What does it mean to live by faith?

Well, good evening, and let me begin with a question: If you’d call yourself a Christian, what’s most made you feel like packing in following Jesus? You may still just be thinking through what you believe, in which case that question doesn’t apply. Or you may be a brand new Christian, full of the excitement of knowing Jesus for the first time, and yet to meet anything that knocks your faith back. In which case, that question probably makes no sense. But for many of us, it does. And for some of us it’ll be a present question: Not, “What has most made you feel like packing in following Jesus?” but “What is making you feel like that right now?”

For me, ironically, it was my time at a Church of England training college. I was discouraged and down, anyway, after a broken relationship. And on top of that there was constant pressure to shift my convictions about the Bible, and go liberal. And I felt as close as I’ve ever done to packing in – I was that worn down. But in God’s sovereignty, the church I belonged to at the time had just begun a sermon series in the book of Hebrews – which was originally written for Jewish Christians (hence the name ‘Hebrews’) who were being strongly tempted to pack in following Jesus themselves. And tonight, we begin a new sermon series in its most famous chapter (Hebrews 11), which is one long encouragement, from the example of Old Testament believers, to keep living by faith in God and his promises. So we kick off tonight with the question What does it mean to live by faith? And let me now lead us in prayer:

Father,
You know each one of us. For some of us, you know what’s holding us back from putting our faith in Jesus in the first place. For others of us, you know what’s causing our faith to falter and fail – or what will in future. And so we ask you to use this part of your written Word to create faith in us where we don’t have it, and to strengthen it where we do. In Jesus name, Amen

So if you’ve got a Bible or Bible app, would you turn to Hebrews 10.32 and let me show you why these Christians were tempted to pack in. Hebrews 10.32-34:

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened [ie, came to faith in Jesus], you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction [ie, verbal and physical abuse], and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison [so some had been jailed for their faith], and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property [so homes and businesses attacked], since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

So they’d been through the mill for their faith – just like many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries today. They’d lost acceptance. Some had lost their freedom. Some had lost their possessions and even livelihoods. And it’s nothing like that for us right now, but there’s still a cost to following Jesus, isn’t there? So for example, one of our CYFA group said recently that in her school, to open your mouth as a Christian on some subjects is (quote) ‘to commit social suicide’. Or for example, a Christian Institute briefing about banning so-called ‘conversion therapy’ says (quote):

Pastoral advice and prayer that uphold biblical teaching on sexual ethics have been criminalised in the Australian state of Victoria…Offenders face up to ten years in prison and…the state Attorney General said church ministers will be re-educated…to prevent them breaking the law. British MP Alicia Kearns says: “[That] model…is…good.”

And Christians have already begun to lose jobs because of gender ideology imposed on workplaces. Acceptance. Freedom. Livelihoods. It’s nothing like as bad as it was for these Hebrew Christians, but there’s still a cost for us to following Jesus. And not just of living in a culture that can be anti-Christian, it may be the cost of serious commitment to church, or the cost of being single because out of obedience to the Lord, you’ll only marry another believer, or the cost of being the only believer in your family. Or whatever it is for you. And when the cost feels high enough, we can feel tempted to pack in or shrink back as Hebrews puts it. But look on to Hebrews 10.39 which says:

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

And Hebrews 11 is then one long encouragement, from the example of Old Testament believers, to keep living by faith in God and his promises. We’re just going to look at the first three verses tonight – which say three things about what living by faith means. And here’s the first: Living by faith means…

1. Banking on heaven as a reality in a way that shapes our choices now

Look at Hebrews 11.1:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for

Now in English, when we say we’re hoping for something, it always has the element of uncertainty. For example, hoping for an England win against Germany, or for covid restrictions to be lifted, or for good barbecue weather. Hoping in English is basically the same as wishing for something – but whether or not it happens is uncertain, because you’re not in control of the 22 men on the pitch or the virus or the sun. But in Greek (which the New Testament was originally written in), hoping means looking forward to something happening with total certainty, because God has promised it.
And since he is in control, he can deliver on his promises with total certainty. And all the way through, Hebrews reminds us that, to those trusting in Jesus, God has promised they will ultimately be with him in heaven. It reminds us that we know heaven is real because Jesus rose from the dead to show there is life beyond. And it reminds us that we can know we’re going there because Jesus’ death paid for the forgiveness we need to be accepted in. So where Hebrews 11.1 says:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for

things hoped for is the future certainty of heaven, if you’re trusting in Jesus. And the commentaries will tell you that a better, more literal translation would be ‘Now faith is the reality of things hoped for’. Which means that when we really believe or have faith in God’s promise of heaven, when we really bank on going there, then it becomes a reality that shapes our choices now. Here’s an illustration to help get that across. I still remember the day when my brother Niall and I were visiting our parents and Dad called us in to his study and showed us all his finance files and what he was worth. And he said, “You need to bank on inheriting all this.” Which is an awkward kind of moment because you don’t want to sound ungrateful, but you don’t want to sound enthusiastic either because you’re talking about when he’s gone. But it really stuck in my mind, “You need to bank on inheriting all this.”And what he meant was, you can afford to make some financial commitments, because one day this will cover it. You need to bank on it, plan on it, act on it right now. And that’s what Hebrews 11.1 is saying. It’s saying living by faith means banking on heaven as a reality in a way that shapes our choices now. So take any of the costs of following Jesus, and they will be more than compensated by heaven. For example, that cost I mentioned earlier of being single because out of obedience to the Lord, you’ll only marry another believer. It’s great to know that in heaven there won’t be any more human marriage – we’ll all be single, and yet the quality of all our relationships will make the best earthly friendships and marriages pale by comparison.

One book that’s helped me feel the reality of heaven a bit better is an old Puritan one called The Saints’ Everlasting Rest by Richard Baxter. And at one point, he imagines what it will feel like to arrive there having doubted often whether it was really worth following Jesus. He writes:

From heaven the saint can look behind him and before him. And to stand in heaven and look back on earth, and weigh them in the balance – how must it make the soul cry out, “O blessed end! I see now that the Gospel is indeed good news. Because is my mourning over sin, and my struggling come to this? Are all my afflictions, Satan’s temptations and the world’s jeers, come to this? Unworthy soul! is this the place you came to so unwillingly? Was duty so wearisome? Was the world too good to lose? Could you not leave all, deny all, and suffer anything for this? Were you loath to die, to come to this? And are you not now ashamed, my soul, that you ever questioned the love which brought you here, and misinterpreted those providences, and resented those ways which have led to such an end? Now you are convinced that your Redeemer was saving you as much when he crossed your desires, as when he granted them; when he broke your heart, as when he bound it up. No thanks to you, unworthy self, for this crown received; but to the Lord and the Lamb be glory for ever.”

So that’s the first thing. Living by faith means banking on heaven as a reality in a way that shapes our choices now. And the second is this, living by faith means…

2. Showing others that unseen things are real

This is the second half of Hebrews 11.1:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, [and it’s also] the conviction of things not seen.

And the commentaries will also tell you that a better, more literal translation would be ‘faith is the demonstration of things not seen’. Which is because real faith isn’t just believing stuff in our heads, it’s acting on what we believe, which demonstrates who or what we’re believing in. So for example, having faith in your surgeon isn’t just believing he’s good, it’s turning up for the operation. That’s what shows you have faith in him. Or having faith in a train or plane isn’t just believing it’s safe, it’s getting on. That’s what shows you have faith in it. And when we have faith in God and his promises, that means we act on what we know of God and his promises, and by doing so we demonstrate, or show, others that unseen things are real.

As an example of that, you may have heard me tell the story before of a student who came to faith through our church and straight away said to her boyfriend, “I’m not sleeping with you any more.” and he took exception to that and so she said, “Then I’m not your girlfriend any more.” And he came to church the next Sunday. And I met him and asked what had brought him along, and he said, “It’s because my girlfriend’s just dumped me for Jesus and I want to know what’s got into her.” So her faith, leading to obedience (quite costly obedience) showed him that unseen things are real. Now that’s an example from a recent Christian life. Whereas Hebrews 11 is going to give us examples from the lives of Old Testament believers. So Hebrews 11.1-2 again:

Now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the demonstration of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.

In other words, the way they lived by faith was commended by God by being included in the Old Testament. So let me give you one sneak preview from Hebrews 11.7:

By faith Noah [who appears in Genesis 6], being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.

And that’s another example of showing others that unseen things are real, because putting all that time and money and energy and work into building the ark showed everyone around that he really believed there was a judgement coming from which people needed saving. And as we put all the time and money and energy and work that we do into building up this church, it does something similar (especially the high-commitment things that seek to reach out to new people) from carols to holiday club. They show that we believe in the unseen things of God and of the day of judgement and of everyone’s need to be saved from it through Jesus.

So living by faith means banking on heaven as a reality in a way that shapes our choices now. It means showing others that unseen things are real. And lastly, it means…

3. Not treating this created world as the ultimate reality

Let me read from Hebrews 11.1-2 again:

Now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the demonstration of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.

So now you’re expecting example number 1 from the life of an Old Testament believer, but it doesn’t come because first Hebrews wants to remind us of something even more fundamental, from the very beginning of Genesis. So Hebrews 11.3:

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.

So we’ve just seen that faith involves believing in unseen things in the future, like the day of judgement, and that’s unseen because it hasn’t happened yet. But we believe in it because the Lord Jesus said it would, and because he rose from the dead to show that he will be the Judge we’ll meet on it. But now Hebrews 11.3 is saying that faith also involves believing in something unseen in the past, namely creation. And that was unseen because, until Adam, there was no human being to witness it. So we can’t prove that the universe was made by God any more than an atheist can disprove it. Instead, Hebrews 11.3:

By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God

And that means by faith in Genesis 1 – which was read earlier (Genesis 1.1-2):

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth [ie, everything].The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.

And so on. And if you ask, “but why do we believe Genesis 1?”, the bottom line answer is, because of the Lord Jesus. He quoted and endorsed the creation account from Genesis 1 and 2. So if we believe he’s the Son of God, and therefore has the authority of God, then we have to believe his teaching is true, and therefore that what Genesis 1 and 2 teach is true. Now of course you’ve still got to interpret them rightly. But the debated interpretation questions don’t affect the absolutely central truth in Genesis 1 – which is that (Hebrews 11.3):

By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, [and here’s the point that Hebrews is making from that] so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

In other words, so that what we see all around us hasn’t always existed. There was a time or rather a pre-time, when if you’d been there, you’d have seen none of this. It hasn’t always existed. And Hebrews 12 reminds us that it won’t always exist, either – that when Jesus comes again to wrap up history, this creation will be removed and re-made. And so the last point here is that living by faith means not treating this created world as the ultimate reality – not valuing it as if it was, or holding onto it as if it was. So do you remember back in Hebrews 10.34, how it said:

…you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

In other words, since you knew that what you have here is not the ultimate reality, but that what you have waiting for you in heaven is. Whereas, as one writer (Paul Tillich) put it:

The tragedy of our time is that people are ultimately concerned with things that are not ultimate.

Isn’t that true? Ultimately concerned with phones and devices, cars and houses, earning and saving, holidays and hobbies, career and reputation, bodies and beauty, health and fitness – when none of those things is really ultimate. And we’re not immune from being drawn into all that, ourselves, are we? So whether the cost of following Jesus is tempting us to pack in, or whether the world is tempting us just to live as if this life is all there is, we need the message of Hebrews 11, as it re-calls us over the coming weeks to live by faith.

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