Intro: A story came out of the Civil War from Union General Sherman’s relentless march through Georgia to the sea, destroying and burning everything in his path as he determined to bring the Confederacy to its knees. As it turned out, his most formidable foe was not the armies of Confederate Generals Wheeler, Hood, Hardee or the Georgia militia. Somewhere in Georgia he hit a snag. As he and his army rode through a rural farm, out from behind the smokehouse popped a wiry little old lady. Silvery hair flying in every direction, a soiled apron hanging off her shoulders – but she planted her feet resolutely, her eyes flashing with Dixie fire, and her bony hands brandishing a ragged broom. General Sherman, astride his magnificent horse hesitated, then attempted to spur his horse on past her. She attacked, flailing away with all her might. When she stopped to catch her breath, the amused Sherman said, “Ma’am, don’t you see that I am a general on horseback, with an entire army behind me, and that you are an old woman, alone on foot with only a broom in your hands? You have no chance of impeding my progress.” “Shucks, I know that sonny,” snapped the little old lady, “I just wanted to make sure everyone knows which side I’m on.”
The Gospels are full of stories of faith. In fact, over and over again, Jesus takes delight in those people he meets who display faith by their actions:
Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (Mark 10:46-52)
Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death. “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.” The man took Jesus at his word and departed. (John 4:46-50)
When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” (Luke 7:1-9)
The bottom line of Hebrews 10 really is the bottom line of this writer’s exhortation not to give up and give in. Remember the last verse in chapter 10: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.” (Heb 10:39)
The writer uses two very descriptive words here to paint a picture for us. He describes two groups of people – they are faced with the same difficulties, undergoing the same persecution, struggling with the same temptations – but they respond in two entirely different ways.
The first group he says are “those who shrink back.” They are fear-filled and faint-hearted. They’ve been struggling along on their own for so long and every time they turn around it seems like someone is kicking them in the teeth. They are victims – when they finally give out they blame the Lord – “I knew he wouldn’t come through for me.”
The second group, “those who believe” – literally “the faith-filled ones.” Regardless of the circumstances, the obstacles, the suffering they experience, God remains in control. It’s not that they’ve resigned themselves to living a miserable life, but that they are looking through a different set of glasses – not rose-colored, but God-clarified (like machine at optometrist’s office) – and those really give the clearest view of all.
Remember the servant of Elisha? He wakes up early one morning and steps outside to drink a cup of coffee and the place is surrounded by the Aramean army. He runs back inside to Elisha and cries out, “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” the servant asked. “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “O LORD, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kgs 6:15-17) When we’re faced with enemies and difficulties that threaten to overwhelm us, we need to look up with eyes of faith and see God at work!
So, our writer not only describes the two groups, but how they come out in the end. Those who shrink back are destroyed, those who are faith-filled are saved.
That’s not the regular word for salvation, but an accounting word – a word you would use in working with a ledger with debits and credits. Remember how he said in Hebrews 10:35 “Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.” This is talking about that investment which you make – that faith deposit – being saved and preserved and overflowing with the dividend of life!
You’ve seen it, we’ve all seen it – the person who is always the victim, God has failed them, the church is never there for them. They end up bitter and disappointed – their lives are shriveled up and powerless.
But then there is the person – there are no fewer difficulties or crises in their life, but their faith in God is rock solid. Regardless of what happens they will trust in him. And out of the grips of financial ruin, or family disintegration, or disease or even death – they are living a victorious life, abundant and overflowing.
If that kind of life is our goal, we had better be certain of what it takes to develop that kind of faith, so that we can be a member of the “faith-filled” ones. And it is to that topic which our writer turns our attention in Hebrews 11.
Very simply, very concisely, he says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
The different translations are interesting:
(RSV) “… the assurance of things hoped for;”
(KJV) “… the substance of things hoped for.”
This tells me immediately that there are two sides to this faith.
In one sense, faith resides in us. We hope, we expect, we live in anticipation – not a wishful thinking (because he immediately follows by saying “the conviction of things not seen.”) It is not a blind leap in the dark, hopefully, but doubtfully wishing there was something, someone to catch us. No, our hope comes both from the promises that God has made to us and our experience of having trusted in them – the “assurance” of things hoped for.
But the other side of faith resides, not in us, but in the object of our faith. That word the writer uses which is translated “substance” is the same word he used back in the first chapter when he described the Son of God as the “exact representation” of his being. The substance of this faith lies in God. Our faith is not a faith for faith’s sake. It’s not just a matter of believing hard enough and it will all come to pass. There is a substance behind this faith. Our hope is the “exact representation” of the unseen reality. It is very similar to the kind of point Paul makes when he says in Eph. 1:14, “this promised Holy Spirit is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance.”
When you put your money on deposit in the bank, you trust that it’s there, because the bank guarantees it. You don’t drive down to the bank every morning and ask to see your money. You know that it’s there because you have faith that your bank is trustworthy. When God says your eternal life is secure in heaven, you have faith that God’s word is trustworthy.
The security of our faith is not in our ability to put our mental processes to work, but in the God who created us. And so we can “with conviction” proclaim God is in control.
The other half of faith – “being certain of…” or “the conviction of things not seen.”
Most of us like things spelled out in black and white. We like it when we can verify it and test it and know it for real. Or do we assume something is real just because it meets our scientific, rational standards? Is the realm of our empirical senses the only reality? Our writer insists not.
As the author of Hebrews writes concerning faith, he thinks back over the generations of faithful men and women and thinks, “Where shall I start?” Back, back, until finally he is forced to the realization that faith takes us back before God ever breathed that first breath of life into Adam’s nostrils. It begins with the words, “In the beginning.” “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.”
The word used here and by Paul in Romans 1:20 translated “understand” describes our perception of things outside our physical realm – things scientists might scoff at and say, “if it can’t be tested it isn’t real.”
But there is reality beyond our fingertips, beyond our eyesight. And rather than a microscope or a telescope, faith is the lens through which we focus our sight on God working in his world and in our lives. I know God’s presence is with us today – but there is no temperature rise, no odor, no fluctuation in the lighting – it can’t be observed by our empirical senses. Does that make it an inferior, second-class category of knowledge? Not at all – science cannot prove everything that is worth knowing.
And when we walk by faith we are trusting in a God whom we cannot see – very much in the spirit with which the apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:8, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
It’s what Jesus was saying in John 20:29, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
When was the last time you put yourself in God’s hands, depended totally on him, gave him the opportunity to do something powerful in your life?
Most of us, most of the time, trap God into a little container that looks amazingly just like us, with our limitations and our weaknesses, and we never dream of taking on more than we can handle, because we look at this little weak, humanly image of God we’ve constructed and tell ourselves, “Oh, he could never do that!”
We need to shatter that image, break that mold we have constrained God in and free him and allow him to begin to work in our lives in a wonderful, powerful way.
We need to ask ourselves a probing question – “Why do I have such a difficult time being the man or woman of faith that God challenges me to be? A man of obedience like Abel, a godly man like Enoch.” We excuse ourselves and say, this is just a different time, a different world – faith was simpler back then. They didn’t have much to give up in the first place. Faith-walking wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But these days, it’s just more complicated. It would cost me too much to change, I have too many things tying me to this world that I’m too comfortable with, that I wouldn’t want to give up – for anyone.
Faithfulness is more than just a perfect attendance record at church. It is focusing all of life (ALL of life) through the lens of faith, with trust, depending on God. It is admitting the poverty of our own souls and our desperate need of God, acknowledging the inadequacy of our lives and the incompleteness of our understanding. It is allowing him to work in our lives, without me interrupting and saying, “Now God, just wait a minute, I think I have a better idea…”
How important is faith? Our writer says in verse 6, “Without faith it is impossible to please him.”
This kind of faith goes beyond the intellectual assent to his existence. It’s not enough just to say, “Well sure there’s a God – out there somewhere.”
Not only must you believe that he exists, but that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Our God is personal, he is active in our lives, he is concerned about your needs, but especially your deepest need – your need for him.
On which side of faith do you stand this morning? Those who shrink back and are destroyed, or those who believe and receive the reward of faith, the salvation of their souls?
What are you going to do, what would you have to change this morning to have this be true of your life?