Bible Commentaries
Hebrews 11

Ironside's Notes on Selected BooksIronside's Notes

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Verses 1-40

Division IV. Chap. 11 The Path of Faith and the Heroes of Faith in all Dispensations

Section A. Hebrews 11:1-3

The Nature of Faith

Some one has called this eleventh chapter “God’s honor roll.” It is indeed a wonderful record of the triumphs of faith on the part of eminent servants of God in four different dispensations. Abel, Enoch and Noah, in antediluvian days; Noah and Abraham himself in the dispensation of government; then Abraham, after the promise of the Seed, to Joseph the patriarch; and Moses and the other worthies of the dispensation of law. All these were but preparatory periods leading on to the present glorious dispensation of the grace of God. But in all these past ages we see that faith was the controlling power that enabled men to walk with God and triumph over the corrupting influences of their times. It is important to remember that God has never had two ways of saving men. While the revelation of His grace has come gradually, and various rites and ceremonies have been linked with it at different times, these latter have had nothing to do with regenerating or justifying the individual. It has always been true that faith in God’s Word, whatever that Word may have been, has alone justified man before Him, and through that Word men have been saved in all ages, thus entering into His spiritual kingdom and recognizing His authority in a world at variance with that divine rule. This comes out very clearly in our present chapter. In Hebrews 11:1-3 we are given to understand the nature of faith itself. “It is the substantiating of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” as another has translated it. That is, faith in what God has declared gives the soul absolute assurance and firm conviction of the reality of things which the natural eye has never seen. Yet these things are as real to the man of faith as anything that he can see, feel, taste, smell, or handle. In fact, they become even more real, for his senses might deceive him, but the Word of God he knows to be absolutely infallible. It was this positive realization that every word of God is true which quickened into newness of life believers in ancient times, and enabled them to bear testimony to things that the natural man could never apprehend by such evidence as appeals to his mind.

Men have speculated all through the centuries as to the origin of the universe, and have questioned whether matter is eternal, or whether it was directly created by God. But apart from revelation, no man can speak with certainty in regard to these things. Faith alone gives apprehension of the truth. By faith we understand that the worlds were made by the Word of God, so that the things which we now see were brought into existence at His command out of nothing. It is well known that the word translated “worlds” really means “ages,” but the last part of the sentence shows that the material creation is in view; but it is the material creation as passing through a series of changing ages, all of which were planned beforehand by God Himself, for the glory of His Son.

What a magnificent conception is this and how far beyond the highest thoughts of the mere natural scientist! Reverent, God-fearing men of science have always recognized the necessity of this divine revelation as to the origin of matter, and have had no difficulty with the sublime narrative of Genesis 1:0. It is only unbelief and wilful rejection of the testimony of God that makes men stumble at and pervert so wondrous an unfolding of the beginnings of the created heavens and earth. Faith bows in subjection to the witness God has given and glorifies Him for such a marvelous unfolding of the divine wisdom. The late F. W. Grant has aptly pointed out the incongruity of the position of a scientist like Charles Darwin, whose great book, “The Origin of Species,” was hailed by many as throwing a flood of light upon the method of creation; and yet in that very book, Darwin never touches the question of origins! In the very nature of things, he cannot do so, for no man who is not subject to the Holy Spirit knows anything whatever about the beginnings of the material universe, and creatures living in it. But to faith all is plain. The simplest Christian with his Bible before him would say, “By faith we understand.”

Section B. Hebrews 11:4-7

Faith Exemplified in Antediluvian Times

Three pattern men are selected by the Holy Spirit from the dispensation of conscience, which extended from the expulsion of our first parents from Eden to the destruction of “the world that then was,” by the flood. Eliphaz, in the book of Job, directs attention to “the way which wicked men of old have taken, whose foundation was overflown with a flood: which said unto God, Depart from us.” Here, on the other hand, we are asked to contemplate three men who found their delight in God, and glorified Him by faith in a day when corruption and violence were rapidly filling the earth.

In Abel we have the basic truth that approach to God is on the ground of sacrifice; and that the offering up of a living creature whose blood was designed of God to illustrate the sacrifice and death of His own blessed Son. That it was not any mere assumption on the part of Abel that led him to select a lamb of the flock for his offering, nor simply an arbitrary act of his will, is evident from the fact that we are told, “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.” Faith is taking God at His word. Manifestly, therefore, we are to understand that God Himself had revealed the truth that approach to Him must be by sacrifice. This revelation Cain impudently ignored. Abel acted in accordance with God’s revealed will, and in so doing, “obtained testimony that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and by it he, being dead, yet speaketh.” His righteousness consisted in believing God and acting accordingly.

In Enoch we see a further truth illustrated. He walked with God by faith, and faith that triumphed over death. He was taken to Heaven without dying. As in the case of Elijah afterwards, men sought in vain for his body. He was not found because God had translated him. Before his rapture, he had the testimony that he pleased God. We may well be reminded of our Lord’s words, “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and he that liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.” Just as Enoch was translated before the judgment of the flood came, so those now who walk by faith and are living upon the earth at the return of our Lord Jesus to gather His own to Himself, will be caught up to meet Him in the air without passing through death.

Thus we see that Enoch’s faith and ours are of the same character. We see that he was a regenerated man who was justified before God and walked with God in the power of faith. “Without faith, it is impossible to please Him.” The natural man could not in any dispensation live to the glory of God, therefore the need of a second birth. For he that would draw nigh to God must have faith in Him, truly believing that He exists and that He will reward those who seek Him out. This is in full accord with the great declaration of Romans 2:6-8. No man in any dispensation honestly sought after God and failed to find Him, for He always revealed Himself to faith.

In Noah we have faith triumphing over judgment. Here again we are called to contemplate a man who in a dark and difficult day heard the voice of God in his inmost soul, and was oracularly warned of Him concerning something which, in the very nature of things, he could not see; but he believed God and, moved with fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his house. By acting thus upon the Word of the Lord, he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. The very building of the ark was in itself a sermon to the antediluvians. Every tap of Noah’s hammer was a part of his preaching of righteousness to that generation. It declared him to be a man of faith, and it manifested their utter unbelief.

When God said to Noah, “Come thou and all thy house into the ark, for thee have I seen righteous in this generation,” it was primarily the righteousness which is of faith of which He spoke. But where there is real faith in the soul, the life will correspond to that righteousness which is divinely imputed.

Section C. Hebrews 11:8-16

Faith in View of the Promised Seed

Noah belongs to two dispensations. His testimony closed that in which man had been tried and found wanting under conscience. As he stepped out of the ark and built his altar upon the new earth, another dispensation began, that of human government, and of promise and testimony, which we generally speak of as the patriarchal age. In this, Abraham becomes the distinctive figure, though God graciously gives a very large place to the faith of Sarai, his wife, and that in spite of the fact that the casual reader of the record in Genesis might imagine that Sarai had very little faith indeed, when she had to be reproved by the angel for her unseemly laughter in the face of the divine declaration that she should have a son.

The very first step that Abraham took, as recorded in the Word, was one of faith. “By faith Abraham, being called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” There is no mention here of his failures-the stop in Haran, nor yet the fact that he did not immediately separate himself from his kindred, but that actually his father seems to have taken the initiative in this first step. But the faith that led to the entire movement was that of Abraham, to whom God had revealed Himself in Ur of the Chaldees. According to the statement of Joshua, there can be little doubt that Abraham’s family was idolatrous. He said, “Your fathers dwelt of old on the other side of the flood, Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor, and they served other gods” (Joshua 24:2). But it was to a young man brought up in these circumstances that the living God revealed Himself, and from that moment faith sprang up in Abraham’s soul. He was a new man, born of God, though he did not yet have the clear testimony that he was justified by faith. That came later with the fuller revelation of the promised Seed.

By faith he trod the pilgrim path, dwelling as a stranger in the land of promise, his tent and his altar witnessing to the double character of the pilgrim and the worshipper. Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise, followed his example. The tenth verse suggests that God had made wonderful revelations to Abraham, which are not recorded in the Old Testament; for we read, “He looked for a city which hath foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God.” This city is never described for us until we come to the closing chapters of the book of Revelation. It is the home of all the saints of God, and toward that Abraham looked and, because of its glory, counted things then present as of small moment.

Sarai’s faith, though obscured at times, shines out brightly indeed when we remember how utterly impossible from a human standpoint it was that she should ever become the mother of the promised child. That there was a breakdown on the part of both herself and her husband-a breakdown which brought Hagar into the home and led to unhappy circumstances later-is perfectly true, but all this was only temporary. That which God delights to remember of Sarai is that she “counted Him faithful who promised.” And so the apostle reminds us, “There have been born of one, and that of one become dead, even as the stars in heaven in multitude, and as the countless sands which are by the seashore.”

So this particular section concludes with the declaration that all of these died in faith. They left this scene without having received all that was promised, but the promises became to them very real, and they laid hold of them, and because of these promises confessed themselves strangers and pilgrims on the earth. To relinquish present things in view of future blessing is to declare openly that one is seeking a country. No one can truly relinquish this world below until he has seen by faith a better and brighter world above. Had the patriarchs desired, they could have returned to the temporal things from which God had called them out, but they sought a better, that is, a heavenly country; they let go of present advantage as they reached out for that which God had promised. Therefore, it is His delight to own them now as His own, and to link His name with theirs for whom He has prepared a city. May it be ours to follow in their train, and thus as strangers and pilgrims press on to the rest that remains for the people of God. One is reminded of J. Denham Smith’s beautiful words:

“Rise up and hasten,

My soul, haste along!

And speed on thy journey

With hope and with song.

Home, home is nearing,

Tis coming into view,

A little more of toiling,

And then to earth adieu.

“Why should we linger

When Heaven lies before?

Earth’s fast receding,

And soon will be no more;

Its joys and its treasures,

Which once here we knew,

Now never more can charm us,

With such a goal in view.”

Section D. Hebrews 11:17-22

Faith Exemplified in the Patriarchs from Abraham to Joseph

Beginning with the seventeenth verse (Hebrews 11:17)we have another distinct series bearing witness to the power of faith. Abraham is brought in again, but in an altogether different connection. Heretofore he has been before us as the expectant believer waiting upon God to fulfil His promise to give him a son. We have seen how that faith was rewarded in due time, after nature had been proved to be utterly powerless and as good as dead. Now we have the same patriarch manifesting faith under new and even more trying circumstances. The promised son had been given, but to the father’s heart there came the demand from God to give that son back to Him, and to do it in such a way as to prefigure the sacrifice of God’s own Son upon the cross, and in a manner that transcended every other Old Testament type. The scene in Genesis 22:0 is one that moves every regenerated soul to worship and praise as he reads it, presenting as it does the father and the son going to the place of sacrifice. Twice in that chapter we get the tender and meaningful words, “They went both of them together” (Genesis 22:6; Genesis 22:8). How strikingly this sets forth that mystic journey of the Father and the Son from the throne of glory to the cross of Calvary. Of these divine Persons it may also be said, “They went both of Them together.” It tells us something of what it meant to God to give His Son to die on behalf of sinful man, as well as reminding us of what it meant to Jesus to take our place in judgment and die in our room and stead.

In Abraham’s case, God, as F. W. Grant has well said, “spared that father’s heart a pang which He would not spare His own.” So Abraham offered up his son in figure only, and in figure received him again from the dead. We need not dwell on the shock that must have been his when the command first came to take his son and offer him as a burnt-offering. If he did so, how could the words ever be fulfilled, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called?” But faith triumphed over an apparently insurmountable difficulty so far as nature was concerned, and Abraham bound his son upon the altar and actually took the knife to slay him, “counting that God was able to raise him up even from the dead.” It was faith at its highest, triumphing over every question that the human mind could raise, and depending upon the living God who is the God of resurrection to work out His own wondrous purpose of grace. Such faith could not fail of reward.

The next character mentioned is Isaac himself, and singularly enough his quiet uneventful life is passed over, and it is in connection with the blessing pronounced upon Jacob and Esau concerning things to come that his faith shines out. Yet if we read the Old Testament record it would seem as though he had failed completely at that very point, and had only conferred upon Jacob the blessing of Abraham because his wife and younger son conspired together to deceive him. But the blessing once given, Isaac seems to have risen above his own feelings and preferences, and recognized that God had overruled, and so he later confirmed the blessing to Jacob while giving to Esau a lesser one, and in both he manifested his faith in the Abrahamic Covenant. We might have thought that faith was at a very low ebb indeed in this instance, but beneath all Isaac’s own confused predilections, God makes it evident that He discerned real faith in the manner in which he blessed his sons.

In Jacob’s case too, it was when he was dying that faith shone out most triumphantly. After a checkered life of mingled self-will and subjection to God, during all of which he was under the divine discipline because of failure, he saw with clear unhindered vision the future of his people when, as he was about to leave this world, he blessed Ephraim and Manasseh, putting the younger before the firstborn in a manner that manifested the reality of his faith, as he worshipped, bowing upon the top of his staff. His had been a long life for self and a short life for God, but he passed off the scene as a worshipper, triumphing by faith.

It may seem a singular thing, when we think of the wonderful life of Joseph, a man in whom faith was markedly manifested throughout, that once more our attention is focused upon something that took place just before he died. But in his case it was clearly the culmination of his entire pilgrimage. Though he attained to great honor in Egypt, he ever realized that his home was not there, and he maintained his pilgrim character to the very last. Therefore, as he was about to die, he reminded the children of Israel that Canaan was their proper inheritance, and gave commandment that when they should leave Egypt to return to the land God had given to their fathers, they should carry with them his bones. This might seem a little thing, but God has drawn particular attention to it in several scriptures. It is in Genesis 50:25 that we have the commandment referred to. Then in Exodus 13:19 we are told how this commandment was obeyed when the hosts of Israel went out of Egypt. All through their wilderness wanderings they carried the bones of Joseph, typical surely for us of our present responsibility ever to “bear about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in us.” Then in Joshua 24:32 we are told how the bones of Joseph were buried at last in that parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, there to rest until the morning of the first resurrection. It was toward this that Joseph’s faith evidently looked expectantly, and this enabled him to maintain his alienage in Egypt, a type of this present evil world. And so this series ends, and in the next verse another begins.

Section E. Hebrews 11:23-40

Varied Experiences of Faith from Moses to the Later Prophets

It is Moses, the law-giver, who occupies the largest place in this section, and in him we see faith working under varied circumstances. Although Providence had placed him in Pharaoh’s house and probably made him heir to the throne, his faith took him out of the palace and sent him into the wilderness. For when he had come to full age, after forty years learning the wisdom of the Egyptians, he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and, recognizing his relationship with the nation of slaves, he fled from the Egyptians, and sought a home in the desert. From the people of Israel the Messiah was to come, and because of his faith in Him, Moses “chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.” For him to go on in Pharaoh’s court acquiescing in his designs against Israel, would indeed have been to purchase present ease and comfort at the expense of future judgment, for he saw that such a course was sinful in itself and its pleasures only for a season. The reproach of Christ meant more to him than Egypt’s riches and honors, for he looked ahead to the coming day of reward. If it be asked in what sense he could be said to know anything of the reproach of Christ, the answer of course is that “Christ” is simply the Greek word that represents the Hebrew “Messiah.” And so for Messiah’s sake Moses forsook Egypt. By faith he gave up all his privileges there and, in spite of great trials, endured as seeing Him who is invisible. It is only faith that discerns the invisible God who transcends all circumstances. In the obedience of faith, Moses observed the Passover according to the commandment of the Lord, he and all Israel finding shelter from the judgment of the last great plague beneath the sprinkled blood. What a picture of that wondrous place of refuge which the believer now has as sheltered by the blood of Christ!

And as by faith they were redeemed by blood, so by the same faith in active exercise, they were redeemed by power as they went forward at God’s command, passing through the Red Sea on dry land, which the Egyptians in vain attempted, only to be overthrown beneath the mighty waters. This twenty-ninth verse brings out very clearly the difference between faith and presumption. Moses and his people passed through the Red Sea by faith because they acted in obedience to the Word of God. The Egyptians had no such testimony, but they presumed that what Israel had done, they too could do, and learned too late their mistake.

Joshua, the new leader, led the people into the land where their first victory was another demonstration of the power of faith, as the walls of Jericho fell after being compassed about by the Israelitish army for seven days. But the very catastrophe that brought judgment on the people of Jericho proved to be the means of the salvation of the harlot Rahab, whose faith triumphed over the most adverse circumstances, and gave her an interest in the God of Israel, and a place among His people, even to bringing her into the ancestral line of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Other Old Testament heroes there were, too numerous to mention, who exemplified the same mighty power of faith. Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel are indicated by name, and it is a comfort to our own hearts to see some of these in this list, for we might have questioned whether real faith wrought in such as Samson, Jephthah, and even Barak, if we did not have this divine attestation to the reality of their link with God. The goodly company of the prophets, too, are on this honor roll. It moves the heart to its deepest depths to read, in Hebrews 11:33-38, of what this world accorded those whom God delights to honor. Through faith they subdued the foes of God and man, wrought righteousness in a world of sin, and obtained divine promises because they claimed them in faith. Some stopped the mouths of lions, like Daniel and Samson, quenched the violence of fire like the three Hebrew children, escaped the edge of the sword as did Jehoshaphat, and many another one out of weakness was made strong, thus evidencing the fact that divine strength is perfected in human weakness. Men naturally cowardly or fainthearted became valiant warriors, turning to flight the armies of the stronger opponents of the people of God. On more than one occasion they received their dead children raised to life again, and others who seemed defeated here were yet to triumph after all, enduring cruel torture for the sake of the truth rather than accept deliverance coupled with compromise, knowing assuredly that they would be rewarded in the first resurrection. Others, we are told, were severely tested by mockings and scourgings, bonds and imprisonment; some were stoned, others sawed asunder, as tradition says was the fate of Isaiah. They were tempted in every conceivable manner; some were slain with a sword, or banished from their loved ones, obliged to wander about clothed only in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, finding insecure dwellings in deserts, mountains and caves of the earth; but concerning them all, God Himself has written the precious epitaph, “Of whom the world was not worthy.”

All of these were enabled to triumph by faith, which, as we have seen, is the conviction of things hoped for, and so they looked on to the future, not receiving in their own day the promise that God had assured them would yet be theirs. He, having foreseen in His divine counsels that the better things of the new dispensation would not come in until our day, left them to wait until after the death of Christ to come into fulness of blessing, “that they without us should not be made perfect.”

This last expression is most suggestive, and in itself is clear evidence of the conscious existence of believers between death and resurrection. How could these Old Testament saints now be made perfect when they passed away without receiving the promise, if they were not conscious in the disembodied state? It is anticipating a little to draw attention to the twenty-third verse of chap. 12 (Hebrews 12:23), but there we find the Holy Spirit insisting on this very truth. We as Christians have now come into unison with “the spirits of just men made perfect.” Old Testament saints could not be made perfect as pertaining to the conscience until the finished work of Christ had settled the sin question, but the moment that the veil was rent, to them there came the same blessedness that is now the portion of all who believe the testimony that God has given. Such are perfected forever in His sight.

In other words, we may say of Old Testament saints that their souls were all safe in God’s keeping; their eternal salvation was absolutely assured; but the work upon which all this rested had not yet taken place. They were, if we may so speak, saved on credit. In the cross their responsibility was discharged, and now they, with us, are made perfect.

Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Hebrews 11". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. 1914.