Studies in Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter
22. Hebrews 11:1-16 - Faithful Heroes
Hebrews 11 is often called the faith chapter. It describes how various people responded in faith to what God said to them. But these stories are not told as historical trivia — they encourage us to have faith in our situations, too.
An introduction to faith (verses 1-3)
Chapter 10 has just told the readers that God wants his people to “live by faith” (10:38). He wants them to persevere, to do his will and be blessed (verse 36). Christians are people “who believe and are saved” (verse 39). Chapter 11 then describes what faith is like: “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Ancient orators sometimes gave a brief definition of a word they wanted to talk about. This is not a complete definition, but it highlights one characteristic of faith.
Commentators disagree about the precise meaning of the Greek words used here: Is faith a feeling of being sure (as the NIV has it), or is it the “substance” (NKJ) or content of our hope? However, the author is not trying to define faith, but to describe one of the results it has in our lives. His point is that faith means believing and acting on something we cannot see. This is the quality of faith that the author especially wants the readers to imitate.
“This is what the ancients were commended for.” The element of faith is a thread that runs throughout the history of God’s people, and the author brings it down to the present day by adding, “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” (verse 3, referring to Genesis 1:3 and Psalm 33:6).
From the very beginning to the present moment, faith is needed. Creation itself shows that just because something can’t be seen, doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. The author does not say that God made everything out of nothing (that was a later development in Christian theology) — he only says that he made the visible out of the invisible; that is the specific contrast he wants to make. Our future is based not on what we see today, but on something we do not see: God.
Abel and Enoch (verses 4-6)
With that brief introduction, the author starts to give examples: “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.” Genesis tells us very little about Abel: He brought an offering, and God looked on him with favor (Genesis 4:4). It does not tell us why his offering was better than Cain’s (in ancient Israel, grain was just as legitimate an offering as a lamb was), and it says nothing about faith. Nevertheless, the author of Hebrews believes that if God was pleased, then Abel must have had faith.
The next example is Enoch: “By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5, quoting Genesis 5:24). Again, Genesis says little about Enoch, but Jewish legends said that he was taken into heaven, and this is reflected in the author’s comments — that Enoch did not die. God took him because he “walked with God,” which presumably included faith. We do not know exactly what he believed, or what he did.
The readers probably do not need any proof that Enoch had faith, because they already know that Enoch was one of the “good guys.” The author is not trying to argue his case with logic here — he is painting a picture, presenting faith not as an unusual demand, but as normal for the people of God.
The readers already know that faith is good, but the author is using his skill as an orator to build positive emotions for faith, when the readers already face possibly unpleasant consequences for having faith in Jesus Christ. For Abel, faith meant an early death; for Enoch it meant the opposite. Either way, the people of God need faith.
After these two introductory examples, the author states the lesson he wants to highlight: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” The author reminds his readers that God rewards the faithful — those who seek him. Although we cannot see God, we have evidence that he exists. In addition to supernatural rewards, faith has natural rewards in the here and now: Faith feels better than fear.
Noah (verse 7)
The author emphasizes his point more by beginning each sentence with “by faith”: “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.” For Noah, the author has more biblical information: God warned Noah about a flood, told him to build an ark, and Noah obeyed and saved himself and his family (Genesis 6–9). Noah didn’t really condemn the world (God did that, based on their behavior), but his faithful example was a stark contrast to how evil the world had become — no one repented even after 120 years of warning.
By his faith Noah became an heir of righteousness — he is the first person in the Bible to be called righteous (Genesis 7:1). He was considered right with God because he was faithful. The Greek word pistis can mean either faith or faithfulness, and Hebrews often uses it in the sense of faithfulness, or obedience, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether the author is focusing on belief or behavior. (Although Paul sometimes uses the same word in the sense of faithfulness, he usually refers to belief.) Belief leads to obedience, and both are needed. Noah did what God told him to do because he trusted God — he believed that God would save Noah and his family if they built an ark.
The example of Abraham
Hebrews 11 is a description of faith in action — how God’s people have always lived by faith. In this chapter, several verses are devoted to the example of Abraham, who is called “the father of the faithful.” Genesis 15:6 tells us that he “believed the Lord.” Hebrews 11:8 says, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (see Genesis 12:1).
The author’s purpose is not to prove that Abraham had faith (the readers already knew that), but to give examples that 1) illustrate a life of faith and 2) encourage the readers to have similar faith when they are pressured to abandon Christianity. So the author selects situations from the life of Abraham that have some similarity to situations the readers are in. Just as Abraham had been called out of Mesopotamia, they had been called out of Judaism toward a promise they could not see, and they obeyed and went.
“By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:9). It is possible that the readers had physically left their homeland and moved to a new city, but it is more likely that the author is suggesting that the readers felt like strangers religiously. They probably met in a house church instead of a synagogue; they did not have a feeling that they had a permanent place. Welcome to the club, the author says. Abraham felt like that, too, even when he was in the Promised Land.
God does not want us to view this world as a permanent home, because he has something better for us. We are encouraged to see the future with Abraham: “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (verse 10). Canaan had many cities with foundations, but they were all destined to fall, because they were built on physical foundations, and the cities were filled with violence and idolatry.
Abraham was looking forward to something far more permanent than stone. Genesis says nothing about this, but our author believes that Abraham had religious motives that were similar to his own. We should look to the future reward, not to the circumstances we are in right now.
Verse 11 has a translation difficulty because the sentence seems to have Sarah as the subject, but the Greek verb refers to the father’s role in reproduction. Some translations choose to put Sarah as a parenthetical thought (Even though Sarah was old, Abraham was made able to father children…). Others, such as the NIV, make the verb appropriate to a mother’s role: “And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.”
Sarah laughed; so did Abraham (Genesis 17:17; 18:12). They both thought they were too old to have children, but God blessed them with a child anyway. Abraham even had children years later, after Sarah died (Genesis 25:1-2). The author’s point is that God did what he had promised, so we should also consider God faithful, and trust him to keep the promises of salvation he has made to us.
“And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (Hebrews 11:11, referring to Genesis 22:17). Just as God made the universe from something that could not be seen, he made the Israelites from something humanly impossible.
The author is not done with his examples yet, and is not even done with Abraham, but he interrupts his list of faith-accomplishments to summarize some lessons from the story for the benefit of his readers. “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own” (Hebrews 11:12-13).
The point: We do not receive all the promises of God in this life. Although we are given eternal life, we still die. But the gift is real, and the promise will be kept. We have to trust God on it. (We certainly can’t bring it about on our own power!) We look to God, not this world, for meaning and purpose in life. Our current life is a temporary training time. We do not “belong” in this society and culture; our permanent home and allegiance is the kingdom of God, and that is where our hopes should be.
“If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (verses 15-16).
As far as we know, Abraham never had a desire to go back to Mesopotamia, but he could have gone if he wanted to. He could have turned his back on God’s promises, but he did not. In contrast, the readers of Hebrews were tempted to go back to where they had come from — back into Judaism. Don’t do it, the author seems to say. There is a better country waiting for you through Christ. His kingdom is calling, and God will be pleased if you are faithful, and he is planning on your presence in his kingdom.
Things to think about
- If we are certain that something will happen, but it doesn’t, is it still right to call it faith? (verse 1)
- The universe is visible, but do we have visible evidence that it was created? That it was created by a command from God? (verse 3)
- How can Abel speak even when he is dead? (verse 4)
- Abel is dead, but Enoch did not experience death (verse 5). Why this difference, and where are they now?
- Is it important for us to believe that God will reward us? (verse 6)
- In what way do people today “condemn the world” by having faith? (verse 7)
- When God called me, did I understand where I was going? (verse 8)
- How “at home” do I feel in this world? (verse 9)
- Am I prepared to die before receiving the promises? (verse 12)
- Have I ever wanted to go back to where I came from? (verse 15)
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD