Faith Encouraged

Hebrews 11:1-16

8 August 2010

St Mary's, White Waltham

Morning Prayer


Forgive me if for once I begin with a joke.

A nun is working in Africa setting up a children's orphanage. One day she is driving along and her car runs out of petrol. She knows that a short distance away there is a petrol station, so she looks in her car to find some kind of container. However, all she can find is a child's potty from the orphanage. So she sets off with the potty, gets some petrol and is back at the car performing the tricky job of pouring the contents of the potty into the car. At that moment a passing car slows to a stop beside her and the window is rolled down. The man inside looks at the nun and says, "Lady, I don't share your religion... but I certainly admire your faith!"

Today's definition of faith seems to be something like "believing in spite of the facts", doesn't it?

The modern scientific mind regards faith as something a little bit ridiculous. Those of us who profess faith are a like the White Queen in Alice Through The Looking Glass.

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

That's how faith is portrayed, isn't it? We are deluded souls believing impossible things. On the one hand there is Science and Certainty, and on the other there is groundless faith, desperately clinging on to outmoded, unprovable and frankly dangerous ideas. Faith, the world says, is what you resort to when you run out of evidence; the epitome of wishful thinking; a triumph of hope over experience.

Well, when the world's view of faith gets you down, what do you do? You turn, of course, to Hebrews chapter 11, where we find quite a different story.

I want to look at our passage in Hebrews 11 under three headings, and it will be useful if you can turn to it again. Three headings: faith explained, faith exemplified, and faith encouraged.

Faith Explained

First, faith explained. The writer of Hebrews opens this magnificent chapter with his definition of faith. Verse 1, Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.ref

Now, that's a surprise, isn't it? Christian faith is about being sure, about being certain. In the previous chapter, the writer's goal is that the church be confident in its faith.

The goal of faith, then, is the same as the goal of science: it is confidence, assuredness, certainty. It's just that the objects of faith are different. The objects of faith are things hoped for — future events, and things unseen — spiritual things.

If these hoped for, unseen things are not accessible to our normal methods of investigation, then how do we find out about them? Well, the writer gives an example in verse 3, By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.ref

This statement is utterly unprovable by normal means. Science can explore the origin of the universe, but it can never prove that God created everything out of nothing, or disprove it. So how do you and I come to believe it?

We believe it because of the word of God. In chapter 11 of Hebrews, the writer very carefully starts at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis chapter one, and walks us through from there picking up outstanding examples of faith. And this example comes from the very first verse, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.ref

Christian faith is never blind. Christian faith is generated and guided by the word of God. Faith is taking, trusting and testing: taking God's word; trusting what it says; and testing how it works in practice.

Let me share with you an illustration that I think gets close to the Bible's understanding of faith.

Most of us have five senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. Each sense is designed to perceive the world around us in a different way. So, when light shines in to our eyes, we see something, we perceive it and gather information about it, and we learn to trust what we see and rely on it. It's the same when sound waves enter our ears: they bring us speech or other sounds which we learn to understand and to trust and use. Our taste buds tell us when something is good to eat or likely to do us harm.

We perceive truth about the world through our senses. We believe what we believe about the world because of our senses. Our senses give us confidence to go about our daily lives. We trust them and rely on them, don't we?

Now, when we become a Christian, God gives us another sense which is in many ways analogous to seeing or hearing or tasting: he gives us faith.

What faith does is allow us to perceive God's word. As the eye is stimulated by light, and the ear by sound, and the tongue by different chemicals, so our new sense, faith, is stimulated by God's word. As the eye takes in light, so faith takes in God's promises, and trusts them and helps us test how they work in practice. It gives us a new sense of God's word that we didn't have before.

So, for a Christian, exercising faith is like exercising sight. Seeing things around us makes us certain of them, confident in them, sure about them. Similarly, faith perceives God's promises, which are unseen, but it makes us just as confident about them as if we had seen them. This is what the Apostle Paul means when he says We live by faith, not by sightref. People can choose to live by sight, which is a sense that only perceives the things around us, or they can choose to live by faith, a sense that perceives God's eternal promises.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.ref There's nothing blind about Christian faith; there's nothing irrational about Christian faith. It simply perceives God's word in a way that the non-Christian never can.

Faith Exemplified

So, I hope that explains faith a bit and hasn't just muddied the water. But I'd better move on to faith exemplified.

As I've already said, in this chapter, the writer starts at the beginning of the Bible and goes through picking up notable examples of faith. He gets up to the book Judges when he realises he's bitten off a bit more than he can chew: verse 32, And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophetsref and so on.

So, what can we learn from these so-called Heroes of the Faith in verses 4 through 16? Well, many things, but I've picked three.

First, we learn that faith enables us to please God, verses 4 to 6.

The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis is always a bit puzzling: they both offered God a sacrifice, but we're told there that the Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favourref. Now from Hebrews we can see why: Abel had come with faith, and Cain had not. Abel was taking God's promises, trusting them and testing them in practice; Cain was not. Abel's sacrifice pleased God; Cain's did not. Outwardly they seemed just the same, but they were motivated quite differently. By nature none of us pleases God, but faith allows us to do so.

Another strange little incident in Genesis is the end of Enoch. Enoch did not die, but he walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.ref Hebrews explains what happened: because of Enoch's faith in God, God spared him from death and took him directly to himself. Hebrews 11 verse 5 says he was commended as one who pleased God.ref

So, faith enables us to please God.

But note the stark warning in verse 6, without faith it is impossible to please God.ref There are many, many people in the world who are better than I am. They are kinder, more generous and more self-sacrificing. Some of them go to church. But the tragedy is that, because their actions do not spring from faith, they cannot please God. Their starting point is wrong: without faith they do not start with the word of God. As it says in verse 6, anyone who comes to [God] must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.ref It is those who earnestly seek him whom he rewards. It's a tragic truth that many millions of extremely nice people are destined for hell because they have rejected God's word.

Faith enables us to please God; without faith we cannot please him.

Next, verse 7, faith enables us to be saved.

Noah exercised faith. He took God's word, trusted and tested: Noah did everything just as God commanded him.ref And the result was that he and his family were all saved. So he becomes a model for how you and I can be saved. Noah's sense of sight did not warn him about the impending disaster, but his God-given sense of faith in God's word did: and he chose to trust and act on that.

Third, faith enables us to live differently, verses 8 to 12.

In these verses the writer focuses in on Abraham, the father of the faithful. We don't have time to do them justice, but look at what motivated Abraham's life in verse 10: he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.ref

By faith in God's promises, Abraham knew that there was a future for him with God. He was sure of what he hoped for and certain of what he did not see. So he was able to live his life in the light of that.

Confident of his future with God, Abraham was able not to invest his life in this world, but to live for the world to come. So when he was called to leave his country of birth, he obeyed and went. He lived in the promised land as a stranger.

When faith makes us confident in the future with God, we can live differently from those around us. We needn't cling on to this world any longer, we can invest in godliness. We are enabled to do as Jesus commanded us: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,... But store up for yourselves treasures in heavenref

So, these examples show that faith enables us to please God, faith enables us to be saved, and faith enables us to live differently. There is much, much more to be said about all these things, but we need to move on.

Faith Encouraged

We've seen how Hebrews 11 gives us faith explained and faith exemplified. Now I want to finish with faith encouraged.

The purpose of this whole chapter of Hebrews 11, and really the whole book of Hebrews, is to encourage faith.

The Christians to whom the letter was written were facing great persecution, and they were losing confidence. Some of them were even giving up on Jesus and turning back. So the writer sends this letter to build their faith in Jesus and to encourage them to press on, because faith is the opposite of fear. Look at the last verse of chapter 10, But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.ref

You and I are not, on the whole, facing persecution. But I suspect that some of us feel that our faith is weak. How can we strengthen it? How does the letter of Hebrews encourage our faith?

First we need to stimulate faith by exposing it to God's word. If we lived life with our eyes closed, it would be very difficult, and much poorer, wouldn't it? So it is with faith. As the eye is stimulated by light, so faith is stimulated by God's word. We need to open our eyes of faith, and that means fixing them on God's word. We love to use our eyes to stand and look at a beautiful view, or to read a good book, or to gaze at someone we love. So let's gaze into God's word; let's give faith its proper stimulation. The writer to the Hebrews has filled his letter with Old Testament quotations and allusions, because he knows that it is the word of God that will stimulate his readers' faith. If you are not reading the Bible every day it's no wonder your faith is weak.

Second, faith needs exercise. Faith is taking God's word and trusting it. And then as we test it and find it true, our faith grows stronger. If Abel and Noah and Abraham and the couple of dozen other people listed in this chapter had not acted on their faith, it would have done them no good at all. Noah's faith saved him because he acted on it: if he'd simply sat there and said, "Oh, there's a flood coming, is there? That's very interesting", he'd have perished with the rest of them. But he was saved because he put his faith into practice. He tested it. It is as we practice trusting in God rather than in the things of this world that our faith will grow. Is there something on your heart this morning that you need to obey God in and put into practice?

Third and finally, we must consider Jesus. At the end of this gallery of the faithful, Hebrews 12 verse 2 says this, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith,... Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.ref

Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. It is in him that everything comes together, in him that all God's promises are fulfilled.

Verse 13 of our passage reminds us that all these heroes of faith in chapter 11 had far less to go on than we do. They never saw the true fulfilment of God's promises, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distanceref. Yet they still lived with extraordinary faith.

We, however, have seen the fulfilment of all God's promises in Jesus. How much more should we be able to live by faith? When your faith is weak, the best remedy of all is to fix your eyes on Jesus... Consider him.