WHAT FAITH IS (11:1-3)
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” (11:1-3)
This chapter deals with the primacy and the excellency of faith, and fits perfectly into the flow of the epistle, that the new is better than the old.
First-century Jews saw everything as a matter of works. By the time of Christ, Judaism was no longer the supernatural system God had originally given. It had been twisted into a works system, and in many ways, it became a religious cult built on ethics. As this chapter makes clear, from the time of Adam on, God has honoured faith, not works. The way back to God, as far as man’s part is concerned, is by faith—it has always been by faith and only by faith.
In Old Testament times, believers had to rest on the promises of God regarding the coming Messiah and the future, and they believed it, as incomplete and vague as many of those promises were. The promises were so real to them, they lived by them. Faith gave them present assurance and substance to what was yet future.
True faith is an absolute certainty, often of things that the world considers unreal and impossible. If we follow a God whose audible voice we have never heard and believe in a Christ whose face we have never seen, we are specially blessed (John 20:29). We live in the certainty that whatever discomfort or pain we may have to endure for Christ’s sake on earth, will more than be compensated for by an eternity of unending bliss, of pleasure we cannot now imagine.
Man’s natural response is to trust his physical senses, to put his faith in the things he can see, hear, taste, and feel. But senses may lie, while God cannot lie (Titus 1:2).
Conviction of things not seen implies a response, an outward manifestation of the inward assurance. The natural man cannot comprehend this kind of spiritual faith. Because he has no spiritual senses, he does not believe in God or the realities of God’s realm. Yet there is a sense in which all men live by faith as the capacity for faith is created in us. As examples, we trust the surgeon to operate on us and the restaurant to prepare our food. But spiritual faith is radically different from natural faith in one important way. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Just as natural trust comes by natural birth, so spiritual trust comes from God.
God did not just create the world, by His word and not out of visible things, but the worlds, which designates the physical universe itself and also its operation, its administration. The understanding of creation comes entirely by faith and for this reason, many unbelievers and most philosophy and science believe in things such as the theory of evolution. “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men” (Col. 2:8). “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him. For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:9-10).
ABEL: WORSHIPING IN FAITH (11:4)
“By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous. God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.” (11:4)
The primary meaning of Hebrews 11:4 has to do with Abel’s speaking to later generations of believers and potential believers. He still speaks. Dead men are not silent, but still speak to those who will listen. Abel lived in a far distant age, with far less light from God than we have, and yet, his faith speaks to us. He is the first in a long line of faithful persons who can teach us about the life of faith. The Jews had to be shown that, from the very beginning, faith has been the only thing that God will accept to save fallen man.
Because he believed, he offered a better sacrifice. Because he offered a better sacrifice, he obtained righteousness. Because he obtained righteousness, he is for all the ages a living voice saying, “Righteousness is by faith.”
Cain and Abel would know nothing about the need for worship or sacrifice, much less the way, had they not been told by God—perhaps through their parents. It is especially significant that the first recorded act of worship was sacrifice, a sin offering. The heart of the New Covenant is Jesus’ perfect, once-for-all sacrifice on the cross.
Here is where the life of faith begins, with a sacrifice for sin. It begins with believing God that we are sinners, that we are worthy of death, that we need His forgiveness, and that we accept His revealed plan for our deliverance.
Abel was of God; Cain was of Satan (1 John 3:12). Cain believed in God, else he would not have brought Him a sacrifice. But he did not believe God the way he should and therefore actually became “the father of all false religion.” He did not mind worshiping God, as long as it was on his own terms, in his own way. And God rejected his sacrifice and rejected him. Proverbs 14:12 says: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” “Woe to them!” Jude says, “For they have gone the way of Cain” (v. 11). Paul says of such people that, “they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:2-3).
In Abel’s sacrifice, the way of the cross was first prefigured. The first sacrifice was Abel’s lamb—one lamb for one person. Later came the Passover—with one lamb for one family. Then came the Day of Atonement—with one lamb for one nation. Finally came Good Friday—one Lamb for the whole world.
The only thing that obtained righteousness for Abel was that, in faith, He did what God told him to do. Abel was sinful, just as Cain was, but he had the kind of faith that allows God to move in on our behalf and make us righteous. Obedience does not bring faith, but faith will always bring obedience and the desire to live righteously.
We cannot claim to have faith in God and then continually disregard His Word. James wrote: “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? … Faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:14, 17). James however, does not teach salvation by works. The Christian, in fact, is “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
Abel was counted righteous, not because he was righteous, but because he trusted God, and no mentioning was even made that he receive the Holy Spirit, as do believers today.
ENOCH: WALKING IN FAITH (11:5-6)
“By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God. And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (11:5-6)
The second hero of faith is Enoch. Whereas Abel exemplifies worshiping by faith—which must always come first—Enoch exemplifies walking by faith. Revelation in Scripture is progressive. Abel received some revelation, and Enoch received more.
God intended works to be a result of salvation, not a way of salvation. Also, we cannot know God by sight. “No man has seen God at any time,” Jesus said (John 1:18). Without faith it is impossible to please Him. The first step of faith is simply to believe that He is. The witness of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers gives infinitely proof of God’s existence.
But it is not enough simply to believe that God exists. We must recognize God as a personal, loving, gracious God to those who seek Him. For three hundred years Enoch had fellowship with the true God, a God whom he knew to be just, merciful, forgiving, caring, and very personal.
We must also believe that He rewards those who seek Him. The reward that God gives for faith is salvation. “Whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). For faith we receive forgiveness, a new heart, eternal life, joy, peace, love, heaven—everything! When we trust in Jesus Christ, we become mutual heirs with Him.
Believing that God exists is the first step toward faith. Believing that he rewards those who trust in Him is the first step of faith. Trusting fully in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is only the beginning of the faithful life in God. To continue pleasing God, we must fellowship with Him, commune with, “walk” with Him—just as Enoch did. Walking with God is pleasing God. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).
Walking with God is a walk in faith and a walk by faith. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith” (Col. 2:6-7). Because of his faith, Enoch was reconciled with God; and because he was reconciled with God, he could walk with God. Because Enoch walked with God, he must have had a nature corresponding to God’s. Walking with God implies moral fitness as well as a judicial dealing with sin. We could not have a new nature unless God took away sin. Because a person walks with God means that his sin has been forgiven and that he has been justified, counted righteous by God. Only when sin has been dealt with can we move into God’s presence and begin walking with Him. Walking with God implies a surrendered will.
The New Testament refers to this sort of living as walking in the Spirit. We are to live continually in the atmosphere of the Spirit’s presence, power, direction, and teaching. The fruit of this walk in the Spirit are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). If we want to know how to walk, we need simply to look at Jesus. He was continually about His Father’s business, and only His Father’s business. He constantly walked with God.
Jude’s report of Enoch’s preaching contradicts any notion that Enoch lived in an easy time for believing. He was surrounded by false teachers and false teaching.
He pleased God so much that God just reached down and lifted him up to heaven. God just took him up without him even experiencing death.
When we get to heaven, we will walk with Him forever. Christ speaks of our fellowship with Him in heaven as a walk: “They will walk with Me in white; for they are worthy” (Rev. 3:4). Enoch is a beautiful picture of believers who will be taken up directly to heaven when our Lord returns for His bride, the church. Just as Enoch was translated to heaven without seeing death, so also will be those of God’s people who are alive at the rapture. “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).
NOAH: OBEYING IN FAITH (11:7)
“By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” (11:7)
If a person trusts in God and is saved, Satan then tries to convince him of one of two extremes—that he must do good works to keep his salvation (legalism) or that, now that he is saved by faith, he can forget about good works (license).
But “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). True faith always has actions to support its claim. If you really believe in God, there will be evidence of it in the way you live, in the things you say, and in the things you do. For all the saints listed in Hebrews 11, their genuine faith was made known in something they did. Faith cannot be seen except in the things that it does. Noah, perhaps more than any other person in history, illustrates the work of faith through obedience.
“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). Noah’s faith was extremely impressive because of his absolute trust in God and because of his unhesitating and persistent obedience for 120 years.
When God told Noah that He was getting ready to destroy the world because of its wickedness and instructed him to build an ark (Gen. 6:13-14), Noah dropped everything and started building. Noah, who had but a fraction of the divine light that we have, did not argue, quibble, make excuses, complain, or procrastinate.
Noah was warned by God about things not yet seen. By faith Noah . . . prepared an ark. He had nothing to go on but God’s word, which for him was more than sufficient.
It is just as important for us “to build the ark” He gives us as it was for Noah to build the one God assigned him. And, like Noah’s, when we build it in faith, according to God’s plan and by His power, it will accomplish what God wants it to accomplish. Noah believed God’s word about the coming judgment, and about the promise to save him and his family. He did not pick and choose what to believe and what to obey.
He was such a man of God that his very life was a rebuke to the wicked people that surrounded him. By faith Noah. . . condemned the world. “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen.6:5). Against that wicked, cruel, and dark world, Noah’s life and testimony shined in glistening condemnation. He basically rebukes the world just by his living.
Noah’s obedience included to warn the rest of the world of God’s message of coming judgment. He did this throughout the 120 years that he used to build the ark. In 2 Peter 2:5, he is called “a preacher of righteousness.” At the same time God was preparing judgment He was also preparing a way of escape, but they would not take heed. The people had ample warning of judgment, and they also had ample knowledge of the truth.
Perhaps the saddest lesson from Noah’s day is that men have not changed in their attitude toward God since then and will not change until the Lord returns. “For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:37-39).
In his day a remnant found grace, just as a remnant believes today. In Noah’s day or shortly before it, Enoch was translated, picturing the rapture of believers when the Lord returns, which could be in our day. We can be as sure as they should have been that judgment is coming, because God has promised it just as clearly and men deserve it just as much. Someone has said, “If God doesn’t destroy our world, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” The next judgment will be different in two ways, however. First, it will not be by flood (Gen. 9:15) but by fire (2 Pet. 3:10). Second, it will be the last. And again, the only security is refuge in God’s ark, Jesus Christ.
Noah was the first person in Scripture to be called righteous. All who believe in God are righteous, as Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us by faith (Rom. 3:22). God looks at believers through the lens of His Son, and He sees us as He sees the Son. Thousands of years before Jesus became incarnate, God looked at Noah and saw the Son, because Noah believed.
ABRAHAM: THE LIFE OF FAITH (11:8-19)
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 the empirical way. The other way, far less common, is to live by faith, to base your life primarily and ultimately on what you cannot see.
The life of faith has some specific ingredients, which are pointed out in this text as reflected in the life of Abraham. The Jews needed to realize that Abraham was more than the father of their race; he also was the father of everyone who lives by faith in God. It was necessary to show these Jews, from the Old Testament itself, that Abraham was not righteous in himself through his works but was counted righteous by God because of his faith.
When Stephen was preaching to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, he began by showing how Abraham had obediently trusted God by leaving his homeland and believing God’s promises of blessing (Acts 7:2-5). In his powerful argument in Romans for justification by faith, Paul uses Abraham as the central illustration (Rom. 4). Abraham is the classic example of the life of faith.
The New Testament makes it clear that Abraham was the first true man of faith. Since his time, everyone who trusts in God, Jew or Gentile, is spiritually a child of Abraham. “Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7; cf. v. 29).
“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.” (11:8)
It was not Abraham’s plan to leave Ur and then Haran, and eventually settle in the land of Canaan. In fact, when he left Ur he had no idea where he was going. But when he was called, he immediately responded.
Abraham was a sinful heathen who grew up in an unbelieving and idolatrous society. He was raised in a home that was pagan (Josh.24:2). But when God spoke to him, he listened; when God promised, he trusted; when God commanded, he obeyed. Isaiah refers to Abraham as “the rock from which you were hewn” and “the quarry from which your were dug” (Isa. 51:1-2), reminding his fellow Jews that God sovereignly condescended to call Abraham out of paganism and idolatry in order to bless him and the world through him.
When any person comes to Jesus Christ, God demands of him a pilgrimage from the system of the world and his old pattern of living into a new kind of life, just as Abraham’s faith separated him from paganism and unbelief and started him toward a new land and a new kind of life. Salvation brings separation from the world. The Lord works in the heart the total willingness to leave behind everything that is not pleasing to Him. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2; cf. 2 Cor. 6:14; Gal. 1:4). Worldliness is not so much what we do as what we want to do. It is not determined so much by what our actions are as by where our heart is.
“By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (11:9-10)
Abraham was immediately willing to give up his homeland and everything he knew. But faith also has a time for waiting and for being patient. Dwelling in tents was not considered permanent residences. Near as it was, the land was still only a promise. He lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land and he had to be patient. It was promised but never possessed and he never owned more than a small plot in which to bury Sarah (Gen. 23:9-20). He never saw God’s promise fulfilled but he patiently waited.
The secret of Abraham’s patience was his hope in the ultimate fulfilment of the promise of God. His ultimate Promised Land was heaven, just as ours is. He was patient because his eyes were on the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. As important as the earthly land was to him and to God’s promise, he looked up toward the heavenly land, which he knew he would inherit without fail. Only the heavenly minded will have the patience to continue faithful in God’s work when it becomes hard, unappreciated, and seemingly unending. That is why Paul tells us to set our minds “on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2).
“By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised; therefore, also, there was born of one man, and him as good as dead at that, as many descendants as the stars of heaven in number, and innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.” (11:11-12)
Faith sees the invisible, hears the inaudible, touches the intangible, and accomplishes the impossible. Faith was active in the miracle of Isaac’s birth. From the human standpoint, it was impossible for Abraham and Sarah to have a child. Not only had Sarah always been barren (Gen. 16:1), but by the time she was 90 years of age she was far beyond the proper time of life for child-bearing. Yet at that age she conceived and gave birth to the promised son (Gen. 21:2).
The Genesis account gives no indication that Sarah ever showed much faith in God. Both Abraham and Sarah, on different occasions, had laughed at God’s promise of a son in their old age (Gen. 17:17; 18:12), but Sarah had even taken matters into her own hands by persuading Abraham to have a son by her maid, Hagar (16:1-4). She did not trust God’s promise and her impatience was costly as seen in the account of Ishmael.
If we study Hebrews 11:11 carefully, I believe we discover that the faith mentioned here does not apply to Sarah but rather for her. The faith was Abraham’s, not Sarah’s. Through Abraham’s faith God miraculously fulfilled His promise.
Abraham had children upon children, the whole of the people of Israel. Every Jew that ever has been and ever will be born is a result of Abraham’s faith.
“All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.” (11:13-16)
Not Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, ever possessed the Promised Land. In fact it was almost 500 years after Jacob died that Israel first began to possess Canaan. All these died in faith, without receiving the promises. God had given them no word as to when or how the promises would be fulfilled. He only gave the promises, and that was enough.
They walked on it and pastured their flocks on it and raised their children on it, but they were not impatient to possess it. It was enough to possess it from a distance, because their primary concern was for a better country, that is a heavenly one. In the meantime they were quite happy to be strangers and exiles on the earth. It is people of such faith that God blesses. He is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them, called heaven.
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.” He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type.” (11:17-19)
If Noah illustrates the duration of faith, Abraham shows the depth of faith. The proof of Abraham’s faith was his willingness to give back to God everything he had, including sacrificing the son of promise, Isaac. Abraham knew that the covenant, which could only be fulfilled through Isaac, was unconditional. He knew, therefore, that God would do whatever was necessary, including raising Isaac from the dead, to keep His covenant. He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead. Somehow, he knew that he would have his son back, even if it would have been through resurrection. As it turned out, because he did not actually die, Isaac became only a type of the resurrection.
(MAIN SOURCE: MACARTHUR NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY – JOHN MACARTHUR)