Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Hebrews 11 is the great faith chapter of the Bible, first defining faith (v. 1) and then using well-known Hebrew people to show faith in action. These people heard God’s promises and believed them in spite of waiting a very long time to see the promises fulfilled—some promises never having been fulfilled in their lifetime. For instance, Abraham didn’t live long enough to see the nation that sprang from his seed.
The author introduces this faith chapter with the last two verses of chapter 10, which say that “the righteous will live by faith” (10:38, quoting Habakkuk 2:4) and links faith to the salvation of the soul (10:39).
HEBREWS 11:1-3. THE ASSURANCE OF THINGS HOPED FOR
1 Now faith is assurance (Greek: hupostasis) of things hoped for, proof (Greek: elegchos) of things not seen. 2 For by this, the elders obtained testimony (Greek: martureo). 3By faith, we understand that the universe has been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things which are visible.
“Now faith is assurance (hupostasis) of things hoped for” (v. 1a). The Greek word hupostasis has various meanings. The one most appropriate here is not assurance, but reality. For believers, faith is knowing the reality of things for which they can only hope now. For believers that reality, though only a matter of hope today, is so real that they can almost reach out and touch it.
“proof (elegchos) of things not seen” (v. 1b). Some translations use the word conviction for elegchos. However, a better translation would be proof or certainty. For believers, faith leads to certainty of things not yet seen. Faith is the certainty that they will be seen.
“For by this, the elders (Greek: presbyteros) obtained testimony” (Greek: martureo) (v. 2). The word presbyteros is where we get our word Presbyterian. A presbyteros is an older person whose maturity and experience fit him/her for leadership. In this verse a better translation would be ancestors, because the author will go on to speak of Abraham and other luminaries from ancient Israel’s history.
Martureo is one of several similar Greek words from which we get our word martyr. Martureo actually means witness or to bear witness, but it came to mean martyr because those who bear witness to Christ often pay a high price for their faithfulness. Sometimes they pay with their lives.
In the context of this verse, commendation might be the best translation for martureo. God has borne witness to the faith of Abraham and these other ancient people of faith, and has commended them.
“By faith, we understand that the universe (Greek: aionas—ages) has been framed by the word of God” (v. 3a). In this context, universe is a good translation for aionas, because aionas encompasses all that is—both time and space.
“has been framed by the word of God” (v. 3a). In this Genesis tells the story. “God said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light'” (Genesis 1:3, see also 1:6, 9, 11, 14-15, 20, 24, 26). In each instance, it was the word of God that initiated the creative process.
But how can we know that? How can we know that the universe was God-created instead of being just the result of some sort of naturally appearing cosmic event? We weren’t present at the creation. We didn’t see it happen. But we accept it by faith—faith in God and faith in God-inspired scripture.
To some people, that will seem naive in the extreme. Hasn’t science shown that the universe was the product of a gigantic explosion in the far-distant past? How can we resolve the conflict between faith and science?
But that conflict is more imagined than real. By faith, we believe in a God-created universe—created by God’s word. By faith, others believe in a far-distant cosmic event? While we weren’t there to observe God creating the universe, neither were they there to see the cosmic event. They will say, “But we are seeing further and further into the past as our telescopes improve, and we believe that we will one day see the beginning”—a statement bathed in faith—immersed in faith.
Furthermore, if a far-distant cosmic event created the universe, it is quite possible that God used that method to accomplish the creation. The creation story as related in Genesis outlines the various steps of creation, but as a poetic faith-story rather than a scientific account. We make a mistake when we insist on an either-or decision—either faith in science or faith in God. Instead, we need to accept the possibility of both-and—both a creation caused by the word of God and a creation which we try to understand through scientific observations. Science can take us back only so far. It can (within limits) describe what happened, but not why. Whether we choose to believe in the teachings of science or scripture (or both), the why is knowable only by faith.
“so that what is seen has not been made out of things which are visible” (v. 3b). Those who believe in God sometimes speak of creation ex nihilo—creation out of nothing. Genesis says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), which leads us to believe that the first step in creation was God making something out of nothing—ex nihilo.
Then Genesis says, “Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). At this point, there was something—something had come into being by a prior step—by God’s creative power.
HEBREWS 11:4-7. THE FAITH OF ABEL AND ENOCH,
4 By faith, Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had testimony given to him that he was righteous, God testifying with respect to his gifts; and through it he, being dead, still speaks. 5 By faith, Enoch was taken away, so that he wouldn’t see death, and he was not found, because God translated him. For he has had testimony given to him that before his translation he had been well pleasing to God. 6 Without faith it is impossible to be well pleasing to him, for he who comes to God must believe that he exists, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him. 7 By faith, Noah, being warned about things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared a ship for the saving of his house, through which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.
These verses are not part of the lectionary reading, perhaps because Able, Enoch, and Noah were less seminal people than Abraham—but the preacher needs to be aware of these skipped verses.
When I say that these three were less seminal than Abraham, I am referring to the fact that Abraham was the father or Israel, the chosen people of God. It was God’s call to Abram (and Abram’s obedience to that call) that made him and Sarah the beginning of the chosen people.
HEBREWS 11:8-12. THE FAITH OF ABRAHAM AND SARAH
8 By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out to the place which he was to receive for an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he went. 9 By faith, he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a land not his own, dwelling in tents, with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked for the city which has the foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11By faith, even Sarah herself received power to conceive, and she bore a child when she was past age, since she counted him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore as many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as innumerable as the sand which is by the sea shore, were fathered by one man, and him as good as dead.
“By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out to the place which he was to receive for an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he went” (v. 8). God’s command to Abram (Abraham’s original name) was “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). God didn’t give Abram a road map or a destination. Abram’s first act of obedience was simply to step onto the road that led wherever.
That was a great step of faith, because one’s security in those days was rooted in one’s parents and extended family. For Abram to respond to God’s call without reservation was truly a wondrous exercise of faith.
But Abram didn’t cut every tie with Haran, his homeland. He took with him “Sarai his wife (Sarai was Sarah’s original name), Lot his brother’s son, all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls whom they had gotten in Haran” (Genesis 12:5). In some ways, that made the journey less threatening, because Abram didn’t leave alone and penniless. But in another way, it was more threatening, because Abram became responsible for the care and feeding of a number of people, some of whom would undoubtedly become contentious as they became road-weary. Can’t you hear them say, “Are we almost there?” Abram couldn’t answer that question, because God had not told him where he was going—only that he should start the journey.
“By faith, he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a land not his own” (v. 9a). The land where Abram ended up was Canaan, later to be known as the Promised Land (Genesis 12:5-6)—but Abraham experienced Canaan only as an alien, not as a citizen.
God promised Abram, “I will give this land to your seed” (Genesis 12:7). Note that God promised the land, not to Abram, but to his seed—his descendants. When Sarah finally died, Abraham had to ask the local people for a tomb to bury her, and she was buried in the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 23:3-20). Abraham bought the cave and the surrounding field, and buried Sarah there. Later, Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob were also buried there (Genesis 25:9; 49:29-31; 50:13).
Abram became a man of means, “very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 13:2). He and Lot “had flocks, and herds, and tents (so that) the land was not able to bear them—that they might live together” (Genesis 13:5-6). Abram proposed that they separate, and gave Lot a choice of the land to the left or right. Lot chose the plain of Jordan, so Abram stayed in Canaan (Genesis 13:6-12). But the cave of Machpelah and its surrounding field remained the only bought-and-paid-for land that Abraham ever owned in Canaan—a modest claim on God’s promise, “I will give this land to your seed” (Genesis 12:7).
“dwelling in tents, with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise” (v. 9b). Tents served as shelter for nomadic herdsmen, who required grazing land and water for their animals. Sheep sever grass close to the ground, and have a reputation (whether deserved or not, I cannot determine) for being hard on pasture lands. A herdsman would need to move to new pastures with some frequency, so dwelling in tents would be a natural solution to their housing problem. However, dwelling in tents is a less settled proposition than dwelling in more permanent houses.
Isaac was Abraham’s son by Sarah (Genesis 21), and Jacob was Isaac’s son by Rebekah (Genesis 25:19-26). Isaac and Jacob became heirs of the promise that God had made to Abraham in Genesis 12. In fact, God fulfilled that promise only much later—when Israel finally entered the Promised Land after the Exodus and their forty years of wilderness wanderings (Joshua 4). Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob had been dead for centuries by the time that God fulfilled that promise.
“For he looked for the city which has the foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (v. 10). As is still true today, at least in some circles, people of that day associated cities with wantonness and evil. In Israel, Jerusalem was supposed to be an exception. Jerusalem housed the temple—the dwelling place of God. But Jesus’ opposition was centered in Jerusalem, and he was crucified there. Evil forces congregate in cities—even the Holy City.
But the author of Hebrews tells us that Abraham looked for another kind of city—a truly spiritual city, designed and established by God. In the next chapter, he will talk about “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22).
The book of Revelation fleshes out that idea more fully. Babylon is depicted as a strong city, but one under God’s judgment. It will be thrown down by violence (Revelation 18:19). This contrasts with “the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from my God” (Revelation 3:12). The author of Revelation “saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband, (and) heard a loud voice out of heaven saying,
“Behold, God’s dwelling is with people,
and he will dwell with them,
and they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them as their God.
He will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more.
The first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:2-4).
“By faith, even Sarah herself received power to conceive, and she bore a child when she was past age, since she counted him faithful who had promised” (v. 11). We are surprised to read that Sarah counted God as faithful. When three strangers visited Abraham and Sarah, they promised Abraham that Sarah would bear a son. Sarah overheard that conversation, and responded by laughing. She said, “After I have grown old will I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” When God asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? …Is anything too hard for Yahweh?” Sarah was afraid and said, “I didn’t laugh.” But God said, “No, but you did laugh” (Genesis 18:1-15).
But God blessed Sarah with a son anyway. She bore Isaac anyway. She had a son in her old age anyway. When Isaac was born, Sarah said, “God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears will laugh with me…. Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:6-7).
Sarah’s joy should give us joy. Even when we lack faith—God stands ready to bless us. God is slow to harbor a grudge and quick to forgive. Thank God! Otherwise, none of us would have a chance.
“Therefore as many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as innumerable as the sand which is by the sea shore, were fathered by one man, and him as good as dead” (v. 12). How many stars are there? Before the advent of electric light, the skies would have not been awash in ambient light, so a person viewing the sky on a clear night would have seen stars beyond counting. How many grains of sand are there on the world’s sea shores? It would be impossible to count even the grains of sand on a single sea shore. Stars and sand, therefore, represent abundance beyond measure.
By the time that the author of Hebrews wrote these words, he was describing something that had come to be. When Jacob and his family joined Joseph in Egypt, they numbered only seventy (Genesis 46:27). However, they multiplied during their four centuries in Egypt—in spite of Pharaoh’s attempts to prevent that. By the time of the Exodus, the Israelites numbered six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty (Numbers 2:32). Between the Exodus and the writing of this book, a dozen centuries passed and Jews had spread throughout the then-known world.
But the point of this verse is not the huge number of Jews who had lived at one time or another. The point is that they were all the descendants of one man—Abraham—a man “as good as dead” due to his age. This verse doesn’t mention Sarah, but she too was old—far too old to bear a child. But, as God asked earlier, “Is anything too hard for Yahweh?”
HEBREWS 11:13-16. HAVING SEEN THE PROMISES
13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and embraced them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. 15 If indeed they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had enough time to return. 16 But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and embraced them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (v. 13). As noted above, Abraham died without possessing anything of the Promised Land other than the cave of Machpelah and its surrounding field. He died, having known only a few of his progeny. He had not “received the promises,” and his descendants wouldn’t receive them for many years to come.
Nevertheless, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob embraced God’s promises from afar. They lived as “strangers and pilgrims” rather than as proud residents of the Promised Land, but died in faith that God would be faithful to his promises.
“For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own” (v. 14). They were strangers and pilgrims (v. 13), but they had a vision of living in their own land. Their vision would come true only after the Egyptian captivity, the Exodus, and their wilderness wanderings—but it would come true. They would inhabit the Promised Land for many centuries before rebelling against Rome and losing everything. But their vision of living in their own land would continue, and would finally be realized a second time in 1948, when Israel was established as a nation. Jews have flocked to Israel from all the world, because their desire for a homeland has been so compelling.
“If indeed they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had enough time to return” (v. 15). If Abraham and Sarah had felt a tug on their hearts to return to Haran, they could have done so. Their families would have welcomed them back, and they could have settled in houses instead of tents. They could have networked with the people with whom they had grown up. Sarah could have put up curtains in the expectation that they would hang on those windows for many years. Abraham could have improved his house and lands in the expectation that he could enjoy the improvements day-by-day for the rest of his life.
They could have gone back to Haran, but they chose not to do so. God had called them, and they chose to be faithful to that call.
“But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (v. 16a). I am reminded of the old Gospel song:
“This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.
If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me through heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.”
We, too, are seeking a country of our own—a heavenly country. We have not yet experienced the fulfillment of that promise, but we live in faith that we will do so. We live as aliens in a kosmos world—a world that ignores God and often stands as hostile to God. We live as strangers and pilgrims in that desert land.
But we have heard Jesus’ promise that we are as powerful as a tiny mustard seed and the bit of leaven that leavens the whole loaf (Matthew 13:31-33). We live under the promise that, if we have faith even as small as a mustard seed, we can move mountains—and that nothing will be impossible for us (Matthew 17:20-21). We don’t see those things happen every day, but we do see them happen.
The greater reality is that God is at work behind the scenes. I believe that, when we get to heaven, God will reveal to us the full range of blessedness that he has produced through our faithfulness. I am looking forward to that day. I am prepared to weep for joy when I see how God has used my feeble efforts and my all-too-often feeble faith. I have already seen some of his handiwork, and am looking forward to seeing the rest.
“Therefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God” (v. 16b). God is not ashamed of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob. He is pleased to be known as their God. They were far from perfect, but God chooses to remember their faith rather than their sins.
• Paul says, “Give diligence to present yourself approved by God, a workman who doesn’t need to be ashamed, properly handling the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
• Jesus is not ashamed to call faithful people brothers and sisters. He praises them. He praises us (Hebrews 2:11-12).
“for he has prepared a city for them” (v. 16c). See the comments on verse 10 above.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Craddock, Fred, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 12 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
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Holladay, Carl R., Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Valley Forge, Trinity Press, 1994).
Lane, William L., Word Biblical Commentary: Hebrews 9-13, Vol. 47b (Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
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MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1983)
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O’Brien, Peter T., Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Hebrews (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009)
Pfitzner, Victor C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan