By Faith, Abraham and Sarah...

Series: Better: A Study of the Christian Life in Hebrews

Sermon by Ligon Duncan on Aug 4, 2013

Hebrews 11:8-19

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If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 11 as we continue our way through this book and through this great chapter on faith. The book of Hebrews, we have said all along, is about the great theme that Jesus is better. And trusting in Jesus means a life of faith, a life in which we base our whole hope on Him and on His promises. We just sang, “More than all in Him I find.” We put all of our hopes in Him. He is greater than any other treasure in life. So a life of faith means a life in which we base our whole hopes on Him and on His promises. And the author of Hebrews is explaining that by way of illustration in Hebrews chapter 11. In Hebrews 10:39 he says to the congregation, “You are those who are of faith. I know you believe. I know you believe in Christ.” Now he says, “Let me show you what that looks like.” And he goes back to some of the great heroes of the Old Testament to illustrate for us what the life of faith looks like. And guess who he spends most time on in this book? No surprise, is it? Abraham! From Hebrews 11 verse 8 all the way down to verse 19, he unpacks, he shows a different aspect of Abraham living the life of faith. He spends more time in Hebrews 11 on Abraham than anyone else. Abraham, the father of the faithful, the father of believers, is the illustration of what it looks like to live the life of faith. So give attention with me as we read God's Word in Hebrews 11 verse 8, and before we do let's pray and ask for God's help and blessing.

Lord, this is Your Word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it. We ask that You would enable us to understand and believe the truth which You serve us in Your Word, in Jesus' name, amen.

This is God's Word. Hear it:

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all 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. For 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.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The Life of Faith means a life of Trusting God and Acting on His Promises

What does the life of faith look like? What should faith look like as you live it out in your own life? Hebrews 11 in general, and this story of Abraham in particular, provide for you an illustration of that. They show you what faith looks like in your life and they provide a positive encouragement to you to live the life of faith as well. And I want you to see several things in particular that the author of Hebrews teaches us about the life of faith. And the very first thing you’ll see in verse 8. We learn this. Believers act on God's Word and their great life decisions are based upon His call. But the life of faith, the life of trusting God, is a life of acting on God's Word, of acting on His call to us. Notice in Hebrews 11 verse 8 that Abraham trusts God but he doesn't just trust God, he also obeys God. “By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.” In other words, “God's effectual calling of Abraham resulted not only in Abraham's trusting God, in Abraham's whole-hearted believe in God; it led to his obedience. Those who trust, obey. When you trust, you obey. Or as the old song goes, “Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
And notice what Abraham is called to do here. Look at the very end of verse 8. “He went out, not knowing where he was going.” Now that's faith. That is real trust in God to respond to God's call in obedience having no idea where you’re going.

But my friends, every Christian is called upon to do the same thing, you understand? You remember the conversation between Jesus and the disciples and Thomas in particular when they were in the Upper Room on the night when Jesus was betrayed? It's recorded for us in John 14. We often read it at funerals. You remember, Jesus says to the disciples, “Don't be sad. Don't be troubled. Don't worry. Believe Me. You believe in God; believe also in Me.” And then He says this to comfort them. “I'm going to prepare a place for you and you know here I'm going and you know the way.” And I wonder what the reaction of the other disciples is but Thomas can't help but speak up. He says, “Lord, pardon me, but we have no idea where You’re going and we have no idea how to get there!” And Jesus says, you remember, in response, “Thomas, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” In other words Jesus is saying, “You do know the way, Thomas. I'm the way. And you don't need to know where you’re going as long as you know the way. And I'm the way that you can get to where you’re going, even though you don't know that country.”

You see, we're called to do the same thing that Abraham did. One British theologian put it this way. “For the Christian, we are called to an unknown country with a well-known inhabitant.” Heaven is to us an unknown country; the world to come, the age to come is an unknown country. We've never been there. We've never laid eyes on it. We have, just like Thomas, we can say, “Lord, we have no idea where that is, but we do know how to get there. His name is Jesus and we trust in Him.” So what Abraham did in leaving his family ancestral land in Ur of the Chaldeans and making his way to the land of promise is a picture of what every believer does. We trust in God, we make our great life decisions based upon His Word and call, and we go to an unknown country and to a well-known inhabitant.”

The Life of Faith means not looking for our Ultimate Fulfillment here

Secondly, what does the life of faith look like? Well, believers live the life of faith not looking for our ultimate fulfillment here. We are citizens there. We are strangers here. Abraham, you see, trusted God, and it meant that he would have to live life as a pilgrim, on the way to the promise that God had made to him. Look at verses 9 and 10. “By faith, he went to live in the land of promise as in a foreign land.” And then listen to this next phrase - “living in tents.” Now keep your finger there in verse 9 and look at what that's contrasted to. Verse 10 - “for he was looking forward to the city that has foundations.” So Abraham goes to the Promised Land but when he gets there he doesn't build a big city and live in it. Interestingly, it's his nephew Lot who lives in a city, and if I remember the story right, it doesn't go very well. Abraham, meanwhile, lives like a nomad, a pilgrim in a tent, even in the Promised Land! Why? Because this world was not his home and that was not his final destination. He was looking for a city who has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Can you imagine how that would have resonated, by the way, to first century Jewish Christians living in Palestine? There they were, living in the land of promise, but it wasn't even their land anymore. The pagan, Romans were occupying that land. And you can imagine how they would have said, “Boy, this must be like what it felt for Abraham, to know that this is his land.” And do you know how much of it he owned? Not one square inch until the end of his life and then you know what he did own at the end of his life? His burial plot, that's it, that's all wealthy Abraham ever owned, was his burial plot in the land of Canaan. But he lived by faith because he knew that “This is not where I get the promise fulfilled. I'm looking for the city which has foundations which architect and builder is God.” And that, my friends, is directly relevant to how we live the Christian life because faith makes us strangers here and citizens there. We are at home there and that makes us aliens and exiles here.

And that is so important for the living of the Christian life. What is one of the great challenges of the church in our day? That the world is in the church; that the church is like the world; that the world is in our hearts and we're not distinct from the world. And this truth helps us to realize it's not the world that's going to supply us fulfillment. The world cannot fulfill the promises that God has made to us; only God can. And that allows us to stand apart from the world and not put our hopes in the world. We can minister to the world knowing that the world can't give us what we really need; only God can, and He will. And therefore we're able to care about and show Christian love to the world because we don't need the world to give us fulfillment. God is the one who will fulfill His promises. We live here as strangers and exiles and aliens. This world is not our home. That's what the life of faith looks like.

God's Promises to Believers are received by Faith

Third, look at verses 11 and 12. This is absolutely stunning. Here we learn that God's promises to believers are received by, they come about by, faith. This is a classic passage illustrating how you live by faith and not by sight. Look at verse 11. “By faith, Sarah herself received power to conceive.” Now my friends, we could do a sermon series on that phrase. “By faith, Sarah herself received power to conceive.” In other words, the author of Hebrews is saying that Sarah conceived by faith. She made Abraham the father of a multitude that no one can number by faith. She trusted the One who had made the promise, that even though she was past, well past the age of childbearing, that God was going to give her a son, and from that son was going to come a multitude of worshipers of God, of believers in the promise, that no one can number.

I want you to think about that, my friends. You know, Abraham was not always a spectacular husband. There may be some folks here today who could say a few things about their husbands’ shortcomings, but I hope that there is no wife here today who could come up to me after the service and say, “Well my husband tried to give me away twice.” Abraham did. And yet Abraham's reception of the promises of God was dependent upon his wife's faith. You think about that, sisters in Christ. Sarah was absolutely integral to Abraham receiving the promises of God. There is a story to tell in that. And what do we learn from that? Well we learn a lot of things but the thrust of this passage is clear. Sarah had faith in God and thus received the power of God to found the posterity of Abraham, the line of promise that would lead all the way to our Lord the Messiah, Jesus Christ. By faith, God accomplished His purposes in this world. We walk by faith, not by sight.

The Life of Faith alters your Self-Identity

Fourth, look at verses 14 to 16. Saving faith, what is the life of faith like? Well the life of faith changes the way you understand yourself. Saving faith alters your self-identity. It changes the way we view ourselves. This is connected to what is said in verses 9 and 10 but listen to what is emphasized here. “These all 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.” That's what I want you to focus on - the end of verse 13. “They acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” In other words, these who trusted in God - Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Sarah - understood that believing in the promise was going to make them strangers and aliens here. Their whole identity was shaped by their faith in the promise of God, their understanding of what that meant. You see, faith in God leads to a self-estimation that we are strangers and aliens here. We don't put our ultimate hope in this life and in this world. And it is our very willingness to be strangers here that reflect the reality of God's grace in our hearts and assures us of future glory. While we breathe as believers, we always have hope. We are never without hope. But our hope is not here; our hope is there. We’re never without hope but that hope is not here; it's hidden with Christ in God. And therefore we recognize that this is not home; that's home. This is not where my citizenship is. My citizenship, in Paul's words, is in heaven. So saving faith alters the way we look at ourselves. We understand that this world is not our home.

Saving Faith does not withhold its Dearest from God

And then last, if you’ll look at verses 17 to 19 - what's the life of faith like? Well this may be the most challenging one. Saving faith does not withhold its dearest from God. saving faith trusts God's every word for good. By faith we can entrust anything to God. Look at verse 17. “By faith, Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son.” Now you need to pause for a second. Did you hear that last phrase - “He was offering up his only begotten son”? Well some of you Bible scholars could say, “Didn't Abraham have another son?” Um-hmm. So why is Isaac being called his only begotten son? In fact, Isaac wasn't the big brother; Ishmael was! Ishmael was thirteen before Isaac was born!

Calling Isaac Abraham's “only begotten son” indicates how dear Isaac was to Abraham
Why is Isaac called Abraham's only begotten son? Well, I think there are a lot of possibilities to answer but two things come to mind. The first thing is this. Calling Isaac Abraham's only begotten son indicates how dear Isaac was to Abraham. God had explained to Abraham, in the wake of Ishmael's birth, that Isaac was going to be the son of promise. Isaac was going to be the one through whom the promise came, not Ishmael but Isaac. And therefore Isaac was exceedingly dear to Abraham. All his hopes and dreams were literally wrapped up in Isaac. That makes the scene of Genesis 22 all the more poignant. “Abraham, take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and offer him up on the mountain which I will show you.” See, in this passage we're seeing something of the dearness of that sacrifice to Abraham.

The parallel between Isaac and Jesus Christ
Secondly, I think that the author of Hebrews says this about Isaac because of the parallel between Isaac and Jesus Christ. Think about it. God, because of His love for you, in His amazing grace, gave the dearest thing in this universe for you - His only begotten Son. That's how much the Father loves you. He gave the dearest thing in this universe in your place - His Son, His only begotten Son. Now when we see those two things together we understand what's being said here. The life of faith is a life in which we literally entrust everything to God, even the things that are most dear to us in this world. Why? Because of what we sang when we were singing just a few moments, because more, Jesus is more to us than anything else - “More than all in Him we find.” There's nothing in this world more dear to us than Jesus, and therefore, we entrust everything, anything, to God. You see, saving faith says, “Lord, I trust You with everything. I trust You even with her. I trust You even with him. I trust You even with them.” You think right now - what is most dear to you in this world? Do you trust him or her or them to Him? That's what saving faith does.

And Abraham, on that day that he set out for Moriah - I just love this. As a young man when I would read Genesis 22 I would think, “You know what, Abraham must think that God is going to provide a substitute when he gets to the top of Moriah because you remember what he says to his servants - ‘I and the lad will go up and we will return.’” That's what he tells his servants down at the bottom of the mountain. “You just wait here because my son and I, we're going to go up that mountain together and we're going to come back down.” And I can remember reading that as a boy and thinking, “Boy, Abraham, Abraham must have known that God was going to provide that ram in the thicket bush,” and the author of Hebrews corrects me. He says, “No, actually, let me tell you what was going through Abraham's mind - ‘Lord, even if You take my son's life, I believe that You can raise him from the dead if need be and give him back to me to fulfill Your promise.’” That's how much Abraham trusted God. If resurrection was necessary to fulfill that promise, well then Abraham knew his God could do it. That's what the life of faith looks like, my friends - as we're called to live it, trusting in Christ, just like Abraham did. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, our prayer is the prayer of a doubting disciple, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.

Now would you take your bulletins in hand and turn over to the back and see the Getty and Townend hymn, “By Faith,” and we’ll sing it to God's praise.

Amen, receive God's blessing. The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace through Jesus Christ our Lord, both now and forevermore. Amen.

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