Hebrews 11 is sometimes called “God’s honour roll”. It is filled with extraordinary people who lived by faith and did all manner of amazing things. This account of their lives is intended to inspire us, but might instead leave us feeling defeated and inadequate. For which one of us is like Abraham or Moses, Joshua or Jepthah?
Let me challenge our thinking about this passage on two levels. First of all, these were real people. They are not fictitious inventions of an over-active mind. They were surrounded by unbelivers and had to deal with real-life issues from day to day. And they did not start out as ‘heroes of faith’. They were just ordinary people, minding their own business and doing their best to cope with life. Their lives were a mixture of virtue and vice, doubt and faith. Yet it was faith that set them apart as they persisted in it. So, perhaps we should tone down the ‘superhero’ part and focus on just what faith can do in the lives or everyday people.
Abraham is a good case in point. Now Genesis 11:28 and Neh 9:7 tell us that Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees. We know a good deal about Ur at the time when Abraham lived and before. Part of what we know came to light through the excavation that was done by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley in 1922 and 1934. We know, for example, that these people were pagan. They worshiped the moon goddess along with a pantheon of others. They had a man-made high place that we call a ziggurat where they practiced their religion. Thus when God called Abraham from the city of Ur, he was also calling him away from that pagan culture.
The physical infrastructure of Ur was quite advanced. We have every reason to think of Abraham as an educated man who could read and write. The city had schools and libraries as well as extensive royal archives. The University of Pennsylvania has a cup dating two centuries before the time of Abraham that shows the magnificent workmanship these men were capable of. This cup is so marvelously made that no one today can surpass it, and it indicates the luxury of that place. Woolley’s excavation volumes covering the Royal Tombs show pictures of the same amazing work in gold and alabaster.
At the time that Abraham lived there, archaeologists estimate the population at about 25,000. The houses in Ur made of mud brick and were whitewashed to make them look attractive. Many were two story structures. The larger ones had from ten to twenty rooms with well equipped kitchens, a plumbing system and sanitation.
For that time, we would say that these people enjoyed a high standard of living. The city was prosperous and many were wealthy. From what we know about Abraham’s family, it appears that they too were well off, with flocks, herds, servants and slaves.
All of which means, that when God called Abraham, this man was turning his back on a good thing. He was leaving the good life for life on the road – for life in a land that God had yet to identify. The land that God promised Abraham was at that time and by comparison, backward and primitive. Yet as faith would prove, life with God in any place is the best life possible.
What set Abraham apart was, that when God called him…he went. He obeyed God because he believed what God said and was willing to submit to the will of the Lord. By the way, that is what makes obedience, obedience. When God says – “I want you to do something’, and we do it because God said so…that’s obedience. At any rate, his journey to Canaan and then within Canaan was a journey of faith. He left his home to live in tents and never again had a permanent place to call home. It was a literal journey from one place to another. But it was also a journey from initial trust to complete obedience. Abraham’s faith was enough for him to take each successive step, and as he added knowledge to his faith, he grew to be more and more like his heavenly Father. He lived an upright moral life and earned the respect of those around him.
The trip to Canaan then was all about making Abraham into…the ‘father of those who live by faith‘. We can see that about him…looking back, but Abraham couldn’t see that from his point of view, at that time.
When Abraham left Ur, he travelled to Haran and stopped, to accommodate his aging father. It was at Haran after his father’s death that God said to Abraham:
“Go from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you into a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
Many years later, Abraham reminded God that His promise of a son had yet to be fulfilled (Gen 15) And the standing arrangement that he had at that time was for his servant, Eliezer of Damascus to inherit all of his possession and to become Abraham’s legal descendant. Abraham was referring to a common Mesopotamian custom whereby a man who had no son, would sign a contract with one of his servants. The servant would technically become the ‘son of my house’…and unless a ‘natural’ heir was born to the master, that man would through adoption, inherit his master’s name and household.
But that was not what God had in mind…so he replied:
“This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”Then he (Abraham) believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
So Abraham believed God. But he also knew that the clock was running. We all have that same sense that life is slipping away. And when we don’t see what we think that God has promised, we start to question if it’s ever going to happen. In Abraham’s case, it was pretty straightforward…a son or no son.
Well, about 10 years in, Sarai came up with a solution. She said…I have this little Egyptian maid – a servant. Why don’t we have a baby with her? So Sarai took Hagar and gave her to Abraham as his wife. This was another acceptable custom of that time whereby the slave of the wife could become a surrogate mother. Since she belonged to the wife anyway, the baby would also be hers.
The verse uses the word for Hagar that means wife…though she probably had a secondary status since she remained a slave. So Abraham took Hagar as a wife and they conceived a baby. But the outcome was that Hagar began to shun the authority of Sarai. She acted uppetty and superior…because Sarai had no child. She could see herself becoming wife number one…when there really should never have been two in the first place.And t
So Sarah came back on Abraham and blamed him. She said..now look what you’ve done to me. I’m despised in the eyes of my own maid. May the Lord judge between you and me.
Abraham and his wife thought… that they were going to help God to fulfil his promise. They thought that whatever God was doing, it wasn’t working. So they tried to fix the problem themselves.
Well, you get the picture…these were real people, immersed in the stuff of life. They had hopes and dreams, which in case we miss the point, were based on the promises of God – or at least their understanding of them. All of this created marital tension as they grew impatient with God.
But you’d never know that from Hebrews 11…because their lives were mostly defined by faith and not by doubt.
They never did give up on God and God didn’t give up on them. All of which brings us back to us…and this chapter on faith. A chapter in which faith is the key ingredient.
So Hebrews 11:6 says: “And without faith, it is impossible to please Him, for He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
Faith is belief – but not just any kind of belief. It is belief with specific content. In order to be pleasing to God, a person must believe that God is. Or more specifically, that the God of the Bible exists. That everything said and done by God and recorded in the Bible is true.
The God of the Bible exists…and we must believe in Him. But that is not all. We must also believe in the promises that He has made but has not yet kept. We must trust Him as a person who keeps His word. And we must be willing to stake our lives on Him and hold nothing back in reserve.
Faith has content.
- The object of our faith is God…the God who speaks to us in the Bible and whose word cannot be broken. That content is made up at least in part of the conclusions that we draw from the truths that God has revealed. This is the kind of faith that a person must have in order to be pleasing to God.
Abraham was a theologian. He did not just do what God commanded without considering what the implications were. So when God commanded the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham lept ahead in his thinking. God had made it clear that Isaac was the son through whom he would keep his promises to Abraham. His descendants would become an great, unnumbered nation and through him, all of the nations of the earth would be blessed. If God was going to keep his promise and at the same time require the death of Isaac, then God must intend to raise that boy from the grave. Abraham accepted that certainty – by faith, and set about to sacrifice his son. In so doing, he and Isaac became a ‘type’. A father offering his only son, with the full expectation of his resurrection. As it turned out, God’s son was also a ‘son of Abraham’ and was literally raised from the dead, to make it possible for God to ‘bless all of the nations’ under heaven. Likewise, our faith must the kind of content arising from valid theological thinking and blessed with a measure of wisdom and insight.
Coming back for a moment to Heb 11:1 Moulton and Milligan suggest a very helpful translation. In the New American Standard Bible it reads: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” .
What they found was that the word, hypostasis, which my bible translates as assurance, was used in that literature to mean “that body of documents bearing upon ones ownership of property and giving evidence or proof of such”.
If you have ever purchased real estate, then you received a packet of official papers when the sale closed. Some were issued by the city, and perhaps others by the bank. Your lawyer checked them for accuracy, genuineness and the absence of encumbrances – so that you could obtain clear title to the property. But that packet of documents was indicated in the ancient world by the word hypostasis. So Moulton and Milligan suggest the translation: “faith is the title-deed of things hoped for”.
If this is what the Hebrew writer has in mind, then this passage takes on special meaning. It becomes the historic record of certain men and women who held onto their faith as the title-deed by which God gave them ownership of the things which He had promised. The emphasis is then on the value of faith. It’s on the role or function that faith plays in the economy of God. And this fits the context well.
In Chapter 10:32-34, the writer reminds his audience of what they had endured:
But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one
Someone had confiscated their stuff. Yet these Christians had not only endured it, they had done so Joyfully. How was that possible? Could it be that perhaps not all of their possessions had been lost? It seems that their enemies had missed something. No one could take their faith from them. And they understood, that that faith gave them title to something that was safe with God.
They understood that the promises of God in the ultimate sense were not about earthly possession. So they were not attached to them. Faith allowed them to distinguish between those things that are of permanent value, and those that are not.
Faith is the thing that is of value.
- It gives us title to the promises of God, and for that reason, we must not squandered it.
- We must hold onto it as the people of old did…refusing to accept anything but the real article….the real promises of God in exchange.
Satan and the world which serves him is willing to make you an offer. What will you take in trade?
Those faithful men and women in Hebrews 11 refused to cash in early
- Enoch lived by faith and was taken up without seeing death.
- Noah prepared and ark in faith, saving his own family and condemning the world….becoming an heir of the righteousness which God bestows on the basis of faith.
- Abraham was given the land of Canaan by an oath of God. He owned it lock stock and barrel. But you know, he never built a house on it. And he never allowed himself to think of it as home.
He had a tangible piece of land and an intangible deed. His faith did not correspond to the land of Caanan…and he was not about to take it in trade. Our passage says that he lived in the land of promise as if he was in a foreign country.
And then the writer of Hebrews tells us why. “For he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (vs.10). For that very reason, “God is not ashamed to be called their God. I like that. Because they understood that faith as a title deed anticipates a spiritual inheritance”, God is not ashamed to be called their God.
It makes sense. Physical papers establish my ownership interests in a physical house. But this title deed is different. It is just as real and far more permanent. It is made of different stuff. And it corresponds to the Heavenly city…whose builder and maker is God.
Hebrews 11 is all about a host of faithful men and women whose lives speak to us across the ages.
Who: … by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power to fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection and others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill treated (men of whim the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, Because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect. So – let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles us and let us run with endurance the race set before us.
God has prepared a heavenly city and faith is the deed reserving your place in it. Let us live by faith so that God will not be ashamed to be called our God.