Studies In Hebrews #8
Hebrews 11:1 - 12:29
"Now Faith Is..." (11:1,2)
At the close of chapter 10 the Hebrew writer said, "we are not of them that shrink back unto perdition: but of them that have faith unto the saving of the soul" (10:39).
These words expressed confidence that his readers would remain with those whose faith would save them instead of returning to the Jewish religion, wherein was no salvation. Continuing into chapter 11 with this thought the author of Hebrews defines what he means by faith. Faith is defined as "assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen" (11:1). The NIV translates it, "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." It is faith which stands under and supports ("substance"--KJV) the things we hope for. It is a conviction of things we cannot see because it is a conviction in things in the spiritual realm, or things of the past or future. By such a surety and certainty "the elders had witness borne to them" that they were faithful (11:2,39).
People Who Lived By Faith (11:3-16)
The author of Hebrews could have gone into a detailed explanation of faith at this point but he chose, rather, to show what saving faith is by showing the lives of men and women who lived by faith. Drawing from Old Testament characters his readers were will acquainted with, he shows that the faith that saves is the faith that obeys.
He begins with Abel who "by faith...offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain" (11:4). The story of Cain and Abel is recorded in Genesis 4:1-5. Since "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (KJV-Rom.10:17), we understand both Cain and Abel were given instructions from God about these sacrifices. Abel alone had the kind of faith that saves because he had the kind of faith that motivated him to do whatever his heavenly Father would tell him to do. He had a faith that obeyed. Through his faith, Abel had "witness borne to him that he was righteous" (see also Matt.23:35; 1 Jn.3:12). The faith that saves is the faith that obeys.
He next considers Enoch (11:5,6). "Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him" (Gen.5:24). God's law is that all men die (cf.9:27). Enoch, however, did not see death. According to our author, this was due to his faith. The faith of Enoch was seen not just at the time of his translation. Before that time he was found to be "well-pleasing unto God". But "without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him". For Enoch to have been well-pleasing to God he had to have faith in God. We also must have faith in God before we can be well-pleasing unto Him. He had a faith which allowed him to avoid the corruption of the grave.
Next he considers Noah (11:7). "By faith" he "prepared an ark to the saving of his house". When we consider the circumstances of Noah's story we see his great faith. God warned Noah of something which had never happened before ("things not seen as yet"): a "flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; every thing that is in the earth shall die" (Gen.6:17). Noah, out of a "conviction of things not seen" (11:1), was moved to do all God had commanded him to do (Gen.6:22). He possessed saving faith because the faith he had moved him to obey God's will. Again, the faith that saves is the faith that obeys.
Finally, there is Abraham and Sarah (11:8-12). "By faith" he "obeyed to go out unto a place which he was to receive for an inheritance" and "became a sojourner in the land of promise". He obeyed by faith because he did what God said "not knowing whither he went". Once again we see the kind of faith that saves: faith that causes one to do whatever God directs them to do. Sarah also is seen a character of faith. She was well beyond the years to bear children, being 90 years old (cf.Gen.17:17). Since she "counted him faithful who had promised", she was able to conceive seed. Because of the faith of Abraham and Sarah, they began the great Israelite nation which eventually numbered "as the stars of heaven in multitude, and as the sand, which is by the sea-shore, innumerable".
"These all died in faith, not having received the promises" (11:13). Even though they did not themselves receive the fulfillment of God's promises, they, by their faith in God, kept going. They kept God's promises before their minds realizing they were strangers on earth who desired a better country. With such faith "God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God" (11:16).
Faith In Difficult Times (11:17-40)
In this final section of chapter 11, the writer dwells upon examples of faith put to the test. Living by faith often calls for making tough decisions, courage, and endurance. The original readers of Hebrews needed to have that kind of quality faith. So do we!
The author of Hebrews first looks at Abraham as an example of faith put to the test (11:17-19). Abraham's faith was put to a test many of us perhaps could not pass.
He was told to offer his only son, Isaac (see Gen.22:1-19). Abraham's faith in God was such he was willing to kill his own son to obey his Father and remain well-pleasing unto Him. This he was willing to do in spite of the fact the promises of God to Abraham were supposed to be fulfilled in his son Isaac (see Gen.21:12).
He knew that to obey God's commands would not set at nought God's promises. He knew if he obeyed everything God told him to do, he would be taken care of and, some how, the promises made to him would be fulfilled, even if this meant raising Isaac from the dead (11:19). Abraham passed this test of his faith.
Another example of faith put to the test is found in Moses (11:23-28). By faith he "refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to share ill treatment with the people of God". The choice he made reflected the kind of faith he had in God. Another test of his faith came when he went to Egypt to lead God's people out of their bondage. Once again his faith was strong enough to do as God had directed him even though it meant going before a powerful and wicked Pharaoh. Time and again Moses had the kind of faith that saves: faith that obeys and faith that passes all tests.
Several other examples of living by faith and faith put to the test are given, but the author realizes he cannot continue because of so many who are wonderful examples of faith in the Old Testament. In summary fashion he mentions several more names of outstanding people of faith (11:32) and alludes to several more names of outstanding people of faith (11:32) and alludes to several things done or endured through the centuries by faith (11:33-38).
All these "obtained a good report through faith" yet "received not the promise" (KJV-11:39). They had lived their lives in faith and were, therefore, acceptable before God. Yet God's appointed time had not yet come so the promises they sought after remained unfulfilled (cf.Gal.4:4). In all these examples of faith we see how faith truly is "assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen" (11:1).
The Race Set Before Us (12:1,2)
Chapter 12 begins with the word "therefore." What is it "there for"? It connects what has just been discussed with what follows. In chapter 11 the writer gave example after example of men and women who lived a life of faith "unto the saving of the soul" (cf.10:39). He continues by encouraging his readers to have the same kind of faith: "let us also." To encourage his readers to this end, the writer uses the analogy of running in a race. He draws upon several aspects of the race.
First, he mentions we are "compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses." As we run in "the race that is set before us" we find ourselves in the midst of a crowded stadium. These "witnesses" are all those men and women in chapter 11 who have already competed in this race of faith and obtained "a good report through faith" (cf.KJV-11:39). The point is not so much that these victors of the past are actually looking down on us as we take our turn in running in this race; but that by their loyalty and endurance they have borne witness to the possibility of living the life of faith. It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them-- for encouragement. As we run in this race we should find great encouragement in the host of others who have already completed the course and received the incorruptible crown.
They, by their life, cheer us on to victory.
Second, the writer encourages us to "lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us." The runner in any race, if they want to be the victor, will lay aside everything which might prove a hindrance to them in reaching the finish line. We also must be willing to put aside anything which might hinder or distract us in running this race. This certainly would include putting away every sinful activity and thought (see Gal.5:19-21). Paul said, "they that are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts thereof" (Gal.5:24). Things which are right in and of themselves can also hinder or distract us. In such matters it may well be that what is a hindrance to one entrant in this contest is not a hindrance to another. Each one must learn for himself what in his case is a weight or impediment and proceed to lay it aside so they will be able to run the race properly.
Third, we must "run with patience" the race before us. Already he has encouraged them to be patient: "For ye have need of patience, that, having done the will of God, ye may receive the promise" (10:36). The race we are entered in is a long distance race; it is for the remainder of our lives. The idea of patience here is more the idea of perseverance; a determination, unhurrying and yet undelaying, which goes steadily on and refuses to be distracted. It masters difficulties rather than being distracted by them. Mastering each difficulty produces more and more patience (see James 1:2-4). If we want to be a victor, we must run with patience.
Fourth, there must be concentration. Every successful participant constantly has his eye on the goal. As a participant in this spiritual contest we are to be "looking unto Jesus the author and perfector of our faith." Why? Because He is the example of one who completed the race victoriously. He is our example for running this race: "For hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps" (1 Pet.2:21). "For the joy that was set before him" He "endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (v.2) He showed us how to run this race: with our eyes on the goal! As we proceed through the course of our Christian race, let's keep our eyes fixed on Jesus to follow His victorious steps toward the goal.
The Value Of Endurance (12:3-17)
The Jewish Christians to which this epistle was written were immature (5:11-14), weak (12:12,13) and perhaps at the very point of falling away (2:1; 3:12). They were in need of the endurance which they had manifested earlier in their Christian life (see 10:32-36). The Hebrew writer proceeds by emphasizing the value of endurance.
They are asked to "consider him that hath endured such gainsaying of sinners against himself." Jesus "endured the cross, despising shame" (v.2). He was able to endure because of "the joy that was set before him." To stop and consider how Jesus was able to endure should help them "wax not weary, fainting in your souls" (v.3). Furthermore, they are reminded that their suffering was not as bad as it could be (v.4). Jesus, and many of the witnesses of chapter 11, endured suffering unto death. Looking upon Jesus, and the many witnesses of chapter 11, should encourage us to persevere in the race set before us.
They had "forgotten the exhortation which reasoneth with you as with sons" (v.5). The exhortation here referred to is described through verse 11: "the chastening of the Lord." The word "chastening", and related words, "denotes the training of a child, including instruction; hence, discipline, correction, 'chastening'" (Vine, page 175). The word carries the usual idea of correcting by punishment, but it also includes correction by instruction. In 11 Timothy 3:16 Paul said, "Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction (chastening) which is in righteousness." He speaks of the instruction or training which is in righteousness. In Hebrews 12 the writer uses chastening in both the corrective sense and in the instructive sense to stress the value of endurance. The child who is chastened, whether it be corrective or instructional, is a child who has a father that loves them. The Hebrews were surely the beloved children of God since they were being chastened by the trials they were suffering and being chastened with the instruction of the Lord as contained in the letter itself. "As many as I love, I reprove and chasten" (Rev.3:19). Knowing they were the beloved children of God would encourage them to endure all these things and help them to yield "peaceable fruit...of righteousness" (v.11).
He continues with several exhortations which would help them to endure. He encourages strength, straightness, and healing (v.12,13); peace and sanctification (v.14); grace and purity (v.15-17). Without each of these things they would not be able to endure the temptations and trials awaiting them.
Mount Zion (12:18-29)
To further encourage his readers to remain faithful to Christ rather than revert to the Jewish religion, the author of Hebrews continues by presenting yet another contrast between the old way under Moses and the new way under Jesus.
The awesome circumstances under which the law of Moses was given at Mount Sinai is first pictured (12:18-21). He speaks of the terror in the hearts of the people because the mountain was so charged with the holiness of God. "Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder" (Exod.19:18,19-RSV). Then, "when all the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, and said to Moses, 'You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, let we die'" (Exod.20:18,19-RSV; see also Deut.4:10-12; 5:22-27). As William Barclay put it, under the old covenant all that man could expect was "a God of lonely majesty, complete separation from man, and prostrating fear" (Hebrews, page 186). The recipients of this epistle had received a new and better relationship with God.
The mount they were "come unto" was far more glorious than mount Sinai was terrifying (12:22-24). They were "come unto mount Zion." Mount Zion was an example of endurance. "They that trust in Jehovah are as mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abideth for ever" (Ps.125:1). They had come unto mount Zion, God's "kingdom that cannot be shaken" (v.28). By coming unto mount Zion, through their obedience to the gospel, they had come unto "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem"; "to innumerable hosts of angels"; "to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven"; "to God the Judge of all"; "to the spirits of just men made perfect"; "to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant" and "to the blood of sprinkling that speaketh better than that of Abel." Note that the recipients of this epistle had already come unto each of these things. We too have come unto each of these if we have obeyed the commands of the new covenant mediated by Jesus.
Some of those at mount Sinai refused to listen to God. They said to Moses, "'You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die'" (Exod.20:18,19-RSV). Having come unto mount Zion we are encouraged to "refuse not him that speaketh" (v.25). God now speaks "unto us in his Son" (1:1,2). We need not fear our God but listen and obey His every command. Once again the writer shows that since there was no escape under the old covenant, there surely will be no escape under the new and greater covenant of Christ (see 2:1-4).
"Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, whereby we may offer service well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe: for our God is a consuming fire" (12:28,29).
By Alex Ogden
From Expository Files 1.11; November, 1994