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Monday
Jul182005

By Faith Abel

This is the second post in a series on Hebrews 11. You can find the first post here.

After the preliminary remarks of verse 1-3, the writer of Hebrews begins to go through his list of the faithful “people of old” to show us the significance of faith in their lives. He starts way back at the beginning with Abel, one of the sons of Adam and Eve.

By faith Abel offered God a greater sacrifice than Cain, and through his faith he was commended as righteous, because God commended him for his offerings. And through his faith he still speaks, though he is dead. (Hebrews 11:4 NET)

You remember the story, right? Eve had two sons. Cain, the first son, grew up to be a “tiller of the ground”, and Abel, the second-born, kept sheep. Each of the two sons brought an offering to the Lord—Cain from the harvest of his crops and Abel from the firstborn of his flocks.

The Genesis account tells us that

….the Lord was pleased with Abel and his offering, but with Cain and his offering he was not pleased. (Genesis 4: 4,5 NET)

You’ve probably heard the same reasons given for God’s pleasure with Abel’s sacrifice but not with Cains that I have. I remember being taught in Sunday School as a child that Abel brought his best to God and Cain brought leftovers. Later on I was taught that the acceptability of Abel’s offering had to do with the nature of his sacrifice: It was a blood sacrifice, while Cain’s was not.

Neither of these explanations comes directly from scripture. In this passage, the writer of Hebrews points to something other than the substance of the sacrifice as the reason for God’s acceptance of the one sacrifice and rejection of the other. It was, he says, Abel’s attitude that made the difference. Abel offered his sacrifice “by faith,” and it was because of his faith that God spoke of him as righteous.

God spoke of the acceptability of Abel and his offering, and because of that, Abel speaks to us. Abel has been dead longer than anyone else on the face of the earth, yet his story is much more than a piece of historical trivia, for his example of faith continues to teach us. Long-dead Abel is one of the ancients who obtained a good testimony through faith, and he speaks to us as one of the “great cloud of witnesses” whose faithful examples cheer us on to “run with endurance the race set out for us.”

Thursday
Jul142005

God's Immutability

It’s a big word, immutability, that simply means that God doesn’t change. There is constancy about him, a steadfast unchangeability that applies to who he is and what he does. One of my favorite passages of scripture is from Hebrews 6, a text that points to a couple of ways in which our God is immutable:

In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. (Hebrews 6:17,18 NASB)

God’s purpose, or hiscounsel—the plan he is carrying out in creation—is unchangeable. If God determines that He will do something, then it will certainly be done. We have this text, along with others, that tell us that this is so.

It it is logical, too, that God’s plans are immutable. God’s plans can’t be like my plans, which are subject to change because of unforeseen circumstances, like plumbing disasters, for instance, or even unpredictable feelings like tiredness or crankiness. All of the sorts of things that make my plans subject to change don’t apply to an all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful God.

This text in Hebrews grounds the immutability of God’s counsel in something else—the impossibility of God’s promise changing or his oath being rescinded. His promise and his oath are immutable because it is impossible for God to lie. That God cannot lie points us to the unchanging nature of hischaracter—a character that remains constantly truthful. His promises are certain and he does as he vows, for he has always been truthful, he is always truthful, and he will always be truthful because of his immutable character.

There are many other places in scripture that point to this steadfastness of character that belongs to our God. James 1:13 tells us that God can’t be tempted with evil, nor does he ever tempt anyone with evil. His constant righteousness makes these things impossible for him. Isaiah 40 tells us that God can’t be taught anything, so we know that his knowledge is complete and unchanging. His mercy can be counted on to be enduringly consistent as well, according to Psalm 107:1.

Just as it is logical that God’s counsel is immutable, it is logical that His character is changeless. God is what he is in a complete way—a perfect way. To change would imply increase or decrease, growth or loss, improvement or corruption, and none of these things are compatible with completeness or perfection.

We need to be careful, though, that when we think of God as immutable, we don’t think of him as inactive or completely unfeeling. His character and his plans are unchanging, yet he does not simply sit back to watch those perfect plans unfold. No, he is working constantly within creation to bring his unchanging plans into being. And while it seems certain that God does not feel emotions in exactly the same way we do, we still need to take seriously the statements of scripture that show him manifesting love or joy or anger or wrath. Rather than showing the God is unchangeable, these affections show the unchangeableness of God’s character. He consistently takes pleasure in righteousness, and on the other hand, he is consistently displeased with sin. This constant character assures us that when we change our attitude and actions, his attitude and actions directed toward us are different than they were. That God always loves righteousness and always hates unrighteousness means that the attitudes and actions of God that we experience when we are obedient are different than they are when we sin.

What does it mean for us that our God is immutable? I’d say the biggest benefit to us is that an immutable God is one who can be trusted. His promises are kept with certainty. In the Hebrew 6 passage quoted at the start of this post, it tells us that if we’ve taken our refuge in God, his immutability gives us strong encouragement to hold on to what is promised to us. Because our God is unchanging in both his counsel and his character, the hope we have is an “an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast.”


We may think of hope as something elusive, like a rising helium balloon—something that bobs in the wind, dancing away from us just beyond our grasp—but the hope we have in God is not something fleeting. It’s no balloon, but an anchor, because our God is like an anchor. Or a rock. He can be counted on to be forever as he is and to do forever what he says. Out of his steadfast character and standing counsel comes his complete faithfulness.

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

(Lamentations 3:21-23 ESV)

Wednesday
Jul132005

By Faith the People of Old

The pattern of faithful endurance in difficult times that Jesus gives us as described in Hebrews 12 is not the only help for making it through tough times that we’re given in Hebrews. In the chapter 11, before we get to chapter 12, we’re given a description of the kind of faith that will sustain us through trials and examples of people who’ve had this kind of faith.

Verses 1-3 are an introduction to the rest of the chapter.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. For by it the people of old received God’s commendation. By faith we understand that the worlds were set in order at God’s command, so that the visible has its origin in the invisible. (NET)

Sometimes you’ll hear people quote verse 1 as if it’s a complete definition of faith—as if it gives the whole answer to the question, “What is faith?” It gives us some of the answer, but we should probably understand it more as a statement about a particular characteristic (or characteristics) of faith than as a true definition of it.

Faith is being sure of what we hope for.
Literally, faith stands under what we hope for. It undergirds our hopes, so that even though the things we hope for are not currently here with us, they are not pie in the sky, either. We are certain of them because because we have faith. Faith makes us sure of the rock-solidness of the things we hope for.

Being convinced of what we do not see.
This could be taken two ways: that faith is the proof of the things that aren’t visible to us or that it is the test of things that aren’t visible to us. Both are legitimate ways to translate the text, and depending on the word meaning choice, the sense of the phrase would be different. If the word means proof (as the NET takes it), then this phrase is simply saying the same thing as the first one in a slightly different way: Faith makes us certain of the things we hope for even though they are not yet reality.

However, if it means test, then the idea would be that faith tests the things that can’t be tested by our five senses. If something can’t be sensed by ordinary means and thus known to be true through our physical senses, we have yet another way to test it—the test of faith. Faith tests to find out what is real in the unseen world in the same way that our senses test what is real in the physical world.

For by it the people of old received God’s commendation.
These “people of old” are the Old Testament saints, some of whom we find listed in the rest of this chapter. These people received the approval of God by faith. When God revealed things to them, they believed him, and because they believed him, they lived as if what he told them was certain. Because they believed God, they were “not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls (10:39).” God’s commendation comes to those who have this sort of faith.

By faith we understand that the worlds were set in order at God’s command.
Before moving on the the examples of the expression of faith in the lives of the O.T. saints, the writer of Hebrews gives us an example of the expression of faith within himself—and in us, too. Are you convinced that God created the world out of nothing by his command? If you are, then you understand this by faith. You did not reason your way entirely from the physical evidence to this conclusion. This is not something you came to know through your five senses only, but something you became convinced of through your “eyes of faith.”

So that the visible has its origin in the invisible.
What we see came into being ex nihilo by fiat—somethingness from the nothingness simply because the invisible God  commanded. If you believe that, you believe it because you have faith.

Friday
Jul232004

God's Self-Existence

“I AM THAT I AM”

There is inexhaustible meaning wrapped up in that short statement from God to Moses. One of the things it points to is God’s independence or self-existence or asceity. He is in a constant state of being and has no beginning or end. If God has no beginning or end, then He cannot be dependent on anything outside of Himself for His existence. He must be the one uncaused cause.

Our God “has life in Himself” (John 5:26), and this “from-Himself-ness” extends to all that He is. No one can be God’s counselor (Romans 8:34), because He is independent as to His thinking. He is independent, as well, in what He wills, working “all things after the counsel of His will.” (Ephesians 1:11). He also has the power within Himself to work his independent will, doing whatever pleases Him (Psalm 115:3).

That God is self-existent also means that nothing can add anything to Him. Creation adds nothing to God. His glory is revealed in creation, but it does not add to His glory. God has need of nothing from anything outside of Himself, for He is not 

served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all life and breath and all things… (Acts 17:25)

This verse from Acts points to the uniqueness of God’s self-existence. He needs nothing from us, but exists wholly of Himself. We, however, depend on Him for everything. Everything we have and our life itself we derive from God. It is in Him that “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)We are completely dependent, completely derivative; we haven’t a smidgeon of self-existence. He is completely independent and the only underived being—the One who exists from Himself, the “I AM THAT I AM.”

How ought we respond to our self-existent God? First of all, we should be awed at His absolutely unique being. He is in a class by himself. How can we feel anything but humility before the self-existent One—the great “I AM”? Furthermore, we must acknowledge our complete dependence on Him and respond with thankfulness to Him for our lives and everything that we have. And we can have complete confidence in the stability of our God and be sure that His promises to us will be kept, for He is not depending on anything outside Himself to fulfill His word.

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