The Faith of the Church (Hebrews 11)

“Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). These are Jesus’ words to you. You have no need to be anxious, because God your Father has given you the kingdom. He has forgiven you of all your sins, reconciled you to Him and to each other within the Church, and promises you the resurrection of your bodies and life everlasting in a perfect, restored creation. You have no need to worry, then, because He has done all this for you through Jesus Christ as a result of His grace; it is God’s “good pleasure” to “give” all this to you. It is a gift.

God has been making this promise of salvation, this giving of the kingdom to you, since the beginning. We have not yet received the full gift because we still live in a world filled with anxiety, stress, decay, sorrow, and death. Yet, we look forward to the return of Jesus Christ to finish the giving of this gift and to remove all these evils from the world. This is what faith is, a looking past of what we see to behold instead God’s promises as revealed and fulfilled in Christ. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews talks a lot about this faith. What I like most about this chapter is how it destroys any idea that our own works play a role in our salvation or that God has changed the way he relates to people throughout history. Sometimes you’ll hear people in our culture say that the people of the Old Testament were saved by works and that that people of the New Testament are saved by God’s grace. They make an assumption that the Old Testament is all God’s Law and the New Testament is all God’s Gospel. Related to this is the assumption that somehow Israel is different than the Church.

But, these are all incorrect assumptions. God has been working through both Law and Gospel since the beginning. He condemns sin and then forgives it. He makes demands and then forgives our inability to meet His demands. He makes threats and yet He also makes promises. He kills and makes alive. He does all this so that we rely on His grace which comes through Christ, rather than on our own frail natures.

We see this throughout the Scriptures, because our holy Lord God has always justified sinful humanity in His sight in one way. There is only one way that the Lord justifies us and makes us right in His eyes. It is always a result of His grace as received through faith for the sake of Jesus Christ; this is the gift of righteousness. The book of Hebrews says that “… by [faith] the people of old received their commendation;” this is the same faith that you share in as well (Hebrews 11:2). God makes promises and we believe them, even though we can’t see with our eyes the fulfillment of these promises. We take God’s Word on faith, because we believe Him to be truthful and loving.

So, Hebrews 11 traces the faith of the Church, beginning in Genesis. The Church spans both Old and New Testaments, because the Church is God’s people gathered by Him around His promises that are ultimately fulfilled in Christ. Later in the Old Testament, the Church will be called Israel, just as in the New Testament the Church is called the “Israel of God.” This is because the Church of all times and places is united in faith in the promises of God that are fulfilled in Christ. The Church is Israel, Israel is the Church; the “Israel of God” is not the country in the Middle East, it is the Church united around Jesus Christ, both Old and New Testament. The Church is all those gathered by God around His promises which are fulfilled in Christ. The Old Testament saints looked forward to the coming of Christ, and we – along with them – also look forward to his return.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

The Church takes the Word of God on faith. “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Hebrews 11:3). We believe that God created the heavens and the earth from nothing, just by the power of His Word. By faith we believe that God created us and loves us and has good things in store for us. By faith we believe that it is His good pleasure to “give us the kingdom.” By faith we believe that our God, the Creator of all things, came in the flesh to restore His creation. By faith we believe that the One who made us body and soul will raise up our bodies from death.

This is a faith that we share with Abel, whose faith still speaks to us, even though he died, because he is a witness to the promises of God. This is a faith that we share with Enoch, who, though he lived in the midst of a wicked generation, had faith in God’s promises. This is a faith that we share with Noah who believed God when He said He would save the world through him and the ark. The world was saved through God’s grace carried on by the Church as God redeemed His people across the waters of the flood.

This is a faith that we share with Abraham who went where God told him, without knowing where he was going, believing only that the Lord had good things in store for him. This is a faith that we share also with Sarah, who believed that God would fulfill His promises to her and Abraham. God told Abraham that in his old age he would have a son with Sarah and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. Against every act of reason, Abraham looked past the hopelessness that he saw and instead “believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

Abraham was justified through faith, and we are therefore called his descendants, since we are justified by the same faith in the Lord. We are joined with him and the other Old Testament and New Testament saints in the family of faith, the Church. Abraham also believed that God could raise up his son Isaac from the dead, even as we believe that God will raise up the dead at Christ’s return. We share the same faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Isaac had faith that the Lord had good things in store for his sons Jacob and Esau. Jacob blessed his sons when he was dying, believing that the Lord would bless them. In the land of Egypt, Joseph beheld the promised land from afar, knowing that the Lord would lead His people into it. So, Joseph, in faith, made his descendants promise to takes his bones with them in the future day when they went out to the promised land, a foreshadowing of the resurrection that will take place when Christ returns.

We share the faith of Moses, who despised the wealth and pleasures of this world in order to be with the people of the Church. He kept the Passover, believing God’s promise of redemption through the blood of the Lamb. The people of Israel crossed the Red Sea on faith, believing God’s promise to save them through the waters. They conquered the fortified city of Jericho on faith once they entered into the promised land.

We share the faith of Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho who protected the spies of Israel and asked only that she be welcomed within Israel. She had faith in Yahweh, even though she was not a Hebrew and had been a heathen prostitute. Yet, she trusted in the Lord’s forgiveness and in His power to save. The Lord’s people Israel, His Church, incorporates sinners whom He forgives and cleanses.

We share the faith of the judges and kings and prophets of Israel. They had faith that the Lord had good things in store for His people, even when they did not see or receive these good things in this life, because they looked forward to the life to come.

All these people “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. F
or people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

God is not ashamed of you, and He has prepared a city for you, because you are His people. And it is His good pleasure to give it to you; fear not little flock, you too have been saved through the waters and are being brought to a better country.

We share the faith of all those who suffered and died for their faith. Those who were mocked, tortured, and killed. We share the faith of the prophets and apostles who were killed for their faith. We share the faith of all the people of God, His Church, who throughout time and even today are stoned, sawn in two, and killed with the sword. These are the people “of whom the world was not worthy,” people of faith who put the sinful world to shame for its lack of faith and who therefore condemn the world for its rejection of the Lord and His people. This wicked world is not worthy to have saints such as these in its midst.

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40). These people did not see the coming of Christ, and yet they had faith in him. We have seen the coming of Christ, and we also have faith in him. We are the Church that now goes forth in the light of the risen and ascended Christ. Yet, like the saints of old, we also continue to look forward to the better country, the city with foundations, the city built by God.

This city is the new Jerusalem, the one seen by the Apostle John coming down out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (cf. Revelation 21:1ff). This city will inherit the whole earth as the beloved Bride of Christ; Israel will inhabit the world. When Christ returns he will cast out all sin and evil from this world. There will no longer be sorrow or decay or death in God’s creation. He who created all things is restoring all things. We have the first fruits of this better country here and now in the Church as we are restored to God and each other, because God’s reign has come; we are incorporated within His kingdom. Yet, we haven’t yet received the full measure of what God has promised us. That great remainder is coming with Christ’s return.

Christ’s return to bring the fullness of the better country of the perfect, restored creation is what all the faithful of Old have been longing for. They all believed the Lord, and He counted it to them as righteousness. They all believed that it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. They all had faith in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting in the perfect restored creation, because they all had faith in Christ.

We are all united in this faith. This faith of theirs is a faith that we also share in, and likewise we also are witnesses to the fact that Christ has come and that he is returning; “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

We know this is true, because of those who have gone before us as witnesses, even dying for their faith, giving witness to the firmness of their convictions and the surety of their hopes through their deaths. The people of the Church spread throughout time and dispersed throughout the world have continually borne witness to the assurance of the things they hoped for and the conviction of things they had not seen. They continually bore witness to God’s promises fulfilled in Christ, and we continue this witness today in our own place and time. You are God’s people Israel, His Church, the people of His promise.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

This present world has many trials and temptations and hostilities, but “fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Amen.

 

(Image of Noah’s ark in a detail of the mosaic floor of the Armenian Chapel of St. Helena on the lower level of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. By don Tommaso (Arca di Noe sull’Arat) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)