Hebrews 11 is one of the great chapters of the Bible. Few chapters rival it in terms of influence and spiritual power. Because chapter 11 seems to stand out from the surrounding context some scholars have questioned whether the author of Hebrews wrote the chapter himself or borrowed it from some other source. Judaism frequently presented extensive summaries of Old Testament history to teach a moral lesson or provide encouragement. Psalm 78 is an Old Testament example and Acts 7 gives a New Testament example. Wisdom of Solomon 10-11; Sirach 44-50; and 1 Maccabees 2:51-64 from the Apocrypha also demonstrate this Jewish pattern of teaching. The widespread use of extended summaries of the Old Testament shows that it was a common pattern of Jewish teaching and the author of Hebrews was as capable as any other ancient Jewish author to compose his own list of heroes.
The whole question may be wrong in the first place. It is true that we could skip from Hebrews 10:39 to 12:1 and it would seem a natural flow of thought if we had never known of chapter 11. However, it is even more true that chapter 11 fits the flow of thought coming out of Hebrew 10 and flowing into chapter 12 perfectly. The great faith chapter was originally part of the larger exhortation to persevere under pressure that began in Hebrews 10:19 and ends at the end of chapter 12.
The structure of chapter 11 is clear. Verses 1-3 provide a general introduction to the subject of faith and refer to creation. Verses 4-7 focus on the faith of three major characters up to the Flood: Noah, Enoch, and Abel. Verses 8-22 deal with Abraham while verses 23-28 appeal to Moses as the example of faith. Verses 29-31 mention passing through the Red Sea and the conquest of Jericho. At this point the author changes his pace. Instead of devoting a paragraph to major Biblical figures, the author quickly alludes to a whole series of Old Testament characters and events in a list. Verses 39-40 then summarize the section and prepare the transition for chapter 12. This outline is built around chronology, following the order of events in the Old Testament.
The Assurance of Faith - Hebrews 11:1-3
There is no break in the author's flow of thought from Hebrews 10:38-39 to chapter 11. Verse 39 described the readers as "those who have faith and are saved." Hebrews 11:1-3 then defines that faith, not philosophically or technically, but descriptively. Montefiore (p. 186) describes these verses as a "rough summary of the main aspects of faith which are manifested in the inspiring examples to follow."
Verse 1 defines faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The New Testament word faith is used with a variety of meanings. The noun, faith, and the verb, "to believe," come from the same Greek root and the two words are closely related. Faith or believing can mean nothing more than the acknowledgment of a fact. James 2:19 comments that the demons believe that God is one and tremble over that fact. However, in the New Testament the words point to a personal commitment. The English word trust may be a better translation of the Greek. Trust is both a noun and verb and it speaks of investment or commitment of oneself. The assurance of things hoped for is confident, serene trust in God.
The word translated assurance has already been used in Hebrews. It appeared first in Hebrews 1:3 pointing to the very being of God himself. It was used again in Hebrews 3:14 to describe the first "confidence" that the readers had possessed. Thus in Hebrews 1:3 the word refers to the objective reality of God. In 3:14 it reveals to the subjective feelings of the readers.
We can question the meaning of the word in Hebrews 11:1. If the word is intended to speak of the subjective feelings of the readers which the translation of the NRSV, assurance, implies or of the objective reality which the KJV translation "evidence" implies? Actually, such a choice may not be necessary. It is quite likely that the author wants us to understand the reality (objectively) of things hoped for lies in confident trust in God. That reality provides an assurance (subjectively felt by the believer) that the things hoped for are on the way. Thus confident trust in God gives the things we hope for "all the reality of present existence; and irresistibly convinces us of the reality of things unseen and brings us into their presence." (Wilson, p. 202)
The parallel expression further states that faith is the conviction of things not seen. The word conviction could easily be translated "proof." Faith is the proof of things not yet seen. This does not at all mean, as the little boy once said, that faith is believing things we know aren't true. Rather, faith is a way of knowing that certain sure things that have not yet happened will happen. The way that we know these are sure things is only because God has spoken them. Faith means living life on the assumption that what God has said will happen, will, in fact, happen. It is a life that does not wait for human evidence or proof, but accepts (trusts) the word of God as totally sufficient evidence. It is simply a life that acts as if what God says is true. That is very simple to say, but often very difficult to do.
It is, however, the way "the elders" were affirmed by God. The Greek text of verse 2 literally says, "For by this (faith), the elders were witnessed to." The grammatical construction is awkward English, but it means that God witnessed and approved of the ancestors of the author of Hebrews. Their life of confident trust in God that caused them to live as if God's promises were true won them God's approval.
We might assume that the same would be true for us. The author then offers an example in verse 3. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God. This is a statement of more than the original act of creation. The word worlds in Greek is literally "the ages" or the "aeons." The word prepared is not the normal word for creation, but one meaning to set in order or to put right. The author is declaring that faith is the way of knowing and living that is based on the confident assurance that God is the one who has ordered all of creation and history. He then describes creation and history as what is seen. But that visible world and the visible history of the world all came into being from things that are not visible. The author's point is the very opposite of the currently popular saying, "Seeing is believing." Rather, believing is confident knowing even when you cannot see because, as Hebrews 10:23 put it, "the one who promised is faithful (reliable)."
Faith Before the Flood - Hebrews 11:4-7
Following the Old Testament order suggests that the author should speak of the faith of the earliest Old Testament personages. Verses 4-7 recall three great figures before the Flood. The first to be mentioned is Abel. The Old Testament briefly describes Cain and Abel, their respective sacrifices, God's response, Cain's murdering of Abel, and Cain's punishment in Genesis 4:1-15. Genesis does not explain why God responded favorably to Abel's offering and did not respond favorably to Cain's. The text of Genesis 4 does not condemn Cain for sin at that point but warns that sin "crouches at the door."
The implication that the issue of sin and victory over or defeat by sin lay in the future rather than the past for Cain. However, later interpretation was very interested in why God did not accept Cain's offering. Presumably the interest was so Cain's mistake would not be repeated. Many explanations have been offered, but the Bible simply does not provide an explanation for why Cain's offering was not received when Abel's was.
The author of Hebrews describes Abel's sacrifice as better. The Greek word literally states that Abel offered a "greater" sacrifice or "more" of a sacrifice, but the word is also used in general comparisons. It is doubtful that the issue is quantity; the English translation of "better" correctly reflects the thought. Why our author calls it a better sacrifice is simply because God accepted it. His point is that it was Abel's faith - his confident trust - in God that motivated God to accept his offering. Verse 6 states this.
Since Abel's offering pleased God and since it is impossible to please God without faith, then Abel's offering must have been made by faith. It appears that the author's real goal is not to say anything about Abel's offering, but to declare that Abel received approval as righteous. The word which the NRSV translates as received approval is the same word used in verse 2 of the elders. God testified to/witnessed to Abel's righteousness. God affirmed Abel to be righteous by his divine approval of the sacrifice. On the basis of Habakkuk 2:4 (quoted in Hebrews 10:38), such righteousness is the product of the life of trusting God.
The other significant point from Abel is that though he is dead he still speaks through his faith. Since speaking is the activity of the living, Abel fulfills Habakkuk 2:4. He is the righteous man who lives (is alive enough to still speak) through his faith that gained God's approval. The point is not that reciting a certain creed will gain our salvation. Rather, the one who trusts God as Abel did will not find the future closed. Even if the impending persecution should cost some of our author's readers their lives, they will still speak if they will trust God and stay true to Christ.
Faith spoke through Abel though he was dead; with Enoch faith speaks through one who did not die. All that the Old Testament has to say about Enoch is contained in Genesis 5:18-24. The key statements are in verse 22, "Enoch walked with God," and verse 24, "Enoch walked with God; then he was not, because God took him." The Greek translation of the Old Testament available to the author of Hebrews changes "Enoch walked with God," to "Enoch pleased God," in both verses 22 and 24. The words, "he was not because God took him," are changed to, "he was not found because God translated him."
Though the Old Testament said nothing else about Enoch, various Intertestamental Jewish writings commented frequently about him. The common theme that appears to have been widely understood by Jewish readers was that Enoch was a model of righteousness and that he pleased God. It is likely that Enoch's reputation for righteousness is what caused the author of Hebrews to mention him here. Like Abel Enoch fulfills Habakkuk 2:4. He was a righteous person who lived (did not experience death) by faith. That confident trust in God was pleasing to God. Thus Enoch is another example to the readers of how they ought to trust God, receive life, and so be pleasing to God. Abandoning faith in Christ would have been the very opposite of what Enoch would have done.
Both Enoch and Abel illustrate an important truth for our author. Confident trust is necessary if one wants to please God according to verse 6. The author is not just making a general statement in verse 6. The expression the who comes to God uses the same verb as appeared in Hebrew 10:22, when the author urged his readers to "draw near to God." Hebrews 11:6 is building on that previous exhortation now urging the readers who come to God to know that it is God's will (the meaning of the it is necessary) to believe two things. They are to believe that God exists and that he becomes a rewarder of those who urgently seek him. The word rewarder suggests a paymaster, but Lane (WBC, p. 338) notes that the "wage" God gives is himself. Urgent seeking of God and his will means finding. It is safe to be true to God for he will reveal himself to the one who trusts and obeys.
The final pre-flood character that is mentioned in Noah. The main point of verse 8 is that Noah obeyed the warning/instruction of God and thus demonstrated the righteousness by faith the leads to life according to Habakkuk 2:4.
The Faith of Abraham - Hebrews 11:8-22
Following the flood our author turns to the period of Abraham and the patriarchs of Israel. Hebrews 11:8-22 are built on the patriarchs. Verses 8-12 deal specifically with the faith of Abraham and Sarah. Verses 13-16 form a commentary by the author and he resumes discussion of Abraham in verses 17-19. Verses 20-22 quickly refer to Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, but Abraham is the main character of this section of Hebrews 11. The author devotes more space to Abraham than to any other single Old Testament example mentioned in this chapter.
Though no Old Testament figure was a perfect model, Abraham is one of the most appropriate examples for Hebrews 11. The connection between the righteousness, obedience, and faith of Abel, Enoch, and Noah was part of Jewish understanding, the Old Testament itself clearly states Abraham's faith. Genesis 15:6 declares that Abraham believed Yahweh and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Nehemiah 9:7-8; Acts 7:2-5; Romans 4:3-5; and Galatians 3:6-9 all describe the faithfulness and righteousness of Abraham in his pilgrimage of obedience.
Obedience is the emphasis of verse 8. Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out. The order of Genesis 12:1-4 implies that Abraham did not know where he was going and it was only after arriving in Canaan that he was promised it as inheritance. It is important for us to remember the New Testament understanding of faith at this point. It was not because Abraham was a spiritual superman that he obeyed God. It was because he trusted God that he made a life decision to obey. The faith that Hebrews calls for is not a warm fuzzy feeling, it is not spiritual power. The faith Hebrews calls for is simply trusting God enough to obey his will. The original readers of Hebrews were called upon to trust God enough to continue their commitment to Christ in the face of persecution. We are called upon to trust God enough to obey him when we face pressure to compromise or abandon our commitment.
Verse 9 notes that trusting God enabled Abraham to live his life on the basis of God's promise rather than on the basis of its fulfillment. God had promised Abraham the land, but he (and his son Isaac and grandson Jacob) lived in tents. Fulfillment of the promise to possess the land would have meant ownership and the opportunity to build houses and settle down. The tent symbolized temporary rather than fixed status. It meant that Abraham lived on the move, always dependent on the weather and the good will of the landowners. He may well have been discouraged at times, but he based his choices and his relationship with God on the promise rather than on the fulfillment. Behind this reference to Abraham is Hebrews 10:23 where the readers are urged to hold fast to the confession of their hope because the one who promised (God) was faithful.
At this point the author of Hebrews offers an allegorical commentary in verse 10. The reason for Abraham's faithful obedience is that he looked forward to the city with foundations whose architect and builder is God. This is a figure of speech. What the author means is that Abraham was looking for the completion of the work of God. He was looking for the heavenly Jerusalem where God's will is perfectly done.
The correct understanding of verses 11-12 is difficult because translations differ in one important way. The debated question is whether the subject should be Sarah or Abraham. The King James Version, as well as the RSV, NEB, and NASB take Sarah as the subject, by faith Sarah received strength to conceive seed and was delivered of a child when she was past age.
More recently translations such as the NIV, NRSV, and Good News Bible are choosing to make Abraham the subject. The NIV translates By faith Abraham, even though he was past age - and Sarah herself was barren - was enabled to become a father. The recent translations are correct in making Abraham the subject for several reasons. First, Genesis 18 does not portray Sarah as believing God at all. She laughed at the very idea of a child. Second (and most important) the Greek word translated by the KJV "conceive seed" was not used in Greek for the mother's role in conception but for the father's. It literally meant to "deposit seed." Third (and least important), making Abraham the subject is consistent with Paul's discussion in Romans 4:20-21. It also makes the flow of thought into verse 12 more consistent.
Verse 12 is a beautiful statement of the power of God. From one man who was as good as dead (when it came to producing children) innumerable children came. The language describing the number of children as many as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as the sand by the seashore is derived directly from Genesis 15:5 and 22:17. Thus the author gives an example of a promise that Abraham received that was not fulfilled until many years after his death. But the promise was fulfilled and Abraham's confident trust mentioned in verse 11 was vindicated.
The author shifts back to his own commentary on the matter in verses 13-16. Not only did these heroes of faith live in faith, they also died in faith. The point is not to describe their death bed testimonies, but simply to note that they died before the fulfillment of the promise came. In a very figurative phrase the author states that they saw the promises from a distance and greeted them.
Thus the promises of God are personified by our author as people on a pilgrimage, making their journey. The Old Testament heroes saw these pilgrims in the distance and acknowledged that the promises were coming. But they never actually touched the fulfillment. This is instructive to the original readers of Hebrews who have been told that they are on a pilgrimage. Though the readers themselves might not live to see the fulfillment of their lives, there is a cloud of witnesses observing the pilgrim lives of the readers. That group of witnesses will someday see the fulfillment.
This section of Hebrews is very important for contemporary Western Christians. We are so used to instant gratification that we have a hard time understanding the kind of faith being described here. Authentic trust in God does not require God to meet our time tables. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and the generations born in Egypt never saw the promise fulfilled. Neither did they abandon hope in the promise. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. Hebrews 10:23 had mentioned the "confession of (their) hope." Here, the author points out that that hope was not in present possessions. The "here and now" was not home for the patriarchs. Their "home" was the vision created by the promise of God. Figuratively speaking, they were envisioning the heavenly homeland (see Abraham's Faith Journey).
Verse 16 makes an astounding statement. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God. The wording suggests that there are some actions and choices that do or could cause God to be ashamed of being our God. The phrase describing God being their God recalls the covenant summary phrases of Jeremiah 31:33 and Ezekiel 36:28.
The phrase, all these, implies that Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were on the author's mind along with Abraham and Sarah, though they are not specifically mentioned until verses 20-22. In verse 17 the subject returns to Abraham specifically and introduces the sacrifice of Isaac. Genesis 22:1-19 dramatically described the binding of Isaac to be sacrificed and God's gracious provision of the ram as a substitute. Judaism has a long history of using this story to teach the value of martyrdom, but both New Testament references to it (here and James 2:21-23) specifically treat it as an example of faith. There was nothing leading toward the fulfillment of the promise of the land in Abraham's lifetime. Isaac was the once piece of fulfillment that his father would ever experience. Trust is put to its greatest test when a little bit of fulfillment is in the hand and then withdrawn.
Our human temptation to want the fulfillment rather than the promise is so strong that we will often grasp the fulfillment idolatrously. The God who promised and gave the fulfillment is often less important to us than just possessing the fulfillment. Abraham not only had received a son in his old age. He had also received the first phase of the fulfillment. And then God asked him to give that (Isaac) up and return to trust without seeing or possessing.
In verse 19 the author is so moved by the stakes of the Isaac story that he compared the untying of Isaac to a resurrection from the dead. This reference would make the story of Isaac doubly important for the first readers of Hebrews. They were tempted to despair over the persecution and possibility of death that lay before them. That despair would be hard to defend in the face of the turn around in Isaac's situation and the resurrection of Christ. What seemed so obvious and inevitable did not happen. What seemed so impossible and unexpected did happen.
But the switch from the obvious and inevitable to the impossible and un-expected came about because of faith and obedience. Had either Abraham (and Isaac) or Jesus abandoned their faith and refused to continue to obey the delightfully impossible and unexpected reversal would never have happened. One of the great tragedies of our lives is how rarely we will trust God enough to leave him room to bring the impossible and unexpected into our lives. When we refuse to trust him we condemn ourselves to the obvious and inevitable. We choose the limits of human imagination rather than the horizons of God's vision.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.
First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 11:1-22. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why were they important?
2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies to you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to teach you the kind of faith that will please him.
Second Day: Read Hebrews 11:23-40. Now focus in on verses 23-28.
1. Read Exodus 2:1-15. What significant details of the Exodus account does the author of Hebrews leave out? Why do you think he selected the ideas he did from Exodus?
2. Read Acts 7:20-29. How is the Acts account of Moses similar to the account in Hebrews 11:23-28? How are the two accounts different?
3. How would verses 24-26 have special meaning or application to the original readers of Hebrews? What application to your life comes to mind?
Third Day: Read Hebrews 11:1-28. Once again focus on verses 23-28.
1. According to verse 25 Moses chose sharing with his people's suffering over the "fleeting pleasures of sin." What reasons led Moses to make that choice?
2. What issues in your life force you to choose between obeying God and enjoying some fleeting pleasures of sin? What spiritual resources could help you choose to obey God?
3. What benefit to others did Moses' faith and obedience bring according to verse 28? What are some similar ways that faith and obedience in your life might bring good things to other people.
Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 11:23-40. Now focus in on Hebrews 11:29-31.
1. Read Exodus 14:21-31. How did faith enter into Israel's crossing the Red Sea on dry land while the Egyptians drowned trying the same thing?
2. Read Joshua 6:12-21. What was the role of faith in the falling of the walls of Jericho? What area of your life (spiritual or otherwise) seems as impossible as the Red Sea and Jericho? What would faith ask of you in that situation? What will obedience bring into your life?
3. How do you feel about Hebrews complimenting the faith of a prostitute in verse 31? What application can you draw from that for your own life? for the life of your church?
Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 11:23-40. Now turn your focus to Hebrews 11:32-38.
1. Verse 33 states that the heroes of the faith "obtained promises." Read Joshua 21:44-45. What promises from God give you hope and keep you needing to trust in him?
2. Verse 34 states that these faith heroes won strength out of weakness. Read II Corinthians 12:5-10. What are some circumstances in your life where your weakness could be made a strength by God? What would you need to do to allow God the freedom to make such a change?
3. Describe how verses 33-37 illustrate the statements of Hebrews 11:13-16.
Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 11:1-40. Focus in on Hebrews 11:32-40.
1. What was true of all the people the author mentioned in Hebrews 11?
2. What was the something better that God had promised these faith heroes? How does that relate to the promise that they would not be made perfect without or apart from us?
3. After reading and studying Hebrews 11 what kind of faith are you beginning to desire in your own heart? Write a brief prayer expressing your desire for faith to the Lord.