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Bible Commentaries

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments
Hebrews 11

 

 

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Verses 1-40

Hebrews 11:1. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for. Paul uses here the same Greek word as in Hebrews 1:3, that the Son is the express image of the Father’s hypostasis, or person. Then faith identifies itself with its object. All the ideas embraced by faith subsist in God: they are all realities, as the existence of deity is a reality. Faith is therefore the evidence of things invisible, the strong argument or demonstration.

Hebrews 11:2. By it the elders obtained a good report. After giving a definition of faith, the apostle proceeds to illustrate its nature and effects by a variety of examples, placing at the head of all these the reputation it obtained for the ancient patriarchs. There have in all ages been some in the church who are universally and deservedly admired for their piety, and the superior excellency of their character, and who will always be held in high esteem throughout all generations. Some of them have been distinguished for particular virtues, which render them illustrious. Abraham is adorned with faith, Moses with meekness, Job with patience, Solomon with wisdom, Paul with zeal, and John with love, all shining in their respective spheres with an unusual degree of holy splendour. Nor has the church in later ages been without its luminaries. The martyrs who suffered in the cause of Christ at various periods, will be had in everlasting remembrance; their zeal and their fidelity can never be forgotten. In later times, since the establishment of religious liberty, there have also in every age been individuals distinguished for personal religion, for their work of faith and labour of love in disseminating the gospel at home and abroad, or by their munificent contributions for its support, and promoting the general interests of humanity and benevolence.

All these virtues however, and the high reputation obtained by the ancient patriarchs, are very properly ascribed to faith. No unbeliever ever attained such excellence, no system of false religion, no vain philosophy, can produce such characters. All that can be said of heathen moralists of former times, and of heathenised christians in our own times, and in our own country, is, that they have at best but partially exemplified the second table of the law, while utterly unmindful of the first and great commandment, and so are utterly destitute of all real virtue, which can have no existence without a supreme affection for Him who is the source of all excellence and of all blessedness. It is faith that makes us deeply to feel our responsibility, and by bringing us into contact with unseen and eternal realities supplies motives to holy obedience, by which the soul is subdued and overcome, and made to shine with a radiance that is divine.

Hebrews 11:3. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God. He said, Let there be light, and there was light. He also said, Let the dry land appear, and the seas retired from the mountains, leaving the fine shapes of landscape and rivers in their retreat. The great Creator knew that at his command the effects would follow; and it was so. In like manner we should have faith in the promises of his word, and the blessing shall be ours. What a definition of faith. Were ever ideas more just, or language more appropriate. Our Saviour had said the same before. “The words that I speak unto you are spirit, and they are life.”

Hebrews 11:4. By faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice. This is illustrated in Genesis 4. And by it he, being dead, yet speaketh. He believed in the promised Messiah, and obtained the witness that he was righteous. And though slain by Cain his brother, he still lives, and still speaks in the records of truth. The jews were correct in their estimation, that they had eternal life promised in the scriptures.

Hebrews 11:5. By faith Enoch was translated. He was the righteous son of a wicked father; and walking with God on earth, he became prepared to dwell with him in heaven. Rabbi Manasse ben Israel proves the resurrection of the dead from the translation of Enoch, as in other parts of his book. How strange then that the author of the divine legation of Moses should deny, like the sadducees, that immortality was promised under the law.

Hebrews 11:6. Without faith it is impossible to please God. The sacrifices of the fathers were only instructive emblems; it was faith in the promise which animated their souls. Paul here illustrates the true design of faith, which is to bring sinners to God, for no man will come to him, except he believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of those that seek him.

Hebrews 11:7. By faith Noah, being warned of God — prepared an ark. The deluge was then at the distance of one hundred and twenty years, yet he believed the warning, and acted accordingly. Genesis 6:-8. We might here ask the students of nature, and the lovers of geology, who study liberally, enlightened by science, and with intense application, whether it were possible for any human being to escape destruction in a deluge which floated on our coalfields an infinitude of algae [reeds] which could grow only in the torrid zones, and stratified our mountains for a long time with a succession of tides? It was therefore the Word of the Lord, who appeared in person to Noah, and instructed him how to build the flotilla of the ark.

Hebrews 11:8-9. By faith Abraham, when called by “the God of glory,” left his country and his kindred, and sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country. This was an eminent instance of faith. At the command of God Abraham parted with all that was dear to him, to wander in a strange land, not knowing whither he went, and had nothing to support him but the promise of God. His was indeed a life of faith; whithersoever he went he walked by faith, trusting to divine direction, and lived on things unseen. Though Canaan was promised him he never possessed it, but walked through it as a stranger, and only obtained a buryingplace which he bought of the sons of Heth. He had left large possessions in Mesopotamia, without indemnity or reward, trusting in God to make good his promises. Howbeit his heart was not set upon the good land, he thought not of taking up his rest there, but went from place to place, as a pilgrim and a stranger, looking for a celestial inheritance. Canaan was to Abraham “a strange country,” where he had no affinities and no attachments, and in this he is a pattern to all true believers in every period of time.

Whatever they possess of temporal good, it is not that upon which their hearts are set: their prayer will ever be, give me not my portion with the men of this world. They will not consider the present state as their home or restingplace, but their Father’s house which is in heaven. Their best friends do not dwell here, they find no congeniality with men of worldly principles and pursuits; their conversation is in heaven, from whence they are looking for the Saviour. They expect to meet with difficulties, and to be treated here as strangers. The world know us not, because they knew not Him who came to save and to redeem. After a little more faith and patience we shall be where we shall know even as we are known, and see even as we are seen.

Hebrews 11:12. As the sand which is by the sea-shore innumerable. Abraham knew the God that spake to him in Haran; he believed in the promised Seed; yea, believed, notwithstanding the age of himself and Sarah, that his seed should be as the sand on the sea-shore. This figure, John Albert remarks, is not a Hebraism, being used by Pindar, Olymp. 11.; and by Herodotus, in the first book of his history, comparing the nations to the sands.

Hebrews 11:13. These all flourished before the covenant of mount Sinai, and died in faith. The promise and the hope shed a cheering radiance on all their chequered and wandering life.

Hebrews 11:22. By faith Joseph, when he died — gave commandment concerning his bones, as Jacob his father had done. He was a very illustrious type of Christ. He died in a firm belief of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and of all the promises comprised in the covenant given to Abraham. This is the faith that saw the promises afar off, and embraced them.

Hebrews 11:24-26. By faith Moses chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God — esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt. Moses when a child was the special care of providence, and ever after to the end of life. He was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, a weeping infant floating on the river in a basket, was taken home and nursed, and afterwards educated in the palace at her expense. She adopted him as her son, the probable heir of the throne of Egypt. When come to years he declined the intended favour, and preferred taking his lot with the people of God. He made this choice under the strongest temptations; he had been taken from a state of slavery, was in effect the property of the princess, to whom he was under the greatest obligations, and had in prospect all the honours and treasures of Egypt. But Moses was a believer in the promised Messiah; he knew that if he complied with the wishes of the court he mast forget his kindred and his father s house, and become a worshipper of the gods of Egypt. This was a sacrifice he could not make. Christ and his cause were dearer to him than a crown or a kingdom.

The people of God were too at that time in a state of the deepest affliction and degradation, nothing in their circumstances could offer the least inducement for his alliance; but he knew that God had spoken good concerning Israel, and was determined to cast in his lot among them. Their being “the people of God” was sufficient to endear them, and their society, though afflicted, afforded him a higher delight than all the pleasures of sin which could be enjoyed in a voluptuous court. Ruth left her country and her gods for the sake of poor Naomi, destitute and afflicted, saying, thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. There is no union, no friendship like that which is inspired and cemented by true religion. How unsatisfying and how sickening is the company of the ungodly and unconverted. “Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloody men.” Oh how sweet, on the contrary, to mingle our joys and our hopes, and even our sorrows and tears with those who fear God and keep his precepts.

Moses esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt. Even the worst part of religion is better than the best that this world can give. Better be a door-keeper in the house of God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness. Reproaches for Christ’s sake bring with them the testimony of a good conscience, and this of itself is an invaluable treasure. They give us a fellowship with Christ in his sufferings, and it is much to be accounted worthy to suffer for his name’s sake. It has also the promise of reigning with him, and this is a recompense of reward that outweighs all the trials of the present life.

Hebrews 11:27. By faith he forsook Egypt. Moses once forsook Egypt through fear when he had killed the Egyptian, and fled into Midian. Now, acting under the command of God to set his people free, he left it by faith; and all the circumstances show that he was strong in faith, giving glory to God. The people he was to conduct into the wilderness were numerous, but they had no weapons of defence, and were pursued by an enraged enemy. Pharaoh had threatened his life at their last interview, saying, Take heed to thyself, see my face no more, for in the day thou seest my face thou shalt die. Exodus 10:28. But Moses forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king. The hope of effecting an escape, with such a numerous and defenceless flock, seemed contrary to all human probability. The sea was before them, the Egyptian host behind, and Pharaoh crying out, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil. The faith of Moses encountered every difficulty, and with his rod he made a passage through the sea. The waters saw thee, oh God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid, the depths also were troubled. Thou leddest thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. Psalms 77:16-20.

He endured as seeing him who is invisible. Being essentially invisible, no man hath seen God at any time. Faith here supplies the place of sight; and so stedfast was the faith of Moses, that he was not to be dismayed by any difficulties, however formidable. He could do all things through him that strengthened him; and relying on the ability and faithfulness of God, he achieved the deliverance of his people. — We also are called out of Egypt spiritually, to be separate from the world, to walk not with men of vanity and lies, and to set out on the way to Canaan. So long as Israel abode in Egypt, the natives were content they should dwell among them; but no sooner did they leave the flesh-pots of Egypt, to go to Canaan, than the wrath of the king and all the people was kindled against them. Meet emblem this of the enmity and opposition those must expect to meet with who separate themselves from an unbelieving world, and set their faces Zion-ward. But fear not: we may endure all, and endure to the end, by fixing our eyes on him who is invisible.

Hebrews 11:29. By faith they passed through the Red sea. Israel was greatly oppressed in Egypt for four hundred years, and were at length delivered by the hand of Moses and Aaron, but their trials were not ended when they left it. New difficulties meet them on their departure; the Red sea is before them, presenting a fearful breadth of about twenty miles. At the command of God they must pass over; no other way to Canaan is allowed, and the passage seemed impracticable. In obedience to the command they marched forward at the jeopardy of their lives, and a path is made for them through the mighty waters, so that they walked through the sea as on dry land. All this the apostle ascribes to faith, and it must have required great confidence in God for them to venture into the deep, and to travel all night through the paths of the sea. The command of God was sufficient, the tokens of the divine presence were with them in the cloudy pillar which led the way, and he that gave the command would enable them to perform it. Faith will carry us through the greatest difficulties, and make darkness light before us. The believing Hebrews need not be stumbled at the difficulties they met with in their christian profession; their forefathers had endured much greater, and had surmounted all by a constant reliance on the faithfulness of God.

Hebrews 11:30. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down. Soon after passing the Red sea, new difficulties present themselves, and the Israelites must begin the conquest of Canaan. Jericho is the first city that they besieged, and their mode of attack, under a divine direction, was simply by marching round it for seven days, blowing with shepherds’ trumpets of rams’ horns. On the seventh day the people shouted, and the city walls fell prostrate before them. The means by which they obtained the victory were of such a description as to demonstrate that it could be owing only to the power of God, and their belief in the promise that he would deliver the city into their hands. Everywhere are we taught that God is able to carry on his work by the feeblest and most unlikely instruments, and that it is not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts. When the Midianites were to be defeated, Gideon was sent with a handful of men bearing lamps and pitchers. When Goliah the Philistine was to be destroyed, a stripling went against him with a sling and a stone. When the heathen world was to be subdued to the obedience of Christ, the Lord sent forth a few fishermen of Galilee, and still it is his pleasure by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

Hebrews 11:31. By faith the harlot Rahab perished not. See the notes on Joshua 2. Some would read, the hostess Rahab, but that is incorrect. The word זונהzonah, “harlot,” is used three times. Joshua 2:1; Joshua 6:17; Joshua 6:22. זון zoon, a Chaldaic word, “to feed,” designates one who keeps a victualling house. As Rahab became a mother and a princess, the word, after all the debates of criticism, may signify no more than that of her person being much exposed to company.

Hebrews 11:37. They were stoned, as was Naboth, 1 Kings 21:13. They were sawn asunder, as Isaiah in old age, by the command of Manasseh, for opposing idolatry. So the Hebrew book, Zeder ôlam, states. The objection about Isaiah’s age is futile, for Daniel was preserved a hundred years that he might show Cyrus the prophecies of Isaiah, and obtain the emancipation of the Hebrews. They wandered about in sheepskins, when driven from their homes by idolaters.

Hebrews 11:39. These all obtained a good report through faith. Having introduced the noble army of patriarchs and prophets as witnesses to the faith of the gospel, the apostle concludes with a eulogium upon their character, and sets before the Hebrews this bright array for their encouragement while suffering persecution. His argument is that their pious ancestors persevered in the faith, amidst a host of dangers and difficulties, without having received the promise, which they saw afar off and embraced it. And shall we turn back again to judaism who have witnessed the fulfilment of that great promise, the sum and substance, and the pledge of all the rest? The fulfilment of this promise by the coming of Christ, to obtain salvation by his obedience unto death, is that “better thing” which God had reserved for us; and shall we make light of it? These solemn appeals were peculiarly adapted to the vacillating state of the believing Hebrews, and tended not a little to strengthen, establish, and settle them. They professed indeed a great veneration for their ancient patriarchs and prophets, and thought of joining their society by a renunciation of the gospel, but overlooked the main point in which their glory consisted, which was the stedfastness of their faith in the promised Messiah, and which they must imitate in order to partake of their blessedness. In their own day the holy patriarchs were but lightly esteemed, wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins, hiding in dens and caves of the earth, but God has highly honoured them, and given them a memorial in the records of eternal truth. They obtained his approbation, however it might be with others, and their names are enrolled in the book of life. Men are anxious to have their names transmitted to posterity, and recorded in the page of history: but where are all the mighty dead? How soon forgotten! But of all that have lived and died in the faith a book of remembrance is written, and they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels. Malachi 3:16-17.

Hebrews 11:40. That they without us should not be made perfect. The patriarchs and the prophets were great examples of faith and confidence in God under dark and threatening providences, of patience in suffering, of heavenly mindedness amidst the prospects of earthly fulness, giving up all things for the love of Christ, and living upon the promises seen only at a distance; yet they lived under an imperfect economy, which could only be completed by the coming of Christ, by his mysterious incarnation and sufferings, which would give substantiality to all preseding revelations, both typical and prophetic, and shed a lustre upon all past ages of the church. For the believing jews therefore to think of deserting christianity now that the former dispensation had passed its maturity, and was ready to vanish away, now that the topstone of the temple was brought forth with shoutings, grace, grace unto it, would bespeak an incredulity, an infatuation scarcely before equalled.

It was the purpose and design of God to erect a more perfect tabernacle, to institute a more excellent priesthood, and to give a completion to the former dispensation by the introduction of one that should abide for ever. It is also according to the divine plan that one age of the church should not be perfect without another, until the whole structure be completed. The patriarchs looked forward to the times of David and Solomon, when the kingdom of Israel should be in its highest glory. David looked forward to gospel times, when his Son and Lord should realise all the ancient promises. The church in the present day is looking forward to the millenial glory, when the mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills by righteousness. On the other hand, no future age of the church could be made perfect without the past. Abraham was the olive tree from which all the fruit should arise. The jews were the depositaries of the lively oracles, whose streams were to water the earth. The prophets sowed the seed which the apostles reaped. Apostles, confessors and martyrs sowed in tears the harvest which we reap, and we are sowing for future generations, in the ministry of the word, in bible societies, and missionary institutions. Every age and department of the church is thus connected, and rendered mutually dependent on each other, to furnish motives for mutual exertion and persevering efforts in the cause of God.

REFLECTIONS.

After a grand foundation laid in the Godhead of Christ, and after a sublime illustration of the gospel as shadowed by the ritual law, we now come to the power and efficacy of faith in God, and in his Christ. This faith is the substance of things hoped for; it realizes them, and gives them a subsistence in the heart so as to make them the evidence of things not seen. Therefore faith in theory, or the belief in a sound creed, is no more the faith that purifies the heart, than the shadows of the law were the gospel of Christ. This faith works by love, it is the pledge and earnest of every future good. This faith opens the kingdom of heaven in the soul, which is not in word, but in power; in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance.

We are next called to trace the power and virtue of faith in the various walks and conflicts of life, as having the invisible God and his glorious perfections for its object. Adam in innocence, and his posterity believed God, that he made the visible heavens and earth of nothing; and those perverse men who maintain the eternity of matter are hereby utterly confounded. After granting to them all that nature can do, does she attempt to achieve any thing like the creation of the universe? And if matter be eternal, then God himself must be dependent upon matter, and no more a free but a necessary agent.

Abel by faith became the first of martyrs, and received the premier crown. Enoch’s faith penetrated into a future world, and enabled him so to walk with God, and so far to please him, that God remitted to him the sentence of death, and translated him alive to glory. — Noah, living in an age still more wicked, found grace in the eyes of the Lord. He was warned of God of unseen things, and prepared the ark, to the saving of his house. And are not sinners now warned of the deluge of wrath and fire, which shall devour the adversaries of God? See note on 2 Peter 3:10. And if they prepare not to meet their God; if they take not refuge in Christ, the ark already prepared, how will they see the face of Noah, and how will they see the face of God? The mouth of the wicked will be completely shut by the example of good men, who daily conquer the temptations which they ridicule or reckon insupportable. Noah not only saved his house, and condemned the world, but he became heir of the righteousness of God, or the riches of his covenant which is obtained by faith only, productive of unceasing obedience.

The next illustrious example of faith is in the patriarch Abraham, who received the promise, believed God, and obtained righteousness while in uncircumcision. His faith enabled him to leave his country, and his kindred, to wander all his days among the worst of men; to scorn building a city and fighting for a district of land, because he sought a better country, and a city which had a permanent foundation. His faith encreased with years; it surmounted the infirmities of Sarah in regard of the promised heir of the world, and it was sanctified in the pure measure of paternal affection when Isaac was laid upon the altar. See Reflections on Genesis 22.

Moses had a faith worthy of his fathers. No sooner was he appointed judge and leader of Israel, than he owned the poor people of God, and began to avenge them. Moses fixed his eye on the recompense of reward, poured contempt on the riches and honours of Egypt, chose affliction with the people of God, contested their emancipation with Pharaoh, and endured to the end. Let us follow this illustrious model. Let us break off with the proud and oppressive world, let us take our lot with God’s people, for they shall have hope when the wicked despair. So it was with Moses when he died on the mount, as is copiously described in Deuteronomy 34.

Time would fail to trace the examples of faith in the subsequent ages down to Christ, but references and reflections will be found on each character. Suffice it to say, that those elders died in the faith, and obtained a good report in their day. And from a general view of their character it is obvious, that they believed in one true and eternal God or Godhead, as illustrated in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. They believed in the Messiah, and in the influence of the Holy Spirit. They believed in a providence, and a future state. Hence faith, lodging in their hearts, so operated in their lives, that they made every sacrifice for God and religion, which peculiar circumstances required. In short they prove to us, that God will never forsake his people in the day of trouble. Under a cloud of affliction he may leave them far awhile, but in the issue he will visit the faithful with everlasting lovingkindness and honour. Now we are more especially called to equal them in faith, being all one body in Christ, God having reserved those better things for us, the Messiah revealed, that they without us should not be made perfect, nor consummate the enjoyments of heaven. The patriarchs as a body are not perfect, because their children in the faith yet groan, being strangers and pilgrims like their fathers. The prophets are not consummately happy till their prophecies are accomplished, though they do not feel the pain of Jonah. Our ministers, our pious parents, yea, and Christ himself as head over all things to the church, are yet incomplete till we come to the marriage supper of the Lamb. What arguments for faith, for piety, and for perseverance, to attain the full assurance of hope unto the end.

 


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Bibliography Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Hebrews 11:4". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jsc/hebrews-11.html. 1835.

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Saturday, December 14th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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