Persevere through the Faith of Jesus (sermon resource for 8/14/22)

This post exegetes Hebrews 11:29-12:2, drawing on multiple sources including commentary from Warren Wiersbe (Bible Expository Commentary), F.F. Bruce (Epistle to the Hebrews) and D.A. Carson (New Bible Commentary).

The Battle of Jericho (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In Hebrews chapter 11 (sometimes called the 'faith chapter') we are given stories that illustrate what faith looks like. Most of these stories involve the children of Israel. Note v29:

By faith the people [of Israel] passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

This is a reference is to the flight (exodus) out the children of Israel out of Egypt. It was a harrowing, risky journey of faith--leaving behind the known of Egypt for the unknown of the Promised Land. Key to that journey was the faith of Israel's leader, Moses.

The author of Hebrews tells the story of Israel's exodus so that we as followers of Jesus might be strengthened in our faith--our trust in God. Indeed, trust is the essence of faith. As we trust God we are  extending open hands by which we receive what God has accomplished and will accomplish for us in and through Jesus. But when we place our trust in ourselves (including our own faith), we are able to receive only what weak humans (including ourselves) can accomplish. 

The experience of Moses and Israel with him is proof that true biblical faith means obeying God in spite of circumstances and consequences. Here are examples given in Hebrews chapter 11: 

Joshua and Rahab (vv. 30–31) 

30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days. 31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

A key moment in Israel's exodus occurred at the end of the journey, involving the conquest of Jericho. The details are found in Joshua 2–6. Joshua was Moses’ successor as leader of Israel, and he succeeded because he trusted the same God Moses trusted. God does not change, he blesses faith and judges unbelief. The Jericho victory involved not only the faith of Joshua and other Israelites--it also involved the faith of Rahab, a non-Israelite prostitute who trusted Israel’s God. As a result…

  • Rahab was saved by grace. The other inhabitants of the city were marked for death, but God in his mercy and grace permitted Rahab to live. 
  • Rahab was saved through faith. What she knew about God is recorded in Joshua 2:8–14. She knew that Jehovah had delivered Israel from Egypt and that he had opened the Red Sea. But that was forty years before! She also knew God had defeated the other nations during Israel’s wilderness wanderings (Josh. 2:11). God honored that faith. 
  • Rahab was saved unto good works. As we are told in James 2:20-26, true faith shows itself in good works. In faith, Rahab went to work: she protected the spies, put the cord in the window as directed, apparently won her family to faith, and in multiple ways showed her faith in Israel's God through her works of obedience to the will of God.

Not only was Rahab delivered from judgment, but she became part of the nation of Israel, eventually marrying Salmon and giving birth to Boaz who was an ancestor of King David. Imagine a pagan harlot becoming a part of the ancestry of Jesus! That is what faith can do. 

Various heroes of faith (vv. 32–40) 

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated-- 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

There are many examples in the Old Testament of men and women who won victories of faith like those referred to in this list. These people were not perfect (some, like Samson, were far from perfect). But the point seems to be that faith can operate in the life of any person who dares to listen to God’s Word and surrender to God’s will.  

  • Gideon was a frightened farmer, yet his faith grew.
  • Barak won a resounding victory, though he needed Deborah to bolster his confidence.
  • Samson yielded to his fleshly appetites, yet trusted God to help and deliver him and, in the end, was willing to give his life to defeat the enemy.
  • Jephthah most likely dedicated his daughter to the Lord and to perpetual virginity on the basis of the “law of vows."
  • David subdued kingdoms and wrought righteousness. 
  • Then there are unnamed people like Daniel whose faith “shut the mouths of lions,” three Hebrew boys who overcame the power of the fiery furnace, and multiple unnamed women whose stories of faith are told in the Old Testament.

The transition in Hebrews 11:35 is important: not all men and women of faith experience miraculous deliverance. In fact, some were tortured and died for their faith. The word translated “others” in Heb. 11:36 means “others of a different kind.” These “others” had faith, but God did not see fit to deal with them in the same way he dealt with Moses, Gideon, and David. 

I want to note here that the ‘health and wealth gospel’ promulgated by ‘Word of Faith’ and other televangelists and churches, says, in effect, if your faith is strong enough, God must bless you, or heal you, or prosper you--whatever you claim through your “word [proclamation] of faith.” But this assertion does not align with Scripture or with the centuries of experience of God’s people. Some people of strong faith are not delivered, healed, or prospered. This passage in Hebrews records the fact that many unknown men and women of faith were not delivered from difficult circumstances; yet God acknowledged and honored their faith. Frankly, it often takes more faith to endure than it does to escape. We are called and enabled to trust God and obey him in faith even if God does not deliver us (see Daniel 3:16–18). 

Though mankind's estimate of these heroes of faith was low (and so they persecuted them, arrested them, tortured them, and in some cases, killed them), God’s estimate of them is entirely different. God says the world was not worthy of them. Faith enables us to turn from the approval of the world and be embraced and upheld by the approval of God. If God is glorified by delivering us, fine. But if he sees fit to be glorified by not delivering us, that is fine too. We trust (have faith in) God, and we never conclude that the absence of deliverance means a lack of faith on the part of one of God’s children. 

Note in Hebrews 11:40 that faith looks to the future, for that is where the great rewards are found. The people named in this Hebrews 11 (and those unnamed) “did not receive the things promised” (Heb. 11:13) but had God’s witness to their faith that one day they would be rewarded. One day all who place their trust in God to save them (and not in anything else, including in their own faith) will share the heavenly reward. 

Exhortation: run with perseverance (12:1)

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Hebrews 12 follows these stories of faithful people with a plea to us all to persevere in the faith--to “run with perseverance the race marked out” for us all (12:1b). For most Christians down through history and still today, this “race” is a marathon with many obstacles. Because it’s long and often hard, we can be tempted to “grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3). 

This was the situation for the original Jewish Christian readers of Hebrews who were being persecuted, and so tempted to abandon faith in Jesus and return to Judaism and the Law. The author exhorts them to persevere--to keep the faith of Jesus, emboldened to do so by the “great cloud [assembly] of witnesses”--the examples of faith enumerated in Hebrews 11. But how do we persevere in our day? Where do we find this faith? Well, we won't find it by looking within--we won't find it in our flesh. Instead we heed the second exhortation given by the author of Hebrews to look to Jesus.

Exhortation: look to Jesus (12:2)

2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
To find the faith we need to persevere in the face of obstacles, we look to Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith.” It is on him that "faith depends from start to finish” (NEB translation). Jesus is the authhor (better translated ‘pioneer’) of faith because faith originates with him in his relationship with the Father through the Spirit. As we have faith in Jesus, as we walk with him, trusting him, he shares his faith (his faithful perseverance) with us. 

To make this point about faith, the author likens the Christian life to running a race--a sports analogy familiar to the original readers (and to us today). The point is that we need to rid ourselves of any hindrances in the way of running well (“throw off everything that hinders,” 12:1b). Runners in that day wore weights in training to build strength and endurance. But the weights were removed for competition. The analogy is clear: Christians must shed the excess weight of the “sin that so easily entangles” (12:1). It is sin that keeps us from running well--specifically the sin of unbelief--the sin that kept Israel out of the Promised Land, the same sin that hinders Christians from the fullness of their spiritual inheritance in Christ. It was Jesus (the "rock"--1 Cor. 10:4) who led Israel out of Egypt, and it is Jesus who leads us today. 

Conclusion

In Jesus' incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, faith finds ultimate expression and completion. Faith was and is the governing principle of Jesus’ life. While on earth, he lived day-by-day through faith in his Father and in doing so persevered through much, often terrible, suffering. Ascended to heaven, Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2b) bringing faith to its perfect (complete and full) expression in his ongoing work on our behalf as our faithful High Priest. And now from heaven, by the Holy Spirit, Jesus shares with us his perfect and perfecting faith. So, dear ones, look to Jesus—share his trust in God; share his perseverance! Keep on keeping on!! Keeep the faith! The finish line beckons. Amen.