Isaac: The On-Time, Late Arrival

(This is a manuscript summary of the sermon delivered yesterday to begin this new series, serving as a review for any who might like that, or for those who could not attend.)

He was born in January of 1706 as the 15th of 17 children in his family. What chance would such a child have 313 years ago of going far in life?

His father wanted his son to become a preacher (something my own dad thought was best to happen in someone else’s family), so he sent him to grammar school when he was eight years old. He stayed in school until he was age ten, doing well in writing, but poorly in arithmetic. He then left school to work with his father in their candle shop. The only additional education he ever attained came from his own reading.

Because reading was the boy’s favorite pastime, his father decided on the trade of printing and sent his son to learn this in his older brother’s printing shop. As an adult, he would eventually set up his own printing business. He also served as a postmaster and eventually got into politics.

In the political realm of the era of the American Revolution, he stands alone as the only person to have signed all four of the documents that helped to create the United States: the Declaration of Independence (1776); the Treaty of Alliance with France (1778); the Treaty of Peace between England, France, and the United States (1782); and the Constitution (1787). In addition, he helped to write parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

He was a foreign ambassador for 12 years, and he is credited for having discovered the Gulf Stream. He founded a major university and a college, a hospital, the Philosophical Society of America, and was the first postmaster general of the U.S.

You might know his face from one of the many hundred-dollar bills in your pocket. I’m talking about Benjamin Franklin.

Not bad for the 15th child in the family!

Though “rags to richer / pauper to prince” types of stories are popular and well-known, still, they are particularly interesting because it is so far from the common experience of the human condition. Such stories are beyond normal EXPECTATIONS.

Expectations: Surpassing Humble Beginnings … this is the title of our 5-week December / Christmas season sermon series.

We begin with Isaac: The On-time, Late Arrival.  And of course, we are talking about the time of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah. You remember the story of Abraham – whose name means “Father of Many.”  Yes, this is the guy who obeyed God and left his life in the original cradle of civilization to travel to an undefined place, doing so with a promise that God would make his name great and prosper him with a lineage as numerous as the stars of the sky. But then, years would go by. And when he’d walk into the local Home Depot and the clerk would see his name on the credit card, he would be asked, “Oh, so how many children do you have?”  And he would have to answer, “Ah … none.”

Abraham would be 100 years old, with Sarah age 90 before Isaac was at last born. Even given the longer life-spans recorded in Genesis, this was very late in life. So, he was late from the perspective of Sarah and Abraham, but on-time in the plan of God.

Isaac’s name literally meant “one who laughs.”  This was referencing the laughter of both Abraham and Sarah that God would actually still provide a birth-son at that late moment of their lives. It was 13 years earlier that they took matters into their own power by the provision of Sarah’s Egyptian slave Hagar and the birth of Ishmael, whom Abraham loved and longed to see stand before God as his offspring of promise. But this was not to be.

And so Isaac began to grow in the household of Abraham – a nomad, yet one with some wealth … though still without any land possessions. What could be so special about this child’s birth, two millennia before the time of Christ?

The biblical account of the life of Isaac has far less recorded than his famous father, as well as his most famous son, Jacob. But we do get some pictures of what he was like. And perhaps the most famous story of Isaac was when he was yet a boy. Let’s quickly read through this story – from Genesis 22 …

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Let’s make a variety of points about this passage:

  • We tend to think of Isaac as something like a 5-year-old, when there is reason to believe he is actually much older and not just an immature, oblivious child about what is happening.
  • Abraham’s faith is evident in the statement to the servants that both he AND Isaac will return. And we see the reason for this in Hebrews 11:19 where it says that Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead.
  • There is every reason to understand that Mt. Moriah is where the city of Jerusalem would later be, and the very place God led Abraham and Isaac that day was to be later known as Golgotha – the precise location of the crucifixion of Christ.
  • There are elements in the story that we understand to be typology – by definition, something in the Old Testament that is a symbol or prefiguring of something to be more perfectly accomplished in the New Testament.
    • Abraham is a type of God the Father who is willing to sacrifice his only son whom he loves (John 3:16).
    • The ram is a type of the idea of substitution – of Christ taking our place in receiving judgment.
    • But ISAAC – he is a type of the obedience of Christ to the Father to be the willing sacrifice for sin. And this credits actively to the account of Isaac, not passively or unknowingly.

Pressing quickly through the life of Isaac, here are some other highlights…

  • He marries Rebekah – a wife found for him by Abraham’s servant by returning to their original homeland. He is age 40.
  • His wife is barren for 20 years, and it is only after much prayer and faith that children are born – twin sons, Esau and Jacob.
  • Even during Rebekah’s pregnancy, and at the birth, it is obvious that these boys have totally different personalities and values. Rebekah has a prophecy from God about this – that they are two nations … that the older will serve the younger. Surely Isaac knew this information.
  • Rebekah prefers Jacob, the younger; whereas Isaac is drawn more naturally to the older – a young man who loves hunting and the outdoors.
  • Jacob one day makes a devious deal with his brother Esau, where the older demonstrates that he did not have a big-picture value of his birthright and God’s plan for the family, and he agrees to sell it to the younger. Esau also marries a pair of local Canaanite women who bring great grief to the family system. Jacob was yet unmarried.
  • At a later time, Rebekah helps Jacob fool the vision-impaired Isaac, who inadvertently gives the blessing to the younger brother.
  • Due to Esau’s anger and potential retributions, a plan is made to send Jacob away to Mesopotamia, where he will be for many years. There he is to marry from their original people group.
  • As he is sent away, we see Isaac again placing a blessing upon Jacob – essentially admitting that this was to be God’s plan of blessing for the family within the larger work of God’s promises to Abraham. Isaac will die at the age of 180.
  • Another event in Isaac’s life involves a time when there was a famine in the land … most often people from that region would then head to Egypt. But God told Isaac to stay, and he did. Fearing for his life among the local people, he repeated the same mistake his father had made earlier – saying that his wife was his sister … and he likewise ended up being rebuked by a pagan king when the truth came out.
  • Conflicts arose in the land between Isaac’s substantial flocks and herdsmen and the local peoples, and Isaac moved only slightly from place to place, eventually establishing peace. And God again confirmed the Abrahamic Covenant with him.

So it is a very mixed bag of items. He appears to be a rather passive man throughout various narratives and stories, not as active as his father or sons. His marriage/family is afflicted with some dysfunction, with mom preferring one child, and dad another.

BUT, he is applauded and has his name mentioned five times in the Hebrews 11, Hall of Fame of Faith!  How can this be?  Well, the answer is in that passage. Let’s look there at the story of the family of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob, though I’m going to do it a bit out of order …

Hebrews 11:17-21 … 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, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

But the really important answer as to why these imperfect people – often with all of their faults not hidden at all in the Scriptures – get this major endorsement about their lives, and it is in the preceding verses …

Hebrews 11:8-16 … 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. 11 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. 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.

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, admitting that they were foreigners 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 is the answer as to why they are honored: It is because they remained faithful to the big idea of big ideas … yes, even Isaac. They were faithful with the truth that they knew and understood. We call that the Abrahamic Covenant: about how this family would be blessed in the end with great expanse and that in some way also, all the families of the earth would be blessed through them. And we of course know this to be the work of Christ on the cross to defeat mankind’s enemies of sin and death.

Isaac, even with his faults, believed this and was a steward of this truth to pass it on to his family and further generations; and it gave meaning to his daily life in a strange land. None of them would see, on this side of eternity, all the blessings promised to them. Yet they were faithful to move forward in faith, day to day.

We think they had nothing but awesome experiences of God showing up all over the place. Not so!  Yes, occasionally they had miraculous and divine encounters. However, it was most often with years in between. And remember, they had no completed Scriptures; they had no indwelling Holy Spirit.

What we learn from them is that life is a long walk in the same direction. We discern that it is not a matter of daily/weekly/monthly mountaintop-to-mountaintop experiences. The journey of life involves traversing long, relatively flat plains as you look ahead to mountains off in the distance. But when you look back (and I’m old enough now to have a lot of review-mirror experiences), you can see that there were more high points than you realized (in the moment) had happened.

These are those points times where, though it didn’t seem like much at the moment, God intervened and blessed you, saved you, protected you, provided for you, redirected you, etc.  And it adds up over time. It may not seem glorious or huge, but you can look back and testify that, “as I sought to trust God through it all, God was indeed faithful at every juncture.”

It is like when Elijah complained to God that he was not seeing results in Israel, as all seemed to be going wrong, in 1 Kings 19:11, The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.   Most of our moments from God are gentle interventions.

So let us stay faithful, day-to-day. Let us ever recall the big picture – about which we know SO MUCH!  Christ has come – as a babe, to become the perfect sacrifice for sin. He has gone back to heaven from which he promises to come again. In the meantime, we are THE CHURCH – the body of Christ – God’s program for this age!  That is huge!  No, there aren’t obvious daily miracles, but there is still a big picture that defines EVERYTHING for us – advising us how to live in an increasingly evil world. It is the main idea of our lives … the thing that informs all that we do, how we disciple our families and teach them, how we invest every moment of our lives.

Yes, we live with Expectation. This is the season of Expectation – the celebration of the coming of the Big Picture that makes all the difference for every minute of our lives.

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Enduring as a Minority (Hebrews 11:32-40)

I was far from a blazing witness for Christ in my secular high school when growing up in New Jersey. Most classmates who knew me were aware that I valued my church and issues of faith, though it was not often much of a topic of conversation. And though there was a handful of youth group kids from my church who went to my high school, none were in my specific class. In fact, at the time, only one other of the 129 students in my graduating class was certainly known to me as a Christian. A few came to Christ later, but even today, most of my classmates are very far from my values system – many of them embracing naturalistic worldviews, along with quite a number who are oddly into Eastern mysticism. I really felt very, very isolated and outnumbered in those years.

This has been the feeling and experience of many of God’s people over the years. Some of Israel’s greatest leaders were not only isolated in the midst of a world of surrounding pagan religions, many of them had to stand often rather alone for God within the nation in times of spiritual declension and apathy.

In our increasingly post-everything world, we too may have a similar sense of isolation and loneliness in a sea of unbelief. It can be a challenge to live confidently in faith, but the reward for such is worth it … if we ENDURE.

After elaborating on the stories of a number of biblical characters of faith, the writer begins to list some other examples (indicating as well that there were more than time and space could allow). Verse 32 lists four men from the period of the Judges in Israel’s history, before speaking of the well-known characters of David and Samuel.

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets,

Without rehearsing each story, note the common theme of standing against larger powers and numbers: Gideon and his 300 against 135,000, David vs. Goliath, Samson pulling down the pagan temple walls, etc.  All of these characters were victorious in their high moments of life (most having some shameful low moments as well) by trusting God in the face of overwhelming opposition – impossible odds in which victory could only be accomplished by God’s divine strength and intervention. Going on about such biblical characters as these (and other unnamed) the writer says …

 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 

Many battles in Israel’s history could be in view here. And the “mouths of lions” makes us think of Daniel, while the “fury of the flames” reminds us of his three friends in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Again, impossible victories by God’s strength and through their faith.

35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

Again, there are backgrounds in biblical stories for almost all of these references of difficult situations – the prophets in particular being persecuted. There is no specific recorded instance biblically of anyone being sawn in two, though there is a tradition that this was the fate of Isaiah. Joseph was imprisoned for a number of years, Elijah was mocked and fled for his life, Obadiah hid 100 prophets in a cave from the wrath of Jezebel.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

All of these characters were worthy of commendation for their faith, though they did not receive the full benefits of it. Yes, they had mighty answers to prayer, but not a perfect ending. And how could they? The Messiah was yet to come and make the final sacrifice for sin.

Verse 39 talks about the Old Testament saints, whereas verse 40 is talking about us – those of the church age who have our faith in the finished work of Christ.

We have the greater advantage. We know historically and through our faith about the culmination of God’s redemptive plan in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So we are by God’s grace better off and better informed, yet we do not have the complete fulfillment either – not like we all shall have together at the consummation of time.

Whatever suffering or shame we endure, even if it is to be final, is not entirely unusual for those of God’s people at any time in human history. But the common denominator through all of time is the commendation and pleasure of God in those who trust him through everything. And the reward for that is “out of this world” and is worth it all. Nothing compares to it. Don’t cash in your faith for comfort or convenience. ENDURE.

Being Identified with Despised People (Hebrews 11:20-31)

After talking about the pre-patriarchal characters followed by Abraham, the list of faith heroes today picks up with the family that became Israel, highlighting selected heroes down through the time of the conquest of the Promised Land.

This laundry list begins with the son of promise, Isaac, who of course had two sons who were twins…

20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

What is interesting in these two generations of the family is that the younger is blessed over the elder. Birth order and genealogical blessing were a big deal in the Hebrew mind. But we know from multiple places in Scripture that the younger son Jacob received the blessing over Esau. As with Cain and Abel, one had a heart for God, whereas the other did not – all of which was fleshed out over time. The same is true of Joseph, who was next to last of the many sons of Jacob. Reuben was the oldest, but Joseph was the one who would save the family through trusting God in faith in Egypt. And the younger of his sons was the more blessed by their grandfather Jacob, and the tribe of Ephraim especially prospered – the name Ephraim sometimes being used synonymously of the northern 10 tribes in the way Judah was used of the southern kingdom.

22 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.

OK, so what’s the big deal with this? Joseph wanted to be buried back in the Promised Land, back to the place where God was to bless the family and nation. Generations in advance, Joseph believed it would happen, though it would be another 400 years before it actually occurred. And it was the great character Moses who would lead them out of Egypt and back to Palestine…

23 By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

Moses had parents who could discern in some way that this child was destined to accomplish something great for the nation, and in hiding him from the edict of Pharaoh, they risked their own well-being.

You know the story of Pharaoh’s daughter finding Moses hidden in the bulrushes, thus saving his life and putting him into a place of prominence and privilege. The main idea of this entire long paragraph is that Moses could have chosen the easy life that was fully open to him, but he rather identified with the despised slave nation of Israel. This was a choice that was made in faith and confidence in the one true God, though it put him at odds with the most powerful nation of that time. It would mean a lifetime of hard living in wilderness areas surrounded by an ungrateful mob of people. But he obeyed God in faith, with eyes on the bigger picture of God’s work in the world.

Moses led the nation through some of the most incredible displays of God’s power …

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

Would you want to pass through two columns of water standing up tall on two sides – with the wind blowing and the threat that it could all come crashing down upon you, as it did on the Egyptians?  Israel passed through that scene in faith.

30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.

31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

Jericho was a powerful city. The Israelites were told to march around it for seven days. Did this make sense … just walking around a city? It only would, if done in faith that God was going to do something incredible because you obeyed him.

Rahab risked everything. It would have been much more logical for her to have told the authorities of her own people about the spies she hid and about all that she knew from them. Instead, she believed in faith that the God of Israel was the one true God, and that she could trust him to deliver her.

By bringing up these stories to the Hebrews, the readers were reminded that they were far from the first to suffer for identification with Christ and with God’s plans. And they were not the last. We live in a time when there are actually more martyrs for Christ than in any other century or age.

It could happen even to us. Yes, it is a stretch to imagine, though not as much of a stretch as even just a few years ago. But in any event, it is not as if we hope for such to occur, but if it does, it is not something to fear or be shameful about – not if you have the big picture in mind of God’s greater eternal work and reward.

Abraham: A Guy We Can Relate To (Hebrews 11:8-19)

Have you ever gone to or lived in a place where you felt entirely out of step with everyone around you? I had some culture shocks at times when I lived in Texas for a few years, but I never felt completely lost and alienated.

When I was a pastor in northern New Jersey, I remember feeling just horribly for this very sweet young couple who had come to live and work in my hometown area and attend my church. They were from Iowa – where I am told that life is slow and easy, and everyone is kind, friendly and non-combative. None of those terms describe Jersey! The fast-paced, aggressive, loud, in-your-face culture was totally traumatizing for these folks. Simply driving and getting yelled at was a daily horror for them.

The finale for this couple was coming home from vacation to their rural house and fortunately noticing the curtains on the inside move as they came up the driveway. Pulling back from the home, they called the police. When the authorities came, a man ran out of the house shooting at the police who in response shot him. He was a drifter, who found an empty home and simply lived there while they were on vacation. But that was the final straw for this couple! Back to Iowa they moved!

Do you feel out of step with the rest of the world around you? I’m speaking of the idea of living for Christ and being identified with Him in a world that is increasingly hostile to faith and objective truth. If you feel like you are out of step with the much larger majority, it is probably because you are seeking to walk in the opposite direction than what the crowd is travelling.

This is how the readers of Hebrews felt. Maybe they should just stop swimming upstream … just turn around and take the easy route of going with the flow!

So the writer tells them that such an about-face would not please God. If they desired God’s commendation, they needed to live by faith and trust in Him, even in a crazy-pants world. And doing this was nothing new. Even the great patriarch Abraham had to do the same and live in a way that had him fully at odds with his world.

Think about what he did, even late in life, in obedience to God …

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. 11 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. 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.

At the peak of his life, while living in the most prosperous place on earth at the time, Abraham was called to leave Ur and go to a place that God would later identify … just some place somewhere far away – a place he could receive as his inheritance. And when he got to the Promised Land, he didn’t really inherit the place. He basically lived as a nomad, wandering from place to place in tents. The only actual property he ever owned was a cave he purchased in order to bury his wife and family.

But it was okay. It was sufficient. He did not complain, because it says he was looking for a city (a place of permanence) who was designed by and built by God. So that means it was not of this world. This tells us of his focus: It was not on this world and its comforts, rewards or lack thereof. His gaze was beyond the temporary.

Beyond the material element of his sojourning, what good was a promise that he would inherit a great land and have offspring that would become a great nation … when there was no sight of such a reality? He was childless. He was too old to have children, and he had no prescription for Viagra! And beyond that, Sarah was WAY BEYOND childbearing years. This is a big problem. But he had a promise. And he trusted in that, and God blessed.

Taking some verses out of order, let’s finish off talking about Abraham specifically before reading the application paragraph in the text …

17 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, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

The well-known story is one of the great displays of obedience and faith. God had said that Abraham’s blessing would come through his one son Isaac, but then God said to offer that one and only son as a sacrifice. We read of his total obedience in Genesis, but his full thought process is actually revealed here in Hebrews. He was willing to kill his son of promise, believing so strongly in that promise, that God would raise Isaac back up from the dead. That is impressive faith!

Hey Hebrews – do you guys still think you have some life challenges while living for Christ? So, how are your difficulties compared to these faced by Abraham?  Here is the application (about Abraham and the others of faith mentioned to this point in the narrative) …

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, admitting that they were foreigners 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.

If anyone should have justly received the blessings of fulfillment and earthly ease and successful reward, it would be these heroes of the faith. But instead, none of them did. They died without the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise. Through the eye of faith, they could see the realities of these things from a distance – that the fulfillment would be in some measure in the lives of others to come after them, or not really until eternity. And that final place is the “country” they longed for … not an earthly place of comfort, or else they would have gone back to that comfort zone. Instead they pressed forward toward what the Apostle Paul would term the “high calling in Christ Jesus.”

Having eyes for eternity resulted in the approval of God – as he said he was not ashamed to be called their God and was preparing a place for them.

So, I am going to guess that some of you reading today struggle with these thoughts and truths as do I.  This passage eats my lunch … not gonna lie. I am so often disappointed and discontented that there is not more visible reward for laboring for Christ and investing my life as I have. I’m not talking about material gain, because I don’t honestly care that terribly much about that. I’m more talking about visible and measurable ministry success. Yet honestly, I’ve had an easy calling in all the places I have been. They have all been bigger and better by standards of measurement than the average calling to service in the body of Christ, as so many who have given all of life to building the church have had to labor in smaller and more difficult pastures of ministry.

The challenge for us all is to get our eyes up and away from our feet and the immediate surroundings, rather to cast our gaze ever more toward the horizon of earth and heaven – toward the goal at the end of it all. We need to stop expecting pleasure and fulfillment in this world, that while serving faithfully to the tasks at hand for today, to do so also with the appropriate understanding that we are aliens and strangers in this world. And that viewpoint changes everything.

Faith is Believing; Seeing is a Bonus (Hebrews 11:1-7)

Seeing is believing. So goes the old adage and English language idiom that full confidence in something is only surely to be found in physically experiencing it with the senses.

But the Scriptures speak that there is a component of belief that is called faith. It is believing in the reality of something as totally real, even though it cannot be seen. It is being as confident of its reality as if it was fully within sight.

The disciple named Thomas is famous for stating he would only believe if he could experience the physical risen Christ. He is chided for needing that substantial evidence, with the statement of blessing for those who would believe without such physical experience.

God commends faith. Faith is necessary, as there is no way to know everything experientially. This begins with creation, where no person was there to bear eyewitness to God calling it into being out of nothing but his spoken word. Yes, that is crazy talk to evolutionary scientists, though they stumble and postulate a great deal about the source of original matter.

The writer to the Hebrews had finished the thought of the passage at the end of chapter 10 with the phrase that he was confident his readers were people who would move forward in faith. And to bolster and encourage this, he brings to their remembrance that operating in faith in the midst of difficult times was the experience of their ancestors. And these Old Testament “heroes of faith” were particularly commended by God for operating on convictions of belief rather than selling out to achieving the comforts and ease of this world.

And therein is the timeless truth that gives this favorite Scripture passage of Hebrews 11 its significant meaning. There is a delayed gratification involved in living the Christian life. It is believing that as one trusts God during the inevitable struggles of honoring him in a sinful and evil would, there will be great reward in the end … and maybe not always even in this world, maybe almost certainly not until arriving at eternal life in the world yet to come.

11:1  Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.

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.

The writer illustrates this principle with an entire list of characters, saving the major points of application to the very end. But along the way, these people are commended by God for the evidences of their faith and confidence in God – trusting in unseen realities in face of persecution and difficulty.

Today we start with three characters, to be followed in the next devotional (Monday) on the great illustration of faith in Abraham.

First in the list is Abel. Recall that he is the second son of Adam and Eve. And though the details are not recorded, it is clear from the Genesis record that God had told them how to approach him in worship – both in substance, and more importantly, in attitude of heart and mind. Abel obeyed; Cain blew off God’s commands. And when God was dissatisfied with Cain’s offering, instead of blaming himself, he took his anger out on his brother by killing him. Abel’s faith is commended and rewarded eternally by God.

4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

Next in the list of pre-patriarchal characters is Enoch, whose brief account is in Genesis 5.  Again the details are scant, but it is clear that there was something very unique about this man and his passionate heart for God and for fellowship with him. In the end, he did not see death, but God simply took him. The application is that there is a commensurate value to be found in pleasing God in faith … the more you trust him, the more he is pleased and extends his pleasure and reward in this life, and the next.

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.

And finally there is Noah – far from a perfect man. But consider what he did and what he had to endure (and don’t picture that from any recent movies about him!).  There is a view of this account in the Scriptures that there had never been rain before the flood – that there was a canopy of vapor that surrounded the earth and gave it a greenhouse effect throughout. The ground was watered from below. So, the idea of a flood was REALLY “out there” … and nothing of the sort would have ever been experienced by anyone. (Even if this view is not true, Noah was building a very big boat in a place where floods simply did not happen.)  The point is that Noah must have looked a bit eccentric to the evil world around him, as he preached the word of God to them for many years. That preaching condemned the unbelievers of his era, and his faith saved his family and the human race.

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 is in keeping with faith.

Hey, I’d rather see and believe than have to have faith. It is certainly easier. It would be great to have God physically show up once in a while at least, have lunch and talk over what I should be doing and not doing. That would certainly seem to be easier than having to pray, read Scripture, and look to see God’s providential hand operating about me in terms of open doors and circumstances. Yet the biblical record reveals that those who had such experiences often became too used to them and devalued them over time, leading to inexplicable failures. Sin is a mess.

But faith tells us there is reward for being faithful and living in trust. There is evidence of it in the lives of those who are older and who have gone before us in the Christian life. But the best evidence is in God’s record to us – the Scriptures. And to please God, we need to know what they say, and then believe and act upon what we know. Long-term faith is rewarded … someday.

How to be a Hero in One Simple Step (Hebrews 11)

Before we jump into the Hebrews 11 passage today, let me thank all of you who read these devotionals and comment here and there about how you are blessed by them. Since Chris and I have been writing these for close to two years, with today’s piece we have now penned 400 of these studies. Please see them as a reference not only for the current series, but also as a searchable reference, as I think we have now covered about 25-30% or more of the Scriptures.

Who wants to be a hero?

The ultimate commendation would be to have God say that in your life you were a hero of faith. And indeed we strive, hope, and press toward the upward calling of life in Christ with the hope of hearing on a final day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

It may seem to be a very “out there” thing to have any hope of being commended by the creator of the universe in such a way. Actually, it is very simple in that it only involves one step – just trust God in faith.

But that step is difficult to take, isn’t it?

I’m probably a bit “over the top” with this illustration, and it will drive our own Home Depot manager Tony Mazolla crazy when he hears this, but there is no way I am going to ask for help in finding something in that store. Even if someone says, “May I help you find something?” I’ll say “No, let me try to figure it out.”  Only when I’m completely stuck will I ask for help (unless I see Tony himself)!

Same thing with asking for directions. No way – that’s what maps and GPS systems on phones are for – I’m not going to bother anyone and ask!

Silly?  Probably. But that’s how we often live the Christian life – trying to figure out and work out situations on our own when God simply wants us to trust him with it all.

We get a sort of definition of faith at the beginning of the chapter.

11:1 – Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.

Faith is believing that something you cannot see is as real and certain as something that you can see. That is difficult.

Imagine how difficult that was for Rahab. Why should she believe that two spies from the most powerful and apparently God-blessed nation on the earth would protect her from getting wiped out when her city of Jericho was destroyed? But in faith she believed God, and she acted on that faith by helping God’s people and risking everything in her own place and culture.

For this, she is listed in this chapter that records quite a who’s who, hall of fame of those characters of the Old Testament that found God’s pleasure because they lived in faith – they believed in things they could not see as if they were clearly visible before their very eyes.

She appears rather later in the chapter, being commended about the story of the defeat of Jericho and her faith to help by hiding the spies …

30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.

31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

That final word “disobedient” could be understood as saying “unbelieving.”

So if a prostitute in a heathen culture can trust God and get commended for it in the Scriptures, how difficult really … really … is it for you to trust God right now with whatever is a burden or concern in your life?

Here is the rest of chapter 11 of Hebrews – a book we will be studying in the spring of 2015 …

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.

4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

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.

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 is in keeping with faith.

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. 11 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. 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.

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, admitting that they were foreigners 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.

17 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, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

22 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.

23 By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

<Rahab verses here >

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.