Faith Expecting (Hebrews 11:20–22)

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As we come to these verses, we have come to the end of the section dealing with the faith of Abraham. Technically, this ended in v. 19, but the three patriarchs mentioned here obviously have a direct connection to Abraham. It is a covenantal connection through which God’s promise to Abraham came to pass.

You will recall that the writer is exhorting his readers to continue to believe on Jesus Christ, whom he has proven to be believable. But one of the hindrances to faith—that which actually calls for faith—is the reality that we do not usually see what has been promised. The readers are being told to believe in an invisible High Priestly Prophet and King, who rules and reigns over an invisible kingdom, and who (as it was prophesied) would soon bring that kingdom to bear in a unique way through the destruction of Jerusalem and Judaism. They were to wait patiently, because believingly, for this to occur. It is for this reason that everything from v. 8 onwards in this chapter is about faith waiting.

The faith that pleases God is a faith that is grounded in the Word. It is a faith that worships (v. 4), walks (vv. 5–6), works (v. 7), and waits (vv. 8–10). As it waits, it laughs (vv. 11–12), confesses (vv. 14–16), and sacrifices (vv. 17–19). But it does all this because it is expectant (vv. 20–22).

Faith expecting is what we will study from this passage. We will do so by looking at the faith of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Though they were very different as individuals, they shared faith in what God had promised in the future. In a word, they believed God for the gospel. We can learn from these three patriarchs some characteristics of faith expecting.

Isaac’s Expectation

Verse 20 highlights Isaac’s expectation: “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.”

Isaac had a remarkable birth (see Genesis 21) and experienced a remarkable providence (see Genesis 22). Both of these are deeply connected to faith and so it should not surprise us to find these words: “By faith Isaac.” Think about that statement for a moment. By faith there was an Isaac, and he in turn lived by faith. What was begotten by faith continued by faith—much like the Christian life.

In fact, in many ways it is probably easier for you and me to relate to Isaac than to Abraham. Isaac, at least for me, highlights the ordinariness of the life of faith as well as how ordinary believers often live out their life of faith.

One might ask, was it easier for Isaac to live by faith having been through all that he had experienced? One would think so, and yet the Genesis record shows on several occasions that Isaac showed great unbelief. He nearly left the Promised Land when famine came (see Genesis 26). And, like his father, he lied about his relationship to his wife in order to save his skin. As you read the record, you get the idea that Isaac was unbiblically passive as a husband and father (see Genesis 27). His family was dysfunctional family exhibit A. In fact, the words of v. 20 point us to an episode in which, on the surface, it appears that actually Isaac was unfaithful. When he blessed his sons, he tried to bless Esau instead of Jacob, despite God’s clear instruction to the contrary.

Yet, to be fair, we should also note that Isaac showed wonderful faith with reference to his wife’s barrenness. He prayed for her and the Lord gave them children—twin boys (Genesis 25:20–24). In a sense, it would seem that it would be easy for Isaac to believe God to overcome a barren womb in view of his own birth.

Yet with this caveat, it is a bit disconcerting that, even though God had made it clear that He would pass on the Abrahamic covenantal blessing of Messiah through Jacob rather than Esau, Isaac sought to do things his way. It would seem that Isaac was too attached to cultural custom and to personal favouritism, and therefore he sought to bless Esau rather than Jacob. Humanly speaking, it was only by the manipulative efforts of Rebekah and Jacob that Jacob ended up with the blessing. So it is quite fair to ask, how could this possibly be an example of faith? Is this not a case of special pleading? No.

It needs to be noted that, regardless of Isaac’s clear ignoring of God’s intentions concerning Jacob and the covenant, he did believe God’s promise concerning the covenantal future. The words “concerning things to come” reveal that Isaac believed God’s Word. His fault was that he sought to bring God’s will to pass in his own way. Isaac’s stubbornness may have contributed to Jacob’s deceitful ways. Both were wrong concerning the means, yet both were correct in their belief in the Messiah.

Yes, Isaac believed because God’s word was credible. God’s covenantal faithfulness was not in doubt. The gospel of God was believable. In fact, this is our author’s point.

Isaac, at a most fundamental and important level, believed in a future. In fact, he came to see that God’s purposes would be fulfilled. “Isaac acknowledged the overruling of his own purpose.”1 And so, as he neared death, Isaac made this confession of faith. As someone has said, death is the acid test of faith. Isaac passed. Will you?

Isaac viewed life primarily as linear. That is, while not denying that some things in history “recycle,” nevertheless history is heading somewhere. It is heading towards what God has promised. That is why Isaac “blessed” his sons “concerning things to come.” Isaac lived and died with a God-grounded expectation. He believed and therefore saw. And he passed on the blessing to the next generation. How we need such faith! How we need to see and therefore speak!

Among the things we can learn from Isaac, let us learn that God often uses crooked sticks to hit straight shots. The life of faith aims for perfection, but failures will occur. And when we fail we should reflect upon the reality that God remains faithful.

Jacob’s Expectation

Verse 21 speaks to Jacob’s expectation: “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff.”

Jacob held a similar worldview to his father Isaac. That is, over time Jacob learned not to be bound by time; he fully expected the Lord to fulfil His promise in His time.

Again, Jacob’s walk of faith was not without stumbles. The record in Genesis alternates between calling him “Israel” (“prince”) and “Jacob” (“supplanter”). Like you and me, he had his good and bad days. Yet, fundamentally, he remained faithful because He knew that God is faithful.

The text informs us that, when Jacob was dying, he “blessed each of the sons of Joseph” (see Genesis 48).

Though it is true that Jacob also blessed (or prophesied over) his own sons on his death bed (Genesis 49), the writer points us to this particular blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim—Joseph’s sons. I do not know all the reasons for this. After all, it was not through either of these sons that Messiah would arise, for in fact Jacob prophesied in Genesis 49:8–12 that that blessing was reserved for Judah. However, Ephraim and Manasseh would prove to be essential tribes of Israel, and it was through this nation that the Abrahamic covenant would be fulfilled. And it was in this blessing that Jacob spoke of their return to the land of their fathers (Genesis 48:21–22).

Perhaps one reason for this inclusion is because Jacob had for many, many years assumed that Joseph was dead and that one tribe would therefore be cut off from Israel. Yet, in the end, the sons of Joseph would in fact form two tribes of Israel. So, when Jacob blessed these sons, he was acknowledging God’s faithfulness to His covenant. Jacob said as much in Genesis 48:15–16. His deathbed blessing of his grandsons was a faithful acknowledgment of his confident expectation that God would keep covenant. As Bruce helpfully notes,

And thus, while his earlier career had been marked by anything but faith, as he endeavored repeatedly by his own scheming to gain advantages for himself, yet at the end of his days he recognized the futility of all his scheming, and relied on the faithfulness of the “Mighty One of Jacob.”2

The Message was Faithful

Jacob’s message of blessing was rooted in his confidence in God’s covenantal faithfulness. Though he did not enter the land, and though he did not see the nation established, and though he did not see the nations blessed, Jacob fully expected God to keep His promise. And he said as much to his grandsons.

The Method was Faithful

The method in which Jacob carried out this blessing also reveals his faith. He deliberately blessed the younger over the elder brother (much to Joseph’s initial chagrin). In doing so, he was doing what Isaac initially struggled against: going against cultural custom because of faith in the God who transcends culture.

Jacob demonstrated his faith that God is not bound by custom or culture, but rather by His covenant (Hebrews 6:13–18). Jacob had learned (often the hard way) that God is faithful to do the unexpected. Jacob learned to expect this!

The Manner was Faithful

The manner in which Jacob carried this out is mentioned: He “worshipped, leaning on the top of his staff.” Without getting into the translation questions (Genesis 48 says that he was sitting upon his bed, while our author quotes the Septuagint), the point being emphasised is that Jacob’s expectation was worshipful. The symbolism confirms this. As Lane points out, “leaning upon the top of his staff was characteristic for one who lived his life as a stranger and a sojourner.”3 And Brown comments, “It was only by ‘faith’ that a ‘sojourner,’ a man who did not own land, could talk about the peoples who would serve his descendants and the nations who would ultimately honour them.”4 Jacob saw himself in submission to the Lord. His faith was worshipful.

Again, faith and worship (as we learned from Abel) are inseparable. Any confidence separated from God-centred worship is presumption or fideism. And neither is commendable; neither is pleasing to the Lord.

This manner is vital, for it keeps us humble. It keeps our faith from becoming arrogantly presumptive. It guards us from an entitlement mentality. But such a manner or disposition does not normally just happen. Rather as in Joseph’s case it is learned over time, and often through much heartache (see Genesis 28, 32, 37:32–35).

Heartache is often necessary as a means to the manner. Hardships are often the means towards making us faithful worshippers. When we stop expecting things to go our way then we are in a position to humbly expect things to go God’s way. Perhaps we have a glimpse of this here on Jacob’s deathbed. After all, unlike his earlier deception of his father, here he openly and categorically makes it clear that the blessing is coming upon the younger rather than on the older. And he tells Joseph so. There was no more manipulation, only faithful worship. In the brittleness and brokenness of life, a God-centred worldview empowers us to worship—faithfully.

Joseph’s Expectation

Verse 22 speaks to Joseph’s expectant faith: “By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones.”

Perhaps, unlike the previous two patriarchs, this final example is not surprising. In fact, the entire record of Joseph’s life appears unblemished.

Joseph faithfully declared the dream that God had given to him concerning the day in which his brothers would bow to him (see Genesis 37). Some may question his wisdom or tact in the way that he went about it, yet at the same time you must admire his confidence in God’s revelation.

When Joseph was mistreated and sold into slavery, he remained faithful to the Lord. He likewise proved faithful when he was sexually tempted and when he was imprisoned on the heels of being falsely accused of attempted rape (see Genesis 39ff). But the writer passes over these things and brings us to observe Joseph’s faith when he was dying (Genesis 50:22–26). Joseph’s body may have been in the process of decay, but his faith was vibrantly expectant.

On his deathbed, he spoke to his brothers and gave them “instructions concerning his bones.” In reality, this command was not specifically for them but rather for a generation a long way yet to come.

Joseph wanted to make sure, when God fulfilled His promise to deliver His people from Egypt, that his bones were taken with them to the promised land of Canaan. Andrews writes, “Joseph had no intention of missing the Exodus to the promised land, even though only his bones would make the journey!”5 He was not being merely sentimental or superstitiously mystical. Rather, he was proving to be very faithful. As Lane notes, “He refused to recognize in death any threat to the fulfilment of the promise.”6 And his faith was rewarded (Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32).

How did Joseph know that one day the families of Israel would depart the land of Egypt? Was it merely wishful thinking? Hardly. Joseph knew of the promise that Yahweh had made to Abraham long ago that, after four hundred years of servitude, He would fulfil His promise to bring Abraham’s people out of bondage and into Canaan (Genesis 15:13–16). At the time, Abraham was not told which nation it was that would mistreat his descendants, but he was assured of two things: First, Abraham was assured that he would have descendants (at this time he had no son); and second, he was assured of the promise of divine deliverance after years of national hardship.

But how did Joseph know this? Clearly, throughout subsequent generations this covenantal promise was passed on. We know this because Joseph spoke of the things “of which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 50:24). Abraham told Isaac, and Isaac told Jacob, and Jacob told his sons. And this is precisely what we are to do with the good news. We are to tell the gospel from generation to generation.

The main point of this verse is that Joseph believed God’s bare Word about the future. He knew that what God had promised He was more than willing and able and committed to bring to pass. He expected this. That is precisely what faith does. And such confidence in God does not falter, especially as it faces death.

Joseph perhaps began to put things together at this point, realising that the nation God had said would mistreat the descendants of Abraham was the nation that, at that point, was in fact saving Abraham’s descendants. But things would change. I do not know if Joseph had a premonition of this, but I do know that Joseph was not deceived by what he saw. Rather, by faith, he was influenced to see what others could not see.

Joseph was seventeen years old when he was sold into slavery in Egypt. He died at 110. This means that nearly 85% of his life was lived in Egypt. He had reached the pinnacle of Egyptian political power as its Prime Minister. And yet, on his deathbed, he was thinking about “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (v. 10). He had learned well from his father, “leaning on the top of his staff” as a sojourner.

Joseph wanted to make sure that his bones would come to rest in the land where God was going to establish His kingdom on earth. His gospel confidence in God’s promised prospect empowered him to see things as they are.

He too believed in a future that would outlast him. He believed that God was up to something, and that indeed He was up to it. Joseph believed that God would do what He promised. God would fulfil the promises made to Abraham; Joseph was certain of this. Are you? You should be!

The Fruit of Faith

Joseph, as in every other example thus far in Hebrews 11, believed the gospel of God because he believed the God of the gospel. He had full confidence in God’s character, and for this reason, on his deathbed, he carried on what Jacob had done on his deathbed: He passed on the covenantal blessings to the seed of a nation that would carry the Seed for all the nations. Joseph believed the Word that God had given to Adam and Eve concerning the Seed who would crush the serpent’s head. Joseph believed God’s Word that He had given to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations and that, through him, all the nations of the world will be blessed. Joseph believed that this covenantal blessing had been passed on from Abraham to Isaac and then on to his own father, Jacob. He believed that the God who had been faithful to former generations, and who had been faithful to his own generation, would be faithful to future generations. And as we look back over the march of history we realise that Joseph was completely justified in his confidence. His faith has been vindicated for millennia.

Finally, it is clear that Joseph believed in the resurrection. Why else would he care that his bones be transported out of Egypt and buried in the Promised Land?

Lessons from these Patriarchs

So, what can we take away from these three examples?

By definition, the faith that waits is the faith that expects. It expects that God will give and do what He has promised.

Such faith expecting is not controlled by immediate circumstances. That is what makes expecting such a challenge. That is, when what we are experiencing is so powerfully negative, it is a challenge to faith to expect something, somewhere, someday, somehow better. Yet this expectation is God’s expectation for our faith. He expects for us to expect. His expectation is quite literally to be our expectation.

But note that we must be careful to understand that we are to expect what God has revealed. His revelation is the basis of our expectation. Anything else is merely presumption. Let me flesh this out.

What they Expressed: Blessings

In each case, these believers expressed faith concerning the future as they expressed their faith concerning God’s faithfulness. It was for this reason that they spoke good words (blessings) to their progeny. As Morris highlights,

What impresses the author about these patriarchs was that they had a faith that looked beyond death…. With all three the significant thing was their firm conviction that death cannot frustrate God’s purposes…. Their faith, being stronger than death, in a way overcame death, for their words were fulfilled.7

These patriarchs expressed the gospel to the next generation. And we are called to do the same.

Our expectations will be expressed. What are you expressing? Cynicism, negativism and dismal pessimism reveal that we do not expect much. But the Bible reveals that there is much that we should expect. And when the Word of God informs our expectation, we will find ourselves expressing this in the form of blessing others.

I love this picture. These patriarchs “blessed” others with words of hope. They gave them “good words” of good news. So it is to be with all Christians. We should have great and graced expectations, which find expression in how we treat and interact with others. In the words of Paul, our speech ought always to be seasoned with grace (Colossians 4:6).

We should express what we are biblically entitled to expect concerning what God has promised in the gospel. We should express what we are biblically entitled to expect in terms of what God has promised long after we are gone. We should express these things thereby equipping the next generation to expect what we expect. God’s expectations are to be ours, and ours are to become theirs, and theirs are to be passed on to the next generation (see Ephesians 1:3–6).

What they Expected: Blessings

This is often where we get into trouble, where the seeds of disillusionment, discouragement and even defection are sown: that is, when our expectations are not realistic, when they are not biblical.

It is interesting that, in each of these cases, the faith of the patriarch was grounded in a specific promise from God. Their expectations were quite literally biblical. What God revealed is what they reasoned they should expect. This must always be our guiding principle. It is when we have expectations arising from our own ideas that disappointments, which often morph into disillusionment, arise. For instance, someone shared with me about a friend that had been praying for the safety and release of Pierre Korkie. When this friend learned of his murder this past week, she became angry with God. But we must ask, on what basis? There is no biblical revelation that one could have claimed concerning the safety of our brother. It is when we develop expectations that have no specific biblical revelation that we become disappointed. This is why we need faithful Bible exposition.

When asked what “expository preaching” means the answer is simple: It is letting the text determine the content of the sermon. What God has revealed is what the preacher is to communicate. What God expects as He has revealed is what the preacher is to explain so that the Christian will know what to expect. There is no substitute for expository preaching. This is what is to shape our expectation. Simply, we should expect exactly what God expects.

Again, in each of these cases in Hebrews 11, the expectations were fully justified and eventually, long after their death, the faith-fuelled expectations of the patriarchs were (and continue to be) vindicated. So, what were their expectations, and what are ours? Rather, what should they be?

A City

It is clear from the study of the Abrahamic covenant that God had promised His kingdom on earth (a theme addressed in Hebrews 12). This was “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (v. 10). In each case, the blessing passed on to the next generation had this kingdom reference. These patriarchs fully expected God to fulfil His promise to establish His kingdom on earth, beginning in Palestine. Though I doubt they had a full understanding of all that this meant, they did realise that all the nations of the world would share in the blessings that would arise from the city of God, established by Abraham’s physical seed and filled with Abraham’s spiritual seed. “They received God’s revelation in faith, and in his plan they saw that they were joined to his grand redemptive purpose, stretching back in history through Abraham and those before him, and reaching forward toward eternity future.”8 And this remains the expectation of the faithful.

We should have faith concerning the future. Christians are called to believe God’s revealed promised plan to establish His perfect kingdom on earth one day. We have biblical reason (because we have biblical revelation) to expect the kingdom of God, the city of God, to be established on earth. We even have a biblical prayer to this effect; we call it “the Lord’s Prayer” (see Matthew 6:9–13; Luke 11:1–4).

We need to engage the present challenges while at the same time expecting a more glorious future. Pessimism may be our natural default, but as Christians we need to overcome such unbelief by faith in the promises of God because of confidence in the God who has made such promises.

Pray like you expect God’s promises to come to pass. Labour and witness and serve like you expect God to fulfil His promises. Raise your children like you expect Him to be faithful to what He has promised. Plan for the future of BBC like you expect God’s promises to be fulfilled. Give—invest in the kingdom—like you expect God’s promises to guarantee a sure investment.

The Christ

These patriarchs followed in the steps of father Abraham as they believed God’s promise that His city would be ruled by His Son, the promised Messiah. They believed the promise revealed in Genesis 3:15. They were expecting that God would send His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And because they expected Christ they died with these blessings on their lips. They were declaring to the next generation, “Expect Jesus!” This is to be our supreme expectation.

For whom or what are looking? If Christ is your focus then you can (and will) both live and die happy. Is this not precisely what Paul meant when he wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippias 1:21)? Our writer says that same thing in Hebrews 12:1–2. In fact, this is the climax of his argument from all of these faithful examples in chapter 11.

We need to take to heart what Paul wrote in Ephesians 1 concerning all we have in Christ. When we can sing with great contentment, “All I have is Christ,” then we qualify for admission to this Hall of Faith. In fact, this Hall is not for the select few but is for every child of God.

Look for Christ daily, and hour by hour. Set your affection on things above where your life is hid with God in Christ (Colossians 3:1–3). Make knowing Christ and making Him known your chief expectation and pursuit. Use this holiday season to do just that.

What they Experienced: Blessings

Because they expected blessing, these saints experienced blessing.

Faith and Failure

We should be encouraged by the account of Isaac’s failure because that it teaches us that God’s purposes will always be fulfilled. God sovereignly worked in such a way that an unwise father, who showed partiality, could not alter God’s covenantal plan and purpose. Isaac realised this and so, with great faith, he proclaimed, “And indeed he [Jacob] shall be blessed” (Genesis 27:33).

In fact, on a human level, there was much that mitigated against great expectations for any of these patriarchs. Richard Phillips writes, “Isaac was a weak man, Jacob was a cheat, and Joseph was a victim. Yet through these three generations God steadily wove his plan toward the end he had designed.”9

We should take encouragement that, despite our failures, God’s promises will come to pass. Christian, take heart that, in spite of your fallings and failures, God will accomplish His designs. Yes, God will accomplish His designs for you (Philippians 1:6).

Faith and Foes

Joseph faced many foes and yet the Lord brought him to the place where he saw God’s covenantal blessings come upon his children. He also had every reason to believe that he would experience blessings long after he died. He believed in the resurrection. The life of faith is often assaulted by enemies of the faith, and yet these are often the very things that God uses to test and to strengthen our faith. So expect foes, yet also expect faith.

Faith and Fruitfulness

Jacob likened Joseph to “a fruitful bough” whose “branches run over the wall” (Genesis 49:22). When Joseph came to the end of his life, he no doubt reflected on God’s goodness to him and the fruitfulness attending his life. And this doubtless also served to encourage him concerning the future. In other words, Joseph had reason to be encouraged that more fruit waited ahead.

When we are discouraged and even disillusioned, we do well to remember better times when God bore fruit in our life. And when we experience this remembrance, we will find ourselves encouraged that God is not yet finished with us. Fruitfulness is still in our future.

Faith and Faithfulness

Undergirding all of the above is the faithfulness of God. It is because God is faithful that we can persevere in spite of failure and in the face of foes. It is because of God’s faithfulness that we experience fruitfulness. These patriarchs learned to expect God to be faithful as they learned His character. The same is to be true for us. We need to grow in our knowledge of God, thereby growing in our confidence in His faithfulness to His Word. This is the soil from which the crop of our own faithfulness will grow.

Faith and Future

Of course, this almost goes without saying. Yet we should pause to reflect on what Browning once wrote: “A man’s grasp must exceed his reach or what’s a heaven for?”10 The future is a reality, and heaven on earth is the promised future for God’s children. Don’t be consumed with, constrained by or controlled by the immediate. Rather, like these faithful patriarchs, live in the light of the ultimate.

What more should we take away from this study? Let me simply summarise.

We must be sure that biblical expectations are the filter by which we examine our experiences. When we fail, let us remember the faithfulness of God. When we face foes, let us rely on the faithfulness of God. When we are fruitful, let us reflect all praise to our God who is faithful to make us fruitful. This is what God expects. In other words, live in the light of the gospel.

The good news of what God has done for believing sinners in the person and work of Jesus Christ is what these patriarchs were waiting for. They believed that God would one day send His Son, who would die for the sins of all who believe on Him. They believed this gospel and it became the message through which they learned to filter their experiences. We might put it this way: If God did not spare His own Son for us, then how will He not also with Him freely give us all things (see Romans 8:32)? Believer, the best is yet to come. So live by faith, expecting.

Show 10 footnotes

  1. B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 368.
  2. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 313.
  3. William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 2:365.
  4. Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 213.
  5. Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 382.
  6. Lane, Hebrews, 2:366.
  7. Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:123.
  8. Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 487.
  9. Phillips, Hebrews, 490–91.
  10. Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto,, retrieved 14 December 2014.