At the close of chapter 10 the Hebrew writer said, "we are not of them that shrink back unto perdition: but of them that have faith unto the saving of the soul" (10:39). These words expressed confidence that his readers would remain with those whose faith would save them instead of returning to the Jewish religion, wherein was no salvation. Continuing into chapter 11 with this thought the author of Hebrews defines what he means by faith. Faith is defined as "assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen" (11:1). The NIV translates it, "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." It is faith which stands under and supports ("substance"--KJV) the things we hope for. It is a conviction of things we cannot see because it is a conviction in things in the spiritual realm, or things of the past or future. By such a surety and certainty "the elders had witness borne to them" that they were faithful (11:2,39).
The author of Hebrews could have gone into a detailed explanation of faith at this point but he chose, rather, to show what saving faith is by showing the lives of men and women who lived by faith. Drawing from Old Testament characters his readers were will acquainted with, he shows that the faith that saves is the faith that obeys.
He begins with Abel who "by faith...offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain"(11:4). The story of Cain and Abel is recorded in Genesis 4:1-5. Since "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (KJV-Rom.10:17), we understand both Cain and Abel were given instructions from God about these sacrifices. Abel alone had the kind of faith that saves because he had the kind of faith that motivated him to do whatever his heavenly Father would tell him to do. He had a faith that obeyed. Through his faith, Abel had "witness borne to him that he was righteous" (see also Matt.23:35; 1 Jn.3:12). The faith that saves is the faith that obeys.
He next considers Enoch (11:5,6). "Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him"(Gen.5:24). God's law is that all men die (cf.9:27). Enoch, however, did not see death. According to our author, this was due to his faith. The faith of Enoch was seen not just at the time of his translation. Before that time he was found to be "well-pleasing unto God". But "without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him". For Enoch to have been well-pleasing to God he had to have faith in God. We also must have faith in God before we can be well-pleasing unto Him. He had a faith which allowed him to avoid the corruption of the grave.
Next he considers Noah (11:7). "By faith" he "prepared an ark to the saving of his house". When we consider the circumstances of Noah's story we see his great faith. God warned Noah of something which had never happened before ("things not seen as yet"): a "flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; every thing that is in the earth shall die" (Gen.6:17). Noah, out of a "conviction of things not seen" (11:1), was moved to do all God had commanded him to do (Gen.6:22). He possessed saving faith because the faith he had moved him to obey God's will. Again, the faith that saves is the faith that obeys.
Finally, there is Abraham and Sarah (11:8-12). "By faith" he "obeyed to go out unto a place which he was to receive for an inheritance" and "became a sojourner in the land of promise". He obeyed by faith because he did what God said "not knowing whither he went". Once again we see the kind of faith that saves: faith that causes one to do whatever God directs them to do. Sarah also is seen a character of faith. She was well beyond the years to bear children, being 90 years old (cf.Gen.17:17). Since she "counted him faithful who had promised", she was able to conceive seed. Because of the faith of Abraham and Sarah, they began the great Israelite nation which eventually numbered "as the stars of heaven in multitude, and as the sand, which is by the sea-shore, innumerable".
"These all died in faith, not having received the promises" (11:13). Even though they did not themselves receive the fulfillment of God's promises, they, by their faith in God, kept going. They kept God's promises before their minds realizing they were strangers on earth who desired a better country. With such faith "God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God" (11:16).
In this final section of chapter 11, the writer dwells upon examples of faith put to the test. Living by faith often calls for making tough decisions, courage, and endurance. The original readers of Hebrews needed to have that kind of quality faith. So do we!
The author of Hebrews first looks at Abraham as an example of faith put to the test (11:17-19). Abraham's faith was put to a test many of us perhaps could not pass. He was told to offer his only son, Isaac (see Gen.22:1-19). Abraham's faith in God was such he was willing to kill his own son to obey his Father and remain well-pleasing unto Him. This he was willing to do in spite of the fact the promises of God to Abraham were supposed to be fulfilled in his son Isaac (see Gen.21:12). He knew that to obey God's commands would not set at naught God's promises. He knew if he obeyed everything God told him to do, he would be taken care of and, some how, the promises made to him would be fulfilled, even if this meant raising Isaac from the dead (11:19). Abraham passed this test of his faith.
Another example of faith put to the test is found in Moses (11:23-28). By faith he "refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to share ill treatment with the people of God". The choice he made reflected the kind of faith he had in God. Another test of his faith came when he went to Egypt to lead God's people out of their bondage. Once again his faith was strong enough to do as God had directed him even though it meant going before a powerful and wicked Pharaoh. Time and again Moses had the kind of faith that saves: faith that obeys and faith that passes all tests.
Several other examples of living by faith and faith put to the test are given, but the author realizes he cannot continue because of so many who are wonderful examples of faith in the Old Testament. In summary fashion he mentions several more names of outstanding people of faith (11:32) and alludes to several things done or endured through the centuries by faith (11:33-38).
All these "obtained a good report through faith" yet "received not the promise" (KJV-11:39). They had lived their lives in faith and were, therefore, acceptable before God. Yet God's appointed time had not yet come so the promises they sought after remained unfulfilled (cf.Gal.4:4). In all these examples of faith we see how faith truly is "assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen" (11:1).
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