FAITH THAT WORKS
Week of December 3, 2006
Bible Passages:† Hebrews 11:1-2,5-7,32-38; 12:1-2.
Biblical Truth: Faith pleases God and expresses itself in confident, enduring obedience.
Nature of Faith: Hebrews 11:1-2.
† Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. † For by it the men of old gained approval.† [NASU]
It is necessary to appreciate the limits of this definition of faith, for it is not exhaustive. In particular it is placed within the perspective of hope, which in turn is aroused by divine promises Ė promises as yet unfulfilled in the experience of those men and women of faith who belonged to the age prior to the coming of Christ and whose heroic examples will illustrate our authorís theme. For the man of faith hope is something sure and substantial precisely because it is founded on the objective reality of the immutable promises of God, who cannot lie. Indeed, so closely are faith and hope related to each other in the perspective of biblical realism that in our epistle they are virtually interchangeable terms. It is apparent in the definition now before us which explains that faith is the assurance of things hoped for. Faith is a guarantee of the heavenly realities for which we hope; not only does it render them certain for us, but it envisages them as rightfully belonging to us. It is, in itself, an objective assurance of our definite enjoyment of them. Consequently, faith takes possession by anticipation of these heavenly blessings and is a genuine commencement of the divine life with the guarantee of its everlasting permanence. Faith is essentially non-meritorious, indeed a renunciation of all human merit, since Christian faith is precisely trust in the merits of another, namely, Christ. Certainly, as this chapter will amply demonstrate, faith and works belong together. Not, however, in any sense that meritorious works precede faith, or that faith itself is a meritorious work. But that good works spring from faith as their source and provide the evidence of a genuine faith. Faith is further defined as the conviction of things not seen. The assurance or guarantee spoken of in the first part of the verse is now termed conviction or persuasion, and the things hoped for are precisely the things not seen. As with the assurance in the preceding phrase, so the conviction of this phrase has a dynamic quality. It is not a static emotion of complacency but something lively and active. It is a vital certainty which impels the believer to stretch out his hand, as it were, and lay hold of those realities on which his hope is fixed and which, though unseen, are already his in Christ. Faith must be the motivating principle of all our conduct.
Examples of Faith: Hebrews 11:5-7,32-38.
† By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God. † And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. † By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. † And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, † who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, † quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. † Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; † and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. † They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated † (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.† [NASU]
† In the Old Testament the sum of what is told of Enoch is found in Genesis 5:18-24, where we read that he was the son of Jared and the father of Methuselah, that he lived 365 years, and that Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him. Enoch was removed from this earthly scene to the presence of God Himself without having died. The assertion that Enoch pleased God provides the point of transition to the important statement about faith in verse 6. The writer's determination to focus attention sharply upon the pleasing of God, rather than on the singular experience of translation, is indicative of his pastoral motivation. The writer's intention is intensely practical: Christians must replicate in their experience the enjoyment of the pleasure of the Lord that was the hallmark of Enoch's life.
 The particular example of Enoch illustrates the general principle that without faith it is impossible to please Him. Faith is the disposition which should be characteristic of the creature in relation to his Creator. For faith is that trustful reliance which finds expression in willing obedience and submission to the sovereign word of God, in grateful acknowledgment of the unmixed goodness of all His works, and in confident recognition of the complete trustworthiness of His promises. For he who comes to God must believe that He is. Faith must have an object and God is the supreme and eternal object of all true faith. And there is necessity, further, to believe that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him. To have faith includes the belief that God is personal and responds to the cry of His creatures by graciously providing mercy and forgiveness for those who repent and put their trust in Him. When he speaks of reward our author is not encouraging a mercenary attitude. On the contrary, what he means is that the approach and relationship of faith involves commitment to the truth that the self-existent God is at the same time a personal God, and therefore a just and holy God who has a loving concern for His creatures. This reward is nothing other than God Himself, because man ought not to seek anything apart from Him. To imagine that faith is in itself meritorious or establishes a claim on God and His rewards is to do violence to the very concept of faith, which is the response of total dependence on the grace and goodness of God. When God rewards our good works He is rewarding His works and gifts in us, rather than our own works. The drawing near to God of which this verse speaks should not be understood in the limited sense of drawing near only at times of worship, but in the comprehensive sense of drawing near to God at all times.
† The third example of victorious faith in the period leading up to the flood is Noah. It was by the building of the ark that the faith of Noah was most dramatically demonstrated. The conduct of Noah illustrates and confirms the definition of faith given in verse 1 as the assurance of things hoped for (his own salvation) and the conviction of things not seen (the judgment of the flood), founded as it was on his confidence in the word which he had received from God. The story of Noah demonstrates the simultaneousness of judgment and salvation; for the saving of his household and the condemnation of the unbelieving world took place at the same time and by the same means. What was a means of salvation was also a means of destruction: the water which overwhelmed the scornful also supported the ark and those who were in it.
 Having carried his survey to the period of
the entry of the Israelites into the promised land,
our author now concludes this section with a general summary of the triumphant
faith of Godís people in the face of every kind of cruel opposition. The
implication of the rhetorical question And what more shall I
say? is that there is no need for further
elaboration: the accuracy of his definition of faith in verse 1 has been amply
established. The list of names are from the history of
[33-38]† These heroic contenders for the truth, both named and unnamed, overcame every imaginable type of adversity through faith. It is not only in splendid achievements such as those listed in verses 32-34 that faith is victorious, but also in the suffering of tortures, imprisonments, and brutal deaths, as described in verses 35-38, that faith displays its unconquerable character, so that we see how inseparably constancy of faith and certainty of hope are bound together.
Endurance of Faith: Hebrews 12:1-2.
† Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, † fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
† Our author pictures himself and his readers as competitors who, as they contend for faith in the arena of life, are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, namely, those champions of faith and perseverance of earlier generations, crowded as it were row upon row within the encircling amphitheatre. They are witnesses in the sense of those who have proved themselves to be unflinching professors of the faith and have overcome by the word of their testimony. They have triumphantly completed their course, and we who are now contestants in the arena should be inspired by their example to give of our utmost in the struggle. Like them we also must be prepared to lay aside every encumbrance, that is, everything that would hinder us and hold us back. More specifically, the Christian contestant needs to divest himself of sin which so easily entangles us, an expression which seems best understood as a clarification of what is meant by the weight or encumbrance of every kind which must be laid aside. It is precisely sin, of whatever kind, that impedes or slows down the Christian in the spiritual race, and conversely, anything, however innocent in itself, which impedes or slows down the Christian in the spiritual race is for that reason sinful and must, with Godís help, be discarded. Indeed, self-discipline is itself an integral part of the daily spiritual contest. It is only through living by the Spirit that this conflict will be won. The unencumbered Christian is the one who is fit and ready to run with endurance the race that is set before us.
One of the chief problems with the Hebrew Christians to whom this letter is addressed is that they have set out on the race but, after a good start [10:32-34], are now slackening in the will to persevere. Their effort is decreasing [2:1], sin is holding them back [3:17-4:1], they need to recover their intensity of purpose [4:11], to shake off the sluggish mood into which they have fallen [6:11], to regain their confidence [10:35,39] and their competitive spirit [12:12]. The consideration that they are performing, as it were, in the presence and with the example of the veterans of the faith, who courageously bore testimony in the centuries leading up to Christís advent should remind them that they are engaging in a contest of the utmost seriousness and that their goal belongs not to the realm of time but of eternity. But there is Someone Else, infinitely more illustrious, who has run this race before them and on whom above all others their gaze should constantly be fixed, so that by the grace that flows from Him they may be strong to persevere and to prevail. It is to Him that the writer of our epistle now directs his readersí attention.
† The participant in the Christian race is urged not only to divest himself of every encumbrance and to compete with unflagging determination but also to do this fixing our eyes on Jesus. He is to be so totally involved that, with singleness of purpose and undistracted by all that is going on around him, his gaze is firmly fixed on Him who is both the goal and the prize. Further, as this is the race of faith, what could be more necessary than to keep constantly before our eyes Him who is the author and perfecter of faith? Apart from Him in whom all the promises of God find their fulfillment fallen mankind would have neither ground nor object of faith. It is on Him that in every age the gaze of faith is focused. He alone evokes and stimulates faith; and it is because He is the pioneer of our salvation [2:10] that He is the author of our faith. Our faith, moreover, is initiated and sustained by Him because He has prayed the Father that we may come to faith [John 17:20f.] and that our faith may not fail [Luke 22:31f.]. Thus we look to Him as the Apostle and High Priest of our confession [3:1], and we have the assurance that he who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion [Phil. 1:6]. But, in addition to all this, the incarnate Son is Himself the man of faith par excellence, and this seems to be the primary sense intended by the Greek original of the expression, which reads literally, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, faith, that is, absolutely and without qualification. His whole earthly life is the very embodiment of trust in God [2:13]. It is marked from start to finish by total dependence on the Father and complete attunement to His will [10:7-10]. In looking to Jesus, then, we are looking to Him who is the supreme exponent of faith, the One who, beyond all others, not only set out on the course of faith but also pursued it without wavering to the end. He, accordingly, is uniquely qualified to be the supplier and sustainer of the faith of His followers.
But the faith of all others, patriarchs, apostles, and martyrs though they may be, is marred by sin and imperfection. Of none of them can it be said that he is the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Their lives are indeed stirring illustrations of the wonderful power of faith; but the One above all others on whom the Christian athleteís attention must incessantly be concentrated is Jesus, our only Mediator, who is not ashamed to call us brethren [2:11]. He, when our faith is being tested, not only shines as an example for us to follow but also supplies the grace for us to do so, and in doing so to overcome. We should consider, too, the utter loneliness of Jesus on His earthly course. We run together, He ran alone; for He came to do what no one else was competent to achieve. His course led Him to the terrible forsakenness of the cross, whereas we run toward the prize of everlasting salvation and glory which He won for us through His death on the cross. But He too, in His unique and solitary struggle, had a goal on which His attention was inflexibly fixed, namely, the joy set before Him. The joy, that is, of completing the work of reconciliation He had come to perform for our eternal benefit and to the glory of the Fatherís name, thus bringing to fruition all the purposes of Godís creation and all the promises of His covenant. His joy, which is indeed the fullness of joy, is the joy also of His elect; for it is His will that His own joy should dwell in them so that their joy, like His, may be full, and it was His prayer that they might have His joy fulfilled in themselves [John 15:11; 17:13]. His joy is the joy of heaven over every sinner who repents and returns to the Fatherís home, over every lost sheep that is found, over every son that was dead and is alive again.
It was for the sake of this joy with which His victory was to be crowned that Jesus endured the cross. His determination to endure the cross meant despising the shame, since nothing more disgraceful could happen to any man than to suffer public crucifixion, a fate designed for the basest of criminals and the lowest of social outcasts. The cross assures us that Christ, in suffering, the Righteous for the unrighteous, plumbed the furthest depths of human shame and that, consequently, there is no person, however debased by sin and guilt, who is beyond the reach of His pardon and grace. It is important to recognize that the shame of the cross, where Christ bore the sins of the world, is something infinitely more intense than the pain of the cross. Others have suffered the pain of crucifixion, but He alone has endured the shame of human depravity in all its foulness and degradation.
But the cross is the gateway to joy, His joy and ours; for Jesus, who endured the cross, despising the shame, is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God. The description of the Son as being now seated signifies the completion of the work of purification, conveying the notion of rest after the fulfillment of a mission. But more that that, His position at the right hand of God indicates that His is the place of highest honor, that He is not merely on a seat but on a throne, and that He is not just sitting but ruling. To picture Christ as seated in glory is not of course to suggest that He is now inactive. The work of purification which was the purpose of His coming to earth is completed, but otherwise the heavenly existence of the exalted Savior may be described as one of ceaseless activity. He is active constantly sustaining the universe by His dynamic word. He is active as, enthroned on high, He rules over history until every enemy has been subdued. He is active on behalf of His chosen people as He dispenses mercy, grace, and help to them in the hour of their testing and as in heaven, where He has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, He always lives to make intercession for them, where, too, He is preparing a place for them.
Questions for Discussion:
1.†††† What is the relationship between faith and hope in the epistle to the Hebrews?
2.†††† What two things must the one who comes to God believe? Why do you think the author of Hebrews emphasized these two things?
3.†††† Hebrews 12:1 contains two exhortations (let us) for living the Christian life. Apply these two commands to your life. What does it mean for you to lay aside every encumbrance and to run with endurance? What ways can you do these two things this week?
4.†††† What reasons does the author give us why we should fix our eyes upon Jesus? What things can we do that will help us keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus?
Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philip Hughes, Eerdmans.