This week continues our study of Hebrews 11 from last week, bringing the examples of faith to the incredible conclusion that God has prepared something better for us. How much more, then, should we walk by faith, not by sight.


Hebrews 11:17-40

Hebrews 9-13 (WBC)William Lane

Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner

Hebrews, John Owen

Sermon Transcript

I’m a sports fan, and I’m not that old, but I am now old enough to have accumulated a decent catalogue of sports memories. Years ago on my way to a friend’s bachelor party with a few other friends, I took up most of the car ride, whether they liked it or not, asking questions like this: “Ok, who’s the best running back of our lifetime?” Adrian Peterson is the answer, by the way. “Ok, who’s the best wide receiver of our lifetime?” Randy Moss, of course. Best quarterback, Tom Brady, and so on. I love thinking about who I’d have in my starting 5 if I were to make an all-NBA team from my lifetime, the best baseball players at each position, and so on. But I also get that this life is a vapor, and that’s about how important such questions are. They’re fun for a car-ride to a bachelor party, but not worth living for.


Today we’re picking Hebrews chapter 11 back up from last week, in a kind of “Part 2” to that sermon, because, well, Hebrews 11 is a long chapter with a lot of more important stuff in it than who the best athletes of the last 30 years are. Hebrews 11 does read something like those lists my friends and I were generating in the car years ago. Instead of recounting great athletes, though, it recounts examples of great faith. It started in the beginning of the chapter all the way back at the very beginning of the Bible, and the author ends the chapter this week all the way at the time of his present audience. But he doesn’t bring out these past examples of faith to say, “Man, weren’t they so much better than we are today?” like I do when I bring up Adrian Peterson or Randy Moss. Instead, he actually ends in verse 40 by saying that God has prepared something better for us; the idea being that if they had good reason to walk by faith, how much more do we? And yet, we still face the temptation to walk by sight, to think that God’s promises aren’t real because we can’t see how they will be fulfilled, to shy away from our allegiance to God’s people because we can see those who oppose us, and to just settle for making a nice home for ourselves in this world that we can see. So our author continues this week with these further examples of faith, that we might once again learn from them to Walk by faith, not by sight, and this week, in addition to the ways we learned last week to do that, we’ll encounter three more ways: Trust the promise, endure the opposition, and remember your home.


Trust the promise


Our passage for today picks up in the middle of our author’s summary of the story of Abraham. He says that by faith Abraham, when tested, offered up Isaac, and that was a big deal because in verse 18 he recounts the promise Abraham had received from God, that through Isaac his offspring would be named. God had promised to make Abraham the father of many nations, to give him and his offspring a land, and God had promised that in Abraham’s offspring, all the families of the earth would be blessed. But Abraham ended up having multiple children. So the question that arose was, through which of these children would God’s promise come to pass? Through which child would the offspring come, in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed? You can see how that’s an important question not only for Abraham, but for the world. Well, God told him in the passage quoted in verse 18: “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”


And then, God told him to kill Isaac. If you were with us when we were in the first few chapters of Leviticus earlier this year, God was basically commanding Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering to God. Here he was, this precious child through whom the promise God made to Abraham was to come, so much so that verse 17 even calls him Abraham’s only son, though as I said, we know Abraham had more sons. But this was the only son through whom God said the promise would continue. This was the only son through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed, the only son through whom the blessing of God could reach you and me, and now God told Abraham to put him to death. It was a test, verse 17 tells us, to see whether Abraham really trusted God to fulfill his promise, even when it seemed impossible for God to do so. Isaac hadn’t given birth to any children at that point; he was still living with his parents. How then could many nations, and blessings to all nations, come from him if he was dead?


Well, verse 19 tells us that Abraham considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead! Abraham was faced with two certainties: Through Isaac all the families of the earth would be blessed, AND God wanted Abraham to kill Isaac before Isaac had any children. At first glance, those seem contradictory, right? It seems like they can’t both be true, right? But to the eyes of faith, more possibilities emerge. Abraham gets to thinking, “How could both be true?” and he thinks, “Well, I don’t ultimately know, but here’s one possibility: After I kill him, God could just raise him from the dead, then get him a wife, then give him children, and then many nations will come, and then all the families of the earth will be blessed!” And look, remember what we saw last week in Hebrews 11:3 – “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God.” Remember from verses 11 and 12 that God also gave Abraham and his wife Sarah this child Isaac when Sarah was beyond the age of conception, and Abraham was as good as dead! If the God who promised Abraham that through Isaac all the families of the earth would be blessed and commanded Abraham to kill Isaac is also the God who created everything we see by his word and gave them a child when they were as good as dead, then isn’t it at least possible that same God could raise the dead? Of course, Abraham didn’t have visible proof that God could do that; there are no recorded instances of God doing so in the Bible prior to the time of Abraham. But faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. He walked by faith, not by sight.


Three ingredients in Abraham’s faith, then: Belief that the unseen God can do anything, the promise of God that through Isaac his offspring would be named, and the command of God to kill Isaac. Analogous situations for us, then, would be situations in which you are faced with a clear command of God and a clear promise of God that seem, at first glance, to be contradictory. God promises one thing, but it looks like, if I obey him, the promise won’t come to pass. Around the same time this letter was written, Christians faced the dilemma: We know we can’t worship the other gods that are revered in the Roman Empire, but if we don’t, we might lose our jobs and even be killed. If we lose our jobs, doesn’t that mean we’ll lose our platform to tell others about Jesus? If we’re dead, how will we enjoy the blessing God promised? And so today, if we simply obey all that God commands us, won’t plenty of non-Christians not like us for it?! Won’t they call us judgmental, bigoted, or hateful? And if that’s the case, how will they end up liking Jesus? Well, first of all, plenty of non-Christians will actually respect you if you do what God commands. But sure, some won’t, and Jesus promised us as much. But do you really think that would prevent God from saving them? If this God made everything we see simply by speaking, if this God is able even to raise the dead, don’t you think he is able to change the hearts and minds of people who might not like you for living the way he commands?


Or just consider it personally. Jesus promises to all who come to him that he will give them rest (Matt 11:28). He says he came that his sheep might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). He says he speaks the words he speaks that his joy might be in us, and that our joy might be full (John 15:11). Rest, abundant life, joy, those are all promises of God to every believer in Jesus Christ. But what happens when you’re in a marriage and you don’t feel happy? You’ve tried, but it just doesn’t seem to be working. It now feels like the only way for you to be happy would be to leave the marriage, and to stay in it would mean a life of misery, not one of abundant life, not one of rest, not one of joy! That can’t be what Jesus would want for you, right? But then you remember what Jesus said: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate…Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt 19:6, 9). How can you obey the command the promise still come true?


Abraham knew God promised that through Isaac his offspring would be named, but he knew God commanded him to kill him. How could he obey the command and the promise still come true? He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, and if God could do that, couldn’t God give you abundant life even in a hard marriage? Couldn’t God supply your every need according to his riches in Christ Jesus even if your obedience costs you your job? Couldn’t God feed you like he feeds the birds, who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, if you obey his command to give your money away to support the work of the gospel and the relief of the poor? Couldn’t God save your kids even when it seems to your sight that they aren’t particularly enjoying being raised in the discipline and instruction of Christ? Couldn’t Jesus build his church even when it seems like your neighbors aren’t interested in the gospel, we don’t have enough elders, the pastor’s going on sabbatical, and we can’t see a way to buy a better building? These three ingredients are a powerful combination: Faith in the power of God, trust in his promise, and obedience to his commandments. Do you believe he can do immeasurably more than all you ask or imagine? Listen to this word from God: “Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jer 32:27). Do you believe that? If so, you don’t show it by following your dreams. Sacrificing Isaac wasn’t Abraham’s dream. Here’s how you show it: You trust his promise, and you obey his commandments, even when it looks like the two contradict each other. You walk by faith, not by sight.


And, what do you know? Verse 19 goes on to say that Abraham did, figuratively speaking, receive him back from the dead. When the knife was in the air, God spoke to Abraham, stopped him, provided an animal for the burnt offering instead, and gave him back his son, who was as good as dead. And sure enough, Isaac then had children, Jacob and Esau, on whom he invoked blessings. Jacob also then had sons and blessed not only his sons, but the sons of Joseph, his grandsons. These blessings were expressions of faith that God would continue to fulfill this promise by giving them more children and ultimately bringing them into the land he had promised to give to Abraham. So Joseph at the end of his life made mention of the Exodus, when God would bring his people out of slavery in Egypt into the land that he’d promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was so sure of it that he told the people of Israel dwelling in Egypt at that time to make sure they took his bones with them when they finally entered the promised land! This is why we make plans for the future as a church! Jesus has nowhere promised to build this church, but Jesus has promised to build his church, and we are a part of that! So I as a pastor am to take the things I’ve heard and entrust them to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:2) because by faith I believe that the gospel will not end with me and our church. Christians panic like that today; they think “if we don’t make radical changes to how we do church or what we believe, Christianity will be gone in a generation.” No it won’t. Trust the promise. By faith share the gospel, go overseas to take the gospel there, help others grow to greater maturity in Christ, give your money, give your time, have kids and bring them up in the discipline and instruction of Christ, because in the end, Jesus wins! And how do we know that? We know it by faith in God’s promise. Walk by faith, not by sight by trusting the promise. And, endure the opposition.


Endure the opposition


With the mention of the exodus, in verse 23 our author turns to the story of Moses. The first example of faith in his story is that of his parents, who hid him for three months. That’s significant because the king of Egypt at that time, commonly called the Pharaoh, had issued an edict that all the male babies born to Israelites were to be killed. He hated God, so he hated God’s people, and this edict was an overflow of that hatred. Suffice it to say we can call that opposition. Remember that the promise to Abraham was of offspring in whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And what was Pharaoh trying to do? Kill Abraham’s offspring. But Moses’ parents, rather than caving in in the face of opposition and simply offering their child to be killed, hid him, and verse 23 tells us they were not afraid of the king’s edict. Their faith in God drove out their fear of man.


Then 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 enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. Let me fill in some blanks for you on Moses’ story. After Moses’ parents hid him for three months, when his mother realized she could hide him no longer, she put him in a raft and sent him down a river. In God’s providence, the lady who found him was Pharaoh’s daughter, who then brought him up in Pharaoh’s house. Moses was three months old; he had no choice in that matter. But when he grew up and had the choice to identify himself as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter or as one of the Israelites, he chose to identify himself as an Israelite. Consider those two options by sight:

Here’s how the treatment of the people of God, with whom Moses willingly identified, was described in Exodus 1:13-14 – “So [the Egyptians] ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.” Verse 25 says he chose that over “the fleeting pleasures of sin.” Pharaoh’s the most powerful guy in all of Egypt. Being the son of his daughter would have entitled Moses to immense wealth, and when you’re wealthier, you can simply afford more of the pleasures of sin. Even today, where some might be stuck on a free website for sin, the wealthier can pay for a live, highly attractive human with which to sin. While college students might have to get drunk on a 7$ bottle of Vlady, the wealthy can get regularly get drunk on the Macallan 50 year scotch. While the poor can steal to get dinner, the wealthy can oppress the poor to get better dinners! I mean, if what Moses wanted was the fast track to pleasure, Pharaoh’s house was the way to go, not identification with the people of God!


But our text points out to us what Moses also saw by faith: The pleasures of sin, while real, are fleeting. When you face the temptation to sin, you can’t tell yourself it won’t feel good. It probably will. But to walk by faith, and not by sight, you need to project further into the future. How will it feel after the act of sin is over, after the climax? The pleasure won’t last, but then what will follow if your conscience is still alive in any way is the sense of shame and guilt, especially if the Holy Spirit is at work in you. And then beyond even the negative consequences that typically do accompany sin in this life, even the longest-lasting pleasure sin has to offer will not last beyond death. Sin most certainly will not yield pleasure when you appear before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account for why you committed those sins with the life he gave you on this earth. Think of the classic experiment where a grown-up offers a kid 1 marshmallow to eat right now, or 5 marshmallows if they wait 5 minutes to eat them. What do the kids usually choose? The 1 marshmallow right now. And what happens after they finish it and realize they now can’t have 4 more marshmallows? Regret.


And so, verse 26 goes on to say that Moses considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt. So it’s not even like Moses looked at the treasures of Egypt and said, “Alright, here we go again with this whole God thing: I have to say no to all the stuff that would make my life really worth living because, you know, I believe in God and all, and I know that’s what he’d want me to do.” You know how many people think that’s what Christianity is? How many of you do? That’s not the life of faith described in Hebrews 11, or anywhere in the Bible. The life of faith is being able to really see, so much so that you see through the fleeting pleasures of sin, and by faith see that to be mistreated with the people of God, to bear the reproach of Christ, is greater wealth, why? Because, end of verse 26: He was looking to the reward! He was looking to the 5 marshmallows coming later, and so to say no to the one marshmallow available to him now was not some kind of big sacrifice. It’s hard in its own right; it requires patience and endurance, but it’s not a giving up of joy. It’s sacrificing a lesser, fleeting pleasure, for an infinite, eternal joy, what chapter 10 called “a better possession, and an abiding one” (10:34). That’s how you endure the opposition. You look to the reward. You realize that in this life, to identify with the people of God means you will be mistreated, but you also realize that to belong to the people of God means to be an heir of the reward God has promised to his people who endure to the end. It means to inherit an everlasting kingdom, an eternal city, to dwell in the presence of God forever, in whose presence there is fullness of joy, and pleasures at his right hand forevermore (Psalm 16:11).


Notice also that it was not an option for Moses to remain in Pharaoh’s house as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and to just kind of privately think of himself as one of God’s people. He publicly identified with God’s people, such that when they were mistreated, he was mistreated. The author even calls it the reproach of Christ because he sees the spiritual reality: The nations rage against the LORD and against his anointed (Psalm 2), and all Christ means is God’s anointed one. But in the days of Moses, the Christ was not yet manifest in the flesh, so when the Egyptians wanted to rage against the LORD and against his anointed, they raged against Moses and the Israelites. Yet he publicly identified with the people of God and bore that reproach, and God requires no less of us today. There is no such thing as a private, covert Christian. We have part 2 of our baptism and membership class today in part for this reason: Getting baptized and joining a church is the way someone publicly identifies with Christ formally under the New Covenant. But then consider your workplace, neighborhood, family, or friends. Do they even know you’re a Christian? If you’ve recently been converted, one of the first things you should do is tell others and invite them to come to your baptism. And even if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, consider ways to let people know you went to church this past weekend, or that you’re going to a Bible study tonight. Raise the banner. I think of how Meredith recently got an opportunity to read the Bible with one of her professors, and it began with her just mentioning that she went to church.


Back into our passage, we see in verse 27 that Moses left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, much like his parents did not fear the king’s edict, and why? He endured as one not only looking to the reward, but as one seeing him who is invisible. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. To walk by faith means you learn to live more in light of the God you cannot see than even of the king who you can see. There is a real God, and a real reward coming for those who walk by faith and not by sight. Don’t trade it for the fleeting pleasures of sin or all the wealth of Egypt. And, finally, remember your home.


Remember your home


After rattling off a few more examples of faith, our author comes to verse 32 and realizes this would go on for a while if he were to recount every example of faith before the coming of Christ. He does give us a little sampling of what men of faith from the past did through their faith starting in verse 33: They 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, and women received back their dead by resurrection. Like literally in the Bible we have stories of God’s people winning wars that according to sight, they had no business winning. David, specifically mentioned here, defeated a giant Philistine in battle without so much as a sword, but just a sling and a stone. Samson, mentioned here, tore a lion to pieces when “the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him” (Judges 14:6). The prophet Elijah and his successor Elisha each raised children from the dead for whom their mothers were grieving. By faith, the people of God can do some visibly spectacular things on earth, because their faith is in the God who made everything by his word and who has the power to raise the dead.


Again, we want to be clear about what God has and has not promised, and we want to focus our efforts on what he has clearly told us to do. But in the course of those things, we should live by faith in what God is capable of doing, recognizing that it is more than we can ask or imagine. I think of the book England Before and After Wesley, which is a history book recounting the seismic shifts in the culture of England after what we now call the First Great Awakening, a revival worked by the Spirit of God in America and England through men like John Wesley, who did not set out to start a revival, who were not naming and claiming promises God had not made, but who were applying themselves to the things they knew God had told them to do: prayer, fasting, preaching of the gospel, pursuit of personal holiness, and so on, and through that, God led thousands of people to faith in Christ, and the very culture in which those people lived changed for the better. Education for the masses improved, health care improved, the poor and orphans were better cared for, laws changed, literacy increased; even cruelty to animals was more vociferously fought against, and the abolition of slavery soon followed in England, though America was much later on that one. Think further back to the early church: When we come to the book of Acts, there were 120 of them, but then in Acts 2, when the apostle Peter preached at Pentecost, there were added that day about 3000 souls (Acts 2:41). God saved 3000 people through one sermon that day! In the centuries that followed the churches faced persecution from the Jewish leadership of their day and then especially from the Roman Empire, and yet after a couple hundred years, over half the citizens of the empire had professed faith in Christ, been baptized, and added to the membership of a church! And, as in England in the 1700s, the culture there changed.


Now, God doesn’t do that sort of thing everywhere at all times. These stories are recorded in Hebrews 11 because they are not the norm. And it’s important to say that, because no church of 30 that’s faithful day-in and day-out should feel like God is somehow less pleased with them because they don’t see the same visible fruit that we see in the book of Acts or that we saw in the First Great Awakening. Again, we live by faith in what God has promised, not what he hasn’t. And yet, at the same time, it is possible in saying that to lose sight of what God is capable of doing. Brothers and sisters, let’s not lose sight of that. Speaking of those who walked by faith, in the 1700s William Carey, a missionary to India and considered the father of modern missions, said that we should “Expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.” Would it be too hard for God to lead many of our neighbors in this city to faith in Christ if we would simply be willing to share the gospel clearly, boldly, and respectfully with them? Would it be too hard for God to raise up new elders, preachers, and missionaries from this church? Would it be too hard for God to change the culture of Philadelphia into something more just, more humane, more beautiful as a fruit of individuals coming to faith in Christ? Would you consider how he might want to use you in that? Expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.


And keep reading after verse 35. In verses 33-35 we have these incredible stories of what God did to provide visible victories on earth for his people through faith. But then continuing in verse 35, we read of those who by faith were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise to a better life. We read of others who 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, wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. Yep, those stories are all in your Bibles too: Jeremiah was thrown in a well to suffer, but refused to stop preaching God’s word to gain his release, because he was looking forward to rising to a better life. Elijah went about in animal skins, and David wandered about in dens and caves as he fled first from Saul, and then from his own son, Absalom. What enabled them to do that? They remembered their true home. They were those “of whom the world was not worthy” verse 38 says. That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? It’s as though they considered a nice life for themselves on earth compared to the prospect of rising again to a better life, and they said, “If I can have the latter, why settle for the former? If I can have a kingdom that cannot be shaken, why make a home for myself in this world?” If you can invest your money in heaven, why hoard it all on earth? This world simply is not worthy of those who are citizens of the world to come.


And yet all these, both those who through faith were sawn in two, and those who through faith conquered kingdoms, did not receive what was promised, verse 39 says. That’s the thing to realize. However great the things God can accomplish through faith on this earth, however great the things verses 33-34 are, they aren’t what was promised! They aren’t ultimate. We want to see God save people, raise up more elders, preachers, and missionaries, and change the very culture of this city. We pray and work and give to see those very things happen! But don’t set your hopes for the future on those things. In God’s providence, we don’t know which end he has ordained for our individual lives on earth or for our church in Philadelphia: Will it be conquering kingdoms or getting sawn in two? At different points in your life or in our church’s life, it’s typically some of either. The early church got sawn in two before it conquered an empire. But in either case, whatever God ordains, our hope is set on what God promised, something that all these who were commended for their faith nonetheless did not receive.


And the reason is because, verse 40: God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. All throughout Hebrews our author has been at pains to point out how the law that God gave his people before the coming of Christ did not make them perfect. They were sinful, and the blood of bulls and goats, though God himself instituted it, could not take away their sins. Instead they pointed forward to something else, something better, as did the entire Old Testament. Abraham offered up his only son and received him back from the dead figuratively, but God provided something better for us when he offered up his only son, and then received him back from the dead literally, never to die again. By that offering Jesus Christ has perfected for all time all those who draw near to God through him, so that we have now obtained the perfection of the conscience, the cleansing of sin, and the access to the presence of God that even these incredible examples of faith did not have in their lives. They may have conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, stopped the mouths of lions, and so forth, but they never drew near to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with their hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and their bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:22), and that’s precisely what God has provided for us.


How much more, then, should we willingly accept torture in the name of Christ, so that we might rise again to a better life. How much more, then, should we be willing to be mistreated with the people of God rather than enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. How much more, then, should we walk by faith, and not by sight.