The stories in Hebrews 11 may be the most well known part of the entire letter/sermon. It is obvious that stories are easier to follow than abstract reasoning. We should be grateful before the Lord that He has chosen to give us both. Thus the simple sentence, “Jesus died for our sins,” is a statement of history and a theological explanation at the same time. We cannot dispense with either one. Teaching the history/story of the Bible is the prime way to introduce God’s Word to children. The events do not stand without spiritual significance. God is known by His deeds as well as His statements. Both fit together in a comprehensive and unified revelation of God.
Many lessons can be taken from the persons mentioned in this chapter. The examples chosen connect to the appeal in 10:35-39. There the readers were encouraged and warned not to throw away their confidence, to wait for God’s reward, to persevere, to live by God’s promises believing He will be true to His Word. The examples were not chosen to illustrate the nobility of OT saints, even though this is evident everywhere. The overriding issue is that “He who promised is faithful” and for this reason we should “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (10:23). To miss the connection of chapters 10 and 11 is to view chapter 11 as a detached storybook rather than one reason after another to encourage their faith in the face of similar circumstances.
The visible church will be sorted into two classes of men with a gap between that cannot be crossed. Some shrink back; some believe. The destiny of one is hell and the other, heaven. The issue then presses upon us: what does it really mean to believe? What distinguishes faith from a false faith, a living faith from a dead faith that cannot save? James 2 teaches that the reality of faith is demonstrated by its results. Hebrews 11 shows what true faith is like.
Faith in chapter 11 often looks to the future. Chapter 10 referred to Christ as the Coming One (10:37). Hebrews 11 illustrates that faith brings to reality the certainties of God’s promises. Faith does not need to see to believe. Since God has disclosed that portion of the future we need to know, which alone makes it as real as the present. In fact, the future is often more clear for us than the present, because only in it are all of God’s promises fulfilled. The world lives with an uncertain future as its norm. Believers have a certain future while living in an uncertain present. Hebrews 11 should be read in the light of chapter 10 and of Jesus, the chief example of persevering faith, in chapter 12. God commended these saints for perseverance. We should observe how greatly their faith determined the way they lived and died, and how their brief life was a pilgrimage, a longing for a better country.
In Acts 7,
Stephen made a brief review of the OT. We live in a day when two things are out
of favor. In our lazy Western culture (not lazy on the sports field but in the
mind) we like neither theology nor history. That makes many view a book like Hebrews as
not very relevant to the felt needs of so many professing believers. Some think
doctrine is unimportant, but come running for help when a new teaching causes
trouble in the church! Hebrews boldly
states our salvation doctrinally in terms of Jesus the human Son of God, our
Great High Priest. This confession ran against the prevailing view of the
majority of Jews in the first century.
So Hebrews used the Scriptures (in those days acknowledged as the Word
of God), to refute the error of denying any priest from outside the line of
Levi. It also used the long and respected tradition of
11:1,2 “Now faith is the assurance of things
hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”(ESV) This is a perplexing verse to understand and
translate. It humbles those who try. The Greek noun (hupostasis) for
“assurance” in the NIV is used 20 times in the LXX for a dozen different Hebrew
words. Trying to define the word, and
thus grasp the verse fully is like fitting a mattress into a refrigerator.
Nothing fits perfectly. Is this word “substance”, “being sure”, “guarantee” or
“assurance”? The Bible translators have no clear consensus. Many pages in commentaries do not result in a
definite conclusion. Languages often do not have exact parallels in other
languages. Thus the commentary of
It would be less tantalizing if the statement were not so central to the point Hebrews is making. This concise statement opens this section, and the rest of the chapter is to illustrate the point, but it is easier to understand the examples than the thesis they were given to exemplify! My advice is to admit our difficulty without worry. The chapter itself is well understood and has been a tremendous encouragement for centuries. One way to grasp v.1 is to find ways the later verses fit it. The rest of the chapter is probably saying what v.1 means.
Another important question is whether faith/hope is objective or subjective? In other words, is faith simply inner assurance, or is it an objective certainty. 2+2 equals 4 no matter how we may feel. We should have an inner certainty of this truth of arithmetic, which is objectively certain whether we agree with it or not. This aspect of faith is vital. Take the coming of Christ as an example. We are subjectively certain it will happen, but it is also an objective certainty. In English, certainty has for most people the idea of subjective assurance. Seeing the word both ways may help us understand v.1. By faith we are assured of things that are real, not because we imagine them to be true, but because their reality has been established for us by the Word of God. Then when we believe, faith makes them real for us! For the first people hearing v.1, when Hebrews was read to them, it probably made perfect sense.
In Hebrews, faith and hope at times are virtually the same, as in “full assurance of faith” (10:22) and “let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (10:23). It is quite natural for us to see hope as an internal trust we have concerning the future. However, in Hebrews hope is also presented as objective. In 6:18-20 a hope already existing is offered to us, so it is not subjective. This hope is an anchor for the soul, quite external to us, because it enters heaven (6:19,20). Our subjective hope does not enter heaven, but Christ has. So, a) a trusting hope and b) the hope held out to us by the Lord are both called our hope. In the NT the latter is more common. Christ is our objective hope (1 Timothy 1:1), and the One our subjective hope is in (1 Corinthians 15:19). Likewise, the faith in our hearts (Romans 10:9,10) is in Christ, and the truth we believe is the objective faith we confess (1 Timothy 3:9).
Apparently hupostasis could mean a guarantee, or a seal of authenticity. In this sense, faith makes a supporting statement, or it supports all the action that rests on it. Thus Hebrews 11 will say repeatedly that by faith (as a foundation) something was done. Perhaps it carries the idea that by faith we vouch for what God has said, as in John 3:33. This, of course, pleases God (11:6) Who commends believers for their faith (11:2). The word is a combination of “under” (hupo) and “standing” (stasis), so it may carry the sense that faith is the foundation of the conduct seen in the lives of these OT people.
It may help to say that 11:1 is not defining faith as much as it is showing what faith does. When faith was present, God’s people did amazing things. Had it been absent, they would have done nothing mentioned in chapter 11. It makes them see what they otherwise could not; it makes them hold as realities what the world would find foolish. Faith connects with certainties known only by the revelation of God. It considers the future as real as the present, even when the man of faith has nothing more to support his certainty than a promise from God. He needs nothing more. God commended the faithful of early and later history for their faith. Now the writer of Hebrews is ready to review the record of OT witnesses to show how faith pleases God so much, AND to show why we should not throw away our confidence (10:35).
11:3 The writer begins at the beginning of Genesis before there is any man. He takes up creation first and speaks of the faith of all (i.e., not just the OT saints but us as well), when he says, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command.”
Here we encounter a paradox: we must know something in order to believe, and we must believe in order to know (as in Psalm 27:13). Noah could not know of a flood before God spoke to warn of it (11:7). Yet we cannot know unless we believe. There is no other way to know that the world was created by the word of God than by faith, but by faith we do know it is so. The world will say we only believe – the suggestion is that we are irrational – but we reply that we know. We have the Word of the Lord Who was present when He did it. When He tells us something, then we know, but only if we believe Him. Visible things were not created from visible things. Faith does not make this true, but it does bring us into the certainty of it. We do not claim to know how God can create by His Word; we simply know it is so.
The matter of believing what we cannot see, and “seeing” what we can only know by God’s Word, is a theme that will return in vv.7 & 13. The faith of OT saints and our believing in creation from things invisible is the same kind of faith. The reason Moses persevered is that in faith “he saw him who is invisible,” (11:27).
11:4 The faith of Abel The Biblical record of Abel is so brief that much speculation has arisen to go with it. This in itself is an indication that the brief life of Abel has acquired much attention; he still speaks. He believed in the Lord, and while we know so little of what may have been in his heart, God commends him for righteousness. No righteousness could have been in Abel had he not believed. It was not so with Cain. With both Cain and his offering God was displeased. Genesis 4:7 may be the decisive word to explain why; if the man who offers is wicked, whatever he offers will be rejected. Jesus’ offering was made only after He was perfected (5:9), and thus it has been accepted. Some think Cain’s offering was rejected because it was the fruit of the ground, and because God had cursed that ground. That hardly fits OT offerings where wine and grain offerings were given to the Lord (Leviticus 23:37). The chief distinction seems to be in the men rather than in their offerings.
It may be odd that Abel is chosen as an example of faith. He seems to have so little reward for it. The evil man lived and the righteous man died. But Hebrews is interested in who gains the commendation of God. A short life with God’s commendation speaks much more to us than a long life of sin and eventual destruction. Abel does have the distinction of being the first human being to become part of “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” (12:23). Though he is an example of personal righteousness, he was perfect because the Lord made him to be.
11:5,6 The faith of Enoch We move from righteous Abel whose life was cut short by death to a man who never died! Faith should not be judged by duration of life, but by how that life was lived. Both men arrived in the presence of the Lord, thus both were made perfect by the blood of Christ. Hebrews was written to affirm Christ as our Great High Priest. It is not contradicting its own message here when it refers to righteous persons. They too, are accepted by God only because of the ministry of Christ. When Adam sinned he represented Abel, Enoch, and Noah, so they all needed Christ. God is pleased with faith; v.6 now adds that He rewards it. Enoch is a prime example. He believed, and God commended him. Enoch is a witness of what God does with all who believe. Enoch was simply taken to the Lord’s presence without dying. At the coming of Christ, that will happen again. For those who die in Christ, they enter the same place as Enoch.
The lesson of this man’s life is given in v.6 where it calls for all to come to the Lord. I take this to mean coming by prayer, and that Hebrews implies that Enoch’s walk with God was characterized by prayer. What he sought was God in a world that hated Him. Because of such faith and such a view of God’s worth, the Lord rewards by turning His gracious face to His people (Numbers 6:22-27). Enoch was also an early example of Jesus’ desire that His own should be with Him (John 17:24). For those alive on earth before the perfection of heaven, the Lord already makes His home with the one who, like Enoch, has His commands and obeys them (John 14:21-23).
These two verses are a combination of the most unusual (Enoch did not die) and the most general rule for all, i.e., that anyone who comes believing God exists, and that God responds, will be rewarded. It is not futile to seek the Lord, because He will be found and will pardon (Isaiah 55:6,7). Apart from escaping death, what He did for Enoch, the Lord will do for all. Those who seek His face shall have it, and those who (unlike Enoch) die, yet die in the Lord, will find that their death is an entrance into His presence (Philippians 1:23). They join the living in the city of the Living God (12:22ff).
11:7 The faith of Noah The example of Noah follows Abel, a righteous man, and Enoch who pleased God. Noah was both a preacher (2 Peter 2:5) and an heir of righteousness. In the brief and cryptic words of Hebrews 11, personal righteousness is demonstrated in faithfulness, but no detailed explanation is given how perfect righteousness is received by simple faith. The writer is moving very fast through his list of saints to show the certainty and commendation of faith (11:1 & 39). Some teach that righteousness for justification is attained by faithfulness. This is a major blunder; we should take the doctrine of justification from those portions of Scripture that actually teach it, and we should not misread the many passages that speak of personal righteounsess in the saints to contradict them. The world was wicked (Genesis 6:1-7), but Noah found grace in the sight of the Lord (Genesis 6:8). Then we read that Noah was a righteous man (Genesis 6:9). If he were a righteous man and that was why God showed him grace, that would make grace ungracious. Saving grace (to be distinguished from the Creator’s kindness) is grace because it is shown to sinners. Noah, a son of Adam, was a sinner to whom God was gracious.
Noah believed God’s warning and so built an ark over many years. He surely faced ridicule for this, but his certainty about the flood was as real to him as yesterday’s sunset. Future history announced by God is no less certain than past history. Noah did not build because he looked at clouds and predicted a flood. He believed God and did so over a long time. He received what he hoped for, the salvation of his family; he was certain of the flood no one could see. He believed, and he and his family were saved. The world did not believe in spite of God’s warning and Noah’s preaching. They were condemned, as are all who do not believe. Those in the church should heed both examples, not just Noah’s. Those who shrink back will be destroyed as surely as all the unbelievers on Noah’s day. Only those who believe are saved. Because Noah believed, he built an ark; his faith was not shallow; it resulted in the good works that always accompany salvation (6:9); his faith was characterized by diligence to the end (6:11), and through faith he received what was promised (6:12). Hebrews turns words of promise and warning into concrete examples by reference to people like Noah. Just like the temptations the readers of Hebrews were facing, Noah was tested, but he persevered (10:36). The writer hopes they will follow his example.
Noah by faith became an heir. Christ is the heir of all things (1:2), so for Noah to be an heir of anything, in the mind of God he must be united to Christ. There is no inheritance for any fallen son of Adam apart from Christ. Adam in the old creation lost all for all his family. Any inheritance from Christ, the replacement head of a new family in the new creation, is grounded in the perfect, personal, law-keeping obedience of Jesus Christ. This righteousness is received by faith in Him. Noah too, in the grace of God, became an heir (Romans 8:17,32) to a righteousness that was not his but became his by faith (Philippians 3:9).
11:8-19 The faith of Abraham The review from early Genesis is over. Abel and Enoch received much attention in embellished Jewish writings. Hebrews 11 now gives more attention to the father of faith (Romans 4:16,18) than it does to anyone else. Abraham is a man of whom Scripture has much to say.
Abraham was in a foreign land when God called him; this foreign land was
his homeland. When he left he had no family ahead of him, no knowledge of the
new land, and he went for one reason only: God had called him to go. Abraham
had worshipped other gods; God took him from the land beyond the Euphrates and
led him to
would see the land promised to him, but in this life he did not have it as his
inheritance. He lived in it but in temporary quarters. It was his by promise
but not possession. He was wealthy (Genesis 13:2) but lived in tents. Why not
build a city there and a large house? Abraham knew he was a stranger there all
his days. He even had to send outside the land for a wife for his son. While he
lived there, the Lord said to him, “The
11:11,12 Having a son This subject is the most delicate and anguished of all the things Abraham faced. To the issue of his son must be added the later matter of Isaac being offered. God would not allow Abraham’s servant to be his heir (Genesis 15:2-4), nor the child born to the servant Hagar. The son must be their biological child by the miraculous conception in Sarah with elderly Abraham as the father. His faith was tried over a long time. He accepted the decisions of God. He continued to believe; his view of God was theologically sound; he believed God would be faithful to His word. There would be a son from Sarah’s womb. People may conclude that God is slow, but with a faithful God, faith can wait.
11:13-16 The sermon continues The writer steps back to review what he has said already. Not one of the examples he gave is of a person who made a claim of belief in Christ early in life and that kind of “confession of faith” was all there was to it. His examples all continued to live by faith and were still believing, trusting, hoping, and obeying when their life on earth ended. This is the kind of example the readers of Hebrews needed to emulate. God is not pleased with those who shrink back (10:38,39), but with those who believe. Those who really believe do not shrink back. Those with the faith of Abraham “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had…” (Romans 4:12). Faith in the time of death reveals that one really does believe in the promised inheritance since there is nothing else left in life to hope in. This will be seen in the case of both Isaac and Jacob below.
They received the promises but not all the things promised. What they saw, they saw by faith (Ephesians 1:18), not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). They knew the promise of a great inheritance would be kept after they died. Only the resurrection is consistent with the faithfulness of God. An “everlasting possession” is meaningless to the dead, but by faith they will inherit and be alive to do so. All believers will sit down with a living Abraham in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:11).
It glorifies God, and His people identify with Him when they confess that they are “aliens and strangers” (Genesis 17:8). It meant they were looking for something else. Our Christian confession means we cannot fit in well here, and we ought to view this world as corrupt and worthy of passing away (1 John 2:15-17). Our citizenship, like Abraham’s, is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). If we say that God’s city is our own, our better country, the heavenly one we long for, then we confess in covenantal allegiance. We are saying that God is our God, and God will not be ashamed to speak the same way of us. But if we cannot accept joyfully our property being taken from us because we confess that Christ is our true Priest, then we are denying that we have in Him “better and lasting possessions” (10:34). In this sermon/letter, the preacher/writer reminded them that they once had an attitude toward this world like Abraham’s. Now he wonders if they will throw away their confidence (10:35). Abraham never did. Will they also die in faith (11:13) by holding their confidence firm to the end (3:14)?
had the option to return to his birthplace. (One can only wonder what he would
tell his former neighbors.) That would
be like the apostate Israelites who wanted to return to
11:17-19 The reasoning of faith This test put Abraham in a position where he could only see one way that the different things God had said could be reconciled. Abraham never entertained that God could be untrustworthy. God said that it was through Isaac, and no one else, that Abraham’s seed would continue. Isaac was the son born of promise, and God’s promise required that he live to have children. Then God told Abraham to sacrifice him. Abraham understood God’s words. They seemed to be in conflict.
Other examples in chapter 11 emphasize how faith sees, how faith obeys, how faith endures ridicule and even murder, how faith acts, and in the case of creation, that only faith understands. None of that was new to Abraham, but this example shows how faith reasons. The test must have been extremely trying, but Abraham’s mind was clear. He did not waver in faith or obedience (Romans 4:20,21); he would do what God said. He simply reasoned that if God commanded Isaac in sacrifice, and God had made these clear promises about him, that God would raise Isaac from the dead. The previous promises of God are never annulled by His later commands. This is how Abraham reasoned. It is not that he was a master of logic; he was certain without doubt that God would keep the promise that through Isaac Abraham’s seed would be called. That Word of God was all he had and all he needed to make his decision. The readers of Hebrews needed the same faith in their reasoning.
11:20-22 The faith of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph
Isaac The writer quickly covers three more generations. Note that there was a living Isaac to have children. God’s promise was never in jeopardy. The words Isaac spoke concerning the future were blessings he had no power to control. He made no statement of what he would do; it was all up to the covenant keeping God of His father Abraham. In Genesis 27:27-29, he spoke in faith of what God would do; Isaac was a spokesman. For his words to have any effect, they depended on blessing from the Lord after his death. In Genesis 27:37 his use of “I” has reference to the validity of the word he had pronounced in the Name of the Lord; even Isaac could not change it. Isaac would not have blessed either man had his faith been in his own ability to fulfill. He spoke with certainty because God had made promises to Abraham, and Isaac knew that word was true. With Isaac, future blessing was a matter of certainty.
Jacob Why would Jacob bless each of his sons when
he was so weak he had to lean on his staff to do so? His body lacked the strength to support its
own weight. He was near death, a very
weak man. He knew the God of his fathers
could not be unfaithful. It was worth his last bit of strength to sit up and
bless Joseph’s sons and later his own. Genesis 48/49 demonstrates confidence in
the promises of God. Because he was certain they would leave
The faith of Moses v.23
The faith of Moses’ parents is mentioned
first, a faith in a time of great affliction with the threat of death. We
wonder what they knew of his future. We do know they feared the Lord their God
more than the king of
is the last person to be reviewed in any detail. I suspect that by listing
these well-known faithful saints, the writer was challenging his readers
whether they were true Jews. The history of
Moses had to choose which of two peoples he
belonged to. He chose to identify with a
despised and poor minority in slavery.
In this way he chose the mistreatment that would be the inevitable
result of refusing high recognition as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose
to give up the comforts of the palace, and some of those comforts would be
against God’s commandments, so they are called the pleasures of sin. He chose
not to be short sighted. Life is very brief. All the nobility in
11:26 Moses not only chose disgrace for the sake
of Christ, he valued identification with the coming Messiah. It is a privilege
to suffer for the Lord, a privilege limited to this life (Philippians 1:29).
Matthew 5:10-12 clearly applies to Moses, one of the OT prophets. We do not
know exactly what Moses knew of Christ, but in the five Books of Moses the Lord
Jesus is the promised seed of the woman to crush the serpent’s head (Genesis
3:15). He is the true Seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16-18). Further, Christ was
the great prophet to come, One like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18,19). He was the
One to whom all the signs of ceremonial bloodshed pointed. All hope of
redemption and the Redeemer Himself would come through
11:29 The faith here is of the people, and Moses
is part of that people. By now it should be clear that the writer could have
said “by faith” to much more detail of their history. In the case of Moses, there is an active
faith concerning him as an infant and faith expressed to the time of
Passover. The people had faith to pass
11:30,31 The text does not mean the wall of
what happened to kings nearby who opposed the Israelites and what happened to
the Egyptians. She could not see the God of Israel, but she was convinced by
His actions that He was the One who would prevail in taking the
11:32-38 The Concluding Review The writer has surveyed OT history from creation to entering the land. He had made his point, but there were so many more he could refer to as examples of the exemplary certainty that comes by trusting God’s Word. These came in the period of the judges, the monarchy, the prophets, and even Maccabean times between the Old and New Testaments. He names some judges, one king and no prophets. Their achievements could be as public as fighting a war and as private as facing torture and death. We detect the days of Daniel and his companions when it mentions lions and quenching flames. It sounds like David running from Saul when it speaks of escaping the edge of the sword. I doubt the writer would speak this way unless he felt his readers recognized these incidents in the OT.
As the paragraph progresses, there is less of surviving hardships as in 11:32-35, and more of being killed in them (11:35-38). Some like Daniel and his friends had relief during this life, but with others there was none. Some women had loved ones returned to them from death. Others were not spared; they were content to wait for a better resurrection than a temporary extension of days on earth. Reference to insult, persecution, and loss of property in 11:35-37 is the deliberate agenda of the writer; he chose to show a similarity to the suffering expressed in 10:32-34. He is about to say, “Let us run with perseverance the race set out for us.” First he will hold up as marvelous examples to us how well these OT saints ran their race.
The murder by stoning may refer to the killing of prophets (Matthew 23:29-36). Jewish tradition says Isaiah was sawn in two. The world was not worthy of them. We are left to admire them and in spite of all they suffered, no effort is made to make us feel sorry for them. Their great reward has overwhelmed their trouble; their suffering is not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed (Romans 8:18). The coming exhortation is to live up to their example. The final loss for these pilgrims was of home, shelter, and ordinary clothing. Their trouble was swept away by the reward of God’s commendation and the “something better” He has for them to enjoy eternally (11:39,40).
Bringing the saints together God’s great purpose has always been “to
bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians
1:10). This truth has been a major difficulty for dispensationalism. God does not have two different agendas for
The word perfect
appears again! It has been used of
Christ in His human life when he had been perfected in obedience (5:9). It is used of the believer who by means of
Christ’s sacrifice has been perfected forever (10:14), even though the needed
process of becoming holy continues. Now it is used in connection with the
Second Coming of Christ. All the saints of the ages will be perfected together.
The righteous in the heavenly
Hebrews 11 spells out what 6:12 had in mind, that we should be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises”.