This is the second extract from a ‘readable’ commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews entitled “A Glorious High Throne” and is Chapter 38 in the book. These extracts will eventually cover the whole of Hebrews Chapter 11, a chapter devoted entirely to the all-important subject of faith.
Please read Hebrews 11:4-7
Having defined faith and shown it to be foundational to the new covenant, the Writer now begins to draw out its major characteristics. Two such features are presented in verses 4-7. Firstly, faith is the means by which righteousness is obtained and, secondly, it pleases God. These two aspects are related, of course — faith pleases God just because it leads to righteousness and thus glorifies Christ, through whom alone true righteousness can be secured.
This underlines an important feature of Hebrews 11 that can easily be overlooked. The chapter is not just a catalogue of Old Testament saints and their works. It is, rather, a dissertation on the nature of faith (an ‘anatomy of faith’ if you like) presented through examples. The people and events cited are not the most important things. It is what they illustrate concerning faith that we need to understand. This is why the list of faith’s heroes is not exhaustive; the Writer is content to present each facet of the jewel of faith using just one or a few ‘case studies’.
A more excellent sacrifice (11:4)
The Writer presents his witnesses chronologically. He does not choose an aspect of faith to expound and then illustrate it randomly from Old Testament Scripture. His method is biblical rather than theological, and this lends freshness and vitality to his teaching. We can learn from this approach. Truth is more readily taken to heart when it is seen to arise naturally from Scripture. This is the secret of true expository preaching.
The Writer begins with that great and glorious new-covenant theme, justification by faith. This statement may raise some eyebrows. How can the justifying faith of these Old Testament saints be a manifestation of the new covenant, which was not inaugurated till Christ died? The answer is that the new covenant and its precursor — the age-old covenant of promise — are all of one. Paul makes this clear in Galatians 3:16-18, emphasising the continuity between the promise made to Abraham (and which preceded the law) and the new-covenant inheritance. By contrast, he shows that the Mosaic law has no part in transmitting the inheritance — ‘For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise’.
Accordingly, the Writer begins by demonstrating that a person is accounted righteous in God’s eyes, not through works but through faith in the atoning work of Christ. Abel is his first witness to this fact. ‘By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain’ (11:4). The story, told in Genesis 4:1-7, is well known. And at first sight it presents a problem. Cain was an arable farmer, while Abel was a shepherd. When they brought their respective offerings, therefore, they were both doing what came naturally. Cain brought grain, fruit or vegetables, the product of his labours, while Abel sacrificed lambs — the product of his labours! How, then, did they differ? Why did God accept Abel’s offering but reject Cain’s?
The answer is that Abel’s offering was a blood sacrifice, involving the death of living creatures. This is clear from the fact that he also offered their fat, regarded as the choicest part of the animal. Like all the animal sacrifices of Old Testament times, Abel’s offering represented the death of Christ, and Abel’s faith looked forward to that greater atonement. Abel was not just lucky in his choice of offering — he understood that his animals pictured ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29). How do we know? Because if this were not the case, there would have been no faith and no acceptance by God.
Cain, on the other hand, had no such faith or understanding. He did what men habitually do — they bring to God the work of their hands and seek acceptance thereby. But such offerings are of no avail, since salvation is ‘by grace through faith … not of works lest anyone should boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Owen explains the difference thus: ‘Cain considered God only as a creator and preserver, whereon he offered the fruits of the earth … The faith of Abel was fixed on God, not only as a creator, but as a redeemer also … who … had appointed the way of redemption by sacrifice and atonement …’ .
By offering a blood sacrifice, Abel ‘obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts’ (11:4). This witness was twofold. Firstly, of course, the pages of Scripture bear witness. Abel is on record as one who was accepted by God on the basis of his faith in atoning blood. But even more significant is the fact that God himself testified to the acceptability of Abel’s sacrifice at the time it was offered. This must be so, because Cain became angry when his own sacrifice procured no such witness (Gen. 4:5). We are not told what form this witness took — perhaps some visible sign was given in response to Abel’s offering. Some even suggest that fire from heaven consumed the sacrifice [2, 3]. But the important thing is that God did bear witness to the righteousness of faith — and he still does!
How does God testify today to the righteousness of those who believe? By his Holy Spirit, replies the New Testament: ‘The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Rom. 8:16). Before arriving at this statement, of course, Paul expounds the doctrine of justification by faith in great detail in Romans 3:21 to 5:5. It is those who are thus justified that receive the Spirit (compare Rom. 5:1 and 5:5).
This is a matter of great practical importance. Justification by faith can easily be misrepresented as the acceptance of certain doctrines. This can lead to ‘easy believism’, which requires nothing of the ‘convert’ but to sign a decision card or accept a series of Bible texts. Or it can give rise to intellectualism, in which ‘faith’ is no more than mental assent to the facts of the gospel. These abuses, in turn, may cause a backlash in which Christians seek to avoid the barrenness of ‘believism’ by joining works to faith as justifying means. This is understandable but dangerous; works are the fruit of justification but never its cause (Eph. 2:8-10).
In contrast to these false ideas, genuine faith is distinguished by the witness of the Spirit — a witness borne both by inward assurance (Rom. 8:16) and visible fruit (Jn. 15:16; Gal. 5:22).
Finally, concerning Abel’s offering, we are told that ‘through it he being dead still speaks’ (11:4). Although, in one sense, all the witnesses in Hebrews 11 still speak to us, only Abel is described in these terms. Why is this? Probably because the Writer sees spiritual lessons not only in the offering that Abel made but also in the manner of his death. This emerges in 12:24: ‘You have come … to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel’.
Firstly, just as Abel was slain by his religious brother, so Christ was put to death by his own religious society. ‘Abel’s death’, says Pink, ‘was … a pledge and representation of the death of Christ himself — murdered by the religious world’. Secondly, Abel’s death speaks of Christ by way of contrast. His blood cried out for vengeance (Gen. 4:10), but Jesus’ blood proclaims forgiveness! Such is the nature of the new covenant (12:24).
Pleasing God (11:5)
Next, in 11:5-6, we discover that the faith that justifies the sinner also pleases God, for it glorifies his Son. So the Writer moves on to consider this second aspect of faith. His example is Enoch: ‘By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, “and was not found, because God had taken him”; for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God’ (11:5). Genesis tells us that ‘Enoch walked with God and was not, for God took him’ (Gen. 5:24). Clearly, then, the Writer equates ‘walking with God’ to ‘pleasing God’. Philip Eveson writes: ‘Walking with God is associated with those who experience God’s favour and blessing. It refers to those who are in a right relationship with God’ . Of course, Enoch’s case was unique. But that does not mean that we cannot imitate him. We too can please God by walking with him.
Believers ‘walk by faith, not by sight’ (2 Cor. 5:7). Interestingly, Paul makes this statement in the context of death and glory: ‘we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord’. In this life we ‘groan, being burdened’, but God ‘has given us the Spirit as a guarantee’ that we shall inherit ‘a house [body] not made with hands, eternal in the heavens … that mortality may be swallowed up by life’ (2 Cor. 5:1-7). The first aspect of walking by faith, therefore, is living with an expectation of, and longing for, the presence of God in glory. We are citizens of heaven and ‘seek a homeland’ prepared by God for those who love him (11:14). Faith focuses on heaven, and this focus results in a certain character of life. Such things please God.
Walking with God by faith also means that we ‘walk in the light as [God] is in the light’. If we do, says John, ‘we have fellowship with one another [and with God] and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1 Jn. 1:7). The reference is not just to living a moral and upright life. Moral obedience is important: ‘see that you walk circumspectly … redeeming the time because the days are evil’ (Eph. 5:15). But morality can never be the source of fellowship and cleansing from sin. Rather, John is speaking here of an on-going faith in the atoning work of Christ. This is what brings us cleansing from sin and fellowship with God and with our fellow-believers. Lose sight of the cross of Christ, and you will stumble. But live in the light of God’s gracious provision in Christ and, like Enoch, you will walk with God.
Thirdly, to walk by faith is to ‘walk in the Spirit’ (or ‘keep in step with the Spirit’), bearing the fruit of the Spirit ‘against [which] there is no law’ (Gal. 5:22-26). This too is pleasing to God.
Expectant faith (11:6)
Not only does faith please God — nothing but faith pleases God, at least as far as human beings are concerned! ‘Without faith’, asserts the Writer, ‘it is impossible to please him, for he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him’ (11:6). Paul likewise testifies that ‘those that are in the flesh cannot please God’ (Rom. 8:8). Faith is indispensable.
The exclusivity of faith as a means of pleasing God is something we need to ponder in a day when legalism and works-based religion hold so much sway. Even Evangelicals can fall into this error, believing that we are somehow ‘sanctified’ (and made pleasing to God) by our works. But the ‘work of faith’ (1 Thess. 1:3) does not bring about sanctification. Rather, it flows from and demonstrates sanctification, for sanctification is God’s work not ours (1 Thess. 5:23). Believers’ good works, ordained as they are by God, bring us no merit, for when we have done everything God commands we remain ‘unprofitable servants’ (Eph. 2:10; Lk. 17:10). Only faith in Christ pleases God — but that faith, being a dynamic principle, will always be evidenced by its fruit and by its works.
In amplifying his statement the Writer begins with a surprisingly basic statement: ‘he who comes to God must believe that he is [exists]’ (11:6). Scripture always assumes the existence of God. It is not something the Bible ever sets out to prove. When preaching to polytheistic people, Paul had much to say concerning the nature of the true and living God (Ac. 14:15; 17:24), but he still assumes his existence. Surely the Hebrews already accepted this fundamental fact? Why, then, does the Writer seem to question their belief in the existence of God?
Perhaps the Writer is making a different point altogether. We could read the complete sentence thus: ‘… he who comes to God must [not only] believe that he exists [but] that he is [also] one who rewards those who seek him diligently’. That is, mere belief in God’s existence is not enough — there must also be trust and confidence in God, and diligence in seeking him. If this is the Writer’s meaning, everything falls into place. He is questioning, not their basic belief in God, but the nature and efficacy of that belief. James makes the same point when he reminds his readers that ‘faith without works is dead’, for ‘the demons believe — and tremble!’ (Jas. 2:19-20).
In short, we do not please God by acknowledging the fact of his existence. That is not what the Writer means by faith. We must also believe that he ‘is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him’. True God-pleasing faith approaches the throne of grace often, confidently, and diligently. It comes in joyful anticipation, expecting to ‘obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (4:16). Too often our churches and our personal spiritual lives are blighted by a lack of this spiritual anticipation. There is no pleasure or excitement in our approach to God. We go through the motions of prayer and worship, but our hearts are not in it. We expect nothing from God as we go dourly about our spiritual exercises. We need a new understanding of the generosity of God — that he really does reward those who seek him diligently and with their whole heart. Let us set ourselves to this task afresh, for only then shall we please God!
Godly fear (11:7)
The Writer now reverts to the subject of justifying faith, bringing forward a second witness — Noah. What can Noah teach us concerning justification by faith?
We read: ‘By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith’ (11:7). Essentially, Noah believed things that were ‘not yet seen’. He was able to see them in advance because he possessed faith, and faith is spiritual discernment — the sight of the soul. Noah was ‘divinely warned’, that is, God revealed his intentions to Noah’s ‘eyes of faith’. The Lord told him: ‘the earth is filled with violence through [its people] and behold I will destroy them with the earth’ (Gen. 6:13).
But Noah teaches us things about justifying faith that go beyond the basics. Firstly, we are told, he was ‘moved with godly fear’. Calvin comments: ‘Noah paid such respect to the word of God that he turned his eyes from the contemporary view of things and went in fear of the destruction which God threatened as though it were present to him’ .
God had shown him a fearful prospect and he was genuinely afraid. Today, few of us manifest this aspect of saving faith, namely, an appropriate response to the prospect of God’s judgement upon sin. The Writer himself reminds us that ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (10:31), while Revelation 6:16 pictures the terror of those who will cry out ‘to the mountains and rocks: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!”.’
Noah trembled with godly fear at the prospect of God’s judgement. Do we? Paul wrote: ‘We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ that each one may receive the things done in the body, whether good or bad. Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men …’ (2 Cor. 5:10-11). The apostle not only felt this terror in his own soul, but was motivated by it to preach the gospel to others — with new persuasiveness and urgency.
Secondly, being moved with fear, Noah ‘prepared an ark for the saving of his household’ (11:7). Of course, this was no ‘self-help’ salvation. God himself provided the concept, plan and detailed design of the ark. Only in this way could the ark be a picture of Christ’s saving work (1 Pet. 3:20-22). Noah was not justified by the ‘work’ of building the ark, but because he trusted in God’s provision for his safety.
Furthermore, Noah’s faith moved him to act in obedience to God’s instructions. That is how ‘he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith’ (11:7). Justifying faith is not passive. It does not sit back and wait for God to save us if he will. That is fatalism, not faith. Genuine faith fears God and obeys his instructions to seek refuge from judgement. This is what Noah did in building the ark. For us, the work of faith is to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (John 6:29). Faith strives to enter by the narrow gate (Luke 13:24).
‘Obedience to the gospel’ was a familiar concept to the apostolic church, but is little spoken of today (see 1 Pet. 1:2). Such obedience is not to be confused with human ‘works’. Noah’s faith did not consist in his obedience, but was expressed by it. James clarifies the matter — ‘Show me your faith without your works [if you can!], and I will show you my faith by my works’ (Jas. 2:18).
1. Owen 7, p.24
2. Owen 7, p.26
3. Lane 2, p.334
4. Pink p.665
5. Eveson, Genesis p.144
6. Calvin, p.165