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By Faith Abraham or By Faith Sarah?

This is the sixth post in a series from Hebrews 11. You’ll find all the posts done so far in this series listed here.

In the previous text from Hebrews 11, we learned that because of his faith, Abraham left his homeland and lived the rest of his life as someone without an earthly homeland. Next the writer of Hebrews moves on to something else, but the original text is ambiguous as to where it is he’s gone. Do the next verses give us another example of Abraham’s faith or an example of the faith of another person—Abraham’s wife, Sarah?

The NET Bible, the translation I’ve been using so far in this series, translates as if it is an additional example of Abraham’s faith that follows. 

By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, he received the ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy. So in fact children were fathered by one man—and this one as good as dead—like the number of stars in the sky and like the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore. (Hebrews 11: 11-12 NET)

However, you’ll find that some other versions translate verse 11 as if it is Sarah’s faith is in view. Here’s what the ESV says:

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.

Why the difference? It’s all because of that little phrase translated “ability to procreate” or “power to conceive,” which is really “power to deposit semen.” What we’ve got, then, is something like, “By faith also Sarah [her]self received power for the depositing of seed, even beyond the time of age.” You can see where the confusion comes in, can’t you? The text seems to be talking about Sarah, but the action taken is exclusive to men.

Its a bit of a puzzle and there are a couple of possible ways to solve it. Some suggest that the word “seed” should to be taken to mean “descendents” rather than “semen,” and then the whole phrase would be speaking of the ability to have offspring. That’s how we get the translations that say that Sarah recieved “power to conceive” or “strength to conceive seed.”

On the other hand, some take the bit about Sarah to be parenthetical, and that’s how the NET gets it’s phrasing. The NIV takes the text this ways, too: “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father…” This last option has the contextual thought flow on it’s side: It’s Abraham’s faith in view before these verses, and Abraham’s faith again after, so isn’t it most likely that it’s Abraham’s faith being written about in these verse in between?

Then there’s the problem with Sarah herself. Did she show faith? In Genesis 18 she laughs in disbelief when she overhears the men telling Abraham that she will have a son. However, Sarah’s initial lack of faith doesn’t mean she didn’t have faith later. Perhaps, if the verse is speaking of Sarah’s faith, it points us to Sarah’s continued cooperation with Abraham, which would indicate that after her original reaction, she came in the end to an attitude of faith.

Anyway you take it (and I tend to think that it’s primarily about Abraham’s faith, but in this section, Sarah is included with him), two oldsters had a baby because they considered God, who had promised them a son, to be trustworthy to keep his promises. And it wasn’t just a baby they received, but too many descendents to count—“like the number of stars in the sky and like the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore”—all from one old man “as good as dead.”


By Faith Abraham

This is the fifth post in a series from Hebrews 11. You’ll find all the posts done so far in this series listed here.

Next up is Abraham, who gets more space from the writer of Hebrews than anyone else among the faithful ancients listed in Hebrews 11. The Jews honored Abraham as the father of their race, but he has a special place to the New Testament Christians, too, for he is also the father of all believers. Here’s what the first three verses of the section on Abraham’s faith say:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10 NET)

Do you remember in Genesis 12 when God tells Abraham to get up and leave everything behind for a destination unknown? God tells him,

“Go out from your country,
your relatives,
and your father’s household
to the land that I will show you.”
(Genesis 12:1 NET)

How much Abraham was asked to leave behind! These were familiar things that he already possessed—things that brought security, solid things, things seen—and God asked him to leave them all. And Abraham does what God asked of him on the basis of God’s command and God’s promise alone—the promise of God’s blessing and of land in an unknown place. God was asking him to act on the certainty of things he couldn’t see, to give up things visible for things that were invisible to him, and Abraham obeyed. The sort of conviction that is required to act on nothing but the command and promise of God is real faith, so it was by faith that Abraham obeyed God’s command without knowing exactly what was in store for him.

Even when Abraham reached the land God promised him, he didn’t settle there, but lived as if he were a resident alien. The only piece of land Abraham owned was the field he purchased  to bury his wife Sarah. Even Abraham’s son and grandson, who were heirs to the promise from God along with Abraham, continued to live in tents and did not possess the land of promise.

Abraham had every reason to be disillusioned, yet he was steadfast in his faith. The writer tells us that the reason he remained steadfast when his earthly circumstances gave him no reason for hope was that his hope was not grounded anything earthly, but in “the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” This city, of course, was not an existing earthly city, but a city yet to come (Hebrews 13:14ff), a heavenly one. It’s the “city with firm foundations”—the sort of city you can count on to always be there, unlike a temporal city that goes in and out of existence over time. This city is an eternal city planned and constructed by God.

Abraham understood that there was an eternal realm, and it was in this realm that God was building according to his promises. Abraham could keep on trusting God and obeying him even though he didn’t see the fulfillment of God’s promises to him in his own lifetime, for what he hoped for was not something that could be fulfilled by good things in this earthly life. What Abraham longed for above everything else was eternal life with God, life in a heavenly country, in the city built by God.


By Faith Noah

This is the fourth post in a series on Hebrews 11. You’ll find the other posts in this series here.

After discussing the faith of Enoch in verses 5-6, the writer of Hebrews moves to the next faithful “ancient” on his list.

By faith Noah, when he was warned about things not yet seen, with reverent regard constructed an ark for the deliverance of his family. Through faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. (Hebrews 11:7 NET)

We’ll find God’s forewarning to Noah about these “things not seen” in Genesis 6:

I am about to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy from under the sky all the living creatures that have the breath of life in them. (Genesis 6:17 NET)

The flood God warned of was unseen in the sense that it was yet to come, and also in the sense that it was unlike anything Noah had ever experienced. God spoke a warning and gave a command to Noah, and that word from the unseen realm of the eternal was more real to Noah than what his own five senses told him. There was no sensory evidence of what was coming, but on the basis of God’s word alone, Noah was convinced of the reality of the coming flood and destruction. He built the ark because his firm conviction of   the rock-solidness of what was yet unseen to him.

Noah obeyed God’s command to him, but those around him—the “world”—did not heed God’s warning. His faithful obedience stands in contrast to the disobedience of the rest. His faith in action condemned them.

But more than that, Noah received something through his faith: He “became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” His status changed as a result of his faith, because he was given the righteous standing before God that comes through faith.*

*This is not the way the writer of Hebrews most often uses the word “righteousness,” but it does seem to be the way he uses it here.


By Faith Enoch

The first two posts in these series are here and here.

Enoch is the second of the faithful ancients to be listed in Hebrews 11. The writer of Hebrews tells us this in regards to Enoch and his faith:

By faith Enoch was taken up so that he did not see death, and he was not to be found because God took him up. For before his removal he had been commended as having pleased God. Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:5-6 NET)

You’ll remember Enoch from the Old Testament as the the man who “walked with God.” Here’s the Genesis record of his life:

When Enoch had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. After he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God for three hundred years, and he had other sons and daughters. The entire lifetime of Enoch was three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God, and then he disappeared because God took him away. (Genesis 5: 21-24 NET)

There’s not a whole lot there, and what is there is quite mysterious, isn’t it? And still, the writer of Hebrews sees in Enoch’s life an important lesson about faith.

It was as a result of his faith the Enoch did not see death. The Old Testament account tells us simply that “God took him away.” Enoch was just there one day and gone the next, and his mysterious end was because he had faith.

You’ll notice that the verses from Genesis don’t say explicitly that Enoch had faith, but the author of Hebrews points out to us that this is implied in the story. That Enoch received God’s commendation as having pleased him is implicit in the statement that Enoch “walked with God,”* and since it is impossible to please God without faith, we can conclude from this little bit of text in Genesis that Enoch had faith.

The writer then points us to two things about the nature of faith that we can learn from Enoch. That Enoch approached God—or “walked with him”—in faith required two things: Belief in the existence of God, and belief in the goodness of God’s character.

No one can come to God if they don’t believe he’s really there, so believing in his existence is a necessary first step toward faith, but it’s not enough. James tells us that even the demons go this far. They believe there is one God, but their reaction toward him is not one of trust in his goodness, but rather revulsion and fear. There’s no way the demons want to walk with the God they know exists.

However, the person of faith sees the God they know exists as a God who “rewards those who seek him.” A person with faith in God understands that God has good things for those who seek him out, so they want to be with him. They want to walk with him like Enoch did.

*The term “pleased God” found in Hebrews comes from the Septuigent translation of the Hebrew “walked with God.”


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.”