STUDIES IN HEBREWS

© Rosemary Bardsley, 2002

STUDY NINE: A CHAPTER ABOUT FAITH

Having confronted us with so many warnings to persist in faith, the writer now gives us a whole chapter devoted to defining, describing and demonstrating true faith.

Why does he do this?

  1. Because he has been encouraging them not to give up on their faith in Jesus Christ.
  2. Because he is confident that they do indeed have genuine faith.
  3. Because he wants them to realise that having faith does not mean either the absence of present hardship and suffering, or the presence of perfect, present realisation of the promises.

Because of this he points out that faith is 'being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see' then he goes on with a great list of former genuine believers who believed where and what they could not see, and looked forward to the (as yet unseen) fulfilment of their faith. He says that this kind of faith 'is what the ancients were commended for' (11.2).

By this kind of reasoning he aims to confirm and encourage his readers in their faith.

A. FAITH DEFINED AND FAITH DESCRIBED

[1] Hebrews 11:1 in various translations:

'Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see' (NIV).

'Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen' (KJV).

'To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see' (GNB).

'And what is faith? Faith gives substance (or assurance) to our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see' (NEB).

'Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see' (PHILLIPS).

'The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see' (THE MESSAGE).

Literally: 'but faith is, of the things being hoped for, substance (or essence); proof of things not being seen.'

[2] Definitions and descriptions from church history:

Martin Luther:

'I believe that not of my own reason and power do I believe in my Lord or am able to come to Him.'

Unidentified source.

'Instead, faith is God's work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn't stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. He stumbles around and looks for faith and good works, even though he does not know what faith or good works are. Yet he gossips and chatters about faith and good works with many words.

'Faith is a living, bold trust in God's grace, so certain of God's favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire! Therefore, watch out for your own false ideas and guard against good-for-nothing gossips, who think they're smart enough to define faith and works, but really are the greatest of fools. Ask God to work faith in you, or you will remain forever without faith, no matter what you wish, say or can do.'

Martin Luther on 'Galatians 3:1-14'

John Calvin:

'Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.'

'Thus, faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when his truth shall be manifested; faith believes that he is our Father, hope anticipates that he will ever show himself to be a Father toward us; faith believes that eternal life has been given to us, hope anticipates that it will some time be revealed; faith is the foundation upon which hope rests, hope nourishes and sustains faith.'

'Institutes of the Christian Religion' III.II.7, 42.

Heidelberg Catechism:

'Q.21 What is true faith?

A. It is not only a certain knowledge by which I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word, but also a wholehearted trust which the Holy spirit creates in me through the gospel, that, not only to others, but to me also God has given the forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, out of sheer grace solely for the sake of Christ's saving work.'

The Westminster Confession of Faith:

'By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word for the authority of God himself speaketh therin ... the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.'

Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 14.

Karl Barth:

'Christian faith is the gift of the meeting in which men become free to hear the word of grace which God has spoken in Jesus Christ in such a way that, in spite of all that contradicts it, they may once for all, exclusively and entirely, hold to His promise and guidance.'

' ... by my believing I see myself completely filled and determined by this object of my faith. And what interests me is not myself with my faith, but He in whom I believe.'

'Faith means trust. Trust is the act in which a man may rely on the faithfulness of Another, that His promise holds and that what He demands He demands of necessity. 'I believe' means 'I trust'. No more must I dream of trusting in myself, I no longer require to justify myself, to excuse myself, to attempt to save and preserve myself. This most profound effort of man to trust to himself, to see himself as in the right, has become pointless. I believe - not in myself- I believe in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.'

'In God alone is there faithfulness, and faith is the trust that we may hold to Him, to His promise and to His guidance. To hold to God is to rely on the fact that God is there for me, and to live in this certainty. This is the promise God gives us: I am there for you. But this promise at once means guidance too. I am not left to my waywardness and my own ideas; but I have His commandment, to which I may hold in everything, in my entire earthly existence.'

'And faith is concerned with a decision once for all. Faith is not an opinion replaceable by another opinion. A temporary believer does not know what faith is. Faith means a final relationship. Faith is concerned with God, with what He has done for us once for all. That does not exclude the fact that there are fluctuations in faith. But seen with regard to its object, faith is a final thing. A man who believes once believes once for all.'

' ... faith is concerned with our holding to God exclusively, because God is the One who is faithful.'

'Christian faith is the illumination of the reason in which men become free to live in the truth of Jesus Christ and thereby to become sure also of the meaning of their own existence and of the ground and goal of all that happens.'

'Dogmatics in Outline' pp 15, 16, 18-21.

B. FAITH BELIEVES THAT GOD IS THE CREATOR OF ALL THAT EXISTS

'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' (11.3).

Before introducing individual believers, the writer makes a statement about faith in God as Creator. He does this to draw attention to the fact that the 'seen' was brought into being by God from 'the unseen'. This parallels the faith he is encouraging them to hold fast: the things faith believes in, that is the 'unseen', under God's hand, and at his word, will one day be 'seen'. The insubstantial will be given substance. God who made the entire universe out of nothing by the power of his word, is well able to consummate the promises in which they believe.

Some Scriptures to study : Genesis 1 & 2; Psalm 33:6,9; Psalm 148:5; John 1:1-4; Hebrews 1:3; 2 Peter 3:5; Revelation 4:11.

Below are some statements about creation:

Schaeffer:

'Because he is infinite, he created originally out of nothing - ex nihilo. There was no mass, no energy particles, before he created. We work through the manifestation of our fingers. He, in contrast, created merely, as it says in the passage we have just quoted from Hebrews, by his word. Here is power beyond all that we can imagine in the human, finite realm. He was able to create and shape merely by his spoken word.

' ... the primal creation goes back beyond the basic material or energy. We have a new thing created by God out of nothing by fiat, and this is the distinction.

'It is either not knowing or denying the createdness of things that is at the root of the blackness of modern man's difficulties. Give up creation as space-time, historic reality, and all that is left is what Simone Weil called uncreatedness. It is not that something does not exist, but that it just stands there, autonomous to itself, without solutions and without answers. Once one removes the createdness of all things, meaning and categories can only be some sort of leap, with or without drugs, into an irrational world. Modern man's blackness, therefore, rests primarily upon his losing the reality of the createdness of all things (all things except the personal God who always has been).

' but because I and all Christians know truly, even though not exhaustively, "why" something is there, why the world has form and men have mannishness, I can meet a Simone Weil or a modern man in despair and we can talk. There is a discussible answer as to why things are the way they are, and this is the framework for my thankfulness, as it should be for every Christian. Unless we reach back into the things that we have discussed here, even thankfulness for salvation becomes meaningless, because it is suspended in a vacuum. '

Genesis in Space and Time, Chapter 1.

Barth:

' ...we are not confronted by a realm which in any sense may be accessible to human view or even to human thought '

'Knowledge of creation is knowledge of God and consequently knowledge of faith in the deepest and ultimate sense. ... But always, when man has tried to read the truth from sun, moon and stars or from himself, the result has been an idol. But when God has been known and then known again in the world, so that the result was a joyful praise of God in creation, that is because He is to be sought and found by us in Jesus Christ. By becoming man in Jesus Christ, the fact has also become plain and credible that God is the Creator of the world.

'The ground of creation is God's grace,

'Creation is grace: a statement at which we should like best to pause in reverence, fear and gratitude. God does not grudge the existence of the reality distinct from Himself; He does not grudge it its own reality, nature and freedom. The existence of the creature alongside God is the great puzzle and miracle, the great question to which we must and may give an answer, the answer given us through God's Word; it is the genuine question about existence, which is essentially and fundamentally distinguished from the question which rests upon error, 'Is there a God?' That there is a world is the most unheard-of thing, the miracle of the grace of God. .... We exist and heaven and earth exist ... because God gives them existence.

'The creature is threatened by the possibility of nothingness and of destruction, which is excluded by God - and only by God. If a creature exists, it is only maintained in its mode of existence if God so wills. If He did not so will, nothingness would inevitably break in from all sides. The creature itself could not rescue and preserve itself.

'God's Word is the power of all creaturely being. God creates, rules and sustains it as the theatre of His glory.

'The world came into being, it was created and sustained by the little child that was born in Bethlehem, by the Man who died on the Cross of Golgotha, and the third day rose again. That is the word of creation, by which all things were brought into being. That is where the meaning of creation comes from ...'

'Dogmatics in Outline' pp 51-18

C. EXAMPLES OF FAITH FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT

[1] 'By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead' (11:4).

Study these Scriptures: Genesis 4:3ff; Matthew 23:35; 1 John 3:12; Hebrews 10:38; Proverbs 15:8.

The decisive thing about Abel and his offering was that Abel had genuine faith, and his offering was presented to God on the basis of that genuine faith. We know from several parts of Scripture that faith is counted by God as righteousness.

Study: Genesis 15:6; Romans 1:17; 4:3,6; Galatians 3:6-9; James 2:23.

For deeper thought: Some people teach that Abel's sacrifice was accepted because it was a blood offering; this is not stated in the Scriptures, in fact the Genesis 4 passage records that if Cain had done what is right his offering (which was a vegetable offering) would have been accepted. To reason that 'without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin' is beside the point for there is no indication that the brothers were presenting sin offerings. There are provisions in Leviticus for a variety of non-meat offerings (Leviticus 2:1,4,11,14; 6:14; 7:12; 23:10, 16), and even in respect to sin offerings, a poor person was able to present a flour offering as a sin offering, instead of sacrificing an animal (Leviticus 5:11-13).

As these studies in Hebrews has pointed out, the sacrifices of the old covenant were mere shadows and copies of the one real sacrifice - Jesus Christ. All of them take their meaning from this one final sacrifice; hence, God is not contradicting himself when he states 'without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin' and then allowing a flour offering for sin; that flour offering also took its significance from the shed blood of Jesus Christ. (We might here ponder the fact that in the remembrance of the Lord's death in Holy Communion he instructed us to use bread as the symbol for his body, not meat.).

[2] '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. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because any who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him' (11:5,6). These verses refer to Genesis 5:18-24 and confirm that it was faith that made Enoch pleasing to God: if he pleased God, then he must have had faith, because without faith it is impossible to please God. This also confirms the reason for God's acceptance of Abel and his offering. Romans 14:23 tells us clearly that 'everything that does not come from faith is sin'.

[3] 'By faith Noah ...' (11:7): The history of Noah is recorded in Genesis 6-9, and referred to in Ezekiel 14:16,20; Matthew 24:37; 1 Peter 3:20 and 2 Peter 2:5. Here we see a remarkable example of persistent faith in the absence of any visible evidence. All that Noah had was the word of God. For 120 years he built the ark. For 120 years he proclaimed the coming judgement. For 120 years he endured the scorn of his fellow man. It would also appear (because Ezekiel links him with Daniel and Job) that for 120 years he interceded with God on behalf of the people. For 120 years he kept on believing in the midst of a totally unbelieving generation.

[4] 'By faith Abraham ...' 11:8-12: Three expressions of Abraham's faith are given: (1) in his leaving his original place because of God's word, not knowing where he was going; (2) in that he lived in tents, not making a permanent dwelling because he knew from God's word that there was something better in store for him; and (3) in trusting the promise of God that he would have a son, according to God's word of promise, even though he and Sarah were physically incapable. We know from several places in the Bible that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness, and that it is this kind of faith that God is looking for, and that it is this kind of faith that God will always credit as righteousness.

Study these Scriptures: Genesis 15:6; Romans 4; Galatians 3; James 2:14-24. While it the unquestionable affirmation of Scripture that we are saved by faith, not by works, James points out the essential union between faith and works: that the faith that saves, the faith that justifies, is far beyond a mere verbal or mental assent; it is rather a faith that works. In the case of Abraham, his faith was expressed and validated as genuine faith by his actions. Without the accompanying actions any claim to faith and any statement of faith is not valid. Study also in this regard the sayings of Jesus in Matthew 7:21-27 and John 8:30-31.

[5]: 'All these people ...' (11:13-16):

  • were still living by faith when they died
  • did not receive the things promised
  • only saw them ... from a distance
  • were aliens and strangers on earth
  • were looking and longing for a better country - a heavenly one
  • God has prepared a city for them.

In seeking to encourage the Hebrew believers to persevere in their faith the writer interrupts his listing of heroes of faith to push home a few facts: that these people kept on believing in the absence of any physical validation of their faith; that these people knew that the real meaning of the promises of God was spiritual, not physical; and that these people did not look back to what they had before they embraced the promises of God. They knew that what God had promised, what they had believed, was better than all they had left behind.

[6] Abraham (11:17-19): The writer returns to Abraham to give what might be the ultimate example of human faith: Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, through whom all the promises of God to him, to his descendants, and to all the nations of the world, were to be fulfilled. Human reason, quite apart from parental love, would here rebel passionately against God's command. No, Lord. I can't do this. Is this not the son you have given? Is this not the only one through whom all your promises are to be fulfilled? Is not he the one I believed you would give and you gave? There is no sense, no reason, to now kill him as a sacrifice!

But faith does not ask to see; faith does not seek a reason. Faith believes, and believing, faith acts. By faith Abraham raised the dagger. Knowing that God could raise the dead.

For study: Read Genesis 22:1-18.

[7] Further examples of faith from Israel's history (11:20-40): The writer proceeds to list name after name from the history of Israel - Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses' parents, Moses, Rahab, Dideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel, along with reference to unnamed others. It is an interesting record, putting together a diverse and sometimes surprising list of people, some of whom we might have chosen not to include. Of particular interest in the writer's purpose of encouraging his readers to persevere in faith we can identify the following points:

  • The ultimate focus of faith is Jesus Christ. This is clearly stated in reference to Moses who 'regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt' (11:26).
  • This focus on Christ is the unspoken meaning behind '... none of them received what had been promised' (11:39). (Some did receive 'what was promised' (33), but none received the promise, which has its fulfilment only in Christ and his eternal kingdom. The writer goes on to say 'God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect' (11:40).

F.F.Bruce comments:

'They lived and died in prospect of a fulfilment which none of them experienced on earth; yet so real was that fulfilment to them that it gave them power to press upstream, against the current of their environment, and to live on earth as citizens of that commonwealth whose foundations are firmly laid in the unseen and eternal order. Their record is on high, and on earth as well, for the instruction and encouragement of men and women of later days'.

'But now the promise has been fulfilled; the age of the new covenant has dawned; the Christ to whose day they looked forward has come and by His self-offering and His high-priestly ministry in the presence of God He has procured perfection for them - and for us. "With us in mind, God has made a better plan, that only in company with us should they reach their perfection" (NEB). They and we together now enjoy unrestricted access to God through Christ, as fellow-citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. The "better plan" which God had made embraces the better hope, the better promises, the better covenant, the better sacrifices, the better and abiding possession, and the better resurrection which is their heritage, and ours.' The Epistle to the Hebrews, pp343,4.

  • A further point that is stressed in this record of faith is that the present, visible, temporary, physical realities were not considered by these men and women of faith to deny, challenge or undercut the future, unseen, eternal, spiritual realities promised by the word of the Lord. To faith the visible, tangible realities are less significant than the unseen, spiritual realities. Consider the following phrases:

'He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time' (11:25).

'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' (11:26).

' ... he persevered because he saw him who is invisible' (11:27).

'Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection' (11:35).

As we will see when we move on to Hebrews 12, these Old Testament believers who persisted in faith, knowing that there was a spiritual reality beneath and behind and beyond all the physical promises and realities, yet not knowing exactly what that spiritual reality really was, provide for us, who now do know both who and what that ultimate reality is - our Lord Jesus Christ and his one final sacrifice - they provide for us an incredible example of faith that perseveres. They are 'such a great cloud of witnesses'. How much more should we, who do know the reality of the ultimate promise, persevere!

D. THOUGHTS ON FAITH FROM 2 CORINTHIANS 4:7-5:7

[1] But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us' (2 Corinthians 4:7).

This is the perspective of faith. We look at ourselves and we see nothing there to commend ourselves: we are weak - earthen vessels, jars of clay. But our faith is not in ourselves: it is in God. It is not ourselves that have significance: it is God and his glorious gospel. It is him and his message that is powerful: not us.

[2] It is written: "I believed; therefore I have spoken." With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence' (2 Corinthians 4:13).

Here Paul expresses the kind of faith described in Hebrews 11:1: the faith that is sure of what it hopes for and certain of what it does not see. Just as the saints of old believed God without seeing the fulfilment of the promises, so here Paul says 'we also believe ... we know that ...'

Even the observable, physical evidence - ' outwardly we are wasting away' does not negate the inner, spiritual reality - 'inwardly we are being renewed day by day' (16); and the 'light and momentary' physical troubles, are 'achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all' (17). So he says:

[3] '...we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal' (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Again, this is the perspective of faith.

[4] 'Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands' (2 Corinthians 5:1).

Just as Abraham 'was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God' (Hebrews 11:10) so Paul here looks towards 'a building from God, an eternal house in heaven'. Indeed, he says that this heavenly dwelling is the very purpose for which God made us (5:4,5), and it is the confidence that we will one day be clothed with this heavenly dwelling that gives impetus and urgency to our goal of pleasing the Lord (5:6-9).

[5] We live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

All that Paul has spoken of from 5:1 to 5:6 is unseen. It is hoped for. It is believed. But it is unseen. It is a spiritual reality not evident to physical sight, not understood by those who have no faith. The unbelieving person hasn't the ghost of an idea of the immense spiritual reality that is made known in Jesus Christ and his Gospel, and until God shines into their hearts it is all darkness (4:4-6).

[Note that what Paul is referring to here as 'living by faith' is far removed from what is commonly referred to in evangelical circles as 'living by faith'. A full time Christian worker who depends on the gifts of other believers (often with any soliciting of funds outlawed), trusting God to move their hearts and give what is needed, is said to 'live by faith'. But Paul here is referring to the whole concept of being a Christian:to believe the claims of Jesus Christ, to believe all that God promised through the cross, and to live in the light of all that immense spirituality reality even though it is all unseen - that is living by faith and not by sight.

Conversely,

  • the religious person who looks at his good deeds and religious observances, and concludes that thereby he has merited God's approval, is living by sight.
  • And the agnostic person who looks around and says 'I cannot see any god, therefore there is none' is living by sight.

We, however, live by faith - sure of what we hope for, certain of what we cannot see - and not by sight.

It is this faith that the writer to the Hebrews is urging his readers to hold fast to, and not to revert to a ritual religion in which one walks by sight.