This is faith, plain and simple
Faith, the definition1 Faith is being sure what we hope for will happen. It’s knowing what we can’t see is real. 2 Faith is the reason people long ago received God’s stamp of approval. 3 Our faith is the reason we believe God spoke the universe into existence. It’s the reason we believe everything we can see came from what we can’t see.
Story of faith starts here4 Faith is how Abel managed to offer God an acceptable sacrifice when Cain didn’t. It was Abel’s faith that showed he was one of the good guys. God’s acceptance of Abel’s gift confirms it. Though Abel died, his faith lives to tell his story. 5 Enoch’s faith is the reason no one can find him. God carried him away so he wouldn’t die. Before God took him, Enoch shows up in the Bible as someone God approved of.
6 God isn’t going to be happy with us if we don’t have faith. That’s because we can’t get into a close relationship with God if we don’t even believe he exists. God rewards people who search for him. It takes faith to do that. 7 When God warned Noah what was coming, Noah had the faith to believe it. So, he built a big boat to save himself and his family. His act of faith stood in sharp contrast to the faithless human race, doomed to die. His faith also made him look good to God.
Abraham goes God knows where8 Abraham showed his faith when God told him to move to a land God would give him. Abraham left without even knowing where he was headed. 9 So, he followed his faith on a long migration to a foreign land God promised him. He lived in tents all this time. So did his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob—both who share in the promised land. 10 But he was looking forward to something better. It was a city built on a solid foundation—a city designed and constructed by God.
11 Abraham’s faith is why God turned him into a dad. God managed to do this even though Sarah was infertile and way too old to have kids. 12 That’s what happened. A childless man old enough to be long-dead produced more descendants than anyone could count. They were like stars in the sky or grains of sand on an ocean beach. Who could count them? 13 These people kept the faith for a lifetime. They died without seeing God fulfill his promises to them. They caught a glimpse of what was coming, a long way off. They knew it was coming and they were glad to see it headed their way. They knew what they were: foreigners and immigrants in a new land.
14 When people talk about themselves that way, it’s obvious they’re looking for a place to call home. 15 If they had been talking along the way about the country they had left, they could have turned around and headed back. 16 But they wanted something better. After where they had been, they wanted heaven on earth. God admired their chutzpah. He was delighted to have folks like that calling him their God. He prepared a heavenly city to welcome them home.
17 Abraham showed his faith again when he passed God’s test by offering to sacrifice Isaac. No kidding. This elderly man who was supposed to get more descendants than he could count had just agreed to kill his only son, as God had ordered. 18 God had already told Abraham, “The descendants I’m giving you will come from Isaac.” 19 Abraham must have figured God could raise Isaac from the dead. In a way, God did.
Faith of Abraham’s kids20 Isaac showed his faith when he gave each of his sons, Jacob and Esau, a blessing. He told them what kind of future they should expect. 21 Jacob showed his faith while he was dying. He said a blessing over each of Joseph’s sons. Then, leaning on his shepherd’s staff, he bowed to worship God. 22 Joseph also showed his faith at the end of his life. He anticipated a time when Abraham’s descendants would leave Egypt. He told his family what he wanted them to do with his remains when the Jews left for home. 
Faith in the life of Moses23 Parents of Moses showed their faith when Moses was born. They recognized something unique about this baby. So, they hid him for three months, despite the king’s order. 24 When Moses grew up as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, his faith led him to reject the title of prince of Egypt. 25 Instead, he decided to suffer with his family, God’s people. He could have eased into a fleeting life of sinful fun. 26 He considered all the wealth he had in Egypt and he decided it wasn’t enough. He chose Christ the Messiah instead, and he was willing to suffer the consequences for that choice. Moses was looking to the future, expecting God’s reward.
27 Faith led him out of Egypt. He wasn’t afraid of the king. Moses got up and left as though following some invisible guide. 28 Faith led him to begin the first Passover. God’s people sprinkled blood to alert the destroyer to pass over their home and not hurt their oldest child.
Faith of the refugees29 It took faith for these refugees to walk across the Red Sea on dry land. After all, when the Egyptians tried to follow, they drowned. 30 It was faith that knocked down those walls of Jericho after the people surrounded it for seven days. 31 Even the prostitute Rahab showed faith by protecting the spies. For that, she didn’t die with Jericho’s unbelievers.
The list goes on32 Do I need to keep going? I don’t have time to remind you about the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. 33 Because of the faith these people had, they:
- conquered nations
- brought justice
- received God’s promises
- shut the roaring mouths of lions.
Some people of faith die the hard way35 Some women of faith saw their loved ones resurrected. But others were tortured because of their faith. Arrested, they refused release. They preferred death, followed by resurrection into a better life. 36 Others were publicly humiliated, beaten, then chained and tossed in prison. 37 Some were stoned, cut in two with a saw, or slaughtered by the sword. Some were so poor they wore animal hides: sheep and goats. These poor folks were abused—treated terribly.
38 They deserved better than they got in this world. They roamed deserts and mountains. They lived in caves and underground caverns. 39 All the people I’m talking about have been praised for their faith. But they never got to see God’s promise fulfilled. 40 Here’s why. God had a better plan. It included us. They would reach their goal of becoming perfectly fit to step into God’s presence. But not without us.
The writer doesn’t mention God. But many scholars say that the context in the verses that follow strongly suggest that it’s God doing the approving, not other people.
“Enoch lived in a close relationship with God” (Genesis 5:22).
The math in Genesis suggests Sarah was 90 and Abraham was 99 when a messenger from God told them that within a year, they would have son. Sarah laughed. God got the last laugh because the couple named their boy Isaac, which is Hebrew for “he laughs.” It may not matter who the “he” stands for. By the time the baby was delivered, everyone was probably laughing.
Jews in Old Testament times spoke of Jerusalem as a heavenly city. “…beautiful Jerusalem. The fairest of Israel’s cities lies in the dust, thrown down from the heights of heaven” (Lamentations 2:1 New Living Translation). But the writer of Hebrews seems to point past Jerusalem on earth, and toward New Jerusalem of heaven.
Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son, might dispute that characterization. But Isaac was the only son through whom God promised to produce a nation of descendants: the Jewish nation.
And put the pieces back together. The sacrifice God ordered was a burnt offering. In an offering like that, the worshiper would “skin the animal and cut it into pieces…[then] burn the entire sacrifice on the altar” (Leviticus 1:6, 9 New Living Translation).
Jacob: “Become the head of this family—the leader of your brothers, who do whatever you tell them” (Genesis 27:29). Esau: “Keep your sword handy because you’re going to have to fight for what you get” (Genesis 27:40).
Jews stayed in Egypt 430 years (Exodus 12:40).
Joseph said he wanted them to take his body with them. “Joseph made his brothers swear an oath. ‘God will one day lead you out of here. When he takes you home, I want you to carry my bones with you’” (Genesis 50:25).
Egypt’s king said he wanted to control the immigrant population by killing newborn Jewish boys (Exodus 1:16).
They sprinkled blood of a sacrificed lamb on the front doorposts of their houses (Exodus 12:7).
The writer may be referring to prophets and others in the Old Testament stories. Among the prophets imprisoned: Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20; 37), Hanani (2 Chronicles 16), Micaiah (1 Kings 22).
A collection of revered Jewish writings from ancient times, the Talmud, reports a legend about King Manasseh ordering the prophet Isaiah killed with a saw. One version of the story has Isaiah hiding inside a tree. The king ordered the tree cut down, with the prophet still inside.
The writer, more literally, simply says the people are being “made perfect.” Many scholars say this is the writer’s coded way of talking about access to God. The writer uses versions of the word “perfect” many times in this letter. When he does, some scholars add that he usually seems to be talking about sins and guilt washed away, leaving us holy or sanctified. One Greek word the writer sometimes uses for this is hagiazo. It also meant “devoted to God.” Worship utensils such as lampstands were considered holy because they were reserved for sacred use, devoted to God. People, too, were considered holy when they devoted themselves to God.
What’s up with all these stories of people in ancient Jewish history who had faith? Why is the Hebrews writer giving us the history of faith among the Jews and going clear back to Abel, son of Adam and Eve?
The writer seems comfortable making presumptions not substantiated by the Bible story he’s talking about. For example, he says God accepted the offering of Abel when he rejected Cain’s offering because Abel had faith in God. Maybe Abel did, but the Bible simply says “The LORD accepted Abel’s gift” (Genesis 4:4). What do you think about that? Pick one response or add one of your own.
- It’s in the Bible, so God must have inspired the writer to say what he did.
- The writer must have been a preacher. Enough said.
- It’s a fair presumption. It makes sense.
- When people try to convince someone to do better, they sometimes fill in the facts of their argument with a little extra push.
The last verse in the chapter seems to suggest that God’s people of faith from Old Testament times didn’t have the level of access to God that they did after Jesus sacrificed himself for humanity. So, the implication is that Jesus secured eternal life for people; until then, the matter wasn’t settled. The writer said the Old Testament people of faith, “would reach their goal of becoming perfectly fit to step into God’s presence. But not without us” (11:40). What do you think about that?
LIFE APPLICATION. Perhaps the most famous line in Hebrews is the definition of faith in 11:1. People probably remember it best from a version similar to the old King James Version of the Bible. Here’s the New King James: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Causal English Bible puts it this way: “Faith is being sure what we hope for will happen. It’s knowing what we can’t see is real.” What do you think faith is?
LIFE APPLICATION. How do you explain your Christian faith to friends and family who say they are more into science than religion? These are folks who don’t believe in miracles, resurrections, and an afterlife.
LIFE APPLICATION. The writer of Hebrews reports some of the gruesome details of how people of faith were persecuted and killed. “Some were stoned, cut in two with a saw, or slaughtered by the sword” (11:37). How do people of faith suffer in your part of the world?