute’s faith and God’s vindication of her.
v.32 Time remains for a summary only. Note his way of speaking: “for me to tell…” He doesn’t think of himself as writing a letter, but as preaching a sermon. What follows covers the period from the Judges to the heroic resistance of the Maccabees. Some of the references are clear (e.g. “shut the mouths of lions” is a reference to Daniel, “quenched the fury of the flames” to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, “women received back their dead” to the two instances in Kings, one with Elijah and the other Elisha). Others are less clear. The inclusion of Samson and Jephtath remind us that living faith can coexist with massive imperfection.
v.35 The author has not forgot what faith is centered on: a future that has not yet come and that believers must welcome from afar while they are in this world.
v.38 The last verse and a half refers to the Maccabean period. One writer speaks of all the suffering of believers in history as “faith’s grim heredity.”
v.40 These last two verses are some of the most regularly misunderstood in all the Bible. Time and again you will hear preachers and even read some commentators say that what he means is that the OT believers didn’t receive what had been promised but that we have received it. They greeted it from afar, but we have obtained it when Jesus came into the world, suffered, died, and rose again, and then sent his Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is the pure effect of a paradigm of understanding that causes such a misinterpretation. Christian folk come to these verses and think the author must mean that we have what the believers in the ancient epoch did not, for there must be a great difference between us and them.
But, the better commentaries see clearly that he does not say anything of the kind. He is not distinguishing between the situation of believers in the ancient epoch and that of believers in the new epoch, he is identifying their situations. He has said all through the chapter that what they were looking for was the better country, the better resurrection. Well, we don’t have that yet either. As he will say to his readers in 13:14: “For we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
There are three unassailable proofs that the author is in fact saying that we are in precisely the same situation that they were in and so must act as they did in persevering faith.
First, he says here that “none of them received what had been promised.” But, he began this entire section by saying, in 10:36, that we must persevere or else we will not receive what has been promised. In other words, we haven’t received either, which is why we must continue to hold fast to Christ. He is very definitely not saying that they didn’t receive but we have. He is saying that nobody receives until the end and no one will receive who hasn’t persevered in living faith through the whole course of life.
Second, chapter 12 begins with a “Therefore” and an urgent appeal to run with perseverance the race set out for us, surrounded as we are by the many who have gone before us and completed their race faithfully. In other words, the whole conclusion of chapter 11 is that we must do what the ancient believers did, nothing more, nothing less. Our situation is the same as theirs.
And, third, he gives the reason why neither they nor we have yet received the promise: it was God’s will that all his people would be made perfect together, no one before another. Only together with us would the ancient saints be made perfect. And the same can now be said of our generation in relation to that generation of first century Christians. Why does history continue? Why does the world go on? Because there are yet God’s people to be won to faith and new life in Christ. And we cannot receive the reward of our faith until they are ready to receive theirs. One for all and all for one! That is a lovely thought, I think, but it makes again the point that in this fundamental respect we Christians today are in no different situation than Abraham, Moses, or Jeremiah. We are awaiting the ingathering of the elect so that the consummation might come. And while we wait, we live in the sure and certain hope that that day is coming!
That is what his words obviously mean. They cannot mean anything else. And it would do wonders for the ordinary Christian’s understanding of the Bible for him or her to acknowledge that fact and face squarely the implications of it. Our life is to be lived in the same way Abraham lived his and Moses his and Rahab hers. We have the same blessings ahead of us as they did, we must wait for them as they did, and we must continue to believe in the faithfulness of God to his Word as they did if we would inherit heaven at last.
We said last time that faith, that confidence in things that cannot be seen, that assurance that God will keep his promises and bring them to pass in due time, is the secret of everything in the Christian life. It is not doing, but believing that matters and the only doing that is worth doing is the doing that springs from believing. We often lose sight of this and forget about the believing and content ourselves with the doing, but faith and faith alone is the victory that overcomes the world.
I have written on the title page of my Bible this quotation from a sermon of Charles Spurgeon:
“It is our ambition to be great believers rather than great thinkers; to be child-like
in faith… What the Lord has spoken he is able to make good; and none of his
words will fall to the ground.” [MTP, 36, 304]
Well, that is the viewpoint of our preacher here as well. Faith, he says, is the key. Faith that sees a future that God has promised as certain of fulfillment. Faith that is proved in various ways along the way – as God’s people look to the Lord and he meets their needs – but which is always, in this world, primarily looking for what cannot be obtained here, but only in the world to come. That has been the witness of the Christian ages – this faith that grasps so confidently and so firmly the unseen future, sure that it will come to pass because God has promised it and Christ has guaranteed it by his death and resurrection. That was a point the preacher made earlier. The fulfillment of the promise may await the consummation of the ages, but Christ has guaranteed its fulfillment by his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. It is now only a matter of time.
It is not an easy thing, as he himself acknowledges, to believe against the appearance of things, but how many there have been who have gallantly done so, men and women of whom the world was not worthy. And they shall have their reward!
Far down the ages now,
Much of her journey done,
The pilgrim church pursues her way
Until her crown be won;
The story of her past
Comes up before her view;
How well it seems to suit her still –
Old, and yet ever new!
‘Tis the repeated tale
Of sin and weariness;
Of grace and love yet flowing down
To pardon and to bless:
No wider is the gate
No broader is the way,
No smoother is the ancient path
That leads to light and day.
No sweeter is the cup,
Nor less our lot of ill;
‘Twas tribulation ages since,
‘Tis tribulation still;
No slacker grows the fight
No feebler is the foe,
Nor less the need of armour tried,
Of shield, and spear, and bow.
Thus onward still we press,
Through evil and through good;
Through pain and poverty and want,
Through peril and through blood;
Still faithful to our God,
And to our Captain true,
We follow where he leads the way,
The kingdom in our view.
[Horatius Bonar, 1808-1889]
Our preacher means our hearts to be stirred by the example of those who have gone before us. And surely our hearts are stirred when we think of their faith under such trial and their fidelity to the Lord in the teeth of the price they were required to pay for it. When the story of this world has finally been written, it will be these believers in God and in the Word of God who are the heroes of the tale.
And what a difference this faith made! What a life it produced! The courage, the accomplishment of such great things, by such ordinary people! That is what faith does, it brings the power of God down into the life of mere human beings. As Adolphe Monod, the great French Reformed preacher of the 19th century once put it: “Faith is nothing less than the power of God placed at the disposal of man.” [Farewell, 30-31] And see what this power accomplished in the lives of these examples of faith in Christ!
Do you aspire to be such a Christian? Do you want to live in such a way that after you are gone the wise and discerning will say of you that the world was not worthy of him or of her? Do you want to inspire others to trust the Lord and hold fast to his word? Do you want your life to take on the character of these great lives, notwithstanding that you will remain a sinner so long as you are in this world? Well, then, it is faith that you must exercise, faith that you must cultivate and practice and strengthen. It is faith that first and last must define and mark and control your life.
And how is that done? Well, as everything else in the Christian life, graces are sought in prayer from God who alone can give them; they are fed with the nourishment of the Word of God – if you are to be a strong believer you must know what it is that you are to believe and you must constantly be reminded of the reasons for believing, and the Bible is nothing other than a book of reasons for believing in the Lord and his Word. And, then, you must strengthen your faith by exercising it. Everything grows stronger by exercise. Unbelief does and so does faith. You will find as the saints have found before you that the more you believe the promises of God, the more you set yourself to believing them and living accordingly, the more powerful your faith in those promises becomes. It is always so.
Do what the great men and women did. They took God’s Word to them to heart and then they lived accordingly. They acted in ways that were consistent with their certainty that God would keep his promises to them. How differently a man or woman behaves who believes, really believes, that
- after walking with Christ in this world, heaven awaits;
- that, seeking first Christ’s kingdom, everything else that they need will be added to them;
- that their works follow them to heaven;
- that they must give an account of their lives on the great day;
- that God will not forget their obedience or their service of others;
- that their worst sins will be utterly forgiven if only they hold fast to Jesus Christ in living confidence in his righteousness and blood;
- that Christ will be with them at every moment, no matter where they are; he will never leave them nor forsake them;
- that they can do all things through Christ who strengthens them and that his power is made perfect in their weakness; and on and on, through all the exceeding great and precious promises the Lord has made to his people and has made Yea and Amen by his resurrection from the dead.
You parents, your children need to see your Christian doing, no doubt. They need to see you obey and serve the Lord. But, more than that, they need to see your believing! They need to see your confidence in the promises of God. They need to see you believing that the Lord is present with you to bless and care for you and direct your steps; to see you believing that he will provide for your needs according to his Word; believing that he forgives his peoples’ sins; believing that he will reward those who trust and obey him; believing that this brief life takes its great importance from the fact that it is the vestibule of heaven and eternal happiness for those who love God, believing that this world is passing away but that the Word of God abides forever. You be sure they see you and hear you believing in the Lord your God, and then they will believe too. And they will believe all the more when the Lord draws near, as he will so often do, to confirm your faith and prove it and reward it, already in this life. And, then, when you are at the end of your life, you can do your children one last great service by believing then too and saying, as Isaac Watts said on his deathbed, when asked if he still believed the promises of God: “I believe them enough to venture an eternity on them.”
What we have in chapter 11 is, in effect, church history. And serious Christians are always interested in church history. Not necessarily the movements and the thrusts and parries of controversy, the sort of thing of great interest to the church historian, but rather the lives of Christian people, their faith, their example. “I was brought up to love the Covenanters,” said Alexander Whyte. And what was the result of that? He was a man of great faith, like the heroic men his mother read about to him when he was a boy. We have been made to respond to the power of great and heroic examples. And in nothing is this more the case than in the matter of faith, which is why the Bible is chock full of men and women who are shown to us believing in the promises of God, believing in the teeth of contrary appearances, and of being rewarded for their sturdy faith.
So, let us take these examples to heart; believe as they did; set an example for others as they did with their faith; and trust the Lord to vindicate our faith in this world and, much, much more in the world to come. He will! He will!