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By Faith Isaac

This is the ninth post in a series from Hebrews 11. You’ll find all the posts on this series listed here.

Next on the list of faithful ancients in Hebrews 11 is Isaac.

By faith also Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning the future. (Hebrews 11:20 NET)

When Isaac was an old man, he blessed his two sons, Jacob and Esau. You’ll find Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27:27-29 and his blessing of Esau in Genesis 27:39-40. Both blessings contain predictions of things that God would do long after Isaac’s death. Isaac would not see these future events, but in faith, he understood  the certainty of them.

That Isaac was fooled into blessing Jacob when he thought he was blessing Esau is not important to the point the author is making about Isaac’s faith. What is important is that Isaac spoke in faith concerning a future he could not see.


By Faith Abraham, Again

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

After the summary statement in verses 13-16 of this chapter, the author of Hebrews returns to his examination of Abraham’s faith. He’s already explained that it was by faith that Abraham obeyed God and left his homeland, and it was by faith that Abraham conceived his son Isaac. Now the author tells us that it was by faith that Abraham offered up Isaac.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name,” and he reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead, and in a sense he received him back from there. (Hebrews 11:17-19 NET)

You know the story, right? God speaks to Abraham:

Take your son—your only son, whom you love, Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah! Offer him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will indicate to you. (Genesis 22:22)

This was, of course, a test of Abraham’s love for God: Did he love God enough to give up his son? This text in Hebrews, however, points us to something else that was tested—Abraham’s willingness to keep on believing and obeying God  when faced with what appeared to be contradictory revelations from him. God had told Abraham that Isaac’s descendants would carry on Abraham’s name, and Abraham had already received partial fulfillment of that promise in the birth of Isaac. Now God was telling Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering, an act that would seem to ensure that Isaac would have no descendents at all. At the very least, it would have been confusing.

How did Abraham square God’s command with his promise? He denied neither, but trusted instead in God’s ability to raise the dead. God, Abraham concluded, would be able to fulfill this promise even if Isaac died, because God had the power to raise him to life again. So Abraham determined to obey God’s command.

He was already in the process of offering up Isaac when God intervened in a way he had not anticipated.

But the Lord’s angel called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am!” he answered. “Do not harm the boy!” the angel said. “Do not do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22: 11,12 NET)

God provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice in place of his son Isaac, giving Abraham and all the rest of us a picture of the provision God would make for us by the sacrifice of his own Son.

The phrase “only Son” used to describe Isaac should be understood to mean “unique son,” since Abraham had other sons besides Isaac (Genesis 25:1-2). None of them, however, were conceived in the unlikely way that Isaac was, and only Isaac received the covenant promises.

And even though God stopped Abraham from following through on his plan to offer Isaac, in a sense, says our text, Abraham did receive Isaac back from the dead. In his mind, Abraham had already given Isaac up for dead, expecting him back only through a miraculous work of God. The way God chose to intervene was different than what Abraham expected, but, in keeping with his trustworthy nature, God did act so that his promise to Abraham would be fulfilled.


By Faith These All

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

The verses in Hebrews 11 that come right before the section we look at in this post are about Abraham’s faith, and the verses right after it are about Abraham’s faith as well, but in this section, the writer takes a little time out to summarize what’s been said so far.

These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16 NET)

“These all”, of course, is all the “people of old” discussed in the chapter so far. Common to all these people of faith is that when they died, they had not yet received the things promised to them. They had received a partial fulfillment of God’s promises, but there were things God had promised them that were yet to come when they died. 

Take Abraham, for example. In chapter 6 of Hebrews it tells us that because Abraham persevered, he “obtained what was promised.” Having a son was a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, but it was just the first step in the promise that God would make him “into a great nation.” I’m sure that Isaac’s miraculous conception and birth strengthened Abraham’s faith in the rest of God’s promise, but the biggest part of God’s promise, that God would make a great nation of him and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, had not yet come and was clearly far off in the future when Abraham died.

It would have been the same with all the people listed in this chapter. They’d seen enough of God’s work to know that he would do as he’d said, but much of what God had promised them remained uncompleted when they died. They died in faith, still convinced of things they did not see.

And the communion they had with the God who had promised them these things caused them to see themselves as foreigners on the earth. They never quite belonged in their worldly surroundings because they longed for something more: “a better land, that is, a heavenly one.” What they longed for wasn’t an earthly place; they longed to be with God. The writer tells us that they could have returned to the land they’d left if their own place on earth was what they wanted, but it wasn’t. They desired God and so they aspired to a heavenly land.

As a result of their trust in God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promises and their longing to be with God above all else, “God is not ashamed to be called their God.” Think about that statement! God called himself “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, and yet, when we read these men’s stories, we can see that they were not perfect men and not always men of the strongest faith, yet because they sought God and believed he would fulfill his promises to them, God identifies himself with them.

And the heavenly land they longed for? It’s already built.

But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does. (Hebrews 12: 22-24 NET)

It has come through Christ. Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant and his blood brings people right into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:19). That’s the whole gospel story: Jesus died to “bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18).”

When God promised Abraham that through him all the families would be blessed, he’s  pledging that Jews and Gentiles—people from all nations or ethic groups—would be reconciled to God through the cross. What these faithful “people of old” longed for most, the heavenly country where people can be in the presence of God, had not yet come; but God was bringing it about through them, and they died in faith, trusting that he would fulfill his promises to them.


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.