Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Reason for their Faith - Hebrews 11

Verse 11 gives us a little trouble. Part of it is Biblical history. Part of it is sentence structure. First, let’s look at Biblical history. Sarah (Abraham’s wife) did not believe when she heard the Lord say she would have a son. In fact, she laughed at Gods promise of a son. Turn to Genesis 18 and read verses 1 through 15. She did not believe the Lord because she was too old to have a child. In other words, she believed the physical evidence. She did not have faith in God to override physical nature. That is what a miracle is. It is not natural; it is supernatural. The Lord pointed this out to he by saying “is anything hard for the LORD?”. Now turn to Genesis 21:6-7. Sarah indeed has a child, Isaac. She gave credit to God. She rejoiced. But there is no clear statement that indicates she believed before she got pregnant. So, it is hard to interpret this verse as meaning Sarah had faith. Now let’s look at the text in different versions. First, let’s look at the English Standard Version (ESV). This is the version from which I normally teach. In Hebrews 11:11, it reads: “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even she she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.” We can see that the ESV gives credit for faith to Sarah. She considered God faithful. So, either the writer of Hebrews interpreted Sarah’s words at Isaac’s birth to mean she believed or he knew something about Sarah we do not. Now let us look at the New American Standard Bible, a very literal translation. It reads “By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.” Again, we see Sarah giving credit for considering God faithful, in other words, believing God or having faith. Lastly, look at the New International Version (NIV) and see that it turns the verse completely around to focus on Abraham. It reads “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age-and Sarah herself was barren-was enabled led to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” So, the NIV gives credit to Abraham for the faith involved in this incident. The context may also help us. Since Abraham was considered the father of the Hebrews, he is a most important figure to them. The writer of Hebrews gives more attention to him in this chapter than any other person. The writer emphasized to his Jewish audience that Abraham lived by faith, not law. Paul did the same thing in Galatians. If, then, you interpret this verse to refer to Abraham rather than Sarah, this chapter gives three instances of the faith of Abraham: his leaving his home to go to Canaan, his believing God for Isaac and the sacrifice of Isaac. (11:17). Because of faith, and God’s faithfulness, Abraham not only had a son, but had innumerable descendants. This is a reference to God’s covenant with Abraham. This is recorded in Genesis 15. God promised Abraham innumerable descendants. God delivered on that promise, starting with one son born to parents too old to conceive. 11:13-16 The Interlude: Theological Explanation of Their Faith In these verses, the writer takes a break from recounting the heroes of the faith, to make a theological summary. It seems like an odd place to do this. In our day, we would give the whole list of examples, then make the conclusion. but Jewish writers often put their main point in the exact middle of a discourse. It is called “chiasm”. So, what is the point? The writer says these all died in faith, not receiving the things promised. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not see God’s promise fulfilled. In Genesis 15, God made a covenant with Abraham, but told him his descendants would go into slavery in another land for 400 years. God was not ready to drive out the Amorites because their iniquity was not yet complete. Isaac lived his whole live in tents, also. He never built a city. He did not run out the Canaanites around him. Jacob also lived in tents, then went to Egypt and died there. None of those people saw the promise fulfilled, yet the believed God and were willing to live as strangers and exiles on earth. ((13) They were one of many peoples living in Canaan and were not natives there. Abraham told the Hittites “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you”. (Genesis 23:4) Jacob sojourned in Egypt, he lived there but not as one of them. He was a stranger. But they believed that God would fulfill his promise. On his death bed, Jacob told Joseph “Behold I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers.” (Genesis 48:21) Then, when Joseph died, he said “I am about to die, But God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (Genesis 50:24) He even made them promise to take his bones when they left. So, first of all, these people believed God’s promise to give them the land of Canaan on earth. But, that is not all. They believed the “eschatological” promise. They looked beyond the earthly to the heavenly. And they not only looked, they saw! Verse 13 says about the promises, “having seen them and greeted them from afar”. “Afar” means from a distance. But here, the distance was not in length, but in time. They saw God’s promises being fulfilled in Christ in eternity. They saw that in faith. They, in fact, acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. (13) These men of faith knew that Canaan was not the final goal. They knew that earth was not the most important thing. They knew that life in the kingdom of God, the presence of God, in eternity was the important thing. The New Testament writers applied this same terminology to the church. Peter wrote “Beloved, I urge you, as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh which wage war against your soul.” (1 Peter 2:11) We are to see ourselves as physically present in our earthly country, but belonging to the heavenly country. Paul wrote that Christians were fellow citizens with the saints. (Ephesians 2:19) I’m afraid this concept has been lost in much of the American church. Many church members are more absorbed with politics and patriotism than with Christ’s kingdom. I will never forget visiting a church that gave a five minute standing ovation for two young men who were going to fight in Iraq for the army. Later, the pastor announced that a missionary couple was in attendance who served in another country. There was only a brief smattering of applause, then it was on to the next thing. All of these faithful men in Hebrews 11 looked beyond their land on earth to a better country, a better place. And that place is heaven. They desired heaven. They believed in God and in heaven. Because of their faith, God was pleased with them. He was not ashamed to be called their God. He prepared a city, or place for them in heaven. (16) Peter wrote about our eternal dwelling, too. He wrote that we have an inheritance kept in heaven for us. (1 Peter 1:3-4) He wrote “...we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells”. (2 Peter 3:13) That point is important, because the writer shows that these Old Testament heroes endured by faith through difficulties to receive their reward in heaven. He has continually made the point that these Jewish believers should not shrink back, but endure in the faith to the end. These examples are to encourage them in doing so. In 10:39, he said “we are not of those who shrink back and were destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”
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