Persevering by Faith
Topic: Perseverance of the Saints Passage: Hebrews 11:1–40
A popular atheist named Sam Harris once wrote this about faith: “Faith is generally nothing more than the permission religious people give one another to believe things strongly without evidence.” In saying this, Harris pits faith against reason. Oddly enough, Christians have done the same. Faith is a “bling leap,” some will say. One publisher called faith “a momentous decision…that lies outside reason.” The Bible, however, does not pit faith against reason.
Mere reason may not be sufficient for salvation, but the Scriptures indicate that reason plays an indispensable role in understanding what we ought to place our faith in. Historically, the church has said that genuine faith includes three aspects. There is the content of faith: who or what are we trusting in. There is the conviction (or certainty) that the content is actually true. Then lastly, there is reliance. Not only do you know it to be true; you trust in it with all your being, such that it affects the way you act in all of life.
So faith is not contrary to reason; it’s perfectly reasonable given how God has revealed himself in creation and in redemption. But here’s where the Christian needs extra help. Such faith is not always easy to maintain. We live in a world filled with trial and suffering and evil that tempt us to throw away our faith. We too are weak and frail—we get tired and confused—sometimes we’re tempted to throw away our confidence in the Lord…to stop acting on God’s word to us.
Why is Hebrews 11 here?
Hebrews exists to keep you from doing that. These Christians are right there with you, feeling the tug to just throw in the towel. But his point throughout has been, “Genuine faith doesn’t do that.” True faith endures, because it knows God has secured a hope for us in Christ. We can’t see God, but his mighty deeds in creation, in history, in his Son give us certainty that he will save. So don’t throw away your confidence, but have faith in the Lord and preserve your soul.
But what does it look like to have faith? Christians will sometimes say, “You just need to have faith;” and I’m asking, “What does that even mean? What does it look like? How does it act?” That’s where Hebrews 11 enters the picture. Not only does it describe faith; example after example show us exactly what faith looks like.
That’s very fitting for this letter. What did he say in 6:12? He writes “so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Hebrews 11 lists numerous examples of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. Imitate their faith, he’s saying.
The other reason it’s here is that he just quoted Habakkuk 2:4, which says, “but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” That’s serious! If you shrink back, God has no pleasure in you. I don’t want to shrink back! I want to live by faith. So show me what it looks like to live by faith, to endure by faith. The next 40 verses do just that. That’s why Hebrews 11 is here…
What does Hebrews 11 say?
I considered preaching chapter 11 in shorter chunks. But by doing so, we lose some of the rhetorical power. These examples come like hammer blows—one after the other pushes us into persevering by faith. So, let’s now answer the question, “What does Hebrews 11 say?” We’ll do that by reading all 40 verses with a few comments as we go; and then I’ll come back with some conclusions about faith.
Verses 1-3, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” That’s the intro.
Faith is the “assurance of things hoped for.” Last time we saw that word was 3:14, and there the ESV translates it “confidence.” Faith is the inner certainty produced by God’s objective work in Christ. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God secured for us a hope. In Hebrews, it’s the hope of eternal rest in God’s presence. We can’t see it yet fully, but we know with certainty that it’s real.
Faith is the “conviction of things not seen.” What things not seen? Things like the new heaven and earth. Things like God’s heavenly dwelling place with Jesus sitting at God’s right hand. We can’t see them now—but there’s proof in the way God has already worked that tells us it’s there. We can’t see it yet, but all over the pages of your Bible the evidence is written that the future hope is coming. In part, it’s already here in things like the Holy Spirit and forgiveness and the church.
Or, consider the very basic point that God himself is invisible—we can’t see him. But he has revealed himself in the things that have been made. We understand that the universe was created by the word of God. What is seen in this world was not made from things that are visible; God made it all by his word. His word is the invisible that made the visible; and none of us witnessed that happen. But we can look at the created order—the galactic greatness, earth’s fine tuning, the irreducible complexities—and we can clearly perceive God’s eternal power and divine nature (Rom 1:20).
So, fundamental to faith is assurance that the things hoped for are real, and conviction that the things not seen are real, and that moves us to do the will of God. Our believing that it’s real doesn’t make it real. It’s just so real that we can’t help but believe it. We’re no longer suppressing the truth, but living in accordance with it. Wherever that faith was present in the saints of old, God commended them.
Speaking of God commending them, go now to verse 4, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” That is, God still speaks through Abel’s example. “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it’s impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
If you turn back to Genesis 4-5, nothing tells us Abel had faith and Cain did not. Nothing says that Enoch had faith either. How then does the writer of Hebrews know these men acted in faith? Because he knows that without faith it’s impossible to please God. Since both of these mean pleased God, they must have had faith. On the flip side, Cain must not have had faith because God wasn’t pleased with his sacrifice. God isn’t pleased by people just going through the motions. He’s pleased only with faith.
Remember 10:38—“if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him”? God does take pleasure in Enoch. What’s the difference? Faith, a faith that walks with God, a faith that squares with reality: God exists, God rewards those who seek him. God is not pleased with the person who rejects that reality. But if you come to him acknowledging his reality; if you come to him as Giver when you’re desperate, as Bread when you’re hungry, as Living Water when you’re thirsty, as Mighty when you’re weak, as Rewarder who alone can satisfy all your longings—God is really pleased.
Verse 7, “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” He didn’t yet see the judgment. He simply took God at his word. So God made him an heir.
Verse 8, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” That doesn’t mean faith is blind. Yes, Abraham left not knowing where, but he did know Who. Genesis 12:1 says, “Go from your country…to the land I will show you.” He knew God. He trusted God, even though he didn’t know where. God was enough.
Verse 9, “By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” Are you noticing a pattern? He couldn’t see the city with his physical eyes. But he was so confident of its reality that it shaped his living arrangements. He chose camping instead of a cabin. Why? The land of promise wasn’t the goal. Something better was coming.
Verse 11, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” Again, we’re working here with what can’t yet be seen—offspring. Even more impossible, offspring from an old man and a dead womb. Sarah even laughed the first time she heard it. But eventually, through faith, God called into existence things that do not exist. Innumerable offspring.
Verse 13, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” And there’s God’s commendation once again.
Why is God not ashamed to be called their God? Because even though they never received the promises, they greeted them from afar. They trusted his word. They lived like strangers and exiles in Fort Worth, because they knew God had a better homeland for them. They had the assurance of things hoped for. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God. He wants those kinds of people in his city.
Verse 17, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” You can see this play out in Genesis 22. They reach Mount Moriah, Abraham tells his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and we will come again to you.” How can we come again, if Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac? Hebrews 11:19 answers that: “he considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead…” What faith! What resolve to take God at his word and obey!
Verse 20, “By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.” He barely has the strength to hold himself up, but he worships God.
“By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones. By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.” Faith fears God above all. When powers demand the slaughter of your children, you stand and say, “No way! We will not kill our children and we will not support anybody who says its okay.”
Verse 24, “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” Very likely this recalls the time when Moses defended the oppressed Hebrew and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. Pharaoh’s daughter raised Moses. He likely had everything at his disposal—family, riches, safety, shelter. “Just stay with the Egyptians, and you’ve got it made.” Instead, he chooses mistreatment with God’s people. How? Verse 26, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”
We’re going to come back to that in terms of our fight against sin. For now let’s go to verse 27, “By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.” Again, we’re seeing here the “conviction of things not seen.” Verse 28, “By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” He’s picking up the pace.
“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” What a list of heroes! The world may have judged them unworthy, unfit to exist here. But that’s not what God thinks. God thinks the world was unworthy of them.[i]
He goes on: “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised…” Now, according to verse 33 they obtained some promises, temporary ones God fulfilled during their day. The promises in view here are those of the new age, those bound up with the coming of Jesus, bound up with the new covenant. They didn’t receive those. Why? Verse 40, “since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
All the saints of old have been waiting for a particular moment to come, a particular Savior to come and make them whole before God. That moment doesn’t happen apart from God saving and perfecting us under the new covenant in Christ. That should floor you! They didn’t know the fullness of what we now know in Christ, and yet they obeyed. They endured. How much more ought we to trust in the Lord now that Christ has come to fulfill the promises of old!
Where is Hebrews 11 pointing?
These examples are, in themselves, evidence that history really is heading somewhere. God has designed all of history to culminate in the perfection of his people through the work of Jesus. That’s where Hebrews 11 is pointing.
Have you noticed how he follows the storyline of God’s saving plan? From creation, through Noah and Abraham and his descendants. Then through Moses and the Exodus and into the Promised Land where God saves a Gentile prostitute. Then on to the judges and David and the prophets, some of which had to persevere through an awful exile. Prophets like Daniel who shut the mouths of lions. All the way until he gets to us in verse 40—“that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
We won’t get to it today, but next time we’re in Hebrews we will hear it: Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith. “That apart from us they should not be made perfect”—Jesus is the perfecter of our faith. What we have laid hold of in part by faith, what all the saints of old laid hold of in part by faith, what they greeted from afar—Jesus brings all that to its completion through his life, death, resurrection, and return. The progression of Hebrews 11 is all pointing to God’s finished work in Jesus. Faith always looks to what Jesus does for us.
What do we learn from Hebrews 11?
What, then, do we learn from Hebrews 11? I will only scratch the surface; but here are a few things we learn about faith. One, faith takes God at his word. How do we know the universe was created by the word of God? God’s word in Genesis 1:1. He revealed it to us. Also, God warned Noah concerning the flood—Noah acted on that word. God called Abraham from his country—Abraham trusted that word. In verse 12, Sarah considered him faithful who had promised. God doesn’t lie. He does what he says.
Verse 22 says Joseph mentioned the exodus and gave directions concerning his bones. That’s from Genesis 50:24-25. How did Joseph know about the exodus? Because God told Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob about it. Joseph took God at his word.
We too must take God at his word. That’s crucial to the faith that saves. That may sound like a very basic piece of discipleship. But we all need to be reminded of it. Even these Christians needed to be reminded. A good track record in the past did not exempt them from hearing this reminder in the present. Despite past faithfulness, they were starting to distrust God’s word: “Was it really all that true? Did God actually bring a better covenant? Is it necessary to be so explicit about Jesus?”
Hebrews exists to show you that God is faithful to keep his word. When he speaks, he follows through. His acts in history prove it. Take him at his word.
Faith of this kind—faith in God’s word, faith in Christ—also unites all kinds of broken, weak, and sinful people to the God who saves and works wonders. Are you shocked at all by the examples he chooses? Some we don’t know much about, like Abel and Enoch. But Noah? He barely got off the ark and drank himself silly. Abraham had his own doubts. He also put his wife in a precarious position. Like father like son, Isaac did the same. Jacob was a deceiver. Moses was forbidden to enter the Promised Land. The people of Israel complained all the time. Gideon tested the Lord. Samson had little self-control. Jephthah made a foolish vow. David stole his best man’s wife and then murdered her husband. What kinds of heroes are these really?
But that’s part of the point—they aren’t the heroes in the story. God is the hero; and they are listed here for trusting him at key moments in his plan. Are you broken? Are you weak? Are you sinful? Then you’re a perfect candidate for God’s grace to work mightily in your life. He uses broken, weak, and sinful people to achieve his plan and purpose. We aren’t deserving to participate.
All we deserve is judgment. But he chooses to save and work wonders through broken, weak, and sinful people who cast themselves upon his mercies. It’s not about how great your faith is; it’s about how great the object of your faith is, Jesus Christ. Faith is believing he is the great one. God works through these kinds of people. God can work through you too as you turn to his Son for daily help.
Three, we are saved by faith alone, but not a faith that remains alone. That’s not original to me, but has been confessed by Christians throughout the centuries. We see it play out in Hebrews 11. True faith in Christ inevitably leads to obedience, to good works, to faithfulness, to endurance in doing the will of God. These individuals were commended not simply because they heard the word and believed it was true; they acted on that word. That word shaped their choices and priorities.
In reverent fear, Noah constructed the ark. By faith Abraham obeyed and went out. By faith Abraham offered up Isaac. Moses’ parents hid him as a baby for three months. By faith Moses left Egypt. He kept the Passover. The people crossed over. By faith Rahab hid the spies. True faith leads to acting on God’s word, or it’s not true faith.
Test yourself here. Do you read the word simply to know more about it, simply to know more about the God revealed in it? The key word is “simply” in that question. Part of reading the word is to know more about the God revealed in it. But faith will read the word not only to know the only God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ but to obey what he says. Meaning, when he says “I have all authority…Go and make disciples of all nations,” we take him at his word and do it. When he says “Draw near to me and I will draw near to you,” we take him seriously. When he says “Cast your anxieties on me because I care for you,” we believe him and do it. When he says “care for orphans and widows in their distress,” we obey. Faith responds that way.
Four, faith will aim to please God, no matter the results in this life. Faith recognizes that obedience to God is paramount regardless of the outcomes God may bring. Did you notice the different outcomes listed in verses 33-38? Some conquered kingdoms, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Yeah! Triumphant! We read those stories from the Old Testament saints and we think, “That’s how I want God to work through me! I will trust in him to do that through me!”
Maybe he will work through you in a mighty way like that. But maybe he will choose to give you this instead. Some were tortured. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn in two. They were killed with the sword. Destitute. Afflicted. Mistreated. Wandering about in deserts and mountains and in dens and caves of the earth. If that’s God’s outcome for you, will you still trust him? Will you still aim to please him? Will you walk with him?
I was in Daniel 3 yesterday. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow and worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. Their response is perfect: “…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” That’s how faith talks. “Even if we burn, we will worship God, not you.”
Fifth, faith will treasure Christ above the fleeting pleasures of sin. Verse 24 again, “By faith Moses…refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” It’s not an overstatement to say that this is the key to obedience and sanctification from sin. The pleasures of sin are real, but they are fleeting. Moses knew the pleasures of God in Christ were superior, more rewarding.
When we see them truly, the pleasures with God will compel us to renounce the lesser, fleeting pleasures of sin. After all, “in the Lord’s presence there is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore”—Psalm 16:11. You cannot defeat temptations—I don’t care if it’s sexual temptation or money or power or fame or fear-mongering or various idolatries. You cannot defeat temptation for very long or with God-glorifying results by white-knuckle duty and list-keeping.
True and complete repentance will come only when you find the superior pleasures in God to silence the false promises of sin. This is what Thomas Chalmers once called “the expulsive power of a new affection.”[ii] By grace, new affection for Christ replaces and drives away the old affection for sin. Or, borrowing from C. S. Lewis, don’t go on like a half-hearted creature ignorantly fooling around with mud pies in a slum when you’ve been offered a holiday at the sea.[iii] Go for what’s truly glorious, God!
Or, as Paul puts it elsewhere, transformation into the image of Christ comes by beholding the glory of the Lord. So, delight yourself in the Lord. Lose everything to gain superior joy in Christ’s kingdom. Follow Jesus’ commands not as bare commands but for his very joy to be in you and your joy to be made full in him. Cultivate a heart for the glory of God. The way to fight sin isn’t by looking at the sin but by looking at God’s glory in Christ. He is the true and abiding possession. He is the ultimate Treasure.
The more we see God as he is, the more we comprehend his greatness, the more we satisfy ourselves with his pleasures, the more the pleasures of sin will become distasteful, unattractive, and unwanted.
Last observation: faith leads to a life shaped by the future hope secured for us by Christ. The path of obeying Christ will mean we stand out as strangers and exiles on the earth. Meaning, your life won’t make sense to the rest of the world who only live for the here and now. For example, let’s say you’ve been offered a higher position at work. You’re very qualified to accept it. But the commitment level of the new position will mean you no longer have the time to invest in your family; or in your church; or in a ministry to the poor. Knowing that, you choose not to accept the promotion so that you can keep investing in the ways Christ has called you to invest.
Or, maybe you’re at the top of that ladder already, but you choose to live well beneath your means, so that you can give more generously to others in need; or, so that you can reinvest that money in fairer wages for your employees. Or, maybe you’re just getting started. You might say you’re at the bottom of the ladder. Perhaps your job isn’t all that pleasant; it wouldn’t be your first choice. But every day you clock-in with a heart of thanksgiving, knowing the Lord is your ultimate provider. You do your work not to please man, but ultimately to please the Lord. You want his reward, his praise, more than anything else. You will be a stranger in America.
Wouldn’t the saints in 10:34 look pretty strange too? Remember them from last week? They had compassion on those in prison and joyfully accepted the plundering of their property. When you know you have a better possession and an abiding one, you will be a stranger here. When you lose everything in the path of obedience and still rejoice in the Lord, people will look at you like you’re an alien.
But that’s what faith in Christ will do to us. Faith loosens our love-affair with this world’s stuff, so that we can freely, willingly lay it all down for his sake. Don’t get to comfortable here. Desire a better country, beloved, a heavenly one; and God will not be ashamed to be called your God. He has prepared for you a city. In the path of obedience, we may lose everything here. But no one can take away that city from those who belong to Christ. Persevere by faith. Only his city will last in the end. Only his city will truly satisfy.
[i] O’Brien, Hebrews, 445.
[ii]Chalmers developed this point while preaching from 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). The sermon is available for download at https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/Chalmers,%20Thomas%20-%20The%20Exlpulsive%20Power%20of%20a%20New%20Af.pdf.
[iii]C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 1-2.