Because I’ve been away, it’s been a while since we were studying the book of Hebrews together. But I’m sure you’ll remember that I’ve said before that most commentators believe the book of Hebrews was written for Jewish Christians. That is, it was written for Jewish people who had been converted to faith in Christ. However, it seems these Jewish believers were being tempted because of persecution to give up their faith in Christ and to return to the old covenant religion of the Old Testament. So, they were being tempted to turn away from Christ and to turn back to the religion of the prophets and the angels and of Moses and Joshua and of earthly priests who serve in an earthly temple. And so, throughout the book, the writer has been trying to convince them that the Lord Jesus Christ is greater than the prophets and the angels and Moses and Joshua and the earthly priests in their earthly temple.
He’s greater than the prophets and angels, because he’s the Eternal Son of God in whom God has spoken his final and definitive word. And he’s greater than Moses, because Moses was a servant in God’s house, whereas the Lord Jesus is a son over God’s house. And he’s greater than Joshua, because Joshua could only lead the people into the land of Canaan to enjoy a kind of rest, whereas the Lord Jesus leads of all of God’s people into God’s eternal and never-ending rest in the new heavens and earth. And he’s better than the Levitical priests because they served in an earthly temple, whereas Christ is our great high priest who had gone on our behalf into the true, heavenly temple, where he represents us before the Father. And the Levitical priests could only ever offer animal sacrifices to God, which could never take away the sins of the people, whereas the Lord Jesus offered himself as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice to take away our sins forever. And whereas every Levitical priest died and was replaced, the Lord Jesus lives forever and he intercedes for us forever. And the Levitical priests were associated with the old covenant, which the people broke, whereas the Lord Jesus established the new covenant in his blood, a covenant in which God promises to remember our sins no more. Through the course of the book, the writer has been trying to convince his readers that the Lord Jesus is far, far greater than what they were going back to. So, why go back to the old covenant religion of the Old Testament, when what they have in Christ is so much better?
And through the course of the book, the writer has been exhorting his readers about not giving up their faith in Christ and about not going back to their old religion. So, we must pay more careful attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? Fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest we confess. We are his house — his people — if we hold on to our confidence in God’s promises and the hope of which we boast. See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. Encourage one another daily so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. Since the promise of entering God’s rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter God’s rest. Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess. Let us consider how to spur one another on towards love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, but let us encourage one another. If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment. Don’t throw away your confidence, because it will be richly rewarded.
Again and again and again he warns his readers and he exhorts them. You need to stand firm. You need to persevere. You need to keep believing. Don’t drift away. Don’t have a sinful, unbelieving heart. But keep believing God’s promises. Keeping believing in the Saviour. Don’t turn back.
And in chapter 11 he lists all these people from the Old Testament who believed God’s promises and who kept believing God’s promises. And they believed God’s promises and they kept believing God’s promises because they had a faith which was forward-looking. They had a faith that was future-oriented. As we read in verse 1, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. That is, it’s being certain of what we do not yet see, but which we will one day see. So, faith is future-oriented. It’s forward-looking. The believer with a forward-looking faith says: I don’t yet have what God has promised, but I’m going to hold on and wait for it, because I’m certain and sure that his promises are true and in the end I will receive everything he has promised.
And so, instead of focussing on present day troubles, these Old Testament believers mentioned in chapter 11 were focussed on the glory to come and on the better and lasting possessions which God promised to his people. In the first seven verses of chapter 11 the writer referred to Abel and Enoch and Noah. In today’s passage, he refers to Abraham and Sarah and to Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. And the reason he mentions these people is to say to us that we need to have a future-oriented, forward-looking faith like they did. Our life in this world is full of troubles and trials and sorrow and disappointments. And sometimes, because of our troubles, we may be tempted to give up. We may be tempted to think that life would be easier if we weren’t a Christian. We ask ourselves what good does it do us to come to church each week when we could be doing other things. But instead of focussing on our present-day troubles, we’re to focus our thoughts on what is to come. We’re to remember and believe God’s promise to us of eternal life in his presence. And so, for the joy set before us, we must endure all things now.
And so, let’s turn to today’s passage to see what we can learn about faith.
Verses 8 to 10 and 13 to 16
And he mentions Abraham. Back in Genesis 11 we read about Abraham’s father, Terah, who took Abraham and Lot and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. However, on the way, when they reached Haran, they settled down there. And it was there, in Haran, that the Lord first spoke to Abraham and God commanded him to leave his country and his people and his father’s household and to go to the land the Lord will show him. And according to the writer of Hebrews, when God called Abraham to go to the place which he could later receive, Abraham obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.
Imagine a man coming home to his wife and family and saying to them that they need to pack up everything in boxes and get ready for a journey, because they’re going to move. Everyone in the house would ask: ‘Where are we going?’ And what would they think if the man replied that he didn’t know where they were going? Before we go anywhere, we want to know where we’re going. If we’re going on holiday, we need to know what to bring with us: do I need clothes for a hot country or for a cold country? And if we’re moving house, we want to know what the new place will be like. Is there a good church in the area? What are the schools like? What shops are there? We want to know where we’re going. But when God called Abraham, he didn’t say where they were going. All God said is that he will show Abraham.
And remarkably, Abraham obeyed God. He obeyed God’s command and he went. And do you know why he obeyed God’s command? He obeyed because of his faith. As our writer tells us, by faith Abraham obeyed and went. He was willing to obey God’s command because he trusted God’s promise. God had promised to show him the land and God had promised to give him the land. God had promised and Abraham believed and therefore he obeyed and went.
And the thing is, if you remember the story of Abraham from the book of Genesis, though God led him to the Promised Land of Canaan, which God promised to give to him and his descendants, Abraham never owned any of the Promised Land apart from one field, which he bought in order to bury his wife when she died. So, throughout his life in the Promised Land of Canaan, he lived as a stranger in a foreign land, living in tents, travelling from place to place, never settling anywhere and never owning any of the land apart from that one field. And this was the case, not only for Abraham, but it was also the case for Isaac, his son and for Jacob, his grandson. Though they lived in the Promised Land of Canaan, they did not take possession of the Promised Land.
Now eventually — in the days of Joshua — Abraham’s descendants would take possession of the Promised Land of Canaan. And they would build homes there and cities and they would plant the fields. But Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were only ever strangers in the Promised Land.
But it’s not as if Abraham was disappointed, because according to verse 10 Abraham’s faith was forward-looking. He was looking forward to something better than the Promised Land of Canaan. In fact, he was looking forward to something beyond this world. You see, by faith Abraham looked beyond the Promised Land of Canaan to the Promised Land of Eternal Life in the presence of God. And so, according to verse 10, Abraham was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. In other words, he was looking forward to the new Jerusalem in the new heavens and earth, designed and built by God. When the writer mentions the city’s foundations, he’s making the point that this city will last. It’s unshakable. It will never collapse or fall. It’s permanent. That’s what Abraham was looking forward to.
And jump down to verse 13 now where the writer says that all these people — and he’s referring to Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob — were still living by faith when they died. They were living by faith because they hadn’t received what God had promised them. What had God promised them? He had promised them eternal life in the Promised Land to come. He had promised them eternal life in the new heavens and earth. And so, according to verse 13, while they went on living on the earth, they regarded themselves as aliens and strangers on earth. Though they lived in the world, they did not regard this world as their home. Their true home was in the life to come with God. And so, the whole time Abraham and his descendants were living in tents in the Promised Land of Canaan, he was longing for something better than Canaan. He has longing for a better land. He was longing for a better country. He was longing for a heavenly country, the new heavens and earth, where all of God’s people will live in the presence of God forever. And our writer tells us that God was not ashamed to be called their God, because God has prepared a city for them.
Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not yet see. By faith Abraham was hoping for eternal life in the new Jerusalem to come in the new heavens and earth. By faith he was certain that he would see that better country one day. He had a faith which was future-oriented and forward-looking.
And the author of Hebrews is saying to us that we must have the same kind of faith. In this world we will have troubles and trials and sorrow and disappointments. But we’re able to look beyond this world to the life to come which God has prepared for us and which Christ has won for us by his death and resurrection. So, by dying on the cross, Christ has paid for our sins with his life so that all who believe in him receive peace with God forever. And then, after Christ died, he was raised from the dead. And he gives the hope of eternal life to all who trust in him so that after our life in this world is over, we will live with God forever in the world to come.
And we need a future-oriented faith, a forward-looking faith, because this world is not our true home. For those who don’t believe, this world is all that there is, because they don’t believe in God and they don’t believe in the life to come. And since they think this world and this life is all there is, then they have to make the best of it. And so, they expend as much money and effort as they can to try to make their life in this world as perfect as possible. But they’re continually disappointed and frustrated, because God never intended this world to be our true home; and he always intended to give us eternal life in his presence. Wasn’t that the point of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden? It signified God’s promise of eternal life in his presence. And so, God never intended this world to be our true home. And even on those rare occasions when we get what we want in this world, it’s never enough, is it? Someone gets what they want. They climb that mountain. They win that trophy. They gain that promotion. They buy that house. They visit that country. They get what they want; and then they ask themselves, ‘What now?’ And so, we need a future-oriented faith, a forward-looking faith, which is able to look beyond this world to the world to come and to the perfect life to come in the presence of God where all of God’s people will enjoy perfect peace and rest.
This is the faith Isaac had when he blessed his sons in regard to their future. This is the faith Jacob had, when he blessed Joseph’s sons in regard to their future. This is the faith Joseph had, when he spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave them instructions about the burial of his bones. He wanted his bones returned to the land of Canaan, because the land of Canaan signified the eternal rest which God promises to give to all of his people in the new heavens and earth.
Verses 11 and 12 and 17 and 19
And so, we all need a future-oriented faith, a forward-looking faith, which looks beyond this world to the better world to come.
Well, so far I haven’t said anything about verses 11 and 12 and verses 17 to 19. What do those verses teach us? They teach us that we’re to keep believing through testing times.
So, God not only promised Abraham life in the Promised Land, but he also promised that he would have many descendants. But do you remember the problem? Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless and the years were passing and they were getting old. In fact, they were well past the age when people normally have children. Nevertheless one day the Lord visited them and revealed to them that they would have a child in a year’s time. And Sarah, who was past the age for childbearing, laughed. It seemed too good to be true.
But what does our writer say in verse 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. So, he regarded God as faithful. He knew he could trust God to do what seemed impossible. And so, though Abraham was old and worn out, and his wife was old and worn out, and though it must have seemed impossible, nevertheless Abraham believed what God said. And in due course, Sarah gave birth to Isaac.
And so, from this one man, Abraham, — who was as good as dead because he was so old — came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore, because from Abraham there came Isaac and from Isaac there came Jacob. And Jacob was the father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And the people of Israel multiplied greatly during their time in Egypt and beyond.
Jump down now to verses 17 to 19, because the writer now refers to the time when God tested Abraham. Now Abraham was tested many times, but this trial exceeded the other ones. So, do you remember the story from Genesis 22? Isaac was Abraham’s beloved son. And yet one day the Lord commanded Abraham to take his son, his only son, his beloved son, and go to the region of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering. And in Genesis 22 we read how Abraham got up early the next morning and saddled his donkey and set off with his beloved son and two of his servants. And when he saw the mountain where he was to sacrifice his son to God, he left the servants and went on with his son. And his parting words to the servants were these: ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.’ He said: We will come back to you. Those words are significant because they make clear Abraham’s faith. Though God had commanded him to sacrifice his son, he believed that he and his son would return to the servants. And he believed that he and his son would return to the servants, because hadn’t God promised that his offspring would be reckoned through Isaac? In other words, hadn’t God promised that Abraham would have many descendants through Isaac? And since God had promised that Abraham would have many descendants through Isaac, then it seemed to Abraham that God must intend to raise Isaac from the dead. And our writer tells us that figuratively speaking he did receive Isaac back from the dead, because Isaac was as good as dead when Abraham placed the boy on the altar and raised the knife ready to kill him. But God stopped him just in time and provided a ram for the sacrifice.
And the reason the writer reminds of us these two stories from the life of Abraham is to teach us that we’re to keep believing through testing times.
As the years went by, and as Abraham and Sarah grew older, it must have been hard for them to keep believing. In fact, we know that at one point their faith seemed to wobble when Abraham slept with Hagar in order to have a descendant through her. But God made clear that no, the promised child would come from Sarah and not from Hagar. And so, the Lord encouraged them to keep believing. And then, once Isaac was born, God tested Abraham with a test which far exceeded everything else when he asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son.
So, it wasn’t ever easy for Abraham to keep believing. And it wasn’t easy for the Christians who first read this letter, because they were going through testing times. We were told in chapter 10 that they had been insulted and persecuted for their faith. Some of them had been imprisoned. Some of them had lost their property. It must have seemed the world had turned against them because of their faith in Christ. And so, they were going through testing times, difficult times. And they were being tempted to give up their faith in Christ and to let go of God’s promises.
And believers in every generation go through testing times, because this life is full of sorrow and trouble; and believers are often mocked and insulted and oppressed and persecuted by those who do not believe. And so, we go through testing times; and we’re tempted to think that life would be so much easier if we did not believe. No one would laugh at us then. No one would mock us. No one would think we’re strange. No one would oppose us. Life would be easier without Christ. That’s what we’re tempted to believe whenever we go through testing and trying times. And the life to come seems so far away and what we want is relief now. What we want is an easy life now.
And so the writer to the Hebrews reminds us of Abraham who had to wait a long time before Isaac was born. And once Isaac was born, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice him. Trusting in God was not easy. It was hard for Abraham. But here’s the thing: Abraham continued to believe; and, in the end, all of God’s promises came true, because didn’t Abraham end up with many, many descendants so that they were like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, too many to count? And didn’t Abraham’s descendants end up living in the Promised Land of Canaan? And more than that, where is Abraham now? Where is Abraham now? He’s in heaven with God his Saviour. And when Christ comes again to make all things new, Abraham and all who share his faith will live with God forever in the city with foundations, and in the better, heavenly country, in the new heavens and earth where there is perfect peace and rest for all who believed and who continued to believe.
And so, when you go through testing times, you’re to look by faith to the life to come and remind yourself of the perfect peace and rest which God has promised to give to all of his people. And so, for the joy set before you — the joy of being with God forever — you’re to endure all things now and you’re to keep believing.