Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. 2 Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation. 3 By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen. 4 It was by faith that Abel brought a more acceptable offering to God than Cain did. Abel’s offering gave evidence that he was a righteous man, and God showed his approval of his gifts. Although Abel is long dead, he still speaks to us by his example of faith. 5 It was by faith that Enoch was taken up to heaven without dying—“he disappeared, because God took him.” For before he was taken up, he was known as a person who pleased God. 6 And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.
-Hebrews 11:1-6 (NLT)
For those of you whose favorite subjects in school were English and Literature; Hebrews eleven is a Greek literary masterpiece! It is not only a poetic summary of Jewish history, it is an anaphora, which is a rhetorical device in which each thought is introduced by the same words; in this case, “By faith.” The author of Hebrews was the kind of writer that others writers read and said, “That guy can write!” Here is what we know; Hebrews was written just before 70 AD by a scholar who was addressing a Jewish Christian audience in an unknown location. And with that going for us, let’s jump in.
I think some of the most seminal moments in our lives are when we first meet someone who is going to be a part of our lives. Imagine your adult daughter comes home from Omaha and brings a young man you have never met with her named Dirk. You shake his hand and wonder why is Dirk at your house, what kind of name is Dirk, what is the relationship between Dirk and your daughter and in some way is Dirk going to cost you money? Immediately upon entering, your daughter literally gushes and says, “Dirk proposed on the way here, I said ‘yes’ and we are going to be married. AHHHHHH” The first thing you think, “Dirk IS going to cost me money.” The second and you wish it was the first is, “Is this guy who my daughter thinks he is and is he the kind of man I can trust with my daughter for the rest of her life?” You didn’t choose Dirk, your daughter did, but the old “Dirk-ster” is now going to be a part of your life in a significant way. Meeting Dirk was a big moment in your life.
When we initially meet someone that we will eventually include in the orbit of our lives, we have two questions that must be answered: 1) Who is this person? 2) Can this person be trusted? The first is a question of character and the second a question of faithfulness. When both of those questions are answered to our satisfaction, we are ready to begin shifting a new acquaintance into a more permanent relationship. When it comes to our faith, we must ask the same questions, 1) “Who is Jesus? 2) Can Jesus be trusted?” When I became a Christian I made a conscious decision to live my life by my understanding of the Bible. Proverbs says, “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not to your own understanding.” This means I have chosen to regard the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture above all things. If me and the Bible disagree, it is me and not the Bible that is in error. Do I always live into the highest aspirations and expressions of that ideal? Of course not but the fact I miss that high mark doesn’t change the ideal in itself.
My Understanding of Biblical Teaching
- God made us
- God loves us
- God gave us instruction
- We can trust that instruction
- Our best life is lived following that instruction
The author of Hebrews wrote to an audience who was losing their grip on Christ. Being a Christian wasn’t as easy as it used to be, going to church wasn’t as fun as it used to be, serving wasn’t as rewarding as it used to be and the intentions of God weren’t as clear as they used to be. Things were difficult and getting more difficult by the day and it is hard to hang on when there appears to be no end in sight. The question being addressed was, “When things are really tough and getting tougher; when the storms of life are raging, what tethers us to God? The answer is faith. The hymnwriter wrote, “Faith is the victory that overcomes the world!” Let’s dig into faith.
1 Faith is certain hope in the absence of evidence The Greek word we translate faith means a “conviction based on hearing.” It is not far from meaning “to persuade.” Faith is the one human attribute that most pleases and impresses God. Character is good but faith is better. Ethics are good but faith is better. Solid theology is good but faith is better. Everything we know began when God appeared to a wanderer named Abram and made him a promise that his heirs would be blessed and bring salvation to the world. There is no evidence Abram knew God before this encounter. For years, I read this Genesis narrative and wondered, “Why Abram? He does not seem particularly devout, ethical or moral. Why did God pick him?” But the Bible answers my question with a single statement, “Abram believed God’s promise.” Somehow in some way, Abram had within him the capacity to believe the impossible promise made to him by an invisible God. And with his believing, a new concept was birthed that redefined the relationship between God and humanity. Faith. Straight up faith.
Grit is a word that has reentered the American lexicon. The formal definition is “Courage or resolve; strength of character.” I have been introduced to more than one audience using the word “Grit.” Another definition of grit is “passion plus perseverance.” Grit is the moral fortitude to stay passionate and on mission despite setbacks, disappointments, criticism and even failures. Grit keeps us centered on mission and moving forward without growing angry, apathetic, callous, burned out or defensive. The audience of this letter were losing their “Jesus Grit” in the face of increasing persecution and the author is encouraging them to get back to their initial love of Christ. Faith is Jesus Grit. It is what keeps us praying, worshipping, in the Bible, giving, serving and witnessing when the going gets tough.
I have often wondered why it is so easy for some to believe in God, the work of Christ and the testimony of the Bible when it is so difficult for others. I believe it has everything to do with faith. Maybe that is why Jesus always used children as examples of those who would inherit his kingdom. Children naturally seem to believe in the love of God and in the Bible. I grew up singing Jesus Loves Me, Jesus Loves the Little Children and the BIBLE without a doubt in my mind that every word was true. I was loved, we were all loved and the Bible told us so! Children believe; it is only as adults we talk ourselves out of such wonderful things. Romans 10: 17 says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” I believe the more time you spend in the Bible, the more faith you will have. That is why over 700 of us are reading the New Testament in 2019. That is why a few hundred of you are doing a Mark study right now. That is why I preach the Bible and not current events, politics, social issues or moralistic, therapeutic deism. I find the deeper I get into the Word, the more unshakable my core faith and convictions become despite any persecution they may bring my way. Faith is not an inclination; it is an utter certainty that God is who the Bible says God is and that God keeps his promises. Now the author jumps into a history lesson for his Jewish Christian audience. It would have been as expected as an Illinois history teacher talking about Lincoln.
2 Faithful people of old have gained approval This literally translates “gained testimony.” Stories of the faithful back then enable us right now to hold fast to what we know to be true about God. They remained faithful in tough times, so we can remain faithful in tough times. The idea is not so much they gained approval from people; that is always temporary. It means they gained approval from God which is always eternal. The author is assuring his audience that standing for their faith, which is causing grief and even doubt in the present; will land them on the God side of the ledger.
3 By faith we believe in creation Orthodox Christians believe God created the heavens and the earth. It is an incredible claim! As a person who spends some time outdoors, I believe it takes infinitely more faith to believe the earth and the laws that govern it were formed by impersonal chance than by a personal God. To my reckoning, nature’s wonder and complexities scream in their testimony to a divine creator. For me, saying that the intricacies of nature happened by accident would be like throwing ten sticks of dynamite into a big box hardware store and the explosion resulting in twenty perfectly functioning houses in a sub division. How can I believe in a creating God? By faith. What informs that faith? Everything I see and the more I learn.
4 Abel pleased God by faith In a time when Christians were being persecuted in the Roman Empire, the author points to the first martyr. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel did what God wanted when he worshipped and Cain did what he wanted. Abel pleased God. Cain displeased God. The first motive for the first murder in the world was the righteousness of Abel was too great for Cain to bear. The righteous will always irritate, exasperate and agitate the ungodly for they stand as testimonies to their wickedness. Standing for God is going to bring some persecution but sometimes you just have to cowboy up and realize that is how it is. One of the promises Jesus gave us was that we will be persecuted. He also promised our persecutions will bring greater glory.
5 Enoch was taken to heaven without dying by faith Enoch had the faith to befriend an invisible God and in his primordial time, such a relationship was exceptional. When others were worshiping and sacrificing idols made of stone or wood, Enoch no doubt appeared to be talking to himself as he walked each day praising his creator and communing with his friend. And then one day, Enoch went on a prayer walk with God and was no more. The Hebrew text suggests he simply stepped from one dimension into another. Enoch reminds us that we can have a sustained, personal and life giving relationship with God. “And he walks with me and he talks with me and tells me I am his own and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” 6 It is impossible to please God without faith Many people stand on the precipice of faith; waiting to get enough circumstantial evidence to take a flying leap into a relationship with God. You might be there today. You are thinking, “If only God would explain about the dinosaurs or set my mind at ease about all those who have lived and died without every hearing of Jesus, I would gladly receive Christ into my life.” God is infinite and we are finite. We will never get our heads around an infinite God. Jesus does all kinds of miracles in the Gospels but he didn’t do miracles when Satan tempted him in the wilderness and he doesn’t do miracles when his critics ask for a miracle. The reality is that you will never get all your blanks about God filled in because that would negate your need for faith.
Anyone wanting to approach God must believe that God exists and rewards those who seek him What an incredible idea, that we can approach our creator. In fact, God desires us to come boldly before his throne and be in relationship with him through Christ. What are the criteria? We must believe God is who the Bible says God is and that God can be trusted to keep his promises. And we can only believe such wonderful things by faith.
The Work of Jesus Christ
- Fulfillment of the Old Testament
- Born of a virgin
- Lived a sinless life
- Gave his life for our sins
- Rose from the dead
- Offers forgiveness and salvation
- Entrusts his work to the church
- Will one day return
The final concept is that “God rewards those who sincerely seek Him.” What is that reward? A relationship with the Creator of the Cosmos through Jesus Christ our Lord! And in that relationship we will discover a life of purpose, power, peace and passion…and not just for right now but for eternity.
Rev. Shane L. Bishop is a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church.