Category Archives: Scriptural Thought for the Month

The Heroes of Faith: For further Consideration.

‘And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.’ (Hebrews 11:32-35a).

By the time we get to verse 32 of this magnificent chapter the writer infers he could give many more examples – as if he was saying: “Well, I’d love to go on – there are so many people from our heritage who showed considerable faith, but, I’ve made my point – do I need to say more?!”  The writer knows, however, that lessons can be learned from these examples, and therefore, he encourages his readers to think about them – especially as some reflected ‘far-from-prefect’ faith!

Gideon was hesitant, demanding signs from the Lord then being so afraid, he carried out the Lord’s first command by night (Judges 6)!  Barak would not lead the army into battle without the prophetess Deborah to hold his hand (in a metaphorical sense), and so, he forfeited the glory of a victorious commander (Judges 4:6-9)!  Samson may have had a body that matched Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, but, most of the time, he had the mind-set of an adolescent!  As for Jephthah, he may have been a mighty warrior, but he had a big mouth, and made silly vows that others paid for (Judges 11:29-40)![1]  Could it be any clearer?  These people failed as much as they displayed faith, but God used them despite of this!  Samuel and David do not quite come into this category, although David had his failings, and Samuel may have made some of Eli’s mistakes and neglected to discipline his sons (1 Samuel 8:3).  David’s inclusion maybe more to do with prophecy, as his name is linked with Samuel and other unnamed prophets.

But the point is the Lord worked mighty acts though these people, whether it was by the delivering or ruling of his people.  The curious phrase: ‘stopped the mouths of lions’ is probably a reference to Daniel (Daniel 6), although Samson also had a memorable encounter with a lion (Judges 14: 5-6).  As Raymond Brown points out: ‘All six men were vastly different in human personality, social circumstances and spiritual opportunity, yet, it in various ways God used them.  He did not press them into an identical mould or demand the same response from each of them.’[2]  The reference to: ‘fire’ undoubtedly refers to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their encounter with the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:8-27).  The phrase; ‘escaped the edge of the sword’ could easily apply to David whose life was under threat at various times before and during his reign.  However, it could also apply to others as it: ‘sums up a wide range of violent action’ and: ‘the phrase is a familiar one in the Old Testament.’[3]  Being: ‘made strong out of weakness’ might apply to King Hezekiah’s prayer for healing (2 Kings 20:1-11) and the beginning of verse 35 to the many mighty acts by those in the book of Judges or the establishment of a strong kingdom under David.  Elijah and Elisha’s ministries are clearly referenced with the phrase: ‘Women receive back their dead by resurrection’ as both of their ministries were marked by this mighty miracle indicating their considerable faith (1 Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 4:18-37).

But once again the writer has reminded his readers that God works even through imperfect faith.  What a major encouragement to those who were wavering in their faith and were thinking of returning to their former Jewish beliefs.  They were to keep going and trust the Lord!

Want to listen to a sermon on this passage? Conquering Faith, Imperfect Faith, Suffering Faith, what Faith Achieves.

[1] As you can imagine much ink has been committed to paper about Jephthah’s vow.  Did he really sacrifice his daughter or was she subjected to perpetual virginity because of this rash vow?  The tragedy was that the Law did allow him a way out (Leviticus 6:2-7).  There are commentators on both sides of the argument that I respect greatly.  I personally think that it was quite possibly perpetual virginity due to his daughter’s statement and behaviour in Judges 11:36-40.  However, these were dark and desperate times when men did dark and desperate things and the passage can easily be read and understood the other way as well!

[2] Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews, Christ Above All, The Bible Speaks Today(Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1982), 221.

[3]Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 244.

 

The Heroes of Faith: Corporate Faith and Unexpected Faith!

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.  By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.  By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies’ (Hebrews 11:29-31).

In these verses the writer shifts his focus from personal faith to corporate faith, and then to what might be termed totally unexpected and extraordinary faith!

The crossing of the Red Sea was an act of incredible faith and whatever the behaviour of the people before the crossing (Exodus 14:10-13) it must have taken great faith to walk the path between the piled up walls of water even if it was: ‘as if on dry land’. Yet, as we know: ‘the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned’ (v29).  The writer then fast forwards forty years to one of the most remarkable events of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land, the conquest of Jericho.  The actual method that the Lord had prescribed for taking Jericho must have seemed totally ludicrous.  After all, how could walking round the city once six days in a row and on the seventh, on the seventh circuit, giving a loud shout possibly be an effective strategy (Joshua 6:1-21)?  Think about it, it sounds absolutely mad!  Surely siege-engines would have to be built to scale or breakdown the city walls and you would have to have a well-trained army!  It took faith for the people to obey instructions like that even if they had seen God at work in the past!  But that is what they did because they had faith in God and Joshua as his servant.

That now brings us to the big surprise of Hebrews chapter 11, Rahab and her monumental example of faith! Rahab and her family’s lives were spared in the conquest of Jericho due to her reaction to the Israelite spies.  She took the great risk of hiding them and covering for them (Joshua 2:8-21).  Her reaction is interesting as it is a display of great faith for someone living among a pagan people.  While all in Jericho had heard the stories of the Lord’s great deliverance of his people from Egypt only Rahab drew the right conclusion in that she: ‘so feared Yahweh’s threat that she fled to receive his mercy’.[1]  In other words she threw herself on the mercy of the living God, while the rest of Jericho panicked and locked the gates.  John Calvin notes her background was even less promising: ‘the name harlot is added to heighten the grace of God’.  He then adds: ‘it is also certain that this refers to her past life for her faith is the evidence of her repentance.’[2] So this former ‘Shady Lady’ is held up by the apostle James as a beacon of faith and rightly so (James 2:25). She is an example of faith in the most surprising place and circumstances, and a wonderful testimony to Just how far God’s grace and mercy can extend!

Want to listen to a sermon on this passage? Faith that Expects the Miraculous.

[1] Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua, No Falling Words (Fearn, Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 56.

[2] John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistle’s of St Peter, Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1963), 181.

 

 

The Heroes’ of Faith: Moses Part 2

‘By faith he (Moses) left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.  By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them’ (Hebrews 11:27-28).

The writer of the letter has impressed upon his readers that Moses did not conform to the sinful pleasures of Egypt which surrounded him as a younger man.  Rather, he was an example of faith.  Nonetheless, verse 27 raises an interesting question, as Moses left Egypt twice.  Much ink has been committed to paper on this matter, and there are reasonable arguments for either event, but I feel it refers to the Exodus.  The first time Moses fled in panic, due the Pharaoh’s anger, therefore, this reason for leaving does not really represent an act of faith, but in my opinion, the Exodus does.  Now I know some will say Pharaoh was defeated rather than angry, but I would argue his anger manifests itself in his change of mind and pursuit of the Israelites, which then leads to the decimation of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-29).[1]   But we must not get so tied up in these arguments that we miss that Moses’s motivation came from: ‘seeing him who is invisible’ (v27) which is probably a reference to Moses’s encounter with the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-4:16) – and this means his focus was on the Lord and it was he who motivated him.

But perhaps the most incredible act of faith for Moses was the keeping of the Passover.  The Lord had given detailed instructions of how his people were going to be preserved and saved (Exodus 12:21-28). And even though Moses had seen the Lord at work through the plagues, he might doubt, perhaps, as to how putting a bit of blood round the door post was going to protect families from the forewarned death coming upon their firstborn?  Yet, as Moses demonstrated trust in this promise, and obediently followed the Lord’s instruction, he brought about the protection and salvation of God’s people!  John Calvin sums up the extent of Moses’s faith.  ‘It could seem absurd that Moses set up a few drops of blood as a remedy for the vengeance of God, but he was content with the word of God alone and had no doubt that the people would be exempt from the plague which was coming upon the Egyptians.’[2]   Now, that is living by faith!

The example of Moses must have been a tremendous encouragement to these Jewish Christians. He gave up so much to stand with God’s people.  They could relate to this, as they had endured hardship and struggle, and had even had their property confiscated in their stand for Christ (10:32-34). But once again, Moses only got just a glimpse of his reward!  In Deuteronomy 34:1-7 he views the Promised Land from Mount Nebo, but never actually sets foot in it.

In conclusion, Moses – like others in this chapter – saw only from a distance what had been promised (v13), but never doubted that he would receive it!

Want to listen to a sermon on this passage? What’s so Special about Someone who gave up the Easy Life?

[1] The arguments concerning Moses departure from Egypt are rather helpfully summed up by F.F. Bruce when he writes: ‘Some commentators, however, have preferred to see here a reference to Moses departure from Egypt at the time of the Exodus.  One argument in favour of this view is the statement that “he endured, as seeing him who is invisible”, which might be understood as an allusion to his experience at the burning bush.  Against it, however, is the consideration that reference to the Exodus here, before the institution of the Passover in verse 28, would be out of its natural order, as well as the consideration that fear of the king’s wrath would be irrelevant to this later departure from Egypt, since the king and his people like then urged Moses and the Israelites to get out as quickly as they could.’  F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Printing Company, 1964), 322-3.
[2] John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistle’s of St Peter, Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1963), 179-180.

 

The Heroes’ of Faith: Moses Part 1

‘By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.  By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God, than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward’

(Hebrews 11:23-26).

As a fan of Woody Allen films, I particularly like ‘Zellig,’ which is a mock documentary. The central character (Zellig) exhibits a peculiar phenomenon in that he takes on the physical characteristics and racial distinctions of whoever he is with.  It basically takes on, and sends up – to a great comical affect – the very human need to try and fit in, and to be loved.

In contrast, one of the key aspects that typify Moses’s life is that he does not conform, or take on the nature of what is around him! In the eyes of the Jewish Christians (to whom the letter was addressed) Moses was a monumental figure as the Law-giver. But, there is a lot more to Moses in the sense that, right from the start, he is a product of faith.  Moses’s parents exhibited faith when they kept him hidden as a baby.  The phrase: ‘because they saw the child was beautiful’ (v23) is probably best understood in the Greek as a term that can be used to describe: ‘elegance in clothing.’[1]  This denotes that his parents took the bold risk in preserving his life – despite Pharaoh’s order – because there was something exceptional about him as a child.[2]   In that sense they were also heroes of faith!  Moses, however, far from being a mere product of his parents’ faith, he exhibits his own, active and strong faith when, he chooses to throws his lot in with the mistreated people of God whilst he was still growing up among the finery and privilege of the Egyptian royal family.

Now, if we read Exodus chapters 2-3 we know there is a bit more to it than that. Moses is hesitant; he makes excuses, even when the Lord has shown that he will help him with the incredible miracles that he is given to perform, and which will give great authority to his message!  When he runs out of excuses he is still trying to weasel his way out of it with a final plea to the Lord to send someone else!  Hardly, we might think, a hero of faith!  However (just like the other heroes of faith), he is dealt with by God, with a great deal of grace and finally rises to the task.  Verse 26 raises a question, what exactly is meant by: ‘the reproach of Christ’?  I think the simplest answer is that Christ is found in all the Scriptures, and that means we can see pointers, or a signpost to his redemptive work in events like the exodus which Jesus himself noted (John 5:45-46).  But there is also another way of looking at it, as Paul Ellingworth notes that: ‘The author of Hebrews sees a positive analogy between the sufferings of Moses and those of Christ.’[3]  But again, we shall see in the second part, he only saw God’s promise partially fulfilled.  Quite simply, he was looking to the Lord’s reward, rather than what was no doubt, sensual and materialistic lifestyle, typical of members of the Royal family in Egypt.

Want to listen to a sermon on this passage? What’s so Special about Someone who gave up the Easy Life?

[1] Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1983),  238-9

[2]  Stephen uses the same phase in Acts 7:20 when he witnesses to the Jewish Council before his martyrdom.

[3] Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 614.

The Heroes of Faith: Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau.  By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones’ (Hebrews 11:20-22).

After the intense focus on Abraham, the next three verses deal with Isaac, Jacob and Joseph in a much quicker manner, yet actually covering almost half of the book of Genesis! Nevertheless, despite of the fleeing mention of each they are well worth looking at.  Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau is intriguing to say the least (v20).  A Brief summing up of the two characters (for a more complete study of the events read Genesis 25:19-28:9) shows Esau as driven by his sensuality and bodily appetites, which causes him to be done out of his birth-right and blessing as Isaac’s oldest son by his brother Jacob. That makes Jacob a liar and a cheat!  So, how does this qualify as an act of faith when Jacob’s blessing was a result of deceit and trickery?

Isaac realised that God would still bring about his purposes; even when sinful human beings try to manipulate them! In the next verse we find Jacob literally on his deathbed, blessing Joseph sons again in an unorthodox manner by blessing the younger (vs20-21 and Genesis 48).  We can see from the events in Jacob’s life (Genesis 27-50) that he arrived at the conclusion that all his trickery and scheming has got him nowhere.  It is only through God’s grace that blessing has come (check out his prayer in Genesis 32:9-12, it’s a key moment in his spiritual growth).  In other words, despite his past, Jacob is now living by faith and seeing God’s promises extended to another generation!  So how do we understand the workings of God here?  John Owen outlines the theological implications for us. ‘So did God accomplish his purpose and promise unto Jacob, by ordering the outward circumstances of the irregular actings of him and his mother unto his own blessed ends.’ He goes on to point out that the Lord: ‘accepted their persons, pardoned their sins, and affected the matter according to their desire.’[1]  Put simply, if God wills it, and I stress – if God wills it – even the misguided actions of those who have some faith can be used by the Lord in his purpose because of his infinite grace towards sinful people!  In other words: ‘God’s blessings are given not because we deserve them, but because we need them.’[2]

That brings us to verse 22 and Joseph’s act of faith in asking for his bones to be taken back to the Promised Land (Genesis 50:22-26). Why was this simple request regarded as an act of faith? It was for several reasons. Firstly, those who had gone down to Egypt were seventy in all (Genesis 46:27) which is hardly a nation’s worth!  Another factor, which made their return to the “promised land” rather unlikely, was that things were pretty good for them in Egypt.  Yes, we know that things were far from good later (which will lead us to the next example of faith, Moses) yet, here, Joseph speaks by faith. He knew that however things might have appeared God had something better for his people in the future, because he had promised it to their forefathers.  Again he serves the writer’s purpose well in that he speaks of something he does not get to see but believes will happen, because God has promised it!  As such, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are once again interesting examples of faith, and a good encouragement to those who seek such faith models to live by.

Want to listen to a sermon on this passage? Three fleeting but poignant examples.

[1] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Volume 7, (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 122.

[2] Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews, Christ Above All, The Bible Speaks Today, (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1982), 212.

The Heroes of Faith: Abraham Part 2.

‘By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son,  of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back’

(Hebrews 11:17-19).

Before we moved to Stony Stratford I redecorated our house as we were going to be letting it.  My friend, who is a builder and decorator, was helping me.  One day I had to do an online bank transaction on the computer in the room where he was working.  When I finished his words were: “and you trust that thing?”  He is, by his own admission, old-fashioned, paying and transacting everything in person.  You could say if he could see it, he believed it!

Those who received this letter wanted to see visible blessing at that present time!  But the writer of the letter is making it clear their spiritual forefathers did not see the full extent of God’s blessings in their lifetime, yet they trusted him.

This is why the writer now comes back to Abraham.  He trusted God.  But there is real twist in verses 17-19 which makes Abraham’s obedience up to this point seems simple!  God asks him to sacrifice his only son Isaac!  Becoming the father of a great nation appeared possible, even if Abraham did not see it in his own lifetime.  But, destroying the means of that promise…? That was another thing entirely!

A look at the story in Genesis 22:1-14 is useful.  Firstly, God is testing Abraham to give up the son he loved (Genesis 22:1-2).  We are party to what is going on, but Abraham is not!  Secondly, Abraham displays real faith when he mentions to the servants that he and Isaac: “will go over there and worship and come back again to you” (Genesis 22:5).  This fits with the comment that Abraham: ‘considered that God was able even to raise him (Isaac) from the dead’ (v19).  He expected Isaac and himself to return!  Lastly, there seems to be compliance on the part of Isaac.  He is a young man in his late teens or early 20s strong enough to carry wood for the sacrifice, so it is unlikely he would be overpowered by his father who was over 100 years old.  The structure of the Genesis passage in verses 9-10 deliberately slows the narrative to give the impression of each step and task being done thoroughly,   by the use of the words: ‘and’ and: ‘Then’…Admittedly, modern sensibilities may struggle with Abraham contemplating sacrificing his son, the emphasis here, however is on his remarkable faith![1]

However there is yet another aspect we should note. In John 8:56, when Jesus is conversing with the increasingly hostile Pharisees he states: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.  He saw it and was glad.”  How are we to understand this extraordinary statement?  I think the answer is found in the above described episode of faith.  The phrase: ‘figuratively speaking’ (v19) can be rendered in the Greek as: ‘as a parable’.[2]  So Abraham receiving Isaac back from his figurative death acts as a parable that points to Christ’s work – Abraham in being willing to sacrifice his only son, just as God gave up his only son, and the probable compliance of Isaac in the same way Jesus was compliant with his Father’s will.  We also have God’s provision of a ram (Genesis 22:11-14) – in the same way, we are spared through Christ’s substitution for our sin.  God had promised that by Abraham: “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).  Maybe, through these events, Abraham was partial to some understanding how God might just do that!

Want to listen to a sermon on this passage?  What’s so Special about Someone who Lived in a Tent? Part 2.

[1] However, whatever our modern sensibilities, John Currid makes the point that in verse 19 of the Genesis passage the idea of he and Isaac and going together has been used twice before in the passage (vs6 and 8) and therefore reflects a: ‘harmony between father and son on the way to the mountain. Now it is used here for the same reason: as they return from the mountain there is still harmony between them.’ John D. Currid, A Study Commentary on Genesis, Volume 1, (Darlington, Evangelical Press, 2003), 396.
[2] Richard D. Philips, Hebrews, Reformed Expository Commentary, (Philipsburg, P and R Publishing 2006), 478.

 

The Heroes of Faith: Drawing some Conclusions from the Examples so Far.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone 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 for them a city.’ (Hebrews 11:13-16).

At this point the writer is probably thinking: “I’ll return to Abraham in a minute, but let’s draw together everything we can from these examples of faith we have had so far, to see how it helps us in our earthly pilgrimage.” So now, he draws three conclusions.

Firstly, the writer focuses on the major subject matter, relevant to Jewish Christians – the recipients of his letter. He points out that the aforementioned ancestors had ‘all died in faith, not having received the things promised’.  The results of their faith were not fully seen in this life; nonetheless, the second part of verse 13 makes it clear they did not doubt that they would see the results of God’s promises.  It was as if they had had glimpsed them: ‘from afar’ which confirmed their reality!

Secondly, these believers acknowledged the world was not their home. They were in fact: ‘strangers and exiles on the earth.’ Abraham was a supreme example of this, never putting down roots anywhere, instead, living a nomadic existence in a tent, moving to wherever the Lord directed him!  Lastly, the behaviour of these examples of faith highlights they were looking for a home of God’s provision, not their own.  Abraham could have thought to himself: “well this isn’t working out!  I’m fed up of this over-extended camping trip, I’m going home!” but he never did… John Brown observes: ‘From the call of Abraham to the death of Jacob was a space of 200 years. During this period they might have easily returned to Chaldea. The distance was no obstacle.  There does not seem to have been any external obstruction.  But they gave clear evidence that they were not disposed to return.’[1]

 Verse 16 focuses on a major theme of the letter: everything God provides is better!  These people of faith did not take pleasure in material things.  No, their focus was on: ‘a better country, that is, a heavenly one.’ What is interesting is that when people take that attitude God delights in them!  The phrase: ‘Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God’ shows that God takes pleasure in being identified with such people, despite their past failings. The thought of putting down roots must have been very attractive to Abraham, but God has so much more prepared for those who love him.  Philip Arthur makes this observation concerning the nature of faith presented in the letters of Paul. ‘If Paul emphasise faith in what God in Christ has done in the past, the author to the Hebrews compliments this by reminding us of another dimension of faith that launches out into an unknown future confident that God will provide.’[2]  What a challenge for us in an age where people are consumed with the acquisition of wealth and materialism.  The writer of the letter has introduced us to people who were heavenly minded because they kept their focus on God.  It is as if he is saying “they kept going – and I’d like you to make it your motto to keep going, and see the wonderful rewards they did!”

Want to hear listen to a sermon on this passage?   No Turning Back!

[1] John Brown, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (London, Banner of Truth Trust, 1964), 518.

[2] J. Philip Arthur, No Turning Back, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, (London, Grace Publications Trust, 2002), 12.

 

The Heroes of Faith: Sarah.

 ‘By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.  Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore’ (Hebrews 11:11-12).

Sarah is the first of the only two women who are named in Hebrews 11.  She is held up as an example of faith in relation to her bearing Abraham’s son, Isaac, in her old age.  This might cause us to raise our eyebrows – after all, in Genesis 18:1-15 when the Lord revealed to Abraham that he would father a son, despite of his age Sarah, overhearing this, found it laughable, and then lied to try and save face!  That being the case, how is she seen as an example of faith?

The probable answer is far from spectacular, but that said, it is one that can provide believers with great encouragement.  Over the period of time, and encouraged by Abraham’s belief in the promises the Lord made to him, she grew in faith.  After all she too was part of the Lord’s promise to Abraham which had been reflected in her name being changed from Sarai to Sarah, meaning Princess (Genesis 17:15).

There is some debate as to whether Sarah or Abraham is the main subject of verse 11 as how it is translated in some versions put the emphasis on Abraham.  Lee Cockerill translates the text as: ‘By faith Sarah herself, although barren, receive power for the disposition of seed even though she was past the season for childbearing’.[1]  And I consider that to be the right emphasis as those receiving the letter would have known the scripture concerned and would have known that Abraham had had no problem impregnating Hagar (Genesis 16:1-4), which then does not particularly make this an act of faith on his part (although by the time Isaac was born he was considerably older).  So in my thinking the emphasis is on the: ‘power to conceive’ which strongly suggests that Sarah is the main subject of the verse.[2]  Genesis 18:11 helps reinforce the view as it states: ‘Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah’ (a biblical way of saying she had gone through the menopause).  So, in the course of time, Sarah came slowly to believe, trusting that God would make her capable of bearing a son.

But how refreshing this was for the readers of the original letter and also us as believers today!  Very often faith is not formed by bold steps but by us stumbling, falling because of our lack of trust in the Lord’s promises, then him graciously picking us up again, and so we learn the lesson to put our trust in him!

But that said, in in the end this is still amazing faith!  In verse 12 the writer makes it clear that this is a major miracle.  It could not have been easier than raising the dead yet: ‘from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sands by the seashore.’  This is a faith that trusts the Lord to bring about his purpose, even when circumstances are against it!  And this has got to be a major encouragement to Christians in any day and age!

Want to listen to a sermon on this passage?  Sarah: Faith by a Progressive Experience.

[1] Garth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the  New Testament, (Michigan, Eerdmans publishing company, 2012), 535.
[2] As the ESV (English Standard Version of the Bible) also concludes.  Hence  the use of it here.

 

The Heroes of Faith: Abraham Part 1.

‘By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God’ (Hebrews 11:8-10).

One issue for the Jewish Christians the letter was sent to was their reward for following Christ. After all they had given up so much to follow him. Their Jewish neighbours now shunned them and they would have been excluded from the synagogue! What’s more the Jews as a race were exempted from Emperor Worship in the Roman Empire and now they had lost their exemption, so they now faced persecution on two fronts!  So where was their reward – when would that be?  So it is easy to see, why the writer now chooses Abraham as an example, because he was one of God’s chosen people who did not see the complete fulfilment of the promises made by the Lord!

Verses 8-9 are the gist of Abraham’s story (Genesis 11:27-25:11). In Genesis 12:1-3, Abraham receives the promise that if he goes to the land which the Lord will show him, he will be blessed by becoming the father of a great nation, and that through him: “all the families of the Earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).  Now that is some promise, but there are two things are worth noting.  Firstly, Abraham had no idea where he is going (v8)!  Secondly, he was an unlikely candidate for God’s blessing.  Joshua makes it clear, in his last speech to the Israelites that Abraham’s father, Terah: “served other gods.” (Joshua 24:2).  He was a polytheist – one who worships many gods.  This raises the question: was Abraham originally a polytheist too?  The answer is we do not know, but it is a possibility as it is inferred Terah’s family was with the use of the word: “they”.  What we do know is that Abraham’s introduction in scripture is very abrupt.  In Joshua the use of the phase: “Then I took your father Abraham” also gives the impression of sudden dramatic change (Joshua 24:3).  Dale Ralph Davis writes: ‘Abraham rose out of the desolate pit and miry bog of paganism only because Yahweh touched him.’ He continues that it was God who: ‘for no apparent reason, took hold of our father Abraham, the sinner.’[1]  So, whichever way we look at it, Abraham was a product of God’s grace.  After this, he is off to his over-extended camping trip!  But why did he do it?  Verse 9 tells us he believed the Lord and showed complete dependence on him to fulfil his promises.  So he lived in a tent like a refugee: ‘in the land of promise’.

But we might be tempted to say: “hold on, that sounds downright weird! It’s not very settled living in a tent”.  Did Abraham ever see the complete fulfilment of God’s promises?  The answer is no; verse 10 makes it clear that Abraham realised that these promises had an element which would be fulfilled in the future.  The verse highlights everything that Abraham did not have in his earthly life living in a tent.  A: ‘city that has foundations’ denotes permanence, a much greater blessing than Abraham could ever have imagined!  At the end of his life Abraham owned a tiny piece of the land (Genesis 23 and 25:9-10).  Therefore, in his earthly life the promise was only ever partially fulfilled.[2] And so, Abraham is an example of someone who never saw the full extent of the Lord’s promise.  We even see this in his change of name from Abram, ‘father of many’, to Abraham, ‘father of a people’ (Genesis 17:5), as during his life Abraham could not live up to either of those names!  The point is real faith endures regardless of whether the Lord’s promises are visibly fulfilled in a person’s life time or later!

The writer clearly sees Abraham as a believer for other Christians to model themselves on. Andrew Reid makes these helpful comments: ‘The true believer is like him – a sojourner, a traveller, a wanderer, a pilgrim. ‘The true believer has no fixed focus for his or her security, except in God and his word and purpose.’[3]  That is an encouragement for believers in every day and age!

Want to listen to the sermon on this passage?  What’s so Special about a Guy who Permanently Lived in a Tent? Part 1.

[1] Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua, No Falling Words (Fearn, Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 189.

[2] David. J. A. Clines argues that that: ‘the theme of the Pentateuch is partial fulfilment-which implies also a partial nonfulfillment-of the promised to all blessing of the patriarchs.’ David. J. A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch (Sheffield Academic Press, second edition, 1997), 30.

[3] Andrew Reid, Salvation Begins, Reading Genesis Today (Sydney, Aquila Press, 2000), 95.

 

The Heroes of Faith: Noah.

‘By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith’ (Hebrews 11:7).

At this point in the narrative the writer of the letter changes the emphasis of faith slightly.  The verses concerning Abel and Enoch illustrated what was achieved by the faith of those men: Abel’s sacrifice was more pleasing to the Lord than Cain’s; and Enoch’s faith meant that he was particularly blessed, because his lifestyle so pleased the Lord, that he bypassed death.  However, the next examples show a slight change in the writer’s agenda.  He wants us now to focus on the aspect of faith in the Lord concerning things that are yet to come.  In Hebrews 11:3 the writer illustrates that belief in the Lord’s creative power – which these Jewish Christians had not witnessed yet accepted – was not so dissimilar to the belief in the promises that the Lord had made to his people of the past.  This included promises of which complete fulfilment would only be realised in a more distant future.  There is a sense in which Noah is slightly at odds with latter examples in that he witnesses the fulfilment of what the Lord had promised – namely, his families preservation and judgement on those around him!  However, there is a very definite similarity which is why he is included as an example of what I have termed ‘change of emphasis,’ concerning the results of faith. Verse 7 highlights Noah’s faith in that he was warned by God of his coming judgement in sending a flood upon the Earth.  This was shown in the action Noah took as he: ‘in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household’.  The full story of Noah is found in Genesis 6:9-9:29.

Noah is seen as righteous by the Old Testament standard (Genesis 6:9).  By this it would mean that he would have done ‘right by all’.  If you had lent money to Noah you would have got it back on time with appropriate interest, or if you needed any help you would have got it!  But the agenda of writer here, at this point is demonstrating faith.  Noah took an immense step of faith in building an enormous box-like vessel on dry land, hence effectively preaching to that wicked and unbelieving generation that judgement was coming (2 Peter 2:5).  Just think how: “crazy old Noah” would become the butt of all the jokes of those who lived round him (there is much in extra-biblical sources which suggests this).  But faith in the Lord’s Word motivated him.  He believed judgement was coming even if there was no other visible evidence to suggest it at that point!  John Calvin sums up Noah’s attitude thus: ‘Yet Noah paid such respect of the Word of God that he turned his eyes from the contemporary view of things, and went in fear of the destruction which God had threatened as though it were present to him.  Therefore, the faith which he had in the Word of God, prepared him for obedience to God, proof of which he afterwards gave by building the ark.’[1] And look at the results of this faith: his family was saved, and he: ‘became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.’  Once again, Noah is one of those: ‘people of the old’ (v2) who are commended because of their unshakable faith in what was promised but was unseen at that time!  As such he acts as a wonderful example to believers today.

Want to listen to the sermon on this passage?  What’s so Special about a Guy who Built a Really Big Boat?

[1] John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistle’s of St Peter, Calvin’s Commentaries (Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1963), 165.