Hebrews 11 is a famous passage of Scripture. The author highlights the faith of the Old Testament saints to instruct us about faith. This audience has struggled. They’ve faced persecution and will face more in the future. They’re wondering if Jesus is worth it anymore, but they’re hanging on. They’re clinging to Jesus when it seems crazy to do so. It is this context in which the author takes us into chapter 11, where the Old Testament saints speak. William Lane outlines it the following way:
I. The celebration of faith (11:1-2)
II. The role of faith (11:3-38)
I. Creation to Noah (11:3-7)
II. The Patriarchs (11:8-22)
III. Moses to the Conquest of Jericho (11:23-31)
IV. Triumphs over opposing powers (11:32-35a)
V. Sufferings in life and death (11:35b-38)
III. The importance of faith (11:39-40)
The Celebration of Faith - Hebrews 11:1-2
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.
The word “faith” is used 25 times throughout chapter 11. In the first two verses, the author defines faith for us in two ways:
1. “The assurance of things hoped for.”
Faith is forward looking. Our future hope creates present faith. Faith isn’t a leap in the dark. It has an object that is solid and sure.
2. “The conviction of things not seen.”
Faith is the present understanding of the invisible realities around us. Faith looks at the world and sees God’s hand all over. Faith understands that though God is invisible, his promises are certain.
Remember the author’s words in chapter 2. He tells us that God has put everything gin subjection to mankind. But we don’t see that right now. We are weak, sinful, and helpless to stop the world from raging against us. “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9). We have seen the end in Jesus Christ. In him, we have a rock-solid foundation to hope in the life we can’t see right now. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it can’t be there. It is there because Jesus is there. We may waver, but Jesus never wavers. Faith is his gift to us. We can believe despite the way things look because we have been given truth beyond this world.
Remember these pictures from the 90s?
John Piper uses the illustration of faith as looking at a Magic Eye image. To some, it looks like color and chaos. But to those who have eyes to see, they can see through the image to the picture behind it. That’s faith. It sees through the mess of the world to the everlasting arms underneath it all.
The Magic Eye is all about focus. You must train yourself to unfocus on the details to focus on the picture. The problem with these Hebrews is one of focus. They were looking at themselves, not at the glory of Christ. In the face of suffering and persecution, it can become difficult to stay faithful. But faith creates deep courage that focuses on Jesus when everything is on the line. As William Lane says, “Christian courage is holding on a moment longer while we wait for the advent of Christ.”
Francis Schaeffer, in his book, True Spirituality, talked about the Christian life as “active passivity.”
“If we are to bring forth fruit in the Christian life, or rather if Christ is to bring forth this fruit through us by the agency of the Holy Spirit, there must be a constant act of faith, of thinking: Upon the basis of Your promises I am looking for You to fulfill them, O my Jesus Christ; bring forth Your fruit through me into this poor world.”
Schaeffer goes on to say,
“Consciously the power must not be of myself. It is the power of the crucified, risen, and glorified Christ, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, by faith.”
The author of Hebrews is asking for active passivity: actively put your faith in Christ and trust in his work alone. It is in this spirit that he chooses the Old Testament heroes to highlight. He uses these saints to show how faith acts. We do what God asks us to do trusting that in doing his work he will provide. Tom Schreiner says, “Faith…does not see the end at the beginning. Faith always trusts in the promises of God, even when it looks as if they won’t be fulfilled. The readers should do the same: they must cast themselves entirely on God and believe he will give them the final inheritance.”
The Role of Faith - Hebrews 11:4-40
Let’s read through this amazing chapter now.
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.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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
There are so many insights in this chapter, but there is one, overarching, theme to it all. The kind of life God is calling us to is a life of faith in the promises of God in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Each Old Testament saint mentioned found peace with God by trusting him. They looked at their circumstances and in the hardness of them considered God’s promises to be more real than their current situations. The life of faith is a life clinging to the hope that God offers. It is listening to his word and trusting him over all the other options of the world.
The author shows us that in the life of faith there can be two realities, and both can result from true faith. There is a path of earthly victory and there is a path earthly defeat.
Verses 33-35a highlight earthly victory. The saints conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 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, receive back their dead by resurrection. On the other hand, verses 35b-38 highlight earthly defeat. The saints were tortured, refused to accept release, suffered mocking and flogging, suffered chains and imprisonment, stoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword, went about destitute, afflicted, mistreated, wandered about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves.
Notice that these results are not a difference of faith but a difference of circumstance. The faith is the same because the faith is put in the same God. God has no obligation to give us happiness, material wealth, good circumstances, and so on in this life. The blessing of God is primarily future oriented. True faith sees beyond circumstances. No matter what happens – in victory or in defeat – faith reaches into heaven and draws salvation from the throne of God.
The question Hebrews 11 asks is this: is Christianity a good philosophy or is it a wholly new way of life? Faith in Jesus causes us to leave behind the shadow of the Old Testament and cling to the realities of the New Testament. Our journey is not to an earthly promised land, but to a heavenly home prepared for us by Jesus. Will we believe in the promises of God and let those promises inform and transform our lives, or will we live as if what Jesus accomplished is a good thing but ultimately insufficient?
The Importance of Faith – Hebrews 11:39-40
Hebrews 11:39-40 concludes this section,
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.
For these Christians who were facing persecution, looking back to those who have come before (the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1)) served as encouragement that faith can endure. Some were victorious, some were defeated, but all were faithful. All of them saw the universe as it really is. As Gareth Cockerill says, “All, like Abel, will die without the fullness of what God has promised. All, like Enoch, are promised triumph over death.” No matter what happens here, all in Christ receive life in the end.
For us today, so far removed from these people, we can see the faithfulness of God to them and see the importance of our faith. The Christian life is a pilgrimage. Abraham was called to leave his home and his family and go “to the land that I will show you” (Geneses 12:1). As Abraham left, so we must leave. God is calling us all to his heavenly home, and until we get there, we follow him wherever he takes us - no matter the cost and no matter the place.
After bringing us into God’s hall of fame in chapter 11, the author then reminds us that none of these received what was promised in their lifetime. None of them reached the rest spoken of in chapters 3 & 4. None of them saw the priest who would come after the order of Melchizedek spoken of in chapters 5 & 7. None of them lived under the New Covenant spoken of in chapters 8, 9, and 10. God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
We need forerunners. We need heroes. In Christ, we are united with all the saints that have lived before us and all who will live after us. The Lord is creating a story of redemption and faith through his people. Abraham did not know it in Genesis 12 but his trust in God still speaks to us today. Who will your life speak to because you trusted God when everything was on the line?
In love, God is delaying the consummation of history because as great as those people were, the story of God extends to us today. One day, just as the Lord has taken us back through the lives of these saints, he will take them through our lives of faith. And we will stand amazed together before the Lord who was faithful to us all.
But what if we struggle to believe? How should we respond to this chapter?
D.A. Carson preached a sermon once entitled, “The Ground of All Human Assurance Before God.” In it, he describes what faith is and how faith works.
Picture two Jews, by the name of Smith and Brown. Remarkably Jewish names. The day before the first Passover they’re having a little discussion in the land of Goshen, and Smith says to Brown, “Boy, are you a little nervous about what’s going to happen tonight?”
Brown says, “Well, God told us what to do through his servant Moses. You don't have to be nervous. Haven’t you slaughtered the lamb and dobbed the two door posts with blood—put blood on the lintel? Haven’t you done that? You’re all ready and packed to go? You’re going to eat your whole Passover meal with your family?”
“Of course I’ve done that. I'm not stupid. But, it’s still pretty scary when you think of all the things that have happened around here recently. You know, flies and river turning to blood. It’s pretty awful. And now there’s a threat of the first-born being killed, you know. It’s all right for you. You’ve got three sons. I’ve only got one. And I love my Charlie, and the Angel of Death is passing through tonight. I know what God says; I put the blood there. But it’s pretty scary, I’ll be glad when this night is over.”
And the other one responds, “Bring it on. I trust the promises of God.”
That night, the angel of death swept through the land. Which one lost his son?
And the answer of course is: neither. Because death doesn’t pass over them on the ground of the intensity, or the clarity, of the faith exercised. But on the ground of the blood of the lamb. That’s what silences the accuser.
The blood silences the accuser of the brothers as he accuses us before God. He silences our consciences when he accuses us directly. How many times do we writhe in agony asking if God can ever love us enough, if God can ever care for us enough after we have done such stupid, sinful, rebellious things after being Christians for 40 years? What are you going to say, “Oh, God, I tried hard, you know. I did my best. It was a bad moment”? No, no, no.
I have no other argument! I need no other plea! It is enough that Jesus died, and that he died for me! We overcome him by the blood of the lamb. There is the ground of all human assurance before God. There is the ground of our faith. Not guaranteeing intensity of faith—so fickle are we. It’s not the intensity of our faith but the object of our faith that saves. They overcome him on the ground of the blood of the lamb.
The Old Testament saints in Hebrews 11 simply trusted God. It was not the measure of their faith but the object of their faith that sustained. It will be so for us as well. Our faith may rise and fall, but Jesus sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high. He has taken us with him into the inner court of heaven. He’s the anchor of our soul.