“Faith sees the invisible, hears the inaudible, touches the intangible, and accomplishes the impossible.”1 And faith does so over the long haul. We must wait for the result, and sometimes this can be a sorrowful wait. Yet when we finally see the fruit of our faith then our sorrow is turned into joyful laughter. Perhaps there is no better illustration of this than in the text before us in this study.
The story of Abraham and Sarah, and the birth of Isaac, is well known to many. It is a wonderful story in so many ways. We will see several of these ways over the next few studies.
You may remember that, when Sarah overheard the angel of the Lord reaffirming to her husband that she would indeed bear a son—at the age of 90—she laughed in unbelief (Genesis 18). But one year later, she gave birth to a healthy boy. Abraham and Sarah most appropriately named him “Isaac,” which means “laughter.” As the proverb says, “He who laughs last, laughs best.” Sarah’s initial laughter of unbelief was gloriously transformed into laughter of faith, but this move from being unbelieving to being faithful occurred long before the fruit of her faith was born.
We will study this progression under the title “Faith Laughing.”
Christian, whatever you are undergoing, you have every reason to take God at His Word. And though your burdens may produce tears now, and though your trial may tempt you to the mocking laughter of unbelief now, yet I trust that God’s Word, ministered by God’s Spirit, will enable you to smile by faith that transcends your circumstances. May you faithfully laugh as you wait for what God has promised.
But before we get into this text, let us establish the overarching context of these verses.
You will remember that Hebrews was written by an anonymous author to Jewish believers who were under pressure for their profession of faith in Christ. The writer’s intention was that they remain firm in their faith.
To accomplish this, he reminds them of the superiority of Jesus Christ as prophet, priest and king. Having irrefutably done so for some ten chapters, he exhorts them not to cast away their confidence, which has great reward (v. 35). He reminds them what is at stake: the salvation of their souls. If they persevere, they will receive the full and final salvation which God has promised to them (vv. 36–38).
To further help them to obey this admonition, the writer illustrates in chapter 11 the nature of what this saving faith looks like. He points them to several Old Testament examples who believed to the saving of their souls. And they did so with far less light than that current generation had.
We have learned so far in our studies that saving faith is rooted and grounded in the Word (vv. 1–3). Saving faith worships (v. 4). Saving faith walks (vv. 5–6). Saving faith works (v. 7) and saving faith waits (vv. 8–40). We began to see this in vv. 8–10 as we learned of Abraham’s faithful obedience driven by a waiting faith. But the author is not yet done with the example of Abraham. In this study we pick up another aspect of the saving faith that waits: It laughs, at least eventually. For saving faith is fruitful faith. What God promises in the gospel He brings to pass. Barrenness is transformed by God into fruitfulness (Isaiah 54:1–2). To God be the glory! We see this in the faith of Sarah in conjunction with the faith of her husband, Abraham.
Some have noted that Sarah (it would appear from the Genesis record) was more notable for her doubting than for her faith. But the Holy Spirit gives us a fuller picture in Hebrews 11. In fact, I will venture to argue that Sarah’s faith resembles ours more than perhaps any other example in Hebrews 11. Sarah really doubted but also really believed. And, because she believed, she conceived and brought forth the promised son. And we will be eternally thankful that she did.
The Conundrum of Faith
There was a television game show some time ago in South Africa called A Word or Two. Part of the show involved a game called Conundrum, in which nine letters were randomly selected and contestants were required to compile as many words as possible from those letters within a given period.
The word “conundrum” refers to words that form a riddle or a verbal puzzle. Verse 11 of our text is such a riddle. At first glance, these words are somewhat puzzling.
Some argue that this text should be interpreted as commending the faith of Abraham, not Sarah. Without getting into the technical difficulties that are argued in favour of such an interpretation, the underlying rationale for making this about Abraham rather than about Sarah is the seeming silence of any indication in the Old Testament that Sarah had faith in this promise. After all, when the angel of the Lord pronounced that she would conceive a child, she laughed (Genesis 18:1–12). As Donald Guthrie notes, “It is perhaps surprising to find Sarah spoken of as an example of faith, for according to Genesis she was more conspicuous as an example of doubt.”2 Her unbelief was manifested in a response that indicated a mockery of the promise. For this reason, some see that she would be a poor example to include in this Hall of Faith. But as I trust I will be able to prove, Sarah most rightly fits in this record of those who believed God for the impossible. She is a very fitting example of faith waiting.
Another objection to the common translation is related to the words “to conceive seed.” This phrase, it is argued, is better translated to deposit or to lay down seed, which is clearly the function of a man, not of a woman. This does seem to be a conundrum. However, what is clear is that Sarah is mentioned in the Greek text, so in some way these verses do reference her—and I believe that they do have reference her faith. So how do we resolve this apparent discrepancy?
The interpretive suggestion has been made, and I believe rightly so, that this entire passage from v. 8 through v. 22 is primarily with reference to Abraham. He indeed is the father of the faithful. But let us not forget that, apart from Sarah, there never would have been an Isaac. I think that the following commentary is completely unfair both to Sarah (and dare I say it?) to the text:
The Genesis account gives no indication that Sarah ever showed much faith in God. Both Abraham and Sarah, on different occasions, had laughed at God’s promise of a son in their old age (Gen. 17:17; 18:12), but Sarah had even taken matters into her own hands by persuading Abraham to have a son by her maid, Hagar (16:1–4). She did not trust God’s promise and was bent on doing things her own way, which, she soon found out, was not the way either of obedience or of happiness. Her idea and Abraham’s acquiescence produced a son, Ishmael, whose descendants from that day to this have been a plague on the descendants of the son of promise. Ishmael became the progenitor of the Arabs and every Jew since his birth has faced the antagonism of the Arab world because of Abraham’s and Sarah’s disobedience. Sarah’s impatience was costly.3
This author then concludes, “I believe the faith was Abraham’s, not Sarah’s. Through Abraham’s faith God miraculously fulfilled His promise.”4 With all due respect to an author I greatly respect, I believe he is wrong.
I don’t want to belabour the point, but it is important to note that Abraham was responsible. He was the leader of the home. What Sarah suggested concerning Hagar was wrong—grossly so. But Abraham failed—grossly so—to respond faithfully. The blame lies more, in my view, on Abraham than on his wife.
Secondly, the statement concerning the Arabs grossly misses the point that the reason the Arabs and the Jews since the early centuries after the death of Christ are at each other’s throats has little to do with Abraham and Sarah but an awful lot to do with the fact that the Jews as a whole have rejected Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. I am personally a little weary of an incipient and implicit racism that seems to underlie such accusations as mentioned by this commentator. There is no difference between Christ-rejecting Jews and Christ-rejecting Arabs.
But my main reason for drawing attention to this interpretation is to come to the legitimate defence of the epistle’s intention to highlight both Abraham and Sarah’s faith. They were not only partners in “crime” (Hagar) but also partners in faith (Isaac). At the risk of being graphic, Abraham indeed was faithful to “deposit the seed,” but Sarah was faithful to be in a position to receive the seed. The promised son was the result. To put it another way, Abraham laid down the seed and Sarah lay down to receive the seed. I am not trying to be sensational, and I am certainly not seeking to be inappropriate, but I want give due justice to this text. Abraham and Sarah came to a point where they believed the promise of God together. By faith Sarah submitted to the Word of God by submitting to her husband, and by faith she persevered to the end: She delivered the child. In the end, her laughter of doubt was replaced with the laughter of belief.
Therefore as F. F. Bruce proposes, we should read this text in this way: “By faith he [Abraham] also, together with Sarah, received power to beget a child.”5 After all, as Bruce comments, “Sarah was very much involved in the fulfilment of the promise that Abraham would have a son.”6 And as Morris summarises, Abraham “had faith in connection with the birth of Isaac, and Sarah is linked with him.”7
We can conclude that this text is pointing us to the faith of Sarah as well as the faith of her husband. She was a believing wife married to a believing husband. In fact, it may be the very case that Sarah believed because her husband believed. Westcott notes that “Sarah, who was at first unbelieving, was at last inspired with her husband’s faith by his example and influence; and the promise found amplest accomplishment.”8 Abraham may very well have been one of the means that the Lord used to help Sarah to believe God to the point that she “judged Him faithful who had promised.”
Our Own Conundrums
Before moving on, let’s pause and practically consider our own conundrum of faith.
Let’s be frank: So often we live as the man who came to the Lord for help for his son. When the Lord asked the father if he had faith for his son’s healing, the man answered very honestly: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Our own professions of faith are often accompanied by unbelief. The walk of faith in the life of the believer is never perfect—especially when we are waiting for what has been promised. We are prone to wander rather than to trust. We too laugh in disbelief. The promises often seem to be too good to be true. But then the Lord does something in our life and our unbelief is transformed. We believe as never before. The problem is not primarily with our initial doubts but rather with how we respond to them. I appreciate the insight of Donald Guthrie who writes, “In all spiritual encounters it is easier to doubt than to believe, and Sarah must be commended for her willingness to change her approach and to make way for the development of faith.”9 We too must be willing to move from doubt to confidence in the promises of God. Will you listen to God’s messengers and believe what He has promised? Will you listen as the gospel is preached, and to Christian brothers and sisters as they counsel you? Children, will you listen as your parents instruct you from the Word?
The Cause of Faith
Someone has said, with reference to the account of Genesis 18 that “Sarah’s fear became her faith.” Consider the following.
According to Genesis 18:15, Sarah was afraid when she was confronted by the angel of the Lord after she laughed. That was why she initially denied the offence when confronted. But the angel reproved her (no doubt gently). This was most likely the point at which Sarah believed the promise. At this point, she had a godly fear, for she realised that this was a divine messenger. In other words, when Sarah realised that this was the Word of the Lord, she feared. In this sense, her fear was her faith. She now believed. Calvin observes, “It must indeed be confessed, that her faith was blended with unbelief; but as she cast aside her unbelief when reproved, her faith is acknowledged by God and commended. What then she rejected at first as being incredible, she afterwards as soon as she heard that it came from God, obediently received.”10
Of course, as we have noted, Sarah would laugh again. In Genesis 21 the Lord fulfilled His promise. Three months later, Sarah conceived, and nine months later she brought forth her son, whom they name Isaac (literally “laughter”). Her painful laughter of incredulity had been transformed into the joyful laughter of fulfilment, fruitfulness, and vindication. The long wait was now over. It had been a long road to fruitfulness, but the destination had been attained. At some point, Sarah “judged Him faithful who had promised.” There was every reason to believe God (v. 6). Sarah came to believe “in the reliability of a God who not only keeps promises but works miracles.”11
Sarah’s faith is typical of the life of faith to which we are called. Like Sarah, we are called to believe God’s Word. After all, God’s Word is the very cause of our faith (Romans 10:17). God’s Word points us to the object of our trust: God Himself. When we consider the character of God, we are confident to believe His Word. After all, He is God and cannot lie (Titus 1:2).
Kent Hughes observes that it is very rational to believe God’s Word, even when what is promised is humanly impossible. Of course, this is the essence of faith. God’s character is the issue. Hughes writes, “If God’s Word does indeed say it, we must then be supremely rational, weighing the human impossibility against the divine impossibility of God being able to break his word. And we must believe.”12 Sarah did. So, how should we apply this principle?
Consider your need for salvation. He promises that if you repent and call upon His name, He will save you. Don’t call Him a liar. Don’t laugh at God’s promise. Repent and believe the gospel! Fear the Lord! As Proverbs 14:26–27 says, “In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence, And His children will have a place of refuge. The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, To turn one away from the snares of death.”
Or consider your situation. What promise contained in His Word are you clinging to? Keep clinging to it—whether it be for sanctification, daily bread, promised contentment, or the advancement of the kingdom. Jeremiah Burroughs said it beautifully: “Every time a godly man reads the Scriptures … and there meets with a promise, he ought to lay his hand upon it and say, This is part of my inheritance, it is mine, and I am to live upon it.”13
Consider, further, your eventual glory. This is the issue: Believe God’s Word concerning “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (v. 10). John Owen on his death bed said to his friend and editor William Payne: “O brother … the long-wished for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world.”14 Owen had buried all eleven of his children in childhood. The difficulties of life did not dampen his faith; rather, God in His faithfulness used this as a means to strengthen his faith.
The Chronology of Faith
Our faith journey takes time. “Faith receives God’s promise and faith waits on him, often for very long periods.”15 Again, this is a major point in this passage. That is, faith waits. It patiently and expectantly waits because of confidence in the God who promises. Because of this, there is often a process in which we learn to trust God. We see this in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac.
In Genesis 17, Abraham experienced the covenantal confirmation as indicated by the rite of circumcision. He was 99 years old (17:1). This would have been a very painful experience. But note that this surely would have been known to Sarah. This surgical act would not have escaped her notice. Did you ever consider what would have followed this, in the privacy of their home?
Abraham no doubt would have explained the significance of his circumcision to Sarah. It is clear that, even though circumcision was an ancient custom, it was clearly not practiced by the family of Terah and his sons. Their clan did not undergo this rite. But now Abraham, an old man, was circumcised. Sarah, we can assume, would want to know why. And doubtless Abraham explained it to her. He would have told her that it was a sign that he and his household, including her, were in a covenant relationship with God. He would have explained that this sign pointed to the promised seed who would come through their progeny. He would have explained that God was going to send His Messiah, who would cut away the sin of their hearts. Abraham would have preached Christ to his wife.
But further, when Abram (as his name was then) came home, he would have informed Sarah that now she should call him by his new name: Abraham. Abram was difficult enough; it means “father of a nation” or “of many.” But Abraham means, “Father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5). But she would have been floored perhaps when he said that she also had a new name: Sarah (meaning “mother of nations,” because the Lord promised that from her would come “kings of peoples” [Genesis 17:15–16]).
But note what immediately follows. Chapter 18 opens with the word “then.” Not long after receiving the sign of the covenant and the promise of the gospel, a communion meal was shared between a man and the Lord (vv. 1–3). It is here where the Lord made the specific pronouncement that, in exactly one year, Abraham and Sarah would enjoy the birth of their promised son. It is here where Sarah laughed. She doubted the promise. Even in the presence of the sign of the covenant, she still did not believe. She had observed her husband undergo great pain because of the promise, and yet she still would not believe. What would it take for her to believe? She would need a personal encounter with the Word of the Lord. Once this occurred, then she believes and conceived strength to conceive.
I suppose that there are many lessons for us here, but at the least we should take away this one: We cannot “prove” people into the faith. We can live the gospel before others (and doubtless we should live out the implications of the gospel), but only God can make a believer out of us. And God apparently often works according to a different timetable than ours!
The Courage of Faith
Have you ever considered the actual circumstances surrounding Sarah conceiving Isaac? Let’s do so now, for it will prove constructively instructive for our own journey of faith.
The text here in Hebrews 11, as well as in Genesis 18 and Romans 4, makes it clear that Abraham and Sarah were not sexually active. Imagine what must have occurred that night when both were convinced that God was going to give them a naturally-born child. Need I say more? By faith they “received strength to conceive.” God gave them the courage to explore the unknown and to experience the otherwise impossible.
For them to engage in the physical act of marital intimacy was an exercise and demonstration of faith. God uses means. And in this case the means was physical procreation beginning with sexual relations.
But further, can you imagine carrying a child at the age of ninety? Certainly there were risks of a physical nature. Under the best of conditions childbirth is risky. But at ninety, clearly the risks are greater. But think about it. When you have God’s Word on a matter, you are most certainly in the best of conditions. They had this promise, and so this was in their favour.
We can learn from this that salvation is not always humanly “safe,” and neither is service. We need to beware of the obsession with “safety.” The walk of faith is risky, but the risk is right and worthy. I know of a missionary in another African country who says that people from his home country always ask one (or both) of two questions when they see him: Is it safe? and, How is the medical? Shame on us! Surely walking in the safety of God’s will is greater than both of those things.
Our church has a missionary in a certain part of Asia. Shortly before he and his wife left for the field, she miscarried their first child. The doctors told her that there was very little church of her carrying a child to term—and there was no chance if they went to India. They went anyway and, today, they have three Indian-born children. These childbirths were in somewhat frightening circumstances, but they trusted God and God blessed their obedience.
So just believe, and continue to believe regardless of the naysayers.
The Cooperation of Faith
Abraham’s faith would have been incomplete apart from Sarah’s. Sarah, like her husband, did not immediately believe God. Yet, like him, eventually she did. I appreciate and agree with the comment of Westcott: “She was enabled to become the mother of Abraham’s son. She co-operated on her part with Abraham towards the fulfilment of the promise.… Her act of Faith completing his Faith is made the reason for the fulfilment of the promise.”16
So, what can we learn from this? Our faith sometimes (often?) requires partners in our faith project.
Conspiracy of Faith
I watched a movie on a recent flight to South Africa called J.F.K. This old Oliver Stone movie argues that the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy was the result of a conspiracy headed up by the CIA. Without getting into the merits of the argument, the point being made was that there was no way that the assassination could have been successfully carried out by the lone efforts of one man. The death of the president could only have come about by a conspiracy of likeminded partners in crime.
Whatever you may think of that argument, there is no way that there would have been an Isaac had there not been the combined efforts of Abraham and Sarah. They were cooperatives in this faith venture. They were partners in confidence (v. 35). Richard Phillips is spot on when he writes, “The flow of thought makes Abraham the main subject, especially in connection with verse 12, yet it was together that this sorrowful pair found grace to trust in God and in his promise.”17 And as Calvin says, “The miracle which God performed when Isaac was born, was the fruit of the faith of Abraham, and of his wife, by which they laid hold on the power of God.”18
We need to appreciate that “despite her initial scepticism, Sarah came to share Abraham’s faith,”19 and then consider that ultimately this is the responsibility of the husband in a believing marriage. We are to so lovingly shepherd our wives that we help them to move to a stronger faith. What great security a wife has when her husband aims to strengthen her faith!
My point again is simply, yet importantly, that they believed together.
We too need partners in our faith walk. We need those who will cooperate with us in the journey of faith.
Husbands need believing wives, wives need believing husbands, children need believing parents and parents need believing children. Young adults need believing older adults and young people need believing older people. People who are single need believers who are married and married people need believers who are single. Congregations need believing pastors and pastors need believing congregations. Missionaries need believing local churches who send them and churches who send them need believing missionaries. I trust you get the point.
As I have sought to highlight throughout our studies in this epistle, there is no attention given to the lone ranger by the author, except as words of warning (see 10:24–25). There is a communal thrust in this epistle.
We need each other in this race of faith. So let us partner with each other. One of the values of church prayer meetings is that of cooperating with one another at the throne of grace. As we pray together, we are helping one another to believe God and His promises. Just as, no doubt, Abraham helped Sarah to believe God, and perhaps vice versa, so we are to help one another to run with confidence the race that is set before us.
Abraham and Sarah believed together. They were both imperfect because they were both sinners, like us. Yet God used them in a profound way. We should take great encouragement from their example that, together, our laughter of doubt can be emboldened so as to become a joint laughter of faith.
The Consequence of Faith
It should encourage us to consider that this elderly couple were blessed to be a blessing. That is, from Isaac came not only a nation but a kingdom—the kingdom. Abraham was the father of the faithful, and therefore we might be justified in saying that Sarah was the mother of the faithful.
Both Abraham and Sarah believed God, and I believe that they both believed God in Christ. After all, this is the point of this chapter in the purpose of the writer. But it also seems to me that they both looked for the city whose builder and maker is God (v. 10). It was for this that they waited, though not always patiently. They had an eternal perspective and because of this they did the most good in and for this world. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ statement, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought 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 [world].”20
The word “therefore” at the head of v. 12 makes the connection between Sarah’s faith and the consequence: a child was born, resulting eventually in an innumerable progeny. Hyperbolic metaphors are used to make the point that the faith of Abraham and Sarah was rewarded. And this is merely an example of the well-established principle articulated in v. 6: God does reward the faithful—in His time and in His way.
It will be remembered that, when Sarah died, followed several years later by the death of Abraham, that they left one natural born son behind. Abraham was blessed to have seen his grandsons Jacob and Esau. So the one with the conspicuous name “father of nations” died with three sons to his name. But he died believing. He proved himself faithful as he waited patiently on the Lord. And even today Abraham and Sarah have not received the fullness of the promise. That will only occur once the last person for whom Christ died is finally saved. Then the promise for which they waited will be completely experienced.
An Even Greater Laughter
As great as this miracle of Isaac was, it cannot hold a candle to the enormity of the miracle of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. And I wonder if the example of Sarah served as a source of encouragement to Mary. Mary, no doubt, would have been tempted to unbelief, yet when we listen to her Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), we can detect the laughter of faith.
The miracle of Isaac highlights that God can do the impossible in the physical realm. But the incarnation is the promise that God can and will do the impossible in the spiritual realm. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to raise the spiritually dead and the power to blot out forever the guilt that separates us from God and brings eternal judgement. Are you tired of the sorrow of sin and separation? Then believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and join the worldwide choir of us who can joyfully laugh because we know that “God’s blessing is beyond human calculation.”19
When Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph had plenty of reasons to laugh with joy. For the birth of Jesus was the beginning in space-time history of the promise made to Abraham so long ago that, in Christ coming through the loins of Abraham, all of the families of the earth would be blessed. In other words, the joyful laughter at the birth of Isaac was the promise of a deeper and more universal joyful laughter one day when the Saviour of the world would come. Because Abraham and Sarah believed God, the laughter from a tent in Mesopotamia eventually was followed by joyful laughter in a stable in Bethlehem that has spread to countless homes for nearly two thousand years. Though the tunes and tones have been different, we have sung the same song: “Worthy is the Lamb.” What a day that will be in glory when multitudes that cannot be numbered will all be sharing in the same joy. Yes there is coming a day when all of the redeemed throughout history will join in the global celebration of faith laughing.
- John MacArthur Jr., Hebrews: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1983), 332. ↩
- Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 234. ↩
- MacArthur, Hebrews, 332–33. ↩
- MacArthur, Hebrews, 333. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 302. ↩
- Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 300. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:119. ↩
- B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 360. ↩
- Guthrie, Hebrews, 235. ↩
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 22:281. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 205. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 2:100. ↩
- Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 456. ↩
- Peter Toon, God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1971), 171. ↩
- Phillips, Hebrews, 452. ↩
- Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 361. ↩
- Phillips, Hebrews, 454. ↩
- Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 12:281. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:120. ↩
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 1952), 134. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:120. ↩