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Faith: Our Homeward Pointing Compass

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Illumine our hearts and minds, we pray, O Lord, by the light of your holy Gospel; and grant that in the midst of the tumult and the clamor of the voices that fall on our ears, and seek to call us away from you, we may discern that clear voice of our Master, your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, and faithfully heed him alone. AMEN.
So today the church’s lectionary has providentially set before us, a passage of Scripture that is considered by many a personal favorite. And I believe rightly so. The author of Hebrews encourages his readers, that is both his original audience and us, in our faith. And we rightfully rejoice in considering this long list of faithful saints who have gone before us and have shown us – so beautifully – what a faith filled life looks like. But before you and I rush to the conclusion that we’ve covered our bases and that we understand what this passage of Scripture is telling us; I would suggest that we need to pause and sit with this text.
Yes, absolutely, we are exhorted to faith here… to rest in faith. But the question that we need to ask is why? What is it that Hebrews is trying to get us to see? To get this, we need to begin with a bit of history. But, don’t worry, there won’t be any quizzes!
Looking within the text of Hebrews itself we come to know that at this time there was a persecution that had been taking place against the Christians. In Ch. 10, v. 32-33, the author writes to his audience “you endured a hard struggle with sufferings… being publicly exposed to ridicule and persecution.” But he doesn’t stop there, the author continues in v. 34: “you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.”
So, we immediately see just within the epistle to the Hebrews that this is a people who have gone through a great trial. But we also know many additional details from ancient history. For instance: “The Roman historian Suetonius records that the Jews were ‘constantly indulging in riots due to the introduction of the message about Christ… into the Jewish community.” And this was not a one-time event… no, for instance, roughly 10-15 years earlier than the time period that Suetonius was writing about we find in “Acts 18:2 the mention of two Jewish Christians, Priscilla and Aquila, who were amongst the Jews expelled from the capital by the Emperor Claudius in ad49.”[1]
So, persecution is the immediate event that was causing a problem. But that is not the end of it. The whole reason that Hebrews was written, was not simply because Christians were being persecuted and to encourage them. Hebrews was written to formerly Jewish Christians because, due to them being persecuted, they were thinking of leaving their Christian faith and going back to Judaism, where they believed they would be safe from this persecution.
This is the whole reason Hebrews was written: that is, persecution which was leading people to want to return to a safer more comfortable way… and this sets the theme that we will explore today.
So having explored some of this background, we should get a quick overview of what is happening in the portion of Hebrews that we have read today. I see within our Scripture passage three distinct movements:
· First, the author gives us a definition of faith.
· Next, he gives us 6 examples of faith, found in the Old Testament patriarchs.
· Finally, based on these examples, the author then exhorts his readers to follow their example.
Definition of Faith
Now perhaps you are thinking – “Whoa! Eric… slow down. Didn’t we just hear you say that what we are going to be exploring as today’s theme, is leaving the Christian faith to become Jews! How does that apply to us? We’re perfectly happy being Christians!”
And to that I would say, you are right. This letter was written to a very different group of people, at a very different time. Most of us here are neither Jewish Christians, nor have we faced any real or serious persecution, like that described in Hebrews, for believing in Jesus.
And yet, I would also point out that we still have much to learn from this letter. This brings us to the definition of faith found in vv. 1-3. There we find written that: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.” But this definition does not just drop out of nowhere. We have to look back a few verses earlier in the end of chapter 10 to see what is happening. There, the writer had quoted from the prophet Ha-ba-kuk 2:3-4: “…the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it lingers, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. See the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright; but the righteous person will live by his faith…”
Now why do I point us to this? Because it reveals an important theme throughout the whole letter to the Hebrews. And that is: because these Jewish Christians are thinking of leaving the Christian faith, they need to know what they are leaving. And so, throughout the whole letter we find the author continually pointing out that what we have is “a better hope” (7:19) that is “more excellent” (8:6) because it is based on “better promises” (8:6)found in Christ Jesus. New Testament scholar Dr. Thomas Schreiner points out that:
The word "better" plays a major role in Hebrews: Jesus is better than angels (1:4); Melchizedek is better than Abraham (7:7): Jesus brings in a "better hope" (7:19) and a "better covenant' (7:22; 8:6) because he offered "better sacrifices" (9:23); Jesus' blood is "better" than Abel's (12:24). And fitting with this verse in particular, believers anticipate a "better possession" (10:34), and OT saints a "better resurrection" (11:35) and "something better" along with new covenant believers (11:40). The better homeland is the "city" God has prepared for his people. God is the builder of this city (11:10), and it is a heavenly city (12:22). The earthly city of man forecasts a far better heavenly city, the city of God (13:14).[2]
And how does this apply to us? I would point out that as we read this definition of faith in the first three verses of our reading today, we are challenged to consider what holds our loyalties! Our reading points out that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
But what is it that we hope for and do not see? And why do we need to hear this definition? It seems right to note that though our circumstances are different than the audience of this letter, in other ways we encounter similar problems, just in different ways. And the problem is our loyalties.
Think of it! You and I may likely not be thinking of leaving our Christian faith for Judaism, but if we are honest with ourselves, we certainly have things in our lives that call out to us to … inviting us to turn back to them, and away from Christ. Think for a moment what that could be? {pause} Perhaps it is a relationship that has begun overshadowing everything else in your life, or an political or cultural ideology that you can’t seem to stop thinking about, or perhaps a sin that you can’t seem to shake. All of these when they become such extremes in our lives need to be named for what they are… that is they are idols, and an idol is in fact an object of worship, it turns our heads and hearts away from the only thing that is worthy of our worship… which is God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And now, having considered that hard truth, hear what the author of Hebrews invites you and me to. We are invited here to remember the better “thing” …really the better person… that is Christ Jesus our Lord, and the adoption and kingdom of heaven that are ours in him.
And so, we hear Hebrews say to us: ““Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That is, faith assures us of our hope in Christ Jesus our savior, and of the kingdom that is ours in him. But it also challenges and changes us by pointing us constantly towards the better and more excellent things in him. It challenges us to examine our hearts and to see where they are still clinging to lesser things – or even dangerous and sinful things. Faith challenges us to hold good but lesser things in their right place, and to turn away from sinful things, so that they never take the place that God alone should have in our hearts.
And when faith does this, when faith sets the affections of our hearts in proper order, Hebrews goes on to tell us, looking to the example of the saints who have gone before us, that “by it the people of old received their commendation.” That is, by faith God will achieve what he has set about doing in us through this gift of faith. And when we listen to God’s call to remain faithful and cling to the way he sets before us, we do so also remembering that God has a prize set before us – just as any good parent rewards their children, because they love them – so as to encourage us.
Six Illustrations of Faith
But when we hear in v. 2 that “by [faith] the people of old received their commendation” Scripture is not only telling us what faith sets before us. No, the author is also setting us up to consider the beauty of what faith does. He is preparing us to consider faith at work in the lives of God’s people… by looking to those who have gone before us.
Isn’t that exactly what we need?! Even though we have just heard that faith is “the conviction of things not seen,” we are still told here that we can see the effects of faith! Indeed, we need to see this. And that is what happens within the church through the ages… isn’t it! Who of us here has not been encouraged in our faith by seeing what faith fully alive in an individual can look like.
Think about that! Who in your life has either knowingly or unknowingly been an encouragement to you to dive deeply into relationship with Jesus Christ, to live out your faith in beautiful ways, to bear witness to the gospel so that others may come to have the joy and strength that you have found in your Christian faith! Perhaps it was a youth pastor when you were a kid… or a friend or family member, or perhaps a co-worker, or even a total stranger. Whoever it was it was in seeing their heart so aflame with love for Jesus that you longed to have what they had. This could have been in little or great ways. The important thing is that their heart was aflame by the working of the Holy Spirit.
For instance, I can look back to when I became a Christian. At that time in my life I was struggling to make sense of Christian faith… earlier in my life I had been so scandalized by the terrible example of Christians I knew that I thought Christians were all a bunch of frauds. But then, by God’s grace, and by the helpful example of some friends who were Christians and lived lives that bore witness to the beauty that faith can work in a person’s life, I was encouraged to take Christianity seriously.
And that is what the author of Hebrews is doing. He is telling us to look back and see what faith looked like in the lives of our great ancestors in faith; and to let their example both encourage us as well as to spur us on to greater faithfulness.
In order to do this, we are now given six illustrations of faith. I have listed these off here in my sermon notes as a series of 6 exhibitions of where faith can be seen exhibited: Our faith, the faith of Abel, the faith of Enoch, the faith of Noah, the faith of Abraham as Pilgrim, the faith of Abraham & Sarah as parents. And each of these begins with the introductory statement “by faith,” which shows that faith is what is on display in each instance.
Now this passage is long, and we cannot rest on any one these illustrations for any real length of time. However, we certainly can explore some of the broad themes throughout each of them.
So, to begin with we start with a look at how faith understands creation. And what an interesting place to start isn’t it! While all the rest of the examples set before us in this passage are particular people that is not where we start. Instead we begin with all people of faith. So, v. 3 reads: “by faith weunderstand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
Why begin here? This seems like a strange place to begin walking through the exhibit halls of the great examples of faith, right? Well, I would suggest that there are a number of reasons we begin here. First, notice that this list is chronological… it takes us through the historic timeline of God’s people… and so we go back to the very beginning, to Genesis 1:1 when “God created the heavens and the earth.” This creation involves all of us, and so in Hebrews we begin with “by faith we.
But that is not the only reason we begin here. To understand why this is where the author begins illustrating what faith looks like, I believe we actually need to go back to the first verses of Hebrews. Why? Well turn there with me! What does verse 2 say? “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:2).
Did you catch that? Yes! He writes about Jesus “through whom God created the world.” And that matches up with another passage in Scripture too, within the 1stchapter of John’s Gospel, where he tells us in vv. 1-3 that: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”. And about this Word, who is Jesus, the author of Hebrews also writes in Ch. 1, v. 3 that: “He maintains the existence of the universe by the power of his word”.
Are you seeing the strands of Scripture coming together here! Yes, when we hear in today’s reading that “by faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God” (Heb. 11:3) our hearts and minds should immediately be brought to behold Jesus Christ, who is the one upon whom our faith is founded, and is the one through whom God brought the world into existence. And so, the author of Hebrews begins the whole exhibition of faith by directing our vision to the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words: we are brought to consider Jesus and Faith – and to see that the two are inextricable!
And so, throughout the rest of this exhibition of faith we must continually remember that the better thing, towards which the faith of all the people mentioned here pointed to, is Jesus and the kingdom that he came to establish.
So, as we look to Abel in v. 4 our vision is directed to his faith expressed through his sacrifice which points to Jesus. Why? Because, as we see in Gen. 4:3Cain brought before God only “some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord”. In contrast Abel brought the “firstborn of his flock” (Gen. 4:4). Notice the difference, Cain keeps the best of his crop to himself and only offers an offering” not “an offering of the first fruit of the ground” which is always God’s due (as we see expressed explicitly in Exodus 23:19). In contrast, Abel’s offering is an offering of devout faith, expressed through the offering of the best of what he had to offer God, and it foretells the offering of Christ on the Cross (whom Scripture tells us is the Lamb of God and the first born of). And though Abel likely did not know that his offering foreshadowed Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit knew what he was doing, as he brought this action of devout faith in Abel’s life.
Then we turn to Enoch in v. 5 who sets an example for us by his life of faith. And this faith was lived with such great fervor and obedience to the God that he never saw that God gave Enoch the great gift of not undergoing the agony of death, and drawing him directly into heaven. As Gen. 5:23 puts it: “Enoch lived a total of 365 years, walking in close fellowship with God. Then one day he disappeared, because God took him.”
Up next in v. 7, we are led to consider Noah, who we are told, “being warned by God about events not yet seen, in reverent fear built an ark to save his family…”. Notice again the theme of “what was not yet seen.” And in acting with such faith, Noah becomes a sign pointing to Jesus who saves the family of God from destruction and death in the flood of sin.
And finally, in vv. 8-12 our eyes are turned to the great patriarch of faith, Abraham (as well as his wife Sarah) under two themes: 1) Abraham as pilgrim of faith, and 2) Abraham and Sarah as enabled to be parents by faith.
First, we see Abraham held up to us as an example by his journeying – solely on the basis of God’s promise – to a land he neither knew, nor would himself posses it, but only his descendants. As such, Stephen, in Acts 7:5, points out: “Yet [God] gave [Abraham] no inheritance in [the land], not even enough ground to set his foot on, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though Abraham as yet had no child.” So, Abraham is set before us in Scripture as a pilgrim, “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (v. 11), wandering and relying on God’s promise, as an act of pure faith.
And second, both Abraham and Sarah are put before us in vv. 11 & 12, as being “past childbearing age” and “as good as dead” and yet, because they both ultimately trusted God and had faith in his promise that they would bear children, they “by faith received power to conceive” (v. 11). Pastor theologian R. Kent Hughes points out for us: “How did Abraham and Sarah come to such a massive exercise of faith?” He answers, because: “They weighed the human impossibility of becoming parents against the divine impossibility of God being able to break his word and decided that since God is God, nothing is impossible.”[3]
Faith to the End!
So, at this point, we now have the great exhibition of faith laid before us! But what do we ultimately make of all this? Interestingly, Scripture does not say that all these people got the desired result of their faith. They did not receive the promises in this life. There is no “prosperity gospel” to be found here. Instead, we read in v. 13 that “These people all died… nothaving received the things promised”.
But that is not that is not the whole of the story, is it!? No!
It is true they all died, but as the passage in full reads: “These people all died in faith” (v. 13). And though they did not receive “the things promised,” yet they “saw them and welcomed them from a distance… admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on the earth” (v. 13).
That is the heart of what we are supposed to get out of this passage. Faith greets from afar what we do not yet possess in full. Unlike the long list of people mentioned in today’s passage, we do possess the promises that they could only view from a long way off. But like all the people in this list, we also know that what we possess, is still awaiting its final fulfillment – which is, as Paul puts it in 1 Cor. 15:28: “[when] all things [will be] subjected to Christ Jesus… [and] God [will] be all in all”. And so, Paul can also speak in Rom. 8:15, 17 of our already being “adopted children of God” and “heirs with Christ”, but at the same time those who “wait eagerly for… the redemption of our bodies” which we do not yet see, but “wait for with patience” (Rom. 8:23, 25).
You and I are awaiting the definitive realization of God’s kingdom, which will happen when our Lord Jesus Christ returns in glory, judges all humanity, and establishes in “a new heaven and a new earth… the new Jerusalem… and wipes away every tear from our eyes [and where] there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (that is from: Rev. 21:1, 2, 4). Our waiting is given expression in our faith. This is what one writer calls “[d]eveloping ‘faith vision’” which requires that constant renewal of our minds that Paul wrote about in Rom. 12:2.[4]
Remember when at the beginning of this sermon I noted that Hebrews challenges us to remain faithful, and not walk away from our faith? Well, this here is where the rubber hits the road. If faith is clinging to that which we do not yet see, then - as any number of things seek to draw our attention from what is most important (that is Jesus Christ and his work of salvation and building the Father’s kingdom) – we need to remember what is most important, what is the most excellent thing, and to double down in prayer and cling in faith to the promise set before us. That is how we cling on in faith… in prayer, where we turn to God in faith, trusting in his grace and goodness when the going gets tough and all sorts of things (especially those things which may well become idols) seek to draw our attention away from God, and also listening to him and obeying him as he speaks to us through his word.
Let us not grow weary brothers and sisters. Faith looks to the future, trusting God and his promises, because we know that God is always faithful to his promises. As Scripture reminds us: “God is faithful” (1 Cor. 1:9).
Let me close with a short story…
After forty years of faithful service to the Lord as a pioneer missionary in Africa, Henry Morrison and his wife were returning to New York. As the ship neared the dock, Henry said to his wife, “Look at that crowd. They haven't forgotten about us”. However, unknown to Henry, the ship also carried President Teddy Roosevelt, returning from a big game hunting trip in Africa. Roosevelt stepped from the boat, with great fanfare, as people were cheering, flags were waving, bands were playing, and reporters waiting for his comment, Henry and his wife slowly walked away unnoticed. They hailed a cab, which took them to the one bedroom apartment which had been provided by the mission board.
Over the next few weeks, Henry tried, but failed to put the incident behind him. He was sinking deeper into depression when one evening, he said to his wife, “This is all wrong. This man comes back from a hunting trip and everybody throws a big party. We give our lives in faithful service to God for all these many years, but no one seems to care.”
His wife cautioned him that he should not feel this way. Henry replied “I know, but I just can't help it. It just isn't right.”
His wife then said, “Henry, you know God doesn't mind if we honestly question Him. You need to tell this to the Lord and get this settled now. You'll be useless in His ministry until you do.”
So, Henry then went to his bedroom, got down on his knees and began pouring out his heart to the Lord. “Lord, you know our situation and what's troubling me. We gladly served you faithfully for years without complaining. But now God, I just can't get this incident out of my mind...”
After about ten minutes of fervent prayer, Henry returned to the living room with a peaceful look on his face. His wife said “It looks like you've resolved the matter. What happened?”
Henry replied, “The Lord settled it for me. I told Him how bitter I was that the President received this tremendous homecoming, but no one even met us as we returned home. When I finished, it seemed as though the Lord put His hand on my shoulder and simply said, 'But Henry, you are not home yet!'”[5]
And so, we see this faithful missionary – even in spite of his years of dedicated service to the Lord in sharing the gospel – for a moment lost sight of faith’s vision, and found his heart turned to lesser things. But God, through prayer, reset Henry’s vision. So, I would encourage you to know, deep in your heart, that God can do this in our lives too… resetting our hearts upon Jesus, our rock, and the homeland that is ours in him.
With that in mind, let me paraphrase how today’s passage ends. It says: “we desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called our God, for he has prepared a city for us” (Heb. 11:16; paraph.). Therefore, let us pray that nothing, no matter how good it is, distracts us from the better things – indeed, the best things – which God has prepared for us. May nothing distract us from our Lord Jesus Christ and that home where we will rest eternally in him!
[1] David G. Peterson, “Hebrews,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson et al., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1323. [2] Hebrews, in the Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, 355. [3] R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, vol. 2, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 100. [4]Robert A. J. Gagnon, in The Lectionary Commentary Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings, Acts and the Epistles, p. 510. [5]“The Missionary’s Return,” 7/28/2022).
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