Some years ago we used to go to Faith Camp each summer. One year our kids came back to our caravan singing a song that Ishmael (of the “Bouncing Glories” fame) had taught them:
“Hebrews 11 verse 6 (clap, clap), without faith it’s impossible to please God.”
Great song – the problem was it only had one line! When they’d sung it about 20 times I was tempted to ask them to be quiet; but you can’t really do that when your kids are singing Scripture and loving it!
Faith In Action
Hebrews 11 is actually a description of faith in action — how God’s people have always lived by faith. In this chapter, several verses are devoted to the example of Abraham, whom Genesis says specifically believed God (Genesis 15:6). He is rightly called “the father of the faithful.”
“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.” (Hebrews 11:8).
The purpose here is not to prove that Abraham had faith (the readers already knew that), but to give examples that:
- illustrate a life of faith and
- encourage the readers to have similar faith when they are pressured to abandon Christianity.
So the writer selects situations from the life of Abraham that are similar to situations the readers are in. Just as Abraham had been called out of Mesopotamia, they had been called out of Judaism towards a promise they could not see, and they obeyed and went.
“By 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.” (Hebrews 11:9).
It's possible that the readers had physically left their homeland and moved to a new city, but the writer is probably suggesting that the readers felt like strangers in a spiritual sense. They probably met in a house church instead of a synagogue; they possibly didn’t have a feeling that they had a permanent place. Welcome to the club, the author says. Abraham felt like that, too, even when he was in the Promised Land.
God doesn’t want us to view this world as a permanent home, because he has something better for us. We are encouraged to see the future with Abraham:
“For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (v. 10).
Canaan had many cities with foundations, but they were all destined to crumble, because they were built on physical foundations, and the cities were filled with violence and idolatry. Abraham was looking forward to something far more permanent than stone. Genesis says nothing about this, but the writer to the Hebrews believes that Abraham had spiritual motives that were similar to his own. We should look to the future reward, not to the circumstances we are in right now.
“And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.” (Hebrews 11:11)
Sarah laughed; so did Abraham (Genesis 17:17; 18:12). They both thought they were too old to have children, but God blessed them with a child anyway. The author’s point is that God did what he had promised, and we should also consider God faithful, and trust him to keep the promises of salvation he has made to us.
Referring to Genesis 22:17, it goes on to say:
“And 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.” (Hebrews 11:11).
Just as God made the universe from something that could not be seen, he made the nation of Israel from something humanly impossible.
Living By Faith
The author is not finished with his examples yet, and is not even finished with Abraham, but he interrupts his list of faith-accomplishments to summarise some lessons from the story for the benefit of his readers.
"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, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own" (Hebrews 11:12-13).
The point: We don't receive all the promises of God in this life. Although we are given eternal life, we still die. But the gift is real, and the promise will be kept. We have to trust God on it. (We certainly can’t bring it about on our own power!) We look to God, not this world, for meaning and purpose in life. Our current life is just a temporary training time. We do not “belong” here; our permanent home and allegiance is the kingdom of God, and that is where our hopes should be.
If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, 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 (15-16).
No one really thought that Abraham ever wanted to go back to Mesopotamia, but he could have if he wanted to. He could have turned his back on God’s promises, but he didn't. In contrast, the readers of Hebrews were tempted to go back to where they had come from — back into Judaism. Don’t do it, the author seems to say. There is a better country waiting for you through Christ. Heaven is calling, and God will be pleased if you are faithful, and he is planning on your presence in his kingdom.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
The description of people of faith resumes in verse 17, with Abraham’s most severe trial. Referring to Genesis 21:12 and 22:1-18, we read:
“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Hebrews 11:17-18,).
Abraham couldn't see how God would keep his promise, but in faith he did what God told him to do. He didn't know how God would do it, but he guessed at one possibility: Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham himself had once been “as good as dead” (v. 11); the same God who gave him life could also give Isaac life. When Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, he told his servants that “we” will return (Genesis 22:5); he did not expect Isaac to stay dead.
As the story turns out, however, God provided a substitute sacrifice (just as he later provided his own Son as a substitute for us), and Hebrews concludes: and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. In Abraham’s mind, Isaac was as good as dead, but he was rescued from it.
The author has given many details about Abraham; now he picks up the pace with a quick summary of three descendants. Referring back to the Genesis story, we read:
“By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.” (Hebrews 11:20-22,).
Isaac and Jacob believed in the promise of God, and passed it on to their children. Jacob, blind and on his deathbed, blessed Ephraim and Manasseh — acting on faith, not sight. Joseph also acted on the promise that God gave Abraham. Although Joseph was prince of Egypt, he knew that his descendants would later move to Canaan, and so he directed that his bones should also be moved.
Your journey may not be as eventful as Abraham’s, but you can be sure there will be tests and trials, ups and downs, successes and failures along the way. We can all be encouraged by these examples from the life of the father of the faithful. The Lord will work with you, encourage you, and, yes, sometimes allow you to be tried and tested, “that your faith…may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7).
Scripture says that it’s “those who have the faith of Abraham” who receive the promises of God. (Romans 4:16) If we want to receive the kind of blessings that Abraham did, we need to demonstrate the kind of faith that he did. This means that sometimes we will have to push logic and reasoning aside, and focus on God and his promises. If you are a child of God, and if you will follow Abraham’s example, rest assured that what God did for this great man of faith, he will do for you, too.