ONLY A LIFE OF FAITH PLEASES GOD – HISTORICAL EXAMPLES OF THE FAITH OF THE PATRIARCHS THAT LOOKED FORWARD TO GOD’S PROMISES FOR THE FUTURE
The previous examples of faith predated the establishment of the nation of Israel. Now the author moves on to the faith of the patriarchs with special emphasis on the life of Abraham – the father of all those of faith. The forward-looking nature of faith stands out as the concepts of inheritance and promises and eschatological blessing (New Jerusalem, etc.) are developed. In all of life, believers must not get too rooted or attached to this world because we are to live as strangers and pilgrims and aliens who have our vision set on the eternal heavenly realities. The great Messianic promises that God introduced to Abraham and reinforced to the other patriarchs are faithfully passed down from generation to generation. The delayed realization of the fulfilment of all of God’s promises in no way diminishes their certainty or their impact on our lives in the present. The righteous shall live by faith.
Mohler: The inclusion of Abraham in the hall of faith is expected but nonetheless significant. Abel, Enoch, and Noah are figures who come before the formation of the nation of Israel. In other words, they are just as much a part of the story of all humanity as they are a part of Israel’s story. But Abraham is the fountainhead of the nation. If Abraham lived by faith in the promises of God and in a coming Messiah, then the implication is that all Jews should do the same. If the readers of Hebrews think that to reject Christ is to embrace Abraham, they are mistaken. Embracing Christ is, in fact, to walk in accord with Abraham.
I. (:8-12) FAITH OF ABRAHAM – PROMISE OF FUTURE INHERITANCE
A. (:8) Faith Obeys God’s Call
1. Obedience is Key
“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance;”
Richard Phillips: We see in Abraham that faith acts in response to God’s call. It is God’s initiative that is emphasized at the beginning of Abraham’s life of faith, God’s sovereign grace that goes forth with his saving call.
2. Overcoming the Obstacle of the Unknown – Going without Knowing
“and he went out, not knowing where he was going.”
Mohler: The fact that Abraham left Haran and traveled to a land that he did not know [very dangerous] is indeed a remarkable act of trust in God.
Leon Morris: To leave the certainties one knows and go out into what is quite unknown – relying on nothing other than the word of God – is the essence of faith, as the author sees it.
Wiersbe: Waiting is, for me, one of the most difficult disciplines of life. Yet true faith is able to wait for the fulfillment of God’s purposes in God’s time. But, while we are waiting, we must also be obeying.
B. (:9-10) Faith Focuses on Eternity
1. (:9) Living on Earth as an Alien / Pilgrim
“By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise;”
Kent: Even though it was the land of promise because God had promised it to him (Gen. 12:7), for all practical purposes it was a foreign land to him. He never became a citizen. He never built a house in Canaan. He lived the life of a nomad, moving his tent from place to place.
Steven Cole: The application is that as people of faith, we often must live in this world with conditions that seemingly contradict God’s promises (see 11:35b-39). The “health and wealth gospel” does not square with Scripture. Sometimes God’s people face tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and even death (Rom. 8:35; see also 2 Cor. 6:4-5; 11:23-28). Paul described himself “as having nothing, yet possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6:10).
Abraham, the alien in a foreign land, dwelling in tents, stands in contrast with his nephew Lot, who moved to Sodom and lived in a house. Although Lot was a believer, he became tainted by the godless values of Sodom. Abraham, the alien, was involved with his neighbors in Canaan, but he always remained distinct.
As pilgrims, we need to adopt the mindset of pilgrims. When you travel in a foreign country, you stand out as different. They can spot you! They know that you are not one of them. You may temporarily adopt some of their local customs, so as not to be offensive, but on most things you think and live differently, according to the customs of your homeland.
As God’s people, our homeland is heaven. We’re just passing through this earth. Our mindset toward success, possessions, and purpose in life should be radically different than the mindset of the natives. The natives’ hopes center in this life only, and so they try to accumulate all of the things and engage in all of the activities that they think will bring them happiness in this life. But pilgrims’ hopes center in Jesus Christ and their eternal inheritance in Him. So they hold the things of this life loosely. They enjoy all that God provides, but their real treasures are in heaven (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
2. (:10) Looking Forward to Our Heavenly Home
“for he was looking for the city which has foundations,
whose architect and builder is God.”
Kent: It should be clear, therefore, that Abraham’s faith was centered not only on a city (as something more permanent than a tent) but on a heavenly and eternal goal. It was because his trust was placed in heavenly verities that temporal factors were of small consequence to him. This city, the heavenly Jerusalem, is regarded in Scripture as the final home of God’s people.
Mohler: The city that God is building is truly the eternal city. It is entirely secure, unshakable, and cannot be destroyed. By racing the theme of “city” through Scripture, we find that this promised city is the “new Jerusalem” described in Revelation 21:9-27.
Lenski: The earthly land of promise is only the earthly type and symbol of the heavenly Canaan. The type is advanced from the idea of a land or country to the antitype of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. This brings out the idea of permanency. . . Built by God, this city stands forever.
C. (:11) Faith Believes the Impossible
“By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive,
even beyond the proper time of life,
since she considered Him faithful who had promised;”
Debate over whether this is a continuation of the faith of Abraham (with some textual explanations necessary) or whether Sarah is truly the subject of this verse.
F. F. Bruce: the verse then reads: “By faith he [Abraham] also, together with Sarah, received power to beget a child when he was past age, since he counted him faithful who had promised” – and verse 12 follows on very naturally.
Leon Morris: [agrees with Bruce] – we see the words “Sarah herself” as dative and not nominative.
Steven Cole: This view also alleviates another problem, namely, that in the account in Genesis 18, Sarah is rebuked for her unbelief rather than commended for her faith. When the Lord confronts her, she denies, rather than confesses, her unbelief. Probably, in spite of her initial doubt, she eventually came to believe God’s promise as Abraham did. But if Abraham is the subject of 11:11, then the emphasis is on his faith, not on Sarah’s faith.
[If you take the traditional reading of the text as in the NASB then you could follow Kent below]
Kent: Sarah may be understood as the subject, and eis should be regarded as “in connection with” or “in regard to.” Thus the sense would be: Sarah received power with regard to Abraham’s depositing of seed, and thus even at her advanced age she was able to do her part in conceiving a child.
Steven Cole: We would be wrong not to trust God to do far beyond our human abilities. Nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37). He is “able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). Our faith is not in ourselves or in our faith, but in God who is faithful.
D. (:12) Faith Receives Countless Blessings
“therefore, also, there was born of one man, and him as good as dead at that,
as many descendants as the stars of heaven in number,
and innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.”
Leon Morris: God’s blessing is beyond human calculation.
II. (:13-16) FAITH ORIENTED TOWARDS FUTURE PROMISES
A. (:13) Faith Does Not Look for Immediate Gratification
1. Promises of God not Realized in This Life
“All these died in faith, without receiving the promises,”
Richard Phillips: Abraham’s experience informs us that the life of faith is not one of receiving all God’s promises in tangible form, but rather of believing them in the face of hardship, receiving them by faith, living as Abraham did out of confidence in and reliance on God.
2. Promises of God Still Joyfully Anticipated
“but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance,”
Kent: The patriarchs were mighty examples of the steadfastness that is an integral part of true faith, for they died not having received the promise, but from afar having seen and greeted them.
3. Perspective is One of Strangers and Exiles
“and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”
Steven Cole: We must see and welcome God’s promises, although we can only do so in this life from a distance. Seeing and welcoming God’s promises alienates us from this world.
B. (:14-16) Faith Looks for Heavenly Blessing
1. (:14) Forward Looking to Eternity
“For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own.”
2. (:15) Not Looking Backwards to Earthly Security and Comforts
“And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return.”
Mohler: Nothing prevented Abraham from going back to Haran –nothing except faith in God’s promise. The people of God don’t look backward. They look forward because they are absolutely convinced God’s promises are true.
3. (:16a) Desiring the Future Eternity which is Better than the Past
“But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.”
Kent: The eternal values involved in the promises of God made them willing to regard their earthly experience as a pilgrimage, and kept them from despair even when it was evident that death would overtake them before fulfilment came.
Jonathan Edwards: The Christian Pilgrim
God is the highest good of the reasonable creature; and the enjoyment of him is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied.– To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean.– Therefore it becomes us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven, as it becomes us to make the seeking of our highest end and proper good, the whole work of our lives; to which we should subordinate all other concerns of life. Why should we labor for, or set our hearts on, anything else, but that which is our proper end, and true happiness?
C. (:16b) Faith Enjoys a Relationship with God Where Future Blessings are Guaranteed
“Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.”
Cf. how God is ashamed of those who fall away from the faith; of those who reveal themselves to be friends of the world rather than friends of God (1 John 2:28)
Richard Phillips: All those long years Abraham identified himself not by the home he had left or by the place where he resided, but by the home he was seeking and the God who called him and gave the promises he believed. He and his sons were willing to be called men of God, not men of the world.
III. (:17-22) FAITH OF THE PATRIARCHS – PASSING THE BATON OF GOD’S PROMISES TO THE NEXT GENERATION — LOOKING FORWARD TO FUTURE BLESSING
A. (:17-19) Faith of Abraham – Tested but Still Anticipating the Seed of Isaac
1. (:17) Extreme Test Matched by Extreme Obedience
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son;”
Wiersbe: we have four generations of faith. These men sometimes failed, but basically they were men of faith. They were not perfect, but they were devoted to God and trusted His Word. . . They handed God’s promises down from one generation to another.
2. (:18) Firm Promise
“it was he to whom it was said,
‘In Isaac your descendants shall be called.’”
3. (:19) Radical Conviction Regarding Resurrection
“He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead;
from which he also received him back as a type.”
Kent: After waiting twenty-five years, long after Sarah had passed her child-bearing years, Abraham experienced the first stage of the fulfilment by the remarkable birth of Isaac. Furthermore, God had confirmed the fact that Isaac was the promised seed. Hence Abraham could not expect some other son to replace Isaac in the event that Isaac would die childless. When God told Abraham to slay his son, Isaac was as yet unmarried and without offspring. Hence Abraham drew the conclusion that since God had definitely related the fulfilment of the covenant to Isaac, if God had ordered his death, then He must intend to resurrect him. This is all the more remarkable when we remember that Abraham had no precedent for any physical resurrection.
Hewitt: Abraham’s faith was able to reach the wonderful heights of the resurrection and for this reason Isaac was restored to him as one from the dead, as a type of the death and resurrection of the divine Son who was not spared (cf. Rom. viii. 32; Jn. viii. 56).
B. (:20) Faith of Isaac – Anticipating Future for Jacob and Esau
“By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come.”
Leon Morris: What impresses the author about these patriarchs was that they had a faith that looked beyond death. . . With all three the significant thing was their firm conviction that death cannot frustrate God’s purposes. Their faith was such that they were sure God would work his will. So they could speak with confidence of what would happen after they died. Their faith, being stronger than death, in a way overcame death, for their words were fulfilled.
C. (:21) Faith of Jacob – Blessing Two Sons of Joseph
“By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph,
and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff.”
Leon Morris: Jacob’s claim for inclusion in the list rests on his blessing of his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48). As with Isaac, the blessing went against the natural order of birth. In fact, when Jacob was dying, Joseph tried to have the major blessing given to Manasseh, the firstborn. But Jacob crossed his hands to pick out Ephraim as the greater. God is not bound by human rules like those that give pride and benefit of place to the firstborn. He fulfills his purposes as he chooses. The incident, like the preceding one, again illustrates the theme of the patriarchal blessing with its fulfillment far distant. At the time the words were spoken, fulfillment could be known only by faith.
Lenski: Why are only Joseph’s sons mentioned? Because they were born in Egypt, and Jacob adopted them as his own sons (Gen. 48:5); it was thus that he blessed them. That blessing was, indeed, a notable act of faith. Jacob was near his death and would not see the realization of his blessing, but Manasseh and Ephraim and especially their descendants would not remain in Egypt as Egyptians but would as sons of Jacob found two tribes that would live in Canaan. Jacob believed all that God revealed to him regarding the future, which was in line with the Messianic promise made to Abraham.
D. (:22) Faith of Joseph – Anticipating the Return to the Promised Land
“By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones.”
Hewitt: Joseph’s request was honoured by Moses (Ex. xiii. 19) and fulfilled by Joshua (Jos. xxiv. 32).
F. F. Bruce: Joseph had spent the whole of his long life, apart from the first seventeen years, in Egypt; but Egypt was not his home. Even when the rest of his family came down to Egypt at his invitation, he knew that their residence there would be temporary. Just as his father Jacob had insisted on being carried back to the promised land for burial, so Joseph made his relatives swear that they would perform the like service for him.