Previously, we noted that the Lord made a significant name change in the lives of two believers. Abram was changed to Abraham and Sarai was changed to Sarah. In doing so, the Lord was affirming that He would most certainly perform what He had promised.
Each time that Sarah would speak her husband’s new name, she would be making a declaration of faith; likewise when Abraham spoke the name Sarah.
I am sure that it took some time for them to get used to the new names and it took probably even more time for them to believe the significance of the names—at least until the day Sarah realised that she was pregnant. And I would think that perhaps even over the next nine months their faith was tested. After all, to be pregnant is one thing, to deliver a healthy child is often another—especially at such an advanced age. Yet as they said these names, they were being practically reminded about God’s promise. They were confessing their faith in the God for whom nothing is too difficult (Genesis 18:14).
Fast forward many years. Isaac was about forty years old and remained the only natural born son of Abraham and Sarah. When Sarah dies, the promise of her being “the mother of kings of peoples” had not yet been fulfilled. Far from it, in fact. The same was true for Abraham. Though he had the benefit of seeing two grandsons, that was still a long way from the fulfilment of Abraham, “the father of many nations.” Three individuals can certainly be numbered. The hyperbole of v. 12 might seem at this point to be an absurdity.
Yet each time he heard the name Abraham he was being reminded of God’s promise. Each time he met a stranger who asked him his name, his reply, “Abraham,” was a confession of faith. He was confessing his confidence in God’s Word; he was confessing his confidence in the promise of God. In fact, he was confessing Christ. And he would do so till the moment of his death. It is for this reason that our author writes, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off … confessed.”
Though of course our circumstances are different than theirs (we live after rather than before the incarnation), nevertheless there are many of God’s promises that have yet to be fulfilled. Yet if we will live honouring the reality of what we sing—“Great is Thy Faithfulness”—we must also be confessional. We must live by faith and we must die in faith. Faith is to be the guiding principle of our life; it is the rule that we confess. In this study we will consider the next section in this Hall of Faith under the heading, “Faith Confessing.”
The Christian life, as we are learning, is heavy on waiting. This is why perseverance is such a descriptive word for the life to which we are called. As we wait, we are called to obey (vv. 8–10); we are called to “laugh” (vv. 11–12); and we are called to confess (vv. 13–16). In fact, this confession itself is an act of obedience and its tone is that of joyful laughter.
As we have seen, verses eight through the end of the chapter focus on faith waiting. That is, what God promises is not always received according to our timetable. This was true with the promise of Messiah and it remains true concerning the full advancement of His kingdom and His final return. This, in fact, is the major idea undergirding this passage. Faith waits fruitfully because faith embraces God’s promises confidently.
There are, of course, many examples of this in Scripture, but the writer of Hebrews focuses on the life and descendants of Abraham. We will study “faith confessing” under several headings.
They Confessed because of the Promise
The writer notes, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises” (v. 13).
A question immediately arises with reference to the words “these all.” Who are the “all”? Some suggest that the author is referring to all the examples mentioned in vv. 4–12. I would not quibble with this, for in fact what is said here could be said in some ways of Abel, Enoch and Noah. Nevertheless, it seems clear from vv. 14–15 that that the “all” refers to the immediate context of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob (vv. 9–11). In a unique way, these individuals are portrayed in the scriptural record as those who died in accordance with faith in the yet-to-be-fulfilled promises of the land and, most importantly, of the Lord (Messiah). They “died in faith,” confessing that better things were yet ahead (see Genesis 23:4; 24:1–7; 28:1–5; 49:8–12; 29–33).
The emphasis of these words is not that they died without having experienced the fulfilment of the promises; rather, it emphasises the way that they died, that is, “in faith.” The approaching of death did not silence their confession. As MacArthur says, “Far from being a lament … this statement is a positive declaration that these … died in perfect hope and assurance of fulfilment. For the person of faith, God’s promise is as good as the reality.”1
Westcott says it well: “Faith was the rule of their lives, the measure of their growth, even to the end. They faced death as [those] who retained their hold on the invisible.”2
This is the kind of faith that each Christian is called to: a faith that will not die even though we will die. In a very real sense, this faith was multigenerational as it lived beyond the grave of one patriarch (and matriarch) into the lives of those who outlived him (and her).
Those who live by faith are the same ones who die by faith. In fact, with a little explanation, I could just as easily have titled this message, “Faith Dying.” As Hughes points out, “death is the final test of faith, and they all passed with flying colors, living by faith right up to the last breath.”3 Or as Dods comments, “not only in life was the faith of the patriarchs manifested, it stood the test of death.”4
In a microwaved society such perseverance is difficult to practice, yet we must pursue it. There are many promises from God that we might not experience existentially that we can nevertheless believe and therefore confess enthusiastically. In fact, I think that our failure to live so confessionally is one reason for our often low level of Christian living. We simply do not believe the promise of a better existence when Christ will put all things right. The result is that the faith of our feet are firmly planted in the here and now without any confidence about the future. We have stopped listening to the hope-giving melody of the future, with the result that we are not faithfully dancing now.
Though Abraham and Sarah were advanced in age, they died dancing. They truly believed the promises of God.
We must keep before us that the main promise that the writer has in view in this epistle is the promise of the gospel. It is a Christ-centred promise. He desires his readers to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. This is the promise that we must believe before we die—if we will truly die in faith. And that is my main appeal to you.
But having noted this, let us also remember the biblical principle (promise) that, if God did not spare His own Son for us, then surely He will not withhold any good thing that we need (Romans 8:32). So if there are promises in God’s Word concerning your situation, then confess those promises, claim those promises, and conduct yourself in the light of those promises (see, for example, Philippians 4:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24; Philippians 1:6; 1 Peter 5:7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Matthew 6:33; etc.).
But we must also grasp the reality that there are other, more general, promises that we must confess; especially in those times in which the way ahead is cloudy. I am thinking of the inexplicable and mysterious ways of the Lord that challenge our faith. It is at such times that the general yet no less true promises such as Romans 8:28 become our anchor.
As a family, we have been for the last few weeks fostering a young boy while his mother has been considering whether to give him up for adoption. She has recently decided to take him back. We have no idea whether or not he will be raised in a godly home, or whether he will ever even know the love of a father. We have struggled as a family to know what God is doing. Why does He not allow the boy to be adopted by a godly family? We have no specific promises to claim, but we know that’s God knows what He is doing.
We live in a sorrow-filled because broken world. We serve in sorrow-filled because broken local churches. But God is sovereign even in our sorrows.
This almost goes without saying yet say it I must: These saints of old were faithful for the simple reason that they knew God was faithful. He was the Person behind the promise. They were fully convinced that God was able to perform what He had promised (Romans 4:21). They knew that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). The trustworthiness of God is the reason that we trust Him. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” should always be among our favoured hymns. This is why Bruce can say of these believers of old, “Their lives were regulated by the firm conviction that God would fulfil the promises He had given them, and in death they continued to look forward to the fulfilment of these promises.”5
And so can (and so should) we.
They Confessed because of their Perception
Second, these saints “having seen [the promises] afar off were assured of them” (v. 13b).
This relates to the previous point. They confessed because they really believed that these promises would come to pass. They were quite content for God’s timing. As the saying goes, perception is reality, or as v. 1 makes clear, “faith is the substance of things hoped for.”
These saints of old had “a good testimony” (v. 2) because they had good eyesight. Their spiritual vision was very healthy. They could see beyond the immediate to the ultimate. Lane observes, “regulated by the principle of faith, the patriarchs were able to ‘see’ as certain to happen events that were ‘as yet unseen.’ Faith conferred fore-sight.”6 That is what it means to live and to die by faith. Their confidence in God’s character emboldened their confidence in what He had communicated (“were assured of them”), which produced a warm embrace of what they believed to be certain.
The word “embraced” is the word that is usually translated in the New Testament as “greet.” Literally it means, “to enfold in the arms.” It is a beautiful picture, which delivers us from any mere notional idea such as “believism.” That is, it pictures the warm embrace of a promise with the whole of our being rather than a cold and merely formal, because only intellectual, apprehension of some promise. It suggests the difference between the mere notional reality that 1+1=2 and the warm experience of one man marrying one woman. It is the difference between mere mathematics and the joy of marriage. In the words of Raymond Brown they “hailed it with delight.”7
This, of course, is precisely the perception that we strive for as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. We want to see “Him who is invisible” (v. 27). We desire to overcome the faithless lifestyle of “seeing is believing” and move forward to the biblical position of “believing is seeing.”
We are far too materialistic. And I don’t mean by that only that we are too obsessed with material things. To use an older term, too often we are merely naturalistic. We tend to believe only what can be evidentially explained. The result is that we are cynical about that which God’s Word promises in the realm of the unseen. Therefore we struggle with the idea that we can actually experience joy even though our world is otherwise falling apart. We are too quick to conclude that if only everything was great in our life relationally, financially, physically, politically and socially, we would be happy. That is to approach life materialistically rather than biblically.
When you look at the life of Paul you quickly realise that he had an abundance of the lack of the things that we think that we need to make us happy, and yet he was so joyful that he could sing in prison (Acts 16). Paul’s perception of the unseen world was so strong that, even when incarcerated, he could say that he was the prisoner of the Lord (Ephesians 4:1) rather than the prisoner of Rome. He saw beyond Nero to a far higher authority. It is this spiritual perception that keeps us joyful and warm-hearted in a world that is otherwise filled with heartache.
It is this kind of faith-fuelled perception that empowers a wife to be joyful even though she is married to a selfish and carnal man.
It is this kind of faith that shapes one’s spiritual vision to such a degree that one is able to persevere in ministry even though it seems that the devil is winning the day and his evil minions are working overtime to great effect.
It is this kind of faithful perception of ultimate reality that keeps joy in the heart when the doctor’s report is dismal or the desire for marriage is seemingly dashed or the career comes crashing down.
This is the faith that joyfully perseveres in the face of the death of one’s temporal dreams. This is the perception that we desire to emulate from the lives of those in the Hall of Faith.
So the question we must consider is, how do we develop such foresight?
The particulars of the answer are many, yet the fundamental element is the knowledge of God in Christ. To the degree that we are growing in propositional-based experiential knowledge of God, to such a degree we will be able to view this world and our circumstances faithfully—and therefore productively.
This seems to have been Paul’s concern as he prayed for the Ephesian church (1:15–23; 3:14–21). And the same desire moved him to write similar words to the Colossian church (1:9–18). He knew that if Christians would consistently, confidently and constructively confess Christ, they would need a comprehensively glorious view of Christ. This is what shapes how we perceive what is happening in our life. Let me illustrate.
In his wonderful book, Marriage Matters, Winston Smith reminds Christians that God is at work in the ordinary circumstances of life—including such things as when your wife, whom you are trying to contact, has chosen to put her cell phone on silent—or when a husband continually views the laundry basket as a goal rather than a commitment.
But this also applies in more serious circumstances, such as infidelity and selfishness and meanness and the painful break down of communication. Smith points us to consider the reality of an ever-present God, who is at work. When we have such a perception, we are able to persevere in the relationship with a godly disposition. And when we do so, we end up—before God—with a good testimony.
When our children were younger and were sometimes engaged in unpleasant conflict, my wife could be heard saying loud enough for the guilty to hear, “He who is never absent.” The point was quickly grasped. God is present. See Him. In fact, look and you will perceive Him. And such perception will make all the difference as to how you behave in this world.
They Confessed because of their Perspective
Third, these saints confessed because of their perspective. The author says that Abraham’s family
embraced [God’s promises] and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country.
What they perceived produced their perspective. They believed God for the future and this made a profound difference in their worldview—quite literally.
Because of God’s promise, they no longer viewed this world as their final goal. Rather, they “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” This might sound strange, when you consider that the land on which they dwelt had been divinely deeded to them. But as we saw when we studied vv. 8–10, the land was not the major issue. Rather, the Lord who would one day be born in the land was what mattered.
The word “strangers” in the Greek language is xenos. We get our English word “xenophobia” from it. “Strangers” were no more appreciated in Abraham’s day than they often are in ours. They, in fact, were often treated as outcasts and rejects and were sometimes the recipients of much hostility.
“Pilgrims” moved through a territory without any place to really call theirs. These saints, in other words, did not view the Promised Land as their ultimate dwelling place. They were seeking rather for a homeland—the homeland. We saw this in v. 10. They were looking forward to “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” They were awaiting God’s kingdom on earth in which righteousness would dwell (2 Peter 3:13). They had a long view perspective. We call this an “eternal perspective.” We see this also in vv. 15–16.
We are told that they viewed neither Canaan nor their former homeland as their ultimate home. “They did not think of the land they had left as being their true home. In that case, they could easily have gone back there.”8 As Westcott notes, “Their natural fatherland had lost its hold upon them,”9 for they were looking for a “better, that is, a heavenly country.”
The point that the writer is driving home is that, regardless of where they lived, and regardless of the temporal blessings that God bestowed on them, these believers did not sink their roots deep into this world. They really were otherworldly. The overriding principle here is that these believers “did not merely anticipate heaven, they evaluated the things of earth.”10 They made even “temporal” decisions in light of eternal realities. In fact, we have a wonderful historical account of this very thing recorded in Genesis 24.
Abraham wanted a wife for his forty-year-old son, who seemed to be a bit slow to launch. After all, if the promise to Abraham was going to be fulfilled then Abraham, if not Isaac, realised that his son would need a wife who would eventually become a mother. So Abraham sent his servant to Mesopotamia to find a bride. But his instructions to his servant were clear: He was not to bring Isaac down to Mesopotamia under any circumstances (vv. 1–9). Isaac was not to return to his homeland. Too much was at stake.
What a wonderful example of fidelity to God! And this is very instructive for us. Abraham clung to God’s promises and was therefore not pragmatic. Though earlier he had been (see Genesis 13, 20) he apparently learned his lesson. If God made a promise, he reasoned, it was God’s responsibility to bring it to pass. There is much here for our edification.
How easy it is for us to compromise. How many Christians there are who have compromised God’s standards for marriage, choosing to marry an unbeliever in the belief that they will be able to convert their spouse. Far too many spiritual broken homes have been the result.
How tempted we might be to “tweak” the gospel message in order to “advance the kingdom.” How tempted we might be to water down the demands of church membership in order to plant a church. How tempted we might be to compromise principles in order to achieve some good end.
We must not give into these temptations. Instead, we must seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, knowing that God will provide and produce what He has determined.
The lifestyle of these believers was such that they were practically confessing where their hearts were. And their hearts were not focused on a sin-cursed world. It was for this very reason that they had such an impact on this world.
The faith that consistently confesses Christ is the faith that seeks first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. As we have noted, such prioritised seeking is itself a confession of faith. This eternal perspective confidently confesses that there is much more to life than what we merely see. The person of true faith will increasingly live so as to put last things first.
In a very real sense, the faith that truly has God as its object is otherworldly. And it is this aspect that makes it so relevant to this world. In fact, as C. S. Lewis noted long ago, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought the most of the next…. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”11 In other words, those with a biblical eternal perspective do the most good in and for the temporal world.
This principle, in fact, can be illustrated from the life of Abraham. In Genesis 14, Abraham engaged in a local battle and led the way to victory. He had no political ties to these peoples, yet God had placed him in their midst, and so Abraham accepted responsibility for his neighbourhood. I would suggest that it was precisely because Abraham was looking to the future as promised by God that he was willing to take the risk. Abraham understood the saying of Henry Martyn: “If God has work for me to do, I cannot die.” And even dying was not a problem. The gospel empowered him to take great risks because he knew that ultimate glory awaited him. What a way to live! And what a way to die! Jay Adams observes, “People who feel more at home here than they ought to will never take the risks that faith in the future promises of God energizes.”12 May we however believe and be energised!
In 130 AD a man wrote a defence of Christianity in which he highlighted the worldview and therefore life-transforming effect of the gospel. In that Epistle of Diognetus we read the oft-quoted assertion that Christians
dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share of all responsibilities as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a homeland to them, and every homeland is foreign…. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.13
I wonder if, in 2014, the same could be said of you and me?
They Confessed because of their Privilege
Finally, these saints confessed because of their privilege. And their wonderful privilege was that “God is not ashamed to be called their God” (v. 16).
This is a wonderful and power-packed statement. For even though “these three patriarchs were not faultless, … God is not ashamed to be called their God, because they took Him at His word.”14 This statement conveys the principle that God claims covenantal ownership, covenantal communion with those whose hearts are set on spiritual realities. Calvin does not mince his words when he writes, “We are hence to conclude, that there is no place for us among God’s children, except we renounce the world, and that there will be for us no inheritance in heaven, except we become pilgrims on earth.”15
When you know that you belong to God in a covenant relationship, you are empowered to live in such a way that you confess God’s faithfulness. And the same privilege belongs to every Christian.
When the Lord appeared to Moses at the burning bush, He identified Himself as “the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). God was quite literally not ashamed to be called their God. He identified with sinners whose lives had been transformed by faith in His promise. God delights in the faithful, for their faithfulness reflects His perfect faithfulness. When we are characterised by a faith confessing we are displaying before others a “Dad brag.” And how our heavenly Father enjoys this! No one has said it better than Piper when he wrote, nearly thirty years ago, “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him.”16
These ancient believers proved that they were satisfied in Him by living as though they did not belong to the here and now. In fact, God was so pleased with their faith that He rewarded them with a city. That is just how God is. When we believe His Word, and when we practically confess this by our lifestyle, He is so happy to reward us (v. 6).
Think about it this way: The city of God is His way of saying throughout eternity that those who confess Him as trustworthy do not belong to this world. In fact, they are so special that they require a unique country. Jesus said the exact same thing when He told His disciples, “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). Conversely, He declared, “Whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:26). No wonder Paul said with such boldness that he was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ (Romans 1:16). Are you?
This, of course, was precisely the challenge that these Jewish believers were facing. They were being tempted to “cast away” their “confidence,” thereby losing their “reward” (10:35). But if they persevered in their confession of faith, they would have no reason to be ashamed. I appreciate the insight of William Lane who says, “To acknowledge that He is their God is to act on their behalf.”17 In other words, if God is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31)?
Edgar Andrews notes with reference to this statement that God “bound himself to them in glorious and compassionate condescension.”18 Is this not precisely what we find in the gospel? The incarnation was the ultimate condescension, and indeed it was glorious. The good news the Jesus Christ died and rose again for sinners is a glorious truth to be embraced and to be constantly confessed. These Hebrew believers were being reminded of this glorious privilege that they might continue to be characterised by a faith that confesses.
As we bring this study to a close let’s take a few minutes to apply this to ourselves.
First, if you are not confessing Christ as your Lord and Saviour, why not? You have every credible reason to do so. He is Lord. He is the Saviour of all who will see Him and confess Him as such. Do so today. If you will not openly confess Him then you do not have Him.
Second, if you claim to have confessed the Lord Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour then confess Him as He commands in baptism. I do not doubt that there are many unbaptised Christians. But I fear that there are many who are not Christians who think they have been baptised. Put things right.
Third, listen to the gospel. Listen to God’s Word and let it loosen the roots of your life. Be sure to plant your feet firmly in heaven by setting your affection on things above rather than upon things on the earth. After all, Christian, your life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1–3).
Hear these words of pastor and author Richard Phillips:
To be a Christian means living as an alien and a pilgrim; it means not being able to fit in with others who are slaves to sin; it means denying yourself and picking up your cross; it means a life of struggle and fellowship in the sufferings of Christ. The Christian life means peace with God, but war with the flesh, the world, and the devil. The primary blessings Christianity offers do not lie in this life at all, but in the life to come, in the resurrection from the dead. Indeed, even our present blessings, abundant and wonderful as they are, are located in heaven and are accessed by the exercise of faith.19
Finally, when we truly grasp the essential essence of living with an eternal perspective, we are empowered to face the sorrows of life. And one of those sorrows is earthly separation.
The day after I originally preached this sermon, one of my fellow elders, who had served in that position in the church for nine years, left Brackenhurst for George in the Western Cape. In obedience to God, they sojourned at BBC for nine years, but God called them to make the pilgrimage to another church. It was a difficult time for all of us. But the one who called Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland surely has the right to call His servants to do so too. They responded in faith. Will we?
Their departure was a confession of their faith in the faithfulness of God who is preparing for all of us a city. In fact, their relocation is a part of the eternal plan to build the city of God. The Builder and Maker is doing a wonderful work in George and He determined to use some of our members to help build the walls there.
Our willingness to let them go was our confession of faith. It was a confession that we trust God to build His church, that we trust Him to meet our needs as gaps of ministry are created here at BBC. It was a confession of trust that God knows what He is doing. It was a confession of faith that He loves His church and is not ashamed of any of us. He will continue to build what He has begun here at BBC and He will likewise do so in George.
- John F. MacArthur Jr., Hebrews: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1983), 334. ↩
- B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 362. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 100. ↩
- Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:357. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 303. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 2:356. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 206. ↩
- Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 305. ↩
- Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 363. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 207. ↩
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 1952), 134. ↩
- Jay E. Adams, Hebrews, James, I & II Peter, Jude: The Christian Counselor’s Commentary (Woodruff: Timeless Texts, 1996), 111. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 2:359–60. ↩
- Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 307. ↩
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 12.1:285. ↩
- John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters: Multnomah, 1986), 10. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 2:359. ↩
- Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 375. ↩
- Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 459. ↩