Sunday, May 20th, 2012
Pastor Jonathan Sine
Perhaps you’ve seen the CTV Olympic commercial regarding the upcoming summer games in London. I was struck by theme that was communicated throughout. Do you remember what it was? Believe. The first time I saw it I recall trying to determine what it is that we are supposed to believe in. Right? Because belief requires an object. It cannot be belief in nothing. After watching a couple more times, I thought maybe it was to invoke a greater sense of patriotism or unity. In the end, my best guess is that we are to believe that Canadians can win more medals than previously. And this will unite the country. I don’t know. Maybe you can help me out with this later.
It is interesting that there is a desire to be unified in belief. So what is portrayed in this example? As much as I love hockey, the unity of country in hockey is shallow and short-lived. Or snowboarding, track and field, whatever… But it seems that there is an intrinsic desire to believe and be unified.
Another phrase that is synonymous with believe is faith. We often hear people encourage others to ‘have faith’ in times of difficulty. Again, have faith in what?? Have faith in pulling up your own bootstraps? That Karma will prevail?
There is a framed poster in my chiropractor’s office that offers some helpful advice for improving health and wellness. One of the tips encouraged the patient to ‘attend to spiritual matters.’ It was portrayed by a person that appeared to be praying. I found irony in the fact that the next tip showed a person crossing their fingers and to hope for the best. So, my question is ‘which is it?’ What is it that we are to have faith in? Some higher power? Or luck? Is there an object for my faith? Because if there is no object, we are at the mercy of randomness and purposelessness. If a person factors God out of life’s equation and embraces the notion that we are little more than cosmic accidents, life with all its adversity and suffering leaves us with little hope and purpose.
Our text for this morning will remind us and confirm that there is an object of faith. And it is precisely this faith that provides us with hope and encouragement for the entirety of our earthly existence and into eternity.
Please turn to Hebrews 11 with me. Hebrews 11 may be familiar to you. It is often referred to as a Hall of Faith. It emphasizes the role of faith through many believers throughout the Scriptures. And you will recall that the concluding verses of chapter 10 serve to launch us into this section as we considered that the ‘righteous one will live by faith’ and that the readers were not those who shrink back and are destroyed, but those who have faith and preserve their souls.
Our attention today will be in the first seven verses of chapter 11. Let’s read our portion as we get underway. READ. Hebrews 11.1-7
So, the first thing we want to look at from our text is What is Faith? You would think that it is important for the Christian (and any person really) to understand what faith truly is. If we see references all throughout the Bible that speak of the importance of faith, we must be sure that we know what we’re talking about. It is important to note that as we look at these classic verses, we do not encounter an exhaustive understanding of faith. Rather, it is more a summary and function of faith. We will see it as faith in action as we move through the rest of the chapter.
When I began to look into this passage, I assumed it might be straight forward and simple to interpret. Wrong. Verse 1 produced some challenges in the terms that the author chose to use. There are two words and two concepts in particular that has divided Bible translators. In fact, this is one of those really rare occasions that I will detract from the ESV’s translation.
The particular words that are at issue are assurance and conviction. In the original Greek they have a couple of different nuances – based upon context. Not to bore you, but the tension resides in whether the author is communicating a subjective or objective understanding of the nature of faith. The ESV and others (like NIV, NASB) translate the words in a subjective manner. They believe that the author is trying to convey an internal confidence in the reader’s experience of faith.
I am persuaded that these words are to be understood in a more objective way. The Greek word hupostasis which is translated as ‘assurance’ here is also rendered as ‘reality’ or ‘substance’. One lexicon remarks that ‘hypostasis is a collection of documents establishing ownership, deposited in the archives and proving the owner’s rights; hence it is a guarantee for the future.’ As such some have translated the opening phrase as “Faith is the title-deed of things hoped for.” Or ‘ faith is the reality or substance of things hoped for.’ I like how the Holman Christian Standard Bible renders the opening verse. Hebrews 11:1 (HCSB) “1 Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.”
The New Bible Commentary expands on this thought: “Such a rendering suggests that what we hope for becomes real and substantial by the exercise of faith. This does not mean that the gospel is true simply because we believe in it! Rather, the reality of what we hope for is confirmed for us in our experience when we live by faith in God’s promises.” I hope this makes sense. Our faith is much more than an internal confidence, it is the reality of God’s promises. Peter O’Brien remarks that ‘faith’ is something objective that in the here and now gives to the things hoped for a ‘substantial reality, which will unfold in God’s appointed time.”
So, as Christians, one of our defining understandings is that we anticipate a future that is glorious beyond our comprehension. The author says that these are the things hoped for. Believers look forward to the time when Jesus, our blessed hope returns for his people (Titus 2.13). We look forward to the resurrection of our bodies. We look forward to the day when we will be glorified. 1 John 3.2, 3 says that we shall be like him [Jesus] for we shall see him as he is. 1 Timothy 2.12 and Revelation 22.5 remind us that we look forward to a day that we will reign with him.
And this hope in future salvation runs like a thread throughout Hebrews. We were encouraged to hold fast our confidence to the end (3.6), to have full assurance of hope to the end (6.11). The author has indicated that believers are being ministered to by angels until we inherit our ultimate salvation (1.14). Hebrews 9:15 “15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” The things hoped for!
The author says that faith is the ‘conviction’ or better the ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’ of things not seen. Faith demonstrates the existence of reality that cannot be perceived by our objective sense perception. 1 Peter 1:8 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” This is evidence, proof of things not seen.
It is our faith that confirms that there is an invisible supernatural realm. You realize that there is a war for your soul. And yet it is a faith that proves the full certainty of future realization. Such faith springs from a personal encounter with God. One commentator notes that “this kind of faith enables one to venture into the future ‘supported only by the word of God.’”
We are going to see this truth introduced and repeated as we plow through the rest of the chapter. But consider what it means to have faith in God and his promises. When God opens our eyes and hearts to the truth of the Gospel, something radical happens to us. Suddenly, we have a hunger to devour an ancient book. Why? Because we know that there is supernatural and eternal truth therein. These are words of life! We know that God has revealed himself through it. We know that we are called to live according to it.
Suddenly, we know that we are to die to ourselves. We realize that we do not exist to serve ourselves, but the One who made us. We are willing to be ridiculed and persecuted and to give up earthly treasure. We become part of a community that ordinarily would not assemble. God has called out a people who is made up of different social classes, ethnicities, personalities, shapes and sizes. And this people is unified around the person of Jesus Christ. We join together to make him known in our communities and around the world. We do these things and our faith is the reality and the evidence of things hoped for and things not seen. This is not natural, this is supernatural.
This is how it always has been, and always will be. Verse 2 says that ‘by faith’ the people of old received their commendation. It was the reality of their faith by which they were commended by God. This kind of faith produces a dynamic activism. It is not static. We talked about this a bit last week. The church has rightly emphasized the nature of saving faith. We are greatly indebted to the Reformation leaders who pointed to the Scriptures and to the wonderful doctrine that our justification (or right standing before God) is attained by faith, and faith alone. We do not contribute to our salvation in any way. It is completely a work of God and a gift of God.
But we need also remember that we continue with Christ by faith. Sinners do not repent of sin and exercise faith in God only for salvation. We continue to live by faith. Galatians 2:20 “20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The Old Testament saints were commended by God. I think particularly of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3.16-18. Do you remember? These three young Hebrew men refused to bow down to gods and idols of the land – even under the threat of being cast into a burning fiery furnace.
Daniel 3:15–18 “15 “…But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
They had nothing but God’s word to rest on. They had no visible evidence that they would be delivered in this life. But they knew they would ultimately be delivered—they knew it so well that it was a present reality. Things yet future, as far as their experience went, were present to their faith. Things unseen were visible to their individual eyes of faith. Hebrews 11:3 3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. Here he transitions from ‘people of old’ to ‘we.’ He has moved from the concept of faith, to the past examples, to the present application.
This is a clear reference to the opening pages of the book of Genesis. The origins of our universe and our existence continue to be a hot topic. The primary reason is because none of us were there. To understand that God created the universe requires faith. To think that evolution and the Big Bang are to be credited with our existence also requires faith. It is not scientifically proven and cannot be for it is not observable.
It is essentially a difference of worldviews. Evolution is an attempt to remove God from the equation. In my mind, it takes much more to believe that our existence is an accident than to believe that a Designer and Creator spoke the universe into existence. I know that this isn’t a popular notion today. But I’m ok with this.
I like the way our author speaks of this concept. He says that it is only ‘by faith’ that we understand. As mentioned, none of us were present at the origins of the universe. So, we are required to exercise faith. The Bible does speak of evidences of creation. Psalms 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of God. Romans 1 also indicates that mankind is without excuse because God has revealed himself through his creation.
Romans 1:18–23 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. [And this is where I believe attempts to explain God’s creation any other way is played out] 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Yet though there is evidence of a Designer and Creator, we are still called to exercise faith. And it is a faith in the written biblical account that generates understanding. At the end of the day, we are left to believe that God’s Word is found in Genesis 1. How can we expect to live a life pleasing to God through faith if we do not begin here?? Because we believe the Bible to be God’s special revelation to us, we cling to it for everything we are and for everything do. Peter O’Brien states that “the allusion to the scriptural account shows that the written word of God is the means by which the author and his listeners ‘understand by faith’. They believed what the Scripture says about the formation of the universe at God’s command and grasped this key truth.”
If God is in control of nature and history, past and present, every generation of believers can trust his promises about the future, no matter what it may cost them. We’re talking about a God who created the universe. Kent Hughes helps us to grasp this by indicating that this “universe is staggering in its size and glories. The nearest star in our very average galaxy, Alpha Centauri, is 25,000,000 miles away. Our glorious sun that fills our sky and lights our days is but a mere speck in our galaxy. The huge star Betelgeuse is 27,000,000 times larger than our sun. It would take fourteen 25,000,000-mile trips (the distance to Alpha Centauri) to travel the diameter of Betelgeuse. All that, and yet our galaxy is only one of a hundred thousand million other galaxies.”
This is the God that we have placed our faith in. He is infinitely greater than our most antagonistic opponents. He is greater than any of our relational or financial difficulties. Our God is sovereign over our health issues, governmental leaders, Islamic extremists. Nothing is random nor chaotic. He holds the universe in the palm of his hands… How often do we call this to mind on Monday morning? When children become difficult? When life seems so overwhelming? … By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God.
Let’s look at some examples of those who grasped this. Second point is Active Faith. Hebrews 11:4 “4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” First is Abel’s Righteousness. The Old Testament does not explicitly indicate this. The account is found in Genesis 4:1–5 “1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard…”
On the surface, it is hard to determine why Abel’s sacrifice was accepted, and Cain’s not. It seems as though each offering was appropriate to their respective vocations. [Though some commentators suggest that only the ‘blood’ sacrifice of Abel’s was acknowledged.] I think rather, it is because Abel ‘did what was right’ according to Genesis 4.7. After Cain was angry, the Lord asks “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” It’s likely that Abel offered his sacrifice out of a heart of righteous faith, whereas Cain did not. And this seems also to fit our context well.
And it is because of his faith that he still speaks. Our author affirms that although Abel died, his voice continues to speak to us through Scripture of the faith that is pleasing to God.
Let’s look next at Enoch’s Fellowship. Hebrews 11:5 “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 commended as having pleased God.” The account of Enoch is found in Genesis 5. He is listed among the genealogy of Adam. You probably know that all throughout this listing is the addition of the solemn note, ‘and he died.’ The only exception from this repetition occurs with the introduction of Enoch. Verse 24 of Genesis 5 says that “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” To ‘walk with God’ speaks of an intimate relationship to Him. The same was said of Noah wherein Genesis 6.9 records that Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah ‘walked with God.’ This commendation of Enoch is important for Hebrews since it clearly shows that Enoch was a man of faith. And ultimately for our author, the decisive factor in Enoch’s removal to heaven was not the details surrounding his departure, but the fact that it was by faith.
Verse 7 brings us to Noah. Hebrews 11:7 “7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” What a great example of faith!! He was a righteous man who walked with God. You remember that God was grieved over the wickedness of people and decided to destroy the earth with a flood. He went to Noah and told him to build a giant ark that would house his family and two of every kind of animal.
And so, day after day, he would construct the ark as the people would mock him and jeer at him. 2 Peter 2.5 indicates that during this time, Noah was a herald of righteousness – calling the people to repent. Did you realize that the time span between God’s words to Noah and the time when they entered the ark was 120 years? During that time, Noah would preach righteousness and repentance with no response – only ridicule and rejection. All the while he was building an ark for which the rains never came – for 120 years. THAT is faith!
So this is likely what our author means when he says that it was his faith (and perhaps also his message) that condemned the world while he became an heir of righteousness. What was the basis for his faith? It wasn’t what he perceived with his senses! By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen. He believed with his heart and with a life of obedience that God was true and faithful to his Word! Do you see the connection between faith and action most clearly and loudly in the account of Noah??
Let’s look briefly at our final point: Necessity of Faith. Hebrews 11:6 “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. This is the whole point. The one who truly places his trust in Christ, must also live by that same faith. It is by doing this, that we please God and glorify him.
“Drawing near” is a recurring theme in this letter as well. It is because of the new covenant sacrifice of Jesus that we are able to approach him. Hebrews 7:25 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. Hebrews 4:16 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Those who draw near must believe. And they must believe, first, that God exists. This may seem obvious. However, many people claim to believe that God exists. The author does not mean simply any god, but in the one who made his will known to the fathers through the prophets and who in these last days has spoken in his Son (according to Hebrews 1.1-2).
Secondly, we must believe that ‘he rewards those who seek him.’ This theme of divine rewards is significant in Hebrews. The same word that speaks of receiving just due for the punishment of sin also speaks positively of a reward that is not material or earthly, but heavenly and lasting. We saw this last week in Hebrews 10:34–35 “34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.”
And yet this is reserved for those who seek him. The word used here speaks of an exertion of effort to find out or learn something. This is not for the lazy or complacent or apathetic. It is for those who rely firmly on God, trust that his promises will be fulfilled, and find in him the source of their deepest satisfaction.
Is that you? Do you find yourself clinging to the promises in His Word? Does your profession of faith translate into a life of faith? In other words, do you find yourself trusting day by day, moment by moment, in the sovereign God of the universe? Or is your god too small? It is not biblical to consider that you can say a ‘prayer of faith’ and not have your life look any different. Faith in Jesus Christ is a supernatural event that changes your affections and your life.
Perhaps you have not heard before of a faith in a God who has created the universe by his very word. And you have now been given understanding that there is a Designer and Creator who has not only shone light out of darkness in the world, but does so also in the heart. Your very Maker sent his Son so that we could draw near to a holy God – right now and for all of eternity! Faith is the reality and the proof of things hoped for and things unseen. I pray that you too will have the eyes to see. Let’s pray.