This is our third week studying Hebrews 11, where the author reminds us of all these people from the Old Testament, beginning with Abel and going on from him to mention Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and on and on through the Old Testament. What did these people have in common? After all, they were very different from one another. I’m sure Rahab the prostitute was very different from Moses. And Gideon was very different from David, wasn’t he? Think of David’s willingness to go and fight Goliath compared to Gideon’s initial reluctance to fight the Midianites. These people were very different from one another. And they lived at different times. But they had this one thing in common: they were all believers. By faith Abel did this. By faith Enoch did this. By faith Noah…. By faith Abraham…. By faith Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and on and on through the chapter. That’s the one thing these people had in common. And what is faith? The author told us in verse 1. Now, you might recall that I said that what he gives us in verse 1 is not a dictionary definition of faith. He’s not trying to sum up the nature of faith in a nutshell, because faith includes more than what he says about it in verse 1. But the writer is focusing in verse 1 on just one part of what faith is. And therefore he tells us that faith is being sure of what we hope for and it’s being certain of what we do not see. And that’s what these people had in common. They were all sure that they would one day receive what they were hoping for. And they were all certain that they would one say see what they could not see during their life on earth.
What were they hoping for and what did they longing to see? They hoped to see and to enjoy eternal life in God’s glorious presence. Isn’t that what we learned last week by what the writer said about Abraham? God told Abraham to leave his country and his people and his father’s household and to go to the land the Lord will show him. And the Lord brought him to the Promised Land of Canaan and promised that he would give the land of Canaan to Abraham and to his descendants. But even as Abraham lived in that land, he was looking beyond the Promised Land of Canaan to the Promised Land to come. He was looking beyond this world to the world to come. He was hoping for eternal life in the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. He was longing for a heavenly country in the new heavens and earth where Abraham and all who share his faith will live with God forever.
And the point the author is making is that we all need the same kind of forward-looking faith. The author was writing to Jewish Christians who were suffering for the faith. They had been exposed to insult and persecution. Some had been imprisoned and others had had their property confiscated. They were suffering for the faith and some of them were being tempted to give up their faith in Christ. And the writer has been exhorting them to look beyond this world with all its troubles and to look by faith to the world to come and to everlasting life in the presence of God. So, for the joy set before you in the new heavens and earth, endure all things now, because though it’s hard now, in the end it will all be worth it, because in the end you’ll be with God forever. And so, instead of fixing their eyes on present-day troubles, they needed to have a forward-looking faith, a future-oriented faith, and to keep in mind what God has in store for them in the future. And we need to do the same, because our life in this world is full of sorrow and suffering. But instead of fixing our eyes on our present trials, we’re to look beyond this world to the world to come.
Verses 23 to 28
Today’s passage begins with Moses. In fact, it begins with Moses’s parents and the faith they demonstrated whenever they took their infant son and hid him. I’m sure you remember the story. God’s people were living as slaves in the land of Egypt. The Pharaoh was afraid of them because they had become such a numerous people and he was worried they might join their enemies and fight against them. And so, to reduce their numbers, the Pharaoh gave orders that every Jewish baby boy who was born must be killed. But when Moses was born, his mother took a basket and covered it with tar and pitch so that it was water-tight; and she placed her baby in the basket and put it among the reeds along the bank of the River Nile.
The writer of Hebrews tells us Moses’s parents did this because they saw he was no ordinary child. A more accurate translation is that they saw that their child was beautiful. Now, I suppose that all parents believe that their child is beautiful. And so, I think the NIV paraphrase is probably helpful, because the writer is perhaps telling us not that Moses’s parents thought their baby was beautiful, but that they discerned by faith that their child was beautiful in God’s sight and that God had chosen him for a special purpose. And so, they disregarded the king’s edict and they hid their child to keep him safe.
And so, the author is reminding believers in every generation that we must not be afraid of the king’s edict. So, whenever a government passes a law which makes life hard for the Lord’s people, the Lord’s people mustn’t be afraid, but they must continue to trust their God who rules and reigns from heaven over all that he has made. And despite what earthly rulers might decree, God’s plans for the world and for his people cannot be thwarted.
If you recall the story of Moses, you’ll remember that the Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses and felt sorry for him. And so, she adopted him as her own son and he grew up in the king’s palace. But according to our writer, when Moses had grown up, he refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Instead he chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. The writer is referring to that time in Moses’s life when he went out one day from the palace to watch his own people at their hard labour. And what a fateful day it turned out to be, because on that day Moses saw an Egyptian, beating one of the Jews. In fact, the Egyptian was killing the Jew. And Moses stepped in and killed the Egyptian in order to rescue the Jew. And when the Pharaoh found out what Moses had done, and how he had sided with the Jews, Pharaoh tried to kill Moses. And so, Moses had to flee from the palace and from the land of Egypt; and for the next forty years he lived in the land of Midian where he minded his father-in-law’s sheep.
Now, on that fateful day, Moses could have walked away whenever he saw the Egyptian beating the Jew. He could have walked away and done nothing to help. And he could have remained in the Pharaoh’s palace, living as a prince, living in luxury, enjoying the pleasures of sin. Isn’t that an interesting expression? The author is acknowledging that sin can bring pleasure. Yes, sin also brings sorrow and sadness and it leads ultimately to condemnation and eternal punishment. But it can also, for a little while, bring pleasure to those who indulge in it. And no doubt the people who lived in the king’s palace in Egypt could do whatever they liked and they could indulge their every sinful desire. But by faith Moses walked away from all of that and instead of enjoying the pleasures of sin for a short time, and instead of holding on to the treasures of Egypt, he was prepared to suffer disgrace for the sake of Christ. That is to say, he was prepared to suffer disgrace by identifying himself with the people of Christ. So, instead of identifying himself with the Egyptians, he was prepared to identify himself with God’s people. And he was willing to suffer disgrace in this way, because, like Abraham, he was looking beyond this world to something better. He was looking beyond this world and everything this world has to offer to his reward. What is his reward? It’s eternal life in the presence of God. This is not a reward we deserve or can earn, but it’s the reward which God graciously and freely gives to his believing people. And in the presence of God, there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. Not sinful pleasures for a short time, but holy pleasures forever.
And then the writer tells us that by faith Moses left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger. It’s not clear whether the writer is referring to the time after Moses killed the Egyptian and when he went to live in Midian; or whether he’s referring to the exodus when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Probably it refers to the time when he went to live in Midian. Though the king wanted to kill him, Moses was not afraid, because he saw him who is invisible. So, instead of focussing on the Pharaoh, who was visible to the eye, he fixed his eyes on God who is invisible. In other words, he looked with faith to God.
And then by faith Moses kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood. God commanded the Israelites through Moses to sprinkle the doorposts of their houses with the blood of a lamb, because that night the Lord was going to strike down the firstborn son in every home in Egypt. However he also promised to pass over those homes where there was blood on the doorposts. And by faith Moses and the Israelites obeyed; and their sons were spared whereas the sons of all the Egyptians were killed.
So, instead of fearing the king’s edict, Moses’s parents trusted the Lord. Instead of fearing the Pharaoh’s anger, Moses trusted the Lord. Instead of fearing the destroyer of the firstborn, Moses trusted the Lord. And what did they trust the Lord to do? Presumably they trusted the Lord to keep them safe. So, Moses’s parents trusted the Lord to keep their baby safe. Moses’s trusted the Lord to keep him safe from Pharaoh. Moses and the people trusted the Lord to pass over their homes and to spare their sons. However, as well as trusting the Lord to keep them safe, the focus of verse 26 is on the world to come and it’s on trusting God for an eternal reward. So, this life is full of sorrow and suffering and trials and troubles. But by faith we can look beyond this world to the joy which God has prepared for all his believing people in the life to come. And so, since he has promised everlasting joy for us, we must continue to trust in Christ our Saviour who died to bring us to God. And we must endure all things, because the troubles and trials of this life are like the pleasures of sin in that they are only for a short time, whereas the joy to come is forever.
Verses 29 to 31
But let’s move on, because the writer goes on in verse 29 to refer to the time when Moses and the Israelites had to cross the Red Sea. So, the Pharaoh had let the people go and they began to make their way to the Promised Land of Canaan. But then the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his men to re-capture them. And it seemed the Israelites could not escape, because the Red Sea was in front of them, blocking their way. But the Lord opened a way for them through the sea. And so, by faith they passed through the sea, whereas their enemies, who did not believe, were drowned.
And then the writer jumps forward 40 years to the time after they crossed the River Jordan and came to the city of Jericho. How could the Israelites hope to defeat the people of Jericho when the city was surrounded with a strong wall? The Lord commanded his people to march round the walls of the city for six days. And the people did as God commanded, because they trusted him. And sure enough, on the sixth day, the Lord made the walls of the city fall down.
And in verse 31 the writer mentions Rahab the prostitute. Do you remember Rahab? She was one of the citizens of Jericho, but she welcomed the Israelite spies who came to spy out the city. And she welcomed them and helped them because by faith she believed that God would help the Israelites take the city. And so, because she believed, she was spared when the rest of the people in Jericho were killed.
So, there was no need for the Israelites to be frightened when they saw the Red Sea blocking their way and the Egyptians coming after them. There was no need to be afraid, because they could trust the Lord who had promised to give them the Promised Land. And there was no need for the Israelites to worry when they saw the size of the walls of Jericho. There was no need for them to worry, because they could trust the Lord who had promised to give them the Promised Land. And Rahab did not need to fear when the walls of the city collapsed. She did not need to fear, because she too had come to trust the Lord who had promised to give his believing people the Promised Land.
The people trusted God to keep his promise to give them the Promised Land. And therefore there was no need for them to be afraid when obstacles and enemies stood in their way. And the Lord has promised us eternal life in the Promised Land to come. And therefore there is no need for us to be afraid when obstacles and enemies stand in our way, because we can trust in him to do all that he has promised and to give us eternal life in his glorious presence.
Verses 32 to 38
And then the author seems to speed up, doesn’t he? He speeds us and rattles through a number of names without pausing to tell us anything about these people. He says to us: I don’t have time to tell you about these people. I don’t have time, but you know these people, don’t you? You know these people and how they demonstrated their faith by the things they did.
And so, he mentions Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah. We read about them in the book of Judges. So, Gideon was the one who defeated the Midianites with only 300 men. God commanded Barak through the prophetess Deborah to attack their enemies, because he — the Lord — will give their enemies into his hands. Barak said he would not go up and attack them unless Deborah went with him. And with the Lord’s help, they killed their enemies. Samsom is famous for his long hair and great strength and he was able to save God’s people from the Philistines. And Jephthah led God’s people in victory over the Ammonites.
Now, these men were not perfect. In fact, they were far from being perfect. So, Gideon doubted God’s word when he first heard it. Barak refused to go into battle unless Deborah came with him. Samson spent a number of nights with Delilah, ho was a prostitute. And Jephthah is famous for making a foolish vow which led to the death of his daughter. And yet, despite their sins and shortcomings, these men are included here because they trusted the Lord who had promised to take the Promised Land from their enemies and to give it to the Israelites. And so, they trusted God to help them defeat their enemies so they could live in the land in peace. And God has promised to give us perfect peace and rest in the Promised Land to come. And therefore we can look beyond the trials and tribulations of this life to the life to come and to the perfect peace which God has prepared for us.
And then the writer mentions David and Samuel and the prophets. David, of course, was Israel’s greatest king. And like the others, he was a great sinner, because he is known for committing adultery with Bathsheba and for arranging the death of her husband. But David’s also known for his faith in God, because didn’t he trust God to help him defeat Goliath? And didn’t he continue to trust God when Saul was plotting to kill him? And with God’s help didn’t he defeat all his enemies and bring peace to Israel?
And Samuel and the prophets demonstrated their faith every time they declared the word of the Lord, because they believed they had been called by God and that God has sent them to proclaim his word to his people and to make clear to them his will.
The writer mentions these Old Testament saints and he says about them in verse 33 that through faith they conquered kingdoms and they administered justice and gained what was promised. And they gained what was promised, because God had promised them victory over their enemies and life in the Promised Land of Canaan.
And then the writer speeds up again, because from verse 34 he doesn’t even mention any names, but he refers to what people did. So, he mentions those who shut the mouths of lions. Presumably he has Daniel in mind who was thrown to the lions, but kept safe through the night. He presumably has Daniel’s three friends in mind when he refers to those who quenched the fury of the flames, because they were kept safe when thrown into the fiery furnace. Then he says there were those who escaped the edge of the sword and whose weakness was turned to strength and who became powerful in battle. In fact, the whole of the Old Testament is filled with stories of God’s people who appeared weak in the eyes of the world, but the Lord gave them the strength they needed to overcome their enemies. When he refers in verse 35 to women who received back their dead, he could be thinking of the time when Elijah brought back to life the son of the widow of Zarepthath and to the time when Elisha brought back to life the son of the Shuanammite woman.
Now, up until this point, the writer refers to people who trusted in God and who were rescued. And so, these people enjoyed great victories because they trusted in the Lord. Daniel was thrown into the den of lions and was kept safe. His three friends were thrown into the fiery furnance and were kept safe. Others were saved from the sword. God made others strong. Dead sons were brought back to life. It’s all wonderful. But in the following verses, he refers to those who trusted and yet who still suffered. So, others who believed were tortured. Others who believed faced jeers and flogging. Others who believed were put in chains and imprisoned. Others who believed were stoned, while others were sawn in two and put to death by the sword. We know from 2 Chronicles 24 that Zechariah the priest was stoned to death. And according to tradition, Jeremiah was also stoned to death and Isaiah was sawn in two. Then the writer refers to those who, despite believing, went about in sheepskins and goatskins and who were destitute and persecuted and ill-treated. And so, exiled from their homes, they wandered in deserts and mountains and they lived in caves and holes in the ground.
In other words, while some believed and were saved, others believed and were not. Some believed and the Lord rescued them, while others believed and suffered trials and tribulations. Some believed and enjoyed great success, because the Lord helped them. But others believed and their life was hard and difficult and it was full of troubles.
And the lesson here is that the life of one believer can be very different from the life of another believer. So, some believers almost sail through life and it seems that everything goes their way and they’re successful and their lives are full of joy. And even when troubles come, they don’t last long. But then, the lives of other believers are full of troubles and trials. They often have the words of Psalm 13 on their lips and they cry: ‘How long, O Lord? How long must I go through this?’ And we look at their lives and we wonder at how they can cope, because it seems to be one thing after another. Or some believers are wealthy and live in luxury, whereas other believers are poor and they have next to nothing.
The experiences of believers in this world vary. And it’s not because one person’s faith is greater than another person’s. The difference in our experience is due to the providence of God and to the plans he has for each one of us. But those who sail through life and who live in luxury need to remember that none of it will last. And those who suffer troubles and trials and who have next to nothing need to remember that none of it will last. None of what we experience in this life will last, because this world is destined to perish; and believers are to set their hope on the things to come. We’re to look beyond this world and we’re to look beyond its joys and its sorrows and we’re to look by faith to the life to come, where all of God’s people will come into the presence of God where there is joy forevermore.
Verses 39 and 40
And right at the end of the chapter, the writer says that all these people he has mentioned were commended for their faith. That’s the one thing they all had in common. All of these different people — who did different things and who experienced different things — had this one thing in common: they were all believers. They all possessed faith in God and in his promises.
Yet — our writer says — none of them received what had been promised. Now, back in verse 33 he said about some of them that they ‘gained what was promised’. But, of course, he means that, while they may have received the things God promised them in this life, such as life in the land of Canaan, nevertheless none of them received the main thing which God had promised them which is eternal life in the presence of God in the new heavens and earth. They have to wait for that.
And, according to verse 40, the reason they had to wait for it is because God had planned something better for us. And he means that, compared to those Old Testament saints, we have a better High Priest, because Christ is our High Priest; and we have a better sacrifice, because Christ offered himself as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins; and we have a better covenant, because God has promised to remember our sins no more. And so, since those Old Testament saints kept believing, even though they did not have what we have, then how much more should we keep believing.
And so, for the joy set before us in the presence of God in the new heavens and earth, we must endure all things now and keep believing.