“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, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.” (Heb 11:13-14)
In the previous chapters, the author focused on explaining Jesus’ superiority. At the end of Hebrews 10, the author urged the readers not to shrink back, but to keep their faith in difficult situations.
And, in Hebrews chapter 11, the author talks about faith. He defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)
Even though it’s not easy to define what faith means, we learn an important characteristic of faith through this verse. Faith is the substance of what we hope for, which means that we experience and have what we hope for as Christians in the present.
Even though God’s promises of his coming kingdom, resurrection of the body, and eternal life are not perfectly achieved yet, and even though we live in the world and hope for these things, we are able to experience and enjoy them right now by faith.
By faith, we can be confident that we’ll surely possess what God has promised. By faith, we see through our spiritual eyes that God’s promises are being achieved. We are not only looking forward to having them someday in the future, but are experiencing their substance in our lives.
It is very important for us to have this kind of faith especially when our faith is shaken by outside forces such as temptations, worries, and hardships. Satan will continue to try to turn our eyes from Jesus and have them fixed on things in the world.
But those who have strong faith in God, who look at unseen things, and experience them in their lives will not be shaken by temporary things in the world, whatever they are. They will be victorious in every situation by faith in Jesus.
What’s Seen And What’s Unseen
That was how our ancestors of faith lived in the world. Hebrews 11:2 says,
“By [faith] the elders obtained a good testimony.” (Heb 11:2, NJKV)
After describing what faith is, the author explains more about it using examples from the Scriptures. But, before that, he writes about an important aspect of faith.
Hebrews 11:3 says,
“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.” (Heb 11:3)
In this verse, we encounter the first and basic principle of faith which affects other principles of faith. The first thing we should believe as Christians is that God created the whole world out of nothing.
This verse lets us know four things about creation.
First, we know that there was a beginning of this world. It doesn’t last forever. Since it has a beginning, it will also have its end.
Second, we know that the world is created by God.
Third, we know that God created the universe with his word. Everything in the world came to exist as God said so.
Lastly, therefore we know that this world is made out of nothing. It’s not that this world was restructured from what had been there before. God made everything out of nothing. Everything was created by God’s word.
In other words, things in the world that we can see through our physical eyes were made by God’s invisible word and thus are subordinate to it.
“What is seen was not made out of what was visible.” This means that what we see through our physical eyes is not everything. What’s seen was actually made out of what was invisible, God’s word or truth and his power. This is what we come to perceive with our spiritual eyes by faith.
Then, we know what’s more important. What’s unseen is much more important than what’s seen. What’s seen is actually dependent on what’s unseen. That’s what we should believe as Christians.
So, the creation story tells us a lot of things. It doesn’t only explain how this world started, but also allows us to know that there are invisible and spiritual principles behind everything we see.
Then, it’s clear where we should put our hope. We shouldn’t focus on things in the world which are temporary, but instead should have our eyes fixed on invisible, spiritual things which are eternal. That’s what faith does. By faith, we become able to see spiritual principles which we can’t perceive or understand on our own.
The Ancestors of Faith
The author says that’s the perspective our ancestors of faith had when they kept their faith. He continues by introducing many ancestors of faith and each verse starts with the phrase, ‘by faith’.
Even though everyone listed in Hebrews 11 is important, I want to focus on a few specific people today.
First of all, verse 7 says, “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family.” (Heb 11:7)
In Genesis chapter 6, “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth…” (Gn 6:5) and said “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created” (Gn 6:7).
God told Noah that he would destroy all people on earth with a flood and commanded him to make an ark. Even though it sounded unrealistic, Noah obeyed the Lord and silently made an ark.
It is likely that many people mocked Noah for doing that, but he didn’t care what others thought about him. He faithfully made the ark even though there was no sign of a flood. That’s because by faith he knew that what God had warned him about would surely occur. Noah believed in the Lord and faithfully responded to his word.
The author also tells us how Abraham and Sarah responded to God’s promise with their faith.
“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” (Heb 11:8-10)
In Genesis 12, God called Abraham who was in Harran and told him to leave for the land that God would show him. Even though Abraham was already a 75 year-old old man, he didn’t hesitate to follow God’s promises. By faith, Abraham left everything behind and headed for the promised land.
Even though God’s promise to give the land to Abraham was achieved a long time later after his death, Abraham didn’t leave the land, because he believed that God would keep his promise. Even though he lived in the land of Canaan, his eyes were fixed on the heavenly city to come.
The Ancestors of Faith
So, one of the common characteristics of the ancestors of faith in Hebrews 11 is that they lived by faith even though God’s promise wasn’t achieved in their lifetime.
Let’s read Hebrews 11:13-16 together.
“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, admitting that they were foreigners 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.” (Heb 11:13-16).
Even though they received God’s promises, these promises weren’t achieved in their lifetime. They only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. But, they weren’t disappointed because what they really hoped for wasn’t in the world. They were longing for a better country, the kingdom of God.
They believed in God until the moment they died. They lived in the world as foreigners and strangers, looking forward to the day they would go to their true home in heaven.
Even though it was hard for them to follow God’s promises on earth, they kept their faith even in difficult situations, because they knew that what they were seeing in the world was not everything and that God would surely and faithfully keep his promises even though they couldn’t see it right now.
In other words, they were able to not be shaken by worldly things and hardships because by faith their eyes were fixed on what’s unseen and eternal.
The author talks about Moses’ faith in verses 24-26.
“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 fleeting pleasures of sin. 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.” (Heb 11:24-26)
As a prince of Egypt, Moses could have enjoyed everything he wanted. But he chose to live for his own people and killed an Egyptian when he saw him beating a Hebrew. He refused to enjoy things in the world, but rather chose to suffer along with God’s people.
And, Hebrews 11:26 says that Moses regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt. Moses didn’t know who Jesus was, but what he did for his people was similar to what Jesus did for us.
Both of them endured disgrace and suffering in the world, looking forward to what was waiting for them in heaven. As Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb 12:2)
Moses wasn’t shaken by suffering, disgrace, or the temptations of the world because he had strong faith in God, and he was looking forward to his reward from God which was far superior to the glory of the world.
Christian Faith and Suffering
So, another characteristic of the ancestors’ faith was that they were persecuted and were going through hardships while living in the world because of their faith.
Hebrews 11:35-37 says,
“There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated” (Heb 11:35-37)
This is the list of suffering our ancestors of faith faced because of their faith. Even though it wasn’t easy for them to endure, they kept their faith in the midst of suffering because they put their hope in the world to come. They strongly believed what God promised to them and by faith they were able to see it.
Nothing in the world can take away faith from those who have this kind of faith. Hebrews 11:38 says,
“The world was not worthy of them” (Heb 11:38)
The world was not worthy of those who had true faith because nothing in the world could shake them. Worldly pleasures and fame couldn’t turn their hearts from God. They weren’t moved by any kind of suffering, persecution, or even death. That’s because they only put their hope in God and his promises.
Even though they didn’t fully receive what God promised them during their lifetime, they received a guarantee for his promises. Even though they only saw shadows of God’s promises from a distance, it gave them sufficient strength to endure their present suffering because it was so glorious that nothing in the world could even compare.
That was how our ancestors of faith lived on earth. By faith, they saw God’s promises being achieved from a distance and lived by faith. That shows how Christian faith should be. These are the examples we are to follow as Christians.
Today, we talked about how our ancestors of faith kept their faith, looking forward to their heavenly home and God’s reward. They weren’t moved by visible things in the world because by faith they came to see what’s unseen through their spiritual eyes which is much more important.
They faced many temptations, suffering, and hardships in the world but nothing could take away their faith because it was deeply rooted in God’s promises for eternal things.
That’s the faith we should also have as Christians. It’s not really easy to keep our faith in this world filled with all kinds of temptations, trials, worries, and more. There are many things that prevent us from focusing our eyes on Jesus.
So, we should continue to ask God to give us strong faith that allows us to see spiritual realities so that we can put our hope only in God and his promises and overcome the world by faith in Jesus.