The Epistle To The Hebrews, Part 8
By Jack Kelley
The overarching principle of the Epistle to the Hebrews is that our position before God is based on our belief that the once-for-all-time sacrifice of our Great High Priest was sufficient for our salvation. Some have said that this letter can be seen as a commentary on Habakkuk 2:4 “The just shall live by faith.”
Martin Luther saw this verse written in fire in the sky as he wrestled with his doubts about Catholicism, and was energized to start the movement that would become the Protestant Reformation. But 1500 years earlier the writer to the Hebrews could have had the same verse in mind as he pleaded with his readers not to fall back into the Levitical System.
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” (Hebr. 11:1-2)
Now he’ll draw upon His extensive Old Testament background to recall to their minds that long before the Law governed the behavior of God’s people, their most distinguished ancestors had lived their lives according to faith. In doing so, he’ll fill some of the gaps in our knowledge with some very interesting details.
“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. 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.” (Hebr. 11:3-4)
No representative of the human race was present at the Creation. Adam didn’t arrive until the Earth was ready for habitation and teeming with plant and animal life. God was the only witness, but he had the pertinent details preserved for our learning, asking us to take His word for how He had done it. It was and still is the first test of a believer’s faith. It’s almost as if He’s saying, “How can you believe that I’ve saved you like I said if you won’t believe that I created you like I said?”
After the Fall, a provision had to be made for man’s sin to permit continued life in God’s creation. When Adam and Eve made clothes for themselves, they were performing the first act of religious work, covering their shame before a Holy God with the works of their hands. God said, “No”, and made them clothes out of the skins of animals. He was showing them that they would only be covered by the shedding of innocent blood. Then He built them an altar where the Cherubim were stationed and taught them a form of what would later become the Levitical system. Offering the life of an innocent animal was a sign of their faith in His promise that “the Seed of the Woman” would one day reverse the damage they’d done and redeem them from their bondage of sin.
Later Cain rebelled and continued to offer the work of his hands. God rejected his offering and Cain was angry. God said, “Why are you angry. If you do what is right will you not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:6-7) Right from the beginning, man’s only acceptable response to God has involved the shedding of innocent blood combined with faith, as Abel’s offering continues to demonstrate.
“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. 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.” (Hebr. 11:5-6)
According to Jude 1:14-15 the first prophecy of the 2nd Coming was given by Enoch, who saw through the eye of faith how God would ultimately respond to those who rebel against Him. Tradition holds that Enoch was born on the 6th of Sivan, later known as Pentecost, and was “raptured” on his 365th birthday, as a reward for his faith. If so it makes him an interesting model of the Church, also born on Pentecost, and also promised to be raptured as a reward for our faith. Since Enoch was taken well before the first world-wide judgment of mankind, the Great Flood, it follows that the church will be taken well before the second one, the Great Tribulation.
“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.” (Hebr. 11:7)
When God created the Earth, He positioned a water vapor canopy around it to ward off harmful ultra-violet rays. (Gen. 1:6) This prevented the corruption of the cellular regeneration process, giving man long life spans. It also meant that the Earth experienced no storms or even bad weather, only an endless succession of picture-perfect days. To irrigate the plant life, He made water spray up out of the ground at night, a worldwide automatic sprinkler system. (Genesis 2:6) The water formed into streams and rivers and the plant life flourished.
It’s quite likely that the “things not seen” mentioned here included rain. It’s one of the things Noah warned the people about that made them ridicule him. “Water falling out of the sky? Get real.” By the time they realized he wasn’t crazy they were standing in it, soaked to the skin, as the ark floated away. (Genesis 7:11-12) Of all the people on Earth, only Noah had the faith to take God at His word. Sounds a lot like today doesn’t it? Talk to people about the coming Great Tribulation and from most, you’ll get the same response. “God raining judgment down from Heaven? Get real!”
“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebr. 11:8-10)
Abraham had never seen the place God was going to show him, and would undertake a journey far greater than the average man of his time would attempt to get there. It wasn’t a case of blind faith but a faith born of complete confidence in God’s trustworthiness. Now we learn that Abraham looked beyond the incredible gift of the Promised Land, and also saw the Kingdom Age, when all of God’s promises to His people would come true forever.
“By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” (Hebrews 11:11-12)
When Isaac was born, Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90. Notice how the writer completely ignored the issue of Hagar and Ishmael, just as he had earlier ignored Abraham’s delay in leaving Haran until his father died, sidestepping God’s command to leave his father’s household. (Genesis 12:1) Peter did the same thing in commending Sarah’s submissiveness (1 Peter 3:5-6) even though by asserting her own will, she created a problem that plagues Abraham’s people to this day. When our lives are characterized by faith, God “forgets” our lapses and credits our faith as righteousness.
Some see the reference to stars in the sky as being to Israel, Abraham’s biological descendants, and the sand on the seashore as being the Church, Abraham’s spiritual descendants. (Galatians 3:29)
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebr. 11:13-16)
None of the patriarchs aspired to wealth or power. None is named among the kings of the Earth, although several were certainly in a position to become so. Abraham was probably one of the richest men on Earth in his time yet he never built a home, much less a city. And all of them died without seeing any of God’s promises come true. Yet they’re commended for their faith.
Today we who are preoccupied with the life to come are described by other Christians as being “so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good.” Doubtless, there were those who thought of Enoch, Noah, and Abraham the same way and laughed at their lack of attention to the things of this world. Guess who’s laughing now?
Let’s take a moment here to clarify the difference in destines between Israel and the Church. Whenever the Bible talks about the destiny of the Jews, it’s always in the context of Earth. On the other hand, the Church’s destiny is clearly Heaven, or more accurately, the New Jerusalem. Although it takes some effort to see it, this difference is actually confirmed in Isaiah 65:17 and Rev. 21:1 where both a new Heaven and a new Earth are mentioned. (For the purposes of this discussion we’ll ignore the controversies over when this will happen, Millennium or Eternity, and how it will happen, whether the old Heaven and Earth will be made new or whether both will be created new from scratch after the old are destroyed.)
If the writer to the Hebrews was telling us that since the beginning God’s people have looked forward to dwelling in Heaven, why are both required? Where’s the need for a new Earth?
Well, if you take all the passages from the Old Testament that speak of Israel’s eternal dwelling place you have to conclude that it’s on Earth. There are several of these in the Book of Isaiah (chapters 35 and 65:17-25 are a couple of good ones) but perhaps the clearest one is in Ezekiel 43:7 where after the 2nd Coming, upon entering the Temple in Israel on Earth for the first time in over 2600 years, God will say, “This is where I will live among the Israelites forever.”
My point is this. Just because Abraham was looking forward to a city whose architect and builder is God, and just because the patriarchs were all looking for a better country, a heavenly one, doesn’t mean it can’t be on Earth. In fact, it has to be in order to fulfill God’s promises to them.
On the other hand, the Church is clearly promised that one day Jesus will return to Earth to take us to be with Him in the place He was about to go to when He made the promise, Heaven. (John 14:2-3) He didn’t promise to return and stay with us here where we are, as His Father did with Israel. He promised to take us to be with Him there, where He was going to prepare a place for us. When He left Earth He went to Heaven and that’s where He’s been preparing our place. When He returns for us, He’ll take us there. See the difference?
“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebr. 11:17-19)
A careful reading of Genesis 22 shows that both Abraham and Isaac knew what God was doing and had agreed to it. And according to the Hebrew words used, Isaac wasn’t a little boy as many of us were taught, but a young man old enough to serve in the military. The part that took the faith was actually putting Isaac to death to help God send His message. But they both trusted God and Isaac let his father tie him to the altar and raise his knife to kill him.
Abraham knew that God had promised him that a great nation would come through Isaac, He also knew that God could not break His promise. Therefore he reasoned that if he killed Isaac, God would have to bring him back from the dead. Since he also knew that he would obey God, Abraham regarded Isaac as though dead from the time that God asked him to sacrifice him. When God stopped him, Abraham in effect received Isaac back from the dead. The elapsed time was three days.
The point of the episode was not to test Abraham’s faith. It was to demonstrate that God would one day offer His only Son on that very spot as a sacrifice for sin, and by obeying God Abraham was acting out a prophecy, sending the world a message. To prove this, Abraham named the place Jehovah Jireh (God our Provider) saying “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:14)
“By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.” (Hebr. 11:20-22)
The prophecy Rebekkah received at the time of her sons’ birth told her that the elder would serve the younger. (Genesis 25:23) Here we’re told that she and Jacob didn’t need to manipulate the outcome of Isaac’s patriarchal blessing, he was acting in faith when he gave the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob instead of his older brother Esau. So was Jacob, when he repeated the episode by blessing Joseph’s younger son Ephraim over Manasseh.
I believe that this was a prophecy. In the human sense, Adam was the first son of God (Luke 3:38), but Jesus inherited the position of firstborn over all creation. (Colossians 1:15) By the testimony of these two witnesses, this was established.
Joseph knew of the Lord’s promise to His people and believed that they would be returned from Egypt to the Land God had given to Abraham. He knew of the 400 years that would precede it while the Lord gave the Amorites the opportunity to repent, an opportunity God knew they would squander, (Genesis 15:13-21) and in faith made them promise to carry his bones back to be buried in the Promised Land.
“By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.” (Hebr. 11:23-28)
There’s a hint here and in Acts 7:20 that Moses’ parents knew that he was to be Israel’s deliverer. Tradition says that Jochabed, his mother, had a dream about it. If so, it was her faith that prompted her to hide her son and then make sure that Pharaoh’s daughter would find him. Perhaps knowing this is what made Moses kill the Egyptian soldier who was mistreating an Israelite, resulting in his flight to Midian. (Exodus 2:11-12) His return 40 years later, after any influence he might have had in the Egyptian court was gone, is a dramatic exercise in faith. As an 80-year-old shepherd from Midian, he brought the greatest empire of his day to ruin, armed with nothing more than the faith that God would be with him and had chosen to work through him.
“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.” (Hebr. 11:29-31)
Who would walk between two walls of water several stories high with no visible barrier to prevent them from drowning at any given moment? And who would march around a city every day for a week just because they’d been told that the walls would fall down if they did? And why would a woman hide two enemy spies from her own people at the risk of her life? None of them had any experience to confirm the validity of their actions. As the writer defined it, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
“And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions (Daniel), quenched the fury of the flames (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), and escaped the edge of the sword (Elisha); whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies (David). Women received back their dead, raised to life again (the widows of Zarepath and Nain, the Shunammite woman, the wife of Jairus). Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. (martyrs of the Maccabean Revolt) Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison (Jeremiah, Paul and Silas). They were stoned (Zechariah and Stephen); they were sawed in two (Isaiah); they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated (John the Baptist)— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.(Elijah)” (Hebrews 11:32-38)
“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:39-40)
Paul wrote that the entire creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. (Romans 8:19). None of God’s eternal promises will be fulfilled until we who have believed by faith are raptured and seated in the presence of our Lord. As much as we admire and even venerate these heroes of old, when the dust of rebellion has settled and the Kingdom is once again secure in the hands of its Creator, it’s the Church that will be held pre-imminent in all Creation, so that in the coming ages God might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Ephes. 2:7). Hallelujah.