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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Hebrews 11

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-3

CHAPTER X.

FAITH AN ASSURANCE AND A PROOF.

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the proving of things not seen. For therein the elders had witness borne to them. By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of things which do appear."-- Hebrews 11:1-3 (R.V.).

It is often said that one of the greatest difficulties in the Epistle to the Hebrews is to discover any real connection of ideas between the author's general purpose in the previous discussion and the splendid record of faith in the eleventh chapter. The rhetorical connection is easy to trace. His utterances throughout have been incentives to confidence. "Let us hold fast our confession." "Let us draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace." "Show diligence unto the full assurance of hope." "Cast not away your boldness." Any of these exhortations would sufficiently describe the Apostle's practical aim from the beginning of the Epistle. But he has just cited the words of Habakkuk, and the prophet speaks of faith. How, then, does the prophet's declaration that the righteous man of God will escape death by his faith bear on the Apostle's arguments or help his strong appeals? The first verse of the eleventh chapter is the reply. Faith is assurance, with emphasis on the verb.

But this is only a rhetorical connection, or at best a justification of the use the author has made of the prophet's words. Indeed, he has already in several places identified confidence with faith, and the opposite of confidence with unbelief. "Take heed lest there be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief; ... for we are become partakers of Christ if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end."(246) "They could not enter in because of unbelief; ... let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience."(247) "Be not sluggish, but imitators of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises."(248) "Having therefore boldness to enter into the holy place, ... let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith."(249)

Why, therefore, does the author formally state that faith is confidence? The difficulty is a real one. We must suppose that, when this Epistle was written, the word "faith" was already a well-known and almost technical term among Christians. We infer as much as this also from St. James's careful and stringent correction of abuses in the application of the word. It is unnecessary to say who was the first to perceive the vital importance of faith in the life and theology of Christianity. But in the preaching of St. Paul faith is trust in a personal Saviour, and trust is the condition and instrument of salvation. Faith, thus represented, is the opposite of works. Such a doctrine was liable to abuse, and has been abused to the utter subversion of morality on the one hand and to the extinction of all unselfish greatness of soul on the other. Not, most certainly, that St. Paul himself was one-sided in teaching or in character. To him Christ is a heavenly ideal: "The Lord is the Spirit;" and to him the believer is the spiritual man, who has the moral intellect of Christ.(250) But it must be confessed--and the history of the Church abundantly proves the truth of the statement--that the good news of eternal salvation on the sole condition of trust in Christ is one of the easiest of all true doctrines to be fatally abused. The Epistle of St. James and the Epistle to the Hebrews seem to have been written to meet this danger. The former represents faith as the inner life of the spirit, the fountain of all active goodness. "Faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself. Yea, a man will say, Thou hast faith, and I have works; show me thy faith apart from thy works, and I by my works will show thee my faith."(251) St. James contends against the earliest phases of Antinomianism. He reconciles faith and morality, and maintains that the highest morality springs out of faith. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews contends against legalism,--the proud, self-satisfied, indifferent, hard, slothful, contemptuous, cynical spirit, which is quite as truly and as often an abuse of the doctrine of salvation through faith. It is the terrible plague of those Churches which have never risen above individualism. When men are told that the whole of religion consists in securing the soul's eternal safety, and that this salvation is made sure once for all by a moment's trust in Christ, their after-life will harden into a worldliness, not gross and sensual, but pitiless and deadening. They will put on the garb of religious decorum; but the inner life will be eaten by the canker of covetousness and self-righteous pride. These are the men described in the sixth chapter of our Epistle, who have, after a fashion, repented and believed, but whose religion has no recuperative power, let alone the growth and richness of deep vitality.

Our author addresses men whose spiritual life was thus imperilled. Their condition is not that of the heathen world in its agony of despair. He does not call his readers, in the words of St. Paul to the jailer at Philippi, to trust themselves into the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ, that they may be saved. Yet he too insists on faith. He is anxious to show them that he is not preaching another gospel, but unfolding the meaning of the same conception of faith, which is the central principle of the Gospel revealed at the first by Christ to their fathers, and applied to the wants of the heathen by the Apostle of the Gentiles.

If so, it goes without saying that the writer does not intend to give a scholastic definition of faith. The New Testament is not the book in which to seek formal definitions. For his present purpose we require only to know that, whatever else faith includes, confidence in reference to the objects of our hope must find a place in it. Faith bridges over the chasm between hope and the things hoped for. It saves us from building castles in the air or living in a fool's paradise. The phantoms of worldliness and the phantoms of religion (for they too exist) will not deceive us. In the course of his discussion in the Epistle the author has used three different words to set forth various sides of the same feeling of confidence. One refers to the freedom and boldness with which the confidence felt manifests its presence in words and action.(252) Another signifies the fulness of conviction with which the mind when confident is saturated.(253) The third word, which we have in the present passage, describes confidence as a reality, resting on an unshaken foundation, and contrasted with illusions.(254) He has urged Christians to boldness of action and fulness of conviction. Now he adds that faith is that boldness and that wealth of certitude in so far as they rest upon reality and truth.

We can now in some measure estimate the value of the Apostle's description of faith as an assurance concerning things hoped for, and apply it to give force to the exhortations of the Epistle. The evil heart of unbelief is the moral corruption of the man whose soul is steeped in sensual imaginations and never realises the things of the Spirit. They who came out of Egypt by Moses could not enter into rest because they did not descry, beyond the earthly Canaan, the rest of the spirit in God. Others inherit the promises, because on earth they lifted their hearts to the heavenly country. In short, the Apostle now tells his readers that the true source of Christian constancy and boldness is the realisation of the unseen world.

But faith is this assurance concerning things hoped for because it is a proof(255) of their existence, and of the existence of the unseen generally. The latter part of the verse is the broad foundation on which faith rests in all the rich variety of its meanings and practical applications. Here St. Paul, St. James, and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews meet in the unity of their conception. Whether men trust unto salvation, or develop their inner spiritual life, or enter into communion with God and lift the weapon of unflinching boldness in the Christian warfare, trust, character, confidence, all three derive their being and vitality from faith, as it demonstrates the existence of the unseen.

The Apostle's language is a seeming contradiction. Proof is usually supposed to dispense with faith and compel us to accept the inference drawn. He intentionally describes faith as occupying in reference to spiritual realities the place of demonstration. Faith in the unseen is itself a proof that the unseen world exists. It is so in two ways.

First, we trust our own moral instincts. Malebranche observes that our passions justify themselves. How much more is this true of intellect and conscience! In like manner, some men have firm confidence in a world of spiritual realities, which eye has not seen. This confidence is itself a proof to them. How do I know that I know? It is a philosopher's enigma. For us it may be sufficient to say that to know and to know that we know are one and the same act. How do we justify our faith in the unseen? The answer is similar. It is the same thing to trust and to trust our trust. Scepticism wins a cheap victory when it arraigns faith as a culprit caught in the very act of stealing the forbidden fruit of paradise. But when, like a guilty thing, faith blushes for its want of logic, its only refuge is to look in the face of the unseen Father. He who has most faith in his own spiritual instincts will have the strongest faith in God. To trust God is to trust ourselves. To doubt ourselves is to doubt God. We must add that there is a sense in which trust in God means distrust of self.

Second, faith fastens directly on God Himself. We believe in God because we impose implicit confidence in our own moral nature. With equal truth we may also say that we believe all else because we believe in God. Faith in God Himself immediately and personally is the proof that the promises are true, that our life on earth is linked to a life above, that patient well-doing will have its reward, that no good deed can be in vain, and ten thousand other thoughts and hopes that sustain the drooping spirit in hours of conflict. It may well happen that some of these truths are legitimate inferences from premises, or it may be that a calculation of probabilities is in favour of their truth. But faith trusts itself upon them because they are worthy of God. Sometimes the silence of God is enough, if an aspiration of the soul is felt to be such that it became Him to implant it and will be glorious in Him to reward the heaven-sent desire.

An instance of faith as a proof of the unseen is given by our author in the third verse. We may paraphrase it thus: "By faith we know that the ages have been constructed by the word of God, and that even to this point of assurance: that the visible universe as a whole came not into being out of things that do appear."

The author began in the previous verse to unroll his magnificent record of the elders. But from the beginning men found themselves in the presence of a mystery of the past before they received any promise as to the future. It is the mystery of creation. It has pressed heavily on men in all ages. The Apostle himself has felt its power, and speaks of it as a question which his readers and himself have faced. How do we know that the development of the ages had a beginning? If it had a beginning, how did it begin? The Apostle replies that we know it by faith. The revelation which we have received from God addresses itself to our moral perception and our confidence in God's moral nature. We have been taught that "in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," and that "God said, Let there be light."(256) Faith demands this revelation. Is faith trust? That trust in God is our proof that the framework of the world was put together by His creative wisdom and power. Is faith the inner life of righteousness? Morality requires that our own consciousness of personality and freedom should be derived from a Divine personality as the Originator of all things. Is faith communion with God? Those who pray know that prayer is an absolute necessity of their spiritual nature, and prayer lifts its voice to a living Father. Faith demonstrates to him who has it, though not to others, that the universe has come to its present form, not by an eternal evolution of matter, but by the action of God's creative energy.

The somewhat peculiar form of the clause seems certainly to suggest that the Apostle ascribes the origin of the universe, not only to a personal Creator, but to that personal Creator acting through the ideas of His own mind. "The visible came into being, not out of things that appear." We catch ourselves waiting till he finishes the sentence with the words, "but out of things that do not appear." Most expositors fight shy of the inference and explain it away by alleging that the negative has been misplaced.(257) But is it not true that the universe is the manifestation of thought in the unity of the Divine purpose? This is the very notion required to complete the Apostle's statement concerning faith as a proof. If faith demonstrates, it acts on principles. If God is personal, those principles are ideas, thoughts, purposes, of the Divine mind.

So long, therefore, as our spiritual nature can trust, can unfold a morality, can pray, the simple soul need not much bewail its want of logic and its loss of arguments. If the famous ontological argument for the being of God has been refuted, we shall not, on that account, tremble for the ark. We shall not lament though the argument from the watch has proved treacherous. Our God is not a mere infinite mechanician. Indeed, such a phrase is a contradiction in terms. A mechanician must be finite. He contrives, and as the result produces, not what is absolutely best, but what is the best possible under the circumstances and with the materials at his disposal. But if we have lost the mechanician, we have not lost the God that thinks. We have gained the perfectly righteous and perfectly good. His thoughts have manifested themselves in nature, in human freedom, in the incarnation of His Son, in the redemption of sinners. But the intellect that knows these things is the good heart of faith.

FOOTNOTES:


Verses 8-19

CHAPTER XI.

THE FAITH OF ABRAHAM.

"By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out unto a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he became a sojourner in the land of promise, as in a land not his own, dwelling in tents, with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for the city which hath the foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God. By faith even Sarah herself received power to conceive seed when she was past age, since she counted Him faithful Who had promised: wherefore also there sprang of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of heaven in multitude, and as the sand, which is by the sea-shore, innumerable. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things make it manifest that they are seeking after a country of their own. And if indeed they had been mindful of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God: for He hath prepared for them a city. By faith Abraham, being tried, offered up Isaac: yea, he that had gladly received the promises was offering up his only-begotten son; even he to whom it was said, In Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God is able to raise up, even from the dead; from whence he did also in a parable receive him back."-- Hebrews 11:8-19 (R.V.).

We have learned that faith is the proof of the unseen. We must not exclude even from this clause the other thought that faith is an assurance of things hoped for. It is not stated, but it is implied. The conception of a personal God requires only to be unfolded in order to yield a rich harvest of hope. The author proceeds to show that by faith the elders had witness borne to them in God's confession of them and great rewards. He recounts the achievements of a long line of believers, who as they went handed the light from one to another. In them is the true unity of religion and revelation from the beginning. For the poor order of high-priests the writer substitutes the glorious succession of faith.

We choose for the subject of this chapter the faith of Abraham. But we shall not dismiss in silence the faith of Abel, Enoch, and Noah. The paragraph in which Abraham's deeds are recorded will most naturally divide itself into three comparisons between their faith and his. We venture to think that this was in the writer's mind and determined the form of the passage. From the eighth to the tenth verse the Apostle compares Abraham's faith with that of Noah; after a short episode concerning Sarah, he compares Abraham's faith with Enoch's, from the thirteenth verse to the sixteenth; then, down to the nineteenth verse, he compares Abraham's faith with that of Abel. Noah's faith appeared in an act of obedience, Enoch's in a life of fellowship with God, Abel's in his more excellent sacrifice. Abraham's faith manifested itself in all these ways. When he was called, he obeyed; when a sojourner, he desired a better country, that is, a heavenly, and God was not ashamed to be called his God; being tried, he offered up Isaac.

Two points of surpassing worth in his faith suggest themselves. The one is largeness and variety of experience; the other is conquest over difficulties. These are the constituents of a great saint. Many a good man will not become a strong spiritual character because his experience of life is too narrow. Others, whose range is wide, fail to reach the higher altitudes of saintliness because they have never been called to pass through sore trials, or, if they have heard the summons, have shrunk from the hardships. Before Abraham faith was both limited in its experience and untested with heaven-sent difficulties. Abraham's religion was complex. His faith was "a perfect cube," and, presenting a face to every wind that blows, came victorious out of every trial.

Let us trace the comparisons.

First, Noah obeyed a Divine command when he built an ark to the saving of his house. He obeyed by faith. His eyes saw the invisible, and the vision kindled his hopes of being saved through the very waters that would destroy every living substance. But this was all. His faith acted only in one direction: he hoped to be saved. The Apostle Peter(258) compares his faith to the initial grace of those who seek baptism, and have only crossed the threshold of the spiritual life. It is true that he overcame one class of difficulties. He was not in bondage to the things of sense. He made provision for a future belied by present appearances. But the influence of the senses is not the greatest difficulty of the human spirit. As the lonely ship rode on the heaving waste of waters, all within was gladness and peace. No heaven-sent temptations tried the patriarch's faith, He overcame the trials that spring out of the earth; but he knew not the anguish that rends the spirit like a lightning-stroke descending from God.

With Abraham it was otherwise. "He went out, not knowing whither he went."(259) He leaves his father's house and his father's gods. He breaks for ever with the past, even before the future has been revealed to him. The thoughts and feelings that had grown up with him from childhood are once for all put away. He has no sheltering ark to receive him. A homeless wanderer, he pitches his tent today at the well, not knowing where his invisible guide may bid him stretch the cords on the morrow. His departure from Ur of the Chaldees was a family migration. But the writer of this Epistle, like Philo, describes it as the man's own personal obedience to a Divine call. Submitting to God's will, possessed with the inspiration and courage of faith, obeying daily new intimations, he bends his steps this way or that, not knowing whither he goes. True, he went right into the heart of the land of promise. But, even in his own heritage, he became a sojourner, as in a land not his own.(260) God "gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on."(261) Possessor of all in promise, he purchased a sepulchre, which was the first ground he could call his own. The cave of Machpelah was the small beginning of the fulfilment of God's promise, which the spirit of Abraham is even now receiving in a higher form. It is still the same. The bright dawn of heaven often breaks upon the soul at an open grave. But he journeyed on, and trusted. For a time he and Sarah only; afterwards Isaac with them; at last, when Sarah had been laid to rest, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the three together, held on bravely, sojourning with aching hearts, but ever believing. The Apostle brings in the names of Isaac and Jacob, not to describe their faith--this he will do subsequently,--but to show the tenacity and patience of "the friend of God."

His faith, thus sorely tried by God's long delay, is rewarded, not with an external fulfilment of the promise, but with larger hopes, wider range of vision, greater strength to endure, more vivid realisation of the unseen. "He looked for the city which hath the foundations, whose Architect and Maker is God."(262) In the promise not a word is said about a city. Apparently he was still to be a nomad chief of a large and wealthy tribe. When God deferred again and again the fulfilment of His promise to give him "this land," His trusting servant bethought him what the delay could mean. This was his hill of difficulty, where the two ways part. The worldly wisdom of unbelief would argue from God's tardiness that the reality, when it comes, will fall far short of the promise. Faith, with higher wisdom, makes sure that the delay has a purpose. God intends to give more and better things than He promised, and is making room in the believer's heart for the greater blessings. Abraham cast about to imagine the better things. He invented a blessing, and, so to speak, inserted it for himself in the promise.

This new blessing has an earthly and a heavenly meaning. On its earthly side it represents the transition from a nomadic life to a fixed abode. Faith bridged the gulf that separates a wandering horde from the cultured greatness of civilization. The future grandeur of Zion was already held in the grasp of Abraham's faith. But the invented blessing had also a heavenly side. The more correct rendering of the Apostle's words in the Revised Version expresses this higher thought: "He looked for the city which hath the foundations"--the city; for, after all, there is but one that hath the eternal foundations. It is the holy city,(263) the heavenly Jerusalem, seen by the faith of Abraham in the early morning of revelation, seen again in vision by the Apostle John at its close. The expression cannot mean anything that comes short of the Apostle's description of faith as the assurance of things hoped for in the unseen world. Abraham realised heaven as an eternal city, in which after death he would be gathered to his fathers. A sublime conception!--eternity not the dwelling-place of the solitary spirit, the joy of heaven consisting in personal fellowship for ever with the good of every age and clime. There the past streams into the present, not, as here, the present into the past. All are contemporaries there, and death is no more. Whatever makes civilization powerful or beautiful on earth--laws, arts, culture--all is there etherealised and endowed with immortality. Such a city has God only for its Architect,(264) God only for its Builder.(265) He Who conceived the plan can alone execute the design and realise the idea.

Of this sort was Abraham's obedience. He continued to endure in the face of God's delay to fulfil the promise. His reward consisted, not in an earthly inheritance, not in mere salvation, but in larger hopes and in the power of a spiritual imagination.

Second, Abraham's faith is compared with Enoch's, whose story is most sweetly simple. He is the man who has never doubted, across whose placid face no dark shadow of unbelief ever sweeps. A virgin soul, he walks with God in a time when the wickedness of man is great in the earth and the imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually, as Adam walked with God in the cool of the evening before sin had brought the hot fever of shame to his cheek. He walks with God, as a child with his father; "and God takes him" into His arms. Enoch's removal was not like the entrance of Elijah into heaven: a victorious conqueror returning into the city in his triumphal car. It was the quiet passing away, without observation, of a spirit of heaven that had sojourned for a time on earth. Men sought him, because they felt the loss of his presence among them. But they knew that God had taken him. They inferred his story from his character. In Enoch we have an instance of faith as the faculty of realising the unseen, but not as a power to conquer difficulties.

Compare this faith with Abraham's. "These,"--Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,--"all died in faith," or, as we may render the word, "according to faith,"--according to the faith which they had exhibited in their life. Their death was after the same pattern of faith. Enoch's contemplative life came to a fitting end in a deathless translation to higher fellowship with God. His way of leaving life became him. Abraham's repeated conflicts and victories closed with quite as much becomingness in a last trial of his faith, when he was called to die without having received the fulfilment of the promises. But he had already seen the heavenly city and greeted it from afar.(266) He saw the promises, as the traveller beholds the gleaming mirage of the desert. The illusiveness of life is the theme of moralists when they preach resignation. It is faith only that can transform the illusions themselves into an incentive to high and holy aspirations. All profound religion is full of seeming illusions. Christ beckons us onward. When we climb this steep, His voice is heard calling to us from a higher peak. That height gained reveals a soaring mass piercing the clouds, and the voice is heard above still summoning us to fresh effort. The climber falls exhausted on the mountain-side and lays him down to die. Ever as Abraham attempted to seize the promise, it eluded his grasp. The Tantalus of heathen mythology was in Tartarus, but the Tantalus of the Bible is the man of faith, who believes the more for every failure to attain.

Such men "declare plainly that they seek a country of their own."(267) Let not the full force of the words escape us. The Apostle does not mean that they seek to emigrate to a new country. He has just said that they confess themselves to be "strangers and pilgrims on the earth." They are "pilgrims," because they are journeying through on their way to another country; they are "strangers," because they have come hither from another land.(268) His meaning is that they long to return home. That he means this is evident from his thinking it necessary to guard himself against the possibility of being understood to refer to Ur of the Chaldees. They were not mindful of the earthly home, the cradle of their race, which they had left for ever. Not once did they cast a wistful look back, like Lot's wife and the Israelites in the wilderness. Yet they yearned for their fatherland.(269) Plato imagined that all our knowledge is a reminiscence of what we learned in a previous state of existence; and Wordsworth's exquisite lines, which cannot lose their sweet fragrance however often they are repeated, are a reflection of the same visionary gleam,--

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The soul that rises with us, our life's star. Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory, do we come From God, Who is our home."

Our author too suggests it; and it is true. We need not maintain it as an external fact in the history of the soul, according to the old doctrine, resuscitated in our own times, of Traducianism. The Apostle represents it rather as a feeling. There is a Christian consciousness of heaven, as if the soul had been there and longed to return. And if it is a glorious attainment of faith to regard heaven as a city, more consoling still is the hope of returning there, storm-tossed and weather-beaten, as to a home, to look up to God as to a Father, and to love all angels and saints as brethren in the household of God, over which Christ is set as a Son. Such a hope renders feeble, sinful men not altogether unworthy of God's Fatherhood. For He is not ashamed to be called their God, and Jesus Christ is not ashamed to call them brethren.(270) The proof is, that God has prepared for them a settled abode in the eternal city.

Third, the faith of Abraham is compared with the faith of Abel. In the case of Abel faith is more than a realisation of the unseen. For Cain also believed in the existence of an invisible Power, and offered sacrifice. We are expressly told in the narrative(271) that "Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord." Yet he was a wicked man. The Apostle John says(272) that "Cain was of the Evil One." He had the faith which St. James ascribes to the demons, who "believe there is one God, and shudder."(273) He was possessed with the same hatred, and had also the same faith. It was the union of the two things in his spirit that made him the murderer of his brother. Our author points out very clearly the difference between Cain and Abel. Both sacrificed, but Abel desired righteousness. He had a conscience of sin, and sought reconciliation with God through his offering. Indeed, some of the most ancient authorities, for "God bearing witness in respect to his gifts," read "he bearing witness to God on the ground of his gifts;" that is, Abel bore witness by his sacrifice to God's righteousness and mercy. He was the first martyr, therefore, in two senses. He was God's witness, and he was slain for his righteousness. But, whether we accept this reading or the other, the Apostle presents Abel before us as the man who realised the great moral conception of righteousness. He sought, not the favours of an arbitrary Sovereign, not the mere mercy of an omnipotent Ruler, but the peace of the righteous God. It was through Abel that faith in God thus became the foundation of true ethics. He acknowledged the immutable difference between right and wrong, which is the moral theory accepted by the greater saints of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament forms the groundwork of St. Paul's forensic doctrine of the Atonement. Moreover, because Abel witnessed for righteousness by his sacrifice, his blood even cried from the ground unto God for righteous vengeance. For this is unquestionably the meaning of the words "and through his faith he being dead yet speaketh;" and in the next chapter(274) the Apostle speaks of "the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh a better thing than that of Abel." It was the blood of one whose faith had grasped firmly the truth of God's righteousness. His blood, therefore, cried to the righteous God to avenge his wrong. The Apostle speaks as if he were personifying the blood and ascribing to the slain man the faith which he had manifested before. The action of Abel's faith in life and, as we may safely assume, in the very article of death, retained its power with God. Every mouthing wound had a tongue. In like manner, says the writer of the Epistle, the obedience of Jesus up to and in His death made His blood efficacious for pardon to the end of time.

But Abraham's faith excelled. Abel was prompted to offer sacrifice by natural religiousness and an awakened conscience; Abraham sternly resolved to obey a command of God. He prepared to do that against which nature revolted, yea that which conscience forbade. Had not the story of Abel's faith itself loudly proclaimed the sacredness of human life? Would not Abraham, if he offered up Isaac, become another Cain? Would not the dead child speak, and his blood cry from the ground to God for vengeance? It was the case of a man to whom "God is greater than conscience." He resolved to obey at all hazards. Hereby he assured his heart--that is, his conscience--before God in that matter wherein his heart may have condemned him.(275) We, it is true, in the light of a better revelation of God's character, should at once deny, without more ado, that such a command had been given by God; and we need not fear thankfully and vehemently to declare that our absolute trust in the rightness of our own moral instincts is a higher faith than Abraham's. But he had no misgiving as to the reality of the revelation or the authority of the command. Neither do the sacred historian and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews question it. We also need not doubt. God met His servant at that stage of spiritual perception which he had already attained. His faith was strong in its realisation of God's authority and faithfulness. But his moral nature was not sufficiently educated to decide by the character of a command whether it was worthy of God or not. He calmly left it to Him to vindicate His own righteousness. Those who deny that God imposed such a hard task on Abraham must be prepared to solve still greater difficulties. For do not we also, in reference to some things, still require Abraham's faith that the Judge of all the earth will do right? What shall we say of His permitting the terrible and universal sufferings of all living things? What are we to think of the still more awful mystery of moral evil? Shall we say He could not have prevented it? Or shall we take refuge in the distinction between permission and command? Of the two it were easier to understand His commanding what He will not permit, as in the sacrifice of Isaac, than to explain His permission of what He cannot and will not command, as in the undoubted existence of sin.

But let us once more repeat that the greatest faith of all is to believe, with Abel, that God is righteous, and yet to believe, with Abraham, that God can justify His own seeming unrighteousness, and also to believe, with the saints of Christianity, that the test which God imposed on Abraham will nevermore be tried, because the enlightened conscience of humanity forbids it and invites other and more subtle tests in its place.

We must not suppose that Abraham found the command an easy one. From the narrative in the Book of Genesis we should infer that he expected God to provide a substitute for Isaac: "And Abraham said, My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering; so they went both of them together."(276) But the Apostle gives us plainly to understand that Abraham offered his son because he accounted that God was able to raise him from the dead. Both answers are true. They reveal to us the anxious tossings of his spirit, seeking to account to itself for the terrible command of Heaven. At one moment he thinks God will not carry matters to the bitter end. His mind is pacified with the thought that a substitute for Isaac will be provided. At another moment this appeared to detract from the awful severity of the trial, and Abraham's faith waxed strong to obey, even though no substitute would be found in the thicket. Another solution would then offer itself. God would immediately bring Isaac back to life. For Isaac would not cease to be, nor cease to be Isaac, when the sacrificial knife had descended. "God is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live unto Him."(277) Besides, the promise had not been withdrawn, though it had not yet been confirmed by an oath; and the promise involved that the seed would be called in Isaac, not in another son. Both solutions were right. For a ram was caught in a thicket by the horns, and Abraham did receive his son back from the dead, not literally indeed, but in a parable.

Most expositors explain the words "in a parable" as if they meant nothing more than "as it were," "so to speak;" and some have actually supposed them to refer to the birth of Isaac in his father's old age, when Abraham was "as good as dead."(278) Both interpretations do violence to the Greek expression,(279) which must mean "even in a parable." It is a brief and pregnant allusion to the ultimate purpose of Abraham's trial. God intended more by it than to test faith. The test was meant to prepare Abraham for receiving a revelation. On Moriah, and ever after, Isaac was more than Isaac to Abraham. He offered him to God as Isaac, the son of the promise. He received him back from God's hand as a type of Him in Whom the promise would be fulfilled. Abraham had gladly received the promise. He now saw the day of Christ, and rejoiced.(280)

FOOTNOTES:


Verses 20-40

CHAPTER XIII.

A CLOUD OF WITNESSES.

"By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even concerning things to come. By faith Jacob, when he was a-dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when his end was nigh, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.... By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been compassed about for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot perished not with them that were disobedient, having received the spies with peace. And what shall I more say? for the time will fail me if I tell of Gideon. Barak, Samson, Jephthah; of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens. Women received their dead by a resurrection: and others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: and others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were tempted, they were slain with the sword: they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, evil-entreated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves, and the holes of the earth. And these all, having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise, God having provided some better thing concerning us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us."-- Hebrews 11:20-40; Hebrews 12:1 (R.V.).

Time fails us to dilate on the faith of the other saints of the old covenant. But they must not be passed over in silence. The impression produced by our author's splendid roll of the heroes of faith in the eleventh chapter is the result quite as much of an accumulation of examples as of the special greatness of a few among them. At the close they appear like an overhanging "cloud" of witnesses for God.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau; and Jacob, dying in a strange land, blessed the sons of Joseph, distinguishing wittingly, and bestowing on each(289) his own peculiar blessing. His faith became a prophetic inspiration, and even distinguished between the future of Ephraim and the future of Manasseh. He did not create the blessing. He was only a steward of God's mysteries. Faith well understood its own limitations. But it drew its inspiration to foretell what was to come from a remembrance of God's faithfulness in the past. For, before(290) he gave his blessing, he had bowed his head in worship, leaning upon the top of his staff. In his dying hour he recalled the day on which he had passed over Jordan with his staff,--a day remembered by him once before, when he had become two bands, wrestled with the angel, and halted on his thigh. His staff had become his token of the covenant, his reminder of God's faithfulness, his sacrament, or visible sign of an invisible grace.

Joseph, though he was so completely Egyptianised that he did not, like Jacob, ask to be buried in Canaan, and only two of his sons became, through Jacob's blessing, heirs of the promise, yet gave commandment concerning his bones. His faith believed that the promise given to Abraham would be fulfilled. The children of Israel might dwell in Goshen and prosper. But they would sooner or later return to Canaan. When his end drew near, his Egyptian greatness was forgotten. The piety of his childhood returned. He remembered God's promise to his fathers. Perhaps it was his father Jacob's dying blessing that had revived the thoughts of the past and fanned his faith into a steady flame.

"By faith the walls of Jericho fell down."(291) When the Israelites had crossed Jordan and eaten of the old corn of the land, the manna ceased. The period of continued miracle came to an end. Henceforth they would smite their enemies with their armed thousands. But one signal miracle the Lord would yet perform in the sight of all Israel. The walls of the first city they came to would fall down flat, when the seven priests would blow with the trumpets of rams' horns the seventh time on the seventh day. Israel believed, and as God had said, so it came to pass.

The treachery of a harlot even is mentioned by the Apostle as an instance of faith.(292) Justly. For, whilst her past life and present act were neither better nor worse than the morality of her time, she saw the hand of the God of heaven in the conquest of the land, and bowed to His decision. This was a greater faith than that of her daughter-in-law, Ruth, whose name is not mentioned. Ruth believed in Naomi and, as a consequence, accepted Naomi's God and people.(293) Rahab believed in God first, and, therefore, accepted the Israelitish conquest and adopted the nationality of the conquerors.(294)

Of the judges the Apostle selects four: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah. The mention of Barak must be understood to include Deborah, who was the mind and heart that moved Barak's arm; and Deborah was a prophetess of the Lord. She and Barak wrought their mighty deeds and sang their pæan in faith.(295) Gideon put the Midianites to flight by faith; for he knew that his sword was the sword of the Lord,(296) Jephthah was a man of faith; for he vowed a vow unto the Lord, and would not go back.(297) Samson had faith; for he was a Nazarite to God from his mother's womb, and in his last extremity called unto the Lord and prayed.(298)

The Apostle does not name Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, and the rest. The Spirit of the Lord came upon them also. They too were mighty through God. But the narrative does not tell us that they prayed, or that their soul consciously and believingly responded to the voice of Heaven. Alaric, while on his march towards Rome, said to a holy monk, who entreated him to spare the city, that he did not go of his own will, but that One was continually urging him forward to take it.(299) Many are the scourges of God that know not the hand that wields them.

Individuals "through faith subdued kingdoms."(300) Gideon dispersed the Midianites;(301) Barak discomfited Sisera, the captain of Jabin king of Canaan's host; Jephthah smote the Ammonites;(302) David held the Philistines in check,(303) measured Moab with a line,(304) and put garrisons in Syria of Damascus. Samuel "wrought righteousness," and taught the people the good and the right way.(305) David "obtained the fulfilment of God's promises:" his house was blessed that it should continue for ever before God.(306) Daniel's faith stopped the mouths of lions.(307) The faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego trusted in God, and quenched the power of the fire, without extinguishing its flame.(308) Elijah escaped the edge of Ahab's sword.(309) Elisha's faith saw the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire round about him.(310) Hezekiah "from weakness was made strong."(311) The Maccabæan princes waxed mighty in war and turned to flight armies of aliens.(312) The widow of Zarephath(313) and the Shunammite(314) received their dead back into their embrace in consequence of(315) a resurrection wrought by the faith of the prophets. Others refused deliverance, gladly accepting the alternative to unfaithfulness, to be beaten to death, that they might be accounted worthy(316) to attain the better world and the resurrection, not of, but from, the dead, which is the resurrection to eternal life. Such a man was the aged Eleazar in the time of the Maccabees.(317) Zechariah was stoned to death at the commandment of Joash the king in the court of the house of the Lord.(318) Isaiah is said to have been sawn asunder in extreme old age by the order of Manasseh. Others were burnt(319) by Antiochus Epiphanes. Elijah had no settled abode, but went from place to place clad in a garment of hair, the skin of sheep or goat. It ought not to be a matter of surprise that these men of God had no dwelling-place, but were, like the Apostles after them, buffeted, persecuted, defamed, and made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things. For the world was not worthy of them. The world crucified their Lord, and they would be ashamed of accepting better treatment than He received. By the world is meant the life of those who know not Christ. The men of faith were driven out of the cities into the desert, out of homes into prisons. But their faith was an assurance of things hoped for and, therefore, a solvent of fear. Their proving of things not seen rendered the prison, as Tertullian says,(320) a place of retirement, and the desert a welcome escape from the abominations that met their eyes wherever the world had set up its vanity fair.

All these sturdy men of faith have had witness borne to them in Scripture. This honour they won from time to time, as the Spirit of Christ, which was in the prophets, saw fit to encourage the people of God on earth by their example. Are we forbidden to suppose that this witness to their faith gladdened their own glorified spirits, and calmed their eager expectation of the day when the promise would be fulfilled? For, after all, their reward was not the testimony of Scripture, but their own perfection. Now this perfection is described through out the Epistle as a priestly consecration. It expresses fitness for entering into immediate communion with God. This was the final fulfilment of the promise. This was the blessing which the saints under the old covenant had not obtained. The way of the holiest had not yet been opened.(321) Consequently their faith consisted essentially in endurance. "None of these received the promise," but patiently waited. This is inferred concerning them from the testimony of Scripture that they believed. Their faith must have manifested itself in this form,--endurance. To us, at length, the promise has been fulfilled. God has spoken unto us in His Son. We have a great High-priest, Who has passed through the heavens. The Son, as High-priest, has been perfected for evermore; that is, He is endowed with fitness to enter into the true holiest place. He has perfected also for ever them that are sanctified: freed from guilt as worshippers, they enter the holiest through a priestly consecration. The new and living way has been dedicated through the veil.

But the important point is that the fulfilment of the promise has not dispensed with the necessity for faith. We saw, in an earlier chapter, that the revelation of the Sabbath advances from lower forms of rest to higher and more spiritual. The more stubborn the unbelief of men became, the more fully the revelation of God's promise opened up. The thought is somewhat similar in the present passage. The final form which God's promise assumes is an advance on any fulfilment vouchsafed to the saints of the old covenant during their earthly life. It now includes perfection, or fitness to enter into the holiest through the blood of Christ. It means immediate communion with God. Far from dispensing with faith, this form of the promise demands the exercise of a still better faith than the fathers had. They endured by faith; we through faith enter the holiest. To them, as well as to us, faith is an assurance of things hoped for and a proving of things not seen; but our assurance must incite us to draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, to draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. This is the better faith which is not once ascribed in the eleventh chapter to the saints of the Old Testament. On the contrary, we are given to understand(322) that they, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. But Christ has abolished death. For we enter into the presence of God, not through death, but through faith.

In accordance with this, the Apostle says that "God provided some better thing concerning us."(323) These words cannot mean that God provided some better thing for us than He had provided for the fathers. Such a notion would not be true. The promise was made to Abraham, and is now fulfilled to all the heirs alike; that is, to those who are of the faith of Abraham. The author says "concerning,"(324) not "for." The idea is that God foresaw we would, and provided (for the word implies both things) that we should, manifest a better kind of faith than it was possible for the fathers to show, better in so far as power to enter the holiest place is better than endurance.

But the author adds another thought. Through the exercise of the better faith by us, the fathers also enter with us into the holiest place. "Apart from us they could not be made perfect." The priestly consecration becomes theirs through us. Such is the unity of the Church, and such the power of faith, that those who could not believe, or could not believe in a certain way, for themselves, receive the fulness of the blessing through the faith of others. Nothing less will do justice to the Apostle's words than the notion that the saints of the old covenant have, through the faith of the Christian Church, entered into more immediate and intimate communion with God than they had before, though in heaven.

We now understand why they take so deep an interest in the running of the Christian athletes on earth. They surround their course, like a great cloud. They know that they will enter into the holiest if we win the race. For every new victory of faith on earth, there is a new revelation of God in heaven. Even the angels, the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, learn, says St. Paul, through the Church the manifold wisdom of God.(325) How much more will the saints, members of the Church, brethren of Christ, be better able to apprehend the love and power of God, Who makes weak, sinful men conquerors over death and its fear.

The word "witnesses"(326) does not itself refer to their looking on, as spectators of the race. Another word would almost certainly have been used to express this notion, which is moreover contained in the phrase "having so great a cloud surrounding(327) us." The thought seems to be that the men to whose faith the Spirit of Christ in Scripture bare witness were themselves witnesses for God in a godless world, in the same sense in which Christ tells His disciples that they were His witnesses, and Ananias tells Saul that he would be a witness for Christ.(328) Every one who confessed Christ before men, him did Christ also confess before His Church which is on earth, and does now confess before His Father in heaven, by leading him into God's immediate presence.

FOOTNOTES:


Verses 23-28

CHAPTER XII.

THE FAITH OF MOSES.

"By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months by his parents, because they saw he was a goodly child; and they were not afraid of the king's commandment. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to be evil entreated with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; accounting the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt: for he looked unto the recompense of reward. By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing Him Who is invisible. By faith he kept the passover, and the sprinkling of the blood, that the destroyer of the first-born should not touch them."-- Hebrews 11:23-28 (R.V.).

One difference between the Old Testament and the New is the comparative silence of the former respecting Moses and the frequent mention of him in the latter. When he has brought the children of Israel through the wilderness to the borders of the promised land, their great leader is seldom mentioned by historian, psalmist, or prophet. We might be tempted to imagine that the national life of Israel had outgrown his influence. It would without question be in a measure true. We may state the same thing on its religious side by saying that God hid the memory as well as the body of his servant, in the spirit of John Wesley's words, happily chosen for his and his brother's epitaph in Westminster Abbey, "God buries His workmen and carries on His work." But in the New Testament it is quite otherwise. No man is so frequently mentioned. Sometimes when he is not named it is easy to see that the sacred writers have him in their minds.

One reason for this remarkable difference between the two Testaments in reference to Moses is to be sought in the contrast between the earlier and later Judaism. During the ages of the old covenant Judaism was a living moral force. It gave birth to a peculiar type of heroes and saints. Speaking of Judaism in the widest possible meaning, David and Isaiah, as well as Samuel and Elijah, are its children. These men were such heroes of religion that the saints of the Christian Church have not dwarfed their greatness. But it is one of the traits of a living religion to forget the past, or rather to use it only as a stepping-stone to better things. It forgets the past in the sense in which St. Paul urges the Philippians to count what things were gain a loss, and to press on, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before. Religion lives in its conscious, exultant power to create spiritual heroes, not in looking back to admire its own handiwork. The only religion among men that lives in its founder is Christianity. Forget Christ, and Christianity ceases to be. But the life of Mosaism was not bound up with the memory of Moses. Otherwise we may well suppose that idolatry would have crept in, even before Hezekiah found it necessary to destroy the brazen serpent.

When we come down to the times of John the Baptist and our Lord, Mosaism is to all practical ends a dead religion. The great movers of men's souls came down upon the age, and were not developed out of it. The product of Judaism at this time was Pharisaism, which had quite as little true faith as Sadduceeism. But when a religion has lost its power to create saints, men turn their faces to the great ones of olden times. They raise the fallen tombstones of the prophets, and religion is identical with hero-worship. An instance of this very thing may be seen in England today, where Atheists have discovered how to be devout, and Agnostics go on a pilgrimage! "We are the disciples of Moses," cried the Pharisees. Can any one conceive of David or Samuel calling himself a disciple of Moses? The notion of discipleship to Moses does not occur in the Old Testament. Men never thought of such a relation. But it is the dominant idea of Judaism in the time of Christ. Hence it was brought about that he who was the servant and friend appears in the New Testament as the antagonist. "For the Law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ."(281) This is opposition and rivalry. Yet "this is that Moses which said unto the children of Israel, A Prophet shall God raise up unto you from among your brethren, like unto me."(282)

The notable difference between the Moses of New Testament times and the Moses delineated in the ancient narrative renders it especially interesting to study a passage in which the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews takes us back to the living man, and describes the attitude of Moses himself towards Jesus Christ. Stephen told his persecutors that the founder of the Aaronic priesthood had spoken of a great Prophet to come, and Christ said that Moses wrote of Him.(283) But it is with joyous surprise we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews that the legislator was a believer in the same sense in which Abraham was a believer. The founder of the old covenant himself walked by faith in the new covenant.

The references to Moses made by our Lord and by Stephen sufficiently describe his mission. The special work of Moses in the history of religion was to prepare the way of the Lord Jesus Christ and make His paths straight. He was commissioned to familiarise men with the wondrous, stupendous idea of the appearing of God in human nature,--a conception almost too vast to grasp, too difficult to believe. To render it not impossible for men to accept the truth, he was instructed to create a historical type of the Incarnation. He called into being a spiritual people. He realised the magnificent idea of a Divine nation. If we may use the term, he showed to the world God appearing in the life of a nation, in order to teach them the higher truth that the Word would at the remote end of the ages appear in the flesh. The nation was the Church; the Church was the State. The King would be God. The court of the King would be the temple. The ministers of the court would be the priests. The law of the State would have equal authority with the moral requirements of God's nature. For Moses apparently knew nothing of the distinction made by theologians between the civil, the ceremonial, and the moral law.

But in the passage before us we have something quite different from this. The Apostle says nothing about the creation of the covenant people out of the abject slaves of the brick-kilns. He is silent concerning the giving of the Law amid the fire and tempest of Sinai. It is plain that he wishes to tell us about the man's inner life. He represents Moses as a man of faith.

Even of his faith the apparently greatest achievements are passed over. Nothing is said of his appearances before Pharaoh; nothing of the wonderful faith that enabled him to pray with uplifted hands on the brow of the hill whilst the people were fighting God's battle in the valley; nothing of the faith with which, on the top of Pisgah, Moses died without receiving the promise. Evidently it is not the Apostle's purpose to write the panegyric of a hero.

Closer examination of the verses brings out the thought that the Apostle is tracing the growth and formation of the man's spiritual character. He means to show that faith has in it the making of a man of God. Moses became the leader of the Lord's redeemed people, the founder of the national covenant, the legislator and prophet, because he believed in God, in the future of Israel, and in the coming of the Christ. The subject of the passage is faith as the power that creates a great spiritual leader. But what is true of leaders is true also of every strong spiritual nature. No lesson can be more timely in our days. Not learning, not culture, not even genius, makes a strong doer, but faith.

The contents of the verses may be classified under four remarks:--

1. Faith gropes at first in the dark for the work of life.

2. Faith chooses the work of life.

3. Faith is a discipline of the man for the work of life.

4. Faith renders the man's life and work sacramental.

1. The initial stage in forming the servant of God is always the same,--a vague, restless, eager groping in the dark, a putting forth feelers for the light of revelation. This is often a time of childish mistakes and follies, of which he is afterwards keenly ashamed, and at which he can sometimes afford to smile. It often happens, if the man of God is to spring from a religious family, that his parents undergo, in a measure, this first discipline for him. So it was in the case of Moses. The child was hid three months of his parents. Why did they hide him? Was it because they feared the king? It was because they did not fear the king. They hid their child by faith. But what had faith to do with the hiding of him? Had they received an announcement from an inspired seer that their child would deliver Israel, or that he would stand with God on the top of Sinai and receive the Law for the people, or that he would lead the redeemed of the Lord to the borders of a rich land and large? None of these sufficient grounds for defying the king's authority are mentioned. The reason given in the narrative and as well by Stephen(284) and the writer of this Epistle sounds quaint, if not childish. They hid him because he was comely. Yet they hid him by faith. The beauty of a sleeping babe was to them a revelation, as truly a revelation as if they had heard the voice of the angel that spoke to Manoah or to Zacharias. The Scripture narrative contains no hint that the child's beauty was miraculous, and, what is more to the purpose, we are not told that God had given it as the token of His covenant. It is an instance of faith making a sacrament of its own, and seeking in what is natural its warrant for believing in the supernatural. Nothing is easier, and perhaps nothing would be more rational, than to dismiss the entire story with a contemptuous smile.

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews must admit that Jochebed's faith was unauthorised. But does not faith always begin in folly? Is it not at first a blind instinct, fastening on what is nearest to hand? Has not our belief in God sprung out of trust in human goodness or in nature's loveliness? To many a father has not the birth of his first-born been a revelation of Heaven? Is not such faith as Jochebed's the true explanation of the instinctive rise and wonderful vitality of infant baptism in the Christian Church? If Abraham's faith dared to look for the city which hath the foundations when God had promised only the wealth of a tented nomad, was not the mother of Moses justified, since God had given her faith, in letting the heaven-born instinct entwine with her earth-born love of her offspring? It grew with its growth, and rejoiced with its joy; but it also endured and triumphed in its sore distress, and justified its presence by saving the child. Faith is God's gift, no less than the testimony which faith accepts. Sometimes the faith is implanted when no fitting revelation is vouchsafed. But faith will live on in the darkness, until the day dawn and the day-star arise in the heart.

A wise teacher has warned us against phantom notions and bidden us interpret rather than anticipate nature. But another great thinker demonstrated that the clearest vision begins in mere groping. Anticipations of God precede the interpretation of His message. The immense space between instinct and genius is in religion traversed by faith, which starts with mera palpatio, but at last attains to the beatific vision of God.

2. Faith chooses the work of life. The Apostle has spoken of the faith that induced the parents of Moses to hide their child three months. Some theologians have set much value on what they term "an implicit faith." The faith of Moses himself would be said by them to be "enwrapped" in that of his parents. Whatever we may think of this doctrine, there can be no question that the New Testament recognises the idea of representation. The Church has always upheld the unity, the solidarity, of the family. It sprang itself out of the family. Perhaps its consummation on earth will be a return into the family relation. It retains the likeness throughout its long history. It acknowledges that a believing husband sanctifies the unbelieving wife, and a believing wife sanctifies the unbelieving husband. In like manner, a believing parent sanctifies the children, and no one but themselves can deprive them of their privileges. But they can do it. The time comes when they must choose for themselves. Hitherto led gently on by loving hands, they must now think and act for themselves, or be content to lose the power of independent action, and remain always children. The risk is sometimes great. But it cannot be evaded. It oftentimes happens that the irrevocable step is taken unobserved by others, almost unconsciously to the man himself. The decision has been taken in silence; the even tenor of life is not disturbed. The world little weens that a soul has determined its own eternity in one strong resolve.

But in the case of a man destined to be a leader of his fellows, whether in thought or in action, a crisis occurs. We use the word in its correct meaning of judgment. It is more than a transition, more than a conversion. He judges, and is conscious that as he judges he will be judged. If God has any great work for the man to do, the command comes sooner or later, as if it descended audibly from heaven, that he stand alone and, in that first terrible solitariness, choose and reject. In an educational age we may often be tempted to sneer at the doctrine of immediate conversion. It is true, nevertheless. A man has come to the parting of the two ways, and choice must be made, because they are two ways. To no living man is it given to walk the broad and the narrow ways. Entrance is by different gates. The history of some of the most saintly men presents an entire change of motive, of character even, and of general life, as produced through one strong act of faith.

When the Apostle wrote to the Hebrew Christians, the time was critical. The question of Christian or not Christian brooked no delay. The Son of man was nigh, at the doors. Even after swift vengeance had overtaken the doomed city of Jerusalem, the urgent cry was still the same. In the so-called "Epistle of Barnabas," in the "Pastor of Hermas," and in the priceless treasure recently brought to light, "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," the two ways are described: the way of life and the way of death. Those who professed and called themselves Christians were warned to make the right choice. It was no time for facing both ways, and halting between two opinions.

Moses too refused and chose. This is the second scene in the history of the man. Standing as he did at the fountain-head of nationalism, the prominence assigned to his act of individual choice and rejection is very significant. Before his days the heirs of the promise were in the bond of God's covenant in virtue of their birth. They were members of the elect family. After the days of Moses every Israelite enjoyed the privileges of the covenant by right of national descent. They were the elect nation. Moses stands at the turning point. The nation now absorbs the family, which becomes henceforth part of the larger conception. In the critical moment between the two, a great personality emerges above the confusion. The patriarchal Church of the family comes to a dispensational end in giving birth to a great man. That man's personal act of refusing the broad and choosing the narrow way marks the birth of the theocratic Church of nationalism. Before and after, personality is of secondary importance. In Moses for a moment it is everything.

Do we seek the motives that determined his choice? The Apostle mentions two, and they are really two sides of the same conception.

First, he chose to be evil-entreated with the people of God. The work of his life was to create a spiritual nation. This idea had already been presented to his mind before he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter. "He was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians; and he was mighty in his words and works."(285) But an idea had taken possession of him. That idea had already invested the miserable and despised bondsmen with glory. Truly no man will achieve great things who does not pay homage to an idea, and is not ready to sacrifice wealth and position for the sake of what is as yet only a thought. He who sells the world for an idea is not far from the kingdom of heaven. He will be prepared to forfeit all that the world can give him for the sake of Him in Whom truth eternally dwells in fulness and perfection. Such a man was Moses. Had not his parents often told him, when his mother was nourishing the child for Pharaoh's daughter, of the wonderful story of their hiding him by faith and afterwards putting him in an ark of bulrushes by the river's brim? Did not his mother bring him up to be at once the son of Pharaoh's daughter and the deliverer of Israel? Was the boy not living a double life? He was gradually coming to understand that he was to be the heir of the throne, and that he would or might be the destroyer of that throne. May we not, with profoundest reverence, liken it to the twofold inner life of the Child Jesus when at Nazareth He came to know that He, the Child of Mary, was the Son of the Highest?

Stephen continues the story: "When he was well-nigh forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren the children of Israel." "He went out unto his brethren," we are told in the narrative, "and looked on their burdens."(286) But the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews perceives in the act of Moses more than love of kindred. The slaves of Pharaoh were, in the eyes of Moses, the people of God. The national consecration had already taken place; he himself was already swayed by the glorious hope of delivering his brethren, the covenant people of God, from the hands of their oppressors. This is the explanation which Stephen gives of his conduct in slaying the Egyptian. When he saw one of the children of Israel suffer wrong, he defended him and smote the Egyptian, supposing that his brethren understood how that God by his hand was giving them deliverance. The deed was, in fact, intended to be a call to united effort. He was throwing the gauntlet. He was deliberately making it impossible for him to return to the former life of pomp and courtly worship. He wished the Hebrews to understand his decision, and accept at once his leadership. "But they understood not."

Our author pierces still deeper into the motives that swayed his spirit. It was not a selfish ambition, nor merely a patriotic desire to put himself at the head of a host of slaves bent on asserting their rights. Simultaneous with the social movement there was a spiritual work accomplished in the personal, inner life of Moses himself. All true, heaven-inspired revolutions in society are accompanied by a personal discipline and trial of the leaders. This is the infallible test of the movement itself. If the men who control it do not become themselves more profound, more pure, more spiritual, they are counterfeit leaders, and the movement they advocate is not of God. The writer of the Epistle argues from the decision of Moses to deliver his brethren that his own spiritual life was become deeper and holier. When he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, he also rejected the pleasures of sin. He took his stand resolutely on the side of goodness. The example of Joseph was before him, of whom the same words are said: "he refused" to sin against God.

As the crisis in his own spiritual life fitted him to be the leader of a great national movement, so also his conception of that movement became a help to him to overcome the sinful temptations of Egypt. He saw that the pleasures of sin were but for a season. It is easy to supply the other side of this thought. The joy of delivering his brethren would never pass away. He welcomed the undying joy of self-sacrifice, and repudiated the momentary pleasures of self-gratification.

Second, he accounted the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt. Not only the people of God, but also the Christ of God, determined his choice. An idea is not enough. It must rest on a person, and that person must be greater than the idea. He may be himself but an idea. But, even when it is so, he is the glorious thought in which all the other hopes and imaginations of faith centre and merge. If he is more than an idea, if it is a living person that controls the man's thoughts and becomes the motive of his life, a new quality will then enter into that life. Conscience will awake. The question of doing what is right will control ambition, if it will not quite absorb it. Treachery to the idea of life will now be felt to be a sin, if conscience has pronounced that the idea itself is not immoral, but good and noble. For, when conscience permits, faith will not lag behind, and will proclaim that the moral is also spiritual, that the spiritual is an ever-abiding possession.

Many expositors strive hard to make the words mean something else than the reproach which Christ Himself suffered. It is marvellous that the great doctrine of Christ's personal activity in the Church before His incarnation should have so entirely escaped the notice of the older school of English theology. On this passage, for instance, such commentators as Macknight, Whitby, Scott, explain the words to mean that Moses esteemed the scoffs cast on the Israelites for expecting the Christ to arise from among them greater riches than the treasures of Egypt. The more profound exegesis of Germany has made the truth of Christ's pre-existence essential to the theology of the New Testament. Far from being an innovation, it has brought us back to the view of the greater theologians in every age of the Church.

We cannot enter into the general question. Confining ourselves to the subject in hand, the faith of Moses, why may we not suppose that he had heard of the patriarch Jacob's blessing on Judah? It had been uttered in the land of Egypt, where Moses was brought up. It spoke of a Lawgiver. Did not the consciousness of his own mission lead Moses to apply the reference to the long succession of leaders, whether judges or kings or prophets, who would follow in his wake? If so, could he have altogether misunderstood the promise of the Shiloh? Jacob had spoken of a personal King, Whom the people would obey. But nowhere in the Old Testament, not once in the history of Moses, is the coming of Messiah represented as the goal of the national development. Christ is not the flowering of Judaism. On the contrary, the Angel of the covenant established through Moses is not a ministering servant, sent forth to minister on the chosen people. He is the Lord Jehovah Himself. Christ was with Israel, and Moses knew it. We may admit the vagueness of his conception, but we cannot deny the conception. To Moses, as to the Psalmist, the reproaches of them that reproached Israel fell on the Christ. Community in suffering was enough to ensure community in the glory to be revealed. Suffering with Christ, they would also be glorified with Christ. This was the recompense of reward to which Moses looked.

The lesson taught to the Hebrew Christians by the decision of Moses is loyalty to truth and loyalty to Jesus Christ.

3. Faith is a discipline for the work of life. Moses has made his final choice. Conscience is thoroughly awake, and eager aspirations fill his soul. But he is not yet strong. Men of large ideas are often found to be lacking in courage. A cloistered is often a fugitive virtue. But, apart from want of practical resolution to face the difficulties of the situation, special training is needed for special work. Israel had come into Egypt to endure chastening and be made fit for national independence. But in Egypt Moses was a courtier, perhaps heir to the throne. That he may be chastened and fitted for his share of the work which God was about to accomplish towards His people, he must be driven out of Egypt into the wilderness. Every servant of God is sent into the wilderness. St. Paul was three years in Arabia between his conversion and his entrance on the work of the ministry. Jesus Himself was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness. He learned endurance in forty days, Moses in forty years.

It will be seen that we accept the explanation of the twenty-seventh verse given by all expositors down to the time of De Lyra and Calvin. But in modern times it has been customary to say that the Apostle refers to the final departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm. Our reasons for preferring the other view are these. The departure of the Israelites through the Red Sea is mentioned subsequently; an event that occurred before the people left Egypt is mentioned in the next verse, and it is very improbable that the writer would refer to their departure first, then to the events that preceded, then once more speak of their departure. Further, the word well rendered by the Old and the Revised Versions "forsook" expresses precisely the notion of going out alone, in despondency, as if Moses had abandoned the hope of being the deliverer of Israel. If we have correctly understood the Apostle's purpose in the entire passage, this is the very notion which we should expect him to introduce. Moses forsakes Egypt, deserts his brethren, abandons his work. He flees from the vengeance of Pharaoh. Yet all this fear, hopelessness, and unbelief is only the partial aspect of what, taken as a whole, is the action of faith. He still believes in his glorious idea, and is still willing to bear the reproach of Christ. He will not return to the court and make his submission to the king. But the time is not come, he thinks, or he is not the man to deliver Israel. Forty years afterwards he is still loath to be sent. He forsook Egypt because the people did not believe him; after forty years he asks the Lord to send another for the very same reason; "Behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice." But we should be obtuse indeed if we failed to recognise the faith that underlies his despondency. Doubt is oftentimes partial faith.

Let us place ourselves in his position. He refuses the selfish luxury and worldly glory of Pharaoh's court, that he may rush to deliver his brethren. He brings with him the consciousness of superiority, and at once assumes the duty of composing their quarrels. Evidently he is a believer in God, but a believer also in himself. Such men are not God's instruments. He will have a man be the one thing or the other. If the man is self-confident, conscious of his own prowess, oblivious of God or a denier of Him, the Most High can use him to do His work, to his own destruction. If the man has no confidence in the flesh, knows his utter weakness and very nothingness, and yields himself to God's hand entirely, with no by-ends to seek, him too God uses to do His work, to the man's own salvation. But Moses strove to combine faith in God and in himself. He was at once thwarted. His brethren taunted him, when he expected to be trusted and honoured. Despondency takes possession of his spirit. But his trepidation is on the surface. Beneath it is a great deep of faith. What he now needs is discipline. God leads him to the back of the wilderness. The courtier serves as a herdsman. Far removed from the monumental literature of Egypt, he communes with himself, and with nature's mighty visions. He gazes upon the dread and silent mountain, hallowed of old as the habitation of God. He had already, in Egypt, learned the faith of Joseph and of Jacob. Now, in Midian, he will imbibe the faith of Isaac and of Abraham. Far from the busy haunts of men, the din of cities, the stir of the market-place, he will learn how to pray, how to divest himself of all confidence in the flesh, and how to worship the Invisible alone. For "he endured as seeing Him Who is invisible." Do not paraphrase it "the invisible King." That is too narrow. It was not Pharaoh only that had vanished out of his sight and out of his thoughts. Moses himself had disappeared. He had broken down when he trusted himself. He now endures, because he sees nought but God. Surely he was in the same blessed state of mind in which St. Paul was when he said, "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." When Moses and when Paul ceased to be anything, and God was to them everything, they were strong to endure.(287)

4. Faith renders the work of life sacramental. The long period of discipline has drawn to a close. The self-confidence of Moses has been fully subdued. "He supposed that his brethren understood how that God by his hand was giving them deliverance." These, says Stephen, were his thoughts before he fled from Egypt. Very different is his language after the probation of the wilderness: "Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?" Four times he pleads and deprecates. Not until the anger of the Lord is kindled against him does he take heart to attempt the formidable task.

The Hebrews had been more than two hundred years in the house of bondage. So far as we know, the Lord had not once appeared or spoken to men for six generations. No revelation was given between Jacob's vision at Beersheba(288) and the vision of the burning bush. We may well believe that there were in those days mockers, saying, The age of miracles is past; the supernatural is played out. But Moses henceforth lives in a veritable world of miracles. The supernatural came with a rush, like the waking of a sleeping volcano. Signs and wonders encompass him on every side. The bush burns unconsumed; the rod in his hand is cast on the ground, and becomes a serpent; he takes the serpent in his hand again, and it becomes a rod; he puts his hand into his bosom, and it is leprous; he puts the leprous hand into his bosom, and it is as his other flesh. When he returns into Egypt, signs vie with signs, God with demons. Plague follows plague. Moses lifts up his rod over the sea, and the children of Israel go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. At last he stands once more on Horeb. But in the short interval between the day when one poor thorn-bush of the desert glowed with flame and the day on which Sinai was altogether on a smoke and the whole mountain quaked, a religious revolution had occurred second only to one in the history of the race. At the touch of their leader's wand a nation was born in a day. The immense transition from the Church in a family to a holy nation was brought about suddenly, but effectively, when the people were hopeless outcasts and Moses himself had lost heart.

Such a revolution must be inaugurated with sacrifice and with sacrament. The sins of the past must be expiated and forgiven, and the people, cleansed from the guilt of their too frequent apostasy from the God of their fathers, must be dedicated anew to the service of Jehovah. The patriarchal dispensation expired in the birth of a holy nation. The Passover was both a sacrifice and a sacrament, an expiation and a consecration. It retained its sacrificial character till Christ, the true Paschal Lamb, was slain. As a sacrifice it then ceased. But sacrament continues, and will continue as long as the Church exists on earth.

Moses had seen the invisible God. The burning bush had symbolized the sacramental nature of the work which he had been called to do. God would be in Israel as He was in the bush, and Israel would not be consumed. He Who is to His foes a consuming fire dwells among His people, as the vital heat and glow of their national life. The eye that can see Him is faith. This is the power that can transform the whole life of man, and make it sacramental. Too long has man's earthly existence been divided into two separate spheres. On the one side and for a stated time he lives to God; on the other side he relinquishes himself for a period to the pursuits of the world. We seem to think that the secular cannot be religious, and, consequently, that the religiousness of one day or of one place will make amends for the irreligion of the rest of life. The Passover consecrated a nation. Baptism and the Lord's Supper have, times without number, consecrated the individual. The true Christian life draws its vital sap from God. It is not cleverness and worldly success, but unselfish loyalty to the supernatural, and incessant prayer, that marks the man who lives by faith.

FOOTNOTES:

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Hebrews 11:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/hebrews-11.html.


Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, July 23rd, 2017
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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