By Faith

Hebrews 11:1-2

With this message we are beginning a new series on Hebrews 11 called Outrageous Faith. I have a personal interest in this chapter that goes back to the first church I pastored immediately after graduating from seminary in May 1978. Two months later I preached my first sermon as pastor of a small church filled with wonderful people in Downey, California, one of the many suburbs in the sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles. I often look back and smile at those early days of my ministry, mostly because the people at Redeemer Covenant Church welcomed us with love and patience and good humor.

A couple of years into that ministry, I decided to preach through Hebrews on Sunday morning. Since then I have occasionally preached from Hebrews but have never done another series from the book. But in recent days I have felt stirred in my heart to take a fresh look at Hebrews 11, the great list of ancient heroes who make up what has been called the Hall of Fame of Faith. I have felt compelled to do this for several reasons.

1) I am involved in a ministry whose very name involves faith-Keep Believing Ministries. The operative word is “keep,” which implies the need to have faith when the going gets tough. Anyone can believe when the sun is shining, when you have plenty of money in the bank, when the surgery is successful, and when your marriage is doing well. But it’s much harder to believe when the sky is dark, your children are sick, the cancer returns, your friends betray you, you lose your job, your pastor disappoints you, or your marriage falls apart. All of us need help to keep believing when hard times come, as they surely will sooner or later.

2) Faith has been badly misunderstood. Many people would agree with the little boy who said, “Faith is believing what you know isn’t true.” Or they think faith is the opposite of rational thought, as if faith is nothing more than positive thinking or wishful dreaming. Many people make the mistake of confusing faith with feeling so that if they don’t “feel” it, it must not be true.

3) Faith is better illustrated than explained. We all know men and women whose faith inspires us. And almost always it is those people whose faith has been made strong through adversity. Faith that is never put to the test is only theoretical. We don’t need a textbook on faith. We need to see faith in overalls. Show us what it looks like in the nitty-gritty of life.

Faith that is never put to the test is only theoretical.

That’s where Hebrews 11 comes in. More than any other chapter of the Bible, it shows us what faith looks line on the firing line. When we study these men and women, we are seeing faith work itself out in the lives of ordinary men and women who under enormous pressure, facing great odds, often with the whole world against them, lived by faith and won God’s approval. When I read this chapter, I say to myself, “That’s what it means to keep believing.” And I say, “God, help me to live like that.”

I start this series with the same prayer the disciples had in Luke 17:5. “Lord, increase our faith.” I want to see my own faith grow and be stretched, and I want the same thing for you too. So that’s why we’re going to climb this great mountain peak of Holy Scripture. I mentioned earlier the sermon series I preached from Hebrews almost 30 years ago. This week I found the notes to my first sermon from Hebrews 11. They were partly handwritten (mostly in green ink) and partly typed (with many misspellings-this was before the age of personal computers). Near the bottom of my sermon notes, I put this sentence in capital letters:

NO MAN WAS EVER DISAPPOINTED WHO PUT HIS TRUST IN GOD!!!!!

That’s exactly what the sentence looked like-right down to the five !!!!!. I am sure the writer of this epistle would agree, both with the sentiment and with the exclamation points. In fact, we might even say that the !!!!! is the real point of the chapter. He wants us to keep believing because in the end, we will be glad we did.

 

Everything by Faith

Faith is never meant to be a one-time experience. In our circles, it is tempting to fall into that trap because we put so much emphasis on being saved by faith. We talk about accepting Christ, receiving Christ, trusting Christ, and giving your heart to Christ. We challenge people to respond in faith to the gospel invitation. This is well and good, but sometimes we leave the impression that having been saved by faith, the rest of life is up to us. Not so! The same faith that saves us is the faith that carries us from day to day as we make the journey from earth to heaven. That’s why the Bible says, “The righteous will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4) and we are told that the gospel reveals a righteousness that is “by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:17). The whole Christian life is a life of faith. We are saved by faith, kept by faith, and we walk by faith, endure by faith, rejoice by faith, serve by faith, love by faith, sacrifice by faith, pray by faith, worship by faith, and we obey by faith. We get married by faith, and we have children by faith. All that we do, we do by faith.

We get married by faith, and we have children by faith.

Why is faith so important? I jotted down this short list as a way to focus my own thinking. Faith is the . . .

1) Condition of justification (Romans 5:1).
2) Way we receive everlasting life (John 6:47).
3) Means of access to God (Ephesians 3:12).
4) Only way to please God (Hebrews 11:6).
5) Victory that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4).
6) Key to answered prayer (Matthew 21:22).
7) Title deed to all that God has promised (Hebrews 11:1).

Because God himself is entirely faithful (Deuteronomy 7:9), he honors those who love him enough to trust him completely. The question before us in this sermon is both simple and profound: What is faith and how does it work? This is a crucial topic because I think we often don’t appreciate how precious and how precarious is the life of faith.

 

I. Faith Defined

In the entire Bible there is no clearer instruction on faith than Hebrews 11. Most of us know it as the “Hall of Fame of Faith.” Here we have a long list of Old Testament heroes, most of them introduced with the phrase “by faith.”

By faith Abel (v. 4).
By faith Enoch (v. 5).
By faith Noah (v. 7).
By faith Abraham (v. 8).
By faith Sarah (v. 11).
By faith Isaac (v. 20).
By faith Jacob (v. 21).
By faith Joseph (v. 22).
By faith Moses’ parents (v. 23).
By faith Moses (v. 24).
By faith the people crossed the Red Sea (v. 29).
By faith the walls of Jericho fell (v. 30).
By faith Rahab the prostitute (v. 31).

And he doesn’t even have time to mention the individual exploits of “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets” (Hebrews 11:32). They and all the other heroes of the faith are summarized in this fashion: “Who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again” (Hebrews 11:33-35a). That’s a wonderful list and we can all think of the great biblical heroes who did these things.

But that is only part of the story. Verses 35b-38 record the trials of faith: “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated-the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

Who are these poor souls? What have they done to deserve such punishment? The writer simply calls them “others.” They are “others” who lived by faith. These men and women who endured such torment were living by faith just as much as Noah, Abraham, Moses or Joshua. Their faith was not weaker. If anything, their faith was stronger because it enabled them to endure incredible suffering. They are not “lesser” saints because they found no miracle. If anything, they are “greater” saints because they were faithful even when things didn’t work out right.

Moving Against the Tide

Verse 39 gives us a summary statement of the whole list: “These were all commended for their faith.” As we stand back and study this list, three factors quickly emerge.

  1. Though these individuals are widely separated by time and space (and by personality and individual achievement), they are joined by one common factor: What they did, they did by faith. And this is why they won God’s approval. There isn’t much that joins Abraham and Rahab except this: At a crucial moment in time, they each acted in faith. God saw their faith and rewarded it.
  2. Living by faith often meant moving against the prevailing tide of public opinion. Noah built an ark, Abraham left Ur, Moses rejected Egypt, and Joshua marched around Jericho. The same principle holds true today. If you decide to live by faith, you will definitely stand out from the crowd, and you may face opposition and ridicule.
  3. Hebrews 11 demonstrates that the life of faith is not a rarity. It’s easy to look at Enoch or Noah or Joseph or Moses or David and say, “I could never do that.” Down deep in our hearts, we have believed a lie that the life of faith is restricted to a few “special” people. We think we could never qualify to have our names added to the list of Hebrews 11. But that’s the very reason this chapter is in the Bible, so that we would know that these are ordinary men and women who did extraordinary things simply because they had faith in God. They are made of the same stuff as us. The life of faith is within the reach of every believer. If we desire it, we can live like this too.
Down deep in our hearts, we have believed a lie that the life of faith is restricted to a few “special” people.

Hebrews 11:1 offers us a concise definition of faith: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” I personally prefer the traditional King James rendering because it is more picturesque: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The word “substance” is an unusual word that refers to the “essential nature” of things. It was sometimes used of the foundation of a house and outside the New Testament was used for the title deed to a piece of property. Faith is the “title deed” to things in the future, things hoped for, things promised by the Lord. It is the confident assurance that what we hope for will some day come to pass. The word “evidence” refers to legal proof in a courtroom. Faith is proof to the soul that enables us to see things that cannot be seen by the naked eye. By faith we “see” what would otherwise be invisible.

Verse 2 adds an important truth. “This is what the ancients were commended for.” When the writer mentions “the ancients,” he’s talking about the Old Testament saints like Noah, Moses, David, Ruth, Esther, Job, Daniel, and all the others who trusted in God. The text literally says, “They received a witness.” In some churches when preachers get excited, they will say, “Can I get a witness?” They want someone to shout “Amen!” That’s what verse 2 means. Only it is God doing the witnessing. When Moses stood up for righteousness, when David slew Goliath, when the three Hebrew children refused to bow down, when Nehemiah rebuilt the walls, when Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal, in all those moments God looked down from heaven and said, “Amen! That’s my boy. That’s my girl! Those are my kids. They all belong to me.”

God loves it when his people dare to trust him. He loves it so much that he bears witness to the world that his people belong to him.

We feel separated from Abraham-and we are.
We feel separated from David-and we are.

The great heroes of the faith seem far removed from us. It’s hard to think about the Apostle John trying to sync up his iPod or Jeremiah ordering coffee at Starbucks. We tend to think of them as dim, misty characters whose faces peer out from the pages of Sunday School quarterlies. Yet one thing joins us with them. Faith! What they did, they did by faith.

Time, culture, language, history. There is vast gap between us and them. And yet what won them approval wins us approval too.

Faith! That’s what God honors.

Those old-timers knew much less than us, yet they accomplished so much more. This is how God honors faith. He says, “Show me a little and I’ll show you a lot.”

God says, “Show me a little and I’ll show you a lot.”

Holy Discontent

Let me pause for a word of application. There is a sense in which living by faith requires a measure of holy discontent. You’ve got to want some things that you don’t have in order to have faith because faith always deals with things “hoped for.” If you’ve already got everything you need and want and desire, and if for you all the promises of God have already come true, if you’ve reached a state of spiritual perfection, if all your prayers have been answered, and if all your loved ones are saved and serving the Lord, if there is no lack anywhere in any area that you can see, you don’t need faith because you’re living in heaven already and you just don’t realize it. If you are satisfied with the current state of affairs, then you can skip this sermon altogether because it doesn’t apply to you.

A few days ago a dear friend discovered that the cancer she thought had gone into remission had suddenly returned. After undergoing delicate brain surgery to remove a large tumor, she remains in intensive care with the long-term prognosis still not clear. I received a note from her sister. This is part of what she wrote.

God is still good and He is still on the throne. We are watching to see how He is going to be glorified in this situation. There are many unbelievers who are watching this all unfold so you never know. We have to keep trusting and believing God and His healing and timing and will. The verse we wear on our cancer bracelets is Psalm 125:1, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever.”

The thought occurred that as long as we live in a world with cancer bracelets, we will need faith. As long as marriages break up, and children suffer, and as long as the killing continues, and our leaders disappoint us, and as long as there is hatred and violence and prejudice and all manner of evil in the world, as long as death reigns, we will need faith because the “things hoped for” have not yet come to pass.

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed “outrageous trust” in God? If not, your Christian life has been too boring.

What, then, is faith? Think about these three words: Believe, See, Do.

Faith believes what others do not believe.
Faith sees what others do not see.
Faith does what others do not do.

True faith is never passive. True faith moves us to act, to do, to try, to build, to attempt, to expand, to say “no” to sin and “yes” to righteousness, to join, to speak out, to move forward, to dare to dream beyond our means, and to walk around Jericho again and again until at last “the walls come tumblin’ down.” A friend of mine defines faith as “outrageous trust in God.” I like that. “Outrageous trust” is what you have when you build an ark hundreds of miles from any body of water. “Outrageous trust” compels you to leave your home not knowing where you are going. And “outrageous trust” sends you into the Elah Valley to face Goliath. Have you ever been in a situation where you needed “outrageous trust” in God? If not, your Christian life has been too boring.

Feelings are important but they are not the basis of true faith.

II. Faith Applied

As we come to the end of our study, we can draw three important conclusions about the nature of faith.

A. Faith is not a feeling but a conscious choice to believe what God has said.

We will never progress in the spiritual life as long as we stay on the plane of our feelings. If Noah had waited until he “felt like” building an ark, he might never have laid the first piece of gopher wood. And if Joshua had waited to “feel like” marching around Jericho, those walls might still be standing. Feelings are important but they are not the basis of true faith. When you are in a hospital waiting room while a loved one is in surgery, you may or may not feel positive. In that moment, you must consciously choose to believe that God is who he said he is and that he will do what he said he would do. And you’ll probably have to make that choice a hundred times a day. Faith chooses, then acts, and then the feelings follow.

B. Faith acts even in the face of doubt and opposition.

If we wait until all the circumstances are in our favor, we’ll probably wait forever. David didn’t wait for Goliath to go blind. He trusted God and walked down into the valley to face the giant. If we wait for our doubts to disappear, we’ll have to wait a long time. Someone said that faith is “belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part.” Sooner or later, we all have to “act on the belief part.” Abraham did. Moses did. Samuel did. All the heroes of the Bible “acted on the belief part.” You can too.

C. Faith sees what others do not see.

My favorite definition of faith comes from Philip Yancey who said, “Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” So many things in this life make no sense to us. I imagine that every person reading this sermon has a few very deep and personal questions that defy all human answers. We want to know why things happen the way they do and why couldn’t things have happened some other way. It would be wrong to say that faith provides all the answers. It doesn’t. Perhaps in heaven we will fully understand, or in heaven our desire to know will be transformed by our vision of the Lord. By faith we see things that are invisible to others and by faith we believe in advance those things that right now make no sense but one day will make perfect sense because we will view them in reverse.

Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.

The world says, “Seeing is believing.” God says, “Believing is seeing.” We believe, therefore we see.

Wherever He Leads

One final word and I am done. Biblical faith is never faith in faith, as if we were believing in our own powers of logic or self-persuasion. Faith can never be stronger than the object on which it rests. Since our faith rests on the Lord Jesus Christ, the essence of faith is following him wherever he leads. Here’s a little acrostic that has helped many people:

Forsaking
All
I
T
ake
Him.

Our call is not to understand but to follow Christ wherever he leads, whatever it costs. And the word of Christ to all of us is always the same, “Come, follow me.” Try it out. Come to him. Put your life in his hands.

If you decide to follow Jesus, he will ask you to do the impossible, and then he will help you do it.

To be a disciple of Christ means to get on the “Jesus road” and follow wherever it takes you. No guarantees, no deals, no special promises. You simply walk that road every day, following in your Master’s steps. Don’t be afraid to follow Jesus. You’ll never regret starting down the “Jesus road.” You’ll only regret that you waited so long to do it.

Are you ready to follow Jesus wherever he leads? That’s all he wants. Someone may ask, “What if Jesus asks me to do something I can’t do?” He will! He will! He will! If he only asked you to do something you could do, you wouldn’t need him. I promise you this: If you decide to follow Jesus, he will ask you to do the impossible, and then he will help you do it.

Our part is simply to take the next step. Just take the next step God puts in front of you. You don’t have to see the whole plan or even see ten steps down the road. Faith means taking the next step in front of you and leaving the rest in the hands of God.

Faith is the law of the kingdom. Every blessing of the kingdom is available to those who put their faith to work, moment by moment, day by day, one little step at a time.

By Faith Noah ...
By faith Abraham ...
By faith Moses ...

I wonder if other names could be added to that list. “By faith Ray.” “By faith Elizabeth.” “By faith Carlos.” “By faith Al.” “By faith Alex.” “By faith Karen.” May God give us steady courage to follow the Lord so that some day our names might be added to the long list of men and women who lived and died by faith. Amen.

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