THE CHRISTIAN HOPE (Hebrews 11:1-3)
11:1-3 Faith means that we are certain of the things we hope for, convinced of the thing we do not see. It was because of faith that the men of old time had their record attested. It is by faith that we understand that the world was fashioned by the word of God, so that what is seen came into being out of what is unseen.
To the writer to the Hebrews faith is absolutely certain that what it believes is true and that what it expects will come. It is not the hope which looks forward with wistful longing; it is the hope which looks forward with utter conviction. In the early days of persecution they brought a humble Christian before the judges. He told them that nothing they could do could shake him because he believed that, if he was true to God, God would be true to him. "Do you really think," asked the judge, "that the like of you will go to God and his glory?" "I do not think," said the man, "I know." At one time Bunyan was tortured by uncertainty. "Everyone doth think his own Religion rightest," he said, "both Jews and Moors and Pagans; and how if all our Faith and Christ and Scriptures should be but a 'Think so' too?" But when the light broke he ran out crying, "Now I know! I know!" The Christian faith is a hope that has turned to certainty.
This Christian hope is such that it dictates all a man's conduct. He lives in it and he dies in it; and it is the possession of it which makes him act as he does.
As Silesius sang:
"With Hope for pilgrim's stall I go,
And Patience is my travelling dress
Wherewith through earthly weal and woe,
I fare to everlastingness."
Moffatt distinguishes three directions in which the Christian hope operates.
(i) It is belief in God against the world. If we follow the world's standards we may well have ease and comfort and prosperity; if we follow God's standards we may well have pain and loss and unpopularity. It is the conviction of the Christian that it is better to suffer with God than to prosper with the world. In the book of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego are confronted with the choice of obeying Nebuchadnezzar and worshipping the king's image or obeying God and entering the fiery furnace. Without hesitation they choose God (Daniel 3:1-30 ). When Bunyan was due for trial he said: "With God's comfort in my poor soul, before I went down to the justices I begged of God that if I might do more good by being at liberty than in prison, then I might be set at liberty. But if not, his will be done." The Christian attitude is that in terms of eternity it is better to stake everything on God than to trust to the rewards of the world.
(ii) The Christian hope is belief in the spirit against the senses. The senses say to a man: "Take what you can touch and taste and handle and enjoy."
"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying."
The senses tell us to grasp the thing of the moment; the spirit tells us that there is something far beyond that. The Christian believes in the spirit rather than the senses.
(iii) The Christian hope is belief in the future against the present. Long ago Epicurus said the chief end of life was pleasure. But he did not mean what so many people think he meant. He insisted that we must take the long view. The thing which is pleasant at the moment may bring pain in the long run; the thing which hurts like fury at the moment may bring joy in the long run. The Christian is certain that in the long run no man can exile the truth for "great is truth, and in the end she will prevail."
It looked as if his judges had eliminated Socrates and as if Pilate had crushed Christ; but the verdict of the future reversed the verdict of the moment. Fosdick somewhere says that Nero once condemned Paul, but the years have passed on and the time has come when men call their sons Paul and their dogs Nero.
It is easy to argue: "Why should I refuse the pleasure of the moment for an uncertain future?" The Christian answer is that the future is not uncertain because it belongs to God; and it is enough that God has commanded and that God has promised.
The writer to the Hebrews goes on to say that it was precisely because the great heroes of the faith lived on that principle that they were approved by God. Every one of them refused what the world calls greatness and staked everything on God--and history proved them right.
The writer to the Hebrews goes further. He says that it is an act of faith to believe that God made this world and adds that the things which are seen emerged from the things which are not seen. This was aiming a blow at the current belief that God created the world out of existing matter which, being necessarily imperfect, meant that from the beginning this was an imperfect world. The writer to the Hebrews insists that God did not work with existing material but created the world from nothing. When he argued like this he was not interested in the scientific side of the matter; he wanted to stress the fact that this is God's world.
If we can grip that fact, two things follow. First, we will use it as such. We will remember that everything in it is God's and will try to use it as God would have us use it. Second, we will remember that, even when it may not look like it, somehow God is in control. If we believe that this is God's world then into our lives come a new sense of responsibility and a new power of acceptance, for everything belongs to God and all is in his hands.
THE FAITH OF THE ACCEPTABLE OFFERING (Hebrews 11:4)
11:4 It was by faith that Abel offered to God a fuller sacrifice than Cain and so gained the verdict of being a just man, for God himself witnessed to that fact on the grounds of the gifts he brought: and although he died because of his faith, he is still speaking to us.
The writer to the Hebrews begins his honour roll of faith with the name of Abel whose story is in Genesis 4:1-15. Cain tilled the ground and brought to God an offering of the fruits of the ground; Abel was a flock-master and brought to God an offering from his flocks. God preferred the gift of Abel to the gift of Cain who, moved to bitter jealousy, murdered his brother and became an outcast upon the earth. In the original, the meaning of the story is difficult. There is no indication why God preferred the gift of Abel to the gift of Cain. It may well be that the only offering which a man can properly bring to God is his most precious possession. This is life itself, and to the Hebrews blood always stood for life. We can well understand that, because when the blood flows away, life ebbs away. On that principle the only true sacrifice to God was a sacrifice of blood. Abel's sacrifice was of a living creature, Cain's was not; therefore Abel's was the more acceptable.
But it may well be that the writer to the Hebrews is thinking not only of the story as it is in Genesis but also of the legends which gathered round it in Jewish folk-lore. The Jews themselves found the story puzzling and elaborated it in order to find a reason for God's rejection of Cain and for Cain's murder of Abel. The earliest legend tells how every time Eve bore children she bore twins, a boy and a girl, and that they were given to each other as man and wife. In the case of Abel and Cain, Adam tried to change this and planned to give the twin sister of Cain to Abel. Cain was bitterly dissatisfied. To settle the matter, Adam said to them: "Go, my sons, sacrifice to the Lord; and he whose sacrifice is accepted shall have the young girl. Take each of you offerings in your hand and go, sacrifice to the Lord and he will decide." So Abel, who was a shepherd, took his best lamb to the place of sacrifice; but Cain, who was a tiller of the ground, took the poorest sheaf of corn he could find and laid it on the altar. Whereupon fire descended from heaven and consumed Abel's offering so that not even the cinders were left while Cain's was left untouched. Adam then gave the girl to Abel and Cain was sorely vexed. One day Abel was asleep upon a mountain; and Cain came upon him and took a stone and crushed his head. Then he threw the dead body on his back and carried it about because he did not know what to do with it. He saw two crows fighting and one killed the other, then dug a hole with its beak and buried it. Cain said: "I have not the sense of this bird. I, too, will lay my brother in the ground," and he did so.
The Jews had still another story to explain the first murder. Cain and Abel could not agree as to what they should possess. So Abel devised a scheme whereby they might bring an end to contention. Cain took the earth and everything stationary; Abel took everything moveable. But in Cain's heart there was still bitter envy. One day he said to his brother: "Remove thy foot; thou standest on my property; the plain is mine." Abel ran to the hills but Cain pursued him, saying: "The hills are mine." Abel took refuge on the mountains but Cain still pursued him saying: "The mountains, too, are mine." And so, in his envy, he hunted his brother until he killed him.
At the back of this story lie two great truths. First, there is envy. Even the Greeks saw its horror. Demosthenes said: "Envy is the sign of a nature that is altogether evil." Euripides said: "Envy is the greatest of all diseases among men." There was a Greek proverb which said: "Envy has no place in the choir of God." Envy leads to bitterness; bitterness to hatred; and hatred to murder. Envy is that poison which can poison all life and kill all goodness. Second, there is this strange and eerie thought that Cain had discovered a new sin. One of the old Greek fathers said: "Up to this time no man had died so that Cain should know how to kill. The devil instructed him in this in a dream." It was Cain who introduced murder into the world. There is condemnation for the sinner; but there is still greater condemnation for the man who teaches another to sin. Such a man, even as Cain was, is banished from the face of God.
So the writer to the Hebrews says: "Although he died for his faith, he is still speaking to us." Moffatt finely comments: "Death is never the last word in the life of a righteous man." When a man leaves this world, he leaves something in it. He may leave something which will grow and spread like a canker; or he may leave something fine which blossoms and flourishes without end. He leaves an influence of good or ill; every one when he dies still speaks. May God grant to us to leave behind not a germ of evil but a lovely thing in which the lives of those who come afterwards will find blessing.
WALKING WITH GOD (Hebrews 11:5-6)
11:5-6 It was by faith that Enoch was transferred from this to the other life so that he did not die but passed from men's sight, because God took him from one life to the other. For, before this change came to him it was testified that he pleased God. Apart from faith it is impossible to please God, for he who approaches God must believe that God is, and that he is the rewarder of those who spend their lives seeking him.
In the Old Testament the life of Enoch is summed up in one sentence: "And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him" (Genesis 5:24). Many legends gathered around his name. He was said to be the first man skilled in tailoring and in sewing and that he instructed men how to cut out skins in the proper shape to make garments. He was said to be the first to teach men to make shoes to protect their feet. He was said to be the first to put pen to paper and instruct men from books.
Legend tells that with Enoch the Angel of Death made a compact of friendship. Enoch made three requests of him. First, to die and come back again so that he might know what death was like. Second, to see the abode of the wicked so that he might know what the punishment of the evil was like. Both these requests were granted. His third request was to be permitted to see into Paradise so that he might see what the blessed enjoyed. This also was granted, but Enoch, having been granted a glimpse of Paradise, never came back to earth again.
The simple statement in Genesis has a kind of mystical quality. In itself it does not say how Enoch died. It simply says that in God's good time he passed serenely from this earth. There were two specially famous interpretations of the death of Enoch.
(i) The Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon 4:10 ff.) has the idea that God took Enoch to himself when he was still young to save him from the infection of this world. "He was taken away while he lived amidst sinners.... He was snatched away lest evil should change his understanding or guile deceive his soul." This is another way of putting the famous classical saying: "Whom the gods love die young." It looks on death as a reward. It means that God loved Enoch so much that he removed him before age and degeneration descended hand in hand upon him.
(ii) Philo, the great Alexandrian Jewish interpreter, saw in Enoch the great pattern of repentance. He was changed by repentance from the life that is apart from God to the life that walks with God.
The writer to the Hebrews reads into the simple statement of the Old Testament passage the idea that Enoch did not die at all but that in some mystic way God took him to himself. But surely the meaning is much simpler. In a wicked and corrupt generation Enoch walked with God and so when the end came to him, there was no shock or interruption. Death merely took him into God's nearer presence. Because he walked with God when other men were walking away from him, he daily came nearer to him and death was no more than the last step that took him into the very presence of that God with whom he had always walked.
We cannot think of Enoch without thinking of the different attitudes to death. The sheer serenity of the Old Testament statement, so simple and yet so moving, points forward to the Christian attitude.
(i) There are those who have thought of death as mysterious and inexplicable. William Morris wrote:
"Death have we hated, knowing not what it meant."
Bacon said: "Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark." To some, it has always been the terrifying unknown giving rise to what Hamlet called "that dread of something after death."
(ii) There are those who simply have seen in death the one inevitable thing in life. Shakespeare makes Caesar say in Julius Caesar:
"It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come."
And in Cymbeline he writes with a strange fatalistic beauty:
"Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta'en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
"Fear no more the frown o' the great,
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, Teaming, physic must
All follow this, and come to dust.
"Fear not more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finish'd joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust."
Death is inevitable and there is nothing to be gained by struggling against it.
(iii) Some have seen in death sheer extinction. It was that loveliest of Roman poets, Catullus, who pled with Lesbia for her kisses because the night was coming:
"Lesbia mine, let's live and love!
Give no doit for tattle of
Crabbed old censorious men;
Suns may set and rise again,
But when our short day takes flight
Sleep we must one endless night."
To die was to go out to nothingness and be lost in an eternal sleep.
(iv) Some have seen in death the supreme terror and the unmitigated evil. In Measure for Measure Shakespeare makes Claudio say:
"Death is a fearful thing.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world....
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death."
To Claudio the worst and bitterest of life was to be preferred to death. W. S. Gilbert wrote in The Yeomen of the Guard:
"Is life a boon?
If so, it must befall
That Death, whene'er he call,
Must call too soon."
Robert Burns wrote of the early death of Highland Mary:
"But oh! fell death's untimely frost
That nipt my flower sae early!"
There are those who have seen only the grim terroriser and despoiler in death.
(v) Many have seen in death release. Weary of the world and of life, they have seen it as escape. Keats said that he had been "half in love with easeful death." Shakespeare in one of his sonnets cried:
"Tir'd with all these, for restful death I cry."
Nicholas Rowe wrote: "Death is the privilege of human nature." The Stoics held that the gods had given men the gift of life and the still greater gift of taking their own lives away. Swinburne best of all caught this mood of world-weariness in The Garden of Proserpine:
"From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever,
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
Then star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light;
Nor sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight;
Nor wintry leaves nor vernal
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal
In an eternal night."
There are those for whom death is good because it is the end of life.
(vi) Some have seen in death transition--not an end, but a stage on the way; not a door closing, but a door opening. Longfellow wrote:
"There is no Death! What seems so is transition;
This life of mortal breath
Is but a suburb of the life elysian,
Whose portal we call death."
George Meredith wrote:
"Death met I too,
And saw the dawn glow through."
To such death has always been a call to come up higher, a crossing from the dark to the dawn.
(vii) Some have seen death as an adventure. As Barrie made Peter Pan say: "To die will be an awfully big adventure." Charles Frohman, who had known Barrie so well, went down with the Lusitania in that disaster of 7 May 1915. His last words were: "Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life." An old scholar who was dying turned to his friends: "Do you realize," he said, "that in an hour or two I will know the answers for which we have been searching all our lives?" To such death is the adventure of supreme discovery.
(viii) Above all, there are those, like Enoch, who have seen death as an entering into the nearer presence of him with whom they have lived for so long. If we have lived with Christ, we may die in the certainty that we go to be for ever with our Lord.
In this passage the writer to the Hebrews lays down in addition the two great foundation acts of faith of the Christian life.
(i) We must believe in God. There can be no such thing as religion without that belief. Religion began when men became aware of God; it ceases when they live a life in which for them God does not exist.
(ii) We must believe that God is interested. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, we must believe that God is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him.
There were those in the ancient world who believed in the gods, but they believed that they lived out in the spaces between the worlds, entirely unaware of these strange animals called men. "God," said Epicurus as a first principle, "does nothing." There are many who believe in God but do not believe that he cares. It has been said that no astronomer can be an atheist; but it has also been said that an astronomer is bound to believe that God is a mathematician. But a God who is a mathematician need not care. Men have called God The First Principle, The First Cause, The Creative Energy, The Life Force. These are the statements of men who believe in God, but not in a God who cares.
When Marcus Aurelius was asked why he believed in the gods, he said: "True, the gods are not discernible by human sight, but neither have I seen my soul and yet I honour it. So then I believe in the gods and I honour them, because again and again I have experienced their power." Not logic but life convinced him of the gods. Seneca said: "The first essential of the worship of the gods is to believe that there are gods...and to know those gods who preside over the world, because they control the universe with their power, and work for the safety of the whole human race, while they still remember each individual person." Epictetus said: "You must know that the most important thing in reverence for the gods is to have right beliefs that they are and that they order all things righteously and well."
We must believe not only that God exists but also that he cares and is involved in the human situation. For the Christian that is easy, for God came to the world in Jesus Christ to tell us how much he cares.
THE MAN WHO BELIEVED IN GOD'S MESSAGE (Hebrews 11:7)
11:7 It was by faith that Noah, when he had been informed by God about things that were still unseen, reverently accepted the message and built an ark to preserve his household in safety. Through that faith he passed judgment on the world and became an heir of the righteousness which is the result of faith.
The Old Testament story of Noah is in Genesis 6:1-22; Genesis 7:1-24; Genesis 8:1-22. The earth was so wicked that God decided that there remained nothing to do but destroy it. He told Noah his purpose of judgment and instructed him to build an ark in which he and his family and the representatives of the animal creation might be saved. With reverence and obedience Noah took God at his word and so in the destruction of the world he was preserved.
As is usually the case, legend adds many a detail to this story. The writer to the Hebrews must have known these legends and they must have helped to add vividness to the picture in his mind. One story tells how Noah was in doubt as to the shape he was to give the ark. God revealed to him that it was to be modelled on a bird's belly and was to be constructed of teak wood. Noah planted a teak tree and in twenty years it grew to such a size that out of it he was able to build the entire ark. Another story tells that, after he had been forewarned by God, Noah made a bell of plane wood, about five feet high, and that he sounded it every day, morning, noon and evening. When he was asked why, he answered: "To warn you that God will send a deluge to destroy you all." Another story tells that, when Noah was building the ark, the people laughed at him and counted him mad. But he said to them: "Though you rail at me now, the time will come when I shall rail at you; for you will learn to your cost who it is that punishes the wicked in this world and reserves for them a further punishment in the world to come."
Even more than Abel and Enoch, Noah stands out as a man of faith.
(i) Noah took God at his word. He believed the message which God sent him. God's message might look foolishness at the moment; but Noah believed it and staked everything on it. Obviously if he was going to accept that word of God, he had to lay aside his normal activities and concentrate on doing what his message commanded. Noah's life was one continued and concentrated preparation for what God had said would come.
The choice comes to every man either to listen to or to disregard the message of God. He may live as if that message is of no importance or as if it is the most important thing in the world. We may put it in another way--Noah was the man who heeded the warning of God; and because he heeded he was saved from disaster. God's warning comes to us in many ways. It may come from conscience; it may come from some direct word of God to our souls; it may come from the advice or the rebuke of some good and godly man; it may leap out at us from God's Book or challenge us in some sermon. Wherever it comes from, we neglect it at our peril.
(ii) Noah was not deterred by the mockery of others. When the sun was shining, his conduct must have looked like that of a fool. Who ever in his senses built a great hulk of a ship on dry land far from the sea? The man who takes God's word may often have to adopt a course of action which looks like madness.
We have only to think of the early days of the Church. One man meets a friend. He says to him: "I have decided to become a Christian." The other man replies: "Do you know what happens to Christians? They are outlaws. They are imprisoned, thrown to the lions, crucified, burned." The first man replies: "I know." And the other says despairingly: "You must be mad."
It is one of the hardest challenges of Christianity that we have to be prepared to be sometimes a fool for Jesus' sake. We should never forget that there was a day when his friends came and tried to get him to go home because they thought that he was mad. The wisdom of God is so often foolishness with men.
(iii) Noah's faith was a judgment on others. That is why, at least in one sense, it is dangerous to be a Christian. It is not that the Christian is self-righteous; it is not that he is censorious; it is not that he goes about finding fault with other people; it is not that he says: "I told you so." It often happens that simply by being himself the Christian passes judgment on other people. Alcibiades that brilliant but wild young man of Athens used to say to Socrates: "Socrates, I hate you, for every time I meet you, you show me what I am." One of the finest men who ever lived in Athens was Aristides, who was called "the just." But they voted to banish him. One man, asked why he had so voted, answered: "Because I am tired of hearing Aristides called 'the just.'" There is danger in goodness, for in its light evil stands condemned.
(iv) Noah was righteous through faith. It so happens that he is the first man in the Bible to be called dikaios (Greek #1342), righteous (Genesis 6:9). His goodness consisted in the fact that he took God at his word. When other men broke God's commandments, Noah kept them; when other men were deaf to God's warnings, Noah listened to them; when other men laughed at God, Noah reverenced him. It has been said of Noah that "he threw the dark scepticism of the world into relief against his own shining faith in God." In an age when men disregarded God, for Noah he was the supreme reality in the world.
THE ADVENTURE AND THE PATIENCE OF FAITH (Hebrews 11:8-10)
11:8-10 It was by faith that Abraham, when he was caned, showed his obedience by going out to a place which he was going to receive as an inheritance, and he went out not knowing where he was to go. It was by faith that he sojourned in the land that had been promised to him, as though it had been a foreign land, living in tents, in the same way as did Isaac and Jacob, who were his coheirs in the promise of it. For he was waiting for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
The call of Abraham is told with dramatic simplicity in Genesis 12:1. Jewish and eastern legends gathered largely round Abraham's name and some of them must have been known to the writer to the Hebrews. The legends tell how Abraham was the son of Terah, commander of the armies of Nimrod. When Abraham was born a very vivid star appeared in the sky and seemed to obliterate the others. Nimrod sought to murder the infant but Abraham was concealed in a cave and his life saved. It was in that cave the first vision of God came to him. When he was a youth he came out of the cave and stood looking across the face of the desert. The sun rose in all its glory and Abraham said: "Surely the sun is God, the Creator!" So he knelt down and worshipped the sun. But when evening came, the sun sank in the west and Abraham said: "No! the author of creation cannot set!" The moon arose in the east and the stars came out. Then Abraham said: "The moon must be God and the stars his host!" So he knelt down and adored the moon. But after the night was passed, the moon sank and the sun rose again and Abraham said: "Truly these heavenly bodies are no gods, for they obey law; I will worship him who imposed the law upon them."
The Arabs have a different legend. They tell how Abraham saw many flocks and herds and said to his mother: "Who is the lord of these?" She answered: "Your father, Terah." "And who is the lord of Terah?" the lad Abraham asked. "Nimrod," said his mother. "And who is the lord of Nimrod?" asked Abraham. His mother bade him be quiet and not push questions too far; but already Abraham's thoughts were reaching out to him who is the God of all. The legends go on to tell that Terah not only worshipped twelve idols, one for each of the months, but was also a manufacturer of idols. One day Abraham was left in charge of the shop. People came in to buy idols. Abraham would ask them how old they were and they would answer perhaps fifty or sixty years of age. "Woe to a man of such an age," said Abraham, "who adores the work of one day!" A strong and hale man of seventy came in. Abraham asked him his age and then said: "You fool to adore a god who is younger than yourself!" A woman came in with a dish of meat for the gods. Abraham took a stick and smashed all the idols but one, in whose hands he set the stick he had used. Terah returned and was angry. Abraham said: "My father, a woman brought this dish of meat for your gods; they all wanted to have it and the strongest knocked the heads off the rest, lest they should eat it all." Terah said: "That is impossible for they are made of wood and stone." And Abraham answered: "Let thine own ear hear what thine own mouth has spoken!"
All these legends give us a vivid picture of Abraham searching after God and dissatisfied with the idolatry of his people. So when God's call came to him he was ready to go out into the unknown to find him! Abraham is the supreme example of faith.
(i) Abraham's faith was the faith that was ready for adventure. God's summons meant that he had to leave home and family and business; yet he went. He had to go out into the unknown; yet he went. In the best of us there is a certain timorousness. We wonder just what will happen to us if we take God at his word and act on his commands and promises.
Bishop Newbigin tells of the negotiations which led to the formation of the United Church of South India. He had a share in these negotiations and in the long discussions which were necessary. Things were frequently held up by cautious people who wished to know just where each step was taking them, until in the end the chairman reminded them that a Christian has no right to ask where he is going.
Most of us live a cautious life on the principle of safety first; but to live the Christian life there is necessary a certain reckless willingness to adventure. If faith can see every step of the way, it is not really faith. It is sometimes necessary for the Christian to take the way to which the voice of God is calling him without knowing what the consequences will be. Like Abraham he has to go out not knowing where he is going.
(ii) Abraham's faith was the faith which had patience. When he reached the promised land, he was never allowed to possess it. He had to wander in it, a stranger and a tent-dweller, as the people were some day to wander in the wilderness. To Abraham God's promise never came fully true; and yet he never abandoned his faith.
It is characteristic of the best of us that we are in a hurry. To wait is even harder than to adventure. The hardest time of all is the time in between. At the moment of decision there is the excitement and the thrill; at the moment of achievement there is the glow and glory of satisfaction; but in the intervening time there is necessary the ability to wait and work and watch when nothing seems to be happening. It is then that we are so liable to give up our hopes and lower our ideals and sink into an apathy whose dreams are dead. The man of faith is the man whose hope is flaming bright and whose effort is intensely strenuous even in the grey days when there is nothing to do but to wait.
(iii) Abraham's faith was the faith which was looking beyond this world. The later legends believed that at the moment of his call Abraham was given a glimpse of the new Jerusalem. In the Apocalypse of Baruch God says: "I showed it to my servant by night" (4: 4). In 4 Ezra the writer says: "It came to pass when they practised ungodliness before thee, that thou didst choose one from among them whose name was Abraham; him thou didst love and to him only thou didst reveal the end of the times, secretly, by night" (4: 13). No man ever did anything great without a vision which enabled him to face the difficulties and discouragements of the way. To Abraham there was given the vision; and, even when his body was wandering in Palestine, his soul was at home with God. God cannot give us the vision unless we permit him; but if we wait upon him, even in earth's desert places be will send us the vision and with it the toil and trouble of the way become all worth while.
BELIEVING THE INCREDIBLE (Hebrews 11:11-12)
11:11-12 It was by faith that Sarah, too, received power to conceive and to bear a son, although she was beyond the age for it, for she believed that he who gave the promise could be absolutely relied upon. So from one man, and he a man whose body had lost its vitality, there were born descendants, as many as the stars of the sky in multitude, as countless as the sand upon the seashore.
The story of the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah is told in Genesis 17:15-22; Genesis 18:9-15; Genesis 21:1-8. Its wonder is that both Abraham and Sarah were ninety years old, long past the age of begetting or bearing a child; and yet, according to the old story, that promise was made and came true.
The reaction of Abraham and Sarah to the promise of God followed a threefold course.
(i) It began with sheer incredulousness. When Abraham heard the promise he fell upon his face and laughed (Genesis 17:17). When Sarah heard it she laughed within herself (Genesis 18:12). On first hearing of the promises of God, the human reaction often is that this is far too good to be true.
"How thou canst think so well of us,
And be the God thou art,
Is darkness to my intellect,
But sunshine to my heart."
There is no mystery in all creation like the love of God. That he should love men and suffer and die for them is something that staggers us into sheer incredulity. That is why the Christian message is the gospel, good news; it is news so good that it is almost impossible to believe it true.
(ii) It passed into dawning realization. After the incredulity came the dawning realization that this was God who was speaking; and God cannot lie. The Jews used to lay it down as a primary law for a teacher that he must never promise his pupils what he was unwilling or unable to perform; to do so would be to accustom the pupils thus early to the broken word. When we remember that the one who makes the promise is God, there comes the realization that however astonishing that promise may be, it must none the less be true.
(iii) It culminated in the ability to believe in the impossible. That Abraham and Sarah should have a child, humanly speaking, was impossible. As Sarah said: "Who would have said that Sarah would suckle children?" (Genesis 21:7). But, by the grace and the power of God, the impossible became true. There is something here to challenge and uplift the heart of every man. Cavour said that the first essential of a statesman is "the sense of the possible." When we listen to men planning and arguing and thinking aloud, we get the impression of a vast number of things in this world which are known to be desirable but dismissed as impossible. Men spend the greater part of their lives putting limitations on the power of God. Faith is the ability to lay hold on that grace which is sufficient for all things in such a way that the things which are humanly impossible become divinely possible. With God all things are possible, and, therefore, the word impossible has no place in the vocabulary of the Christian and of the Christian Church.
SOJOURNERS AND STRANGERS (Hebrews 11:13-16)
11:13-16 All these died without obtaining possession of the promises. They only saw them from far away and greeted them from afar, and they admitted that they were strangers and sojourners upon the earth. Now people who speak like that make it quite clear that they are searching for a fatherland. If they were thinking of the land from which they had come out, they would have had time to return. In point of fact they were reaching out after something better, I mean, the heavenly country. It was because of that that God was not ashamed to be called their God, for he had prepared a city for them.
None of the patriarchs entered into the full possession of the promises that God had made to Abraham. To the end of their days they were nomads, never living a settled life in a settled land. They had to be for ever moving on. Certain great permanent truths emerge from them.
(i) They lived for ever as strangers. The writer to the Hebrews uses three vivid Greek words about them.
(a) In Hebrews 11:13 he calls them xenoi (Greek #3581). Xenos is the word for a stranger and a foreigner. In the ancient world the fate of the stranger was hard. He was regarded with hatred and suspicion and contempt. In Sparta xenos (Greek #3581) was the equivalent of barbaros (Greek #915), barbarian. A man writes complaining that he was despised "because I am a xenos (Greek #3581)". Another man writes that, however poor a home is, it is better to live at home than epi (Greek #1909) xenes (Greek #3581), in a foreign country. When clubs had their common meal, those who sat down to it were divided into members and xenoi (Greek #3581). Xenos (Greek #3581) can even mean a refugee. All their lives the patriarchs were foreigners in a land that never was their own.
(b) In Hebrews 11:9 he uses the word paroikein (Greek #3939), to sojourn, of Abraham. A paroikos (Greek #3941) was a resident alien. The word is used of the Jews when they were captives in Babylon and in Egypt. A paroikos (Greek #3941) was not very much above a slave in the social scale. He had to pay an alien tax. He was always an outsider and only on payment a member of the community.
(c) In Hebrews 11:13 he uses the word parepidemos (Greek #3927). A parepidemos was a person who was staying there temporarily and who had his permanent home somewhere else. Sometimes his stay was strictly limited. A parepidemos (Greek #3927) was a man in lodgings, a man without a home in the place where life had sent him. All their lives the patriarchs were men who had no settled place that they could call home. It is to be noted that to dwell in a foreign land was a humiliating thing in ancient days; to the foreigner in any country a certain stigma attached. In the Letter of Aristeas the writer says: "It is a fine thing to live and to die in one's native land; a foreign land brings contempt to poor men and shame to rich men, for there is the lurking suspicion that they have been exiled for the evil they have done." In Ecclesiasticus (Sirach 29:22-28) there is a wistful passage:
"Better the life of the poor under a shelter of logs
Than sumptuous fare in the house of strangers.
With little or much be contented:
So wilt thou not have to bear the reproach of thy wandering.
An evil life it is to go from house to house,
And where thou art a stranger thou must not open thy mouth.
A stranger thou art in that case and drinkest contempt;
And besides this thou wilt have to hear bitter things:
'Come hither, sojourner, and furnish my table,
And if thou hast aught feed me therewith';
Or, 'Get thee gone, sojourner, from the face of honour,
My brother is come as my guest, I have need of my house.'
These things are grievous to a man of understanding:
Upbraiding concerning sojourning, and the reproach of a
At any time it is an unhappy thing to be a stranger in a strange land, but in ancient days to this natural unhappiness there was added the bitterness of humiliation.
All their days the patriarchs were strangers in a strange land. That picture of the sojourner became a picture of the Christian life. Tertullian said of the Christian: "He knows that on earth he has a pilgrimage but that his dignity is in heaven." Clement of Alexandria said: "We have no fatherland on earth." Augustine said: "We are sojourners exiled from our fatherland." It was not that the Christians were foolishly other-worldly, detaching themselves from the life and work of this world; but they always remembered that they were people on the way. There is an unwritten saying of Jesus: "The world is a bridge. The wise man will pass over it but will not build his house upon it." The Christian regards himself as the pilgrim of eternity.
(ii) In spite of everything these men never lost their vision and their hope. However long that hope might be in coming true, its light always shone in their eyes. However long the way might be, they never stopped tramping along it. Robert Louis Stevenson said: "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive." They never wearily gave up the journey; they lived in hope and died in expectation.
(iii) In spite of everything they never wished to go back. Their descendants, when they were in the desert, often wished to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt. But not the patriarchs. They had begun and it never struck them to turn back. In flying there is what is called the point of no return. When the aeroplane has reached that point it cannot go back. Its petrol supply has reached such a level that there is nothing left but to go on. One of the tragedies of life is the number of people who turn back just a little too soon. One further effort, a little more waiting, a little more hoping, would make the dream come true. Immediately a Christian has set out on some enterprise sent him by God, he should feel that he has already passed the point of no return.
(iv) These men were able to go on because they were haunted by the things beyond. The man with the wanderlust is lured on by the thought of the countries he has never yet seen. The great artist or composer is driven by the thought of the performance he has never yet given and the wonder he has never yet produced. Stevenson tells of an old byreman who spent all his days amidst the muck of the byre. Someone asked him if he never got tired of it all. He answered; "He that has something ayont (beyond) need never weary." These men had the something beyond--and so may we.
(v) Because these men were what they were, God was not ashamed to be called their God. Above all things, he is the God of the gallant adventurer. He loves the man who is ready to venture for his name. The prudent, comfort-loving man is the very opposite of God. The man who goes out into the unknown and keeps going on will in the end arrive at God.
THE SUPREME SACRIFICE (Hebrews 11:17-19)
11:17-19 It was by faith that Abraham offered up Isaac when he was put to the test. He was willing to offer up even his only son, although it had been said to him: "It is in Isaac that your descendants will be named." He was willing to do this for he reckoned that God was able to raise him even from the dead. Hence he did receive him back which is a parable of the resurrection.
The Isaac story, told in Genesis 22:1-18, is that most dramatic account of how Abraham met the supreme test of the demand for the life of his own son. To some extent this story has fallen into disrepute. It is excluded from syllabuses of religious education because it is held to teach an unacceptable view of God. Or it is held that the point of the story is that it was in this way that Abraham learned that God did not desire human sacrifice. No doubt that is true; but, if we want to see this story at its greatest and as the writer to the Hebrews saw it, we must take it at its face value. It was the response of a man who was asked to offer God his own son.
(i) This story teaches us that we must be ready to sacrifice what is dearest to us for the sake of loyalty to God. There have been many who have sacrificed their careers to what they took to be the will of God. J. P. Struthers was the minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Greenock, a little congregation, which, it is neither false nor unkind to say, had a great past but no future. Had he been willing to forsake the Church of his fathers, any pulpit in the land was open to him and the most dazzling ecclesiastical prizes were his; but he sacrificed them all for the sake of what he considered to be loyalty to God's will.
Sometimes a man may have to sacrifice personal relationships. He may feel called by God to a task in a sphere which is difficult and in a place that is unattractive and it may be that the girl he is to marry will not face it with him. The man must choose between the will of God and the relationship which means so much to him. When Bunyan was in gaol he was thinking of what must happen to his family if he was executed. Especially the thought of his little blind daughter, who was so dear to him, haunted him: "O," he said, "I saw in this condition I was a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his wife and children; yet, thought I, I must do it, I must do it."
"The dearest idol I have known,
Whate'er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee."
Abraham was the man who would sacrifice even the dearest thing in life for God. Time and again in the early Church it happened. In a home one partner became a Christian and the other did not; the children became Christians and the parents did not. The sword came down upon that home; and unless there had been those who counted Christ dearer than all else, there would be no Christianity today.
God must come first in our lives, or he comes nowhere. There is a story of two children who had been given a toy Noah's Ark as a present. They had been listening to the Old Testament stories and determined that they too would offer a sacrifice. They examined the animals in their toy ark and finally decided on a sheep with a broken leg. The only thing they would offer was a broken toy they could well do without. That is the way in which so many people would like to sacrifice to God; but only the dearest and the best is good enough for him.
(ii) Abraham is the pattern of the man who accepts what he cannot understand. To him there had come this incomprehensible demand. It did not make sense. The promise was that in Isaac his seed would grow and grow until he became a mighty nation in which all others would be blessed. On the life of Isaac depended the promise; and now God seemed to want to take that life away. As Chrysostom put it: "The things of God seemed to fight against the things of God, and faith fought with faith, and the commandment fought with the promise." For everyone at some time there comes something for which there seems to be no reason and which defies explanation. It is then that a man is faced with life's hardest battle--to accept when he cannot understand. At such a time there is only one thing to do--to obey and to do so without resentment, saying: "God, you are love! I build my faith on that."
(iii) Abraham is the pattern of the man who, with the test, found a way of escape. If we take God at his word and stake everything on him, even when there seems to be nothing but a blank wall in front of us, the way of escape will open up.
THE FAITH WHICH DEFEATS DEATH (Hebrews 11:20-22)
11:20-22 It was by faith that Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in the things concerning the future. It was by faith that Jacob, when he was dying. blessed each of the sons of Joseph and prayed leaning, on the head of his staff. It was by faith that Joseph, as he came to the end, had his mind the days when the children of Israel would leave Egypt, and gave instructions concerning his bones.
One thing links these three examples of faith together. In each case it was the faith of a man to whom death was very near. The blessing which Isaac gave is in Genesis 27:28-29; Genesis 27:39-40. Given after Isaac had said: "Behold. I am old, I do not know the day of my death" (Genesis 27:2). it was: "God give you of the dew of heaven. and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow down to you." The blessing of Jacob is given in Genesis 48:9-22. The story has just said that "the time drew near that Israel must die" (Genesis 47:29). The blessing was: "in them let my name be perpetuated, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth" (Genesis 48:15-16). The incident from the life of Joseph comes from Genesis 50:22-26. When Joseph was near to death he made the Israelites take an oath that they would not leave his bones in Egypt but would take them with them when they went out to possess the promised land, which in due time they did (Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32).
The point which the writer to the Hebrews wishes to make is that all three men died without having entered into the promise that God had made, the promise of the Promised Land and of greatness to the nation of Israel. Isaac was still a nomad, Jacob wits an exile in Egypt. Joseph had attained to greatness but it was the greatness of a stranger in a strange land; and yet they never doubted that the promise would come true. They died not in despair but in hope. Their faith defeated death.
There is something of permanent greatness here. The thought in the mind of all these men was the same: "God's promise is true, for he never breaks a promise. I may not live to see it, death may come to me before that promise becomes a fact; but I am a link in its fulfilment. Whether or not that promise comes depends on me." Here is the great function of life. Our hopes may never be realized but we must live in such a way that we shall hasten their coming. It may not be given to every man to enter into the fullness of the promises or God, but it is given to him to live with such fidelity as to bring nearer the day when others will enter into it. To us all is given the tremendous task of helping God make his promises come true.
FAITH AND ITS SECRET (Hebrews 11:23-29)
11:23-29 It was by faith that Moses, when he was born, was kept hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful: and they did not fear the edict of the king. It was by faith that Moses, when he grew to manhood, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter and chose rather to suffer evil with the people of God than to enjoy the transient pleasures of sin, for he considered that a life of reproach for the sake of the Messiah was greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he kept his eyes fixed upon his reward. It was by faith that he left Egypt, unmoved by the blazing anger of the king, for he could face all things as one who sees him who is invisible. It was by faith that he carried out the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroying angel might not touch the children of his people. It was by faith that they crossed the Red Sea as if they were going through dry land and that the Egyptians, when they ventured to try to do so, were engulfed.
To the Hebrews Moses was the supreme figure in their history. He was the lender who had rescued them from slavery and who had received the Law of their lives from God. To the writer of the letter to the Hebrews Moses was pre-eminently the man of faith. In this story, as Moffatt points out, there are five different acts of faith. As with the other great characters whose names are included in this roll or honour of God's faithful ones, many legends and elaborations had gathered round the name of Moses and doubtless the writer of this letter had them also in his mind.
(i) There was the faith of Moses' parents. The story of their action is told in Exodus 2:1-10. Exodus 1:15-22 tells how the king of Egypt in his hatred tried to wipe out the children of the Israelites by having them killed at birth. Legend tells how Amram and Jochebed, the parents of Moses (Exodus 6:20), were troubled by the decree of Pharaoh. As a result Amram put away his wife, not because he did not love her, but because he would spare her the sorrow of seeing her children killed. For three years she was put away, and then Miriam prophesied: "My parents shall have another son, who shall deliver Israel out of the hands of the Egyptians." She said to her father: "What hast thou done? Thou hast sent thy wife away out of thine house, because thou couldst not trust the Lord God that he would protect the child that might be born to thee." So Amram, shamed into trusting God, took back his wife; and in due time Moses was born. He was so lovely a child that his parents determined to hide him in their house. This they did for three months. Then, the legend tells, the Egyptians struck upon a cruel scheme. The king was determined that hidden children should be sought out and killed. Now when a child hears another child cry, he will cry too. So Egyptian mothers were sent into the homes of the Israelites with their babies; there they pricked their babies until they cried. This made the hidden children of the Israelites cry, too, and so they were discovered and killed. In view of this, Amram and Jochebed decided to make a little ark and to entrust their child to it on the waters of the Nile.
That Moses was born at all was an act of faith; that he was preserved was another. He began by being the child of faith.
(ii) The second act of faith was Moses' loyalty to his own people. The story is told in Exodus 2:11-14. Again the legends help to light up the picture. When Moses was entrusted to the waters of the Nile, he was found by the daughter of Pharaoh, whose name is given as Bithia, or more commonly Thermouthis. She was entranced by his beauty. Legend says that when she drew the ark out of the water, the archangel Gabriel boxed the ears of the little baby to make him cry so that the heart of Thermouthis might be touched as she saw the little face puckered in sorrow and the eyes full of tears. Thermouthis, much to her sorrow, was childless; so she took the baby Moses home, and cared for him as her own son. He grew to be so beautiful that people turned in the street, and even ceased their work, to took at him. He was so wise that he was far beyond all other children in learning and in knowledge. When he was still a child, Thermouthis took him to Pharaoh and told him how she had found him. She placed him in his arms, and he was so entranced by the child that he embraced him and. at the request of Thermouthis, he promised to make him his heir. By way of jest he took his crown and placed it on the child's head; but the infant snatched the crown from his head and flung it on the ground and trampled on it. Pharaoh's wise men were full of foreboding that this child would some day trample the royal power under foot. They wished to destroy Moses there and then. But a test was proposed; they set before the child a bowl of precious stones and a bowl of live coals. If he put out his hand and touched the jewels, that would prove that he was so wise that he was a danger; if he put out his hands and touched the coals, that would prove that he was so witless that he was no danger. The infant Moses was about to touch the jewels when Gabriel took his hand and put it on the coals. His finger was burnt; he put the burnt finger in his mouth and burnt his mouth; that, they say, was why he was not a good speaker (Exodus 4:10) but stammered all his life.
So Moses was spared. He was brought up in all luxury. He was heir to the kingdom. He became one of the greatest of all Egyptian generals; in particular he conquered the Ethiopians when they were threatening Egypt and in the end was married to an Ethiopian princess. But all the time he had never forgotten his fellow-countrymen; and the day came when he decided to ally himself with the downtrodden Israelites and say goodbye to the future of riches and royalty that he might have had.
Moses gave up earthly glory for the sake of the people of God. Christ gave up his glory for the sake of mankind; and accepted scourging and shame and a terrible death. Moses in his day and generation shared in the sufferings of Christ, choosing the loyalty that led to suffering rather than the ease which led to earthly glory. He knew that the prizes of earth were contemptible compared with the ultimate reward of God.
(iii) There came the day when Moses, because of his intervention on behalf of his people, had to withdraw from Egypt to Midian (Exodus 2:14-22). Because of the order in which it comes that must be what Hebrews 11:27 refers to. Some people have found difficulty here, because the Exodus narrative says that it was because Moses feared Pharaoh that he fled to Midian (Exodus 2:14), while Hebrews says that he went out not fearing the blazing wrath of the king. There is no real contradiction. It is simply that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews saw even more deeply into the story. For Moses to withdraw to Midian was not an act of fear; it was an act of courage. It showed the courage of the man who has learned to wait.
The Stoics were wise; they held that a man should not throw his life away by needlessly provoking the wrath of a tyrant. Seneca wrote: "The wise man will never provoke the wrath of mighty men; nay, he will turn aside from it; in just the same way as sailors in sailing will not deliberately court the danger of the storm." At that moment Moses might have gone on but his people were not ready. If he had gone on recklessly he would simply have thrown his life away and the deliverance from Egypt might never have happened. He was big enough and brave enough to wait until God said: "Now is the hour."
Moffatt quotes a saying of A. S. Peake: "The courage to abandon work on which one's heart is set and accept inaction cheerfully as the will of God is of the rarest and highest kind and can be created and sustained only by the clearest spiritual vision." When our fighting instincts say: "Go on," it takes a big and a brave man to wait. It is human to fear to miss the chance; but it is great to wait for the time of God--even when it seems like throwing a chance away.
(iv) There came the day when Moses had to make all the arrangements for the first Passover. The account is in Exodus 12:12-48. The unleavened bread had to be made; the Passover lamb had to be slain; the door post had to be smeared with the blood of the lamb so that the Angel of Death would see the blood and pass over that house and not slay the first-born in it. But the really amazing thing is that, according to the Exodus story, Moses not only made these regulations for the night on which the children of Israel were leaving Israel; he also laid it down that they were to be observed annually for all time. That is to say, he never doubted the success of the enterprise, never doubted that the people would be delivered from Egypt and that some day they would reach the promised land. Here was a band of wretched Hebrew slaves about to set off on a journey across an unknown desert to an unknown promised land and here was the whole power of Egypt hot upon their heels; yet Moses never doubted that God would bring them safely through. He was pre-eminently the man who had the faith that if God gave his people an order he would also give them the strength to carry it out. Moses knew well that God does not summon his servants to a great task and leave it at that; he goes with them every step of the way.
(v) There was the great act of the crossing of the Red Sea. The story is told in Exodus 14:1-31 . There we read of how the children of Israel were wondrously enabled to pass through and of how the Egyptians were engulfed when they tried to do the same. It was at that moment that the faith of Moses communicated itself to the people and drove them on when they might well have turned back. Here we have the faith of a leader and of a people who were prepared to attempt the impossible at the command of God, realizing that the greatest barrier in the world is no barrier if God be there to help us overpass it. The book As in Adam has this sentence: "The business of life, the way to life, consists in getting over fences, not in lying down and moaning on the hither side." To Moses belonged the faith to attempt what appeared to be the most insurmountable fences in the certainty that God would help the man who refused to turn back and insisted on going on.
Finally, this passage not only tells us of the faith of Moses; it also tells us of the source of that faith. Hebrews 11:27 tells us that he was able to face all things as one who sees him who is invisible. The outstanding characteristic of Moses was the close intimacy of his relationship with God. In Exodus 33:9-11 we read of how he went into the Tabernacle; "and the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend." In Numbers 12:7-8 we read of God's verdict on him when there were those who were ready to rebel against him: "with him I speak mouth to mouth." To put it simply--the secret of his faith was that Moses knew God personally. To every task he came out from God's presence.
It is told that before a great battle Napoleon would stand in his tent alone; he would send for his commanders to come to him, one by one; when they came in, he would say no word but would look them in the eye and shake them by the hand; and they would go out prepared to die for the general whom they loved. That is like Moses and God. Moses had the faith he had because he knew God in the way he did. When we come to it straight from God's presence, no task can ever defeat us. Our failure and our fear are so often due to the fact that we try to do things alone. The secret of victorious living is to face God before we face men.
THE FAITH WHICH DEFIED THE FACTS (Hebrews 11:30-31)
11:30-31 It was by faith that the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. It was by faith that Rahab, the harlot, did not perish with the disobedient because she had welcomed the scouts in peace.
The writer to the Hebrews has been citing as examples of faith the great figures of the time before Israel entered into the Promised Land. Now he takes two figures from the period of struggle when the children of Israel were winning a place for themselves within Palestine.
(i) The first is the story of the fall of Jericho. That strange old story is told in Joshua 6:1-20. Jericho was a strong city, barred and fortified. To take it seemed impossible. It was God's commandment that once a day for six days and in silence the people should march round it, led by seven priests marching in front of the ark and bearing trumpets of rams' horn. On the seventh day the priests were to blow upon the trumpets, after the city had been encircled seven times, and the people were to shout with all their might, "and the wall of the city will fall down flat." As the old story tells it, so it happened.
That story left an indelible mark upon the memory of Israel. Centuries after this Judas Maccabaeus and his men were facing the city of Caspis, so secure in its strength that its defenders laughed in their safety. "Wherefore Judas with his company, calling upon the great Lord of the world, who without any rams or engines of war did cast down Jericho in the time of Joshua, gave it fierce assault against the walls and took the city by the will of God" (2 Maccabees 12:13-16). The people never forgot what great things God had done for them and, when some great effort was called for, they nerved themselves for it by remembering them.
Here is the very point the writer to the Hebrews wishes to make. The taking of Jericho was the result of an act of faith. It was taken by men who thought not of what they could do but of what God could do for them. They were prepared to believe that God could make their obvious weakness able for an incredible task. After the smashing of the Spanish Armada, there was erected on Plymouth Hoe a monument with the inscription: "God sent his wind and they were scattered." When the people of England saw how the storm and the gale had shattered the Spanish Armada, they said: "God did it." When we are faced with any great and demanding task, God is the ally we must never leave out of the reckoning. That which to us alone is impossible is always possible with him.
(ii) The second story the writer to the Hebrews takes is that of Rahab. It is told in Joshua 2:1-21 and finds its sequel in Joshua 6:25. When Joshua sent out spies to spy out the situation in Jericho, they found a lodging in the house of Rahab, a harlot. She protected them and enabled them to make their escape; and in return, when Jericho was taken she and her family were saved from the general slaughter. It is extraordinary how Rahab became imprinted on the memory of Israel. James (James 2:25) quotes her as a great example of the good works which demonstrate faith. The Rabbis were proud to trace their descent to her. And, amazingly, she is one of the names which appear in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). Clement of Rome quotes her as an outstanding example of one who was saved "by faith and hospitality."
When the writer to the Hebrews cites her, the point he desires to make is this--Rahab in face of all the facts believed in the God of Israel. She said to the spies whom she welcomed and hid: "I know that the Lord has given you the land.... For the Lord your God, is he who is God in heaven above, and on earth beneath" (Joshua 2:9-11). At the moment when she was speaking, there seemed not one chance in a million that the children of Israel could capture Jericho. These nomads from the desert had no artillery and no siege-engines. Yet Rahab believed and staked her whole future on the belief--that God would make the impossible possible. When common sense pronounced the situation hopeless, she had the uncommon sense to see beyond the situation. The real faith and the real courage are those which can take God's side when it seems doomed to defeat. As Faber had it:
"Thrice blest is he to whom is given
The instinct that can tell
That God is on the field when he
Is most invisible.
For right is right, since God is God;
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter would be sin."
The Christian believes that no man who takes the side of God can ever ultimately be on the losing side for, even if he knows earth's defeats, there is a victory whose trophies are in heaven.
THE HEROES OF THE FAITH (Hebrews 11:32-34)
11:32-34 And what more shall I say? Time will fail me if I try to recount the story of Gideon, of Barak, of Samson, or Jephthah, of David. of Samuel and of the prophets, men who, through faith, mastered kingdoms, did righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword. from weakness were made strong, showed themselves strong in warfare, routed the ranks of aliens.
In this passage the writer lets his mind's eye roam back over the history of his people; and out of it there springs to memory name after name of those who were heroic souls. He does not take them in any particular order but, as we shall see when we look at the outstanding characteristics of each, there is a line of thought which binds them all together.
The story of Gideon is told in 6:1-40; 7:1-25. With only three hundred men Gideon won a victory over the Ammonites in days when they had terrorized Israel, a victory which went ringing down the centuries. The story of Barak is in 4:1-24; 5:1-31. Under the inspiration of the prophetess Deborah, Barak assembled ten thousand young men and faced the fearful odds of the Canaanites with their nine hundred chariots of iron to win an almost incredible victory. It was as if a band of almost unarmed infantry had routed a division of tanks. The story of Samson is in 13:1-25; 14:1-20; 15:1-20; 16:1-31. Always Samson was fighting alone. In the isolation of his splendid strength again and again he faced the most amazing odds and emerged triumphant. He was the scourge of the Philistines. The story of Jephthah is in 11:1-40; 12:1-15. Jephthah was an illegitimate son; he was driven into a kind of exile and into the life of an outlaw; but when the Ammonites were putting Israel into fear, the forgotten outlaw was called back and won a tremendous victory, although his vow to God cost him the life of his daughter. There was David, who had once been a shepherd lad and who, to his own and everyone else's astonishment, was anointed king in preference to all his brothers (1 Samuel 16:1-13). There was Samuel, born to his mother so late in life (1 Samuel 1:1-28 ), again and again moving alone as the only strong and faithful man of God amongst an easily frightened, discontented and rebellious people. There were the prophets, man after man of them bearing a faithful and isolated witness to God.
The whole list is of men who faced incredible odds for God. It is of men who never believed that God was on the side of the big battalions and were willing to take tremendous and even terrifying risks for him. It is of men who cheerfully and courageously and confidently accepted God-given tasks which, on human terms, were impossible. They were all men who were never afraid to stand alone and to face immense odds for the sake of their loyalty to God. The honour roll of history is of men who chose to be in God's minority rather than with earth's majority.
In the second part of the passage the writer to the Hebrews tells what these men did and others like them in a series of machine-gun-like phrases. For most of us much of their impact may be lost, for this reason--phrase after phrase is a reminiscence. For those who knew the scriptures well in their Greek version, phrase after phrase would ring a bell in the mind. The word used for mastering kingdoms is what Josephus, the Jewish historian, used of David. The phrase used for wrought righteousness is the description of David in 2 Samuel 8:15. The expression used for stopping the mouths of lions is that used of Daniel in Daniel 6:18; Daniel 6:23. The phrase about quenching the violence of fire goes straight back to the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego in Daniel 3:19-28. To speak about escaping the edge, of the sword was to direct men's thoughts to the way in which Elijah escaped threatened assassination in 1 Kings 19:1 ff and Elisha in 2 Kings 6:31 ff. The trumpet call about being strong in warfare and routing the ranks o the aliens would immediately make men think of the unforgettable glories of the Maccabaean days.
The phrase about being made strong out of weakness might conjure up many a picture. It might paint the mental picture of the extraordinary healing of Hezekiah after he had turned his face to the wall to die (2 Kings 20:1-7). Perhaps more likely in the time in which the writer to the Hebrews wrote, it would remind his hearers of that epic but bloodthirsty incident told in the Book o Judith, one of the apocryphal books. There was a time when Israel was threatened by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar led by his general Holofernes. The Jewish town of Bethulia had determined to surrender in five days' time for its supplies of food and water were at an end. In the town there was a widow called Judith. She was wealthy and beautiful but she had lived in lonely mourning since her husband Manasses had died. She dressed in all her finery, persuaded her people to let her out of the town and went straight to the camp of the Assyrians. She gained entry into the presence of Holofernes and persuaded him that she was convinced of the defeat of her people as a punishment for their sins. She offered him a way into Jerusalem by stealth; and then, having gained his confidence, she slew him in his drunken sleep with his own dagger, cut off his head and carried it back to her people. The traitors within the camp were silenced and looming defeat was turned into tumultuous victory. A woman's weakness had become strength to save her country.
The writer to the Hebrews is here seeking to inspire new courage and a new sense of responsibility by making his hearers remember their past. He does not do it blatantly but with infinite artistry. He does not so much tell them what to remember as by delicate hints compel them to remember for themselves. When Oliver Cromwell was arranging for the education of his son Richard, he said: "I would have him learn a little history." When we are discouraged, let us remember and take heart again. God's arm is not shortened; his power is not grown less. What he did once he can do again, for the God of history is the same one as we worship today.
THE DEFIANCE OF SUFFERING (Hebrews 11:35-40)
11:35-40 Women received back their own folk as if they had been raised from the dead. Others were crucified because they refused to accept release, for they were eager to obtain a better resurrection. Others went through scoffing and scourging, yes, and chains and imprisonment. They were stoned; they were sawn asunder; they underwent every kind of trial; they died by the murder of the sword. They went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, they were in want, they were oppressed, they were maltreated--the world was not worthy of them--they wandered in desert places and on the mountains, they lived in caves and in holes of the earth. All these, though they were attested through their faith, did not receive the promise. because God had some better plan for us, that they, without us, should not find all his purposes fulfilled.
In this passage the writer to the Hebrews is intermingling different periods of history. Sometimes he takes his illustrations from the Old Testament period; but still more he takes them from the Maccabaean period which falls between the Old and the New Testaments.
First let us take the things that can be explained against the Old Testament background. In the lives of Elijah (1 Kings 17:17 ff.) and of Elisha (2 Kings 4:8 ff.) we read how. by the power and the faith of the prophets, women did receive back again their children who had died. 2 Chronicles 24:20-22 tells how the prophet Zechariah was stoned by his own people because he told them the truth. Legend had it that down in Egypt Jeremiah was stoned to death by his fellow-countrymen. Jewish legend tells that Isaiah was sawn asunder. Hezekiah, the good king, died, and Manasseh came to the throne. He worshipped idols and tried to compel Isaiah to take part in his idolatry and to approve of it. Isaiah refused and was condemned to be sawn asunder with a wooden saw. While his enemies tried to make him recant his faith he steadfastly defied them and prophesied their doom. "And whilst the saw cut into his flesh, Isaiah uttered no complaint and shed no tears; but he ceased not to commune with the Holy Spirit till the saw had cloven him to the middle of his body."
Even more the mind of the writer to the Hebrews goes back over the terrible days of the Maccabaean struggle. That is a struggle of which every Christian should know something, for if in these killing times, the Jews had surrendered their faith, Jesus could not have come. The story is like this.
About the year 170 B.C. there was on the throne of Syria a king called Antiochus Epiphanes. He was a good governor but he had an almost abnormal love for all things Greek and saw himself as a missionary for the Greek way of life. He tried to introduce this into Palestine. He had some success; there were those who were willing to accept Greek culture, Greek drama, Greek athletics. Greek athletes trained naked and some of the Jewish priests even went so far as to seek to obliterate the mark of circumcision from their bodies so that they might become completely hellenized. So far, Antiochus had succeeded only in causing a division in the nation; the greater part of the Jews were unshakeably true to their faith and could not be moved. Force and violence had not yet been used.
Then about 168 B.C. the matter came to boiling-point. Antiochus had an interest in Egypt. He amassed an army and invaded that country. To his deep humiliation the Romans ordered him home. They did not send an army to oppose him; such was the might of Rome that they did not need to. They sent a senator called Popilius Laena with a small and quite unarmed suite. Popilius and Antiochus met on the boundaries of Egypt. They talked; they both knew Rome and they had been friendly. Then, very gently, Popilius told Antiochus that Rome did not wish him to proceed with the campaign but wished him to go home. Antiochus said that he would consider it. Popilius took the stall which he was carrying and drew a circle in the sand round about Antiochus. Quietly he said: "Consider it now; you will give me your decision before you leave that circle." Antiochus thought for a moment and realized that to defy Rome was impossible. "I will go home," he said. It was a shattering humiliation for a king.
So Antiochus turned for home, almost mad with rage; and on the way he turned aside and attacked Jerusalem, capturing it almost without an effort. It was said that 80,000 Jews were killed and 10,000 sold into captivity. But there was worse to come. He sacked the Temple. The golden altars of the shewbread and of the incense, the golden candlestick, the golden vessels, even the curtains and the veils were taken. The treasury was sacked. Worse was to come. On the altar of the burnt offering he offered sacrifices of swine flesh to Zeus; and he turned the Temple chambers into brothels. No act of sacrilege was omitted. Still worse was to come. He completely forbade circumcision and the possession of the scriptures and of the law. He ordered the Jews to eat meats which were unclean and to sacrifice to the Greek gods. Inspectors went throughout the land to see that these commands were carried out. And if any were found to defy them, they "underwent great miseries and bitter torments.; for they were whipped with rods and their bodies were torn to pieces; they were crucified while they were still alive and breathed; they also strangled those women and their sons whom they had circumcised, as the king had appointed, hanging their sons about their necks as if they were upon their crosses. And if there were any sacred book of the law found, it was destroyed; and those with whom they were found miserably perished also" (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 12: 5, 4). Never in all history has there been such a sadistic and deliberate attempt to wipe out a people's religion.
It is easy to see how this passage can be read against the terrible happenings of these days. The Book of Fourth Maccabees has two famous stories which were undoubtedly in the mind of the writer to the Hebrews when he made his list of the things that the man of faith has had to suffer.
The first is the story of Eleazar, the aged priest (4 Maccabees 5:1-38; 4 Maccabees 6:1-35; 4 Maccabees 7:1-23). He was brought before Antiochus and ordered to eat swine's flesh, being threatened with the direst penalties if he refused. He did refuse. "We, Antiochus," he said, "who are convinced that we live under a divine law, consider no compulsion to be so forcible as obedience to our law." He would not comply with the king's order, "no, not if you pluck out my eyes and consume my bowels in the fire." They stripped him naked and scourged him with whips, while a herald stood by him, saying: "Obey the king's commands," His flesh was torn off by the whips and he streamed down with blood and his flanks were laid open by wounds. He collapsed and one of the soldiers kicked him violently in the stomach to make him rise. In the end even the guards were moved to wondering compassion. They suggested to him that they would bring him dressed meat which was not pork, and that he should eat it pretending that it was pork. He refused. "We should thus ourselves become an example of impiety to the young, if we became to them an excuse for eating the unclean." In the end they carried him to the fire and threw him on it, "burning him with cruelly contrived instruments and pouring stinking liquids into his nostrils." So he died, declaring: "I am dying by fiery torments for the law's sake."
The second is the story of the seven brothers (4 Maccabees 8:1-29; 4 Maccabees 9:1-32; 4 Maccabees 10:1-21; 4 Maccabees 11:1-27; 4 Maccabees 12:1-19; 4 Maccabees 13:1-27; 4 Maccabees 14:1-20). They, too, were given the same choice and confronted with the same threats. They were confronted with "the wheels and racks and hooks and catapults and caldrons and frying pans and finger racks and iron hands and wedges and hot cinders." The first brother refused to eat the unclean things. They lashed him with whips and tied him to the wheel until he was dislocated and fractured in every limb. "They heaped up fuel and, setting fire to it, strained him upon the wheel still more. And the wheel was besmeared all over with blood, and the heap of coals was extinguished with the droppings of gore, and pieces of flesh flew about the axles of the machine." But he withstood their tortures and died faithful. The second brother they bound to the catapults. They donned spiked iron gloves. "These wild beasts, fierce as panthers, first dragged all the flesh off his sinews with their iron gauntlets to his chin and tore off the skin of his head." He, too, died faithful. The third brother was brought forward. "The officers, impatient at the man's boldness, dislocated his hands and feet with racking engines and wrenching them from their sockets, pulled his limbs asunder. And they fractured his fingers and his arms and his legs and his elbows." In the end they tore him apart on the catapult and flayed him alive. He, too, died faithful. They cut out the tongue of the fourth brother before they submitted him to like tortures. The fifth brother they bound to the wheel, bending his body round the edge of it, and then fastened him with iron fetters to the catapult and tore him in pieces. The sixth they broke upon the wheel "while a fire roasted him from beneath. Then they heated sharp spits and applied them to his back; and piercing through his sides they burned away his bowels." The seventh brother they roasted alive in a gigantic frying pan. These, too, died faithful.
These are the things of which the writer to the Hebrews is thinking; and these are things which we do well to remember. It was due to the faith of these men that the Jewish religion was not completely destroyed. If that religion had been destroyed, what would have happened to the purposes of God? How could Jesus have been born into the world if the Jewish religion had ceased to exist? In a very real way we owe our Christianity to these martyrs of the times when Antiochus made his deliberate attempt to wipe out the Jewish religion.
There came a day when the situation ignited. The agents of Antiochus had gone to a town called Modin and had erected an altar there to make the inhabitants do sacrifice to the Greek gods. The emissaries of Antiochus tried to persuade a certain Mattathias to set an example by offering sacrifice, for he was a distinguished and influential man. He refused in anger. But another Jew, seeking to curry favour and to save his own life, came forward and was about to sacrifice. Mattathias, moved to uncontrollable wrath, seized a sword and slew his apostate countryman and the king's commissioner with him.
The standard of rebellion was raised. Mattathias and his sons and those like-minded took to the hills; and once again the phrases used to describe their life there were in the mind of the writer to the Hebrews and he has echoes of them over and over again. "So Mattathias and his sons fled into the mountains, and left all that they ever had in the city" (1 Maccabees 2:28). "Judas Maccabaeus (and his friends) withdrew himself into the wilderness and lived in the mountains, after the manner of beasts" (2 Maccabees 5:27). "Others, who had run together into caves near by, to keep the Sabbath day secretly, being discovered...were all burnt together" (2 Maccabees 6:11). "They wandered in the mountains and in the dens like beasts" (2 Maccabees 10:6). In the end under Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers the Jews regained their freedom and the Temple was cleansed and the faith flourished again.
In this passage the writer to the Hebrews has done as before. He does not actually mention these things. Far better than his hearers should be moved by this and that phrase to remember them for themselves.
In the end he says a great thing. All these died before the final unfolding of God's promise and the coming of his Messiah into the world. It was as if God had so arranged things that the full blaze of his glory should not be revealed until we and they can enjoy it together. The writer to the Hebrews is saving: "See! the glory of God has come. But see what it cost to enable it to come! That is the faith which gave you your religion. What can you do but be true to a heritage like that?"
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 11". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany