Essay / Theology

They Must Have Trusted: Hebrews 11

Here is the video, and below is the script, of a sermon I preached at my home church, Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, yesterday (Sun. Oct 13, 2014). I also got to preach a 30-minute version of it for chapel tonight at Los Angeles Bible Training School.  

They Must Have Trusted: Hebrews 11
Grace EVFree Oct 14, 2013  & LABTS Oct 15, 2013
Brothers and sisters, Hebrews is a great book. It’s not just a nice part of the Bible (though it is that). It is also a key that unlocks the entire Bible and takes you inside the meaning of the main things in all of Scripture. Hebrews is, among other things, a key that opens up the Old Testament.  It’s a key to the whole Old Testament, which is a great thing to have, because the Old Testament has some hard parts to it, some parts that need some unlocking. And we know, of course, that Jesus is the key to the Old Testament, to all of God’s ways and words in all time. As the opening words of Hebrews tell us, “God spoke in many ways and in many portions to the fathers through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us through a Son….”  So Jesus is the key, God’s final word, the main thing God has to say. But we still need it spelled out for us a little more clearly, don’t we? Not just to be told, “Jesus is the key,” but to be shown in very specific ways how that works. So Hebrews tells us, with detailed discussions of the tabernacle, and sacrifice, and this once-for-all priesthood. So thankful for this! And still we want more. At least I do.

There’s a passage at the very end of Luke’s gospel, Luke 24:25. Jesus has risen from the grave, and two disciples are walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus when they encounter Jesus without recognizing him. And Jesus saunters up alongside them and casually asks, “Whatcha guys talking about?” And they say, “Man, we’re talking about what everybody’s talking about, this Jesus of Nazareth, our teacher: he was a great prophet, and he did great things, and we kind of thought he was going to be the Messiah, but the leaders crucified him, so I guess that’s it now.”

 And Jesus said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Talk about a Bible study you would like to have attended: starting with Moses… and all the prophets… he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself!” It’s the ultimate Jesus study Bible! Everything you’ve ever wondered about, right there, from the source itself, and you can’t say “whoa whoa whoa, Jesus, I’m not sure about that one, it sounds like kind of a stretch,” because he can say, “No, trust me, that was me there.”

The fact that we don’t have any further record of this Bible study actually used to frustrate me. I thought, “Luke, you’ve had 24 chapters… could you not have extended the book a few more chapters? I know you’ve got enough paper, because you added the book Acts to this.” Seriously, I’d look at the Bible and think, “It’s real good, but we really missed our chance to have the ultimate chapter in there, didn’t we?” Or I’d think, “What was this, a secret, high-level, disciples-only Bible study club? How come I’m not invited? I’m a disciple! I want the Jesus Bible study! I want the guided tour of the Old Testament from the Lord himself!”

But you and I both know that’s silly. In fact, the longer I’ve spent studying the Scriptures, the more I’ve come to think, “We’re not actually missing anything that we need. We’ve got it here.” In fact, I think if you read Luke and the other gospels carefully, you start to notice that they were written with that full, post-resurrection knowledge of Jesus and how he fulfills the Old Testament. I can’t promise that every single verse from Moses and all the prophets got interpreted and applied, but I do think that in the pages of the New Testament we have a re-opening up of the Old Testament and a re-reading of the whole thing in light of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Because what else did Jesus do besides explain all those passages of Scripture to them? Luke 24:45 says “then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures….”  He opened the minds of the apostles so they could understand the inner meaning of the Scriptures, and how they testified of him, and how they had always pointed to him and the salvation he brings, and how he is the fulfiller of the promises of God. We have the promise, we have the fulfillment, we have the Bible written by the apostles whose minds were opened to understand, and we have the Spirit of God with us to lead us into all truth. Let’s pray together right now for the miracle of understanding:

Father, your word is truth. Sanctify us in the truth. Open our eyes that we may see great things in your law. Magnify yourself. So impress us with your holiness and faithfulness that we may see it everywhere. Will you condescend to be here among us now as our teacher, as the explainer, as the one who spoke these words at first and applies them individually to each of your children here and now. Give us alertness, interest, curiosity, delight, and accuracy in understanding. Awaken in us a desire to be holy as you are holy, and then satisfy that desire. Plant in us a longing to be pleasing to you, and then show us how that can come true. Lord, we need encouragement this morning so our faith can move forward with endurance. Will you please speak to us the words of encouragement that only you can speak? In the name of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, the author of our faith, the finisher of our faith, Amen.

I. They Must Have Trusted

“Beginning with Moses and all the prophets” is a good summary of our chapter, Hebrews 11. It’s about faith, but in praising faith it walks us through the full range of the Old Testament, beginning with Moses: “by faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God,” that’s the book of Moses, Genesis 1; “by faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice,” Genesis 4, “by faith Enoch was taken up,” Genesis 5, etc., Noah, Genesis 7, and Abraham starts up in verse 8, to Moses himself in vs. 23, then going all the way through v. 32, to “Samuel and all the prophets.” So there it is, “Beginning with Moses…. and all the prophets.” And what it says about them all is that they did what they did “by faith.”

So here, after all, is our special post-resurrection Bible study, and it’s our big chance to find out the secret things that the Lord told his disciples about what was really going on all along in the Old Testament. In fact, I think the author of Hebrews takes a special kind of delight in using our fuller, New Covenant knowledge of salvation to shine a light on previously unsolved mysteries of the Old Testament. I hope that doesn’t sound too much like a cable TV show, “Unsolved Mysteries of the Old Testament,” next on the Mystery TV. But first, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. But here’s what I mean by a mystery of the Old Testament:  Haven’t you always wondered why Cain and Abel offered sacrifices to God, and God accepted Abel’s but rejected Cain’s? I know I have. Ever since the first time I puzzled over this story in an illustrated childrens’ Bible, I wanted more information. And usually childrens’ Bibles are glad to provide more information. But just listen to the words of the story itself, from Genesis 4, verse 2:

“Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Now I think it’s safe to say that the way the Bible tells this story, some information that we would like to have is simply not given to us. The gigantic question this story poses to us is, “why?” Why did the Lord have regard for Abel and his offering, but no regard for Cain and his offering? Is it something about Abel and Cain, or something about their offerings? Maybe it was Abel’s idea to bring an offering, and Cain was just a copycat who was sort of shamed into it against his will. But no, the text doesn’t tell us whose idea it was, and if anything it gives Cain the initiative: “In the course of time Cain brought an offering… and Abel also.” Or maybe it was the type of offering: perhaps God is not a vegetarian. He wanted mutton, not salad. Perhaps God prefers the sacrifice of the animal to the giving of the vegetable. But again, there simply isn’t that kind of information here in these few verses. In fact, what little the text tells us sets us up to think that each man brought forth and offered God what was appropriate from their own livelihood: the farmer brought the fruit of the ground, the shepherd brought the firstborn of the flock. Possibly God had already made known to both Cain and Abel what kind of sacrifice was appropriate, but the text doesn’t help us out with that information. Next Image.

If it wasn’t the type of sacrifice, perhaps it was the quality of the sacrifice. Maybe Abel brought a high-quality lamb, but Cain brought some really mediocre fruits and vegetables. Look at what’s on the red brick altar in this image: a sheaf of wheat, some tree nuts, maybe some melon rinds and a couple of moldy gray turnips. The first children’s Bible I ever had was definitely committed to the “couple of moldy gray turnips” interpretation, and I have to admit that the pictures in that kids Bible set my young mind at ease. After all, the violence level in this story escalates pretty quickly. In most depictions, Cain kills Abel with a rock, a giant jawbone, or a farming tool of some kind, but in this one Cain savagely leaps on Abel and tears out his throat with his teeth. It is a story of murderous rage driven by envy. But if Cain tried to get away with moldy turnips, or didn’t want to make the sacrifice in the first place, or wasn’t following the rules, or something, then it all makes more sense. He does, after all, turn out to be a rageaholic, the first murderer, a fratricide. And the Lord, throughout, is remarkably tender toward Cain, talking to him almost like a spiritual director or a life coach: “If you do the right thing, will you not be approved? Sin is out to get you, but you must rule over it.” And we know that God is righteous and merciful; “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” God must have had a good reason for not regarding Cain or his sacrifice. Next Image.

So we can vaguely work out a solution, but we have to admit that as the story is told in Genesis 4, the Cain and Abel story is a bit of an unsolved mystery. We can say that God and Cain and Abel are behaving in sensible ways, though we have to conjecture that the reason this is true is because there must be some missing information that would have made it plainer to us.

Along comes Hebrews to the rescue. Hebrews 11, verse 4:  “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”

Now the author of Hebrews has not been given any new information about what happened to Cain and Abel. There is no reason to think that God has supernaturally revealed to him any events that took place between these two brothers east of Eden. But what the author of Hebrews does know is the ultimate answer to the question, “How can any many be commended by God? How can any sinner ever have anything to offer to God?” The answer is found in the entire book of Hebrews up to this point: The absolutely holy God, who is a consuming fire, must make a way of atonement for us, through the work of a high priest who offers once and for all a perfect, precious, costly, effective, sufficient sacrifice for sins. We don’t have time to trace the entire argument, but you know it from chapters 1 through 10: On the one hand, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. On the other hand, it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. So the great high priest had to come in the fullness of time. The whole transaction had to be carried out in the true tabernacle, in the very presence of the eternal God. Christ had to offer himself through the eternal Spirit to God the Father, the whole Trinity had to get involved for us and for our salvation. That’s what had to happen, that’s what did happen, that’s what God says happened, and that is how peace was made and sinful humans have been rendered acceptable to God, so that he commends us. He receives us and our offerings. The Holy One makes us holy. God promises, he gives his word, he swears it is true. And we hear that promise and trust it. We believe him. We have faith.

And that’s how Hebrews solves this unsolved mystery of the Old Testament, with the first two words of ch. 11 verse 4: “by faith.” If Abel and his sacrifice are acceptable to God, if Abel is commended as righteous by God, then he must have trusted. He must have had some word of promise from God that he received by trusting it, “by faith.” To put it doctrinally: If justification by faith is true, it must have always been true. Abel may not have known the name of Jesus, or the details of atonement, or the doctrine of the Trinity, or any priesthood of any kind, but he was righteous the only way a human can be righteous, so he must have been justified by faith. God must have promised something, and Abel must have trusted.

Notice, by the way, that Hebrews is apparently not interested in the question of why God did not accept the sacrifice of Cain. Hebrews has a very high view of God’s holiness and a very realistic view of the sinfulness of human sin. God is very holy and sin is very bad. It is obvious that the two cannot go together except by some great sacrifice that God initiates. If you bring your own stuff and pile it on the altar and give it to God as if … as if it is good enough, unstained by your sin, unpolluted by your mixed motives and mercenary spirit, unpoisoned by your desire to set up your own self-sufficient foundation of personal righteousness that you can be proud of and have grounds for boasting… forget it, Cain. Forget it, Fred. Forget it, _________.  Forget it, ______________. That’s not how it works, and if you know God and if you know yourself, you know better. You pile your best on the altar of self-sacrifice and self-righteousness, you light your own fire under your own best bits and you blow with all your might on the flames, and you’re just blowing smoke. You’re blowing up a smokescreen. Smoke gets in your eyes. You cough, you can’t see, your eyes tear up, it smells like hell, and you hope, with no good reason to hope, that God likes that god-awful stench. That’s our offering.

When I lead students on tours of art museums, one of the tips I give for understanding a painting better is to put your own body in the postures you see portrayed in the painting. It gives you sympathy with the characters and a better, more somatic feeling for how hard it is for them to get into those poses. Try it next time you’re staring at a painting. When I look at these pictures of Genesis 4, I want to identify with righteous Abel, not that monster Cain. But I have to admit that of these two postures I have a lot more immediate understanding of the posture of Cain; hunched over, trying too hard, blowing harder and getting more smoke. I just want God to like me; is that too much to ask? I want him to approve of me, to commend me, to be pleased with me, I want him to be proud of me. I want to be a God-pleaser. On my own terms, with my own stuff, in my own time, from my own initiative, when it suits me, of course, and not when I want a little time off for sin, in the religious part of my life. That is a lot to ask, it turns out. It’s asking the absolutely impossible. It’s asking to be acceptable to God without faith.

What Hebrews is amazed by is the fact that God accepted and commended Abel and his sacrifice. With his jaw dropped open in amazement, the author of Hebrews says in vs. 2, “By faith the people of old received their commendation,” and vs. 4, “through faith he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.” Wow, says Hebrews: God must have arranged it, and Abel must have trusted. Because, verse 6, “without faith it is impossible to please him.” Abel and his offering were acceptable to God. He brought a firstborn from among his flock and sacrificed it to God, and we know God accepted it, so we know for absolute certain that Abel must have trusted. “And the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart,” “That smells good. That smells like trust. I smell faith. Now you’re cooking.” God commends him, is pleased with him and says so to us… when God decides, speaking through the book of Hebrews, to do a little boating about his righteous ones, he boasts to us about Abel. God is proud of him, he pleased God, he must have trusted. Mystery of Genesis solved.

Hebrews 11:4 adds, “And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” Well, I think righteous Abel, righteous by faith, has instructed us this morning. But what if Abel actually had the microphone this morning and gave the sermon? That would be a great sermon, another one I wish we had. Back in the 1800s, the preacher Charles Simeon dared to give a little taste of the actual words Abel would say if he addressed a modern congregation. Want to hear it? I’m a little scared to quote a teacher as great as Charles Simeon, and I’ve very scared to put words in Abel’s mouth. But here’s an excerpt in more modern English:

 Brothers and sisters, though I have been dead at least six thousand years, I would speak to you as though I had died but yesterday. I am concerned that you should profit by my experience. You all came to church to worship and serve your God, and you may be thinking that by coming here you are giving God an acceptable service.

But I must declare to you that you are dead wrong. Your external forms are of no value in the sight of God. Your act of religious sacrifice may be an abomination. God looks not at the act, but at the heart. Of all this you may be assured from what is related concerning my brother Cain and myself. He, as you have been told, was not accepted, whilst I was. What was it that made the difference? Why did God look on me with pleasure, and with abhorrence on him?

It was because I approached him as a sinner, whose hopes were founded solely on the sacrifice of his Son, whilst my brother approached him without any such exercise of repentance and faith. And so it is with you. He looks with delight on those who draw near to him with a broken and contrite spirit, and with their eyes fixed on the Lamb of God to take away their sins; he will even give to them sweet tokens of his acceptance, and testimonies of his love.

But on the proud and self-righteous formalist he will look with scorn and indignation. I warn you then not to deceive your own souls: for assuredly, whether ye will believe it or not, God will before long make the same distinction between you that he did between me and Cain: the contrite and believing worshippers shall have a testimony of his approval before the whole assembled universe; but the impenitent and unbelieving shall be marked out as monuments of his everlasting displeasure.

As for you who worship him in faith, he may for the present leave you in the hands of the ungodly, who from envy may be incensed against you. He may even leave you even to be put to death, and to suffer martyrdom for your fidelity to him. Don’t let that deter you from confessing him openly before men. I have never regretted the sufferings I endured for him; nor will you ever regret any thing which you may be called to sustain. Even the testimony of your own conscience will be reward enough; but what about that testimony in the day of judgment, when God shall say, “Well done, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your Lord?” Go on then without fear, and “hold fast the profession of your faith without wavering.”


Well, I wanted to devote more attention to the other figures named here in Hebrews 11, but if you’ll forgive the pun, I wasn’t Abel.  Get it?

But look down the verses with me and I think you can see that this Bible study that finds faith everywhere “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” is played out over and over, as Hebrews solves mystery after mystery of the Old Testament.

Here’s a mystery from Genesis: What is the deal with Enoch? Genesis 5 is zooming along with a genealogy, and falls into a predictable and somber pattern: So and so begat so and so, who lived x number of years, “and he died.” So and so etc, “and he died, and he died, and died.” But then it gets to verse 21, introduces us to Methuselah’s dad Enoch, and instead of ending properly with the stock conclusion “and he died,” it takes an unexpected turn with “he was not, for God took him.” As with the Cain and Abel story, it leaves out all the interesting details and ignores the question that presses itself on every alert reader. And that perfectly reasonable question is something like, “Huh?” You mean like he ascended physically into heaven? Maybe. Did a fiery chariot come down for him, like with Elijah? Doesn’t say. What does “He was not” mean? Not what? Is there a word missing here? Nope. What did Mrs. Enoch and little baby Methuselah think? Doesn’t say. “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” Hebrews is always very interested in the mysterious bits of the Old Testament (think Melchizedek), and while he never claims to have any special, supernatural revelation of extra information, he is quite confident that in Christ he has the answer. So Heb. 11:5 says:

5By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

You already knew what the answer of Hebrews was going to be: Enoch had faith. He must have! Because “he walked with God” means he pleased God, and since God recorded it in Genesis we have God’s own opinion in print, God’s own commendation of Enoch. In Heb 11:6 we have the statement “without faith it is impossible to please God.” Hebrews states this axiomatically, like an axiom. It’s like a line in a proof in geometry: you can use this statement to construct further true statements. There’s still so much we don’t know about Enoch, but we know this: He must have trusted. Mystery solved.

By the way, if you want to tell the story of faith in the entire Old Testament, who is the earliest Bible character you can name? There may be ways in which Adam and Eve exercised faith, but Hebrews steps over the first generation of humans and picks up the faith story with their children. Did Adam trust God? Maybe. If we’re just speculating, we might even be able to hope that Adam and Even repented, humbled themselves before God’s righteousness, and believed the words of promise that the Lord spoke to them even as he brought down the curse upon them. But notice that Genesis does not say so. At no point does God speak up and commend Adam or Eve. And while Hebrews is very brave about applying New Testament clarity to Old Testament mysteries, Hebrews never speculates. What we get in Hebrews is always a nose-to-the-text comment on what God said right here in print. God commended Abel, God commended Enoch. They must have trusted. Since God did not commend Adam and Eve, we cannot draw that conclusion.

2. The Structure of Faith

Now Abel and Enoch are the hardest mysteries to solve with the answer “by faith,” because in neither case do we have a report of God giving them direct verbal promises. From here on, though, the case for faith is easier because God spoke to the people involved. So the mysteries are easier to solve. And faith really comes into its own element when the words of the promise are explicitly recorded.

A minor mystery from Genesis: Was Noah really straightforwardly righteous? He is introduced in Genesis as the only righteous man on earth. But the Psalms say, and Paul reminds us, that “there is none righteous, no, not one.” Hebrews affirms the righteousness of Noah and adds that he must have trusted, that he had “the righteousness which is according to faith,” verse 7. It’s a wonderful phrase, a New Covenant phrase, a Pauline phrase: “the righteousness which is by faith.” How was Noah righteous? Mystery solved.

Another mystery from Genesis: How did Abraham have the fortitude to offer up his only son, Isaac? Here, in verse 18, we get to watch Abraham’s faithful mind at work: On the one hand, he has the promise from God, “through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” On the other hand, we have the demand to bind this same Isaac on the altar of sacrifice. What did Abraham think? Verse 19: “He considered that God was able to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Watch Abraham carefully, because he is the father of faith, and we can learn a great deal from him. God did not promise him a resurrection of Isaac, but he promised him offspring through Isaac. And when death itself seemed to intervene between the promise and its fulfillment, Abraham applied logic, he reasoned on the basis of the promise, and came to this conclusion: there must be a resurrection. God said there would be offspring through Isaac, so that is absolutely, unshakably true. Death, terrible death, the going down in flames of every possible hope for the future, is a minor complication. I look forward to seeing how God will work it out, but it will apparently involve a power greater than death itself being unleashed for the fulfillment of the promise. In the meantime, I have the promise and I await the fulfillment.

Thus reasoned Abraham.

Brothers and sisters, that is the structure of faith. Faith arises when you have a promise and you await the fulfillment. Faith is an in between thing, between a promise made and a promise kept. When the kingdom of God comes, there won’t be any more faith, because all promises will be fulfilled, and faith only lives in the arc between promise and fulfillment. If the promise-maker is trustworthy, then the fulfillment is certain. You can reason on its basis, you can reckon on it, you can take great risks because of it, you can put up with delayed gratification and frustrated expectations because you trust the one who made the promise. You can endure. As Hebrews 11 makes painfully clear, you can even die without seeing your dreams come true. In Hebrews 11, faith almost always means dying well, but dying without seeing your dreams come true. Nobody in Hebrews 11 was living their best life now. All of them banked on their best life later.

Faith is the name for that condition that arises in between a promise and its fulfillment. That’s the only environment in which faith is possible, and faith makes no sense at all outside of that context. Far too many preachers, especially of the televised variety, are so loose and sloppy with their use of the word faith that it bears no resemblance to biblical faith. They exhort you to have faith so you can have success, fulfillment in relationships, prosperity, happiness, health, stability, security, respect and honor from those around you, favor with the powers that be, a Ted talk or a spot on Oprah, a big car or several of them, upward mobility, a smoking hot wife, 2.5 children who will have even better lives than yours, 7 grandchildren from your grateful kids, and 27 great grandchildren who you will live to see, and you will dandle them on your knees if you only have faith!

But not a word of that is in Hebrews 11, or anywhere else in the book called the Bible, which is the holy book of the Christian religion. The healthy-wealthy, happy-clappy,  namey-claimy thing is another religion. It likes to keep company with the Christian religion. It uses a lot of the same vocabulary, especially the word “faith.” But none of the sentences it makes with those words come out right. None of them make sense of the faith we see in Hebrews 11.

If you’re around people who make a lot of noise about this kind of faith, ask them point blank: where is your promise? Show me the promise you are having faith in. If you don’t have a specific promise, you have no business having faith. Without a promise, you are not having faith, you are having a fantasy. Faith doesn’t live in a vacuum, it lives on the oxygen of the promise. God doesn’t make any promises that he doesn’t keep, but we have no reason to think he will keep promises he doesn’t make. If God does anything good for you that goes beyond a promise, what you’re experiencing is what old fashioned theologians called “uncovenanted mercies.” And whatever we may say about uncovenanted mercies, we cannot say that they are the ground of confidence. You can’t plan on them. You can’t hold God to them. You probably only thought of them because you plagiarized some ideas from  God’s covenanted mercies and then pretended you didn’t know any better.

(Two unscripted illustrations, to be delivered more naturally and with more eye contact:)

One: I like to play a “trust drop” game with my kids, where I let them fall over and I catch them. (explain)  But I also teach them that I won’t catch them unless I say so. They need to make eye contact and get an explicit verbal agreement with me that the game is on. Otherwise they’ll play it when I’m unprepared, and I won’t be able to catch them. I may throw a foot out there to soften their impact, who knows.  Etc.

Two: Susan and I invested in some real estate and the deal went south, what with the global economic downturn and all. Very tempting to say that God had promised us success on this deal, and that he was letting us down. But no: he had made no promise.

3. Commended by God

Biblical faith, on the contrary, is solid. It has all the power and all the certainty of the one who makes the promise. This is the big picture of the whole book: the first part of Hebrews was a massive exercise in learning to hear God speak.  The second part of Hebrews, especially chapters 9 and 10, gave us the message of God: he announces in the person of his Son that the new covenant is here, the sacrifice is made, and God swears that Christ’s work is accomplished, our sins are atoned for. The third part of Hebrews, starting in the final verses of chapter 10 and moving through all of 11, encourage us to have faith in what God has spoken. You know the truth, and you know God is trustworthy. You’ve heard the divine oath by which we are saved. Now, as it says in 10:36, “You have need of endurance.”

The message of faith is the answer to the question, “How can I be right with God?” We keep returning to the Heidelberg Catechism’s expert summary of biblical faith: “True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word. At the same time it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me,[3] God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.”

Hebrews 11 is the faith chapter, and the whole thing is illuminated by the claim made in verse 2 – “they were commended by God.” They had God’s approval. He boasted about them, spoke well of them, praised them down through the ages and in front of the audience of the cosmos. How is it possible that these humans, frail as we are, messed up as we are, careening from or toward a disappointment, like we are, as unreliable as we are, were pleasing to God?

They must have trusted. And if you are pleasing to God, it’s by faith. But can you imagine this truth? Can you conceive of yourself being the object of God’s attention, approval, affection, admiration? Becoming part of his advertising? It’s true, but can you picture it?

We have heard the word of God. We trust what he promises, we have faith. But now we have need of endurance, of perseverance in that faith.

So here is the hope to hold on to; the promise to hang your faith on.

When you get to heaven, God will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done. Well done.” And all the angels and all the saints that have gone before will look at you and see you struggles, your failings, your petty rebellions, your repentance, your shame, your besetting sins, the nagging temptation that you fought all your life and that they finally buried you with, your blown opportunities, the love you’ve given and the love you’ve received and the disproportion between them, your doubts, your life long history of desperately clinging to a word of promise, and with all the good you’ve been able to do, and all the filth and selfishness that still clings to even your good works, they’ll hear the almighty voice of God commending you… commending you… speaking commendation to you, and about you, in front of God and everybody, and echoing through heaven and earth the public confession that you, the real you, purified and remade, forgiven and fixed up for certain, but nevertheless still you with your whole history, the you that’s from that family you’re from, from that culture you’re from, the whole you, even you, are an element in the divine pleasure. And the saints and the angels will see you take your place among them there, and draw the only possible conclusion:

You must have trusted.


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