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Faith: its powers and action; the order of its examples
Hebrews 11. It is not a definition of this principle, that the epistle gives us at the commencement of Hebrews 11, but a declaration of its powers and action. Faith realises (gives substance to) that which we hope for, and is a demonstration to the soul of that which we do not see.
There is much more order than is generally thought in the series given here of examples of the action of faith, although this order is not the principal object. I will point out its leading features.
Faith with regard to creation by the word of God
First with regard to creation. Lost in reasonings, and not knowing God, the human mind sought out endless solutions of existence. Those who have read the cosmogonies of the ancients know how many different systems, each more absurd than the other, have been invented for that which the introduction of God, by faith, renders perfectly simple. Modern science, with a less active and more practical mind, stops at second causes; and it is but little occupied with God. Geology has taken the place of the cosmogony of the Hindoos, Egyptians, Orientals and philosophers. To the believer the thought is clear and simple; his mind is assured and intelligent by faith. God, by His word, called all things into existence. The universe is not a producing cause; it is itself a creature acting by a law imposed upon it. It is One having authority who has spoken; His word has divine efficacy. He speaks, and the thing is. We feel that this is worthy of God; for, when once God is brought in, all is simple. Shut Him out, and man is lost in the efforts of his own imagination, which can neither create nor arrive at the knowledge of a Creator, because it only works with the power of a creature. Before, therefore, the details of the present form of creation are entered upon, the word simply says, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Whatever may have taken place between that and chaos forms no part of revelation. It is distinct from the special action of the deluge, which is made known to us. The beginning of Genesis does not give a history of the details of creation itself, nor the history of the universe. It gives the fact that in the beginning God created; and afterwards, the things that regard man on the earth. The angels even are not there. Of the stars it is only said, "He made the stars also"; when, we are not told. By faith then we believe that the worlds were created by the word of God.
Sin and the sacrifice; Abel drawing near by faith; testimony made to his offering
But sin has come in, and righteousness has to be found for fallen man, in order that he may stand before God. God has given a Lamb for the sacrifice. But here we have set before us, not the gift on God's part, but the soul drawing near to Him by faith.
By faith then Abel offers to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain — a sacrifice which (founded on the revelation already made by God) was offered in the intelligence which a conscience taught of God possessed, with regard to the position in which he who offered was standing. Death and judgment had come in by sin, to man insupportable, although he must undergo them. He must go therefore to God, confessing this; but he must go with a substitute which grace has given. He must go with blood, the witness at the same time both of the judgment and of the perfect grace of God. Doing this, he was in the truth, and this truth was righteousness and grace. He approaches God and puts the sacrifice between himself and God. He receives the testimony that he is righteous — righteous according to the righteous judgment of God. For the sacrifice was in connection with the righteousness that had condemned man, and owned too the perfect value of that which was done in it. The testimony is to his offering; but Abel is righteous before God. Nothing can be more clear, more precious on this point. It is not only the sacrifice which is accepted, but Abel who comes with the sacrifice. He receives from God this testimony, that he is righteous. Sweet and blessed consolation! But the testimony is made to his gifts, so that he possessed all the certainty of acceptance according to the value of the sacrifice offered. In going to God by the sacrifice of Jesus, not only am I righteous (I receive the testimony that I am righteous), but this testimony is made to my offering; and therefore my righteousness has the value and the perfection of the offering; that is, of Christ offering Himself to God. The fact that we receive testimony on God's part that we are righteous, and at the same time that the testimony is made to the gift which we offer (not to the condition in which we are), is of infinite value to us. We are now before God according to the perfection of Christ's work. We walk with God thus.
The power and rights of death destroyed shown by Enoch's exemption from the common lot of humanity
By faith, death having been the means of my acceptance before God, all that belongs to the old man is abolished for faith; the power and the rights of death are entirely destroyed — Christ has undergone them. Thus, if it please God, we go to heaven without even passing through death (compare 2 Cor. 5:1-4). God did this for Enoch, for Elijah, as a testimony. Not only are sins put away, and righteousness established by the work of Christ, but the rights and power of him who has the power of death are entirely destroyed. Death may happen to us — we are by nature liable to it; but we possess a life which is outside its jurisdiction. Death, if it come, is but gain to us; and although nothing but the power of God Himself can raise or transform the body, this power has been manifested in Jesus, and has already wrought in us by quickening us (compare Eph. 1:19); and it works in us now in the power of deliverance from sin, from the law, and from the flesh. Death, as a power of the enemy, is conquered; it is become a "gain" to faith, instead of being a judgment on nature. Life, the power of God in life, works in holiness and in obedience here below, and declares itself in the resurrection, or in the transformation of the body. It is a witness of power with regard to Christ in Romans 1:4.
The testimony that Enoch received of pleasing God and that which he bore to the world's judgment; his translation a figure of the position of the assembly
But there is another very sweet consideration to be noticed here. Enoch received testimony that he pleased God, before he was translated. This is very important and very precious. If we walk with God, we have the testimony that we please Him; we have the sweetness of communion with God, the testimony of His Spirit, His intercourse with us in the sense of His presence, the consciousness of walking according to His word, which we know to be approved by Him — in a word, a life which, spent with Him and before Him by faith, is spent in the light of His countenance, and in the enjoyment of the communications of His grace and of a sure testimony, coming from Himself, that we are pleasing to Him. A child who walks with a kind father and converses with him, his conscience reproaching him with nothing — does he not enjoy the sense of his parent's favour?
In figure Enoch here represents the position of the saints who compose the assembly. He is taken up to heaven by virtue of a complete victory over death. By the exercise of sovereign grace he is outside the government and the ordinary deliverance of God. He bears testimony by the Spirit to the judgment of the world, but he does not go through it (Jude 14-15). A walk like that of Enoch has God for its object; His existence is realised — the great business of life, which in the world is spent as if man did everything — and the fact that He is interested in the walk of men, that He takes account of it, in order to reward those who diligently seek Him.
Accepting God's testimony as to the coming judgment and his means of escape, Noah preserved for a future world
Noah is found in the scene of the government of this world. He does not warn others of the coming judgments as one who is outside them, although he is a preacher of righteousness. He is warned himself and for himself: he is in the circumstances to which the warning relates. It is the spirit of prophecy. He is moved by fear, and he builds an ark to the saving of his house. He thus condemned the world. Enoch had not to build an ark in order to pass safely through the flood. He was not in it: God translated him — exceptionally. Noah is preserved (heir of the righteousness which is by faith) for a future world. There is a general principle which accepts the testimony of God respecting the judgment that will fall upon men, and the means provided by God for escaping it: this belongs to every believer.
The world condemned by Noah's ark; passing through judgment Noah represents the Jewish remnant
But there is something more precise. Abel has the testimony that
he is righteous; Enoch walks with God, pleases God, and is exempted
from the common lot of humanity, proclaiming as from above the fate
that awaits men, and the coming of Him who will execute the
judgment. He goes forward to the accomplishment of the counsels of
God. But neither Abel nor Enoch, thus viewed, condemned the world as
that in the midst of which they were journeying, receiving
themselves the warning addressed to those who were dwellers
therein. This was Noah's case; the prophet, although delivered, is
in the midst of the judged people. The assembly is outside
them. Noah's ark condemned the world; the testimony of God was
enough for faith, and he inherits a world that had been destroyed,
and (what belongs to all believers) righteousness by faith, on which
the new world too is founded. This is the case of the Jewish remnant
in the last days. They pass through the judgments, out of which we,
as not belonging to the world, have been taken. Warned themselves of
God's way of government in the earth, they will be witnesses to the
world of the coming judgments, and will be heirs of the
righteousness which is by faith, and witnesses to it in a new world,
wherein righteousness will be accomplished in judgment by Him who is
come, and whose throne will uphold the world in which Noah himself
failed. The words, "heir of the righteousness which is by faith,"
point out, I think, that this faith which had governed a few was
summed up in his person, and that the whole unbelieving world was
condemned. The witness of this faith before judgment, Noah passes
through it: and when the world is renewed, he is a public witness to
the blessing of God that rests on faith, although outwardly all is
changed. Thus Enoch represents the saints of the present time; Noah,
the Jewish remnant.*
Examples of the divine life in detail; the patience of hope which trusts God and waits taking the place of strangership here because something better is desired; its effect
The Spirit, after establishing the great fundamental principles of faith in action, goes on (v. 8) to produce examples of the divine life in detail, always in connection with Jewish knowledge, with that which the heart of a Hebrew could not fail to own; and, at the same time, in connection with the object of the epistle and with the wants of Christians among the Hebrews.
In the previous case we have seen a faith which, after owning a Creator-God, recognises the great principles of the relations of man with God, and that onwards to the end upon earth.
In that which follows, we have first the patience of faith when it does not possess, but trusts God and waits, assured of fulfilment. This is from verse 8 to 22. We may subdivide it thus: — first, the faith which takes the place of strangership on earth, and maintains it, because something better is desired; and which, in spite of weakness, finds the strength that is requisite in order to the fulfilment of the promises. This is from verses 8 to 16. Its effect is entrance into the joy of a heavenly hope. Strangers in the land of promise, and not enjoying the fulfilment of promises here below, they wait for more excellent things — things which God prepares on high for those who love Him. For such He has prepared a city. In unison with God in His own thoughts, their desires (through grace) answering to the things in which He takes delight, they are the objects of His peculiar regard. He is not ashamed to be called their God. Abraham not only followed God into a land that He showed him, but, a stranger there, and not possessing the land of promise, he is, by the mighty grace of God, exalted to the sphere of His thoughts; and, enjoying communion with God and the communications of His grace, he rests upon God for the time present, accepts his position of strangership on earth, and, as the portion of his faith, waits for the heavenly city of which God is the builder and the founder. There was not, so to speak, an open revelation of what was the subject of this hope, as was the case with that by which Abraham was called of God; but walking closely enough with God to know that which was enjoyed in His presence, and being conscious that he had not received the fulfilment of the promise, he lays hold of the better things, and waits for them, although only seeing them afar off, and remains a stranger upon earth, unmindful of the country whence he came out.
The special application of these first principles of faith to the case of the Hebrew Christians is evident. They are the normal life of faith for all.
Entire confidence in the fulfilment of the promises in spite of weakness
The second character of faith presented in this part is entire confidence in the fulfilment of the promises — a confidence maintained in spite of all that might tend to destroy it. This is from verse 17 to 22.
We next find, the second great division, that faith makes its
way through all the difficulties that oppose its progress (v.
23-27). And from verse 28 to 31 faith displays itself in a trust
that reposes on God with regard to the use of the means which He
sets before us, and of which nature cannot avail itself. Finally,
there is the energy in general, of which faith is the source, and
the sufferings that characterise the walk of faith.*
The general character of the examples of faith
This general character belongs to all the examples mentioned, namely, that they who have exercised faith have not received the fulfilment of the promise; the application of which to the state of the Hebrew Christians is evident. Further, these illustrious heroes of faith, however honoured they might be among the Jews, did not enjoy the privileges that Christians possessed. God in His counsels had reserved something better for us.
Abraham's faith; his renunciation a type of Christ in death and resurrection
Let us notice some details. Abraham's faith shows itself by a thorough trust in God. Called to leave his own people, breaking the ties of nature, he obeys. He knows not whither he is going: enough for him that God would show him the place. God, having brought him thither, gives him nothing. He dwells there content, in perfect reliance on God. He was a gainer by it. He waited for a city that had foundations. He openly confesses that he is a stranger and a pilgrim on earth (Gen. 23:4). Thus, in spirit, he draws nearer to God. Although he possesses nothing, his affections are engaged. He desires a better country, and attaches himself to God more immediately and entirely. He has no desire to return into his own country; he seeks a country. Such is the Christian. In offering up Isaac there was that absolute confidence in God which, at His command, can renounce even God's own promises as possessed after the flesh, sure that God would restore them through the exercise of His power, overcoming death and every obstacle.
It is thus that Christ renounced His rights as Messiah, and went even into death, committing Himself to the will of God and trusting in Him; and received everything in resurrection. And this the Hebrew Christians had to do, with respect to the Messiah and the promises made to Israel. But, if there is simplicity of faith, for us the Jordan is dry, nor could we indeed have passed it if the Lord had not passed on before.
Observe here that, when trusting in God and giving up all for Him, we always gain, and we learn something more of the ways of His power: for in renouncing according to His will anything already received, we ought to expect from the power of God that He will bestow something else. Abraham renounces the promise after the flesh. He sees the city which has foundations; he can desire a heavenly country. He gives up Isaac, in whom were the promises: he learns resurrection, for God is infallibly faithful. The promises were in Isaac: therefore God must restore him to Abraham, and by resurrection, if he offered him in sacrifice.
Expressions of faith in the future fulfilment of God's promise; Israel's future return to their own land shown in Isaac, Jacob and Joseph
In Isaac faith distinguishes between the portion of God's people according to His election, and that of man having birthrights according to nature. This is the knowledge of the ways of God in blessing, and in judgment.
By faith Jacob, a stranger and feeble, having nothing but the staff with which he had crossed the Jordan, worships God, and announces the double portion of the heir of Israel, of the one whom his brethren rejected — a type of the Lord, the heir of all things. This lays the ground of worship.
By faith Joseph, a stranger, the representative here of Israel
far from his own country, reckons on the fulfilment of the earthly
Faith which surmounts every difficulty shown in Moses
These are the expressions of faith in the faithfulness of God, in the future fulfilment of His promise. In that which follows we have the faith which surmounts every difficulty that arises in the path of the man of God, in the way that God marks out for him as he journeys on towards the enjoyment of the promises.
The faith of the parents of Moses makes them disregard the king's cruel command, and they conceal their infant; whom God, in answer to their faith, preserved by extraordinary means when there was no other way to save it. Faith does not reason; it acts from its own point of view, and leaves the result to God.
But the means which God used for the preservation of Moses placed him within a little of the highest position in the kingdom. He there came to be possessed of all the acquirements which that period could bestow on a man distinguished alike by his energy and his character. But faith does its work, and inspires divine affections which do not look to surrounding circumstances for a guide of action, even when those circumstances may have owned their origin to the most remarkable providences.
Faith and not providence as a rule and motive
Faith has its own objects, supplied by God Himself, and governs the heart with a view to those objects. It gives us a place and relationships which rule the whole life, and leave no room for other motives and other spheres of affection which would divide the heart; for the motives and affections which govern faith are given by God, and given by Him in order to form and govern the heart.
Verses 24-26 develop this point. It is a very important principle; for we often hear Providence alleged as a reason for not walking by faith. Never was there a more remarkable Providence than that which placed Moses in the court of Pharaoh; and it gained its object. It would not have done so if Moses had not abandoned the position into which that Providence had brought him. But it was faith (that is to say, the divine affections which God had created in his heart), and not Providence as a rule and motive, which produced the effect for which Providence had preserved and prepared him. Providence (thanks be to God!) governs circumstances; faith governs the heart and the conduct.
God's promised reward sustaining and encouraging the heart, but not the motive power
The reward which God has promised comes in here as an avowed object in the sphere of faith. It is not the motive power; but it sustains and encourages the heart that is acting by faith, in view of the object which God presents to our affections. It thus takes the heart away from the present, from the influence of the things that surround us (whether they are things that attract or that tend to intimidate us), and elevates the heart and character of him who walks by faith, and confirms him in a path of devotedness which will lead him to the end at which he aims.
A motive outside that which is present to us is the secret of stability and of true greatness. We may have an object with regard to which we act; but we need a motive outside that object — a divine motive — to enable us to act in a godly way respecting it.
God's intervention realised; the provided means of safety; the efficacy of the blood trusted; acknowledgement of guilt
Faith realises also (v. 27) the intervention of God without seeing Him; and thus delivers from all fear of the power of man — the enemy of His people. But the thought of God's intervention brings the heart into a greater difficulty than even the fear of man. If His people are to be delivered, God must intervene, and that in judgment. But they, as well as their enemies, are sinners; and the consciousness of sin and of deserving judgment necessarily destroys confidence in Him who is the Judge. Dare they see Him come to manifest His power in judgment (for this it is, in fact, which must take place for the deliverance of His people)? Is God for us — the heart asks — this God who is coming in judgment? But God has provided the means of securing safety in the presence of judgment (v. 28); a means apparently contemptible and useless, yet which in reality is the only one that, by glorifying Him with regard to the evil of which we are guilty, has power to afford shelter from the judgment which He executes.
Faith recognised the testimony of God by trusting to the efficacy of the blood sprinkled on the door, and could, in all security, let God come in judgment — God who, seeing the blood, would pass over His believing people. By faith Moses kept the passover. Observe here that, by the act of putting the blood on the door, the people acknowledged that they were as much the objects of the just judgment of God as the Egyptians. God had given them that which preserved them from it; but it was because they were guilty and deserved it. No one can stand before God.
God's judgment and deliverance; its earthly antitype
Verse 29. But the power of God is manifested, and manifested in judgment. Nature, the enemies of God's people, think to pass through this judgment dry-shod, like those who are sheltered by redeeming power from the righteous vengeance of God. But the judgment swallows them up in the very same place in which the people find deliverance — a principle of marvellous import. There, where the judgment of God is, even there is the deliverance. Believers have truly experienced this in Christ. The cross is death and judgment, the two terrible consequences of sin, the lot of sinful man. To us they are the deliverance provided of God. By and in them we are delivered, and (in Christ) we pass through and are out of their reach. Christ died and is risen; and faith brings us, by means of that which should have been our eternal ruin, into a place where death and judgment are left behind, and where our enemies can no longer reach us. We go through without their touching us. Death and judgment shield us from the enemy. They are our security. But we enter into a new sphere, we live by the effect not only of Christ's death, but of His resurrection.
Those who, in the mere power of nature, think to pass through (they who speak of death and judgment and Christ, taking the christian position, and thinking to pass through, although the power of God in redemption is not with them) are swallowed up.
With respect to the Jews, this event will have an earthly antitype; for in fact the day of God's judgment on earth will be the deliverance of Israel, who will have been brought to repentance.
The Red Sea deliverance and what it spoke of: God for the people
This deliverance at the Red Sea goes beyond the protection of the blood in Egypt. There God coming in the expression of His holiness, executing judgment upon evil, what they needed was to be sheltered from that judgment — to be protected from the righteous judgment of God Himself. And, by the blood, God, thus coming to execute judgment, was shut out, and the people were placed in safety before the Judge. This judgment had the character of the eternal judgment. And God had the character of a Judge.
At the Red Sea it was not merely deliverance from judgment
hanging over them; God was for the people, active in love and in
power for them.* The deliverance was an actual deliverance: they
came out of that condition in which they had been enslaved, God's
own power bringing them unhurt through that which otherwise must
have been their destruction. Thus, in our case, it is Christ's
death and resurrection, in which we participate, the redemption
which He therein accomplished,** which introduces us into an
entirely new condition altogether outside that of nature. We are no
longer in the flesh.
In principle the earthly deliverance of the Jewish nation (the Jewish remnant) will be the same. Founded on the power of the risen Christ, and on the propitiation wrought out by His death, that deliverance will be accomplished by God, who will intervene on behalf of those that turn to Him by faith: at the same time that His adversaries (who are those also of His people) shall be destroyed by the very judgment which is the safeguard of the people whom they have oppressed.
Difficulties disappearing before God; the walls of Jericho
Verse 30. Yet all difficulties were not overcome because redemption was accomplished, deliverance effected. But the God of deliverance was with them; difficulties disappear before Him. That which is a difficulty to man is none to Him. Faith trusts in Him, and uses means which only serve to express that trust. The walls of Jericho fall down at the sound of trumpets made of rams' horns, after Israel had compassed the city seven days, sounding these trumpets seven times.
Rahab's escape from judgment
Rahab, in presence of all the as yet unimpaired strength of the enemies of God and His people, identifies herself with the latter before they had gained one victory, because she felt that God was with them. A stranger to them (as to the flesh), she by faith escaped the judgment which God executed upon her people.
Faith under various characters and energy of patience, sustaining under all kinds of sufferings
Verse 32. Details are now no longer entered into. Israel (although individuals had still to act by faith), being established in the land of promise, furnished less occasion to develop examples of the principles on which faith acted. The Spirit speaks in a general way of these examples in which faith reappeared under various characters and energy of patience, and sustained souls under all kinds of suffering. Their glory was with God, the world was not worthy of them. Nevertheless they had received nothing of the fulfilment of the promises; they had to live by faith, as well as the Hebrews, to whom the epistle was addressed. The latter, however, had privileges which were in no wise possessed by believers of former days. Neither the one nor the other was brought to perfection, that is, to the heavenly glory, unto which God has called us, and in which they are to participate. Abraham and others waited for this glory; they never possessed it: God would not give it them without us. But He has not called us by the same revelations only as those which He made to them. For the days of the rejected Messiah He had reserved some better thing. Heavenly things have become things of the present time, things fully revealed and actually possessed in spirit, by the union of the saints with Christ, and present access into the holiest through the blood of Christ.
The Christian's present portion; the better thing reserved
We have not to do with a promise and a distinct view of a place approached from without, entrance to which was not yet granted, so that relationship with God would not be founded on entrance within the veil — entrance into His own presence. We now go in with boldness. We belong to heaven; our citizenship is there; we are at home there. Heavenly glory is our present portion, Christ having gone in as our Forerunner. We have in heaven a Christ who is man glorified. This Abraham had not. He walked on earth with a heavenly mind, waiting for a city, feeling that nothing else would satisfy the desires which God had awakened in his heart; but he could not be connected with heaven by means of a Christ actually sitting there in glory. This is our present portion. We can even say that we are united to Him there. The Christian's position is quite different from that of Abraham. God had reserved some better thing for us.
The Spirit does not here develop the whole extent of this "better thing," because the assembly is not His subject. He presents the general thought to the Hebrews to encourage them, that believers of the present day have special privileges, which they enjoy by faith, but which did not belong even to the faith of believers in former days.
We shall be perfected, that is to say, glorified together in resurrection; but there is a special portion which belongs to the saints now, and which did not belong to the patriarchs. The fact that Christ, as man, is in heaven after having accomplished redemption, and that the Holy Ghost, by whom we are united to Christ, is on earth, made this superiority granted to Christians easily understood. Accordingly even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than the greatest of those who preceded it.
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