Subject: What does the faith of the great heroes of the Hebrew scriptures tell us about following Christ?
Complement: Real faith is a confidence of soul in God that changes our values, our hopes and our impact in the world.
Faith is a confidence, an assurance, a settled-ness in your soul that God exists, that this is his world, that if we seek him we will find him. It is an understanding that because God exists, knowing him and knowing his ways is the main motivator of our lives. Faith is truth about God that we know but do not see and faith is when that truth matters more to us than any other thing. This is what the great men and women of the past were commended for. Hebrews chapter 11 records a diverse line up of people living in different times and facing different challenges. But they are commended because they made their decisions and lived their lives based on the conviction that God both exists and is in charge of the world. This often put them at odds with the rest of their culture and sometimes threatened their lives as well.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that faith is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see.” But this chapter is not so much about defining faith as it is about displaying it. Throughout Hebrews the author has argued carefully and theologically about the supremacy of Christ. He is greater than angels, greater than Moses and the ultimate High Priest. But chapter 11 is not a finely nuanced argument. It is a half time speech. It is a rallying cry. It is meant to move us to live by faith and not by sight
So what does this ancient line up, this faith hall of fame, say to us about living for Christ today?
As we look at the text we realize that each person is a sermon. To fully understand each situation and each life would take a whole series. We have only one sermon. So let’s see if there are any major themes that run through the chapter.
The first person we encounter is Abel. He and his brother Cain were direct decedents of Adam and Eve. Their story is one of the earliest in scripture. Simply put Abel brought a sacrifice to God, one from his herd. Cain also brought an offering but instead of bringing an animal he brought produce from the garden. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Rather than learn from this, Cain grows jealous and murders his brother. Hebrews tells us that Abel’s sacrifice was better because he brought it in faith; the connotation is that he brought the best of his flock whereas his brother brought merely his excess or leftover.
Faith made Abel generous. He knew that the world belongs to God, all his flocks, all the produce. So he brought God his firstborn to acknowledge God as his provider. Faith affects how you feel about giving. If God is the giver of all things, if everything belongs to him and we are just stewards, then we will have no problem giving away whatever God requires of us. But if, like Cain, we do not have faith we will hold onto everything we have thinking it is “ours.” We will give as little as possible because we will live to protect ourselves. Real faith affects our values. In particular real faith in the God of Creation lies at the heart of generous living.
If we look further we meet Noah, we see a man who lived out his faith by building an ark. Noah’s story is well known so it may take some deliberate focus to recognize how God was a calling Noah to invest his energy and resources into something that neither he nor anyone else could see. Noah had to believe God even though no one else did. By faith he made the decision to build on what God said about the world rather than on what the culture said about the world. Noah lived in a violent and ruthless time. Most people must have spent their time protecting what was theirs and seeking to get more. The world was chaotic, rewarding only power. Noah had to turn his back on this to build the ark. He had to orient his world around the promise of God and the word of God, and in doing that he was rebuking his culture. His faith is what moved him to stand alone and follow the plan of God.
Abraham was living in a foreign land when God called him. He had moved from his home in Ur to Terah and it was there that his father died making him the leader of the clan. Abram heard the call of God to go to a land he had not seen with only the promise that God would protect him and make him a great nation. He turned away from everything he knew, everything that was familiar, the traditions and religion of his family, to obey God. When Abram went to the promised land he did not know that God would give the land to him. He went to Palestine with the agenda of walking with God. It is easy to see how Abram’s faith affected his life. His settled belief that God is God and that his word can be trusted caused him to move to a completely different country to start a new life.
Application: In all of these scenarios faith changes values. For Abel faith made him generous because if everything is God’s I should give him my best. For Noah, faith made him value God more than fitting in with his culture. Faith motivated him to build his life on something different. And for Abraham faith cause him to turn his back on all that he knew simply to obey God. Real faith changes what we value and that changes how we behave.
Transition: Now, one way to look at this is to see each of these people as rejecting the world to follow God. You could say this especially of Noah, who rejected the culture and built an ark to escape it, and Abraham who turned his back on his family’s culture and went to a new land. If you read the passage that way you will seek to apply it by similarly rejecting your own culture. You will say that the best way to be commended for faith is to condemn your culture, turn your back on it and focus only on heaven. But in the second half of this chapter you notice something interesting. These patriarchs had more hope for the future than we often do. And it was their willingness to reject the culture around them that allowed them to make a impact on it – even to the point of saving the world.
Look at first on the way they invested the next generation with blessing.
The author of Hebrews alludes to the famous account of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice. God had told Abraham that he would have a son and that this son would become a great nation. Later God comes to Abraham and commands him to offer up his only son as a sacrifice. There was no doubt that this meant killing Isaac. Abraham was faced with a dilemma. Beyond his own desire to keep his son alive, he could see no way that he could both obey God and see God answer his promise. For Abraham to become a great nation Isaac would have to have many children. He could not have many children if was dead. So Abraham reasoned that God would raise his son from the dead. He knew he needed to obey God – that was beyond doubt. Everything he was and everything he had came from obeying God. So he would obey and trust that God would work it all out.
Now, just a note before we move on. When God told Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice he was not telling him to break any laws. He was speaking to Abraham in his own culture which is what God always does. There was no law of Moses, certainly no legal code and no prophetic word against sacrificing your son. All of these would come later in biblical revelation. This is important because it reminds us of two things: one, Abraham would have understood this command and two, he would never ask us to do this. God is not going to command you to do something that is against his word and his law. But the law did not exist in Abraham’s day.
Abraham obeyed God because he was a man of faith and faith brings obedience. Abraham assumed that God would raise the dead because he knew that God had a plan for Isaac in the future. God was going to fulfill his promise to give the land and the blessing to Abraham. So whatever God commanded, Abraham was sure that God was going to fulfill his blessing. As the narrative unfolds, God does not ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, but instead made him the heir to the promise.
This is the same faith that moved Isaac to bless Jacob and Esau. He knew the promise of God would live beyond him, so he blessed his sons and knew that God would work with through them.
In the same way Jacob when he was dying blessed Josephs sons. Even though he was living in Egypt at the time he blessed his grandsons knowing that God would bring them back to the promi
sed land. He knew that God would continue working through them.
In the same way Joseph when he was dying commanded his children to bring his bones back to the promised land because he knew that one day God would fulfill his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Like his fathers before him, his faith allowed him to bless the next generation and to know that God would continue working through them.
This is the same faith that Moses’ parents had when they hid him from the authorities. Their faith was stronger than their fear of the authorities and they risked their lives to save the next generation.
In each of these situations the patriarchs had faith that God would continue working out his plan long after they were gone. This faith allowed them to bless the next generation rather than be filled with despair. This is worth noting because I think it is easy for us to lose this hope. We can be so discouraged by the situations around us: the violence in the world, the lack of moral agreement in our culture, the pace of change. All of it makes us think that the world cannot go on and that God is helpless to do anything. Add a natural sense that the world cannot continue without us and we forget to bless the next generation. We are so busy wringing our hands that we don’t see what God is doing here and now in the generation still emerging. It takes faith to believe that God is still working and that he will build his church. It does not take faith to throw up our hands in despair and give up on the future. We should have enough faith to hope for the future despite the chaos, change and failure we see around us.
Transition: And in that same vein, we see as the chapter continues that while the heroes of faith were in one sense rejecting the world around them they were also agents of change in the world as well. And the two are connected. You can see that especially as we continue in the life of Moses.
Moses rejected the culture that had raised him. According to the writer of Hebrews Moses refused to be known as the child of Pharaoh’s daughter and chose instead to identify with the Jews. It was this rejection of the prevailing culture that allowed God to use him and to save his people. It was his faith in God that allowed him to lead the people through the various plagues and through the night of the death of the firstborn. It was through faith that he trusted God enough to put blood on his door and to encourage others to do the same. It was through this Passover lamb that the people were saved. That same faith lead the people out of Egypt and to the banks of the Red Sea. It was here that God did the miracle of leading his people through the Red Sea and stopping the advancing army of Pharaoh. It was faith that lead Joshua and the people to march around Jericho and it was this faith that allowed God to do the miracle of overthrowing that city.
In each of these cases — Moses, Joshua, Rahab — the people listened to the word of God rather than the word of the culture. They were rejecting their culture, but in rejecting it they were able to save it. So perhaps it is more accurate to say that they refused to be formed by their culture. They would not allow the appetites, dreams and affections of the culture around them to form them. They were formed by their relationship to God. They trusted him enough to obey him. They trusted him enough to build their futures on his word rather than on the worries and worships of the world they lived in. And amazingly that trust, that devotion, is what allowed God to use them, even to do miracles in their lives. These were the saving acts of God.
This is true of us as well. It is only when we are different that we are able to make a difference. It is only when we hear God first that we are able to bring a different message to the culture. And so it is our faith that changes us, our faith that changes our behavior and our faith that allows us to be changers in the wider world.
Consider the challenge laid out before us. The heroes had faith that God exists, that he rewards those who seek him, that his way is best and that he is in charge of the future. This faith moved them to live differently than the rest of the world. They were able to step away from the corruption of their cultures and find life – eternal life but also life with meaning – in their relationship with God. They could weigh what was important and what was not important; they were able to value what mattered and what did not matter even if it meant leaving a comfortable life, giving their best offering or giving up what mattered to them most. This is how we live to please God: we live as if he is the most important being in the universe.
You might say “I am not convinced that God exists or that he is important or powerful.” That is honest and worth exploring. The question to you is “Are you willing to take that journey?” Are you willing to ask your question and listen to responses with the hope of finding the God who created you and calls to you?
You might say you do believe God exists but you live as a practical atheist. The best indicators of this are stress and sin. If you cannot trust God then you must make things happen yourself. You are the most important person in the world the arbiter what is right wrong, good and terrible. You must be in charge . You must decide what should happen in the future because you have worked all out. It is an exhausting way to live and brings a lot of stress. I know because almost all of us live this way.
And so how do we move toward faith? It is not a mental game, it is a step of action. We must consider for a moment the presence of God, that he is here not just to make you feel good but to run the world and to direct your place in it. If he is really God then our first step is to live out that truth. We will give generously and without fear because God is God. We will bless and invest in the next generation because God is God and bigger than just my story. And I will seek God and allow him to reform our values so that we no long walk in lock step with this culture. And once out of step with the culture, he will show us how to engage it.