How far back can you trace your family? Genealogy is undoubtedly very popular today. Amazingly, the BBC is currently running a 13th series of “Who do you think you are?” this autumn, helping well known personalities trace their roots. Given the popularity of websites such as Genes Reunited, Genealogy.com and ancestry.co.uk or software programmes like Family Tree Maker, most people believe genealogies are important – at least their own. If I were to read in the newspaper that a wealthy man named Sizer had died, with no known heir to his fortune, I could get very interested in genealogy. Apparently, “progonoplexia” describes those obsessed with ancestry. The earliest member of my family tree, I can find, is one Matthew Sizer born in 1750 in Orby, in Lincolnshire. But I know for certain that my roots actually go all the way back to Abraham. This evening we are going to answer the question “who do you think you are?” Please turn with me to Hebrews 11. We are going to discover that if Jesus is your Lord and Saviour, this chapter lists your family tree. This is one of the most familiar chapters of the Bible.
Even if these Sunday evenings you have found some of the earlier chapters difficult to understand, we turn to Hebrews 11 for encouragement, especially when our faith is tested. Raymond Brown says in his commentary, “These courageous heroes beckon the reader on to daring exploits and encourage the contemporary believer by their persistent endurance.”[i]
- The Definition of Authentic 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. 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 11:1–3)
Hebrews 11 begins by explaining the nature and quality of true faith. The word ‘faith’ has been so overused, it has come to mean just about anything and everything – it has become synonymous with being religious. The tragedy is that this faith, which is actually faith in ourselves, is not strong enough to sustain us through the pressures of life. Authentic biblical faith however has three characteristics: Genuine faith believes God’s word, wins God’s approval and recognizes God’s power.
1.1 Genuine Faith Believes God’s Word (11:1)
Faith or ‘trust’, (they mean the same thing), is our response to what God has said in Scripture. It does not mean merely agreeing with God’s word, but acting upon it. Notice, first, it anticipates the future. Faith does not place its reliance on the visible world. It is confidence in what we hope for. The ‘faithful’ people named in the chapter realized that their life was a pilgrimage. They knew there were better things ahead because, God had told them so. And they believed him and acted accordingly. Secondly, faith evaluates the present. It means we are more observant about the world around us than those without faith. Our security is not found in our circumstances, our economy, bank balance, our pension or bricks and mortar. Our security rests in the assurance about what we do not see, that is, in discerning the hand of the invisible God in our circumstances, working his purposes out. Moses, we are told in verse 27 “saw him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27). It is summed up in that wonderful promise,
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
This is how faith endures because it accepts God’s word.
1.2 True Faith Wins God’s Approval (11:2)
By exercising this kind of faith, the Old Testament saints gained what matters most, the warm commendation of God. These ‘ancients’ may have ‘failed’ in the world’s eyes but they were commended by God. Without this kind of faith we are told verses 6, “without faith it is impossible to please God” (11:6). For the Christian, pleasing God is of the greatest possible importance. True faith wins God’s approval.
1.3 Authentic Faith Recognizes God’s Power (11:3)
The book of Hebrews began by asserting.
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)
Now in chapter 11, the author develops our understanding of that work of creating the visible from the invisible. F.F. Bruce says that when God makes this statement ‘the first chapter of Genesis is probably uppermost in his mind, since he is about to trace seven living examples of faith from the subsequent chapters of that book’. The Septuagint translates the beginning of the creation account in this way: ‘The earth was invisible’ (aoratos), the same word which is used later in this chapter to describe the ‘invisible’ God (11:27). What an awesome God who can create everything from nothing simply by the power of his word. Authentic faith believes in creation – not only that but creation from nothing. Authentic faith believes God’s word, wins God’s approval and recognizes God’s power.
The definition of authentic faith. Last week Simon expounded verses 1-16 so I wont elaborate other than to summarise these verses:
- Three Righteous Men (11:4–7)
“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… 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. 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. 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.” (Hebrew 11:4-7)
The 17th Century Puritan, Richard Sibbes, calls these verses ‘a little book of martyrs’. These saints were not perfect – they were sinners who made mistakes and at times grieved God. Brown writes, “The Bible does not seek to mock us when it outlines the achievements of its great characters. It records the truth about them so that, amongst other things, we recognize that they were ordinary people who, by God’s grace alone, were enabled to do extraordinary things.”
- Abraham and Sarah (11:8–12)
“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. 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. 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 11:8-12)
Abraham and Sarah highlight five different aspects of faith.
3.1 An Obedient Faith
This is demonstrated by Abraham’s eagerness to do what the Lord required of him: “when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went.”
3.2 A Sacrificial Faith
This is to be seen in Abraham’s willingness to leave all that was secure, prosperous, peaceful and enjoyable.
3.3 A Courageous faith
Abraham obeyed “even though he did not know where he was going”. Abraham was in his mid-seventies when he stepped out in faith. Similar courage is expected of all who ‘walk by faith, not by sight’.
3.4 A Persistent faith
Abraham’s persistence is given special prominence here.
“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.” (Hebrews 11:9)
Even when he finally entered the land he understood it was never intended to be his final inheritance. How do we know that?
“For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10)
3.5 A Dependent Faith
They were far too old to have children yet they depended on God and trusted in His promises. To a couple as good as dead the child of promise was given and through Isaac, “came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” (Hebrews 11:12).
- Faith’s Qualities (11:13–16)
“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)
These verses summarise five spiritual qualities seen in the lives of these Old Testament saints: their confidence, witness, quest, discernment and security.
4.1 Their Confidence
All these characters died in faith, this is, with the promises of God deeply engraved on the heart and mind, yet without the joy of seeing their fulfilment. Calvin writes,
“God gave to the fathers only a foretaste of his favour, which is poured out generously upon us … yet they were satisfied and never fell from their faith … If we fail we are doubly without excuse … how great will be our idleness if we grow tired of believing when the Lord supports us with so many helps?”
4.2 Their Witness
These people acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles. It was not simply an attitude of mind; they speak of their conviction regarding life on this earth as strangers and exiles and a better one in heaven. Faith refuses to be silent. It must share its testimony with others.
4.3 Their Quest
These exiles are seeking a homeland, and it is clear their quest was not an earthly land, or they would have found it. Their hearts were set on heaven. How tragic that so many of Abraham’s physical descendants are preoccupied with an earthly homeland. Those with authentic faith set their hope on citizenship in heaven.
4.4 Their Discernment
By faith they could evaluate the things of earth, discerning its transience, impermanence and perishability. They looked instead for something ‘better’. Authentic faith can distinguish between good and better, between temporal and eternal, between the perishable and the permanent.
4.5 Their Security
Then as now, refugees, exiles, aliens were not viewed with favour. To reside as a foreigner carried a stigma. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, and he has prepared for them a city. By divine sovereignty, it is God’s city. He dwells among his people (12:22). By special privilege it is the believers’ city, for by God’s mercy he calls into it all who will believe in Jesus. Raymond Brown concludes, “The vision and heroism of these great patriarchal figures have some important lessons for us and for our far more sophisticated and far less contented society. The description of these heroes of faith challenges our cowardice and rebukes our materialism.”
4.6 Their Faith Challenges our Cowardice
These strangers and exiles have something to say to us about personal evangelism in the twentieth-century world. They made bold confession of their pilgrim attitude of life. They made it clear that they were seeking a homeland. Their outspoken witness is a challenge to our guilty silence. The majority of our contemporaries live as though this world is everything. They have no eternal dimension to their thinking whatever. We have the responsibility of reminding them, winsomely but plainly, that there is a life beyond this one and that after death comes judgment (9:27). Their faith challenges our cowardice.
4.7 Their Faith Rebukes our Materialism
Those who know that the next world is a ‘better’ one do not waste their limited opportunity in this life by clutching greedily for the next material acquisition, whatever the day whether its Black Friday, Christmas Day or the January sales. Believers look to the city beyond and its abiding joys. In the early Christian centuries many believers read a work known as The Shepherd of Hermas. It contains this highly relevant exhortation:
“You know … that as the servants of God … your city is far from this city. If then you know your city in which you are going to dwell, why do you here prepare lands and costly establishments … Take heed, then, make no further preparations for yourself beyond a sufficient competence for yourself as though you were living in a foreign country.”
Such words come to us in our affluent western society as a striking rebuke. They call us to a far simpler life-style and remind us that it is sinful to acquire so much when millions of others have so little. After all, in biblical teaching covetousness is markedly characteristic of the godless; it is hardly appropriate for Christians to lust for things. Jesus lived simply and for our sakes became poor. Inspired by this example, the early church did all within its power to meet the material needs of the hungry and destitute. In our time we are not likely to make any impact with the gospel if self-contented affluence dominates rather than outgoing compassion. Scripture makes it clear that, when the needy cry for help, God looks to us for something more than our prayers.
- Faith Anticipates God’s Promises (11:17–22)
“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. By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. 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 11:17-22)
This paragraph illustrates the power of God’s promises and the role of faith in anticipating them. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are summoned here as witnesses to the power of the promises of God.
5.1 Abraham’s Submission (11:17–19)
At a time when Abraham must have been bewildered by God’s command, he held on to the truth of God’s promise, believing that if Isaac had to be killed as the sacrificial victim, then God would raise him from the dead to fulfil his ultimate purposes. Abraham refused to put limits to either his obedience or God’s power. The saving event was an eloquent parable. Isaac was received back from the verge of death, a sign of God’s unfailing provision in the moment of man’s desperate need.
5.2 Isaac’s Perception (11:20)
What is astonishing about the blessing imparted by Isaac upon Jacob is that in Genesis it appears to owe more to Jacob’s deceptive skill than Isaac’s perceptive insight. But here Scripture emphasizes the infinite wisdom, overruling sovereignty and astonishing mercy of God. Although Isaac was so desperately unkind to his father, so pathetically misled by his mother, so astonishingly jealous of his brother, yet God helped him, used him and blessed him. God’s blessings are given not because we deserve them, but because we need them.
5.3 Jacob’s Anticipation (11:21)
Similarly, old Jacob, blind and infirm, gave a blessing to his grandsons and, much to Joseph’s annoyance, gave the younger son the blessing which was customarily awarded to the elder. But once again Jacob’s faith is expressed in the content of the blessing. ‘Let them grow into a multitude’, ‘a multitude of nations’. His blessing expressed ‘the assurance of things hoped for’ and he knew that the God who had guided him would not fail them.
5.4 Joseph’s Conviction (11:22)
When Joseph’s sons were blessed by his father, Jacob told Joseph that God would be with him and bring him to the land of his fathers. Joseph believed that, and when he came to the end of his days was so sure that God would bring his people to the promised land that he left careful instructions about the conveyance of his embalmed body from Egypt to Canaan. Two principles emerge from what we have discovered so far of practical importance for us. First, when faith is tested, believe in God’s word. Secondly, when faith is tested, rejoice in God’s power.
- Moses and the Believing Multitude (11:23–29)
“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. 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. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 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. 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 11:23-29)
Abraham received the promise (6:13) and Moses received the law (10:28). Clearly Moses is a central figure in Jewish history and his faith is emphasized here. Moses illustrates five aspects of faith. It conquers our fears, determines our options, sharpens our vision, recognizes our dependence and overcomes our difficulties.
6.1 Faith Conquers our Fears (11:23)
Although Pharaoh had ordered the execution of all male infants, Moses’ parents ignored the king’s edict and were not afraid of the consequences. Their fearlessness is given special prominence here. What is important in this context is that by faith the people of God have overcome their worst fears.
6.2 Faith Determines our Options (11:24–26)
Life confronts everyone with alternatives and frequently the believer can make a responsible choice only by faith. By faith Moses took a series of important decisions by which he cast in his lot with the people of God. By faith Moses abandoned social honours, physical satisfaction and material gain. Most expositors point out that this choice made by Moses became a theme of pastoral urgency in the lives of these first-century Jewish Christians. Moses could have remained with a godless people, a nation without the true God, but by faith he came to realize that abuse suffered for the Christ was of greater value eternally than secular considerations. The author is thinking particularly of some of those Christians who may have been in serious danger of abandoning their membership of Christ’s community, God’s true people, in favour of the physical security and social acceptability of the synagogue. The writer views the abuse which the people of God suffered at the exodus as a type of Christ’s reproach at the new exodus. ‘The stigma that rests on God’s Anointed’ (neb) was for Moses a treasure of priceless worth.
6.3 Faith Sharpens Our Vision (11:27)
Moses refused to look to the prestige, pleasures and treasures of Egypt. Instead he looked into the face of the God who could not be seen. “he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” The verb is used ‘of keeping one’s attention fixed on something.” Moses focussed not on Pharaoh’s anger, but on God’s mercy. He looked to the invisible, living and faithful God and was given the strength to endure.
6.4 Faith Recognizes our Dependence (11:28)
Despite the numerical strength and patriotic leadership given to the Hebrew people, the exodus event could be achieved only by God’s powerful intervention. In one dreadful night the angle of death (the Destroyer) visited the house of every Egyptian family and the first-born in each home died. Pharaoh and the Egyptians had consistently refused to obey God’s voice, but that night every Hebrew made sure that the blood of the Passover lamb was seen on the entrance to his house. The instructions were strange, the demands costly (a lamb without blemish) and the ritual unprecedented, but they did precisely as they were told. In simple faith they kept the Passover. They relied on the God who had spoken to them through his servant: ‘Then the people of Israel went and did so; as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did.’
6.5 Faith Overcomes our Difficulties (11:29)
It was not only Moses’ faith which responded to the word of God the deliverer. That the people were enabled to cross the Red Sea was an act of obedient faith. Once again their dependence on God is powerfully underlined. Moses told the distressed Israelites, ‘The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.’ By this event, these first-century Christians could be encouraged to believe in the God of the impossible. All the might of the Roman Empire and all the powerful hostility of their Jewish opponents might be ranged against them, but by faith they would triumph over their difficulties and prove the faithfulness of God’s word and the immensity of God’s power.
So in the example of Moses, we see faith conquers our fears, determines our options, sharpens our vision, recognizes our dependence and overcomes our difficulties.
In Hebrews 11:29-32 the faith exemplified in Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, David and Samuel is undaunted, adventurous and colourful. If those who need his help will but seek God’s face, they will not cry in vain. God delights in choosing those who seem most unsuitable and using those who seem most rebellious.
- The Inspirational Faith of God’s People (11:33–40)
In the verses we are introduced to a vast company whose names we may never know, but whose heroic faith will be not only remembered but treasured. In many circumstances their faith inspired heroism. In other instances their faith encouraged fortitude. In all cases their faith awaited fulfilment.
7.1 A Faith Which Inspired Heroism
“…who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again.” (Hebrews 11:33-35)
There is a clear recognition here that faith is often on the offensive. It refuses to accept the situation as inevitable and moves out on the attack. But it is not simply concerned with military qualities. Faith wins moral and spiritual victories too. By it God’s justice is enforced, God’s promises are received and God’s power made manifest, even in resurrection. It is by such faith that weakness is exchanged for strength. By faith people are enabled to cope with wild beasts, raging fire and aggressive warriors. In all these cases faith was a forceful, active ingredient, and always essential to life.
This record of faith’s heroic deeds now turns to an important and necessary change of emphasis. In some of life’s situations it is impossible to conquer, escape, become mighty or victorious. The powers are too great, the circumstances beyond our control. In these cases, faith is a life-accepting quality, enabling people to face suffering and adversity with serenity, endurance and trust. The writer now turns to these virtues, which perhaps requires even greater faith.
7.2 A Faith Which Encouraged Fortitude
“There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.” (Hebrews 11:36-38)
In time of fierce hostility and cruel persecution, many were given the faith to cope heroically with torture (in 11:35b the word used explicitly refers to the rack), mockery and other sufferings. The world despised them, but was not worthy of them. As Calvin says,
“Although the world may reject the servants of God as rubbish, the fact that it cannot bear them is to be thought of as its penalty because along with them goes some blessing from God.”
In their moments of crisis, faith was imparted to them, by which they could evaluate the present and anticipate the future. Presented with an opportunity for release, they realized that present liberty is of passing worth. They looked forward to a better resurrection, knowing that the joys of that better country had already been prepared by a God who is always faithful (11:16, 11). These valiant men and women were given the strength to suffer rather than to conquer. They turned agonizing distress into triumphant achievement.
7.3 A Faith Which Awaits Fulfilment
“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:39-40)
Rich as it was, all their faith was confined to the limits of the old covenant. It strained forward to something better. They anticipated the fulfilment of God’s promise, the fuller revelation in Christ, but they did not witness its realization. They could be made perfect only as Christians are today, that is by Jesus himself and his sacrifice. Perfection or fulfilment would come through a new covenant, by an eternal legacy, made possible because of a better sacrifice. “only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11: 40). Do you see the unity of God’s people? The promise made to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, that “his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” (Hebrews 11:12) are being fulfilled in the Church. The Old Testament saints joined as one with his New Testament saints. You see, there has only ever been one people of God. If you have received Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, you have been adopted into God’s family, you have been grafted into the vine. This is your family tree. How should we respond to this discovery of our ancestors faith and example?
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
We have been confronted with both the courageous achievements and the imperfect attainments of these Old Testament heroes. They were enabled to do so much, but it was limited and partial. They inherited, received, obtained and proved the promises. But in some cases it was mainly a sense of expectancy and lifelong anticipation which characterized their faith. Similarly, we too receive some promises and experience some blessings, whilst at the same time we trust other promises and await their fulfilment. Let me give Raymond Brown the last word, “But we have received far more than any believer could have hoped to experience under the old covenant. They could not hope to experience personally the inward purification, freedom from fear, immediate help, timely grace, present and eternal salvation, certain hope, clear conscience, assured pardon and constant access which we have in Christ Jesus. The richer provision ought surely to inspire us to better faith and more costly sacrifice. If these courageous and devout sufferers achieved so much when, comparatively speaking, they had so little, then there must be no limit to our service. The opportunities are innumerable and the resources are limitless.” Let us pray.
[i] Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews, (IVP, 2000) from which much inspiration and content for this sermon has been derived, with thanks.