Hebrews 11:17-40

Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 48, November 23 to November 29 2008

Hebrews 11:17-40

A Sermon




By Scott Lindsay



"On December 5th, 1989, Daniel Goleman, covering the social-science beat for the New York Times, gave considerable space to what he referred to as ‘recent research findings.' The "research" to which Mr Goleman referred was a report put out by a team of psychologists who, after intensive study, discovered — wait for it: that people fear death. This stunning discovery led the researchers to formulate a ‘sweeping theory.' What was this "sweeping theory"? That the fear of death plays a central and often unsuspected role in psychological life.'"

So writes Neil Postman in his book, Technopoly, taking a slight dig at some of the silliness that academics can sometimes get up to as they boldly proclaim these amazing "discoveries" that people like you and me, who have likely never done any significant research, have known about for quite some time! I mean, just imagine it: People are afraid of death, and this fear, apparently, has an effect upon the way they live. Wow.

As they say back in South Louisiana, "Who'd have thunk it?"

Well, as silly as all of that is, it does introduce a reality that is found in the verses before us this evening. Because, in fact, one common theme that runs in the background throughout this section of Hebrews is the theme of death and, in particular, how God's faithful people have responded to it. That, among other things, is what we will be looking at this evening. Before we do, however, let's pray together.....

Now those of you who have spent any time at all in this book will know that in this letter the writer has been taking aim at people who have had a pretty rough time of it because of their faith - so much so that some of them had apparently begun turning away from their professed faith in Jesus and were embracing again their Jewish heritage - or perhaps a modified form of that heritage. They were turning away from Christ and foolishly turning back to all the things that Christ had come to fulfill and replace. In other words, they were walking away from the real thing that could actually save them, and going back to the former things which had no power to save whatsoever. Not the greatest decision in the world.

So, to try and prevent any more people from drifting away, and perhaps call back some who had already left the fold, the writer of Hebrews puts out this letter which contains two basic elements: 1) arguments showing how Jesus was superior TO and the fulfillment OF everything that the Old Testament anticipated and 2) warnings about the dangers of turning one's back on Christ and walking away.

Now, the first 10 and a half chapters of this letter have been laying those things out in a pretty thorough fashion. The last part of the letter, which I take to be from about 10:19 onward, is where we find ourselves this evening, and is where the writer of Hebrews is concerned, generally speaking, with applying the theology or "theory" of the first 10 and a half chapters, bringing it to bear on the particular situation of his readers in practical and encouraging ways.

Now, the verses just prior to the one we are currently looking at - Hebrews 11:1-16 are, as you would well know, some of the better known verses of Scripture and ones that have been well-loved by Gods' people throughout the ages - and for good reason. In them, we find many of the more prominent figures from the Bible - the "Hall of Faith" - as some have called it. To be sure, through these verses we are certainly reminded of God's great love and power and purposes and of the exemplary faithfulness of his people every step of the way.

However, as popular as these verses are, it seems to me that they are not always well understood in terms of how they relate to the rest of what is said in this letter. In other words, I think it is worth the effort to spend some time thinking about why it is that the writer of Hebrews, out of all the things that he might have said about faith, chose to focus his attention on the particular things that he did say, in this section of his letter.

When you do that, or at least when I do that, the conclusion I come to is this: the reason the writer of Hebrews, in 11:1-16, emphasizes that faith is being assured and convinced of the reality of things that have never been seen or even fully realized is because that was what his original readers most needed to remember about faith. Why? Because of their present circumstances. Because what they could see, all around them, was very distressing and dis-heartening. They had left behind their former way of life and practice and embraced the Gospel, with all its attendant promises, only to see those same promises un-realized, un-fulfilled - at least in terms of their present existence.

So, knowing this is the experience of his readers, the writer of Hebrews takes that reality and systematically proceeds to show them that what they are experiencing now is, in fact, what God's people have always experienced from day one, from the creation of the world onward through Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah. In short, he showed them that their experience, while difficult, was neither unique, nor fatal to faith. On the contrary, their circumstances were the very ones in which faith had thrived in the past. If it had thrived in the days of the Old Testament, before the fuller revelation of Christ, how much more should it be able to thrive and flourish after all that has been revealed about the Lord Jesus?

Well, having hopefully encouraged his readers with those words, the writer of Hebrews has even more to say, by way of encouragement and so it is that we pick up our study at verse 17 of chapter 11, and working through to the end of the chapter. Hear now the Word of the Lord:

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. By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones. 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. 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. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies. 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. 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. 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.
Picking up with verse 17, we see the writer of Hebrews continuing to "catalogue" for his readers, as he has been doing in verses 1-16, this impressive list of their spiritual forefathers, all of whom exhibited the same sort of persevering faith and conviction that he wants his readers to imitate.

Right out of the blocks, we see him talking about Abraham, about whom he has already made some comments. In verses 17-19, he cites what is, arguably, the greatest demonstration of faith out of many such demonstrations in Abraham's life - namely, the faith he showed when God told him to sacrifice his only son.

This is the same son, as you will no doubt remember, that God had promised to Abraham and Sarah, and through whom God said that he would make Abraham into a great nation. It is that son which God tells Abraham to offer up in sacrifice.

Amazingly, and with seemingly little resistance, Abraham takes his son and heads off to do precisely what God has commanded. The text of Hebrews sheds light on how it was that he was able to reconcile in his own mind these two, seemingly contradictory, realities.

On the one hand, he had God's gift of a son through whom his promises would flow. On the other hand, he had God's instructions to kill that same son. The very natural and understandable question to ask in the wake of those sorts of things is: How does that work? I mean, I don't know about you, but if I had been in Abraham's shoes I would be saying, "...Uh...you wanna run that one by me one more time God.....because I'm not really tracking with you on this one....?" That is what I would do.

However, as the writer of Hebrews makes plain, Abraham does not even seem to flinch at what has been suggested. Why? Because, as verse 19 shows, Abraham had reckoned that even if God had him go through with this gruesome request, then He would simply have to raise his son back from the dead. There was no other possibility in Abraham's mind. There was no doubt in his mind that God could do it, or would do it, if it came to that. The amazing thing is the faith that lay behind this reasoning - faith that resulted in incredible, trusting obedience. While Abraham did not know what would happen - he could not "see" how this was all going to work out - the two things he DID know were that God must be obeyed and God would keep his promises.

As you may recall, at the last moment, when the knife was raised and Abraham's heart, surely was breaking, God stayed Abraham's hand and sent him to retrieve a substitute sacrifice instead - a ram that had gotten caught in a nearby thicket. So, Isaac was spared, and Abraham's faith confirmed.

The writer then briefly mentions two descendants of Abraham - Isaac, and then Jacob, Abraham's grandson. With Isaac, you have the story of a man who, before his twin sons, Jacob and Esau were born, was told prophetically, by means of something that God had revealed to his wife, that his oldest son (Esau) would serve his younger son (Jacob). In other words, the typical arrangements by which the firstborn son was to receive the greater blessing and inheritance, were not to hold true in this particular case.

Yet, in spite of being told this, as the boys grew older, Isaac repeatedly ignored what God had revealed and increasingly favored his oldest son to the very end of his life. Even as Isaac was dying and preparing to pass on his fatherly blessing, he was still not willing to accept what God had said about his sons and it took the trickery of his own wife - who often gets a bad rap for this - but it took the trickery of his wife, who knew full well what God had said - to cause Isaac's blessing to fall on Jacob, and not Esau. Where is Isaac's faith in all this, you might ask?

The faith of Isaac is not seen at that initial occasion of blessing, in Genesis 27, but later on, in Genesis 28:1-5, when Isaac, now humbled and repentant, willingly and knowingly sends his son Jacob away, confirming that he is indeed the one through whom the promises to Abraham would flow. You gotta believe that this was no easy thing for Isaac to do. Why? Because he had watched his son Jacob grow up. He knew the many deceptions that Jacob had been involved in.

In other words, he knew his son's character, or lack thereof. I'm quite certain that, humanly speaking, Issac could not see how this one who seemed so undeserving would be the channel and vehicle of God's blessings. Thus, it took a great deal of faith for Isaac to say what he did in Genesis 28:4.

Fittingly and providentially, as Hebrews 11:21 shows, it is this same Jacob who perpetuates this pattern of older serving the younger when his son Joseph brings his boys, Manasseh and Ephraim, to receive blessing from their grandfather. So, as Joseph approached Jacob, he positioned Manasseh, the older one, so that he would be on Jacob's right, the place of greater honor, and Ephraim, the younger, so that he would be on the left.

However, Jacob, undaunted by this, when the boys draw near, reaches out and crosses his hands, placing his right hand on Ephraim, the younger and thus confirming upon him the greater blessing.

Surely as he did this, he would have to be remembering this pattern in his own life, remembering his own father's words, thinking about how it must have taken great faith for his father to do what he did - for Jacob knew he was a different man now than he was then. Thus, his repetition of his father's own pattern would likely have been a bittersweet moment for him, as well as an act of faith itself.

The writer then mentions the figure of Joseph who, at the end of his life, gave instructions for what they were to do with his bones WHEN, not IF, they departed from Egypt and went to the land God had promised them, even though none of these things would take place for decades.

From there the writer goes on, in verses 23-29, to talk about the role that faith played throughout the life and times of Moses. You see it first of all in Moses' parents who, in defiance of a royal decree, hid their son at the risk of their own lives. You then see it in Moses himself, in a number of situations:

...you see it when he chose to turn his back on a life of affluence and comfort and self-indulgence to identify with his people, even in the midst of their poverty and hardship...

...you see it when he, together with his people, kept the Passover. That is, instead of fleeing, he chose to trust God and remain where they were, even as this plague of death descended upon them, trusting that the lamb's blood that was spread across their doorposts, as God had commanded, would be sufficient...

...you see it when he, also with his people, crossed between the parted waters of the Red Sea, as if on dry land, with deadly waters on either side of them, trusting that God would see them through...

Well, after speaking of Moses, the writer finally and briefly recalls two more events that came from another fairly notable period in the history of God's people - the life and times of Joshua, who succeeded Moses.

One of the events in view here concerns the conquest of Jericho which, certainly, was an amazing and indeed, an amazingly bizarre situation. Think about it. It just was not the usual practice in warfare for people to "take" a city by marching around it for seven days and blowing loud horns, and shouting at the top of their lungs. Who fights battles like that? How in the world was that going to deliver this great, fortified city into the hands of God's people under Joshua? Yet it did just that. It took a certain amount of faith to carry out God's instructions in this manner. That is what God's people did. The walls came tumbling down.

There was also the incident regarding Rahab - a Gentile and a prostitute no less! - and yet a woman who had seen and heard things about the God of Israel, and had come to embrace those things as true and, in response, and in faith, risked her own life to hide and protect some of God's people who had come to her town as spies to bring a report back to Joshua…………….

Now, a question that comes at this point is, "What do we DO with all this? Where is all of this going?"

It seems to me as we look back across all these examples there are surely MANY things we could say about all of these passages together in terms of what they have in common. Nevertheless, one thing that stands out, for me at least, is this exercising of faith, which does not know what the future holds, but is still confident in the One who is leading them into it.

For some of God's people, as verses 32-35a summarizes for us, their confident faithfulness saw them through some times of great victory, times when kingdoms were conquered, times when the mouths of lions were shut and times when they were protected from a fiery death.

Then, for others of God's people, as verses 35b-38 show, they saw the opposite end of the spectrum. Their faith saw them looking straight into the face of death. Some of them were tortured, some were imprisoned, some were stoned, some were sawn in half. In short, some through faith, escaped the sword while others, through the same faith, felt the edge of the sword, quite literally.

However, the thing that the writer of Hebrews wants his readers to see is the constancy of faith, regardless of the outcome. He wants them to see that God's people have always shown themselves to be those that believe, and continue to believe, God's promises, even and especially when the future was dark and uncertain. All these, the writer of Hebrews says, "though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised."

He then concludes with this marvelous statement in verse 40 by which the writer of Hebrews links both the faith and future of God's promises to these great heroes of the faith WITH the faith and future of the people to whom he is writing. He does it because he wants his readers to see that what he is saying about these people of old is not unrelated to them but quite the opposite - it is intimately and totally related to them. The promises and future that God's people of old looked forward to then are the same promises and future that God's people now are to look forward to.

The fulfillment and perfection that they longed for and trusted God to provide was the same fulfillment and perfection that God had provided through his Son, and which was and is effective for God's people in every age. In other words, the writer of Hebrews is telling his readers that God had them in mind, way back then. He is telling them that Abraham's story isn't over yet, that Moses' story isn't over yet, that Jacob's story isn't over yet - why? - because their — the recipients of this letter — their story isn't over yet. He is not simply telling them to imitate the faithfulness of their forefathers. The writer of Hebrews is telling his readers that the future of God's people way back then, is inseparably tied up with their future, and indeed with the future of God's people in every age.

What an encouragement to be reminded that God has had you in mind all along! What an encouragement to be reminded that this great story that you have always been told about is, in fact, an ongoing one and that it is your story, that you are one of its characters!

What an encouragement to be told that there is a direct and real connection between you and these people you have admired from such a great distance! Even more, what an encouragement to realize that their future is still going on, that it is in fact the same future toward which you are heading and that - one day - you will actually meet these people and share an eternity with them.

Friends, those same encouragements are as real for us today as they were for the original readers of this letter. The men and women catalogued here do not belong to some foreign, alien people. These are our people. This is our family. The assurance and conviction that they had, even in the face of un-realized promises, is the same faith and assurance we are to have. It is our confidence in these things - that guides us into the future, that affects the decisions we make here and now. These are the sorts of things that give shape to our life - not the things around us, not our fears of where our faithfulness may take us, even if that path leads to an untimely death, even when that path leads us to certain death……….

I do not know if you follow at all the presidential campaigning. Do you? It is ridiculous, isn't it? It is so embarrassing. When I was a boy, it did not seem to be as bad as it is today. But now, what used to be about a 6 month run-up to an election has become this 2 year marathon where all you hear about is what who said about whom and then that gets rebutted with pathetic explanations of why what they said didn't at all mean what, on the surface, it seems to most certainly have meant.

It just goes on and on. vHowever, as bad as that is, it is not the worst part of it. The part of the whole thing that bothers me the most, I think, is watching these candidates constantly re-invent themselves - right before your very eyes. As they shift and move from place to place, so many of them, it seems to me, have no real sense of direction. So many of them seem to be almost entirely molded and shaped by the forces all around them. They are whatever the opinion polls suggest they should be. They are chameleon-like in their substance, ready and willing to become whatever will coordinate with the particular context in which they find themselves from one moment to the next.

Then every once in a while, you get this candidate who is very different, who is not chameleon-like at all. One who seems to have some sort of guidance system in place, something internal. When I see these people, I remember what Os Guinness once said when he was describing some of God's saints from the past. He said they were "like people who had swallowed gyroscopes." People that seem to have some sort of built-in compass or GPS system that seems to influence them - not to conform to their surroundings but to sometimes fly right in the face of the cultural winds blowing all around them. You do not see that a lot on the political scene. However, on the rare occasion that you do, it is pretty refreshing.

But at the end of the day — that's just politics. Nevertheless, I say all of those things, just so that I can say this: AS people of the promise, we are not to be like those who are defined, and guided, by what is going on around us, or even by what is happening to us. As people of God we too are to be like those who are guided and defined and shaped by something internal - something inside - by a real confidence in God, by trusting that He will bring to completion all that He has started, that he will fully deliver on every one of his promises - even when those promises are so far away that they can barely be seen.

Let there be no doubt. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us here - the outcomes for people of faith can be wildly different, can't they? Moving forward in faith is no guarantee of any particular future, is it? It is not a guarantee that you will see blessing any more than it is a guarantee that you will suffer greatly for the kingdom. You may see a lot of some and much less of the other. But the truth is that there is no guaranteed outcome for God's people in this life. It is not the prospect of a particular outcome that is to shape us. That is not where our confidence lies. That is not where we find certainty. That is not the determinant of our choices and decisions.

As I was preparing this message, I came across this story about a shooting rampage that happened in Moscow, Idaho a little while ago by a very disturbed man named Jason Hamilton. However, the story I read did not talk about Jason Hamilton. It talked about a young man named Pete Husmann, who, in the midst of that horror and chaos, while all the shooting was still going on, did not run for cover. Instead, he ran and got a weapon, and then ran back into the chaos, looking for the shooter, hoping to do something about it, hoping to perhaps prevent him from shooting any more people. As it turned out, Pete Husmann nearly lost his life, taking three bullets in the process.

When the story came out later, it was revealed that this young man was a professing Christian and one writer, summing up what happened on that day, said this: "While everyone else was running away from the shooting, Pete ran toward it. While everyone else was afraid they would die, Pete was afraid that others would get hurt. Pete had no desire to be shot or to die. That was not on his mind. What was on his mind was the good that needed doing. What a great kid. Pete acted with freedom and love because Pete was not controlled by the fear of death. Pete is free to live because he is not afraid to die." And thus the writer summed up the story….

For Pete Husmann, caught in the midst of this horrible circumstance, his faith in an unseen future and his conviction of the surety of God's promises gave him tremendous freedom to not be controlled by his fear of death but to move past it. It gave him great freedom to live and act in ways that seem almost unbelievable to a watching world.

So, faith can manifest itself in all sorts of ways and in the midst of all sorts of circumstances — even extreme ones like the one just cited. In exercising our faith, we are not guided by any guarantees that things will turn out favorably for us — at least not here. Instead, we are guided by a reliance on the God who is faithful to himself, faithful to his own promises, and faithful to his own people. We are guided by our confidence in a God who owns our ultimate futures - and every step in between then and now. Some of those steps will be frightening ones, in dark and dreadful places.

However, sometimes it will not be scary or frightening. Sometimes it will be something else. Sometimes it will be painful. Sometimes the consequences will not be as dires as all that. Sometimes they will seem more day-to-day, even though they will still be quite real and strong. Sometimes living this way — by faith - will mean making a choice - and not necessarily a dramatic choice - but a choice, nonetheless, that everyone else says you should not make.

John Piper, in reflecting on this chapter - and specifically the verses about Abraham and his terrible choice of obeying God, even in the extreme situation where he was asked to sacrifice his son - but reflecting on that reality, and looking for ways to apply these things to his congregation and to encourage them to exercise a similar sort of confidence to that displayed here, writes:

For many of you right now - and for others of you the time is coming - [when being obedient] feels like the end of a dream. You feel that if you do what the word of God or the Spirit of God is calling you to do, it will make you miserable and that there is no way that God could turn it all for good.
Piper then goes on to offer some examples of what he is talking about that are aimed at his congregation:
Perhaps the command or call of God you hear just now is to stay married or stay single, to stay in that job or leave that job, to get baptized, to speak up at work about Christ, to refuse to compromise your standards of honesty, to confront a person in sin, to venture a new vocation, to be a missionary. And as you see it in your limited mind, the prospect of doing this is terrible - it's like the loss of Isaac. You have considered every human angle, and it is impossible that it could turn out well. Now you know what it was like for Abraham. This story is in the Bible for you. It is in this message for you. It is at the end of [this] message so that you will not easily be able to walk away from it.
And if I could jump in at this point and supplement and modify Piper's comments in ways more specific to families and individuals who are engaged in full-time Christian work - or are preparing to do so, I would re-cast Piper's words in this way:
Perhaps the command or call of God you hear just now is to stay in that place that seems so hard, that feels like it is sucking the life out of you. Perhaps it is just the opposite, to leave behind a place that is steady and comfortable, and move into a ministry that is risky, uncertain, obscure and costly. Perhaps the call is to deal with that person or persons that God has placed in your congregation to be a means by which he applies his sanctifying grace, that person who is so hard to love, and even harder to forgive - and yet is there precisely for that reason - to show you how pathetic you are at loving people and how un-like your Father you are when it comes to forgiveness.
In the face of all these sorts of realities, Piper asks his congregation some pretty pointed questions which I would now, in a similar fashion, address to you:
Do you desire God and his way and his promises more than anything, and do you believe that he can and will honor your faith and obedience by being unashamed to call himself your God, and to use all his wisdom and power and love to turn the path of obedience into the path of life and joy?
Are you willing to believe that God's promises are bigger than your fears, and surer and more to be desired than even your own dreams? Are you willing to imitate the faith of these - your spiritual ancestors, your family - a faith that involved their being assured and convinced of the reality of things that have never been seen or even fully realized?

Are you willing to walk in that way, and to follow on that path?

By the grace of God, you can.



This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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