The key in properly and deeply understanding Ch. 11 (which is the second most-violated chapter after 1Cor. 13 by being pulled out of context) is seeing that it’s placed atop 10 previous chapters that set the clear tone for Ch 11, which is a mere illustration of the points made in Ch. 10: You’ve been liberated by Christ. Stand up, dust off. Get close to God, together, as a community. Don’t give up on one another. Keep pushing each other to growth in all areas of life no matter how dismal things may look. We are a part of a family of believers that stretches from here into eternity. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the suffering, we must keep on keeping on.
Like a rush teenager trying to score a point, people rip out Chapter 11 from its very deep theological foundation of Hebrews, and boil it down to just a byword as a something you hold on when you can’t explain, see, comprehend situations in life. Many times, Chapter 11 is a good hiding place for those who don’t feel like going deep in their understanding of Christianity, and more importantly, a hiding place for those who are too lazy to work out their faith.
Slowly but surely, Chapter 11 has been degraded into a pop-culture equivalent for believers who want to remain on the fence, being only spectators in a life that we’re called to live out in the past 10 chapters.
So what sort of a faith is being described in Hebrews sofar:
- Communal faith: Christianity is not something you live out alone, in isolation. Unlike popular belief, Hebrews reminds us that Christ didn’t redeem a group of individuals. He redeemed a spiritual family that we call Church.
- Active faith: Christianity isn’t about reciting a few learned ideas on God, sin, salvation and eternity. It’s a lifestyle that springs from Christ’s redemption on the cross.
These two characteristics are providing the context of what we are to understand of faith in Heb 11.
vv. 1-7: Righteousness – the label you get by having faith
Before we get into more explanations about what faith IS, let’s extract some ideas from this chapters about what faith IS NOT:
- Faith is not a religion. It isn’t a collection of religious rituals: In this chapter we get to see that the heroes of faith were not commended for their rich ritualistic life, or for adhering to an external, visible religious system
- Faith is not ideology. It isn’t just a philosophical construct, a mere agreement with statements like God exists, Christ saves, etc. While understanding the proper teachings of Christ handed to us by our spiritual ancestors, mere knowledge of facts, mere Christianized vocabulary, and mere Christianized lifestyle is just an outer shell, one that you can easily play out, act out… but these externals aren’t what faith is essentially about.
In the roughest sense, faith is relying on Christ in all circumstances of life so that whatever happens we don’t lose grasp of this Shalom rest, this peace of God that transcends understanding.
In the first 7 verses we see several cases of people who, because of their faith, have acted in ways that are completely illogical and even impossible if they didn’t believe that God is the source of this peace that the world strives for but never gets it:
- With Abel, it was his faith that accompanied his offerings, and it was this faith that was commended to him as righteousness. Unlike Cain who did the rituals but had no love, no faith, no real desire to be close to God. In Genesis we read that Abel brought the best, and Cain merely gathered some stuff and threw them at God’s feet, so to say. The attitude of Abel springs from faith, the attitude of Cain sprung from lethargy.
- With Noah it was his faith in God’s instructions that empowered him to do the right thing he was called to do. Noah’s belief that a flood is coming is the thing that empowered him to stick to the building project and make a good job of it rather than just throwing timber together and calling it an ark.
In both cases faith is the crucial element in life that made them different from the rest, and their faith is what sets them on a path of righteousness. It is not that they forced themselves to live a righteous life as a mechanism to attain faith and attain God’s blessing.
It isn’t that these people said “OK, we have to please God somehow, so let’s get all creative with religious rituals, let’s wear a certain set of clothes, let’s speak in a certain way and have clear political stands on moral issues. That ought to get God’s attention so he’d realize we’re the good guys.”
The unwavering conviction that what God says is true because God is unchanging and never lies is what sets these people as worthy examples of what faith is. They got their instructions through the so-called “oral tradition” i.e. through story-telling of all the things we now get to read in the Bible. So from this perspective it’s a lot easier for us to believe because we have all these personal stories written down as solid and reliable testimony that God is truthful, good, completely trustworthy, and he won’t let us high and dry in dead-end situations… even though it may feel like that too many times.
Vv 8-16: Endurance – the thing that happens when you have faith
A strange thing happens when you take your faith in Christ seriously, and you read the Bible seriously: God starts putting ideas in your mind. Sometimes the ideas are encouraging and joyful, sometimes they’re challenging and scary.
Many times, as we get to see in Abraham and Moses, faith can take people to scary decisions. With Abraham, things started with a call to leave his homeland and go to a place where he will be the father of nations… only to get him to a position of having to make the greatest sacrifice of all: give up his only son.
Luckily most of us will go through life where we won’t need to be tested to such an extreme. But, Abraham was. His reasoning was that since God promised that He’ll make Abraham a father of nations, then God will most probably raise Isaac from the dead. God already proved that He is more than capable when He gave Isaac to Abraham at old age, so Abraham is thinking “Since God can create life, he can surely restart it”.
Faith in God’s consistency and power is what helped Abraham gain a deeper understanding of how God works, so that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac. Although scary, Abraham didn’t doubt that God will not raise Isaac from the dead and fulfill His promise to Abraham.
With Moses, we get to see again a life-and-death situation early on when his parents hid him even though the Pharaoh had a law that all Hebrew male kids be killed because they were getting too numerous which frightened the Egyptians. Moses was defiant to government from day 1. Later in life Moses stood up to Pharaoh and despite the fact that Moses could have been killed for insubordination.
While today we get shoved the idea that we must respect authorities, Moses gives us a revolutionary stare and a frown, pushing us to get real and understand that a Godless government that kills, steals and destroys is not to be obeyed, on the contrary, it needs to be overthrown and left to God’s judgment as Pharaoh was led into the Red Sea to be drowned because the Hebrews were worthy to pass through thanks to their faith, while Pharaoh was not as he was not faith-full.
A faith that is put at work creates endurance. Sometimes we get tested on small things so that we learn that God is trustworthy. The next test will be tougher, but also somehow easier to go through because we’ve had previous experiences and came out with a stronger faith in God’s word. Other times things get really tough.
In my early days of being a devout believer in Christ, I used to not set my alarm clock saying “I rely on Christ to wake me up on time for school.” And over and over I got to see that I really did wake up on time. We can go on speculating about this as a biological/psychological programming people can do and wake up on time. But the stakes weren’t too high at all. If I didn’t wake up on time to catch the 7:15 bus, there was always the next one in 15 minutes.
But as life progressed I was tested in many other forms that meant me leaving home, me quitting a job because I didn’t want to sell products that were obviously of terrible quality. It meant me leaving my engineering studies to enroll a theology school even though I was a 4th year student. These decisions were a lot tougher, and a lot more was at stake. But it is faith that gets you through the day that God will somehow provide the money for the bills as long as I don’t lose faith and give up working. Eventually things did work out, financially, with my family here, I did get a degree in Theology AND met my wife in the meantime.
If I didn’t do that crazy step of giving up engineering and moving on to Theology, I would not have met my wife. I would not have had all those experiences through the years, and chances are I would not be here now, sharing Hebrews 11 with you. Real faith always has consequences on life.
vv. 29-40: Great Family – what you receive by remaining faith-full
When the going gets tough, we don’t really see the results. Most of what we see as human beings is all the fear, shame, pain, suffering etc. But believers also see the outstretched arm of God saying “Take my hand, follow me, and trust me, I’m here to help you grow, not to ruin your life.”
Looking back at Abraham, Moses and the others throughout history, I’m absolutely convinced they had tons of situations when they thought that moving on is impossible, illogical, suicidal… but they pushed through. Not because they had all the information about how life would turn out. Perhaps if we did know all that we’d just say “Forget it, I don’t want that kind of a life”.
But the beauty is that what we need to make the next right step is already here: We look back at our lives, we look back throughout history and see that God is good. He is trustworthy. He cares for our wellbeing. So because we have firsthand experience that God is trustworthy, we reach out, take God’s hand and follow him.
Does this mean that life will be easy? No. On the contrary, it will probably be more difficult. But at least we know that we’re following God through a life that will probably turn out to be a lot better than what we’d have in mind. And throughout life, no matter what pain and suffering we go through, we’re reminded over and over again that to follow God is to rely on Him and receive his peace that for people without faith, is idiotic, illogical, unreal etc. but ultimately: unattainable.
So what do we learn from this famous chapter on faith? Well, we learn that faith isn’t some inherited religious system we should stick to. Or a mere philosophical system we hold on to. Faith is an active life-changing thing we practice within a community of other believers, one step at a time.
Faith then, is more about what you understand about Christ today, that influences your tomorrow, based on your experiences yesterday.
Faith is a cyclic thing that keeps on growing the more you use it and shapes your life into a living testimony that God is truthful, reliable, trustworthy, loving etc.
As we go through life faithfully, we experience the peace that transcends understanding not through passive philosophizing about life but by living it out.