In preparation for today’s reading, have a look at the following video of the famous “marshmallow test.”
The original marshmallow test was run by psychologists from Stanford University back in the 1960s. It was investigating our ability to put off short-term benefit in order to gain a greater benefit in the future.
In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer wants us all to pass God’s version of the marshmallow test. It’s a test in which the stakes are much higher. In place of the first marshmallow lies respect, prosperity, and safety as citizens of our earthly cities. We can have that now. Or we can wait for something far greater than just a second marshmallow – a “city that is to come” (Heb 13:4) that endures forever. Even if that means, much of the time, suffering persecution or foregoing benefits in the short term.
Hebrews is an appeal for us to do what is to our ultimate advantage – persevere in faithfulness to God – even if it may be to our temporary disadvantage.
In chapter 10 (earlier this week) the writer contrasted the benefits of what Christ has done for us with the fate that awaits those who reject him. He concluded (yesterday) with a reminder of the Hebrews’ own example in the not-too-distant past, where they put up with temporary shame and suffering for the sake of Christ, in order to inspire them to faithfulness.
In chapter 11, we continue this theme: but this time inspiring them reciting the examples of Israel’s “heroes” of faithfulness.
Now we could spend many, many days going through this chapter, reminding ourselves of the Old Testament stories in detail. I’ll provide links in case you’re hazy on them. But for the original hearers of this sermon, the stories were very familiar and didn’t need rehearsing. And the effect is in the accumulation of the stories rather than in each individual one in isolation. So we’ll move through it with some brief comments in order to get the big picture.
We start with a definition of “faith”:
11:1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
The word “faith” (pistis) carries a bit more weight in Greek than in English. We have a range of words we use to translate pistis depending on the context: belief, faith, trust, and loyalty. The people listed in this chapter are commended for their pistis: their belief in who God is, their trust that he could deliver on his promises (no matter how outlandish), and who put this trust into action through loyal obedience (despite the temporary consequences).
11:2 This is what the ancients were commended for.
The fundamental act of faith is to believe that God created this world we live in, and to be loyal to our creator.
11:3 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.
(Incidentally, every time you see “by faith” in this chapter, you could also translate it, “in trust.” That phrase is repeated to introduce each new character, giving a repetitive sound to this chapter as it’s read out; and showing that the repeated pattern is the significant point being made, more than the individual details.)
11:4 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.
Abel displayed a trusting, loyal, obedient response by giving the best of his produce to God, in contrast with Cain (Genesis 4). He put loyalty to God ahead of temporary gain (keeping the best for himself). He persevered in gratitude, like our writer wants for his audience.
11:5 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.
Enoch (Gen 5:21-24) pleased God by being loyal to him, and got to be with God without experiencing death.
11:6 And 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.
Faith is shown to be belief in the existence of God and trust in the (greater) reward he gives to those who are loyal (“earnestly seek him”). If you think I’m being repetitive already, you ain’t seen nothing yet…
11:7 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.
What fool builds a giant boat in his front yard for several years, despite the scorn and ridicule of his neighbours? One who trusts that God knows what he’s doing, and one who knows that loyalty to God pays off in the long term. In the end, his neighbours were put to shame. Just like what will happen to those who are ridiculing you in the present for being loyal to God… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
11:8 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.
Imagine yourself as Abraham for a minute. We don’t know how God communicated with him and told him to leave his homeland and his extended family. Perhaps an angel or a burning bush. But maybe something more subtle. We’re not told. At any rate, despite not knowing God like we do (as the God who rescues people from slavery, helps you across rivers in a hurry, feeds you miraculously, gives gracious laws, brings you into and then out of exile, then becomes one of us, dies in our place, and rises again to conquer death… you know, that God), Abraham obeys. In trust. By faith.
11:9 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.
Like a stranger in a foreign country. You mean, a bit like a Jew living in the Greek and Roman world in the Mediterranean? Or like a Jesus-follower whose primary loyalty is to God, not Caesar; whose primary allegiance is not as a citizen of their earthly city, but a heavenly one? Yep, just checking.
11:10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
A greater city. Greater than Rome you mean? Yes, one built by God himself, not the might of the Roman Empire!
11:11 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.
So ignoring the odd disbelieving laugh, Sarah, too, responded in faith – believing God despite the impossibility of the promise.
11:12 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.
So from the faithfulness of God, because of Abraham and Sarah’s trust, far greater blessing came. Because they remained loyal to God while strangers in a strange land. Just like… (yes, we get the point.)
Now we get a half-time recap:
11:13 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.
Yet even these great heroes of faithfulness didn’t see the fulfilment of the promises, only their “downpayment.” The only part of the Promised Land Abraham owned was his burial place. Because they were looking forward to something beyond this life.
11:14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.
People who acknowledge they are foreigners and strangers (socio-economic terms that were quite appropriate to the marginalised Jesus-following Jews in the Roman Empire) do so because they have the hope of a better place to call home. Otherwise, they’d settle down and become a true part of the city they’re in.
11:15-16 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.
Instead, they remained loyal to God’s promise of a greater dwelling place; a better city. And because they remained loyal – not ashamed to be known as followers of God – he remained loyal to them.
I think we’re getting the point, but tomorrow we’ll resume the second half of this roll-call of faithfulness.
To think about
During the day today, be thinking about what it means to live as “foreigners and strangers” in a land. For some of you, this may be your current experience. But for all of us – our primary loyalty is not to our neighbours or suburb or country, but to our God. And sometimes that means living like fish-out-of-water, suffering temporary disadvantage, in order to secure our eternal home.
What aspects of earthly citizenship have you given up, for the sake of Christ?