The author of Hebrews has just given us an exhortation to continue in our faith. To remember what you have gone through already as a believer. And don’t throw all of that away. He turns now to look at those from their history who have demonstrated faith in action in the face of opposition and doubt. And he does this to encourage them to follow the examples of the men and women of faith.
A Definition of Biblical Faith
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.
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.Hebrews 11:1-2, 6 NIV
Repeatedly in the New Testament, the importance of faith is emphasized. It is by faith that we are saved. And it is by faith that we look forward to what God has planned for us. But knowing just what faith is, is generally assumed. And that is the value of these three verses and the chapter as a whole. We are told here just what faith is.
Faith is confidence in what we hope for. Specifically that God rewards those who earnestly seek him. This reward is the forward-looking component of faith. It deals with the future. What awaits us at the end of this life? Faith says that we can trust God to take care of our eternity.
Faith is also the assurance of what we do not see. Specifically, that God exists. We cannot see, touch, or hear God with our physical senses. There is no scientific proof for the existence of God. I believe that it is rational to believe in God. That there are many convincing and rational reasons to believe. But it cannot be proven. It is ultimately a matter of faith.
And it is this faith that the ancients were commended for. And that will occupy the remainder of this chapter and into the next.
The bulk of this chapter is a series of examples from Israel’s history. Men and women who walked by faith. And each of these starts with the expression “by faith.” Their faith always resulted in some kind of response. It was not just an intellectual acknowledgment that God existed.
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.Hebrews 11:3 NIV
The first example of faith involves all of us. We believe that God created the universe from nothing. God spoke creation into existence. This is in stark contrast to views that claim the universe has always existed. The prevailing view of that day was that the universe was eternal. And, although more sophisticated, there are many today who propose some form of an eternal universe, or multiverse.
But, although we may not understand the physical mechanisms that God may or may not have used, we have faith that he is our creator. How long it took doesn’t matter. What matters is that he did it.
By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.Hebrews 11:4 NIV
The first individual mentioned in this list is Abel, a son of Adam and Eve. The Scripture records very little about him. He was a shepherd who brought some of the fat portions of his flock’s firstborn as an offering to God. An offering that found favor with God. And that resulted in his death at his brother’s hands (Gen. 4:1-8).
We are not told why Abel’s gift found favor with God and his brother’s gift did not. But we can read into what Hebrews says and recognize that it was, it least in part, a matter of faith. And, even though it cost him his life, his example still speaks to us today. Be faithful, regardless of the cost. God will not forget. Even if no one else recognizes it.
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.Hebrews 11:5 NIV
Enoch was a descendant of Adam and an ancestor of Noah. Genesis says that Enoch walked faithfully with God. And that God took him (Gen. 5:21-24). What is meant by God taking him is not specified. But we believe it means that God took him directly to heaven without experiencing death.
Instead of saying Enock walked faithfully with God, the Septuagint account of this passage says that he pleased God. But what it was about Enoch’s walk with God that pleased God so much that he took him straight to heaven is unknown to us. Nevertheless, he stands as a monument to us of the faith-filled life. Enoch surely did not walk faithfully in the hope he would escape death. But, for him, that was the result.
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 is in keeping with faith.Hebrews 11:7 NIV
Like Enoch, Noah was described as a man who walked faithfully with God. And he did so during a time of great spiritual darkness and depravity. God determined to destroy his creation with a flood but save Noah and his family. They would essentially be the Adam and Eve of a new creation. God told Noah to build a boat that would save his family and all animal life. Noah did, the floods came, and all land life not on the ark was killed (Gen. 6:8-9:17).
Noah’s faith stood in stark contrast to the world of his day. A world described at the beginning of chapter 6. And it left the world of his day without excuse. Noah then became an heir of the righteousness in keeping with faith. He inherited the righteousness that comes from faith. Just like Abraham later did (Gen. 15:6).
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.Hebrews 11:8 NIV
Abel and Enoch are minor players in Biblical history. And even Noah’s part, as significant as it is, gets little mention beyond the account of the flood. But Abraham is quite different. He is one of the most pivotable individuals in the Old Testament. Alongside Moses and David, Abraham is enshrined on Israel’s Mt. Rushmore.
Abraham grew up in a pagan household in Babylon. God called him to leave his family and go to where he would show him. And Abraham went. There is much about Abraham’s calling and response that is unknown. But what is most significant is that he responded to God in faith. Did he know God before his calling? I think it is doubtful. Was Abraham always faithful? No, he made some poor choices. But where God led, he went. He walked by faith in a strange land far from home.
A City with Foundations
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. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.Hebrews 11:9-10 NIV
These two verses introduce a theme that the author will come back to later. And it is a reflection of the second part of the definition of faith, confidence in what we hope for. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in tents, traveling around the promised land as nomads. The land had been promised to them. But they died without ever seeing that promise fulfilled. It was over 400 years later before than promise was realized.
They lived as strangers in a land not their own. But they looked forward to a more permanent settlement. It is hard to know what Abraham dreamed of as the fulfillment of God’s promise to him. But a city with foundations was much more permanent than a tent. It reflected ownership of the land. And God as the builder may well indicate a spiritual city rather than a physical one. A thought that is reinforced later in the chapter.
And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 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.Hebrews 11:11-12 NIV
Interestingly, Sarah is included in this list of faith. Especially since it is about having a son in her old age. It was Sarah’s idea for Abraham to have a son via Hagar, her slave (Gen. 16:1-2). And Sarah laughed when she overheard the men telling Abraham that she would have a son in a year (Gen. 18:10-12). Yet she was a part of Abraham’s dream and walked with him through his journey.
From the author’s perspective, Abraham had more descendants than could be counted. Well past the age when children could be expected, Sarah had Issac, the child of promise. Isaac had two more. Jacob had 12. And from there, they multiplied like rabbits.
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, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 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.Hebrews 11:13-16 NIV
This builds on what was said in verses 9 and 10. The object of our faith is something we look forward to. And that is not something found in this life. Abraham is such an excellent example of what is said here. God called him to leave, going to someplace that was better than where he was. He could have turned back at any time. He could have gone back to family and friends and admitted that it was all a big mistake. But he did not. He continued his journey to the end of his life. And then entered into that better country that had been prepared for him.
While our author highlights these “heroes of faith,” what he says about them is true of all believers. We live as strangers in this world. And we are looking forward to something much better than what we have here. And, because we walk by faith, God is pleased to claim us as his children.
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.Hebrews 11:17-19 NIV
The biggest test of Abraham’s life came after Isaac, the child of promise was born. Some years later, God called on Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. And Abraham did. Or at least he got as far as preparing the site, binding Isaac, placing him on the altar, and raising the knife. And then God stopped him. He had passed the test (Gen 22:1-19).
What the author says about Abraham here is remarkable. Abraham was so convinced of God’s promise concerning Isaac that he believed God would raise him from the dead. Undoubtedly that belief helped Abraham as he went through all this. But still, it was an act of faith. And one that was rewarded.
By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.Hebrews 11:20 NIV
A the end of his life, a father would bless his sons. And that blessing often included a prophetic look into the son’s future. As Isaac’s firstborn, Esau should have received the primary, and most favorable, blessing from his father. But Jacob and his mother tricked Issac into giving that blessing to Jacob. Afterward, Esau received a less than favorable blessing (Gen 27:25-40).
The blessing given to Jacob was one of God’s blessing and dominance over his brothers. In contrast, the blessing given to Esau was that he would be a wanderer and under the rule of his brother. And both of these blessings came true. Even though he had no real way of foreseeing his children’s future, he blessed them by faith, trusting what God would do for them.
By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.Hebrews 11:21 NIV
Jacob and his family migrated to Egypt in response to famine and an invitation from Joseph. This trip was likely thought to be short-term, but it ended up being 400 years. But, at the end of Jacob’s life, he called his sons together and blessed each of them according to what he foresaw for them (Gen. 49:1-28).
Jacob’s blessings for his sons foretold a time when they would return to the land promised them by God. I suspect leaving Egypt was already a difficult thing for them to do. But Jacob remembered God’s promise to him (Gen. 46:3-4). And blessed his sons accordingly, trusting that God would fulfill his promise.
By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.Hebrews 11:22 NIV
Joseph’s story was a classic rags to riches tale. He was sold as a slave in Egypt. But God blessed him, and he rose to power in Egypt. And was then able to rescue his family from a severe famine ravaging the land. Joseph was 30 years old when he rose to power (Gen. 41:46). He was likely around 40 when his family moved to Egypt after seven years of plenty and at least two of famine. And he is recorded as being 110 years old when he died (Gen. 50:26). During the 70 years his family had been in Egypt, their fortunes seemed to have changed. At the end of his life, Joseph expresses to his brothers that God would come to their aid. And when he did, Joseph’s bones were to be taken back to Canaan (Gen. 50:24-25).
Although Joseph recognized that the descendants of Jacob were no longer free to return to the Promised Land, he had faith that God would deliver them in the future. And he made provision for that time.
By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.Hebrews 11:23 NIV
Approximately 400 years after Jacob led his family into Egypt as honored guests, their situation was completely reversed. They were an oppressed people, and Egypt had instituted extreme measures to control their growing population. And into this situation, Moses was born. According to Pharoah’s decree, Moses should have been thrown into the Nile at birth. But his mother saw that he was a fine child and hid him for three months before placing him in a basket and setting him adrift in the Nile (Ex. 2:1-4).
What it was about Moses that led him to be identified as a “fine child,” or not ordinary, is unknown. Did God reveal to his parents something of what Moses might do? Or was it simply what any parent thinks when looking at their newborn? Whichever it was, Moses’ mother seemed to have a strategic plan. She placed the basket in a location where Pharoah’s daughter would find it. And she posted Moses’ sister as a guard to watch over the basket containing her infant brother. Her provision for her son resulted in her being able to care for him for a few years before he moved into Pharoah’s court for the next phase of his preparation in God’s service.
Moses’ mother likely had little idea about what the future held for her son. But it would appear that she had faith that he would be delivered from the Nile. And that faith was rewarded.
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.Hebrews 11:24-26 NIV
Moses was raised in the court of the Pharoah. The first 40 years of his life were lived in privilege with the best that Egypt had to offer. But when Moses began to take an interest in his heritage and ended up killing an Egyptian who was mistreating a Hebrew, he had to flee Egypt (Ex. 2:11-15). He gave up his place in Pharoah’s family and ended up as a shepherd for the next 40 years of his life.
Why did he do this? There is no way to know all that went through his mind. But what is clear is that he gave up his place in Pharaoh’s household to associate with his ancestral people. He gave up the privilege he had to suffer disgrace with God’s people. And 40 years later, God called him back to Egypt to finish the task he had so poorly started. To deliver Israel from Egyptian servitude.
By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.Hebrews 11:27 NIV
Moses left Egypt. The first time he left out of fear, so this must be referring to the second time he left Egypt. The second time he had boldly confronted Pharaoh with the demand to let Israel go. And he left at the head of an army. God had defeated Egypt and its gods, freeing the descendants of Abraham to bring them back home.
Moses was a unique individual in the Old Testament. He was privileged to have a relationship with God that was unlike anyone else, with the possible exception of Adam and Eve. Moses met with God face-to-face (Num. 12:6-8). From Moses’ first personal encounter with God at the burning bush until the end of his life, 40 years later, Moses saw him who was invisible. And it enabled him to persevere through all the trials of confronting Pharoah and leading Israel to the promised land.
By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.Hebrews 11:28 NIV
The final plague on Egypt was the death of their firstborn. Every household that did not have the blood of a lamb on its door frame lost its firstborn. It was a devasting loss for Egypt. And it was the final straw that pushed Pharoah into letting them go. The faith here was not just that of Moses. All of the Israelites had to do this. Even though it may not have made sense to them, they obeyed. They had seen enough of what God could do to have no doubt as to his ability and willingness to do this.
Crossing the Red Sea
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.Hebrews 11:29 NIV
After Moses led Israel out of Egypt, God led them to the shore of the Red Sea. And there, Pharoah and his army came after them. It was a terrifying experience for these newly freed slaves. But when things looked bleakest, God intervened. He had Moses stretch out his staff, and the waters parted so they could cross.
Moses displayed faith by doing what God instructed him to do. And the people did as well. Walking across the sea bed with water piled up on either side of you. I can imagine they made the transit with some trepidation. But God rewarded them for their faith. They crossed in safety, and the Egyptian army perished when the waters closed upon them (Ex. 14:21-28).
The Walls of Jericho
By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.Hebrews 11:30 NIV
These last two examples come from the same event, the destruction of Jericho. Jericho was the first real obstacle Israel faced upon crossing the Jordan River into Canaan. Jericho was said to be a large walled city. Going past it into the interior would not be an attractive option because it would leave a powerful enemy at their rear. It had to be conquered. Israel would have had no siege weapons. So the only option would be to starve them out, which could take a very long time.
But God gave them instructions on how to take the city. Instructions that must have seemed silly to Israel’s army. Quietly march around the city once a day for six days. And on the seventh day, march around seven times. Then blow the ram’s horns, and the walls would fall down (Jos. 6:2-5). Israel, in faith, obeyed God. And the city fell.
By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.Hebrews 11:31 NIV
Rahab was either an inn-keeper or a prostitute in Jericho, although they may have been the same thing, when Israel was coming into the land. Joshua sent out spies to investigate what lay ahead of them. They came into Jericho but were identified as spies. Rahab hid them and sent them safely on their way. But she first made them promise to protect her and her family when they conquered Jericho. She was convinced that Israel would win. And, by faith, cast her lot with Israel (Jos. 2:12-13).
To Be Continued
The author of Hebrews has finished his itemized list of individuals. But he will continue on this topic of responding to God in faith through the rest of this chapter and into the next. But that will be covered in the next post.
- Hebrews: An Introduction
- Hebrews: The Supremacy of Christ (1:1-4)
- Hebrews: Superior to the Angels (1:5-14)
- Hebrews: A Warning to Pay Attention (2:1-4)
- Hebrews: We See Jesus, Crowned with Glory (2:5-9)
- Hebrews: Made Perfect Through Suffering (2:10-13)
- Hebrews: Jesus Is Fully Human in Every Way (2:14-18)
- Hebrews: Jesus Is Greater Than Moses (3:1-6)
- Hebrews: Failure to Enter God’s Rest (3:7-19)
- Hebrews: Enter God’s Rest (4:1-11)
- Hebrews: the Active Word of God (4:12-13)
- Hebrews: Our Great High Priest (4:14-16)
- Hebrews: Obedience Learned Through Suffering (5:1-10)
- Hebrews: Move Beyond Elementary Teachings (5:11-6:3)
- Hebrews: A Most Explicit Warning (6:4-12)
- Hebrews: An Anchor of Hope for the Soul (6:13-20)
- Hebrews: The Priesthood of Melchizedek (7:1-10)
- Hebrews: A New Priesthood (7:11-28)
- Hebrews: We Do Have Such a High Priest (8:1-6)
- Hebrews: A New Covenant (8:7-13)
- Hebrews: Worship in the Tabernacle (9:1-10)
- Hebrews: The Blood of the New Covenant (9:11-15)
- Hebrews: Entering the Heavenly Sanctuary (9:16-28)
- Hebrews: One Sacrifice for All Time (10:1-18)
- Hebrews: Enter the Most Holy Place (10:19-39)
- Hebrews: The Role Call of Faith (11:1-31)