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By Faith, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses...

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

Sermon by Ligon Duncan on Aug 11, 2013

Hebrews 11:20-29

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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 great passage about faith. Every once in awhile we hear folks exhorting us to understand the Old Testament from a Christ-centered perspective - and that's good, and that's of course exactly what the author of Hebrews is going to do today, especially in the amazing verse 26 that we're going to read in this passage - but sometimes we hear people say, “If you expound the Old Testament in a Christ-centered way you will not use Old Testament characters as examples; that would be bad. That would be bad exposition and application. That would be a kind of moralism.” Now the problem with that criticism of course is that the New Testament uses Old Testament characters as examples - both negative and positive. Think of Jesus saying to His disciples, “Remember Lot's wife.” He's using an example, a bad example, of Lot's wife looking back when she should have been fleeing from the cities that were under judgment. And the apostle Paul uses an example of the children of Israel and their grumbling in the wilderness in 1 Corinthians 10. It's a bad example, and he says to the Corinthians, “Don't be like the Israelites grumbling in the wilderness.”

But there are not just negative examples used in the New Testament; there are positive examples. And the passage that we're looking at today is going to give us positive examples. In fact, it's going to give us five positive examples. It's going to give us the example of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and then the children of Israel as a whole. Look at the passage before we read it. In verse 20 it will give the example of Isaac, verse 21 the example of Jacob, verse 22 the example of Joseph, then a long section, not surprising, from verse 23 to 28 about Moses, the major figure of the exodus, and then in verse 29 the example of the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea. The point is, the author of Hebrews, here in Hebrews 11 wants to motivate us by example. He's exhorting us to live a life of faith. And he says, “Let me show you some people who live by faith. Let me show you what that looks like. And I want you to be encouraged by their example.” He's going to show us the deeds of the faithful, flowing from their faith, and he's going to recount those things to us as an example. Now all these examples are of imperfect people. In fact, the very examples he uses have some significant poignancy to them - we’ll see that especially when we look at verses 20 to 22. Nevertheless, they trusted God; they acted on their faith. They believed God's promise and they lived by faith.

Now as we look at this passage today we could outline it in various ways, but here's how I want to approach it with you this morning. I want to look at three parts of this passage. First, verses 20 to 22, where we see a series of blessings and last words, and I want us to learn something about faith in God's promises from that section. Then in verses 23 to 28, I want to look at the life and ministry of Moses and I want us to learn something about faith in God's rewards from that passage. And then in verse 29, I want us to see a great test and trial that the children of Israel experienced as a people and I want us to learn about faith in God even in trials. So before we read God's Word let's pray and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. We need Your Word, O Lord. We ask that by Your Holy Spirit we would both understand and believe it. We pray that You would cause our faith to be more focused on Jesus and more trusting of His purposes as well as more understanding of the glory of Your grace in the Gospel because of our studying of this passage together today. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.

This is God's Word, hear it, beginning in Hebrews 11 verse 20:

“By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.”

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

Living by faith means believing God's promises, valuing His rewards over the world, and trusting Him in trials. And the author of Hebrews explains that to us in this passage today, and I'd like to look at those three things with you for just a few moments.

FAITH BELIEVES IN GOD’S PROMISES

First, look with me at verses 20 to 23. Here we will learn that faith believes in God's promises, and of course the greatest of God's promises is the Gospel. But this passage presents us with three blessings or last words from Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. And each of these blessings or last words shows us a trust in God's promises. The first one is rather surprising. Look at what it says. “By faith Isaac, invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau.” Now you may not remember that story very well and you may be thinking, “Wait a minute. I thought Isaac blessed Jacob rather than Esau. Did the author of Hebrews get it wrong?” No, well if you go back to Genesis you will see that Isaac did indeed bless both Jacob and Esau and yet the great blessings that should have normally gone to the firstborn son, Esau, was given to Jacob. And the author of Hebrews is telling us that Isaac administered those blessings by faith. And you may say again, “But wait a minute. Wait a minute. I remember Genesis 27. Isaac didn't know that he was blessing Jacob with the great blessing rather than Esau because Jacob tricked him into it with the help of his mother. So how can the author of Hebrews be congratulating Isaac for his faith in blessing Jacob when he didn't know that he was blessing Jacob and when he was doing it against his will; he was doing it reluctantly and resistantly?” Well if you look at the story in Genesis 27, after Jacob has tricked Isaac - you remember he put on the wool and put on the smell of the scent of his brother Esau and had gone in and asked for the blessing and Isaac had given him the blessing. And then Isaac finds out when Esau comes in and says, “Father, bless me” and he says, “Wait a minute. I already have blessed you.” And he says, “No you haven't. I've just gotten here.” And you remember at the very last of that chapter, what does Isaac say? “I have blessed him and he will be blessed.”

In other words, even in Genesis 27 there is a recognition on Isaac's part that it was God's purpose for Jacob to be blessed. And even though he had been tricked into blessing Jacob, Jacob would indeed receive the great blessing, because in God's providence it had been given to him. And the author of Hebrews says by faith Isaac understood that. Now that, by the way, ought to be an encouragement to you, because sometimes we think when we're in the midst of trials we don't feel very brave and we don't feel like we're trusting. Have you ever said to a friend who's going through something hard, have you ever encouraged them by saying, “You are very brave. I've been watching you go through this and I can see your trust in the Lord”? And have they ever said something back to you like this, “Well I don't feel very brave and I really feel like I'm struggling to trust the Lord right now”? And do you, having felt like that, do you feel a little bit distant from the heroes of faith that are being mentioned here in Hebrews 11? Well let me introduce you to a hero of faith, Isaac, who didn't want to do what the Lord had appointed. And yet in the end, the author of Hebrews can say, “Isaac blessed Jacob by faith.” The Lord got it done; through Isaac's reluctance and resistance, He got it done, and in the end Isaac had to acknowledge that God's promise has found its resting place on the right son.

And then look at verse 21. There's the story of Jacob, and boy isn't it poignant in light of what Jacob pulled on Isaac! “By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.” This is a reference to the story that is recorded in Genesis 48 of Jacob, right before he dies, blessing Joseph's sons. And the very mention of that ought to cause your heart to well up to fullness. Here's Jacob, who stole his brother's blessing and birthright and had to live far away from him for many years, and guess what happens to Jacob's son, Joseph, his favorite son? He's sold by his brothers into slavery and Jacob has to endure living most of the years of his life apart from his son, Joseph. And yet in God's kind providence, at the very end, he gets to be reunited with Joseph to see his dear son again and even to see his grandchildren by Joseph. And he sees that Joseph has two boys, Ephraim and Manasseh. And do you remember in Genesis 48 how Jacob blesses them? He crosses his arms and he gives the blessing to Ephraim that was supposed to go to Manasseh and the blessing that was supposed to go to Manasseh to Ephraim. You can see how the Lord has worked in the heart and life of Jacob. Jacob is sick, he's hard headed, he's a deceiver and a usurper, but the Lord, in His own time, has gotten to his heart and he understands that the Lord chooses whom He will choose. He doesn't necessarily follow the predilections of a father who has a particular love for a child. The Lord blesses who He blesses, and so he reverses those blessings. And so we see again that Jacob trusts God's promise and he worships even in the giving of that blessing.

You know, blessings are very, very significant in the Hebrew culture and of course in the Old Testament world. We have a hard time understanding that ourselves today because we don't necessarily do things like this. When I was in Scotland, in the late 1980's, I was at Buccleuch Greyfriars Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, and Kent Compton, a young, recently graduated seminary, was preaching the sermon that day. And I wanted to encourage Kent on the occasion of preaching his first sermon so I went up to him at the door of the church and I said, “Kent, it was an excellent exposition today. I was blessed by your ministry of the Word.” And before we could finish our conversation, Professor McIntosh came up. Now I had been in Professor McIntosh 's home in both Edinburgh and in the Black Isle a number of years before, I knew Professor McIntosh , but he was rather advanced in age and his eyesight wasn't very good. And he came up intending to speak to Kent Compton who had just preached the sermon, but instead, he grabbed my hand, with both of his hands, and he looked me in the face as best as he could and he said, “I knew your father many years ago in Canada.” And I said, “Professor McIntosh , my daddy is a printer from Greenville, South Carolina and I don't think he's ever even been to Canada!” And he looked confused but undeterred! And he continued to tell me of his special relationship with my father! Well he was talking about Kent Compton's father who was a minister in Canada and Professor McIntosh had been in his home before. And nothing that I could tell Professor McIntosh could convince him that I was not the son of his friend from Canada.

And so finally, exasperated, he quit the conversation, he took his hands off of my hand, he lifted them both up in the air, and he said, “The Lord bless thee and keep thee! The Lord make His face to shine upon thee! The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace!” And I turned to Kent and I said, “Kent, I think I've stolen your blessing!” because Professor McIntosh meant that! I have apologized to Kent Compton many times over the years. He ministers in Prince Edward Island now. But Professor McIntosh meant to deliver a blessing on the new ministry of this son of an old friend. I've often wondered if the blessing in my ministry was because Professor McIntosh accidently gave the blessing to me! But these things are very, very significant in the Hebrew culture and they indicate that these men believed in the power of God's promise to Abraham and they knew that the one who receives the power of God's promise to Abraham is going to be blessed indeed. And so of course the New Testament tells us that the thing that is promised in the covenant of grace with Abraham is what? The Holy Spirit, who causes us to be born again, who regenerates us, who gives us new life, and with it all the blessings that God had promised to Abraham, received by faith. And so the great promise of the promises of God to Abraham is the Gospel.

Well there's one more interesting passage here, isn't there? Verse 22 - here we're told about the final words of Joseph. “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.” In other words, Joseph, before he died, tells his brothers and his family, “One day,” just like the choir just sang, “One day we're going back to Canaan, the Promised Land. I believe God's promise to Abraham that though we are going to sojourn here for four hundred years in the land of Goshen, in the land of Egypt, yet God is going to bring us out of the house of bondage, out of the house of slavery, and back into the land that He promised to Abraham.” And so my friends what does Joseph tell them that they have to do? “When that day comes, you gather my bones up in the box and you take them back to the land of Canaan because I know that the Lord is going to take us there.” Now what is all of that? In each of those blessings and in those last words you see men who believe in the promises of God. That's what faith is. Faith is believing the promises of God. Joseph is going to die before he sees the promise of God fulfilled to take the children of Israel back to Canaan but what does he say? “You take my bones with you because I know that God is going to fulfill His promise.”

FAITH VALUES CHRIST REPROACH MORE THAN THE WORLD’S REWARD

What does it mean to live by faith? First, it means to believe His promises, to trust the promises of God. That's what we learn in verses 20 to 22. Second, I want you to see what we learn in verses 23 to 28. Here the life and ministry of Moses is highlighted and the author tells us that it was all based on faith. What do we learn? We learn that faith listens to God's commands over the world's instructions, it values Christ's reproach more than the world's rewards, and it trusts in the provision of His blood. “By faith,” verse 23, “Moses, when he was born was hidden for three months by his parents.” Isn't it interesting that this account tells us that Moses was born into a believing family? They believed God rather than Pharaoh and that's why Moses lived. We could literally say that Moses was saved by the faith of his parents. He would have been killed with the other Hebrew children who were under the wicked edict of Pharaoh, but his parents believed God instead of knuckling under the edict of Pharaoh and so they hid him, and therefore he was delivered; he lived.

And then we read, “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be caused the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” In other words, Moses identified with the children of Israel, not with the children of Egypt; he identified with the slaves who were Hebrews, not with the king's household where he had been reared. Then verse 26, these amazing words. “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt.” Doesn't that sound like something the apostle Paul would say about himself? “I considered these things less than nothing in comparison with knowing Christ.” And here we're told that Moses considered all the treasures of Egypt not to be compared with the privilege of bearing the reproach of Christ.

Listen to what Donald Guthrie says about this passage. “The author of Hebrews tells us here that all the sufferings of God's people are in some way linked with sufferings on behalf of the Messiah, the perfect representative of God. All that Moses suffered was in the cause of God's plan of salvation for His people, culminating in the abuse that was heaped on Christ Himself of which the writer is acutely conscious throughout this epistle.” And Moses identifies himself with God's people and we're told that he considered the reproach of Christ better than anything that the world could give him. In other words, Moses listens to God's Word over the world's edicts, he values Christ's reproach over the world's rewards, and he trusts in the provision of His blood.

Friends, this something that we all struggle with today. More and more, Christians, churchgoing Christians, want the world to like us. We want the world to think well of us and we do not want to bear the reproach of Christ in the eyes of the world. And so we do what we can to cozy up to the world so that we can be friends with the world. And this passage is telling us that's not how Moses thought. Moses wanted to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” from Jesus, not from the world. And so the author of Hebrews was saying to his congregation and to us, “Seek the reward of Christ. It's better than the reward of the world. In fact, the reproach of Christ is better than the rewards of this world.” What do we learn from this? We learn that faith values the rewards of Christ above the rewards of this world. Faith trusts in God's promises; faith values the rewards that only God can give through Christ.

FAITH BELIEVES IN GOD’S PROVIDENCE EVEN TESTING AND TRIALS

And then third, look at verse 29. Here we see that faith believes in God's providence even in testings and trials. “By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.” The author of Hebrews is telling us that the Red Sea crossing was by faith. Now we know how that story plays out and so we may glibly say, “Well they crossed the Red Sea by faith,” but can you imagine what it would have been like to be there? You know Ralph and I were talking about the passage in Jeremiah 39 this morning about the fall of Jerusalem and Ralph just said in passing to me, “You know, none of them would have suspected that it was a good thing that Jerusalem fall, that God had a plan in that.” And my friends, if we had been standing between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army before the Sea parted, we would not have thought it was a good thing! We would have not thought it was a good thing to have the Egyptian army bearing down on us with a big body of water in front of us! Their faith was tested in that. They were presented with a trial. And what did they do? They believed and they took the first step and another and another, and by faith, they crossed that Sea and then the Egyptians who followed them were drowned. What's the point? Faith trusts God in trial.

And just like Ralph said about Jeremiah, God delivers those who trust in Him. They were delivered by the Lord. You see, the author of Hebrews is giving us an example of what faith looks like, how it works. Faith trusts God's promises, faith values God's blessings over the blessings of the world, and faith trusts God even in trial. So if you want to know what faith looks like you can look back to Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and the children of Israel. Were they perfect? No they were not. Did they always trust the Lord like they should? No they didn't. but however feebly, they believed and they trusted and the Lord honored that, because it is not the quality of our faith that saves us, it is the object of our faith - Jesus, God, God's Word, God's promise, His Gospel. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Grant us, we pray, by Your Holy Spirit, faith, and that we may live by it. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.

Now will you take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to number 506, “As When the Hebrew Prophet Raised” and we’ll sing what is effectively John 3 together.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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