John Calvin, the French reformer, wrote in his commentary on the book of Hebrews that whoever made the words ‘Now faith is’ the beginning of the eleventh chapter broke up the sequence wrongly. I’m sure you know that the chapter and verse divisions which we have in our Bibles are not part of the original Bible text and were added after the Bible was completed. And so, Calvin is complaining that whoever divided up the book of Hebrews got it wrong when it came to the end of chapter 10 and the beginning of chapter 11. And the reason Calvin complained about this is because the writer of Hebrews is not starting a new topic when he says, ‘Now faith is’. He’s not starting a new topic, but he’s adding to what he has just said in chapter 10. Do you remember chapter 10?
In the first part, which we studied two Sundays ago, the writer was wrapping up what he wanted to say about the Lord Jesus being our great High Priest. And since he’s our great High Priest, then we should draw near to God with confidence. And we should hold unswervingly to the hope we profess. And we should consider how to spur one another on towards love and goods deeds, which means we must not give up the habit of meeting together, but we should meet to encourage one another. That’s what we were thinking about two weeks ago.
And then last week we were thinking about the writer’s very severe warning that if we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left. And he’s talking about abandoning the faith, isn’t he? Turning away from Christ. Giving up our faith in Christ. That’s what he meant by deliberating sinning. And for the person who gives up their faith and who turns away from Christ, no sacrifice for sins is left, because if they’ve turned away from Christ — who offered himself as the once-for-all perfect, sacrifice for sins — then there is no other sacrifice for them. And therefore all you’re left with, if you abandon the faith, is a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Whoever turns away from Christ has gone over to the other side and they now belong among the enemies of God who will one day be destroyed. And so, it was a very severe warning, wasn’t it?
But the writer then went on to remind his readers, who were being tempted to abandon the faith, of the days after they first believed when they suffered for the faith. Sometimes they were publicly exposed to insult and persecution. Some of them were imprisoned; and those who weren’t imprisoned, helped those who were imprisoned. And some of them had their property confiscated. But despite what they suffered in those days, they stood firm. And so, how were they able to stand firm in those days? It was because instead of focussing on their present troubles, they were focussed on the things to come and to the better and lasting possessions which God had promised to them because of Christ. In those days you bore up under pressure, because you’d fixed your thoughts on your eternal reward. And just as you persevered in those days, so you need to persevere today by believing God’s promises about your future reward.
And then, right at the end of chapter 10, the writer quoted from the book of Habakkuk where God spoke of the one who was coming. He was referring to the Lord Jesus, who is coming again one day to reward his people and to punish his enemies. And what are God’s righteous people to do while they wait for him to come? They are to live by faith. Instead of shrinking back, they must keep believing, because those who believe will be saved from God’s condemnation and wrath when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.
And so, chapter 10 ended with this encouragement to keep believing. And what is chapter 11 about? It’s about people who kept believing. The writer refers to Abel and Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and the people in the days of Joshua and Rahab and then he rattles through a number of others from the Old Testament: men and women who believed God’s promises and who kept believing. And then he begins chapter 12 by telling us about the Lord Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross. And so, the Lord Jesus fixed his thoughts on the glory to come. And in that way, he was able to endure the suffering of the cross. And that’s what every believer is to do and it’s what we’re to do. We’re to fix our thoughts on the glory to come and we’re to keep believing God’s promises of a future reward, because in this way we will persevere and not fall away from Christ.
Hebrews 11 is one of those chapters which we love to read. Perhaps we grew up going to church and going to children’s meetings and we were taught about these heroes of the faith from the Old Testament. And so, we love this chapter because the writer reminds us of those old stories which we’re so familiar with. And because we love this chapter, preachers will often do a series of sermons on this one chapter. And that’s all good. But the problem we sometimes run into is that we take this chapter out of its context and we don’t realise that what the writer says in this chapter about faith is connected with what he has said before about warning us not to abandon the faith, but to persevere. And in order to persevere, we need a forward-looking faith, a faith which focusses on the glory to come and on the better and lasting possessions which God has promised to his people. The reason we have this chapter is because it’s part of the writer’s exhortation to us to keep believing. And so, let’s turn to this passage.
And he tells us in verse 1 that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Now, this isn’t a dictionary definition of faith. It’s not an exact definition. He’s not trying to sum up everything we need to know about faith. He’s not trying to sum up the nature of faith in a nutshell. He’s only telling us one thing about faith. As Calvin says, he’s selecting the part that fits his purpose.
And the part that fits his purpose is the way faith is related to what we hope for and it’s related to what we do not see. You see, whenever we put our faith in Christ, God immediately give us certain benefits which we enjoy right now in this life. For instance, he gives us justification which means he pardons us for our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight. And he gives us adoption so that we’re adopted into God’s family and he now regards us as his children. And he gives us sanctification so that he begins to work in us by his Spirit to renew us in his image. So, he gives us those things immediately. The moment we believe, he gives those things to us and we enjoy them right now in this life.
But he also promises us other things which we have to wait for. For instance, he promises to raise our bodies from the dead and to glorify us in his presence and to give us everlasting life in the new heavens and earth. He promises those things to every believer, but we have to wait for them. We don’t receive them immediately, but we have to wait for them. So, the moment we believe, we receive justification; but we have to wait to receive eternal life in the new heavens and earth.
And the writer is thinking of those far off things when he refers in verse 1 to what we hope for and to what we do not see. We don’t have it yet; and we haven’t seen it yet, but we hope for it.
And he uses two phrases to describe the nature of faith in relation to what we hope for and have not yet seen. He says faith is ‘being sure of’ what we hope for; and faith is being ‘certain’ of what we do not see.
So, faith is ‘being sure of’ what we hope for. You could also use the words ‘assurance’ or ‘confidence’. Faith is being sure of what we hope for. Faith is the assurance of what we hope for. Faith is confidence about what we hope for. So, because of our faith, we’re sure and assured and confident that God will do what he has said and we’ll receive what he has promised. Some commentators use the word ‘substance’ to translate what the writer wrote. If something has substance, it’s not imaginary, but real. In that case, although we don’t yet possess what God has promised us, we regard it as real and solid. We know it’s real and not imaginary.
And then, faith is being certain of what we do not see. Another translation says it’s the conviction of things not seen. It’s being convinced about what we do not see. So, we haven’t see these things yet, because eternal life in the presence of God lies in the future. We haven’t seen these things yet, but even though we haven’t seen these things, we believe in them.
As I was thinking about these things, I began to think about binoculars. Binoculars are great because they bring near what is far away. So, when we used to go on holiday at Easter to Inchydoney in County Cork, I would bring binoculars so I could look out from the window and out to sea at the fishing boats going by and the surfers bobbing on the sea, waiting for a wave. And the fishing boats and surfers are far away. But the binoculars bring them near. When you’re looking at the fishing boats through the binoculars, you’d think you could reach out and touch them. And, of course, with binoculars you can see things which you may not be able to see with the naked eye. So, there’s something far off in the distance. What is it? You can’t be certain because it’s so far away. It’s just a dot. But then, with the binoculars, you know for certain what it is. That’s what faith is like. Faith is like a pair of binoculars because it brings near what is far away. Eternal life in the presence of God is far away. It lies in the future. Who knows how long we must wait, but we must wait for it. But faith brings it near to us and it becomes so real to us that we feel we could almost reach out and touch it. And faith enables us to be certain about things that are too far away to see. We can’t see the new heavens and earth, but by faith we are certain about it and we know it’s not something we imagined. It’s not a figment of our imagination. It’s not made up. It’s real.
And you can see why the writer says this, can’t you? He’s addressing believers who are tempted to turn away from Christ. And he says to them that we need to keep believing. And we need to keep believing because our faith brings near what is far away. Eternal life in the presence of God seems so far away, especially when we’re struggling and suffering. But by faith we can almost touch it. And we need to keep believing because our faith gives us certainty about things we can’t yet see. And so faith makes us sure of what we hope for and it makes us certain of what we cannot see. And being sure and certain about these things enables us to persevere, because we know that no matter what we may be suffering now, in the end it will all be worth it, because look what God has in store for me.
And then our writer adds in verse 2 that this is what the ancients were commended for. What were they commended for? They were commended for their faith. He has in mind the Old Testament saints he’s about to mention in the following verses. And he mentions lots of different people who lived in different eras. Abel and Enoch lived before the flood. Noah lived through the flood. Then he refers to the patriarchs: Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. And then there’s Moses who lived at the time of the Exodus. And then there are all those who lived in the Promised Land. They lived at different times and in different places and they did different things. But they all had this in common: they believed God and his promises to them. And that’s the reason we know about them; and that’s why they received commendation from God. God was pleased with them because they trusted in him. In fact, if you glance down to verse 6, you’ll see that he says very clearly that without faith it is impossible to please God. So, no matter what a person does, no matter what good a person does — and there are plenty of people who have plenty of good things throughout the history of the world — unless that person has faith, that person cannot please God. On the other hand, many of the Old Testament saints did terrible things. David is the prime example, because he slept with Bathsheba and arranged for her husband to be killed. Nevertheless he was commended by God and he’s included in this role of honour because he believed God and God’s promises to him.
And you can see why the writer says this, can’t you? He’s writing to believers who are tempted to give up their faith. But without faith, you cannot please God. And just as the ancients were commended for their faith, so he will commend us for our faith. Our faith pleases him. It’s what he wants from us. He wants us to believe.
And then, before he reads out the roll of honour, and lists all these Old Testament saints who believed and who kept believing, he refers to the creation of the world. And he refers to the creation of the world to illustrate for us what he means by faith. He says: ‘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.’ When he says that ‘what is seen was not made out of what was visible’, we tend to assume he’s referring to ‘creation out of nothing’. So, when you and I make anything, we have to start with something. If we’re baking a cake, we must start with flour and eggs and butter and sugar. If we’re building a house, we need bricks and mortar and timber and so on. But when God made the universe, he started with nothing. He didn’t need any raw materials. He didn’t need any tools. All he had to do was given a word of command and the heavens and the earth were formed out of nothing. And so, in that sense, what we can now see around us was not made from what is visible, because it all came from nothing.
However, it’s possible that, when he refers to ‘what is not visible’, he’s referring to God himself and to God’s word of command. And so, what we can see around us in the world was made by God who is ‘not visible’. And it was made by God’s word of command which is ‘not visible’.
So, before the creation of the world, there was nothing other than God. But then God said the word; and the universe came into existence. And now we look at the world around us; and by faith we believe that it all came from God who is unseen.
Now, I’m not a scientist and I’m always reluctant to speak about science, because there are people here who know more about it than me. But I do know that we owe so much to scientists, because they have helped us to grow in our understanding of the world and the way it works. And when we’re sick, and we’re treated in hospital with medicines or when we receive vaccinations to prevent us from geting sick, we can be thankful to God for giving us scientists who have made these things for our benefit and who have contributed so much else to our daily existence.
However, scientists are just like everyone else in that the way they think and the way they go about their work is affected by their presuppositions. Do you know what presuppositions are? They are our most basic beliefs. They are our most fundamental beliefs which we take for granted. So, we assume these basic beliefs are true; and they are foundational to everything else we think. So, they influence how we think about everything else and they affect how we interpret and evaluate everything else. Just as wearing dark glasses will make everything we see appear dark, so our presuppositions will affect everything we think about. And that means that if a scientist’s most basic belief is that God does not exist, and that all there is is the universe around us, then that will affect how that scientist conducts his or her research into the origin of the universe. It will affect how they interpret and evaluate their data. And so, if they don’t believe in God, then they’ll never come to the conclusion that the universe was formed by God’s command, because deep down inside they don’t believe in God; and there’s no room for God in their thinking. And that basic belief, that presupposition that God does not exist, influences how they do their work and it influences the conclusions they make. And so, they suppress the truth about God which God has revealed in the world around us and in the heavens which declare his glory and in the skies which proclaim the work of his hands. What God has made speaks to us of his eternal power and divine nature. Those who don’t believe will never understand that. But those who believe understand that the universe was formed by God’s command and that what is seen around us was not made out of what is visible, because what is seen was made by God.
Now, the writer has just told us that faith is being sure of what we hope for and it’s being certain of what we do not see. We can’t see God, can we? We can’t see God because he’s invisible. But we believe in him; and we’re to keeping believing in him. And we’re to keep believing that he will do all that he has promised and that he’ll bring us into his presence in the new heaven and earth when Christ comes again to renew all things.
Verses 4 to 7
Let’s now go through verses 4 to 7 briefly. By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice that Cain did. Sometimes people say that God accepted Abel’s offering because he offered God an animal sacrifice unlike Cain who only offered God something he harvested from the ground. And so, the difference between them was their offering. But the writer of Hebrews, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us that the difference between the brothers is that one believed and the other did not. And therefore by faith Abel was commended by God as a righteous man. And the lesson here is that sinners are justified by faith. That is to say, sinners are pardoned by God and accepted as righteous in his sight by faith. Abel was a sinner like his brother, because all of us who are born in the normal way are born into the world as sinners; and sinning therefore comes naturally to us. And so, all of us deserve to be condemned by God. But by faith we’re pardoned and accepted as righteous. Though we may have done everything wrong, God treats the believer as if he or she did everything right. And Abel still speaks to us today, even though he’s dead, because his story bears witness to us that what God requires of us is faith. And by faith God not only accepts us, but he accepts our worship and what we do for God.
And then the writer refers to Enoch. His name appears in Genesis 5 which is that chapter which contains the genealogy from Adam to Noah. And it’s the genealogy which contains the line ‘and then he died’ over and over and over again. So, Adam lived for so many years and he became the father of Seth; and then he died. Seth lived for so many years and he became the father of Enosh; and then he died. Enosh lived for so many years and he became the father of Kenan; and then he died. And then he died. And then he died. That’s how it is throughout the genealogy — with one exception. The one exception is Enoch. He lived for so many years and he became the father of Methuselah. And Enoch walked with God and then he was no more, because God took him away. And so, as we read in Hebrews 11, he was taken from this life so that he did not experience death. God took him away from this world and straight into heaven. And the writer tells us that before he was taken he was commended as one who pleased God. How did he please God? The author doesn’t say so directly, but he must mean that Enoch’s faith pleased God, because the writer goes on immediately in verse 6 to tell us that without faith, it’s impossible to please God.
And so, the writer turns to his readers and he turns to us and he says to us that without faith it’s impossible to please God. So, you need to believe and you need to keep believing, because anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. And, of course, the rewards he gives are not rewards we deserve or can earn, but they are the rewards he gives graciously and freely to all who trust in him and in his promises of salvation. And so, faith is absolutely necessary.
And perhaps he includes the story of Enoch because what happened to Enoch speaks to us of the hope God gives to us of everlasting life in the presence of God. For those who believe, there’s this life; and then there’s the life to come where we will live with God forever.
And finally there’s Noah. By faith Noah built an ark. God warned him that he was going to send a flood. And though there was no sign of the coming flood, Noah built the ark to save his family. His neighbours were condemned, because they did not believe, but Noah believed and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
The flood in the days of Noah foreshadowed the great and terrible day of judgment which is coming on the world when Christ the King will come to judge the living and the dead and when he will condemn the unrighteous for all they have done wrong and he’ll send them away to be punished forever. And how can we be saved from the coming condemnation and punishment? By believing as Noah did and by turning to Christ who is able to save us from the wrath and curse of God.
The point of all of this is that we need to believe and we need to keep believing. Don’t give up the faith. Don’t turn away from Christ. Don’t turn back. But keep believing. Just as God accepted Abel and his offering, so he will accept you and your worship. Just as God gave Enoch eternal life, so he will give you eternal life. Just as God saved Noah from judgment, so he will save you from the judgment to come. For those reasons, keep believing. And keep believing, because faith fills our hearts and minds with an unshakeable confidence that God’s promises are true and we will indeed receive eternal life in his presence in the new heavens and earth to come. And so, no matter what we might suffer in this life, we believe that in the end it will be worth it, because in the end we’ll live with God forever.