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“By Faith”

Hebrews 11:1-19
Bob DeGray
March 10, 2002

Key Sentence

By faith pilgrims look forward to what God has promised.

Outline

I. The Faith of the Ancients (Hebrews 11:1-7)
II. The Faith of Abraham (Hebrews 11:8-12)
III. The Faith of a Pilgrim (Hebrews 11:13-19)


Message

        I was distressed this week to find that two of my key words pilgrim and pilgrimage, aren’t used the way I use them. Mostly it seems, people associate the word pilgrim with people in funny hats who came to America and had Thanksgiving. Pilgrimage, on the other hand, seems to be a marketing word to tempt people into tours of Israel. For example “Pilgrimage International” The most respected name in Holy Land travel. You could be there...in the company of others like you... in the Holy Land where Jesus changed the world. Call toll_free 1_800_455_5514.”

        I don’t believe a Christian has to go anywhere geographically to be on a pilgrimage. John Bunyan, the famous Puritan, was writing an allegory in “Pilgrim’s Progress’ when he portrayed the Christian life as a journey to the Celestial City. It’s not a physical journey, it’s a spiritual one. The writer of Hebrews has it right when he says of pilgrims “they were aliens and strangers on earth, longing for a better country--a heavenly one.” Scripture teaches that you and I are pilgrims in this world, and Hebrews 11 teaches that by faith pilgrims look forward to what God has promised.

I. The Faith of the Ancients (Hebrews 11:1-7)

        In verses 1 to 19 the writer starts by giving general thoughts about faith and illustrating them from the lives of the most ancient Biblical characters. Then he spends a few verses illustrating faith from the life of Abraham, and applying it to anyone who sees life as a pilgrimage. By faith pilgrims look forward to what God has promised. We’ll begin with verses 1 to 7. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for. 3By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. 4By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead. 5By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. 7By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

        
These verses follow naturally from what the author said at the end of the last section, that he is confident his readers are those who persevere by faith, who believe and are saved. Since that’s true, he wants them to have a clear idea what faith looks like, as lived out in daily life. And all of us need to have the same attitudes of faith in our own lives that these heros of the Old Testament had in theirs.

        The author starts with a working definition of faith. It is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. This definition immediately rules out several wrong ideas about faith. It is not ‘believing something you know isn’t true’; not having ‘confidence in confidence alone’ like Maria in The Sound of Music; not ‘a wonderful feeling everything’s going my way’ like the cowboy in Oklahoma. No. Faith is a solid conviction resting on God’s word that makes the future present and the invisible seen. Faith has at its core a massive sense of certainty.

        The first phrase could be translated ‘faith is being sure’ or ‘faith is the reality’ of what we hope for. The recognition that what we put our hope in is real and the internal sense that this is true are both implied by one Greek word. We all hope for resurrection, eternal life, intimacy with the Father, and the fulfillment of what we were made for. But only when we put our faith in Christ do our vague hopes become certainties.

        Faith is the assurance of these things we hope for. It is also the conviction of things we do not see. Just as our eyes are the organ by which we see what is visible and become convinced of its reality, so faith is the organ by which we see what is invisible and become convinced that it is real. We have the saying ‘seeing is believing’ but in the spiritual realm the opposite is true: ‘believing is seeing’. This is especially true of future events, as the examples in this chapter will abundantly show. Faith sees the future fulfillment of God’s promises as being just as real as present circumstances.

        Verse 3 gives us another insight: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” We’ve already been told that faith sees the invisible as real. Now we’re being reminded that faith sees the visible as entirely from God. It would be foolish, wouldn’t it, to hope that the future was in God’s hands if we didn’t believe that the past and the present were in his hands? So faith starts by believing what God has already done, that Genesis 1 and John 1 are true - that the world was made from nothing by the power of God’s word, and that everything has its beginning in God.

        Saying that we believe these things by faith doesn’t mean we deny the evidence of God found in creation. The heavens do declare the glory of God, the earth does show his handiwork, he is seen in what has been made. What’s sad in our culture is that the evidence of God’s hand in creation is suppressed, while faith that God had nothing to do with creation is promoted. It takes faith to believe that God created, but much more faith to believe that everything we see happened by random chance.
        Verse 2 said this was the kind of faith for which the ancients were commended. The whole chapter is a roll call of faith, using people from the Old Testament as examples. The first, in verse 4, is Abel: “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.”

        The Genesis account doesn’t mention Abel’s faith. It simply states that Abel, a shepherd, brought an offering from his flock while Cain, a farmer, offered the first fruits of his fields. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s. Why? It wasn’t just because Abel’s was more appropriate, though that may be true, but because Abel’s heart attitude was right. The writer of Hebrews calls his attitude faith. Cain, as is seen in his murderous anger, had an attitude of independence from God, rebellion. Abel had the opposite attitude, he trusted and depended on God, and so the faith of his heart as expressed in his sacrifice was acceptable to God.

        It might seem that Abel received a poor reward for his faith: his brother killed him. But the writer sees this as a victory for the timeless character of Abel’s faith. He died, but his faith continues to speak: even violent death cannot stop its message. The faith Abel exercised shouts to us from the past and can still provide inspiration and application as we learn to watch our heart attitudes and to flee hardheartedness.

        The second name on faith’s roll call is Enoch. This is no surprise, for in the dull litany of long-lived sinners prior to the flood, Enoch stands out like a jewel. Genesis 5 says “When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” Enoch is the only one in these accounts who walked with God, which the translators of the Septuagint and the writer of Hebrews saw as meaning he pleased God. So everyone else in these genealogies dies and is buried, but Enoch is taken away. He walks with God and is not. The author of Hebrews sees that as a profound example of faith. We should too: true faith is shown by daily walking in dependence and trust that pleases God.

        In fact the author of Hebrews generalizes at this point by saying, verse 6, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Faith is what pleases God. He loves to see his children trusting him. Works and activities don’t impress him, because our strengths and abilities are so small. Even the sacrifices we make for others don’t earn his favor. It can’t be earned. It is offered as a gift to all who believe. It is the simple dependence of a child on a parent that pleases our Father.

        This leads the author to comment that faith rests on two foundational beliefs: “anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” We need first to believe that God is, that he exists, that he is more than a figment of our imagination. This is an instance of faith having confidence in what is not seen. Second we need to believe he is good - a rewarder of those who seek him. Sometimes the circumstances and difficulties of life make it hard to be sure of God’s goodness. But faith sees that he has promised us blessing, and trusts that whatever our present circumstances, he will keep his promises.

        The next Old Testament hero mentioned is Noah. Verse 7: “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” Noah had confidence in the reality of the coming flood, something not yet seen. Why else would he build a boat on a mountain? He believed God and out of faithful fear built the ark to rescue his family. By this same faith he condemned the world - not that he passed judgment on them, but the world was condemned by refusing to believe. So he became the sole heir of righteousness. As God told Habakkuk “the righteous shall live by his faith.” Certainly that was true in practice for Noah.

        These ancient believers provide great examples of practical faith - faith that is sure of what is hoped for and convinced of what is not yet seen. They show us the critical importance of a heart attitude of faith, the practical value of walking with God by faith, and the essential need of believing in God and trusting his promises.

II. The Faith of Abraham (Hebrews 11:8-12)

        The next section of our text focuses on Abraham, and his pilgrim faith. Hebrews 11:8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith Abraham, even though he was past age--and Sarah herself was barren--was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

        
It’s not surprising that Abraham gets more verses than any other Old Testament hero in this chapter. For one thing, we know more about him than Abel or Enoch or Noah. Fourteen chapters in Genesis give an indelible picture of the birth, growth and outcome of his faith. The New Testament writers can see it. In Galatians Paul says “Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.” No wonder our author uses Abraham as a key example of how faith applies to life.

        The first point he makes is simply that faith obeys. Genesis 12:1 says that “The Lord had told Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.”’ Genesis 12:4 then says “Abram left, as the Lord had told him.” God said it and Abram did it. This simple faith lesson takes us a lifetime to learn. By faith we learn to trust that what God has said is better for us than our ideas and so we obey. Abraham obeyed, and he went out “not knowing where he was going.” This is one of my favorite lines from this text. Abraham couldn’t see all that God’s promises meant. He didn’t have a road map, but he went anyway.

        The life of faith to which God calls you and me will at times involve stepping out into the unknown, leaving behind some of the our security, taking risk. Like Abraham, sometimes faith tells us to go even if we don’t know exactly where we’re going. When God places some Biblically sound calling on our hearts, we have to obey.

        By faith, Abraham “lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob” This is a big part of what it means to be a pilgrim, on a pilgrimage. Faith teaches us that this world is not our home. We live as aliens, foreigners here. We’re not supposed to settle down and build cities. We’re not supposed to get comfortable. We’re supposed to be traveling light, living in tents.

        Abraham was a pilgrim. He went to the promised land but never settled down and built a city. Neither did Isaac or Jacob. From an earthly point of view we know that God’s timing wasn’t right for that yet. But from a spiritual point of view the reason Abraham never settled down was that he was looking for a city he couldn’t build, one whose architect and builder is God. Why settle for earthly cities when you can have a heavenly one? C. S. Lewis likens this to continuing to play in your sandbox when someone has offered you a trip to the seashore. It’s like sitting fascinated by the little Lego town we’ve built, not even looking up as the airplane we’re riding prepares to land in a fantastic metropolis. Abraham didn’t want a city he built - he wanted the one promised by God, and he was willing to wait to get there. Are we?

        Verses 11 reminds us how long Abraham waited for God’s promises. “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age--and Sarah herself was barren--was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” God specifically promised Abraham and Sarah countless descendants - but then made them wait until decades past their childbearing years before the promise was fulfilled. Sarah was barren, and Abraham, the text says, was as good as dead. He was 100 years old and had waited twenty-five years for Isaac. If God made you wait twenty-five years for something, would you do it? Abraham shows us a faith that is willing to wait.

        What made this possible for Abrahamt? The text says he considered the one who had made the promise faithful. It’s hard to tell whether the Greek text refers to Abraham’s faith here or Sarah’s. Sarah too, though she laughed, considered the faithfulness of God and came to believe his promise. We too need to trust that God is faithful. If anybody but God made the promises we rely on we’d consider them nonsense. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” No mere man can promise that. “I will raise you to life at the last day.” Who but God can do that? “We shall be with the Lord forever” An empty promise, unless the one behind it is the same God who makes and sustains the universe, the same God who has revealed infinite love and sacrifice in all his actions toward us. We have no hope unless He who promised is faithful.

III. The Faith of a Pilgrim (Hebrews 11:13-19)

        So Abraham and Sarah were pilgrims who by faith clung to God’s promises, obeyed and waited. The promised son was given while Abraham was alive. But the promise of a city had not yet been fulfilled when he died. He had to go on in faith to the end. In verses 13 to 19 the author generalizes this truth. 13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. 17By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." 19Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

        All these people were living by faith when they died. What a phenomenal testimony. May it be said of us as well. When I was hanging around with the Navigators in college one of the phrases they used was ‘finishing well’. We want to be people who finish well - not just projects and tasks, but life itself, to be living by faith when we die. Finishing well means living by faith everyday - wouldn’t that be a great name for a youth group. Faith is supposed to be our daily attitude, so that if death comes on any given day we will be found trusting and depending on God, obeying him like Abraham, walking with him like Enoch, recognizing that the best of his promises will only be fulfilled after we die. “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.”

        We’ve been given even greater promises than the ones they looked for, promises that the Gospel will spread world wide, that Christ will return, that the dead in Christ will be raised and that all believers will be made completely righteous. We are called to live as they did, to see and welcome these things, even if from a distance. Like a cloud on the horizon in the midst of a drought, like the call of “land ho” after weeks at sea, like the lights of home in the midst of a storm, we see these promised distant things and welcome them. We rejoice now in our promised resurrection. We rejoice in the midst of a sinful world because of our promised righteousness. We celebrate every step the Gospel takes and live as if Christ was coming today.

        But in doing so we must also admit with our forefathers in the faith that we are aliens and strangers on this earth, pilgrims on a pilgrimage to the city that God is building and to the homeland he is preparing for us. We are people on a journey. We do not stop and settle down and build our own cities, secure as that might make us feel. But we travel light, with our faces forward and our eyes fixed on a distant reality.

        Like the people in this chapter we call ourselves exiles, because by saying such things we show that we are looking for a country of our own - a true homeland, a fatherland as the Greek has it. We do not think of the country we have left behind - of the world with its pleasures and distraction. God was not pleased with the people of Israel in the desert who longed back for the pleasures of slavery in Egypt, and he will not be pleased with us if our focus is backward longing for the pleasures of slavery to sin. Like these people, if that’s what we want, we can go back to it. But they didn’t - they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. The hope of heaven drove them and motivated them and captured their hearts.

        And look what it says about them - verse 16 - “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” It’s incredible that God is not ashamed to be called our God - the God of those who live by faith. No doubt we disappoint God when pull back from pilgrimage because we don’t trust him. But when we walk by faith, God looks at us like a loving parent watching their child stretch to achieve, and says “That’s my boy, that’s my girl.” In the movie Apollo 13, Jim Lovell’s aging mother is at the Lovell home when the space capsule is perilously coming in for spashdown. When she becomes vaguely aware of the danger her son is in, she brushes it off, saying “If they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it.” That’s the way God felt when he said to Satan “consider my servant Job’. That’s the way He will feel about us - not ashamed to be called our God, when he says “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

        The second remarkable thing in this phrase is that he has prepared a city for us. Nothing that we can build is eternal. Like Abraham we have to look forward to the city with sure foundations, the one whose architect and builder is God. Jesus said “In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.” God himself is preparing to completely fulfill all his promises and all our best hopes and dreams. The passage I always quote from Revelation is a pilgrimage passage. It doesn’t talk about our journey but about our destination. Revelation 21:1-4 “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her bridegroom. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

        This is the goal of pilgrimage. This is the reason we don’t settle down and get comfortable here - it’s second rate, it’s a poor excuse for a reward, a crummy and temporary substitute for the eternity we’ve been promised. Why settle down and live in the burning desert when the eye of faith can show you the mountain oasis ahead.
        Get up. Keep moving. Become a pilgrim. Get yourself a holy discomfort with things as they are and focus the eye of faith on what is promised. This is the lesson of these heros. They were pilgrims to the City of God. So are we.

        But don’t let me give the impression this journey of faith is easy. Well, it is easy, because it’s a journey taken entirely in dependence on God, but it is also hard because God is no tame lion, and the one who walks with him will find his path passing through difficult terrain, where clinging to God is no small challenge. Consider Abraham as we close: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son.”

        This famous test is one of the greatest demonstrations of faith in all of Scripture. Why? Not just because Abraham obeyed, but also because he continued to believe that God was good, one who blesses those who seek him. Abraham’s faith at this moment consisted of a stubborn clinging to the truth of God’s goodness even when it seemed that what God was doing was bad. He so trusted God that without knowing how it would turn out he was willing to obey. The author tells us he was convinced that God could bring Isaac back from death, if it came to that.

        The testing of our faith may focus on our willingness to obey, but it can also focus on our willingness to believe that God is good, even when he is silent or when the test is hard. Faith sees the reality of the promises as more significant than the reality of our circumstances. Faith sees the goal and perseveres through the rigors of the journey. Faith pursues the light on the horizon even when the road is dark.

        For two years now my daughter Abigail has served on the support team for people entered in the Texas Water Safari, the world’s toughest canoe race. A successful Safari paddler will stay awake for most of two days while paddling 260 miles from San Marcos to Seadrift. Months of training go into this marathon of endurance and speed. Even so many paddlers and canoes fall by the wayside and cannot finish the race. But the ones that do have really achieved something. So around our house the metaphor for endurance and perseverance and strength has become the phrase “are you Water Safari material or aren’t you?”

        The challenge of Hebrews 11 is similar. “Are you pilgrimage material or aren’t you?” The walk of faith is no stroll in the park. The light on the horizon will often seem very far away, and the road very hard. But a pilgrim faith will looks forward to what God has promised and perseveres along the way by obedience and by patience and by clinging to God. The heroes of the faith in Hebrews chapter 11 say to you and to me: “You can settle down if you want to. But as for us, we’re pilgrims whose faith draws us ever onward toward what we hope for and what we do not yet see. Won’t you join us?”