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The Faith of Abraham

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jan 13, 1999

Hebrews 11:8-19

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Turn with me to Hebrews 11.  We were there last week and we continue on this week looking at the faith of Abraham.  We will look especially at verses 8 through 19.   

Hebrews 11:8-19 

“Now Father, we do thank You for this word, and ask that You would teach us glorious  truth from Your holy word, even as we attend to it. Apply it to our hearts, into our own situations by Your Spirit and cause us to search ourselves out before You to see if we have laid hold of these promises. We ask it Jesus name.  Amen.” 

I would invite you to look back at Hebrews 10:39 where the author offers this encouraging assessment of the congregation to which he was originally speaking.  He says, “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul”

He is saying to them after he has given them a fairly stout warning, “But I have confidence in you that you are those who are going to persevere in your faith to the end.”

Then as we said last week, Hebrews 11 serves as a gigantic illustration of those in the past who have persevered to the end by faith. 

If you will look again at Hebrews 11:1, he highlights for us two important aspects of the kind of faith that he is talking about.  He is speaking about saving faith.  He is exhorting to exhibit this kind of faith as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Notice two things he says about it:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for”...and so he focuses on the object of things which have not  yet come about, so they are things future and then he goes on to say, “it is the conviction of things not seen.”

Again he says that the focus of faith is on things not that you  see, but things, in fact, that you don’t see.  He speaks to us both of the spirituality of faith and of the future aspects of faith.  Faith trusting for something that has not yet come about and also faith not being fooled by being satisfied with the temporal things of this life but actually looking beyond this life for our ultimate contentment and satisfaction and our ultimate receiving of the promises.

Now these are two aspects of faith that he really wants to press home on these folk.  Some of them as we said were tempted to go back to Judaism.  And in the midst of the persecution that they are enduring, you can see that they would be tempted to fit in a little bit more with the society, to be a little bit more like them so that wouldn’t be seen as being so different and hence so ostracized and persecuted for their faith.  Here the author of Hebrews sets before us examples of those who knew that faith would find its goal only when the kingdom of heaven came in its fullness.  That the spiritual promises made by God in His covenants were not going to be manifested in merely temporal things, but in things not seen.  Things that you can’t hold in your hand, things that you cant count in your bank account.  Those spiritual promises are greater than those temporal promises, although those temporal promise seem sometimes to be more real than those spiritual promises.  So these two aspects of faith, he illustrates in the lives of these Old Testament saints. 

As we look to Abraham tonight (and the whole of this passage deals with Abraham and his wife, Sarah, and the covenant promises to them), over and over I want you to see that these examples to call us to trust in God in response to His word, even response to His word, even when what we see may suggest to us that it is in vain to trust in God.  Over and over these examples say, “You trust God’s direct promise to you, even if it looks like that is the most empty, impossible hope that you can possibly have.”  And look at some of the examples given. 

I. Saving faith is accompanied by obedience to God’s commands.

Look at verse 8.  Here Abraham trusts on God and acts on the promise.  You remember how God said, “Abram, I am going to give you a land, I am going to give you a posterity, and I am going to make you a great nation.  So go out from your land.”  We read in verse 8: “By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing were he was going.”  The author again is drawing attention to the nature of saving faith.  Saving faith is accompanied by obedience to God’s command.  It just doesn’t believe, it acts on God’s commands.  It believes God’s promises and acts on God’s commands.  Here is Abram who doesn’t just say, “Okay, Lord, I believe You, that You are going to do these things, I’m just going to hang back here in Ur of the Chaldees for awhile.”  No, the Lord makes him a promise and says, “Now, set out.  You go out for that land.”  And Abram doesn’t stop apparently along the way to say, “Lord, by the way, where is this land that is going to be mine?” 

God had said, “I am giving you a land.  I’m going to make you a great nation.  I am going to make you a blessing.”  And Abram just sets out.  The author of Hebrews is calling that to our attention as an example of what our attitude ought to be.

When God speaks, the proper response to His speaking is to believe and to obey.  And thus our hymn, “Trust and Obey.”  What a wonderful piece of biblical theology that is.  Isn’t that beautiful illustration of the kind of faith needed for these Jewish Christians to trust in these promises which have not yet been manifest in all their fullness.  And so in the midst of their context, they might be struggling with doubt, he is saying, “Look, you are called to believe in something that has not yet fully come about just like Abram was called to believe in something that was not fully manifested.” 

II. Saving faith makes us into citizens of a celestial realm and strangers here.

He goes on and gives another example of Abram’s life.  Look at verses 9 and 10.  Abram trusts God.  By faith, Abram is an alien in the land of promise.  Abram trusts God.  He lives as a pilgrim.  So faith is not only accompanied by obeisant action toward God; faith is accompanied by a willingness to be a stranger in this world and a citizen in the God’s kingdom.  Abram lives as an alien in the land of promise.  Notice that Abram was not only a stranger in Canaan, he was a foreigner and he was a nomad.  Not only was he all those things, he was someone who was looking for a city with foundations whose architect and builder was God.  Abraham had a spiritual eye for the promise that God had given him.  And the fact that he never owned a stitch of the land of Canaan except the plot on which his wife was buried, did not deter him in continuing to look for the promise of that great city whose architect and builder was God.  Think again what an appropriate illustration that would have been for Jewish Christians.  There they are in the ancient land of God’s people and they look all around them and are persecuted and are a minority and people mock them; and their Jewish acquaintances say to them that they have abandoned the faith of their fathers and followed after some sort of a myth and aberration.  And here is the author saying, “You are called to believe in a hostile environment just like Abraham was called to believe.  He was a citizen of a heavenly realm and that made him a stranger. That is a constant fight of faith.  We always have a tug in our hearts to want to fit in where we are.  We want to be “like them.”  The Israelites of old wanted a king like the nations around them.  Well, Christians really haven’t changed much from those days.  We, too, often want to be like those around us.  But Abraham’s faith made him willing to know that he couldn’t be like those around him because his citizenship wasn’t here, it was in that celestial kingdom that God was building. 

III. Saving faith was the human instrument of the perpetuation of the line of promise.

Look at verses 11 and 12.  This is one of the most difficult parts of this passage.  We’re told that Sarah by faith became the mother of the faithful.  What that passage is saying is through Sarah’s saving faith was the instrument by which the line of promise was continued.  Sarah was the one through whom the line of promise would be continued.  That promise would lead ultimately to the Lord Jesus Christ.  But she believed even though physically there was no argumentation as to whether she would be able to have a child.  Humanly speaking, this was hope against hope.  But again, God’s word came and said that through Sarah, Abram would have descendants whose numbers would be innumerable.  So Abram’s wife believed.  Here again she had to trust in something that she did not live to see.  The author continually points us to the future hope which is ours. 

IV. Saving faith is accompanied by ownership of our “exile status.”

Again in verses 13-16, Abraham openly confesses his status as a pilgrim.  He openly owns the fact that God has called him to be a nomad.  Again we see that saving faith is accompanied by our owning the fact, by our ownership of the fact that we are called to be strangers and aliens here.  Faith in God leads us to look at ourselves as strangers in a strange land. 

It’s so easy to get comfortable where we are, especially if we have been there for many generations.  I know that as one who was born and reared in South Carolina and of a family who had been there for many generations.  It begins to feel like home after nine generations.  But God calls all of us, whether we have been in our locale for nine generations or for three months, to live here as strangers.  To recognize that ultimately our citizenship is somewhere else and it is our very willingness to be strangers here that reflects the reality of God’s grace in our hearts and assures us of the future glory in the kingdom which is our place and which is our home.

And so Abraham by faith owns the fact that he is a stranger and an alien here.  He confesses that he is a stranger in exile. 

V. Saving faith does not withhold its dearest from God and trusts God’s every word for good.

Then finally in verses 17-19, over and over in response to God’s word, Abraham trusts and the greatest test of that faith was in the offering up of his son, Isaac.  Why?  Because over and over God called on Abraham to trust in things that were unlikely.  But in the case of His calling on Abraham to offer up his son Isaac, He was actually calling on Abraham to believe His command and act upon it, even though it appeared to be directly contrary to God’s word to Abraham that Isaac was going to be the one through whom the line of promise came.

Listen to what Jeffrey Wilson says about this: “The command to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham’s only son, was the supreme test of Abraham’s faith in God.  God normally tries the faith of His people by requiring their continued trust in His word, despite occasional contradictions of His providential dealings with them. But Abraham was subjected to a far more severe test because the command to slay Isaac was in direct contradiction to the promise that in Isaac shall your seed be called.”

God had said that to Abram, yet Abraham was willing to act on God’s command through he had no idea how it was that God was going to bring about the fulfillment of that promise.  So much did he believe in God’s promise.  We are told beautifully in this passage, and I have always thought that Abraham must have thought that God was going to provide a substitute on Moriah.  But that is not what Hebrews 11 says.  It says that Abraham believed God so much that he knew if necessary, God would raise his son from the dead in order to fulfill His promise.  The author of Hebrews is saying that is the kind of faith in response to the promise of God that we ought to manifest as believers.  That is the kind of faith that perseveres to the end.  It is not faith in faith and it is not faith in ourselves.  It is faith in God and His promise.  And because we know our God and because we believe His promise, we are able to persevere in the end in hope against hope believing.

May God grant us that kind of faith in all our trials and circumstances even tonight.  Let us pray.

“Our Lord and our God, give us that faith which perseveres to believe You, to believe Your promise.  For Christ’s sake, we ask it.  Amen.”

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