Hebrews 11-12, The Life of Faith
The author of Hebrews did an awesome job of defining faith, giving a multitude of examples, and then exhorting his audience to live by faith in Hebrews 11-12. Whoever the author was, he was brilliant and he had the benefit of being inspired by the Holy Spirit, because no man could possibly write this book. By the way, Hebrews is the only book in the Bible that remains anonymous. Many books in the Bible have their authors disputed by critics, but the internal evidence and writings of the early church give us more than enough evidence to be confident of the authors’ identity. Whoever it was that wrote Hebrews certainly had the authority of the Apostles behind him, and the early church used it and viewed it as inspired by God. In Hebrews chapter 11, we have the clearest and best developed definition of biblical faith in the Scriptures. Spiritual people throw around that term “faith” without any of us really knowing what they mean. Certainly even atheists live by faith when they keep their money in a bank, or take the health advice of a doctor, or get on an airplane being flown by “who knows who”. On the other hand, biblical faith is an entirely different thing. Biblical faith is based on the Word of God, and moves people to live their life based on unseen realities.
The Systematic Nature of Hebrews 11-12
Hebrews 11:1 gives us a short but complex definition of faith by saying, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This is a two part definition in the original Greek language. The word we translate assurance means that it is a reality to you even though you can’t see it or it hasn’t happened yet. It is like having the title deed to a property you haven’t seen yet. The word translated conviction means that it is so real to you that you respond to it, or you act on it in faith. Your response proves that you believe it. Why else would Noah spend over a hundred years building an enormous ark when it had never rained? Why else would Abraham pick up and leave his home and possessions, and go to a foreign land he had never seen before to live in a tent?
The Necessity of Faith
In Hebrews 11:6, we are given the importance of living by faith in God’s Word, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that God exists, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” This is a tough passage for altruistic atheists because they are doing all their good deeds only for the approval of men and not God. Someone will say, “but my best friend Sam does more good deeds, and is a better person than any Christian I know”. Sam is great for the benefit of his fellow man, but God is unimpressed. God made man to serve and glorify God, not man. We all appreciate the Sams of this world, but I’m afraid that temporal appreciation is all he will get. Let’s check out a few supporting passages like Jesus’ story of the vine and the branches in John 15:1-6. Jesus had previously in Jn.14 and then afterward in Jn.16 told His disciples that He was sending them the Holy Spirit to teach and guide them so that they would be empowered to live the Christian life, and take the gospel to the world. They needed to know the importance of faith that would move them to “abide in Christ” so Jesus taught them using this allegory in John 15. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser…I am the vine and you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.” When we abide in Christ, we are living in a daily personal relationship with Jesus characterized by obedience through faith. Obviously without a belief in Jesus this is impossible. When He says that “apart from Me you can do nothing”, He does not mean paralysis, or nothing at all. He means you can’t do anything of eternal value. You are still out walking around conducting various activities, but they have no eternal value. There is no spiritual fruit. Therefore, once again without faith you cannot please God. Another clear passage is Paul’s teaching in Romans 14:23. Paul was encouraging his audience to live by faith in the area of interpersonal relationships with other Christians. In unimportant areas such as eating and drinking the Christian should be willing to love his brother by abstaining if it offends the brother. If a brother does something not in faith it actually becomes sin to him, therefore Paul wrote, “whatever is not of faith is sin.” This is the same idea as Hebrews 11:6 that you can’t please God without faith.
Historical Biblical Examples of Faith
In order to back up his definition of faith along with its importance, the author of Hebrews 11 gives us 16 examples in verses 4-31. In each of these stories the character believed the Word of God such that he or she responded with some activity that put them at risk. None of these people would have done these things without a faith in the certainty of God’s Word. Noah built the ark while everyone made fun of him, Abraham left his home, family, and possessions, and Abraham was willing to sacrifice his greatest possession, his only son. Joseph was so sure that his descendants would return to Canaan in 400 years that he left instructions for them to carry his bones back to be buried there. Moses gave up his status and wealth as Prince of Egypt to join the Hebrews, and Rahab forsook her own city and people to help the Hebrews. All took great risks against all the odds, out of faith in God’s Word. The author took a pivot in a slightly different direction so that we could be sure that God honors our faith even if we don’t realize some great miracle of deliverance as Moses did when God parted the Red Sea. He says in v.35 that “others” were tortured, scourged, and imprisoned, but God gave them the perseverance to endure it, and all these people gained the approval of God by faith. They were successful and will be rewarded because they obeyed God by faith and left the results to God.
Hindrances to the Life of Faith
Since we can only please God through faith, what is keeping so many of us from living the life of faith in God? The author of Hebrews 12 turns to the answer in v.1-2. We could call Hebrews 11 the teaching section of the importance of living by faith, and then Hebrews 12 follows with the application section. The author used a well known analogy as an image of the Christian life, which is a long distance race. The great believers of the past are seen as witnesses in the grandstands of our race. They ran the race well, and finished well, but now it is our turn. We need to run like they did, but to do so we need to do three important things listed in v.1-2. First, as a runner preparing for a race takes off all his heavy clothes that might slow him down, we need to “lay aside every encumbrance” that will keep us from running the race. These “encumbrances” or burdens are obvious in the first century Jewish audience the author was writing to. They were holding on to the heavy burden of tradition, legalism, and ritual so ingrained in them by the Mosaic Law. The Law was part of a temporal covenant God made with Israel, and was never meant to save them. This becomes obvious when you study the Old Testament and see that no one ever perfectly kept the law. The O.T. reveals that no one could be saved by their own obedience and works, but everyone needed a Savior. Hebrews is telling them that the Savior from God has come, thus the Old Covenant has been replaced by the New Covenant of grace which is better, and provides salvation. Therefore, lay aside the great burden of legalism that keeps you from running the race. For others, it might be that they are obsessed with their career, or even seeking to live their lives through their children. Whatever burden keeps you away from the Lord, lay it aside.
Secondly, lay aside the practicing of sin that so easily entangles us. The image is of clearing the track of obstacles and trip wires that will tangle us up and keep us from successfully running the race. We all struggle with some weakness that tries to keep a firm hold on us. It can take many forms such as sexual lust, greed, pride, or a desire for power, but all these weaknesses serve as hindrances to Christian living. It’s like the old story of the congregation that was encouraging its minister as he was saying, “Cease from adultery” they would say “Tell it preacher”, “Cease from debauchery”, “Tell it preacher”; but when he said, “Cease from greed and give all your money to the church”, they said “Whoa, now you’ve gone from preaching to meddling”.
The third hindrance to living by faith is found in v.2. When a runner runs a race he must focus on the finish line. If he runs the race looking at himself in a mirror, or gets distracted by all the things in the world like “the worries of the world and the deceitfulness of riches”, he loses his proper focus, and wanders into the wrong lane. If our focus is on Jesus we will see everything else in its proper perspective. We are supposed to be running for the Lord and not ourselves. Jesus was the best example of focusing on the Lord. When the adversary tempted Him, Jesus’ reply each time was an expression of trust in God’s Word. The focus of His life was on the finish line of the cross. Only the redemption of mankind could have motivated Jesus to leave heaven and endure “the shame”, humiliation, unjust treatment, and the imputation of our sin upon Him. The author of Hebrews wrote in Heb.12:2 of “the joy set before Him” which was the salvation of all who would believe.
God’s Help in an Unexpected Way
Since laying aside all the encumbrances, sin, and lack of focus is so very difficult, God is actively involved in helping us get properly focused. We find the teaching on how God helps in Heb.12:5-11. God disciplines those He loves. Amazingly God humbles us, breaks us of bad habits, and brings us to dependence upon Him through what the Bible calls discipline. There is a big difference between God’s discipline and God’s judgment. Discipline is done out of love on a temporary basis for a positive result. Discipline is corrective and not condemning, and for believers. Judgment is condemning, final, and for unbelievers. Discipline takes three forms. It may be corrective, preventative, or educational. After his sin and cover-up with Bathsheba, David was corrected. Paul’s thorn in the flesh of 2 Cor.12 was preventing him from being arrogant, and Job’s discipline was educational. It revealed the spiritual warfare we are in, and the attributes of God as the sovereign omniscient Creator.
Discipline proves God’s love for us, and that we are His children. God is bound by His nature to do us good in spite of difficult circumstances. Discipline is the divinely ordained path to a deepening relationship with God. We struggle with the idea of God somehow being involved with things we view as evil. Nevertheless, Romans 8:28 tells us that God “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God”. One of the ways God blesses us in difficult circumstances and sufferings is through this corrective, preventative, or educational discipline. You do not know the joy of relief until you have suffered, or of healing until you have been sick. You don’t really appreciate freedom until you have been imprisoned. Let’s face it, we don’t really know about living until we have experienced hardships. I don’t mean to say that God causes sufferings, but that He somehow brings good out of them. The author of Hebrews 12:11 says that it doesn’t seem good when it is happening to you, but still it trains you, and “afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
At the end of the day, God’s primary desire for us is not material riches, comfort, or pleasure, or a long life. God’s primary desire for us is that we be “conformed to the image of Christ” in Romans 8:29. He wants us to “be holy for God is holy” (1 Peter 1:16), and for us to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and that we “may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Eph.3:19). For this to occur we may need some sand papering on our rough edges, a paddle brought firmly to our rear, and even a two by four in the chops to get our attention.