The Sixteenth in a Series of Sermons on the Book of Hebrews
Faith is one of those words Christians often use without definition. Since faith is a biblical word, “faith” has the connotation of being a good thing, and therefore something everyone should have. But this is completely wide of the mark. The word “faith” has very a technical meaning in the New Testament. Faith is not some generic term for whatever subjective opinion people may or may not have about God. Faith is used either as a verb (“to believe”) or as a noun (“faith”), and is always tied to its object (what is believed). The author of Hebrews carefully defines the term “faith” and then illustrates that definition by describing how the great figures from the Old Testament (Noah, Moses, Abraham, etc.) believed in God’s promise–the same promise which the author of Hebrews has argued was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Old Testament saints mentioned in Hebrews 11 serve primarily as witnesses to God’s faithfulness in keeping his covenant promises, and only secondarily as examples to us of people who have faith in God’s promise during difficult times.
We now move into a new (and perhaps the best known) section of Hebrews, chapter 11. Often described as the “hall of faith” because so many Old Testament luminaries are mentioned here, all of those who make the author’s list are included here because they believed the gracious covenant promise which God made to his redeemed people– “I will be your God and you will be my people.” There is much here in this chapter–the nature and character of faith, as well as a discussion of how the New Testament writers (such as the author of Hebrews) read the Old Testament. So, we will take our time going through it
Many of those who preach through this particular section of Hebrews emphasize the exemplary character of the faith of those who make the list. In taking this approach, the focus falls upon the example these people set for us, and which we should follow. This approach emphasizes that these were great men, they had faith in YHWH during the most difficult of times, so we should imitate them by striving to have the same kind of faith they had. But the obvious problem with this approach is that one of those mentioned, Rahab, was a prostitute. All those mentioned were sinful individuals, and those who lived during the time of the Judges (Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah) were all men whose behavior was less then exemplary. Nevertheless, these people are numbered among those who had faith in the promise.
Given the fact that these biblical examples are better understood as repentant sinners, justified before God through their faith in that gracious covenant promise God made to his people, I’m going to take a different tact as we go through this passage in the coming weeks. As I see it, the emphasis in this chapter falls squarely upon God’s faithfulness in keeping his promise. All of those mentioned in this chapter trusted in the same thing–God’s covenant promise to provide redemption for his people. All of these people had faith–granted. The author says that repeatedly. But to what object was their faith directed? In what did they trust? Or better, in whom did they trust? All of those listed here in Hebrews 11 believed that God would keep his promise, making the object of faith–God’s promise–the central theme of the chapter, and not the presence of “faith” in the hearts and minds of those mentioned.
When interpreted in this manner, chapter 11 of Hebrews serves the author’s larger purpose of proving the superiority of Jesus Christ to Moses, the priests of Israel, the tabernacle and the temple, and even angels. The author is not merely saying to those considering returning to Judaism, “imitate” the faith of your fathers. Rather he is saying “your fathers all trusted the one covenant promise, and that covenant promise (the new covenant) is now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” The emphasis is not merely that these people had faith, but that they had faith in the same object–the gracious covenant promise of God, now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
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