Week of March 22, 2020
The Point: We can confidently trust in what God says and does.
The Centrality of Faith: Hebrews 11:1-6.
 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.  By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.  By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.  And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. [ESV]
“What is Faith? [1-3]. The Christian life is the life of faith. Faith is the issue on which the matter of salvation depends; it is the key that turns the lock on the door to eternal life. Faith is the channel by which we receive the benefits of Christ’s saving work; it is the cup into which God pours his saving grace. Verse 1 is an oft-quoted and oft-memorized definition of faith. This is not a comprehensive definition of faith – there are important truths about faith that are not mentioned here – but it serves as a well-crafted introduction to all that the writer of Hebrews wants us to consider in this chapter. Verse 1 describes the environment in which faith exists and works. Faith takes place when things are hoped for but not yet possessed or manifested. In this respect, faith deals with the future. Faith concerns unseen spiritual realities, things as they are in God’s sight. Faith, therefore, relates to the things we do not yet have, to the things we hope for and do not see, to things that are promised by God but are so far unfulfilled in our actual experience. By faith, therefore, we possess things that are hoped for; faith is the manner in which we hold them, and by faith they are real in our experience. This is the idea of faith emphasized in the second half of verse 1. These things are not seen, but their proof and our conviction of them are realized through faith. This, then, is how faith functions: it makes real to us and gives us possession of things that are hoped for but are not yet part of our experience. Faith is the substance of things hoped for; it is the foundation upon which they are brought into being; it is a confident attitude toward those things God has promised; and it is the guarantee that gives us a sure possession even now. When it comes to understanding and defining faith, there are two basic approaches we may safely take, or two basic questions for which we may find an answer. The first of these has to do with what faith does and the second addresses what faith is. If the question concerns what faith does, the answer is that it makes real to us things that are otherwise unreal to our experience; it presents to our hearts things that cannot be seen with our eyes. If that is what faith does, the answer to what faith is must be closely related – faith is confidence in those things that are not present to us but are promised in the Word of God. If we believe, we are acting upon things that are not yet manifest but which we accept as true. Those who put their faith in God and in his Word, and not in this world and the evidence it presents, are those whom God receives. This is the point stressed in verse 2, which indicates where the author of Hebrews is taking us in this chapter. What will follow in this chapter is the record of those men and women God commends in Scripture, starting in the Book of Genesis. What we are to note in each and every case is that the one thing that brought people God’s commendation was their faith. Not their gifts, not their attainments, not their beauty, strength, or popularity – these are the things that bring people the commendation of the world. Their faith in God, though scorned by men, made them great in the eyes of the Lord and brought them his commendation and approval. The obvious point, therefore, is that if we want God’s favor, God’s approval, God’s commendation during these brief years of our own lives, then it will come only by the possession and exercise of faith. The method our writer takes in this chapter is to follow the record of the Old Testament as it presents different men and women of faith. To that end, he begins with the opening chapter of Genesis, finding proof of his doctrine even in the creation of the world [11:3]. His point may seem obscure, but it is one that is especially germane to our times. The nature of the universe, the creation or beginning of all things, cannot be explained by evidence that is available to our eyes. Without faith we cannot even explain the world in which we exist. Our faith feeds upon the Word, it grows strong from the Word, rests secure in the Word, and bears fruit from the Word. Ours is not a blind faith, but a faith that sees by the light of God’s sure revelation. The Centrality of Faith. What are the practical implications of what this passage says about faith and its centrality in the Christian life? First, faith is how we receive the blessings of salvation. There is only one way to receive and to know and then to grow into full assurance of our acceptance with God, and that is through faith in his Word. What God asks us to do is believe the gospel of his Son and thereby be saved; only through faith can we know the benefits of what Christ has achieved for us. Second, faith sustains us in the midst of trial and difficulty. Only through faith do the people of God ever find strength and courage to stand up against the world and the trials of this life. Third, faith makes us pleasing to God and useful to others in this life. Nothing is more valuable to us, or more beneficial to others, than the faith that saves us through union with Christ, the faith that sustains us in the wilderness of this world, the faith that alone will make us pleasing to God and useful to his kingdom. If we believe in the supreme value of faith, then we will give our time, our effort, and our favor to those things that build up our faith, scorning all those things that stand opposed to it.
Faith Justifying . The first example of faith that the writer presents is that of Abel: By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain. This refers to the episode recorded in Genesis 4:1-5. Hebrews says that Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s because of faith. There are two ways to understand this statement. The first is that because Abel was a man of faith and Cain was not, God accepted Abel’s sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s. The issue was not the sacrifices but the men themselves. You see the logic of this view, a logic we want to heartily endorse. God receives the man of faith and therefore his offering, rejecting the man who lacks faith [cf. Rom. 14:23; Gal. 5:6]. According to that standard we see that because he lacked faith, whatever Cain offered had to be rejected, while faithful Abel’s offering was received. We want to affirm this way of thinking, but it does not seem to be a sufficient explanation for what we find in Genesis 4. The Old Testament text seems to emphasize the difference between the two offerings, and not merely between the two men. It wasn’t that the two brothers brought the same offering, one that was received because of faith while the other was rejected for unbelief. No, the offerings were different, and in that difference we see the faith of one and the unbelief of the other. We might begin by asking whether God had given commands or regulations at that time concerning the type of sacrifice his people were to offer him. The answer brings us back to the prior chapter, and specifically to Genesis 3:21. In verse 21 we see God’s action to deal with the problem of their sin, which we must consider central to God’s message of salvation because it is his most direct response to sin. God dealt with their sin by slaying an innocent animal, a spotless substitute. God had said that sin would produce death and here we see that it did – not the death of Adam and Eve, although death did come upon their race – but the death of a substitute that would shed its blood in their place and offer its own innocence to clothe their guilty stains. In this way, God revealed the manner by which sinful man was to approach him. Here he taught sinners what kind of sacrifice they ought to bring. This is how we must evaluate the fitness of Abel’s versus Cain’s offering. The problem with Cain’s offering was that it did not involve the shedding of blood. That was the key difference between Abel’s offering and Cain’s. Abel brought a sacrifice that pointed forward to the atoning death of a spotless substitute. By faith Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s, not just because Abel’s faith made it better, but because by faith he offered the sacrifice God had established as the means by which he would accept sinful mankind. We learn several important lessons from this episode. First, we see that sinful man is justified, or accepted by God, only by faith in the blood of the sacrifice that God has provided. This is a doctrine the Book of Hebrews has repeatedly stressed. This means that you cannot come to God any way you choose. You do not just say you believe in God and then decide for yourself how you will draw near to him. That was Cain’s problem. He would decide the terms of his coming to God; he would offer a sacrifice according to his own devising. How bitter he was when God rejected him and his self-righteous worship. There really are only two kinds of offerings, two ways to come to God – those that point to our own work, our own merits, our own righteousness, and those that point to Jesus Christ, crucified in our place to pay for sins. We should offer our best to God. We should offer beautiful worship to him because he is deserving of our very best. There is no higher privilege than for us to do all we can to honor and bless his name. but this comes only after the blood, only after we have confessed our guilt and placed our faith in the blood of the sacrifice. Justification by Faith. If there is any doubt about the importance the writer of Hebrews attaches to faith, verse 4 removes any ambiguity. Here he tells us that it was by faith that Abel was declared to be righteous: he was commended as righteous. By faith Abel was declared righteous, or justified, by God. This is one of the great teachings of the Bible: the doctrine of justification by faith. This is why those early Hebrew Christians who first received this letter were exhorted not to abandon their faith, as they were tempted to do: because by faith in Christ alone are sinners justified by God. This doctrine is at the core of the gospel, the good news God offers us in Christ, because it declares exactly what we see in the case of Abel, how a sinner can be accepted and declared righteous by the holy God. By believing on Jesus Christ, by resting on his saving work for the forgiveness of our sins, by accepting God’s Word and coming to him the one way he has provided, we are forgiven and are, as our text says, “declared righteous by faith.” We are not righteous by works, which declare our supposed merit – that was Cain’s mistake and the cause of his rejection – but by faith, which declares our need and our acceptance of God’s gracious gift. Hebrews 11:4 concludes by saying of Abel, And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. Faith bore testimony to Abel, that he was accounted righteous, and now Abel bears testimony about faith – about its value, its worth, and its power to justify those who trust in Christ. Shortly after making his faithful offering, Abel was killed. Cain murdered his brother to put away the testimony about faith and the righteousness it brings. And yet the man of faith still speaks to us in the Word of God. Faith in God in never silenced, because God himself keeps alive the testimony of his faithful servants.
Faith Pleasing God [5-6]. So dear was Enoch to the heart of God that he took Enoch to himself without demanding that he suffer the pains of death. It is no surprise, therefore, to find Enoch in this precession of heroes of the faith. Interestingly, the account of Enoch’s life in Genesis 5 makes no mention of his faith. Yet his faith seems to motivate the statement of Hebrews 11:6, that without faith it is impossible to please God. The idea is that we can be sure Enoch was a man of faith, because otherwise he never could have pleased God the way he did. Hebrews 11 presents its heroes of the faith in chronological order as they are found in the Bible. We saw that Abel was declared righteous by faith, since he came to God through the blood of Christ. Now we turn to the walk of faith with the life of Enoch. The Bible says very little about this man. But the Bible tells us one vital fact that speaks volumes. Twice in these verses [Gen. 5:21-24] we are told, “Enoch walked with God.” It tells us much about the character and the pattern of this man’s life. Far more important than the job titles he held or his attainments in life was his walk with God. What does it mean to walk with God? It speaks of a living relationship, a companionship between a man or woman and God. It implies personal knowledge, an ever-increasing understanding of the one with whom we walk. It implies agreement of mind and heart. There are an intimacy, a fellowship, and a joy of company between two who walk together. This is what the Christian life is intended to be: a walk of faith, abiding fellowship with our loving God. Two Elements of Faith. The main point of our passage is yet another proof of the necessity of faith. Enoch pleased God and therefore was taken by God even before he died, which surely would have been impossible without faith. The writer goes on to point out two vital components of genuine faith: Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. The first of these statements points out that faith must have an object. Today we often hear about the power of faith without anything being said about the object or content of that faith. Mainly we are told to believe in ourselves, and it is true that self-confidence will help you accomplish many things. But the faith the writer of Hebrews is describing differs greatly from that. At first glance it may seem that he is asking people to believe only that God exists, to hold at least some abstract assent to the idea of God. On closer study, however, he is being much more specific. A literal translation of the Greek would read this way: “It is necessary for anyone who comes to God to believe that he is.” This wording points to the confessional or doctrinal aspect of faith in a way the original Hebrew audience surely would have noticed. The wording here is reminiscent of the basic creed of Israel, called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” [Deut. 6:4]. Therefore, this first element of faith has to do with its content and doctrine. Faith must identify the God of the Bible, the Lord who spoke to Moses from the burning bush, as the one true God. Faith must be in him if it is to be saving faith. Over and over he says, “I am God, and there is no other” [Isa. 46:9]. Faith must first agree with God’s affirmation and turn to him as the only true God. This element of faith also corresponds to the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God….You shall have no other gods before me” [Ex. 20:2-3]. This is a warning against all forms of idolatry, and especially philosophies and theologies that compete with the Bible. Whoever draws near to God, our passage says, must believe that the God of the Bible is the One and the true God, putting no others in his place. First, then we have the content or object of faith. Second comes the motivation of faith. We must believe not only that this is the true God, but also that we have to deal with him, that he is the Judge and Arbiter of our destiny and fortune. By calling this second element the motivation of faith, I mean that faith must turn to God as the One who saves; it must come to him seeking reward, seeking favor, seeking his grace. The alternative is to ignore him, to think that it doesn’t matter what God thinks of us, what he intends for our future. This is what unbelief is all about. Few people deny the existence of God, but many deny the relevance of God, the need to seek him for salvation. This is demonstrably true in our own day. The vast majority of people agree that God must exist, yet they are not seeking him. Instead, they are serving other worldly gods as the source of the rewards they so highly covet. Although there are many reasons why we must come to God in faith, I will give just two. First, God tells us that he is a holy judge who will surely punish every sinner. God says that at the end of days he will bring everyone to stand before him for judgment. Revelation 20:12 paints the picture: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened….And the dead were judged by what was written in the books.” People deceive themselves that they will fare well on that day, since they are by their own assessment “basically good people.” But the Bible renders a far different verdict, according to God’s standard of perfect holiness. Every person who stands guilty of sin – and that includes every one of us – is in dire peril of this condemnation. For this reason, we had better seek God, to find out how we might gain his favor. A second related and positive reason, and one we are confronted within the record of Enoch, is that there is a life after this one, with a God to be known and enjoyed with awe. There is a life after death, where God himself awaits us to reward his own with everlasting life. Indeed, this is the way we should think about rewards from God – namely, what he himself said to Abraham: “I am your shield, your very great reward” [Gen. 15:1]. What greater reward could we ever desire than God himself. Our reward is the one Enoch received, namely, everlasting life with God – his free gift to all who turn to him in faith. Seeking and Finding God. God is a rewarder of those who seek him. What, then, does it mean to seek God? It does not mean that we search him out the way a scientist seeks out knowledge. No, God is all around us; the evidence of his being is before our eyes this very second. The whole universe is a display, as Paul says, of “his eternal power and divine nature” [Rom. 1:20]. Seeking God therefore means seeking his favor, seeking a relationship with him. For sinners it means seeking forgiveness. It means coming to him, confessing that we are sinners [cf. Ps. 51:1-7]. But seeking God means more than seeking his favor and forgiveness, which he freely gives in Jesus Christ. It also involves a relationship with him. It means making him the God of your life: your King, your teacher, and your Lord. It means, as Enoch shows us, to walk with God and to offer your life for his pleasure. It means seeking that which is the chief end for our lives, the purpose for which we were made, namely the glory of God and the enjoyment of him. Seeking God is just another expression for living by faith, which is what this great chapter in Hebrews is all about. What, then, will you find if you do seek after him? Enoch gives the answer. You will find life. Eternal life. That means a life that goes beyond the grave, a life in heaven. It means to walk with God, to rest in him, to delight in him, and to know his pleasure, which is faith’s greatest reward. This leaves but one last question: If you seek, can you be sure to find him? Our passage says God “rewards those who seek him,” not that you have to find him on your own. If you seek God, he will respond to your seeking. “No one can come to me,” Jesus said, “unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up at the last day” [John 6:44]. This means that if you seek God, he has in fact been seeking you, and therefore you will find him. God is drawing you into the arms of his love for the purpose of the eternal life that comes through faith in Christ. Those who seek him he rewards with himself, and those who walk with him in this life he brings to himself in the next, conquering the grave, for a fellowship of joy that will last forever.” [Phillips, pp. 390-423].
Questions for Discussion:
- How is faith and hope related? What is faith? What does faith do?
- What does it means to walk with God?
- What are the two essential elements of faith?
- What does it mean to seek God?
- What are the practical implications of what this passage says about faith and its centrality in the Christian life?
A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philip Hughes, Eerdmans.
The Letter to the Hebrews, Peter O’Brien, Eerdmans.
Hebrews, Richard Phillips, REC, P&R Publishing.
Hebrews, Thomas Schreiner, Holman Reference.