February/March 2018 - Vol. 96

 living by faith
Living by Faith in the Promises of God 
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A Commentary and Reflection on the Letter to the Hebrews
Chapter 11:140

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by Don Schwager

The Meaning of Faith

Hebrews 11:1-3

1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the men of old received divine approval. 3 By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.

The author to the Hebrews uses two expressions to define what faith is. He uses the word "assurance" and the word "conviction".  Faith is not something vague, uncertain, undefineable, or something which requires a leap of the imagination or worse, some kind of blind allegiance.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Faith is a response of trust and belief in what is reliable, truthful, certain, and real. To have faith is to believe and trust in someone or something.  We believe in the power of electricity even though we can't visibly see it with the naked eye.  We know we can tap into that power and use it to do things we could not do by our own human power.  Faith in God works in a similar way. 

When God reveals himself to us he gives us the "assurance" and "conviction" that his power and presence and glory is just as real, and even more real, than our experience of the natural physical world around us.  Things around us change, but God never changes. He is constant, ever true to his word, and always faithful to his promises.  That is why we can have the greatest assurance of his unconditional love for us and why we can hope with utter conviction that he will give us everything he has promised.  Jesus is God's visible proof that his word is reliable and true; his love is unfailing and unconditional; and his power is immeasurably great and unlimited.

Faith and hope and closely linked together.  Hope is not mere wishful thinking: "I hope it doesn't rain today."  Hope is based on the certainty that God will do exactly what he said he would do and he will fulfill every promise he has made.  Human hope is imperfect because we have limitations and we often fail to do what we said we would do.  Supernatural hope, which the author to the Hebrews writes about, is a "hope beyond human hope" because it points to God who is utterly reliable and true to his word and who is all-powerful to fulfill all that he has promised. 

Hope enables us to persevere when our faith is put to the test. We will experience trials, setbacks, difficulties, and failures in this life.  But God will triumph through it all and accomplish his purpose for us.  That is why God gives us the gift of hope which "the Holy Spirit pours into our heart" to strengthen our faith and endurance to persevere to the end without wavering (Romans 5:3-5). Ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen your faith and hope in the certainty of God's revelation.

"Lord Jesus, your word is utterly true and reliable. Give me understanding that I may grow in the certainty of the hope you have placed in my heart and serve you faithfully all the days of my life." 
 

BIBLICAL BACKGROUND

Introduction to The Letter to the Hebrews

The Letter to the Hebrews was written for a second generation of Christians sometime between the persecution of Nero in 64 AD and the persecution of Domitian about 85 AD.  It was likely written around 80 AD.  There is a reference to some of the community's leaders who were martyred in past times (Heb. 13:7).  The present community had not yet suffered persecution and martyrdom since the author states: "you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood" (Heb. 12:4).  The Letter points, however, to the risk of persecution about to come.

We do not know who the author is.  Origen, the first great biblical scholar, who lived between 185-254, remarked: "who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews only God knows for certain."

What Christian community does the Letter address?  We do not really know for sure.  We do know, however, that it was written to a well-established church (Heb. 5:12) which had suffered persecution some time in the past (Heb. 10:32-34).  It was written to a church not founded by the Apostles (Heb. 2:3).  It was possibly written to Hebrew Christians in Italy.  The most direct hint is from Heb. 13:24: "Those who come from Italy send you greetings."  Another translation says: "Greetings to you from our Italian friends" (REV).

The Letter was likely intended for a scholarly group of Christians who were well versed in the knowledge of the Old Testament.  It may have been directed to a group of Christians who were preparing to become teachers (Heb. 5:12).  The author of this letter writes as a teacher who has been separated from this group and is concerned about their drifting away from the faith.  The author calls his letter "a word of exhortation" (Heb. 13:22).

What can we learn from this Letter?  "We have confidence to draw near to the throne of God."  We, too, live in age of spiritual conflict and struggle, when many Christians drift from their faith. Our faith must be strengthened in the knowledge of what the Lord Jesus has accomplished for us. The Lord Jesus has removed the barriers and opened the door to the living presence of God.  We now have access to God. This is the idea that dominates the Letter to the Hebrews.  As you read this Letter and meditate on its truth, allow the Holy Spirit to give you understanding and insight into the great mystery of our faith.


The Faith of Abel, Enoch, and Noah
Hebrews 12:4-7

4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by  accepting his gifts; he died, but through his faith he is still  speaking. 5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.

Every age and culture has its heroes - men and women who were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of something greater and more noble. The author to the Hebrews gives us a list of noble men and women of old who were noted for their great faith and trust in God. Cain and Abel were the oldest sons of the first parents, Adam and Eve.

Genesis tells us that Abel's sacrifice was very pleasing to God (Genesis 4:4).  From the very beginning of creation God put in the heart of every man and woman the longing to be united with God.  The offering of a sacrifice as a gift to God, whether it be a prized possession such as an unblemished animal or the first-fruits of the harvest, was meant to express gratitude and reverence for the Creator and Author of life. 

Abel's gift pleased God because it was given in "faith" -- in total trust and reverence for his Maker. Abel gave his gift with the certainty that God would accept it as a pleasing offering of thanksgiving and worship. Faith is the condition of being acceptable to God.  To approach God is only possible for those who believe that he exists and has good things in store for them.  To please God is to believe in what is unseen and to hope for the good things to come. 

Abel lived in and for the future. That is why he is called "just" or "righteous".  He trusted in the promises of God and made his life an offering of praise to God.  We do not know why Cain's sacrifice did not please God.  Perhaps he gave his gift grudgingly or insincerely with little thought that it would move God in the least.  True faith in God moves us to give God our best -- the best of our time, talents, gifts, and resources.  Do you make your life an offering to God as Abel did with faith and confidence in his providential care and love?

The scriptures tell us very little about Enoch. Genesis gives us one sentence: "Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him" (Gen. 5:24).  What does it mean to "walk with God"?  Psalm 1 tells us that those blessed by the Lord "walk not in the counsel of the wicked .. but delight in the law of the Lord."  Enoch loved God and followed his ways.  He was a man of great faith because he lived a life of repentance, turning away from evil practices and renouncing sinful desires, and earnestly sought to understand how he could please God in the way he lived. God rewarded him for his godly faith by "taking him to himself".  Through the gift of faith, God enables us to walk with him each day, and he gives us the help and grace we need to turn away from sin and to choose the way of love and righteousness.

Noah is a man of great faith because he believed in God's message.  With reverence and obedience he took God at his word and built an ark to preserve his household in safety.  He and his family were saved from destruction and judgment because he believed and obeyed the word of God. God's judgments are just and good.  If we trust him, as Noah did, and heed his warnings, then, we too will know and experience the joy, freedom, and safety the Lord desires for those who take him at his word.  Ask the Lord to strengthen your faith in his word and to increase your longing to be united with him forever.

"Lord Jesus, your word is utterly true and reliable. Give me understanding that I may grow in the certainty of the hope you have placed in my heart and serve you faithfully all the days of my life."


 The Faith of Abraham


Hebrews 11:8-19

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where  he was to go. 9 By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by  the seashore. 13 These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that  they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has  prepared for them a city. 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son,18 of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your descendants be named." 19 He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Abraham is the greatest model of faith in the Old Testament. Paul the Apostle calls him the "father of all who believe" (Romans 4:11). What made him great? Exceptional gifts, leadership skills, wisdom or experience? God chose Abraham to be the father of a mighty nation because he was faithful -- every ready to believe what God spoke to him and ever ready to obey his commands without hesitation.

Abraham was evidently a good listener.  He was attuned to God's voice and hungry for God's word. He trusted even when God told him to do something he didn't fully understand.

Genesis 12 tells us the story of Abraham's journey of faith to an unknown land of promise. What must have gone through the minds of Abraham's relatives and friends?  "There goes that dreamer again, in search of adventure and fortune."  Abraham was willing to forsake everything he had and cherished for the sake of the God who called him.  God was evidently pleased with Abraham and called him his "friend" (2 Chronicles 20:7, James 2:23).

How did Abraham grow in faith?  "In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations" (Rom. 4:18).  Abraham's wife Sarah was too advanced in age to conceive. No wonder she laughed when three angelic visitors told Abraham he would have a son by the following year (Gen. 18:12-14). Abraham hoped where there was no human hope because his trust was not in human capability but in divine power. The supreme test of Abraham's faith was the sacrifice of his son Isaac to God.  Abraham not only obeyed.  He trusted that God could bring his back to life again!  Now that's trusting, believing, expectant faith! 

True faith takes God at his word.  Abraham fulfilled the definition of faith given by the author to the Hebrews: "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). God strengthened Abraham in faith much the same way a metallurgist strengthens iron and forges steel.  He hammered away at Abraham's character until there was nothing left but pure metal, refined, molded, and shaped into a perfect instrument for his purposes.

Abraham had to learn the way of faith in the same we learn it.  Faith grows by consistency, taking daily steps of obedience and trust in God's word. If we want to grow in faith and allow the Lord to use us as his instrument, then we must cooperate with God as Abraham did.  He will test us, not to make us fail, but build into us the character and strength of will that does not waver in the face of doubt, trial, and affliction.

The Apostle Paul describes how Abraham grew in faith:  "No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised" (Rom. 4:20-21). Do you trust that God will be faithful to you and accomplish everything he has promised you?

"Lord Jesus, in love and obedience to your Father you gave your life for my sake.  Strengthen my faith in your promises and give me courage to always say yes to your will for my life." 
 


The Faith of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph

Hebrews 11:20-22

20 By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. 21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. 22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his burial.

Why does the Author to the Hebrews link Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph together? They persevered to the end of their days and their faith did not waver even in the face of death. They did not live to see the fulfillment of God's promises to make of them a great nation and to bring them into the Promised Land.

Isaac died a nomad (Genesis 27).  Jacob died as an exile in Egypt (Genesis 47:29, 48:15-16). And Joseph died as a great figure and a stranger in a foreign land as well (Genesis 50:22-26). They, nonetheless, hastened the day of this fulfillment through their faith and hope in God's word. Their faith enabled them to see beyond the present circumstances to the future which God promised.  As links in a great chain of men and women of faith they hastened the fulfillment of God's promises.

We, too, are called to be links in a great chain of hope and faith that passes from one generation to the next.  Is your hope in this present life only?  Ask God to give you the faith to see beyond the grave to the victory which awaits those who persevere to the end.

"Lord Jesus, your promises never fail because you are ever faithful to your word  Give us eyes of faith to see beyond the grave to the victory which awaits those who persevere in hope." 


The Faith of Moses 
Hebrews 11:23-29

23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king's edict. 24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, 25 choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king; for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the first-born might not touch them. 29 By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land; but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.

The Author to the Hebrews lists five great acts of faith in the life of Moses.  First is the faith of Moses' parents who hid their child, in spite of peril to their own lives by defying Pharoah's orders to have every male Israelite child put to death. When they could no longer hide him they released him to the Nile River in a basket trusting God to preserve this child for his own purposes.  The fact that Pharoah's own daughter took him and raised him as her own child pointed to his future destiny as one spared to lead his own people to their freedom.

The second great act of faith was Moses' loyalty to his own people.  While Moses grew up in Pharoah's own house in great luxury as a royal son, he never lost his identity as a true son of Israel. He worshiped the true God of Israel and he willingly suffered abuse for identifying with his own people.  He exchanged the glory of Pharoah's house for the plight of his oppressed people, just as Jesus exchanged the glory of his Father's house for the sake of humankind enslaved to sin and death.

Moses' third act of faith, after he withdrew from Egypt to Midian because of an intervention on behalf of  people, was to patiently wait on God in exile before returning to Egypt to free his people (Exodus 2:14-22).  Moses could have recklessly thrown his life away by defying Pharoah on his own strength rather than waiting for God to show him when and how he was to bring about his people's freedom from slavery.

When Moses returned to Egypt at the Lord's bidding, he confronted Pharoah with mighty signs from God in the form of ten plagues.  On the eve of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt, God instructed Moses to prepare the Passover feast as a celebration of his great saving deeds. Moses faithfully followed through on all the Lord's instructions. Such was his faith that he even commanded the people to celebrate the Passover annually.  He knew beyond a doubt that God would free his people and see them safely to the Promised Land.  His faith was full of hope because he looked beyond the present circumstances to the future which God promised. Jesus' victory over sin and death on the cross is our true Passover which we celebrate in the Lord's Supper or Eucharist.

The fifth act of faith was the crossing over the Red Sea on foot while the Egyptian armies pursued them with a fleet of 600 swift chariots (Exodus 14).  Moses was willing to do what seemed humanly impossible when God commanded him to lead his people through the sea.  Faith enables us to see beyond our human capacity to the power and grace of God at work in us.  When God commands he gives the grace and strength to carry through successfully.  Like Moses, we will have to face many barriers and obstacles on our journey of faith.  But God will see us through if we keep our eyes on him and trust in his help and power.  Are you ready to suffer for your faith as Moses did and trust God to see you through any difficulty or trial?

"Lord Jesus, your victory on the cross frees us from slavery to sin and the fear of death.  Help us to keep our eyes fixed on you as we journey in faith to our home with the Father in heaven." 
 


The Faith of other heroes in Israel's history

Hebrews 11:30-40

30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies. 32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets -- 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated -- 38 of whom the world was not worthy -- wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. 39 And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

The author to the Hebrews concludes his description on great acts of faith with a list of Old Testament heroes and heroines noted for their faith and trust in God.  They accomplished great deeds because they looked not to their own strength but to the strength that comes from God alone.  Jericho was known as a well-fortified city that could not be penetrated by outside forces.  The Israelites made a public declaration of their faith by marching around the outside walls while singing and chanting praises to God for seven days (Joshua 6:1-20).  The inhabitants of Jericho must have thought them foolish and weak since they made no attempt to attack the walls directly.  The Israelites were able to occupy the city when God acted on their behalf by destroying the walls that stood in the way. 

The fall of Jericho remains a powerful example for us that nothing can stand in the way of God when he decides to act for his people.  When you meet insurmountable obstacles and difficulties in your life, do you praise God for his faithfulness and power to bring you victory over the forces of evil and destruction?

Why is Rahab the harlot noted as a great heroine of the faith?  After all, she was not an Israelite but an inhabitant of Jericho before its great fall. No one in Jericho would have believed that the Israelites could overtake their great city.  Rahab not only believed in the God of Israel but she staked her whole future on this belief  that God could do the impossible when she gave hospitality to the Israelite spies. She had the faith and courage to take God's side even when it looked doomed for failure.

She welcomed the spies with these words: ""I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt ..for the LORD your God is he who is God  in heaven above and on earth beneath." (Joshua 2:9-11) 

Rahab protected the spies and enabled them to escape unharmed.  For her faith and hospitality she and her family were spared when the city was overtaken.  She is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5) and the Letter of James praises her for her faith and good works (James 2:25).

The list of heroes that follows have a characteristic feature to them.  They all won decisive victories for God against insurmountable odds. 

Gideon with 300 men overtook a numerous force of Ammonites who had terrorized the Israelites for a long time (Judges 6-7).  Barak and his band, under the inspiration of the prophetess Deborah, overtook the superior force of Canaanites (Judges 4-5). Samson alone defeated the Philistines against overwhelming odds because he found strength and victory in God (Judges 13-16).  Jephthah, called back from exile, overtook the Ammonites against great odds as well (Judges 11-12). 

David the shepherd defeated the Philistines by slaying Goliath with a single stone.  As King he won many decisive battles and united the twelve tribes of Israel (1 Samuel 16:13-20).  The prophet Samual time and again bore faithful witness to God among a people who were rebellious and discontented.  Many prophets in turn rallied the people to put their hope and trust in God alone rather than in the strength of their armies or human resources.

The author to the Hebrews ends his praise of  great heroes by telling us what these men and women of faith did in the name of God.  His audience would have been very familiar with the biblical stories surrounding the themes he mentions. Daniel stopped the mouths of lions (Daniel 6:23).  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego escaped unharmed from the fiery furnace (Daniel.3:19-28). 

The prophets Elijah and Elisha escaped destruction by the sword (1Kings.19:1ff, 2 Kings.6:31ff).  Judith saved her people from destruction when she single-handedly cut the head of Holofernes and threw his army into panic.

All these examples serve as a reminder of what God had accomplished in the past through men and women of faith.  They remind us that God is still at work today, ready to fight for us against the spiritual forces that would destroy both body and soul in hell. When we acknowledge our own weakness and sinfulness, then we are on the right path to true humility and greatness in the kingdom of God. 

Heroes of the faith were men and women just like us. They struggled with temptation and testing, with doubt and hopeless causes.  They found strength and hope to overcome all odds in one source alone -- in God who never abandons those who trust in him. What made them great was not their natural gifts, talents, wits or resources.  It was their whole-hearted trust in God and in the power of his kingdom.  They believed against great odds in the God who is faithful to all his promises. 

They never wavered in hope even when there was no cause for human hope, because their hope was in God. They all died before seeing the fulfillment of God's promises in Jesus Christ. We are the heirs of Jesus Christ who died and rose for our sake.  May their example inspire us to greater faith and confidence in Jesus our Redeemer.  And may we do great deeds for God as we look not to our own strength but to the strength which comes from God alone.

"Lord Jesus, you show us the way to victory through your humble obedience to the will of your Father in heaven.  May we never doubt your strength and saving help as we seek to do your will." 

> See complete commentary and reflection on all 13 chapters of The Letter to the Hebrews 


Don Schwager is a member of the Servants of the Word and author of the Daily Scripture Readings and Meditations website.

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