Studies in Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter
24. Hebrews 11:17-28 - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses
It is easy to have faith when everything is going well. But faith is needed most when we face danger. The “faith chapter” continues with stories of how people remained faithful in life-threatening situations.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
The roll call of faith resumes in verse 17, with Abraham’s most severe trial: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned’” (verses 17-18, referring to Genesis 21:12 and 22:1-18).
Abraham could not see how God would keep his promise, but in faith he did what God told him to do. He did not know how God would do it, but he guessed at one possibility: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham himself had once been “as good as dead” (verse 11); the same God who gave him life could also give Isaac life. When Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, he told his servants that “we” will return (Genesis 22:5); he did not expect Isaac to stay dead.
As the story turns out, however, God provided a substitute sacrifice (just as he later provided his own Son as a substitute for us), and Hebrews concludes: “and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” In Abraham’s mind, Isaac was as good as dead, but he was rescued from it.
The author has given many details about Abraham; now he picks up the pace with a rapid-fire summary of three descendants: “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones” (Hebrews 11:20-22, referring to Genesis 27:27-40; 48:10-20;50:25).
Isaac and Jacob believed in the promise of God, and passed it on to their children. Jacob, blind and on his deathbed, blessed Ephraim and Manasseh — acting on faith, not sight. Joseph also acted on the promise that God gave Abraham. Although Joseph was prince of Egypt, he knew that his descendants would later move to Canaan, and so he directed that his bones should also be moved. It was a reminder to the Israelites that Canaan was the land God promised to them.
Moses (verses 23-28)
The author takes several episodes from the life of Moses. He starts with Amram and Jochebed: “By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.” Moses’ parents saw that God had a special purpose for this boy, and they risked their lives to keep him (Exodus 2:1-10). The lesson implied for the readers (who seem to be facing a threat of persecution) is that they should not be afraid of a government edict, either.
“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.” Moses turned down a privileged position, and chose instead to be part of the people of God. He gave up the easy life and suffered. If the readers have faith like Moses, they will be faithful, even if they are persecuted.
“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.” The readers were also facing disgrace for the sake of Christ. Even if they might lose a lot of money, the choice should be clear, because God offers a far more valuable reward. It’s in the future, but it’s worth waiting for, even if we have to suffer for our allegiance to Christ.
“By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” The first time Moses left Egypt, he was afraid (Exodus 2:14), but the author here is probably referring to a later time, when Moses had courage to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. (There are several parts of Hebrews 11 that are not in chronological order. The author is giving a motivational speech, not a history lesson, and he is selective about which events he reports, and in what order.) The point for the readers: Do not be afraid of the king — keep God in the picture. Moses saw God at the burning bush, but for us he is invisible.
Things to think about
- When faced with death, do I think of God’s promises? (verses 21-22)
- In what circumstances would I choose pain over pleasures? (verse 25)
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD