by Chris Ritter

Let’s play a game.  I will give you a Bible quote and you have to tell me both the book and chapter in which it is found:

  1. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
  2. “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.”
  3. “Love is patient.  Love is kind.  It does not envy.  It does not boast.”
  4. “There were shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night, and lo the angel of the Lord appeared unto them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were sore afraid.”
  5. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law of Sin and death.”

You can look down at the bottom of this post for the correct answers. The reason you got at least some of these right is because they are from some of the most famous chapters in the Bible. The Creation Chapter, the Love Chapter, the Navivity Chapter, and the Life-in-the-Spirit Chapter are high water marks… the most beloved sections in the Bible. Today we come to the Great Faith Chapter: Hebrews 11.

Throughout this series on the Book of Hebrews we have been working to keep famous verses (like the ones we will look at today) in their proper context. These words are part of an extended section calling for continued Christian perseverance. Hebrews 10 told us something about the first readers of this letter and their response:

You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Hebrews 10:34)

They were joyful in tough times because they knew something that not everyone knows.  They rejoiced when their property was confiscated. [Would you joyfully accept that? Would I? This is not normal human behavior.] Their joy came from knowing they had something much better and much longer lasting. Hebrews 11 is going to give a more thorough treatment of this alternative way of knowing, measuring, and living.

I recommend you pause here and read the entire chapter.

A New Way of Seeing

Back in the 1980’s there were books published of “Stereograms.”
On the surface, they seemed like mere random shapes and colors.   I remember being frustrated when people would comment, “There is a giraffe.”  I would ask them to point to the giraffe. They said, “I doesn’t work that way.”

“It is either there or it’s not. If it is there, point to it so I can see it, too.”

After seemingly hours of fruitless staring, I eventually learned to use a field of vision I never used before.  My eyes either scanned the horizon for things in the distance or focused close on things closer to me.  To see the image, I had to sort look without doing either of those things.  When I did, the three-dimensional image finally appeared.

I needed a different way of seeing. People of faith have an alternative means of navigation. Paul called it walking by faith, not by sight. (2 Cor. 5:7)

How would you define faith?  Is it a feeling?  Is it a religion?  Is it a set of ideas? Is it positive thinking?  “I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight?” Hebrews 11 is the great faith chapter, but it does not attempt a definition of faith.  Instead it describes what faith does in our lives… how it causes us to live.

[One of the best definitions of faith I have heard is: “Confidence in God’s Word regardless of circumstances and consequences, resulting in our obedience.“]

Hebrews 11:1 tells us that there is a relationship between our faith and hope. Faith is the confidence in what we hope for. This hope is not an empty wish, but an expectation created by God’s promises. Faith causes us to live in confidence while we await God’s Word to come to pass. It fills in the gaps, so to speak. It operates in the tension between what God has said and what our eyes report.

Mark Twain, who was not a believer, defined faith as “Believing what you know ain’t so.” I would like to offer an amendment. Faith is believing what we can’t see yet.

“This is what the ancients were commended for.” (Hebrews 11:2)

There is a golden strand running through the Old Testament and it is the thread of Faith. When someone chose to believe God, regardless of circumstances or consequences, it pleases God’s heart. Hebrews 11 has been called “The Hall of Faith.” It is almost as if we are being walked through a gallery of the greats.

By Faith We Understand

“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is see was not make out of what was visible.” (Hebrews 11:3)

Thank God for science. Careful, systematic study of the natural world using systematic observation has yielded countless benefits. To be Creationists does not mean people of faith must be anti-science. To study the natural world is to appreciate God’s handiwork. Belief that everything was created by God requires the gift of faith. In relation to origins, science asks the questions, “when” and “how.” Genesis 1-3, the creation accounts, are all about “who” and “why.” Faith is needed to answer some questions and science is needed to address others. Albert Einstein once commented, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”

But it is interesting that current scientific thought is much more in line with Hebrews 11 than it was just 100 years ago. The prevailing theory of science used to be the eternity of matter (matter having always existed). That was at odds with Hebrews’ idea of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). The now-dominant Big Bang Theory tells us that the universe had a starting point.
Both our Faith and science now declare: “The universe was formed out of what is not visible.”

By Faith we Worship

Hebrews is going to go roughly chronologically through the Old Testament and lift up examples of faith. The first is Abel who bought a better offering than his brother, Cain. Some have postulated that his offering was better because it involved blood. Hebrews tells us that the difference was faith. Abel worshipped rightly because he worshipped in faith. Our worship, too, becomes acceptable when offered in faith.

Enoch is mentioned only briefly in Genesis 4, but what it says is powerful. He walked with God, and then God took him. Whenever the author of Hebrews quotes the Old Testament, he uses the Septuigent (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Instead of “walked with God,” the LXX renders this “pleased God.” Hebrews 11 borrows that phrase to state:

“Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

By Faith We Are Distinquished

Noah makes the list because he believed God’s warning about things that had not been seen.  He acted on God’s word long before it started raining. By his actions he “condemned the world.” It is not that Noah caused the flood, but his faith showed that he was different than the rest of that wicked generation. Faith is the distinguishing mark for the people of God.

Now Hebrews wants to make the point that the Old Testament saints exemplified faith, but there was an element of incompletion to their faith. We see this with Abraham. He was called to leave his home to go to the Promised Land. He was promised to inherit the land, but he didn’t… at least not during his lifetime. He lived, rather, as a sojourner in the land. He had not so much as a city of his own. He lived in tents and never laid a foundation. Why? “He was looking for a city whose architect and builder was God.” Abraham’s faith caused him not to be at home in the world and it will do the same for us. We have a higher citizenship. As the old Gospel songs asy, “This world is not my home.”

Incomplete Faith

I’m glad the Matriarches are not excluded from the Faith Chapter. Sarah is celebrated for faith when, in her old age, she recieved the promise of biological children. This is also an important addition in the Hall of Faith because it shows that faith does not have to be perfect to be powerful. Remember what Sarah did when God told her she would have a son? She laughed. Sarah was also the one to hatch the whole “Hagar Plan.” What makes faith powerful is not the amount of faith we have, but the One our faith is in. It is in this context that Jesus said that faith just the size of a mustard seed could move mountains.

“13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

Hebrews 11:13-16

The faith of those saints in the Old Testament was “telescopic,” it looked forward to things that were yet far off. They looked forward to God’s Kingdom and died not having fully seen it. Indeed, death is mentioned twenty times in the faith chapter. Faith means looking through the lens of eternity instead of measuring everything by our own timeline.

By Faith we Suffer

“By Faith Moses refused to be known as the son of Pharoah’s daughter.”

Moses opted for mistreatment rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin in Egypt. He chose disgrace over worldly honor. “He persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” Contrary to the gospel of Wealth and Prosperity, faith is not necessarily a ticket to promotion. Sometimes it will cost you something:

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. 

Hebrews 11

All that sounds pretty good! You could almost assume that having faith means you will always wind up on top. But then we keep reading…

There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

Hebrews 11

Some had victory by faith. Some had defeats in faith. Faith does not guarantee a certain outcome. It is simply living in alignment with God’s purposes no matter what the cost.

The Biggest Surprise

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Hebrews 11

There are some unlikely people that make it into the Hall of Faith. Sampson, for instance, is there. He is pretty much a moral trainwreck. Go back and read the story of Jephthah and ask if you would have included him in the great Faith Chapter. But those two knuckleheads are not the biggest surprises in Hebrews 11. The biggest surprise comes at the end.

You are on the list. And so am I. These saints of old, these “ancients,” never received the fullness of God’s promises. They were waiting on us to make them complete. They were part of a line of splendor that would not end with them. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we come to take our place in the Hall of Faith.

It is almost as if a splendid torch has been handed to us. While it is in our hands, it is our joy to lift it high so it can burn brightly for all to see. And then is is our honor to pass that torch into other, eager hands as we await the completion of God’s story. And, like the rest of those in the Hall of Faith with us, we understand by faith, we worship by faith, we are set apart by faith, we succeed by faith, and we suffer by faith.

All the while, we move confidently toward our great hope sparked by the promises of God.

Answers: (1) Psalm 23, (2) Genesis 1, (3) 1 Corinthians 13, (4) Luke 2, (5) Romans 8.