FAITH THAT DEFEATS DEATH (11:20-22)
“By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come. By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones.” (11:20-22)
Matthew Henry said, “Though the grace of faith is of universal use throughout the Christian’s life, yet it is especially so when we come to die. Faith has its great work to do at the very last, to help believers to finish well, to die to the Lord so as to honor Him, by patience, hope and joy so as to leave a witness behind them of the truth of God’s Word and the excellency of His ways.”
“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His godly ones” (Ps. 116:15). The three patriarchs mentioned in Hebrews 11:20-22 illustrate the power of faith in facing death. What makes the dying faith of these three men so significant is that, like Abraham, they died without seeing the fulfilment of God’s promises. They passed them on to their children by faith. They had not seen the land possessed, the nation established, or the world blessed, but they saw the promises, and that was enough. They knew by faith that God would fulfil the promises because they knew He was a covenant-keeping God and a God of truth.
A Christian who fears death has a serious weakness in his faith, for to die in Christ is simply to be ushered into the Lord’s presence. “For to me, to live is Christ,” Paul says, “and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). For those who believe, “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).
MOSES: THE DECISIONS OF FAITH (11:23-29)
Life is made up of decisions, of which many are difficult. You can note the maturity of a Christian by the decisions he makes. Right choices are made on the basis of right faith. Everything in a believer’s life is an opportunity to glorify God. The first man to choose was Adam. He made the wrong choice and started the tragic chain of wrong choices that has plagued his descendants ever since.
Speaking to Israel in the wilderness, God said, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants” (Deut. 30:19). Moses lived most of his life before the covenant of Mt. Sinai, with its system of commandments and rituals. But both before and after Sinai he lived by faith, not by works. Because Moses received the covenant from God at Sinai, the Jews always associated him with God’s law.
The life of Moses illustrates both positive and negative decisions of faith, the things it accepts and the things it rejects.
“By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.” (11:23)
Pharaoh gave an edict that all male babies were to be drowned in the Nile. His parents first hid him for three months, and then put him in a waterproofed basket and placed him in the Nile near the place where Pharaoh’s daughter bathed. He was found by the princess and taken to be raised as her own child. Moses’ sister, Miriam, was watching and persuaded the princess to get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the infant. Miriam, of course, got her mother, who was then able to raise her own son almost as if he had been at home.
His parents were not afraid of the king’s edict. “Moses . . . was lovely in the sight of God” (Acts 7:20). Not only Moses’ parents, but also God Himself, had a special affection for this child. They were somehow aware of God’s special concern, for by faith in God they hid him and opposed Pharaoh’s order. It was for God’s sake, as well as for Moses’ and their own sakes, that the baby was protected.
Moses’ parents were willing to risk their own lives to follow God’s way. Their decision was clear: save the child, whatever the consequences. It took considerable faith to put Moses in the basket and to trust Pharaoh’s daughter. Yet they willingly let him go, entrusting him to God. He needs our obedience, not our help, not our counsel. He makes the plans; we walk in them by faith.
“By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.” (11:24)
For forty years Moses had been a prince of Egypt. He could enjoy everything Egypt had to offer. But his training in Egypt never blunted his knowledge of the hope of Israel and of the promises of God. By faith Moses . . . refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.
We learn from Stephen that Moses knew he had a mission to perform for God and for his people. “And he supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him; but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25). He renounced the world’s power, honor, and prestige for the sake of God, and knew that for so doing he would gain immeasurably more than he would lose, for he was looking to the reward (v. 26). Moses gladly joined with God’s chosen people, though they were slaves, rather than take advantage of the prestige and privileges of Egypt and be unfaithful to God.
“Choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin.” (11:25)
Moses knew God was calling him to give his life for his people. He had a choice. He could have obeyed or disobeyed. He made a conscious choice to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, rather than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin.
“Considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward.” (11:26)
Moses had all the things the world holds dear. Considering involves careful thought, not quick decision. Moses thought through his decision, weighing the pros and cons. He weighed what Egypt had to offer against what God offered.
In the eyes of the world no reproach (being ridiculed and persecuted) would be worth sacrificing riches for. Yet Moses believed that the worst he could endure for Christ would be more valuable than the best of the world. It is interesting that the writer of Hebrews speaks of Moses’ considering the reproach of Christ, since he lived nearly 1500 years before Christ. Moses suffered reproach for the sake of Jesus Christ, the true Messiah, because he identified with Messiah’s people, Israel, and purpose long before Christ came to earth. Moses would have agreed with what Peter wrote: “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet. 4:14). Moses rejected the treasures of Egypt and took his stand with God’s Anointed.
God’s reward is always greater than the world’s. Moses surely saw the reward of a blessed life, but the emphasis is best seen as being on the eternal reward. That is the attitude every Christian should have about Christ. We should be willing to forsake and hazard all we have for the sake of God’s will, knowing with Moses and with Paul that our “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17; cf. Rom. 8:18).
“By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen.” (11:27)
The first time he left Egypt, Moses was fleeing from the pharaoh, who wanted to kill him for slaying the Egyptian slavemaster (Ex. 2:15). The second time he left Egypt, another pharaoh wanted to keep Moses from taking the children of Israel with him. Moses was doubtlessly tempted to fear the wrath of the king when he left Egypt, but he did not. He knew he had an invisible but powerful means of support, as seeing Him who is unseen. He continued to say what God wanted him to say and do what God wanted him to do. He knew that, no matter what happened, whatever he had to face, he would be held up and strengthened and rewarded. He chose to focus his sights on God rather than on a monarch in Egypt.
Fear is a great pressure, and all of us are tempted at times to bend when standing for the Lord requires us to say or do something that is unpopular or dangerous. But true faith does not fold under the world’s pressure. When we are afraid of the world, when we are afraid of what people will say or do, we are exposing ourselves to God’s displeasure and discipline for lack of faith.
“By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that he who destroyed the firstborn might not touch them.” (11:28)
True faith accepts the Lord’s provision as well as His plan. The tenth and last plague that God sent on the Egyptians was the death of all firstborn (Ex. 11:5). To protect the Israelites from this plague the Passover was instituted, in which a lamb’s blood was sprinkled on the doorposts and lintels of their houses (12:7). Obviously, the blood itself had no power but sprinkling it as God had commanded was an act of faith and obedience and the blood was symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice by which He conquered death for all who believe in Him. The people of Israel, including Moses, did not understand the full significance of the ceremony, but they knew it was part of God’s plan. Faith always accepts God’s provision, no matter how strange and pointless it may seem to human understanding.
“By faith they passed through the Red Sea as though they were passing through dry land; and the Egyptians, when they attempted it, were drowned.” (11:29)
Faith also accepts God’s promise. When Moses and his people got to the Red Sea, Pharaoh and his army were not far behind. From all they could see they were trapped; there was no escape. At first the people lost heart. Moses then told them, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today; . . . The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent” (Ex. 14: 13-14). For a while at least they trusted God, and by faith they passed through the Red Sea as though they were passing through dry land. They believed Moses’ promise from God and started walking across the seabed as soon as the waters were parted.
The people had no guarantee except God’s word that He would not change His mind or forget them. For the faithful, God’s word is always enough. The test of faith is trusting God when all we have are His promises. When the waters are piled high all around us and problems and dangers are about to overwhelm us, this is when faith is tested, and when the Lord takes special pleasure in showing us His faithfulness, His love, and His power. When we have nothing but His promise to rely on, His help is the nearest and His presence the dearest to those who believe. When we truly believe God, we will know that in everything He has our best interest at heart, and we will always decide for Him.
THE COURAGE OF FAITH (11:30-40)
Faith is unconditional confidence in what God says, strictly on the basis that He has said it. The faith illustrated in Hebrews 11 is that which takes the bare word of God and acts on it, risking all. Looking for signs and wonders and explanations that we can understand or glory in is not faith. “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29).
For a Jew to become a Christian in the first century was nearly always costly. It often cost him his friends, family, synagogue privileges, job, social status, and community respect. Sadly, some were trying to take the voyage of the New Covenant while keeping their boats securely tied to the dock of the Old. Such reluctant Jews are being shown in this chapter that God’s faithful followers in the Old Testament were not like them. Faith is proved when it faces disaster, trial, persecution, and ridicule—and still stands unwavering. Faith is the source of courage. Certainly, Moses demonstrated this courage in facing Pharaoh.
Faith it conquers in struggle, continues in suffering, and counts on salvation. The only effective weapon we have in struggle is faith.
JOSHUA AND THE ISRAELITES AT JERICHO
“By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encircled for seven days.” (11:30)
Forty years had passed since Israel had crossed the Red Sea by faith (v. 29). Nothing in that forty years was worth mentioning in a chapter on faith. Also, when they arrived, the real obstacle was not Canaan but unbelief. But as Israel came to Jericho, she showed faith again.
Jericho was the first obstacle in Canaan. The walls of Jericho were massive structures, designed to protect it from the strongest enemy attack, and its soldiers were well-trained and well-armed. All the Israelites had to do was march around the city once a day for six days, with seven priests in front carrying rams’ horns before the ark. The seventh day they were to march around seven times, with the priests blowing their horns. When the priests finally made one loud blast, all the people were to shout, and then “the wall of the city will fall down flat” (Josh. 6:3-5). The people obeyed in faith, and the walls fell as predicted. Psychologically they demanded a great amount of courage. The Israelites believed Joshua’s report from the Lord, and they immediately began to prepare for the marching (Joshua 6:8).
They could however take absolutely no credit for themselves. All God wanted from them was faith, and this they gave, for by faith the walls of Jericho fell down. In the fall of Jericho we see the faith that risks. The people of Israel were willing to do everything and to risk everything, because they believed God. If we trust the Lord and demonstrate our trust by courageously continuing to do what the Lord has called us to do, in God’s time the obstacle will fall.
“By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.” (11:31)
Rahab was an unlikely candidate for the faithfuls’ hall of fame. For one thing, she was a prostitute. For another, she was a Gentile, and a Canaanite at that. She was, in fact, an Amorite, a race that God had long before marked for destruction (Gen, 15:16). Yet that is how God’s grace works. His mercy is open to all who will receive it, and His grace has always been wider than Israel, even in Old Testament times.
She found herself in the midst of her fellow inhabitants of Jericho, who were disobedient and unbelieving. They had wanted to kill the Israelite spies, but Rahab had welcomed the spies in peace. She welcomed God’s people. She believed, and confessed, “The LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11).
She staked her life on the fact that God had said He would save and protect His people, Israel, and she wanted to be on His side. She had faith’s courage. For her faith, she and her family were spared. She became the mother of Boaz, who married Ruth, the great-great-grandmother of David, and she thereby came to be an ancestor of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).
“And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” (11:32-34)
They were all rulers of one kind or another but none of the men is praised for his office. All are praised for what they accomplished by faith.
Gideon defeated the Midianites and the Amalekites. With 300 men, while they were “as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as numerous as the sand on the seashore” (Judg. 7:12). Only a fool would have attempted such a courageous approach to battle apart from God’s direction and power.
Barak is unknown in Scripture outside the brief account in Judges 4-5 and the mention of his name in Hebrews 12:32. According to the Lord’s instruction, Deborah asked Barak to assemble an Israelite force of only 10,000 men, to fight against the Canaanites who were powerfully armed. Barak was told in advance that the glory of victory would not be his, but God’s. Not only did the Lord fight the battle for His people, but he allowed a woman to kill Sisera, the great commander of king Jabin, so that Barak would have even less cause for claiming credit for himself (Judg. 4:9). Barak was not concerned about Sisera’s power, because he had God’s power. By such courageous faith he conquered kingdoms.
Samson is not most remembered for his faith, but for his physical strength and personal gullibility. He never doubted that God was the source of his power, of which his hair was only a symbol. Samson was a judge of Israel and was given the special task of opposing the Philistines, who then ruled over Israel. It was the Spirit that strengthened him in his amazing one-man battles (Judg. 13:25; 14:19; 15:14; 16:28). He faced the Philistines not in the courage of physical prowess but in the courage of faith. We are inclined to judge Samson by his weaknesses. But God commends him for his faith.
Jephthah preceded Samson as judge of Israel, and his responsibility was to subdue the Ammonites, one of Israel’s many enemies. Despite his foolish vow (Judg. 11:30-31), Jephthah’s trust was in the Lord, and his power was from the Lord (vv. 29, 32). Even people of faith make mistakes, and God still honoured Jephthah for his faith.
David’s trust in the Lord began when he was a boy, tending sheep, killing lions and bears, and taking on Goliath with a slingshot. He faced Goliath in utter confidence that the Lord would give him power to defeat this giant. God called him “a man after My heart, who will do all My will” (Acts 13:22). He pleased God because of the courage of his faith to trust Him and do His will.
Samuel‘s great foes were idolatry and immorality. He had to stand up in the middle of a polluted society and fearlessly speak God’s truth. His severest opponents frequently were his own people. It often takes more courage to stand up against our friends than against our enemies. He continued faithful to God throughout his life. In the courage of faith, he ruled and prophesied.
CONTINUING IN SUFFERING
“Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.” (11:35-38)
Elijah brought back to life the child of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-23), and his successor, Elisha, did the same for a Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37). These mothers and these prophets believed God for resurrection, and He performed it.
Many of the afflictions mentioned in Hebrews 11:35-38 were however long-term, or even lifetime. God gave power through faith to see some of His people through these problems, rather than letting them to escape these problems. He will give them victory, too, but it may only be spiritual—the only kind of victory He guarantees. Where there is need for more courage there is need for more faith.
When it is suffered because of God’s Word and standing for Him, God’s people will take torture, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection. In faith, they are willing to accept the worst the world has to offer, which is death, because of trust in the best God has to offer, namely resurrection.
The many kinds of suffering mentioned in these verses give a summary of the many and varied kinds of affliction God’s people face and are often called to endure for Him. They courageously and uncompromisingly suffered for the Lord because of their faith. Physical deliverance or not, they would not forsake their trust in God.
The world is not worthy of having such people in its midst, just as these people did not deserve the sufferings they received. For its inflicting the suffering, the world will be judged and punished; for their enduring the suffering the faithful saints will be resurrected and rewarded. They knew with Paul that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18), and they looked forward with Peter to “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven” (1 Pet. 1:4).
God does not promise His saints deliverance from all suffering. To the contrary, Jesus told us to take up our crosses and to follow Him (Mark 8:34), and that “if they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Both Paul (Phil. 3:10) and Peter (1 Pet. 4:13) advise us to rejoice in our sufferings for Christ’s sake.
COUNTING ON SALVATION
“And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” (11:39-40)
True faith has the courage to count on salvation and to live in hope. They had abiding confidence that one day God would do the necessary thing to redeem them and reward them. What happened to them before that time was not consequential. They did not receive what was promised but they had gained approval through their faith. Their faith was not in some immediate fulfilment, but in the ultimate fulfilment of the promises.
The ultimate promise was of a redeemer, the Messiah, and of His covenant that would bring righteousness before God. “As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow” (1 Pet. 1:10-11). All these, from Enoch through the prophets, had that courageous faith which counts, without reservation, on final salvation.
Many of them never received the land but they knew that God had provided something better for us, that is for those under the New Covenant, which is why apart from us they should not be made perfect. Until Jesus’ atoning work on the cross was accomplished, no salvation was complete, no matter how great the faith a believer may have had. Their salvation was based on what Christ would do; ours is based on what Christ has done. Their faith looked forward to promise; ours looks back to historical fact. “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29).
(MAIN SOURCE: MACARTHUR NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY – JOHN MACARTHUR)