The writer of Hebrews concluded chapter 10 reminding his audience that the righteous live by faith, not by what is seen. Further, those who give up and shrink back will be destroyed by God. But those who have endurance and keep their faith will preserve their souls. The writer states with confidence that we are those who have faith. In chapter 11 the writer of Hebrews is going to tell us what faith looks like. I have already done a series from this chapter 11 in the spring of 2008 called Heroes. If you want to hear detailed lessons on these heroes of faith, be sure to check out that series of lessons online. Since I went through Hebrews 11 with a fine tooth comb last year, I would like to simply consider the key points of faith from this chapter.
It is fascinating to see how many misconceptions of faith exist considering that Hebrews 11 gives a great explanation of faith and what faith looks like. Some think of faith as having any sort of spirituality. We hear language today that there are many faiths (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc). Some understand faith as having the belief that something good is going to happen to them (the popular teachings of Joel Osteen). Some think of faith as something that is blind, that is, taking a blind leap against known facts. But none of these are descriptions of biblical faith.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. (11:1-2; ESV)
Here are a few translations to help us get our minds around what the writer is teaching us about faith.
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (NIV/TNIV)
Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. (NLT)
I think the NLT does a great job with the text. The GNB does an excellent job in simplifying the concept and maintaining the accuracy of the message.
To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see. (GNB)
Faith is the basis, the substructure, of the whole Christian life. Faith is the basis for everything in which we have hope in this life. Faith involves confident action in response to what God has made known. Faith does look upward, away from the things of this world, toward the unseen things above. We sing songs like My Faith Looks Up To Thee and many other songs that remind us and encourage us to keep our eyes on our unseen reward. Our faith also looks forward in time to when Christ comes (10:38). Faith is about having confidence that the promises when have been given by God and things that we cannot see will actually happen.
What we cannot forget is that it is by faith that people are approved by God. What exactly did these people do who are praised in this eleventh chapter? They put their undivided confidence in God. In spite of their trials and difficult circumstances, they triumphed because of their trust in God. What we are seeing as we read about their heroes of faith are people who are clinging to the promises of God, depending on God’s word, and remaining faithful to God in their actions.
That picture of faith is really seen in the example provided in verse 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. (11:3; ESV)
The beginning point is quite simple, yet powerful. The universe and everything created was brought into existence by things that cannot be seen. The words of God, as he commanded the universe into existence, cannot be seen. Yet those unseen words brought the visible worlds. I believe this stands as what has been called today the watchmaker argument. We have not seen the person who made our watch, made our car, or made any other object or possession. Yet though we have not see the one who made our watch, we know someone made it. Random chance and long periods of time do not create useful, powerful objects. So also it is with the universe. The visible world was created by the invisible God through his invisible command.
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. (11:6; ESV)
This is a key teaching. Notice that it is not difficult to please God without faith. It is not challenging to please God without faith. There are very few statements in scriptures where we find the words that something is impossible. In fact, we have been taught that there is nothing that is impossible with God. But here is a statement about what is impossible and we need to listen to these words very carefully. It is impossible to please God without faith. Without having our confidence in God, without relying on God’s promises, without depending upon God’s word, without faithful actions toward God, we are not going to make it. If our eyes are on the things of this world, we will definitely shrink back and we will give up. We need to feel the force and the sting of the word “impossible.” We are not going to make it if we do not have our full faith in God. I see that in my own life and I am sure that you have seen in your own lives also. Without a full and complete reliance upon God, difficult circumstances will cause us to shrink back and give up.
Notice that there are two things that we need to have full confidence in our lives. (1) Must believe that God exists. I submit to you that this is not just merely the mental assent that one believes in God. Let us go back to the first verse and remind ourselves what faith looks like. Faith is being certain about things we cannot see. Do you have the faith that gives you certainty that God exists? Do you believe in the God you cannot see? Do you believe that he spoke the worlds into existence? It really does matter because if we do not, then we are going to shrink back and not be found pleasing to God. (2) Must believe that God rewards those who sincerely seek him. This belief is just as important. For us to not shrink back, we really must have confidence that there is a reward coming from God if we choose to seek him. We must know this. We must believe this.
These things tie to the endurance that we were told we needed to have in 10:36. We must know that God exists and know that he cares. For God to reward me means that he cares and knows what is going on with me. That knowledge is what will pull us through difficult times.
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. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 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. (ESV)
Verses 13-16 are very important to understanding the nature of our faith. All died in faith not receiving the things promised, acknowledging that they were merely strangers and exiles on earth. Faith shows us that our attention is not here on the things of this world. Faith is understanding that we serve God not for what we will receive right now. To serve God for what we can get now is simply idolatry. We are turning God into our idol who needs to provide us health and wealth. We will only bow if God makes us happy and nothing less will be acceptable. This is not faith, but idolatry. Faith is about the unseen, not about receiving what can be seen right now. This is why I love verse 13 — these heroes of faith saw their promises from afar. How could they see the promises when faith is in the unseen and when they did not receive the promises? It is an awesome answer: these people were so certain in God’s promises and that God will reward them that they could see the unseen. Though they did not receive the promises and did not have anything tangible, they were so certain in their faith that they could see what they were going to receive.
This world was not their home. Verse 14 tells us that they were seeking their home. They were simply traversing through this life to go to the better country (v. 16). Carefully consider verse 15 — if we are thinking about this world we will go back to it. If we are concerned about this life, we will shrink back and we will cling the things of this world. I think the New English Bible really brings out this picture nicely: “If their hearts had been in the country they had left….” If our hearts are here, then we will stay here. We will place life importance on the physical and material rather than on the better country that God has promised.
The heroes of faith desired a better country. True faith desires more than what is available here. Let us not forget that God made all of this. All of these things are his. He is promising that there is something better and something greater. Do not trade in the better, heavenly country for the temporary, fleeting pleasures of this world.
Now look at verse 16 because these are encouraging words also. God is not ashamed to be called their God. Can you imagine God saying that he is willing to admit that we are his people and he is our God? What a glorious picture! Then the writer reminds us of what is waiting for us. God has already prepared a city for us. The statement is in the past tense. The reward is there waiting for us. The reward is certain. Desire the better city, not the temporary pleasures of this world. This idea is continued throughout the rest of chapter 11.
In speaking about Moses: He chose to share the oppression of God’s people instead of enjoying the fleeting pleasures of sin. He thought it was better to suffer for the sake of Christ than to own the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to his great reward. (11:25-26; NLT)
Moses made the same trade off. Let go of the temporary pleasures looking forward to the great reward.
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. (11:39-40; ESV)
Notice that the writer of Hebrews comes back to the point made in verses 13-16. It is not about what we will receive now, but what God has promised for us later. Don’t give up. Have true faith. Put your full trust in God and you will receive the promises of God.