Friday, May 23, 2014

Hebrews 11 - The Faith Chapter

Continued from yesterday
Probably the best known part of Hebrews is chapter 11, the "faith chapter." Hebrews 11:1 is a common memory verse: "Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."

This verse is not exactly a definition of faith, although the NIV has translated it somewhat like one. It is more of a description of faith. The Greek reads more literally, "Faith is the substance of things being hoped, the proof of things not being seen."

It is really somewhat of a poetic statement. What is it like to have faith? It is like having something now that you are hoping to have in the future. It is like having evidence now of something that you cannot see. Faith is like that.

For almost two chapters now we have been unfolding the situation and message of Hebrews. Hopefully you can now see that Hebrews 11 did not just come out of nowhere. This chapter, full of heroes of faith, fits perfectly with the rest of Hebrews' message.

Hebrews has been telling its audience repeatedly that they needed to keep going in faith. They did not want to be like the wilderness generation of Israel that left Egypt but never arrived at the Promised Land. The author has sternly warned them that if they fall away, they will never find their way back. Even after the central argument of the sermon is over at 10:18, the author urges them not to continue sinning, not to stop meeting together. We are not like those who shrink back, he tells them, but like those who keep going and finally make it to salvation (10:39).

It is exactly at this point that Hebrews 11 comes. Faith keeps us going to the end. The chapter is full of examples of individuals who kept on going. When the chapter is over, Hebrews 12:1-3 confirm the point at which all these examples have been driving. These examples form a "cloud of witnesses," like crowds in a stadium watching us run a race. They are urging us on to finish the race as we look to Jesus, who finished the very same race first.

The faith examples of Hebrews 11 are not haphazard. The author arguably chose these specific examples because he thought they were directly relevant to the situation of the audience. They basically fall into three categories. Some have to do with trusting when you cannot see, especially when something hasn't happened yet that God has promised. Some arguably have to do with trusting in Christ's sacrifice (e.g., Abel in 11:4). Some have to do with trusting God in persecution, knowing that sometimes God rescues us. But even when he doesn't, there is a better salvation yet to come.

Noah and Abraham are key examples of faithful individuals who kept going even though they had not yet seen what God had promised. Noah was told to build an ark. Abraham was told to go into a land his descendants would inherit. But the promise took a long time to come. But they kept going anyway. The point for the audience is obvious. They needed to keep going too. Here we might mention that the word faith in Greek has several different nuances, one of which is faithfulness.

Hebrews 11:13 is thus something like the key to the whole chapter: "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." So the audience needs to keep going in faithfulness, even if they should die before they finally see the promise.

Of course, sometimes, God does rescue. Enoch was rescued from the earth (11:5). The Israelites were rescued through the Red Sea, while their persecutors died (11:29). The Egyptians in this case might easily have reminded the audience of the Romans.

Indeed, some of the imagery of Moses has to do with resisting a persecuting king. Moses' parents disregarded the command of the king (11:23). Similarly, Moses did not fear the king's anger (11:27). Without the kind of faith that keeps going when you cannot see, even when you are being oppressed--without that sort of faith it is impossible to please God (11:6). [1] These images might easily remind the audience of Rome and its emperor.

Of course sometimes God does not rescue us on earth. Some examples of faith were victorious (e.g., 11:32-34). Others were not (11:35-38). Some suffered a martyr's death, "refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection" (11:35).

Again, the point to the audience is clear. They might not yet see Christ's return. They might not yet see the promised salvation. They may be facing significant persecution from the Romans. They may feel like they have no city, no homeland (11:10, 14-15). But God has prepared a city for them in heaven, a better country (11:16).

[1] The mention of believing that God exists would relate more to a Gentile audience than a Jewish one.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

A description, not a definition. Good.

It's always good to read Hebrews 11, especially about those who didn't seem to be part of a triumph.