October 28, 2018
It’s the time of year we call the Holidays. Stores start decorating, advertisements start bombarding us. Stretching from Halloween, through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, most enjoy these special days for different reasons – family, friends, fun, food, feasts and festivities. And of course, candy. Of course, when I said Halloween, some of you thought, wait – I thought you didn’t like Halloween? You’re right, I’m not particularly a fan – I much prefer Reformation Day. In fact, someone sent me this picture this week.
But Halloween, originally a pagan celebration of all things dead, has wound its way into our culture and the church. From Fall Festivals to trunk-or-treat to dressing up children in undead costumes, we’ve adapted. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, a Disney princess, hero or heroine – as long as it’s not ghosts, goblins or witches, we’re okay. In fact, many churches, including our own, allow children to dress up as their favorite Bible character – why not? I Googled Bible Character Halloween Costumes – that sounds funny, doesn’t it – and found a few you might consider:
First, Animals on Noah’s Ark – these guys look thrilled.
Or, you can just be Noah.
How about this one, Deborah – from the book of Judges
How about this one…Stumbling blocks – I mean, really, how many of you have stepped on a Lego? Stumbling block.
You can be a wise man.
And if you can’t decide, I guess just be all of them.
I guess all that begs a question, who are the heroes of the Christian faith? I mean, should we dress them up as a Pharaoh or a Pharisee, Pilate or Herod? Well of course, many of us would likely turn to Hebrews 11. It’s a great list – a repository of OT heroes. But…it’s great to study through books of the Bible. You see, doing so makes us take verses and stories and chapters in their context. Hebrews 11 is a great example. Yes, it’s a wonderful chapter – but it’s even better studied in its context. The author is writing to struggling, persecuted believers encouraging them to remain faithful – to not walk away from their new Christian faith. In fact, the last verse from last week was 10:39, “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.”
He’s encouraging them to persevere – to endure. After all, we are of those who have kept the faith, and persevered to the end. Who are those faithful ones? He launches into chapter 11 – a chapter which has rightly encouraged believers through the centuries. A chapter often entitled the Hall of Faith, a great title. It helps us remember these men and women found their way into this chapter because of their faith. Not their deeds, per se – but their faith in God that led to their deeds. We’ll see in 11:2 this morning, they were approved/commended by God for their faith.
That’s we want. Like them, we want to remain faithful – to persevere, to endure to the very end – no matter the cost. Now, it would be easy to get sidetracked on the stories of these great people – I’ll try not to do that. Rather, we want to look at why this brilliant author included them in this chapter as he was encouraging the struggling faith of these Jewish believers – and is also encouraging us, in the midst of our rising opposition.
Now, I said brilliant author, again, because this guy was brilliant. Let me show you his intentional structure in this part of the book. This chapter is surrounded by two passages, at the end of chapter 10, and the beginning of chapter 12:
36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
Then we get to chapter 12:
1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Do you see – his purpose is to encourage us in the endurance he just told us, we need. So he lists examples of endurance in the faith, culminating with Jesus, who Himself endured persecution, opposition, hostility. Notice as we review these OT heroes, we glance at them for encouragement, but we fix our eyes on Jesus – and consider Him, so that we will not grow weary and lose heart.
Further, at the end of chapter 10, the author quoted Habakkuk 2, “But My righteous one shall live by faith.” Okay, what is faith – what does it look like? Chapter 11, focusing on faith, begins and ends with these words:
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
2 For by it [by faith] the men of old gained approval.
Then dropping down to the last two verses of the chapter:
39 And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised,
40 because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.
We’ll talk about that more when we get there, but notice how he starts with men who gained approval through their faith, and ends with these, having gained approval through their faith – how? By believing and remaining faithful even though it cost them, and even though they did not receive what was promised in this life. That’s what he wants to encourage us to do – we’ve not yet fully received what was promised, but nonetheless, we believe and persevere – and we will be rewarded – we will receive. We struggle and suffer now, believe now, and receive later.
This is a great chapter. I’m not sure how long we’ll be in it, but a few weeks, anyway. In fact let me outline the chapter for you:
- Nature of Faith (1-2) – that’s all we’ll look at today.
- Faith in Creation through Noah (3-7)
- Faith in Abraham through His Descendants (8-22)
- Faith in Moses and the Israelites (23-31)
- Faith in Others to the Present Day (32-40)
Even as I share that outline, I get excited. But let’s remember to focus on why these people made it into the Hall of Faith – what was exceptional about their faith that can encourage us in ours. Let’s begin by reading verses 1-2.
Today, we’ll simply look at the nature of faith and the result of faith. You know, I’ve said the word faith a couple dozen times already this morning. It’s an important word to Christianity. After all, the Christian life is a life of faith. Faith is the issue upon which salvation depends. One said, it is the key that turns the lock on the door of eternal life. It is the channel by which we receive the benefits of Christ’s saving work. Clearly, faith is important to our Christianity. In verse 6, he’ll actually say, without faith, it’s impossible to please God. He mentions the word 24 times in this one chapter. Paul uses the word faith 37 times in his letter to the Romans, which is his explanation of the Gospel. For example, after condemning all of humanity in the first 3 chapters of the book, he writes these incredible words:
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe [faith and believe in Greek]; for there is no distinction;
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
So notice, faith is how we receive the righteousness of God. That seems to make it fairly important. In Galatians, which is Paul’s argument that people are saved by faith, and not by keeping the Law, we read in chapter 2, “16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”
And then those famous words in Ephesians 2, which most of us memorized from our earliest years, “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
So it seems rather obvious faith is important – in fact, indispensably important to the Christian faith. Yes, we are saved by grace – that is, by God’s unmerited favor toward us through the work of His Son. But grace is received through faith. Again, faith is the channel by which we receive God’s blessings in Christ. So, having said all that, it seems we ought to know what it is. And further, as it is by grace through faith we were saved, and it is also by grace through faith we persevere to the end.
By the way, let me tell you what faith is not. It is not a blind reliance on the things of God without evidence. It is not just a feeling we pull out of thin air. There is plenty of evidence to believe the Word of God and the Gospel. True, there are some future things for which we hope, things we have yet to see. But our faith in that hope of yet unseen things is not in a vacuum. And some of the stories we will look at, from past events, I trust will strengthen your faith.
Second, faith is not a wistful longing that something may come to pass in an uncertain tomorrow. I’ve used the word hope several times now. We use it to speak of something that may, or may not happen. We hope it will – I hope I win the lottery. I hope I get this present under the tree. You may, or may not. But our Christian, biblical hope is in a certain tomorrow because of God’s certain fulfillment of promises in the past. We can trust God for tomorrow because He’s been faithful in the past.
Third, faith is not purely abstract. It is real. We should get the concept out of our minds faith is just something I have that I can neither understand nor explain. That type of shallow faith may be here one day, and gone the next, due to the winds of change and circumstances. But our faith is not an abstract feeling, but rock solid hope built on God’s faithful Word He has faithfully fulfilled in the past, and will faithfully fulfill in the future.
So then, what is faith? It’s often been said Hebrews 11:1 is a definition of faith – at the very least, it gives us some important understandings of the nature of faith. The author writes, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction [or evidence] of things not seen.” There are several critical things to note here:
First, faith is both assurance and conviction. Some see those as basically the same thing, others as something slightly different. I’m not going to get into all that – but notice the confidence those words are supposed to bring. Faith is assurance. Faith is conviction. It isn’t a blind faith, but assured hope. The word was used back in chapter 3 with basically the same meaning, “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” And that’s what he’s encouraging us to do – to hold fast our assurance. That word, substance, confidence, assurance, can be used in a number of different ways:
- The word was actually used in 1:3, “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.” The word nature is the word, and speaks of substance, reality, which is why the KJV translated the verse, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” The idea is faith lays hold of something as yet unseen, and it becomes real and solid – substance. In other words, faith makes real to us and gives us possession of things that are hoped for, but not yet fully experienced.
- Second, the word can speak of assurance or confidence, which is how my translation and the ESV have it. This deals with what faith is, namely confidence or assurance in things hoped for, but as yet, not seen. Paul addresses this idea in Romans 8, “24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” And we can wait eagerly, because of the assurance, the certainty, the confidence of faith.
- Finally, the word can be used of a title deed or a guarantee. In that sense, our faith is the guarantee that what God promised, we will receive – though we have not yet seen it. It the firm ground upon which we stand while faithfully waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. There is a confident expectation, actually giving the future a present reality. Get this – it is not seeing is believing – it is believing is seeing.
One author sums it up this way, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; it is a confident attitude toward those things God has promised; and it is the guarantee that gives us sure possession even now.” (Richard Phillips) In short, we can say, since faith finds its strength in the its object – God – faith is believing the testimony of God. You say, my faith is weak. Fine. Your God isn’t. Titus 1 says it this way:
1 Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness,
2 in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago…
How can you have strong faith? Remember you have received the promises from God – who does not, indeed, cannot lie. Even when faith is challenging. Consider the story of the three Hebrew children in Daniel 3. Our author doesn’t recite it, so I’m safe to do so now. You may know the story – King Nebuchadnezzar had a statue of his divine self erected in the capital city and demanded when certain music played, everyone bow down to his image. The idea – worship me. Well, the great day came, the music played, and everyone bowed down – except Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. See what was happening there – everyone was bowing except them – they stood out like sore thumbs.
They’re taken before the king, who said, what’s wrong with you? Didn’t you understand the instructions? Were they unclear? Didn’t you hear the music? Are you deaf? I’m going to give you one more chance – the music will play, you will bow down, or I will cast you into a fiery furnace. What was their response? Daniel 3:16-18:
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter.
17 “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king.
18 “But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Whoa. Think about it. They could see the king. They could see the fiery furnace. They could see the flames. They could see the guards. But their response? The obedience of faith. A king they could see tells them to bow to an image they could see. A King they could not see tells them to never bow to another so-called god. And they did not. They obeyed the King they could see with eyes of faith.
Now I need to be clear. You know the rest of the story. Nebuchadnezzar got angry, commanded the furnace be stoked up to seven times normal, the guards cast the boys into the furnace. The guards are consumed. But as they look into the furnace, they see not three, but four figures walking around, and the fourth has an appearance like a son of God. Very likely the pre-incarnate Christ. Here’s my point. They were threatened with death – that’s persecution by the way – and they still obeyed by faith. God delivered them – but He did not have to. But what’s the worst that could happen. They would have been consumed by the fire. And gone into the presence of the God they served – who was as real to them as this earthly, self-absorbed, half-baked, idolatrous, puny king. That’s faith in things hoped for, things not yet seen. No matter the cost.
The author basically says the same thing in the second part of the verse, faith is the conviction of things not seen. It could also be translated evidence, or being certain of these things for which we hope, but are not yet seen.
It’s been said this way. Imagine two guys on the deck of a ship in the middle of an ocean, gazing out across the waves. One sees only water, the other, looking through a telescope, sees another ship. He can describe it in detail. He knows it’s there. The telescope is the faith by which we see. You say, but wait – the other ship was actually there. Exactly. So are the things for which we hope, the things not yet seen. They are there, and we see them with the eyes of faith.
Okay, so that’s a lot of definition, but what do we do with all that? Notice faith has a future look. That’s going to be clear in the OT examples the author gives. They had faith in things they had not yet received. In fact, many of them died, having never received the promise. Is that not true of believers over the past 2000 years? We have believed, but we have not yet received. Well, there is a difference, for we look back to the promise of the Gospel. We have received the promised Holy Spirit. There is a sense in which we live in the already fulfilled promises. But not yet in its fullness. We await the coming of our Christ, and the fullness of the kingdom.
Further, our beliefs cost us. But we still believe. Please know again, because the author uses words like hope and things not seen does not mean uncertainty. It does not mean blind faith – we haven’t seen it, so it’s blind. No – our faith is not blind in that it is based on no evidence. There’s tons of evidence as to the reality of the Christian faith. Sure, we haven’t seen it fully – but there is enough evidence to express faith.
So, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction, the evidence of things not seen. And God likes that. Which brings us to the result of faith, verse 2, “For by it [that is, by faith] the men of old gained approval.” The men of old are those OT examples of faith he’s going to talk about in the rest of the chapter. By their faith, they gained approval. Now, don’t for a minute think that by their faith they earned approval. That’s not what he means. Remember, faith is the conduit, the channel by which we receive God’s grace. So he’s says, by faith, they gained or received approval or commendation from God. Conversely, without faith, you cannot please God.
And so I have a couple of very important questions for you as we close. First, from whom are you trying to gain approval? Most of us have a problem with that. Most of us – in our heart of hearts, are people-pleasers. Well, we may not be trying to please everyone. But, you try to gain the approval of someone. Wife, husband, mom, dad, boyfriend, girlfriend, classmate, roommate, friend. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is no one more important from whom to gain approval than God – and we find His approval through faith in the work of His Son. This is the good news of the Christian faith. You find acceptance and approval with God – not by what you do, but by what you believe. By faith. You want God to approve you, to accept you – then accept the gospel – accept who Jesus is and what He has