Having now come to the final few chapters which culminate this amazing letter to the Hebrews, it might be well to briefly review the letter so far. Recall that the writer began with a blunt declaration of the deity of Jesus Christ, with an encouragement to us not to harden our hearts to the Gospel. Then over the course of several chapters, the writer compared and contrasted in some detail the covenant between God and the Israelites under the Mosaic Law, and the New Covenant between God and all mankind by the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross. Finally, in chapter 10, the writer exhorted all believers, particularly those of the persecuted Hebrew congregations to whom this letter was written, to persevere in our faith, taking joy even in our suffering for the sake of the Gospel.
Hebrews 11:1-4 – The Great Hall of Faith – Part 1
Now the writer begins a detailed discussion of the nature of faith itself, and its relation to our salvation in Christ, using as his models the patriarchs and leaders of Israel – God’s chosen people. The writer uses these examples, of course because the Hebrew congregations to whom the letter is written would have been intimately familiar with these people’s stories from God’s Word, having all been trained in the scriptures from their youth. As we will see, most of these examples that the writer uses are deeply flawed people who didn’t live out their faith perfectly. This shouldn’t discourage us from studying the examples of their faith – quite the contrary. Since we ourselves are also deeply flawed, we can take great encouragement in the fact that these “heroes” of the faith were also far from perfect. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote of his own faith, and the working of God’s Spirit within his heart.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.2 Corinthians 4:7 – NKJV
The same applies to the Israelite leaders and patriarchs that the Hebrews writer uses as his examples of faith here in the Great Hall of Faith chapter, just as it also does to us.
1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.
3By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.
4By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.
Hebrews 11:1-4 – NKJV
As we saw in our previous few studies, the writer devoted an entire chapter to encouraging believers to remain steadfast in our faith without ever really explaining what he meant by the idea of faith itself. So now he undertakes to do that.
1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.Hebrews 11:1-2 – NKJV
The apostle Peter, encourages us to always be ready to give our testimony of the saving power of Jesus’ Gospel.
15But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear;1 Peter 3:15 – NKJV
But how can we be ready to explain to others what we believe and why we believe it if we ourselves don’t properly understand the basis for our faith? In order for us to truly understand our faith, and thus grow in it, we will find it a worthwhile exercise for us to look at the relationship between grace, faith, hope, and trust. The simplistic example that Bible teachers often use isn’t wholly without merit. From the pulpit the preacher will point at one of the pews or chairs in the sanctuary, and say something like, “When you came in and sat down here this morning, there was no doubt in your mind that the chair or pew you sat in would hold you. That’s an example of faith.” The teacher will often go on to say that if we have faith in the chair or pew to hold us up, then we should also have faith in the power of Jesus’ Gospel to redeem us to God and to give us eternal life. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the preacher will point out that the actual reliability of the chair or pew to hold us is entirely independent of whether or not we believe it can, just as the power of Jesus’ Gospel to save us to the uttermost is entirely a work of God, regardless of any work of sinful man. Such allegories are fine as far as they go, but we need to ask ourselves why we have faith – in the chair or in the Gospel. Our faith is actually a spiritual gift from God, given to each of us in precise accordance with God’s will, so that by faith we may exercise the other specific spiritual gifts with which God has blessed each His children, both as a witness of the Gospel to unbelievers and for the strengthening and encouragement of God’s Church.
3For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. 4For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, 5so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. 6Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; 7or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; 8he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.Romans 12:3-8 – NKJV
5There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. 6And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. 7But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: 8for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.1 Corinthians 12:5-11 – NKJV
God, in His infinite grace, has truly and freely given us our salvation unto eternal life with Him in glory. He redeemed us to Himself by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This is the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the hope of eternal life by His grace through Jesus sacrifice. Faith is what we ourselves bring to the table – the confidence and trust that God’s promise of salvation and eternal life is as reliable as the chair or pew we sit in at church, and ever so much more reliable because the promise comes from God Himself who is perfectly and eternally reliable. Faith, hope, and trust are intertwined. The Hebrews writer says here in Hebrews 11:1-2 that faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen. Thus we see that faith has a two-fold nature. First, the object of faith is hope that is not yet fulfilled nor even fully revealed. Paul wrote of this longed-for hope in his letter to the Romans.
22For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. 23Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. 24For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.Romans 8:22-25 – NKJV
Notice that God, who came and dwelt among us in the flesh of the man Jesus of Nazareth, understands our weaknesses, and therefore has given us His Spirit by whom He seals our faith in the depths of our hearts just as Paul says here in Romans 8:23. This passage in Romans confirms that faith is indeed the substance of things hoped for. But what about our faith being the evidence of things not seen? Anyone who has been a Christian for any length of time recognizes that our lives in Christ are continually being examined by unbelievers, who – under the conviction of God’s Holy Spirit – are themselves seeking for evidence of the Gospel Truth. The Biblical example which springs to mind is the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7.
55But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”Acts 7:55-56 – NKJV
This vision of Stephen’s was apparently visible only to himself. Yet how many among the witnesses at Stephen’s martyrdom heard him earnestly proclaiming what he saw, and were eventually drawn by Stephen’s faith to believe the Gospel themselves? We know of at least one.
and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.Acts 7:58 – NKJV
Having looked at the connection between faith and hope, let’s briefly take a look at the relationship between faith and trust before we move on. We have faith in the Gospel of Jesus, because the God who made us this promise has shown Himself to be trustworthy by His longsuffering and repeated redemption of His chosen people – Israel, by His repeated foretelling of future events in His Word that in their turn came about in history, and by His intervention into our own lives in time of crisis. All of us can certainly recall occasions when God rescued us out of seemingly hopeless situations, intervening into our lives in ways that our understanding of the natural world just can’t explain. Recall that in his admonishment for us to continue in faith, the Hebrews writer reminded us of God’s trustworthiness.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.Hebrews 10:23 – NKJV
It is somewhat amusing that in this verse we find the Greek word πιστός pistos translated as “faithful” in most English translations, when what the writer is really trying to say is clearly that God is trustworthy. Indeed, this word may also be translated as trusty, reliable, or sure. The Word of God is full of references to God’s trustworthiness. Let’s just look at a few examples, and then we’ll move on.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,Jeremiah 17:7 – NKJV
And whose hope is the LORD.
The LORD is good,Nahum 1:7 – NKJV
A stronghold in the day of trouble;
And He knows those who trust in Him.
3You will keep him in perfect peace,Isaiah 26:3-4 – NKJV
Whose mind is stayed on You,
Because he trusts in You.
4Trust in the LORD forever,
For in YAH, the LORD, is everlasting strength.
Aside – Here in Isaiah 26:4 we find a fascinating bit of Hebrew poetry. The Hebrew phrase translated here in the NKJV as “YAH the LORD” is יָהּ יְהֹוָה Yahh Yĕhovah. Hebrew poetry often uses repetition and plays on words, rather than rhyme. Such is the case here. This Hebrew phrase is the first two letters of God’s covenant Name followed by the full Name. This is the Name God gave to Moses at the burning bush in answer to Moses’ question asking who he should say had sent him to Pharaoh and to the Israelite people in their Egyptian captivity (Exodus 3:14). This covenant Name is known as the tetragrammaton, consisting of the four Hebrew letters yod, he, waw he. Only the consonants of this Name are known since ancient Hebrew tradition forbade uttering the Name aloud, and ancient Hebrew texts did not contain the vowels. In printed English language translations, this Name is traditionally given as LORD in all uppercase letters. It is normally pronounced as Yehovah or Yaweh, but the true pronunciation has been lost. This particular poetic repetition is found only in Isaiah where the prophet uses it three times. The foreshortening of the Name using only the first two letters is found only one other place in Psalms 68:4. Here in the NKJV translation of Isaiah 26:4 we find this unusual Hebrew poetic repetitive phrase translated as “YAH the LORD” The KJV renders the phrase as “the LORD JEHOVAH.” Other modern English translations present it variously as “the LORD GOD” (NLT, ESV), “the LORD himself” (NIV, CSB), and “GOD the LORD” (NASB).
3By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.Hebrews 11:3 – NKJV
In the Living Waters film, The Atheist Delusion – Ray Comfort‘s response to the famous atheist Richard Dawkins‘ book, The God Delusion – the interviewer asks a number of people whether a physical object (for example a book) can just spontaneously occur without being created by someone. He goes on to ask whether a DNA molecule (an object much more complex than a book) can spontaneously occur. Most of them draw the conclusion that both the book and the molecule have an intelligent creator. There is a rather humorous video clip of a television round table discussion involving professor Dawkins in which he first posits that everything was made from nothing, and then is shocked when people laugh as he attempts to define the ‘nothing’ from which everything was created. By contrast, the Bible starts out with a blunt statement that all things were created by God.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.Genesis 1:1 – NKJV
The Word makes no apologetic to convince the reader of God’s existence. It simply assumes that everyone knows that God exists. Furthermore, the Word assumes that God always has existed, and is in fact the Creator of time itself as well as space, matter, and energy. In fact He created the ideas of ‘before’ and ‘after.’ The Bible makes no attempt to explain or convince the reader of these things. God’s Word simply assumes that all people intuitively know them to be true even in the face of the great mysteries presented to us by the universe.
Unbelievers – particularly committed atheists like Professor Dawkins – often taunt Christians by referring to God as our “invisible friend.” Many of us had an imaginary companion when we were small children whom only we could see, and with whom only we could converse. As we grew older, our imaginary companions were left behind. Atheists intend their taunts about our “invisible friend” to insult us by implying that our faith is childish and naive. They expect that rational people will leave behind faith in our “invisible friend,” and grow out of our faith, just as we did our childhood imaginary companions. But their taunt is actually an apt description of our God. He is indeed our ever-present friend whose Spirit dwells within the depths of our hearts. And of course – except in rare instances, like the vision of Stephen at his martyrdom, and Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road – God remains unseen to our human faculty of sight. Paul writes about this in his second letter to the church at Corinth.
6So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. 7For we walk by faith, not by sight.2 Corinthians 5:6-7 – NKJV
Nevertheless, God does manifest Himself to our senses. He has provided us His Word which we may read with our eyes and thereby grow in our knowledge of Him and His ways. And although God’s true glory remains hidden from us while we remain in this earthly flesh, He does give us a glimpse of Himself through the beauty of His creation. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul tells us that those who deny the existence of the invisible God are without excuse because God has revealed Himself by His creation.
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.Romans 1:18-25 – NKJV
24Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Whenever I read this passage, I am heartbroken for people like Professor Dawkins who have indeed suppressed the Truth in unrighteousness and exchanged that Truth for the lie of the enemy of our souls, bringing upon themselves the wrath of the very God whom they deny exists.
Having now described succinctly exactly what he means when he speaks of faith, the Hebrews writer now thoroughly examines the relationship between faith, trust, and righteousness by looking at a number of examples from Israelite history with which the Messianic Hebrew congregations to whom he wrote this letter would have been intimately familiar.
4By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.Hebrews 11:4 – NKJV
We find the story referred to here in Genesis 4, immediately after God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden .
1Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the LORD.” 2Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. 3And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. 4Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, 5but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.Genesis 4:1-12 – NKJV
6So the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”
8Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
9Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
10And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. 11So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.”
Of course, the clear lesson to be taken from this text is that God dislikes vegans, and who can blame Him? After all, ever since Cain they’ve been overcompensating for his failure, and trying to be everyone’s keepers. But seriously, there’s quite a bit for us to unpack in this brief passage. First notice Eve’s little joke in Genesis 4:1. Cain’s name in Hebrew – קַיִןQayin – means possession. It is a word play upon the Hebrew word קָנָה qanah meaning to get, acquire, create, buy, possess.
But what we really need to come to grips with here is why God respected Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. The Bible doesn’t explicitly state why God discriminated between the two offerings as He did, and we must be extremely careful not to try to read anything into the text. It is tempting to try to analyze the offerings themselves to determine which of our material gains might be acceptable to the LORD. But that would miss the point entirely. It is not the substance of the brothers’ offerings which distinguished them from one another, but the spirit in which the offerings were given. Although the passage doesn’t specifically say why God dishonored Cain’s offering, notice that it does point out that Abel offered to God “of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat.” Abel had to step out in faith to make this offering. When he offered up the firstborn to the LORD, he had no way of knowing whether the rest of his flock would produce offspring. He had to trust that God would provide for Abel however He saw fit, and that God’s will in either provision or withholding would be perfectly holy and righteous. To the modern reader, the fat is something we often disdain and throw away or give to the dogs. But in ancient cultures the fat was valued. So in offering up the fat, Abel was giving the very best he could.
The LORD expects the same from us. He desires that we trust Him for provision and make our offerings of the firstfruits of our increase. In the Sermon on the Mount, recall that Jesus called on us to trust in God for our provision.
31“Therefore [since God provides for the birds and the flowers and people are much more valuable than they] do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.Matthew 6:31-34 – NKJV
Furthermore, God expects us to offer Him our very best just as Abel did. This applies not only to our finances. Certainly we need to take our financial tithes and offerings from the firstfruit of our increase – in financial terms, our ‘gross’ income. But this principle also applies to our time and energy. Often our devotions are an afterthought or an appendix to our busy days. But God desires continual fellowship with Him. In fact He created us for this very purpose.
Although it is tempting to delve into Cain’s infamous rhetorical question about being his brother’s keeper, and into God’s blessing of mercy upon Cain despite his heinous murder of his own brother (a crime certainly deserving nothing less than death), to do so would take us too far afield. The subject at hand is faith, and specifically the righteousness imputed by God through their faith to the heroes of the Israelites listed here in Hebrews 11. The writer speaks of the righteousness of Abel testified to by God here in Hebrews 11:4. Notice in Genesis 4:10, God speaks of Abel’s blood crying out to Him from the ground. In pronouncing woe upon the Jewish leaders of His day, Jesus also spoke of the testimony of Abel’s righteousness through faith by his blood.
29“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’Matthew 23:29-35 – NKJV
31“Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. 33Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? 34Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, 35that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.
Before we move on, although we don’t have time to delve further into the idea, notice that the righteousness imputed to Abel by his faith, and the testimony to it by his spilled blood is a precursor and a model of the righteousness imputed to each of us by faith through the testimony of Jesus’ blood poured out at the cross.
Next time, we will continue our study of the Hebrews writer’s exposition of the history of faith among the Hebrew people with the story of Enoch.