The Superior Faith (sermon resource for 8/7/22)

This post exegetes Hebrews 11:1-16, 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).

Abraham Serving the Three Angels (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

We come now to chapter 11 in the New Testament book of Hebrews. Prior to this, its author tells us that Jesus is the Superior Person (chapters 1-6), who has the Superior Priesthood (chapters 7-10). These truths form the basis for the Christian faith, namely allegiance to and trust in Jesus only. This faith is Superior Faith because it is greater than that offered by the old covenant under the Law of Moses. Because they were being persecuted for their trust in Jesus, the original Jewish Christian readers of this epistle were tempted to return to the inferior faith of the old covenant. It’s easier for all of us to trust in the known and visible, than in the invisible realities of God. 

Hebrews chapter 10 ends with this exhortation: 

My righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him. But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. (10:38-39)

The author then devotes chapter 11 to continuing this exhortation to live by faith. Doing so is the essence of Christian ‘maturity’ (Heb. 6:1). Chapter 11 continues this exhortation to live the Superior Faith with two parts: faith’s description and faith’s demonstration

Faith’s description (11:1–3)

1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

Rather than defining faith, the writer describes it: Faith has to do with things future (“what we hope for”, 11:1a) and unseen (“what we do not see”, 1b). The NIV ('being sure of what we hope for') describes faith as confidence in God’s promises. The KJV (‘faith is the substance of things hoped for’) suggests that what is hoped for becomes real (substantial) through the exercise of faith. This is not magical thinking. Rather, the reality of what is hoped for is confirmed for us in our experience when we live by faith in God’s promises. 

Faith is thus the ‘proving’ or ‘testing’ of invisible realities: the existence of God, his faithfulness to his word and his control over our world. If this description of faith seems abstract, its meaning becomes more concrete in the illustrations that follow. For such faith “the ancients were commended” (11:2). In the record of Scripture, God testified to their faith, and so made them ‘witnesses’ (12:1) of true faith for us. 

The first illustration of faith takes us back to creation: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command” (11:3a). The point is that God is in control. He is in control of nature and history, past and present. Thus every generation of believers can trust his promises about the future, no matter what it may cost them. When the writer says “what is seen was not made out of what was visible” he alludes back to the description of faith in v 1. Faith discerns that the universe of space and time has an invisible source and that it continues to be dependent on “God’s command” (literally, ‘God’s word’). Such faith is based on the revelation God has given us in Scripture and a trust in God’s sovereign power.

How do we grow in this faith? We do so by walking with those who live by faith. The remainder of the chapter is a brief walking tour through the Old Testament, examining the lives and labors of men and women who have lived by faith (though often quite imperfectly—this is real life, not fantasy). In each example we find the same elements: (1) God spoke to them through his word; (2) their inner beings were stirred; (3) they responded in obedience; (4) God bore approving witness about their lives.

Faith’s demonstration (11:4–40)

Abel: faith worshiping (v. 4)

4 By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.

The background story here is in Genesis 4:1–10. Abel was a righteous man because of faith (Matt. 23:35). God had revealed to Adam and his descendants the true way of worship, and Abel obeyed God by faith. In fact, his obedience cost him his life. Cain was not a child of God (1 John 3:12) because he did not have faith. He was religious but not righteous through faith. Abel was the first martyr of the faith. 

Enoch: faith walking (vv. 5–6) 

5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Our faith in God grows as we fellowship with God. We must have both the desire to please him and the diligence to seek him. Prayer, meditating on Scripture, worship, discipline—all of these help us walk with God. Enoch walked with God in the wicked world, before the Flood came; he was able to keep his life pure. Enoch was “taken” (translated) to heaven and seen no more. Abel died a violent death, but Enoch never died. God has a different plan for each one who trusts him.  

Noah: faith working (v. 7) 

7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

Noah’s faith involved the whole person: his mind was warned of God; his heart was moved with fear; and his will acted on what God told him. Noah’s actions must have generated a great deal of interest and probably ridicule as well. His faith influenced his whole family and they were saved. It also condemned the whole world, for his faith revealed their unbelief. Events proved that Noah was right. Jesus used this experience to warn people to be ready for His return (Matt. 24:36–42). In Noah’s day, the people were involved in innocent everyday activities and completely ignored Noah’s witness (2 Peter 2:5). 

The patriarchs: faith waiting (vv. 8–22) 

8a By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went…

The emphasis in this section is on the promise of God and his plans for the nation of Israel. The nation began with the call of Abraham. God promised Abraham and Sarah a son, but they had to wait 25 years for the fulfillment of that promise. Their son Isaac became the father of Jacob and Esau, and it was Jacob who really built the nation through the birth of his twelve sons. Joseph saved the nation in the land of Egypt, and Moses would later deliver them from Egypt. Such faith-filled waiting for God to fulfill his promises is difficult, yet a person of living faith waits for the fulfillment of God’s purposes in God’s time. 

And while waiting, a faithful person continues to obey God…

Even when they don't know where God is taking them (vv. 8–10)

8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Abraham lived in tents because he was a stranger and pilgrim in the world and had to be ready to move whenever God spoke. Christians today are also strangers and pilgrims (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). Abraham had his eyes on the heavenly city and lived “in the future tense.” 

Even when they don't know how God’s promises will be accomplished (vv. 11–12)

11 By faith Abraham, even though he was past age-- and Sarah herself was barren-- was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. 

Both Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children. Yet they both believed that God would do the miracle (Rom. 4:13–25). Unbelief asks, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:18–20). Faith asks, “How shall this be?” (Luke 1:34–37), 

Even when they don’t know when God’s promises will be accomplished (vv. 13–16)

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country-- a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. 

None of the patriarchs saw the complete fulfillment of God’s promises, but they saw from “afar off” what God was doing. These men and women of faith lived in tents, but they knew a heavenly city awaited them. God always fulfills his promises to his believing people, either immediately or ultimately. 

Even when he doesn’t know why God is working the way he is (vv. 17–19)

17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." 19 Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. 

Why would God want Abraham to sacrifice his son when it was the Lord who gave him that son? All of a future nation’s promises were wrapped up in Isaac. The tests of faith often become more difficult as we walk with God, yet the rewards often are more wonderful. And we must not ignore the obedient faith of Isaac:

20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. 21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph's sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. 22 By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.

In these four patriarchs we have four generations of faith. Though these men, just like us, were far from perfect, they were devoted to God and trusted his Word. They were people of faith. 

Conclusion

We conclude by noting that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (11:6). But this kind of faith is readily available to us--not as something we work up within ourselves--but as God’s gift to us in and through Jesus who by the Spirit shares his faith with us. This faith of Jesus within us takes root and grows in our lives as we listen to God’s Word and fellowship with him in worship and prayer. That is the calling and opportunity for all followers of Jesus in all kinds of situations. Lord, increase our faith!