Financial planners advise us about prudent ways to live and invest our resources over the course of many years, with a goal toward these disciplines paying off in the climatic moments of later life.
It would be a foolish person who had more than enough resources to not only meet their needs comfortably, but to also have sufficient to wisely invest for the larger picture … yet who chose to lavishly spend their abundance upon silly pleasures and personal indulgences. Such a person might well come into their retirement years and lack sufficient resources for even their basic needs.
We would not respect these choices nor the person making them. We would regard this pattern as one that lacked a big-picture, long-term perspective. We would see it as a bit crazy to live a life that indulged the present while ignoring the future.
Yet that is what I fear I see too many Christian people – those who would name Christ as Savior – as essentially doing with their lives. Their values too often do not differ significantly from the people of the rest of the world who know not Christ. These Christians are comforted by having a “fire plan of faith” that they know will save them from eternal doom and separation from God, yet they do not choose to dramatically value their connection to God by living a life that is categorically different. And this will not yield success in the long run of life in this world. And this becomes particularly evident when there fails to be a passing on of faith values to the following generations.
We would say of such people that – like the unwise investor – they fail to have the big picture in mind. They fail to live with goals. And they fail to live seriously in light of their profession of faith and connection with Christ and the church.
The Scriptures – in more than just a couple of places, and by more writers than simply the Apostle Paul – talk about having goals in our lives. And a final passage of this “Seriously?” series is that which is found in Hebrews 11:1-16. And the writer to the Hebrews wrote of those who in Israel’s history were commended for their faith and were commended for this attitude … 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.
As we turn to Hebrews 11, and whenever we study anything in this wonderful epistle, we do well to be reminded of the background of the recipients of this letter. They …
… were Jewish believers – well-versed in OT ways and Jewish faith.
… had trusted Christ, and experienced the Christian life.
… were severely persecuted and felt isolated.
… were considering a return to Judaism.
… found the memory of a priest whom the eyes could see was especially appealing.
And so, the major theme of the writer is the encouragement of perseverance, because the reward is worth it. The writer is encouraging his readers to persevere in light of the examples of famous people from their own ancestry who persevered in faith in spite of their circumstances.
Here now is a quick 3-part outline of what we’re going to see …
The statement of a principle (1-3)
Four illustrations of that principle from the lives of real people (4-12)
The application of the principle (13-16)
So the first thing we are going to see is the statement of a principle …
HEB 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.
HEB 11:3 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.
Many of us who were raised on the KJV will remember the word “substance” used here about faith. Other translations since have used words like “reality” or “assurance.” I’m good with any of these words; but I was especially interested in my research of the Greek term used here to see that in secular Greek, it was used of a “deed of title” to a property. It was not the property itself, but it was what gave assured confidence of the reality of ownership. And this reminds of us Paul’s writing about the Holy Spirit being the “earnest” or the “down payment” of our inheritance in Christ.
Putting this together, the first verse is saying the first of three things we’ll see in these opening verses: Faith is assured confidence.
And secondly, in verse 2 – This is what the ancients were commended for. The main thing that immortalized the great characters of the Old Testament was their faith in God and their confident willingness to follow His leading, no matter what. It made them “pleasing” to God. And is that not what we all would want to have as much as anything else?!? So our second truth in these opening verses: Faith is the means of divine approval.
And then a third truth in verse 3 – Faith is the basis of all life … 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.
There was no one at creation to verify it. Mankind is confronted with a universe already existing. And in spite of all the theories that have come along and whatever fractions of truth that are in them, in the beginning, God spoke the universe into existence. Faith is at the basis of all life.
So, let’s take these three verses and state their content as a principle …
The principle: Faith believes in the reality of the truth of things that cannot be seen, just as certainly as it believes in the reality of truth that can be seen!
So, just as any good sermon does not merely state facts, but also gives illustrations and applications in real life, the writer shares such with the readers by pointing to a variety of human illustrations who demonstrated these truths – both for their good and for God’s approval. We’ll look at four such illustrations in verses 4-12 …
Four illustrations of that principle from the lives of real people (4-12)
HEB 11:4 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 story of Cain and Abel is in Genesis chapter 4. These first two sons of Adam were very different fellows: Abel raised livestock, whereas Cain raised crops. A time came when each brought an offering to the Lord – Abel an animal, Cain some crops. And Abel’s offering was accepted, though Cain’s was not pleasing to God. And in his anger, Cain later killed his brother Abel.
The question over time has been as to why it was that Abel’s offering was accepted, though Cain’s was not. Among those theories …
- Abel’s was a blood sacrifice; Cain’s was of the ground. This is not generally accepted.
- Abel brought a larger quantity… again, not an issue.
- Abel brought the best of the flock, whereas Cain just brought something from the crops.
- Abel had a proper attitude, whereas Cain did not.
It is probably a combination of the last two. Abel went out of his way to bring the best and did so in the right attitude. Cain merely did it to “get it over with.”
But the passage says that Abel, though he died, still speaks – the voice as being a person in whom God was pleased. He operated in faith, receiving ultimately His eternal reward.
The second illustration of the faith without sight principle is Enoch …
HEB 11:5 By 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. 6 And 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.
Go ahead, list all of the accomplishments of Enoch! We really don’t know of any, specifically. He is mentioned in Genesis 5:21-24. He was the father of Methuselah and some other people. And it simply says of him: Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.
And then in Jude it says of him that he was one who spoke truth about God to his generation, though most did not listen to him … so what’s new? But he was a man who was commended by God above all his contemporaries, simply for knowing and trusting God in the midst of a dark time. Others “lived, begat, died.” Enoch walked with God, and one day God said, “Come walk up here with me.”
We could say of Enoch that he was SERIOUS about his faith – God liked that.
The third illustration of the faith without sight principle is Noah …
HEB 11:7 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.
Again, this is a character from Genesis – one we know more about. He is mentioned and commended in various places in Scripture; and though not a perfect man, he was one who operated with incredible faith.
Imagine the life of Noah! Apparently even his family did not necessarily believe at the time God called him to build that boat. It’s a long story and explanation of biblical texts, but rain and flooding were not a part of the experience of mankind at this time. Building a boat in the middle of nowhere – something that took years and years – demonstrated a tremendous faith in the unseen.
Understand also that Noah is regularly pictured as a preacher of righteousness to his generation around him. And there was no fruit for his faith beyond his own family. Yet he trusted God.
Living for God and believing in the message of the Gospel and the truths of Scripture will be mocked by the masses of others in civilization around us. But, like Noah, we must persevere, we must make it a priority to move toward the higher goal of God’s calling.
The fourth, and best, illustration of the faith without sight principle is Abraham …
HEB 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. 9 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. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
HEB 11:11 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. 12 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.
Of course, we know Abraham even by the title: “father of faith.” Again, he was not perfect; the Scriptures reveal certain flaws in his life, even some lapses of faith. But in the big picture, he trusted God in incredible ways. The text here reminds the reader of the two largest components of his faith: his journey to the promised land, and his belief that God would grow a nation from him – though he was childless and old.
- His journey – He was in latter years and was successful in his homeland. Yet when God told him to pack it all up and go – along with his entire household, being sent to a place he did not know – he did it. This was crazy!
And then when he got there and wandered around for many years, living in tents as a nomad, never actually owning any land (other than a cave he bought to bury Sarah and his family), he remained faithful.
Why did he remain faithful, even in the absence of physically seeing and gaining his promises? The text says it was because he had a bigger vision – a more permanent one than anything in this world. His eyes were on eternal goals. Seriously? Seriously!
- His childlessness – He had a problem. He was old. But the bigger problem was that Sarah was herself nearly as old, and definitely TOO old. Yet he believed God would do it somehow, someday. And even when he was called upon to sacrifice his son of promise, we see (actually later in this chapter) that Abraham was so sure of the promise of God, that even if Isaac was sacrificed, God would resurrect him. What a preview of God’s big plan!
So there are the four illustrations of the principle: Faith believes in the reality of the truth of things that cannot be seen, just as certainly as it believes in the reality of truth that can be seen!
The application of the principle (13-16)
Now we look at the application of the principle – as was written to the Hebrews receiving this letter, as it is to us by extension as God’s word for us …
HEB 11:13 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. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 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.
Here are some quick facts about these people illustrations of faith …
- They were faithful to the end.
- They did not get in this material world everything that they were promised.
- They never ceased to look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises, be it in this life or the next.
- They never emotionally over-invested in the things of this life.
- They understood that this world is a temporary thing where we live like aliens in a foreign country.
- They never looked back; they always pressed forward only.
- Their focus was on a goal, and that goal was not of this world – it was a heavenly one. And this served as the guide for all they did in their years in this life.
Because of all of this – faith in unseen realities – it says that God was not ashamed to be called their God. He was pleased with them and has an eternal city prepared for them.
So, to the Hebrews who got this letter, they should not go back to the old ways. In spite of the difficulties and persecutions, they should move forward toward heavenly goals. And this is true for us.
As a summary statement of today’s teaching we could state: To receive God’s pleasure in us, we must believe that promises made to us about things we cannot now see (contentment / relationships / security), are as certain to us as if we could reach out and touch them with our hands. And our lives should reflect this conviction by the things we do, the things we avoid, and the schedules we keep.
Think about it, how else are we going to live and find success?
Let’s turn around the words of the final paragraph and see what it will be like if we make the choice to trust this world for security, relationship and contentment. What would it be like to die, having made that our prioritized choice?
13 – All these people were living by sight and touch when they died. They sought to receive, in the here and now, the things promised by God for heaven. They saw them from a distance, but through impatience welcomed them into their earthly lives.
14-15 – People who do such things show they are not looking for another country of an eternal home, for they were unwilling to leave the country of the pleasures of this world.
16 – They did not look toward a heavenly country, therefore God is ashamed to be called their God, for he has not prepared a city for people with such an attitude.
So what are you trusting in? What path are you on? Do you say you are on one path, but an honest inspection reveals you are on another? And again, we want to not just exist as someone who is a little bit better than the rest of the world – as someone whose main distinguishing feature of life, versus the rest of the world, is that you have a confidence for eternity. But rather, we need to make it our goal to have a life that really looks different, a life that rings with the joy and fullness that accompany a life with trust in Christ.
That is being serious; that is living a goal-oriented life.