By Faith We Understand
Key Verse 11:6
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
The apostle in this chapter describes faith to us— what faith is— what faith does. It’s mostly a list of the great men and women of the Bible whose lives of faith have written history and have also inspired all who reflect on them. What a glorious chapter this is! Amazingly we see how God the Holy Spirit sees them— how the Holy Spirit saw their lives and actions from the heavenly perspective as men and women of faith. Most of them lived ordinary lives, and struggled with very much the same things we all struggle with. They failed frequently, and occasionally they triumphed. But God the Holy Spirit tells us in this chapter that they lived by faith and so they pleased God with their lives and actions. It’s easy for many to make Christian life seem like a series of rules and regulations, or a constant struggle to maintain a moral standard. It’s easy to mistake Christian life for religious perfection. It’s easy to think of it as a race for holy achievements and superior aspirations and do-good actions. But clearly it’s not what Christian life is all about. Simply speaking Christian life is faith. I believe that our Lord Jesus once described the greatest works a human being can or should aspire to is simply faith, yet not only faith, but faith in Christ. When some frustrated people “Asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’” (John 6:28-29) Surely then Christian life in all its glory is faith— especially faith in Christ.
Which is what the apostle hopes to teach these Hebrew Christians which some of whom were considering the law and the works of the law rather than remaining in faith in Christ. It’s not strange that some of these wonderful early Christians were seriously considering abandoning the seemingly rewardless faith in Christ for the seemingly rewarding law and works of the law. After all, it’s easier to hold on to the visible earthly things than to hold on to the heavenly unseen things. For them, temple worship and the sacrifices with the visible priesthood looked really good, holy and righteous, while the invisible temple where our Lord Jesus stands in heaven along with his once-for-all sacrifice looked feeble and unimpressive. Therefore, it’s not so strange for them to have faltered. After all, how many Christians today prefer the showmanship of religious activity and the pomp of ceremony over simply only faith in Christ! But don’t be fooled! God isn’t pleased with those who love human praise more than the praise of God. (John 12:43) But as for us, we must always “Live by faith not by sight”. (2 Corinthians 5:7)
And here in this chapter we have a glorious overview of those who lived by faith and pleased God. So the apostle begins by telling us what faith— what real faith— is. And he tells us that it’s faith that pleases God for which he commends those who have it and who live by it. “Now faith”, he says, “is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”. (1) Faith is simple. Faith is also simple to understand. Faith isn’t something imaginary or manufactured; it isn’t something you strain to believe. It is being confident of what you hope for and assured of what you do not see. In other words it’s being sure of that very hope which you can’t see. Like a child who has every faith that he will receive gifts on Christmas. He had absolutely no doubt that he will receive those gifts. He hopes for them. He knows he will get them even though he can’t even see one of them. Why does he have such great faith? Because he knows that his parents love him. Because he knows that his parents are reliable and faithful at least Christmas time. He engages his faith. But even if he’s never had a Christmas before, his friends had had them and they’ve told him, and so he hopes with a conviction and without a doubt that it will happen to him as it happened to them. You see, he has faith and he engages it!
And that’s “What the ancients were commended for”, the apostle tells us. (2) They were commended for that very thing— for the faith they have in God. They were commended for having such sure faith that hopes and is certain of what cannot be seen. What then did they hope for? It doesn’t matter what they hoped for, and the list is long. But if we read this chapter thoughtfully, we see that they hoped in many things, especially the things promised by God. Abraham hoped for a son because God had promised him a son. But Abraham also hoped in eternal life and the kingdom of God as well, and he was convinced that he would get them. He had that kind of faith— the faith that hopes and the certainty of getting it. So for the purpose of understanding the ancients’ faith, it doesn’t matter what they hoped for as long as we know that they lived in that hope. They had that living hope. And that living hope defined the scope of their faith very well. And for that they were commended. God was pleased with them because they never doubted God nor his word.
Verse 3 is very interesting. The apostle is giving us an example of what faith is all about. Listen to what he says. He says: “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”. To put it simply what he’s saying is that we who believe and trust God— not just believe in his existence, but we who trust him as well— as should every human being, we understand something very well. And we understand it by faith or by the agent of faith working in us. And what is it that we fully and completely understand? We understand that everything in this visible world— as well as the invisible world— came into existence from nothing. He’s talking about the entire universe, visible and invisible things that suddenly came into existence. And he tells us that we understand something else as well. We also understand that all this magnificent creation came into being by God’s spoken word or command. It also goes without saying that not only the universe came into being by God’s word, but that it’s function and administration also happens by his word. This, he says, we understand. He doesn’t say try to understand it, or reason it out, or contemplate it or such, but he says that we definitely understand this, and we do understand it. How? By faith! This is indeed basic faith. It’s not even advanced faith but basic faith.
Actually that’s true! We who believe God and trust him understand this very well. We don’t doubt for a moment that while once there was nothing, God spoke and all of a sudden there came into existence this universe with the earth and all that’s in it. We fully understand this. And how do we understand it? We understand this in the depth of our hearts and minds and being by faith. Faith translates it to you and so you fully come to understand this truth. To the ancients it was simply putting 2 and 2 together. And just as you understand that the world was created by God’s word, so also you— by faith— understand that by that same word, all that you hope for and do not see will one day become reality to you. You understand— by faith— that everything in God’s word and that God says that’s promised to you will some day also take shape. This is a glorious truth that we stand on just like the ancients. The ancients— by faith— understood all these things, as should we! God’s word is powerful enough to create and destroy, and so his word of promise, will come to pass without doubt. That’s our faith.
Now we can’t separate promise from faith. As I said, faith is not just a hunch or a strong conviction. Faith is not just “I believe and I hope it’s true”. Faith rests on the word of God’s promise. Let me give you an example of how we cannot separate faith from promise. When God called Abraham to live by faith, he asked him to leave his country, his people and his father’s household and go to the land he would later show him. And at the same time God made him some promises. (Genesis 12:1-3) The Bible then tells us that Abraham went as the Lord had told him. Abraham’s faith was not some blind faith based on a hunch, nor on some inner feeling he had, nor was his faith based on a sense of adventure. His faith was entirely based on God’s word of promise. He went as the Lord had told him. He believed God’s word of promise. He had confidence in the hope of God’s promise being fulfilled. He was certain of all the things God told him which he could not possibly see. You see, his faith was based on God’s word of promise as it should be.
The scope of his faith was remarkable. He believed God’s promises. In fact his faith was entirely in the hope of the Christ he could not see, for all the promises God gave him were centered in and focused on Christ, the greatest of God’s promises. Even Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56) Our Christian hopes are also diverse and numerous. We hope to physically join Christ in his kingdom at the resurrection of the righteous, (Luke 14:14) and until then we live by faith of those hopes being realized. As Paul tells us, “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2) when we will finally be “Conformed to his likeness” (Romans 8:29a). Because of this hope we have to mature into the image of our Lord, we live by faith in him and in this promise, enduring hardship, persevering under trials, earnestly desiring to please him even if it means costing us much suffering in this world. This is all faith based on God’s promise.
But our faith is also in every promise God has made us. And every promise is coupled with a challenge of faith. When the Lord tells us, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33), we understand clearly that God challenges us to an act of faith— to seek first his kingdom and righteousness— and he gives us the promise on which this faith stands— all these things will be provided. But how many actually believe this and apply it in their lives! Many Christians, while confessing Christ, seek first their own comfort and follow first their own plans, and then if it’s convenient seek God’s kingdom and righteousness. How can we possibly experience the fulfillment of the promise, if we do not first engage our faith and trust God to do the rest! That is why many remain unproductive and ineffective in their lives of faith. Their faith is conditional, not absolute and based on the promise of God. And then I wonder, “Why am I not making progress in my life of faith!” Our faith is in the Word of God and in his promises. Faith can’t be real faith, nor can we experience the power of God either in life or ministry unless I rest my faith wholly and completely on God’s word and promise. The spiritual principle is like this: God commands, or challenges, or he promises— I believe and I accept his word from the depth of my heart— And then I rest my hope on his word and promise even when I can’t see the results in the distance. That’s our faith! We live by that faith that what God says God will fulfill. When Abraham’s faith faltered, God didn’t nix him. God time and again visited him and reminded him of his promise until it was firmly planted in his heart. That’s how faith grows in us as well. We falter, we make mistakes, but we always go back to God’s promise and hold it in our hearts with a sure hope.
That’s “What the ancients were commended for”. And as we said the list of these ancients is long. It spans God’s history from Abel to all those listed in this chapter. And it doesn’t end there either. The New Testament is rife with stories of similar faith. It is said that the book of Acts doesn’t finish with chapter 28, that we’re all living in the continuous chapter 29, where men and women of faith are still writing history and inspiring us to reflect on the glories of faith. Faith is a beautiful thing— a gift given to every human being because “God so loved the world that he gave his One and Only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. (John 3:16) The challenge of faith here is not only to believe in him— particularly in who He Is and what he’s done in the cause of salvation— but to also believe that God loves us so much that he was willing to sacrifice his Son so that you and I would not perish in our sins. And the promise is forgiveness and reconciliation and salvation— so that you and I might live by faith, enjoy his fellowship and serve his glory! That’s the challenge of faith and the promise on which we stand. That’s what we hope to be commended for, just as the ancients were. So we must grow in our faith until every promise is fulfilled in our lives.
Let’s see about some of these ancients’ faith. Read verse 4. “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” You can read the background story in Genesis (4:1-10). Abel and Cain both came to God with their offerings. Abel and his offering were accepted by God, but God rejected Cain and his offering. The Lord Jesus spoke of Abel as a Righteous man because of his faith. (Matthew 23:35) And the apostle here in Hebrews tells us that Abel and his offering were accepted by God because Abel offered a better sacrifice by faith. What does this mean? His offering was accepted by God not just because it was a blood offering, nor just because it was the very best of what he had, not even because it came from a heart full of love and zeal for God— but because it was in every way given in obedience to God’s instructions. God certainly revealed to Adam and his descendants the way of true worship. Abel must have learned God’s instructions and obeyed God and his word by faith. Cain, on the other hand, who was of the evil one (1 John 3:10-12), scorned the divine instruction, and brought to God whatever he wanted to bring. In other words, he must have decided to worship God in his own way. He did what many do by worshiping God and serving him in their own way rather than by carefully listening to his Word. It may be that Cain was a religious man, but he was certainly not a righteous man, because he did not have faith to do what is right in the Lord’s sight. And when God tried to counsel him to do what is right, Cain’s jealousy, pride and rebellious nature caused him to ignore God’s word and to kill his brother Abel. Abel obeyed and worshiped God. And his faith cost him his life. The apostle here tells us that Abel’s faith still speaks to us today as the first martyr of the faith. It testifies to God who still accepts those who come to him by faith, and it still encourages us to live and act by faith. We can say that Abel’s faith is faith to obey and worship.
Read verse 5. “By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.” According to Genesis 5:22, “Enoch walked with God” and he did so by faith. What does it mean that “Enoch walked with God”? In his times, people walked with other people in the ways of the world. They walked in ways that defied God and disdained him. But Enoch, although it was very dangerous and difficult to do so, he walked with God in God’s holy ways. He did so by faith. It was faith that sustained him and kept his hopes on God and on his word of promise. Faith always grows not by reading books about faith, but when we actually exercise faith by walking and having fellowship with God. And we can do that if and when we have the desire to please God and the sincerity of heart to actually seek him in all things. Read verse 6. “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” This verse describes Enoch’s life very well. Enoch believed in a personal and loving God who is pleased with faith and who blesses it. Enoch was also seeking God and looking for a heavenly reward.
God himself teaches us what is the best reward we can get in seeking him. When Abraham rescued his spiritually derelict nephew Lot, he really hoped that Lot would now begin to seek the Lord and to live by faith. But Lot who once lived outside the city of Sodom, went ahead and moved right into the city of Sodom in spite of its reputation for godlessness. When Abraham was crushed by this, God visited him and taught him something he would never forget. God said to him: “I am…. Your very great reward”! (Genesis 15:1) In other words, he told him not to look for any perishable earthly reward. When we seek God with all our hearts, God himself becomes our very great reward. That is why the Psalmist said: “Whom have I in heaven by you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you”. (Psalm 73:25) We should have the same mindset as the Psalmist, as Enoch. When we seek Christ, God rewards us with himself. He rewards us with forgiveness and righteousness, and all the blessings of heaven, so that everything else in this world pales and looks pathetic in comparison. Enoch walked with God and in God’s ways. He knew that God rewards those who seek him. He knew that nothing short of faith pleases God. And Enoch did so in amidst a wicked and perverted world with a depraved humanity. He walked with God when no one else did. And one day, he was taken to heaven and couldn’t be found anymore. Abel died a terrible death at the hands of his own brother, but Enoch never died. Surely God has a different plan for those who trust him and walk with him in faith. We can say that Enoch’s faith was a walking with God faith.
Read verse 7. “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” Noah’s faith was dynamic involving his whole being completely. His mind was warned by God. His heart was moved with holy fear. And his will acted on the words God had told him. What God commanded Noah to do seemed ridiculous in a world that had never known a flood, nor even experienced a rain storm. So Noah’s actions drew a lot of attention from the crowds, as well as a whole lot of ridicule as well. But his resilient faith became a good influence on his whole family and led them to salvation. At the same time, his steadfast faith also condemned the world. How? By revealing the terrible wickedness and unbelief of a godless people living to please only themselves rather than God. What happened then showed that Noah was right. And our Lord Jesus used that same story to warn people to be ready for his return. Jesus didn’t say the world was in turmoil in Noah’s day. Here is what he said: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.’” (Matthew 24:36-42) Jesus warns that in Noah’s time, people were involved in seemingly innocent every day activities, while completely ignoring the word of God and Noah’s preaching. We can say that Noah’s faith was an obedient and working faith.
Faith pleases God. And without faith it is impossible to please God. Our faith must be rooted in God’s word and promise. May God teach us the ancients’ faith so that ours may mature into the faith that pleases God and guarantees his commendation. Blessings on you.