The Nature of True Faith
March 26, 2023 Speaker: Brian Wilbur Series: Stand-Alone Sermons
Topic: Christian Life Basics Passage: Hebrews 11:1– 12:2
THE NATURE OF TRUE FAITH
An Exposition of Hebrews 11:1-12:2
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: March 26, 2023
Series: Stand-Alone Sermons
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
We live in a world that has many things to say about faith. Sometimes people say, ‘You just gotta believe’ – with the emphasis placed on the experience of believing, but not on the object of what is believed. But the object of faith is of critical importance! Some people seem to have faith in faith or in a higher power or in your lucky stars. As Christians, we cannot operate according to the world’s understanding of faith. Instead, we must understand and embrace what the Bible teaches us about faith. Hebrews 11:1-12:2 gives us a panoramic view of biblical faith. While it would be profitable to do five or six sermons on this passage, it is also profitable to take in the entire passage all at once.
Instead of reading the passage at the beginning of the sermon, each part of the passage will be read as we walk through sermon. Here is the outline of where we are headed as we journey through this passage:
- The Nature of True Faith (Hebrews 11:1)
- The Value of True Faith (Hebrews 11:2, 4-6; also Hebrews 10:37-39)
- The Activity of True Faith (Hebrews 11:3-31)
- The Victories of True Faith (Hebrews 11:32-35a)
- The Sufferings of True Faith (Hebrews 11:35b-38)
- The Company of True Faith (Hebrews 11:39-40)
- The Single-Minded Determination of True Faith (Hebrews 12:1)
- The Focal Point of Faith (Hebrews 12:2)
THE NATURE OF TRUE FAITH (Hebrews 11:1)
Hebrews 11:1 teaches us about the nature of true faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In this description of what faith is, the phrases “assurance of” and “conviction of” are related concepts. True faith is characterized by an assurance and conviction that certain things are true. True faith is characterized by an inward persuasion and confidence that certain things are so.
Now what things is faith assured of? What things is faith convicted of? The first half of verse 1 tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (italics added). In the context of the Book of Hebrews, the “things hoped for” are the things that God has promised to His people. God’s promises orient us to the future. God has promised us an eternal Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:1-13). God has promised us an everlasting inheritance (Hebrews 10:34). God has promised us “the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14; see also Hebrews 11:8-16). God has promised us that we will be partakers of His holiness (Hebrews 12:10). God has promised us a glorious resurrection in the age to come (Hebrews 11:35; see also Hebrews 6:1-2). God has promised that Christ will “appear a second time” in order to “save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). Finally, God has promised that those who pursue holiness and persevere in the faith will “see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). To have true faith is to be convinced in your heart and mind that these promises are true and that these promises are yours. The faithful believer is assured that he has a share in the “things hoped for”.
The second half of verse 1 tells us that faith is “the conviction of things not seen” (italics added). The two phrases “the assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen” are parallel to each other, and so the phrase “things not seen” is closely related to the phrase “things hoped for” – although the two phrases don’t have identical meanings. It is often the case that the “things not seen” are unseen because they are part of the future that God has promised to His people. And the future is unseen – it is not unseen to God, but it is unseen to our natural perceptions. The “things hoped for” are among the “things not seen” – but we are convinced that these unseen future things are certain because God has revealed them to us. Most of Hebrews 11 refers to the unseen future. However, the phrase “things not seen” can also refer to past and present realities. Hebrews 11:3 refers to the unseen past: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of the things that are visible.” (Hebrews 11:3) We understand that “what is seen” does not owe its existence to “what is seen”, but instead owes its existence to the unseen word of the invisible God. Hebrews 11:27 refers to the unseen present: “By faith he [Moses] left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27). The invisible God who dwells in unapproachable light is the great Sustainer and mighty Savior in the present moment for all who see Him with the eyes of faith.
Hebrews 11:1 teaches us that the nature of true faith is to have assurance and confidence in God and in God’s character and in God’s words and especially in God’s promises regarding the future. The words “assurance” and “conviction” make it clear that faith isn’t mere mental agreement, but is in fact an informed and wholehearted persuasion that God’s revelation in Scripture and His wonderful promises are glorious, compelling, and trustworthy.
By clear implication, to have “assurance” and “conviction” is not a momentary flash in the pan of religious excitement, but means that we hold fast to God’s promises and persevere in our faith. Those who have true faith don’t shrink back (see Hebrews 10:39), but instead stand firm and press forward. Hebrews 3 says: “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” (Hebrews 3:14) All told then, Hebrews 11:1 teaches us that true faith is an informed, wholehearted, and enduring confidence that God’s revelation in Scripture and His wonderful promises are glorious, compelling, and trustworthy – and this confident assurance inevitably produces visible fruit.
THE VALUE OF TRUE FAITH (Hebrews 11:2, 4-6; also Hebrews 10:37-39)
After Hebrews 11:1 teaches about the nature of true faith, the next verse teaches us about the value of true faith. How valuable is it? Hebrews 11:2, in conjunction with some of the surrounding verses, tells us that true faith is so valuable that to have it means commendation, and to not have it means condemnation. Hebrews 11:2 says: “For by it [faith] the people of old received their commendation” – or received their good testimony. True faith is the distinguishing mark of a man or woman who has God’s approval and with whom God is pleased.
Both before and after verse 2, we learn about a contrast between having faith and not having faith. Hebrews 10:37-39 says,
“For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” (Hebrews 10:37-39)
Do you see the contrast? On the one hand, there are the righteous ones “who have faith” and who “live by faith” and who “preserve their souls”. But on the other hand, there are “those who shrink back and are destroyed” – they turn away from God’s promises and as a result they perish. God has no pleasure in people who don’t truly trust Him.
The second contrast between having faith and not having faith comes in verse 4: “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.” (Hebrews 11:4) Faith is the pathway of offering acceptable worship, of being commended as righteous, of pleasing God, and of being rewarded by God. Unbelief, which was characteristic of Cain (see Genesis 4:1-16), is the pathway of offering unacceptable worship, of being rejected as unrighteous, of awakening God’s wrath, and of being condemned by God.
Those who shrink back and those who refuse to heed God’s Word, are displeasing to the Lord. But those who live by faith please God. The next verse says:
“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.” (Hebrews 11:5)
God takes pleasure in people who trust Him. After telling us that Enoch “pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5), Hebrews 11:6 says, “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.” Having faith in God is essential to pleasing God. God has pleasure in us when we trust Him and His promises. God has displeasure in those who walk away.
THE ACTIVITY OF FAITH (Hebrews 11:3-31)
So, Hebrews 11:1 teaches us about the nature of true faith. Hebrews 11:2 and the surrounding verses (Hebrews 10:37-11:6) teach us about the value of true faith. After verses 1-2, much of what follows in Hebrews 11 teaches us about the activity of true faith.
Hebrews 11 doesn’t commend the Old Testament saints because of their invisible and abstract faith, but instead commends the Old Testament saints because their inward faith was made visible through concrete acts of obedience.
Of course, faith itself is operational in the heart and mind – receiving and cherishing God’s promises, and understanding and embracing God’s perspective on all of life. Hebrews 11:3 highlights the fact that faith is operational at the level of our understanding: “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.” Hebrews 11:3 is pointing to the very beginning of the Bible – to Genesis 1 – where we learn that God created and framed the world by His powerful Word. Genesis 1 provides us with foundational knowledge about our world. If you trust this foundational knowledge that God has given us, everything else in Scripture follows as a matter of course. But if you don’t trust God’s Word, then you will construct your entire life on an unstable foundation. Having the right starting point – that the personal and transcendent God is the Creator of all things – is of crucial importance, and you can only truly understand this right starting point by faith. Faith is not a leap into the dark. Faith does not mean dropping off your brain at the door of religious fervor. Faith does not mean committing yourself to that which is un-reasonable and anti-intellectual. Instead, faith means trusting God’s Word and submitting your heart and mind to God’s testimony. The most reasonable course of action for human beings, who are made in God’s image, is to trust God’s Word.
But although faith is operational first of all at the level of the heart and the mind and the understanding, it does not and cannot remain hidden. True faith is lively and active. True faith is expressed through specific acts of obedience. True faith lives in light of God’s promises – in other words, “the things hoped for” (v. 1) shape the way that I live today; the “things not seen” (v. 1) shape my priorities and pursuits. For believers, God’s promises become the framework of our entire life, and within that framework we walk with God and obey His specific commands.
God commanded Noah what to do in light of the unseen future:
“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” (Hebrews 11:7)
God commanded Abraham to go to an unseen place as the pathway to an unseen future:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:8-10)
God made a promise that Sarah would give birth to a son one year later – the promise was made concerning the unseen future:
"By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." (Hebrews 11:11-12)
By faith, Abraham and Sarah and other Old Testament saints saw the unseen future and greeted it and desired it:
"These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city." (Hebrews 11:13-16)
God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son, which required Abraham to keep trusting God’s promise concerning Isaac’s future even though that future now appeared to be obscured by the commanded sacrifice:
"By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back." (Hebrews 11:17-19)
Isaac blessed his sons concerning the unseen future:
"By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau." (Hebrews 11:20)
Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons concerning the unseen future:
"By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff." (Hebrews 11:21)
Joseph gave instructions pertaining to the unseen future:
"By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones." (Hebrews 11:22)
Moses’s parents saw a future for their baby boy who was under draconian orders to be slaughtered:
"By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king's edict." (Hebrews 11:23)
Moses wasn’t duped by the outward condition of prosperity enjoyed by the Egyptians. By faith he saw the preciousness of God’s suffering people and knew that it was far better to co-suffer with God’s people than to co-prosper with the pagans:
"By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward." (Hebrews 11:24-26)
When the time was right, Moses left Egypt – and he was sustained by the merciful God who was invisible, and therefore he wasn’t afraid of the wicked Egyptian king who was visible:
"By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible." (Hebrews 11:27)
Moses trusted God’s counsel regarding the unseen future when the Destroyer would pass through the land of Egypt but would pass over every house with the sprinkled blood:
"By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them." (Hebrews 11:28)
In due course, the people of Israel believed that the walls of seawater would continue to hold steady while they walked through the sea:
"By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned." (Hebrews 11:29)
Later, the people of Israel believed that obeying God by marching around Jericho was a better military strategy than building siege works:
"By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days."(Hebrews 11:30)
Rahab the Canaanite didn’t take refuge inside the walls of Jericho, but entrusted herself to the care of God’s people. Concerning the future, she believed that the walls of Jericho would not save her, but that Israel’s God would save her. Therefore, she made the same choice that Moses made and she threw in her lot with the people of God:
"By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies." (Hebrews 11:31)
From Abel’s acceptable worship in verse 4 to Rahab’s hospitality in verse 31 – and everything in between – the inward faith of the faithful was made visible through concrete acts of obedience. True faith is actively engaged in doing God’s will. Faith that doesn’t do what God says isn’t true faith. Faith that doesn’t go where God directs isn’t true faith. Faith that doesn’t live today in light of the promises concerning tomorrow, isn’t true faith. Faith that doesn’t trust God’s Word but instead is duped by outward appearances, isn’t true faith. True faith doesn’t believe popular opinion, media reports, the shouts of the mob, the jabs from the critics, the strength of the walls, or the personal experiences of the past. Faith doesn’t bow the knee to the wicked decrees of pagan rulers. Faith believes God’s Word, and lives accordingly.
The activity of faith is to worship God and walk with Him and obey Him in accordance with His promises and instructions.
THE VICTORIES OF FAITH (Hebrews 11:32-35a)
So far we have pondered the nature of faith, the value of faith, and the activity of faith. The next thing we need to ponder are the victories of faith. Although a few victories of faith were mentioned or implied in verses 4-31, that wasn’t the focus. The focus of verses 4-31 was on God’s Old Testament people walking in obedience and conducting themselves in light of God’s promises. But as we come to verse 32, for three-and-a-half verses we hear about the victories of faith:
"And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection." (Hebrews 11:32-35a)
The emphasis here isn’t the mere fact that faith is active in terms of obedience, but that obedient faith wins great victories against enemies and overcomes great obstacles. In terms of the Scriptures, Hebrews 11:3-31 were an extended reflection on Genesis 1 (which tells us about the creation of the universe by God’s word) through Joshua 6 (which tells us about the fall of Jericho and rescue of Rahab). As the author of Hebrews turns to verse 32, he picks things up with the Book of Judges (which tells us about Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah), then goes to 1-2 Samuel (which tells us about David and Samuel), and then goes to other parts of the Old Testament (which tell us about the prophets).
Gideon conquered the Midianites (Judges 6-8). Barak defeated Sisera’s army (Judges 4-5). Samson wreaked havoc on the Philistines and toppled a Philistine temple (Judges 13-16). Jephthah subdued the Ammonites (Judges 11-12). David subdued many nations, including the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Syrians, the Philistines, and the Edomites (2 Samuel 8). The prophet Samuel anointed Israel’s first two kings, Saul (1 Samuel 10) and David (1 Samuel 16). When Saul failed to carry out the Lord’s instruction, Samuel killed Agag, the king of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). All these “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, [and] obtained promises”.
The prophet Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den because he refused to comply with the king’s outrageous edict, but the lions were subdued and their mouths were stopped (Daniel 6). Also in the Book of Daniel, Daniel’s three friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah – better known to us by their Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego – were thrown into the fiery furnace because they refused to bow down and worship an idol of gold, but they quenched the powerful flames (Daniel 3). Prophets like Elijah (1 Kings 19) and Jeremiah faced stiff opposition (Jeremiah 26, Jeremiah 38), but they escaped. King Hezekiah was overwhelmed by the invading Assyrian army, but the prophet Isaiah spoke to him the Lord’s word: “Do not be afraid” (Isaiah 37:6). In weakness, Hezekiah prayed to the Lord for deliverance. Whether or not the author of Hebrews was thinking of Hezekiah at this point, Hezekiah is a great example of one who was “made strong out of weakness”. In response to Hezekiah’s prayer, the Lord gave His people a great victory over the Assyrian army (Isaiah 37).
In addition to all these victories: “Women received back their dead by resurrection.” In 1 Kings 17, the prophet Elijah restored back to life the son of the widow of Zarephath. In 2 Kings 4, the prophet Elisha – Elijah’s successor – restored back to life the son of the Shunammite woman.
By faith, God’s people participate in God’s work
We ought to say at least two things about these victories of faith. First, while it should be obvious to us that the Lord is the One who granted these great victories, nevertheless Hebrews 11:32-35a tells us that God’s people did these things “through faith” (v. 33). If are reading the Book of Daniel, then we learn that “God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouth” (Daniel 6:22). But Hebrews 11:33 is saying that Daniel “stopped the mouths of lions” – because the whole context of verses 32-35a is telling us what God’s people did “through faith”. So, what does this teach us? What this teaches us is that God delights to work through those who trust Him, and “through faith” those who trust God become participants in what God is doing. God is not dependent upon our faith, but He delights to work through our faith. Daniel 6:22 itself points in this direction when Daniel declares, “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have no harmed me, because I was found blameless before him” (Daniel 6:22, italics added). In other words, Daniel’s faith and faithfulness and blameless were instrumental in God’s decisive action to “shut the lions’ mouth”. Likewise, five of the men mentioned in Hebrews 11:32 subdued foreign armies, but they did so because the Lord gave those armies into their hand. Through faith, those who trust God become participants in what God is doing.
The fact that God’s people accomplish great victories “through faith” shows that the point here is not to exalt man’s ability to accomplish things apart from God. Apart from the Lord we can do nothing of any lasting value. Apart from the Lord people only succeed at building things on faulty foundations that will eventually collapse and bring them and all their works crashing down. But by faith, which indicates our dependence upon the Lord, we participate in the Lord’s work and accomplish things of great value in His sight. God shut the lions’ mouth decisively, and Daniel shut the lions’ mouth instrumentally through faith. God toppled the large idolatrous Philistine temple decisively, and Samson toppled it instrumentally through faith. God subdued Israel’s neighbors decisively, and David subdued these nations instrumentally through faith. God’s people accomplish great things through faith.
Great victories are won in the context of difficult circumstances
The second observation I want to make about these great victories is that these great victories are won in the context of fierce conflict and vulnerable circumstances. In other words, these great victories aren’t a walk in the park. If you want to experience similar victories in your generation, then be advised that you might have to get thrown into a lions’ den, or into a fiery furnace, or into a dungeon. If you want to experience similar victories, then you might have to have an opposing army at the gates. If you want to “[escape] the edge of the sword”, then you’ll first have to be in a place of extreme danger. And women don’t “[receive] back their dead by resurrection” until first of all experiencing the inconsolable grief of a child who has died. So verses 32-35a are not a license to attempt to conquer the world with arrogance and ease. Instead, verses 32-35a drive home the idea that we will often face great obstacles in our heavenward journey – and as we face these great obstacles, we ought to lean on the Lord and trust Him to accomplish great victories through us.
THE SUFFERINGS OF FAITH (Hebrews 11:35b-38)
But there is a flip side to the victories of faith. The flip side to the victories of faith is the sufferings of faith. People who teach that if you have faith then you will necessarily win the same kinds of victories as those described in verses 32-35a are doing you a great disservice, and they are ignoring verses 35b-38. After telling us about the victories of faith, the author of Hebrews immediately switches gears and tells us about the sufferings of faith. To put it simply, sometimes faithful believers “[escape] the edge of the sword” (v. 34), but sometimes faithful believers are “killed with the sword” (v. 37). Listen to verses 35b-38:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:35b-38)
Sometimes the path of obedience involves us in remarkable victories (v. 32-35a), and sometimes the path of obedience involves us in remarkable sufferings (v. 35b-38). In this sinful world, sinful people often treat God’s holy people with contempt. It happened in Old Testament times, it happened in the early church, it has happened throughout the last two-thousand years, and it is happening today in different parts of the world. Abel was killed by his brother (Genesis 4), the prophet Jeremiah was thrown into a mud pit (Jeremiah 38), and the prophet Hanani was put “in the stocks in prison” (2 Chronicles 16:10). According to Jewish tradition, the prophet Isaiah was saw sawn in half – and so this might be what Hebrews 11:37 is referring to by the phrase “sawn in two”. The world loves false prophets who tickle the ears of the unrepentant, but true prophets are typically despised. Jesus said that we ought to consider it a privilege to be suffer like the prophets:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
Let Hebrews 11:32-38 balance your outlook
There is a temptation to be imbalanced when we consider both the victories of faith and the sufferings of faith.
On the one hand, some people are tempted to assume that believers who experience victory are the ones with great faith, whereas the believers who suffer loss are lacking in faith. One of the most perverse forms of this outlook is to assert that if you have faith, then you will be physically healthy and financially wealthy.
On the other hand, some people are tempted to assume that believers who suffer greatly are the ones with great faith, whereas the believers who experience victory and success are lacking in faith – they must have compromised, they must have cut corners, they must not have been outspoken enough, they must be too worldly. Beware your inner critic that assumes the worst about others, and don’t accept the pious-sounding lie that success is bad. Frankly, I’d like the walls of some contemporary Jerichos and some contemporary pagan temples to fall down clear to the ground.
The fact of the matter is that sometimes God chooses to bless His people with remarkable successes in the here and now. And sometimes God chooses to bless His people with remarkable sufferings and setbacks in the here and now. There is no formula for us to follow in order to guarantee a certain outcome. Walk in obedience, period, and trust God with all the varied outcomes, according to His perfect timetable.
THE COMPANY OF FAITH (Hebrews 11:39-40)
The final two verses of Hebrews 11 tell us about the company of faith. Although earlier chapters in Hebrews celebrate the fact that we have enjoy the company of fellow believers who walk beside us now (Hebrews 3:13, Hebrews 10:24-25), the point at the end of Hebrews 11 is that we are in company with “the people of old” (Hebrews 11:2) – with the faithful men and women of former times, some of whom were named for us throughout Hebrews 11. We are bound in fellowship to them and they to us, and their entrance into the city of God is tied to our entrance:
“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:39-40)
Verse 40 gives us remarkable insight into God’s plan. God’s plan is for all of His redeemed people, from every time period and every place, to cross the finish line into eternal glory together. When an individual believer dies, he or she enters the Lord’s presence, and this is a great joy (see 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, Philippians 1:19-24, . But one’s physical death is not the moment when one crosses the finish line into eternal glory. All believers, the ones who have already physically died and the ones who remain physically alive on earth, look forward to receiving the fullness of what is promised: we look forward to our Lord’s glorious return, when He will bring to completion all of God’s purposes for this present world; we look forward to the resurrection of the dead, when our bodies will be raised up and clothed with immortality; we look forward to the final judgment, when God’s faithful people will be vindicated, commended, and rewarded; and we look forward to the unveiling of God’s glorious city in a new heaven and a new earth, when the curse will be removed and God’s dwelling place will be with His people. Then and only then, all of God’s redeemed people, in resurrected bodies, and glorified with Christ, will cross the finish line into eternal glory. Let this sink in: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah and Rahab, Joseph and Daniel will not be “made perfect” apart from us. All of God’s redeemed people will be “made perfect” together.
THE SINGLEMINDED DETERMINATION OF FAITH (Hebrews 12:1)
This grand company of God’s faithful people from the past, and the fact that their future perfection in the fulfillment of God’s promises is tied to our future, should stir us up to diligence:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Hebrews 12:1 gives us the single-minded determination of faith. This single-minded determination is pressed upon us in view of a great cloud – a great company, a great multitude – of witnesses. These Old Testament saints obtained a good testimony by faith, and now Scripture’s testimony about their good character stands forth as a testimony to us, that we should consider their good testimony and imitate their faith. It is as if these Old Testament saints are witnessing to us and telling us that God is faithful and God’s way is good and we should never throw in the towel. How should we imitate their faith? By not fooling around – by not treating faith like something that you hide away in your purse, by not treating faith like an insurance card that you rarely use. If you are a Christian believer, you have one responsibility: “run”! “[Let] us run with endurance the race that is set before us”. As a good runner, get rid of everything that interferes with effective running: “lay aside every weight” and throw off “sin which clings so closely”. Mobilize your entire body and your entire life for forward spiritual movement:
“Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that that is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.” (Hebrews 12:12-16)
Make sure you have some good running partners: “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13) Let’s run the race together!
THE FOCAL POINT OF FAITH (Hebrews 12:2)
Last but not least, we come to the focal point of faith. A good runner doesn’t simply run; he runs in a particular direction to a particular destination. While the believer keeps all of God’s varied and glorious promises in view, nevertheless all of those varied and glorious promises have a focal point, and this focal point is Jesus:
“… let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
It is only through the blood of Jesus that we have been brought into fellowship with God in the first place:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:19-22)
In and of ourselves we are sinful and needy creatures, we are vulnerable to temptation, we are apt to become dull and sluggish, we are prone to get droopy hands and weak knees, and we need the continual help and gracious support that our great high priest provides to us (see Hebrews 4:14-16).
Jesus is both “the founder and perfecter of our faith”. From start to finish, He is our Savior and King. He is our great high priest and perfect mediator, from beginning to end. He is also our example. The Father set incomparable joy before our Lord Jesus: the joy of pleasing His Father, the joy of bringing all of the Father’s covenant purposes to completion, the joy of winning His bride and bringing her all the way home to God’s heavenly city, and the joy of ensuring that one day the glory of God will cover the earth even as the waters cover the sea. For the sake of these unmatched joys, Jesus “endured the cross”. Jesus knew that the shame of cross was not worthy to be compared with the glory that would flow from the cross. Therefore He disregarded the shame and fixed His delight on the promised joy. Jesus had perfect “assurance of things hoped for” and perfect “conviction of things not seen”, and therefore He laid down His life for the salvation of His people. He endured the sufferings of faith – mocking, flogging, mistreatment, and crucifixion. But through these very things He won the victories of faith – He conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouth of the accuser, quenched the power of death, and put Satan’s armies to flight. Now He “is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” – and from that place of power, He is steadfast to leverage His unlimited sovereign authority to “rescue [you] from every evil deed and bring you safely into his heavenly kingdom.” (2 Timothy 4:18)
WHERE ARE YOU AT?
Now that you have heard this message about the various aspects of true faith, let me ask you this simple question: is this true, biblical, and lively faith present and operational in you? If it is, then let faith have its full effect in a life of holiness, obedience, and diligence to stay near to Jesus. But if you know that your heart is bankrupt and without this saving faith, I advise you to quit playing games, and to be restless and troubled and out of sorts, until you make Jesus the “sure and steadfast anchor of [your] soul” (Hebrews 6:19). He is the only anchor that will never fail you.
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