A while back I read a book called Betrayed which is the true story of how the daughter of a Jewish family, Judy, came to faith in Jesus, and then led her parents to Christ, but their initial reaction was horror. Here’s her father describing Judy’s phone call, telling him she’d turned to Jesus:
‘I’ve become a believer,’ she said.
There was a long silence.
‘What does that mean, Judy?’
‘It means I believe in God, I believe the Bible is the Word of God, (long pause), and I believe Jesus is the Messiah!’
I was speechless. Other parents might have welcomed her words, but they crushed me – because we’re Jewish. To mention the name of Jesus is awkward enough. But for any of us to believe that Jesus is the Messiah is to betray our people, to join the enemy, and to desecrate the memory of all our ancestors for the last 2,000 years. How could Judy do this to us, I wondered, as I raged within.
[Betrayed, Stan Telchin]
And multiple stories like that could have been written about the Christians to whom the Bible book of Hebrews was originally written. We started a series in its famous chapter 11 last week. And Hebrews was originally written to Jewish Christians getting a similarly hostile reaction to their new faith in Jesus as Judy did, because their Jewish families and friends would have felt equally betrayed. And as we saw last week, that’s one reason these Jewish Christians were tempted to pack in following Jesus and go back to Judaism: because it would have made things instantly easier with family and friends. And that’s one reason we may be tempted to pack in following Jesus or not to start following him at all. But the other reason they felt tempted to go back to Judaism was that Judaism was recognised and protected by their Roman rulers, whereas Christianity wasn’t. So it was culturally safer to go back to Judaism. Just like today it’s now culturally safer not to be a Christian. And Hebrews was written to keep Christians back then and Christians today following Jesus. So before our second helping, let’s pray:
Father, please would you use this part of your Word to strengthen us against temptations to stop following Jesus, and to keep us living by faith in him. In his name, Amen.
So if you have a Bible or Bible app, please would you find Hebrews 11. And let me remind you of last week from Hebrews 11.1-2:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.
And the rest of the chapter is a string of examples of Old Testament believers, each beginning, ‘By faith…’ ‘By faith, so and so did this…’ ‘By faith, so and so did that…’ To get across that faith isn’t just saying in my head, ‘I believe in God and in his Word, the Bible.’ Faith is doing something in response to that. And in this week’s passage we’ll see Three Key Things Faith Does. And here’s the first:
1. Faith believes we’re acceptable to God through one sacrifice only
So look on to Hebrews 11.4:
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.
Now that’s referring to an incident back in Genesis 4, and in case you don’t know or remember it, let me read from Genesis 4.1-7:
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering [ie, accepted him and his offering], but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
So what was going on there, because on the surface, two people did the same thing (brought God an offering) but God only accepted one of them, why? Well, some say the problem was the content of Cain’s offering: God doesn’t accept vegetables. But read Exodus to Deuteronomy and you find vegetable offerings are perfectly acceptable to God. So others say the problem was the quality of Cain’s offering: second rate salad rather than firstborn of flock. But they’ve read ‘second rate’ into the text, haven’t they? Genesis doesn’t say that. What it does say is Genesis 4.7, where God points to the real problem, because God said to Cain:
“If you do well [or some translations say ‘right’], will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well [or ‘right’], sin is crouching at the door.”
So the problem was Cain wasn’t relating to God right, and his anger showed that. It showed that he assumed and expected God would accept him, and that he deserved that. Whereas the truth is he didn’t, and none of us does. Because the truth is we all approach God as rebellious sinners deserving his judgement and rejection. And any hope of getting other than the judgement we deserve rests solely on faith that God is merciful as well as just. And I think that’s what Hebrews 11.4 is getting at:
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain
In other words, the key difference between Abel and Cain was not lamb versus vegetables, but faith in God’s mercy versus faith in self, faith that God can only accept me if he’ll forgive me – versus faith that God jolly well ought to accept me because, frankly, I’m perfectly acceptable. So here’s the key question: why did the writer of Hebrews (and we don’t know who it was) why did the writer think that particular Old Testament example spoke to the situation and needs of his original readers? And that’s the key question we need to ask throughout Hebrews 11 because the danger of this series is that we treat chapter 11 in isolation and like a box of chocolates with each section being an individual chocolate. So Cain and Abel could be the two-tone chocolate brick, white and dark for contrast. And we pop it into our mouths and suck some kind of message out, but the danger is we forget it’s part of a whole letter, originally written to particular Christians in a particular situation with particular needs. So for them, why this example to do with acceptable versus unacceptable sacrifice? Well, think what I said at the start, and it becomes clear.
These Christians were being tempted to pack in following Jesus and go back to Judaism – partly for ease with family and friends, partly for cultural safety and their Jewish family and friends would have been saying, “Look, if you come back into Judaism, you won’t be losing anything important…You’ll still believe in the same God. You’ll still have his Word in our Bible. And you’ll still have the temple sacrifices to make you acceptable to God.” And if you know Hebrews, you’ll know that Hebrews 8-10 give the lie to the last thing I just said. Because Hebrews 8-10 is about how the Old Testament sacrifices never really dealt with sin, and never really paid for the forgiveness that Old Testament believers receieved. And it’s about how those Old Testament sacrifices pointed forward to the one and only sacrifice that really could deal with sins and pay for forgiveness – the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross. So for the last three chapters, Hebrews has been saying to its original readers: “If you go back to Judaism, you’ll actually lose everything because you’ll be walking away from the one and only sacrifice that can make you acceptable to God, back to a whole lot of sacrifices that can’t.”
So it’s no surprise that the first example in Hebrews 11 is to do with sacrifice, and to do with the fact that there are many sacrifices in this world (like Cain’s) that will never make us acceptable to God, and only one sacrifice (like Abel’s) that will. So look at other religions (for example, go to Buddhist and Hindu temples) and countless sacrifices and offerings are being done which make people no more acceptable to God at all. And in their hearts, many of them know it. Or closer to home, even within Christian circles, we often try to offer God reasons why he should accept us, in addition to what Jesus did for us on the cross. So for the biggest things on our consciences (like a divorce or a fraud or an abortion) we try to offer him being sorry enough for the past, even punishing ourselves enough, as a reason he should accept us. But God says, “No.I want you to believe you’re acceptable to me through one sacrifice only. And you don’t have to offer anything else in addition – because the cross was enough for all sin for all time”. And then for the repeated things on our consciences (like falls into anger with our children or into porn on the internet) we try to offer him being better enough in the future as a reason he should accept us. But again God says, “No. I want you to believe you’re acceptable to me through one sacrifice only. And you don’t have to offer anything else in addition because the cross was enough for all sin for all time”. So that’s the first key thing faith does. It believes we’re acceptable to God through one sacrifice only. Then the second key thing is that:
2. Faith keeps pleasing God, knowing it will be rewarded
Look on to Hebrews 11.5:
By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.
Now if you were hazy about Cain and Abel, you might be completely lost when it comes to Enoch. So let me explain, this is referring to Genesis 5 which traces the family line of Adam through his son Seth, what’s sometimes called the ‘godly line’, where successive generations showed real faith. So let me read from Genesis 5.3:
When Adam had lived for 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.
Now is not the time to go into the huge ages here, except to say huge ages have also been found outside the Bible in lists of kings at the time. Some think they’re symbolic, others think they reflect a memory of an early time after the fall and before God had reduced human lifespan so drastically. But Genesis 5.4-8:
The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died. When Seth had lived for 105 years, he fathered Enosh. Seth lived after he fathered Enosh for 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died.
And you get that pattern for each of the family line, ending with ‘and he died’. Until, Enoch. Genesis 5.21:
When Enoch had lived for 65 years, he fathered Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah for 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.
In other words, he never died. God took him straight from this life into the next, into his presence. So now listen to the take on that in Hebrews 11.5-6:
By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
So that’s saying: Enoch had faith not just that God is there (which lots of people believe), but that those who seek relationship with him and seek to please him will be rewarded (which less people believe – people usually believe that relationship with God will rob them rather than reward them – rob them of freedom and fun and so on). But Enoch cultivated relationship with God and consciously tried to please him because he believed that would be rewarded, that it was ‘his best life’ to use today’s jargon; that it was worth it. So here’s the key question again, why did the writer of Hebrews think that particular Old Testament example spoke to the situation and needs of his original readers? And the answer is, because some were seriously doubting whether relationship with Jesus really was worth it. After all, where had it got them? Hebrews 10.32-34 from last week:
…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, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property…
Ie, family, friends, the culture and the State had all given them a hard time they’d never had before. So was that, is that, worth it? And Enoch’s example says, yes it is because whatever we go through in this life, if we’re in relationship with Jesus, then one day he will take us too from this life into the next, into his presence, not avoiding physical death, like Enoch; but via physical death as the doorway. And despite the Lord Jesus knowing about all the ways we’ve sinned, we will experience the reward of him saying, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ for all the ways we’ve imperfectly pleased him. Can you imagine that? And after that, we’ll experience the reward of our relationship with him continuing in heaven – only without any of the things that make us question whether it’s worth it now. So without the constant struggle against temptation, without the loneliness and discomfort of being the only believer in your marriage or family or wherever, and without the discouragement of the attitude of the world around us – which can be quiet apathy up to loud hostility. So that’s the second key thing faith does. It keeps pleasing God, knowing it will be rewarded, partly here and now, because living in relationship with Jesus is best, even if harder; but ultimately beyond this life. Then the third and final key thing is that:
3. Faith acts on God’s warning of judgement and offer of salvation
Look on to Hebrews 11.7:
By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
And that’s referring back to Genesis 6 where we’re told that, in response to sin marring his world, God told Noah he was going to bring the judgement of a flood on the whole human race, but that in his mercy he was going to save Noah and his family through the ark which he told Noah to build. And if you’re wondering, “Did that really happen – in fact did Cain, Abel and Enoch really happen?” the bottom line answer is that the Lord Jesus thought so. Because in the Gospels you’ll find he mentioned Abel and Noah in a way that endorses their historicity. And if the thought of that flood is hard to stomach, remember John Calvin’s comment:
The wonder is not that there was a flood, but that there has only been one.
After all, are we any less deserving of judgement? And yet thanks to God’s patience, here we still are. So here’s the key question again: why did the writer of Hebrews think Noah’s example spoke to the situation and needs of his original readers? And the answer is: they were being tempted to pack in following Jesus by some very visible, hard realities – like family rejection and cultural danger. So the writer reminded them of the much bigger, invisible realities of God and his judgement and mercy. As if to say, “Yes, the visible realities are hard, but it’s the invisible realities that should determine our fundamental decisions.” Which Noah exemplified. Hebrews 11.7 again:
By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.
So he acted on God’s warning of judgement and for the salvation of himself and others. And people must have thought he was mad. “Why are you building a boat miles from the sea, Noah?” “Have you checked the weather forecast recently, Noah?” “Haven’t you noticed you’re not being normal lie the rest of us, Noah?”Just like in a lesser way people may think you and I are mad – not for believing privately in Jesus (if that’s all we did they’d be happier), but for believing his promise that he’ll come again to judge the living and the dead, and so for acting publicly to let others hear the offer of being forgiven back into relationship with him through his death on the cross.That’s what can seem mad to them, along with all the time and energy and money and commitment we put into building up our church. One parent of a newly-converted student said to him, “I don’t mind you being religious. Just don’t take it too seriously.” But since God is there, and since there will be a judgement, and since there is an offer of salvation, how can we take it any way but seriously? So those are three key things faith does. It believes we’re acceptable to God through one sacrifice only. It keeps pleasing God, knowing it will be rewarded. And it acts on God’s warning of judgement and offer of salvation And if doing those things is the first evidence in Hebrews 11 of real faith, I wonder how real is ours?