This is What Faith Looks Like


Hebrews 11:1-12:3

Reader: Ele Bender

What is biblical “faith”? People often say, “just have faith, it will work out” to encourage someone facing serious problems or stressful situations. That kind of “faith” is ridiculous, to be blunt for it is not based on anything concrete and is just merely “hope” being given in an attempt to comfort. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines faith as being to “have a belief and trust in and loyalty to God”, or, to “have a firm belief in something for which there is no proof”. Again, those definitions miss the mark of what biblical faith is. But in Matthew 9, we find an example of biblical faith when two blind men came to Jesus and asked Him to heal them. Jesus first asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” and their reply was, “Yes, Lord.” “Then He touched their eyes saying, ‘According to your faith let it be to you.’ And their eyes were opened.” Now, that was faith. Though they did not know Jesus, they had heard about him, and they trusted him and believed in him. They had faith in advance that Jesus could do what they asked because they knew his history. You see, biblical faith is based upon historical facts. No one would have “faith” if there was nothing to base that faith on. Biblical faith is based upon encounters with God and upon one’s history of experiencing God. It is much more than just throwing out hopeful statements or even just “believing”. The apostle James, a half-brother of Jesus, wrote about what he called, “dead faith” which is when one “believes” in God but does nothing with that belief.

“You believe that there is one God. Good! But even the demons believe that – and shudder! You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” (James 2:19-20).

In his letter, James then goes on to write about how Abraham’s “faith” was made evident by his willingness to act, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his only and much-loved son Isaac, even though Isaac was the promised heir of the covenant God had made with Abraham and his descendants. You remember the story: God had promised covenantal blessings to come to Abraham and his descendants and then on to all the peoples on the earth through the birth of a son, Isaac. Abraham reckoned, when Isaac was a boy, “If God wants me to sacrifice my son to prove my devotion to Him, I will do it.” God, of course, in His mercy and compassion, intervened, not allowing such a thing to happen (child sacrifice is a sin) but as James points out, Abraham was commended for acting:

“You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not be faith alone”. (James 2:24)

That is “living faith”, biblical faith. If we simply believe in Jesus as a good man or teacher or believe that God exists or is the Creator, what good does that do? What difference does that make in our lives or in the lives of others. Believing with acting on that faith puts us on the same faith level as demons for demons believe in God the Father and in Jesus Christ, and yet their belief does nothing good for them. Biblical faith is, having heard about or personally experienced the Lord’s presence and actions, we then step forward in faith, asking him to act in the present and future in the same manner as he has acted in the past.

Hebrews 11 is called in Christian circles, the “Hall of Faith” chapter. You’ve heard of a the “Hockey Hall of Fame” in Toronto, or the “Baseball Hall of Fame” in Cooperstown, New York, or the “Rock and Rock Hall of Fame” in Cleveland, Ohio? Well, in a play on that “Hall of Fame” title, chapter 11 of Hebrews is likewise a celebration of certain Old Testament characters accomplishments in their lives and is called the “Hall of Faith”. In it, we will see that biblical faith is made up of:

Intellectual assent and trust. Intellectual assent is believing “something” to be true (“yes” to facts). Trust is actually relying on the fact that the “something” is true (because you know that a thing about God is true, you can have faith for the present and for the future).

A chair is often used to help illustrate this. Intellectual assent is recognizing that a chair is a chair and agreeing that it is designed to support a person who sits on it. Trust is actually sitting in the chair. Understanding these two aspects of faith is crucial. Many people believe certain facts about Jesus Christ and intellectually agree with the facts that the Bible declares about Jesus. But knowing those facts to be true is not what the Bible means by “faith.” The biblical definition of faith requires intellectual assent to the facts and then trusting enough in the facts you know to actually act, to sit in the chair, as it were. Last week, we read the final verse in chapter 10 which stated,

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (Hebrews 10:39)

The writer was trying to encourage his readers, to give them courage that they would not lose hope. How would he do that? By looking back on some of the saints of old and seeing how they not only intellectually assented to God’s actions in their lives, they also then acted on that knowledge, trusting in Him. They had been tempted – just as many of us “moderns” are – to place their confidence only in what they could see around them, the temporary visible things of the world, and not in the invisible, eternal realities of God. The writer stated:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3)

At one time John Bunyan who authored Pilgrims Progress was tortured by uncertainty. He wrote, “Everyone thinks his own religion is the true one. The Jews, Muslims, Moors and Pagans, and what if all our faith in Christ and scriptures is only but a think so also?” But then a light of revelation broke through for him and he knew that God was with him, and that Christianity is true. It is sad that on that day, John Bunyan ran out from his house crying out the words, “Now I know! I know!” His Christian faith was hope turned to certainty.

The great achievers in history have been men and women who could see the invisible and strive to reach it. This was not just biblical people, but people of “faith” who truly believed in a thing because they had some knowledge of it or evidence for it. Explorers, inventors, liberators, and pioneers in every field have been characterized by the steady penetrating eye that sees the invisible and strives for the seemingly impossible. The author of Hebrews encouraged his readers to “live by faith, not by sight”, and he pointed to the example of the giants of the faith from the Old Testament, starting with Abel, Enoch, and Noah. Dead men do tell tales, as it turns out. They are not silent, but still speak to those who will listen. Abel lived when the earth was new. He was of the second generation of humankind, but he has something to teach us for he did what God wanted, giving to God of the best of his flocks, unlike his brother Cain who sloppily gave to God “some” of his crops. God blessed Abel as a result.

The second hero of faith is Enoch for he exemplifies living or walking by faith. The father of the more-famous Methuselah (the oldest man in the Bible), Enoch walked in submissive harmony with God. Although he lived during a corrupt age that was headed for the judgment of Noah’s flood, Enoch did not conform to the standard of the age in which he lived but walked in accordance with the standards of God’s righteousness and kept his life pure. Faith produced a life so pleasing to God that God carried him across into heaven without physical death. Such faith pleases God, as we will hear read.

The third hero of faith written about is Noah. When God first told Noah to start building an ark, there was no rain. The neighbours mocked and ridiculed but Noah kept on building – for 120 years, we are told! Noah listened to and then heeded God’s word. He lived out his faith. And he was rewarded for it.

An oft-told story concerns the pastor whose congregation had gathered to pray to God for rain in the middle of a drought, asking for relief from the long, hot, rainless, dry spell. The pastor asked his congregation if they believed in God’s ability to send rain to their parched land. They all responded, “Yes!” But then the pastor rebuked his congregation and pointed out their lack of faith by asking, “If you have faith in God, then why didn’t any of you bring umbrellas today?” Noah believed God and acted on that belief by building the ark, in faith.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And 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. By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith. (Hebrews 11:4-7)

That verse 6 always challenges me, “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.” We will look at that verse again next week, but about A.D. 150, fierce anti-Christian persecution erupted in Asia Minor. One of the most famous examples of these trials occurred in the city of Smyrna in A.D. 150. The rabble of the city demanded that Christian leaders swear obedience to Caesar by burning incense before his statue and affirming, “Caesar is Lord.” A man named Polycarp was the Christian bishop of the church in Smyrna. His persistent devotion to Christ for decades had made him a highly visible figure. The Roman authorities sent soldiers to get the aged Christian leader. The captain of the guard, probably wanting to spare Polycarp from the coming hardship of being burned at the stake, asked Polycarp, “what harm is there in saying that Caesar is Lord? Just swear loyalty to Caesar and save yourself.” But Polycarp refused and the soldiers dragged him to the city coliseum. There the ruling governor of that area pleaded with Polycarp: “Consider your age. Swear by the divinity of Caesar. Just say, revile Christ and you will be set free. Take the oath of loyalty to Caesar, and I will let you go.” Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years have I served Christ, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my Savior and King?” Further argument by the authorities with Polycarp proved useless, and they burned him at the stake. Polycarp’s martyrdom did two things: 1. It produced a temporary revulsion against martyrdoms among the pagan population. The pagan crowd had no stomach for burning old men at the stake. 2. It also gave Christians a high level of credibility before their pagan neighbors. If Christianity could produce people like Polycarp, the pagans wondered, and a great turning to Christianity resulted. Polycarp believed, and he acted on that belief. That is biblical faith. Listen, I am not asking you to be burned at a stake but I am asking that you act on the faith you have and do something significant for the Lord, because you know that he is with you.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so, from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. (Hebrews 11:8-12)

There are only two ways to live. One way, by far the most common, is to live by sight, to base everything on what you can see. This is an empirical or scientific way. The other way, far less common, is to live by faith, to base your life primarily and ultimately on what you cannot see, but which you believe to be possible because you have experienced or heard about God in the past or present. Abraham and Sarah lived by faith. God told Abraham to move from his home in Ur, Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) and move south to a Promised Land called Canaan (today’s Israel). There, God told them that He would give Abraham and his wife Sarah a son, even though they were old, and that through that son and their descendants beyond him, that all the people on earth would be blessed. By faith they broke the strong bonds that would have bound lesser people to their country, family, friends and job, and undertook a journey of unknown length, difficulty, and danger to go to a country of which they knew nothing. Obedient actions demonstrate the reality of our faith and Abraham and Sarah were obedient, but they did not quickly inherit the promises.

Most of us live a cautious life on the principle of safety first, but to live a life of biblical faith needs a certain reckless willingness to adventure with God. If you must see every step of the way, you won’t be going anywhere in faith. But, like Abraham and Sarah, there may be a time when we are to venture out “not knowing where” our obedience to God will lead us. Fear of the unknown should not stop us from moving forward, if we know God has told us to move. But when we do go, patience for fulfillment might just be needed.

In the 19th century, William Carey, an English shoemaker by trade, felt God telling him to move to India to take the gospel there. The Baptist churches in the association he was connected to did not support him taking the gospel message to India and one of their leaders said, “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to converse with heathen, He’ll do it without consulting you or me.” In response, Carey and other like-minded people founded the Foreign Missions Society, and off he went to India. William Carey lived by this motto: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” But, in his thirty-five years in India he saw only a handful of converts. Yet every Christian missionary who has gone to India since that time owes a debt to Carey. He planted so that they could harvest. Carey had translated the Word of God into Indian dialects, so that virtually all missionary effort in India has been based to some extent on His pioneer work. Most of the fruits of his labor he saw only by faith, not by sight. And, yet he had biblical faith to persevere, and God rewarded those efforts. Don’t give up! God rewards faithful pilgrims who keep their eyes focused on the Lord and on their future reward. The writer of Hebrews states about the saints of old:

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. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 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)

Those saints lived by faith in God’s promises. They denied themselves short-term pleasures because they sought long-term fulfillments. They made the sacrifice of quick gratification to possess the greater satisfaction of God’s eternal promises. They never turned back. In flying airplanes is what is called, “the point of no return”. When an airplane has reached that point, it cannot go back because its fuel level has reached the level where there is no choice but to go on, for they cannot go back without running out of fuel and crashing. One of the tragedies of life is the number of Christians who give up or turn back. Just one more effort, a little more praying, a little more time, a little more hoping, a little more trusting in God would make all the difference.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones. (Hebrews 11:17-22)

None of Abraham and Sarah’s family – themselves, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and then Joseph – saw the fullness of God’s promise of a land given to them and their descendants and a family line by which all people on earth would be blessed. Indeed, their family ended up as slaves in Egypt. But, Joseph had enough faith to ask them to take his bones back to Canaan and to bury them there. 400 years later…

By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. (Hebrews 11:23-29)

Continuing in a straight-forward chronological manner the writer goes past Moses and on to Joshua who did lead the people into the Promised Land, aided as he was by a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab who had come to put faith in God Almighty. That taking of the Promised Land was just the first part of the promise but it was an important part, and, by the way, Joshua did bury Joseph’s bones back in the Promised Land, just as Joseph, in faith, had asked to be done.

By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. (Hebrews 11:30,31)

Going on past the taking of the Promised Land, the writer skips ahead to the time of the judges, then into the time of the kings, and then to the Babylonian exile with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. None of them stopped trusting in God or believing His promises, though they didn’t see its fulfillment.

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, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 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. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 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 — the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:32-38)

And now here is the kicker statement that ends the “Hall of Faith” chapter:

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

What? None of them got to see or experience what God promised regarding the land and the blessings of all the people on earth. That would only come later, through Jesus. But they all experienced it, then, because God is faithful. And so, the writer of Hebrews encourages his readers to stop looking at the situation they are in, to stop focusing on things that will discourage them or lead them into sin. Instead, fix your minds, fix your eyes, on Jesus and consider what persecution and troubles he went through in order to bring his people home.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Can you imagine a tightrope stretched half a kilometre and spanning the breadth of Niagara Falls? The thundering sound of the pounding water drowning out all other sounds as you watch a man step onto the tightrope and walk across! This stunning feat made Charles Blondin famous in the summer of 1859. He walked on a tightrope 160 feet above the falls several times back and forth between Canada and the United States as huge crowds on both sides looked on with shock and awe. Once he crossed the tightrope while in a sack, once on stilts, another time on a bicycle, and once he even carried a stove and cooked an omelette! On July 15, Blondin walked backward across the tightrope to Canada and returned to the USA pushing a wheelbarrow. After pushing a wheelbarrow across while blindfolded, Blondin asked for some audience participation. The crowds had watched and “Ooooohed” and “Aaaaahed!” He had proven that he could do it; of that, there was no doubt. But now, as he asked for a volunteer to get into the wheelbarrow and take a ride across the Falls with him, no one had the faith in him to do it. Blondin had asked, “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?” The crowd shouted, “Yes!” But, when Blondin posed the question, “Who will get in the wheelbarrow?” nobody would. God may not be asking us to climb into a wheelbarrow on a tightrope over Niagara Falls being pushed by a guy wearing a blindfold, but He is asking us to trust Him. Do you have enough faith to trust Him and walk in faith in this journey through life? God is good. He can be trusted. Doing so is called having, “biblical faith”.

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