Genesis 12:1-8, Hebrews 11:1-16
A quick review. Last week, I gave you some information about this book called Hebrews. Do you remember what I said? Should we have a quiz? Ok, Take out a sheet of paper and number it down the side from one to twenty. Do you remember those days?
I started last week saying that Hebrews is one long sustained argument – the longest in the Bible. It was written to a group of Jewish Christians – Hebrews – who were on the verge of abandoning their new faith in Jesus and going back to Judaism. So this letter was written as an attempt to convince them of the validity of their new faith.
Does that sound familiar? I hope so. I also hope you remember how wonderfully this letter expresses “the importance and preeminence of Jesus.” The author makes a great case for Christianity using wonderful words and descriptions and by bringing in many examples from Jewish culture and history. Hebrews is a wonderful book, and I do hope I’ve convinced you spend some time in it!
Well, I want to say one more thing about the book, before we get into the passage for today. And it’s this. Bible Scholars are not entirely sure who wrote it. Traditionally it’s believed to have been written by Paul. In fact, the title page of my “King James Version” of the Bible says “The Letter of Paul to the Hebrews.” Actually, that’s not exactly what it says. What it says is, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” Do you like that? According to King James, this is an “Apostle Epistle!” But the JKV is the only version that says that. Maybe you have another one that does. But all the other ones I have simply say, “The Letter to the Hebrews.”
Now, one of the reasons for that has to do with something I said last week. There are no traditional greetings at the beginning of this letter, and very few at the end. And nowhere does the writer identify himself. All the other letters start out saying, “Paul the Apostle, to the Saints at Ephesus, or Philippi, etc…” Then throughout the letter there are usually some personal things that would also identify the author. Here again, there are none. So that essentially makes this an unsigned letter!
However, for a lot of people, the way the writer describes things, and the way he uses words, points to Paul. And I would agree with that. And certainly, the book would agree with Paul in every way – or vice-versa. From start to finish it contains his foundational belief in salvation through Jesus Christ. So for me, I would treat this as a Pauline letter. It contains the same truth and evokes the same authority as any of them. So, unless anyone objects, I’m going to refer to Paul as the author. (By the way, if you read last week’s sermon, you might have noticed that I didn’t! I wanted to clear this up first.)
So last week we were looking at Chapter 12. And if you remember that’s the chapter where “Paul” talked about “running with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” And by the way, Paul often used “athletic metaphors” like this in his other letters! So that would point to Paul, too!
Well, this week I want to backtrack just a bit, and I want us to look at Chapter 11. This chapter is about Faith. And I want us to see how that fits into the flow of this long “argument,” and hopefully to see how it all fits into our lives. So, as this chapter opens, we find what I hope is a familiar verse. He writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Maybe you don’t know that verse, but it’s been the classic definition for the word “faith” for over two thousand years now! “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In other words, faith is confidence in what we hope is coming, and it is also the belief in something we can’t see. And I think we can agree that both of those things are important! And they are integral to our salvation. Paul would later tell the Ephesians, “It is by grace we are saved through faith…” (Ephesians 2:8)
I hope we’ll think about those things. Faith is assurance for the future, and conviction of (or belief in) “things unseen.” By the way, those are also Pauline kinds of thoughts! He told the Corinthians, “We look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen, for the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)
Well, I want you to see today how he led up to that statement. If you go back a few chapters, you can pick up his “argument.” And you would find that he has taken his readers through some rather important stuff. In those previous chapters he has written at length about things like the Patriarchs, the Covenant, and the Law. I hope you see that those were very important things to the Hebrew people!! (And they still are!) And of course they would have been very familiar and important to the Apostle Paul, who was once a Pharisee!!
It’s important to see that he was leading them through all of the most important things in their faith, so he could then lead them to Jesus. And then, when he goes on in this chapter, he uses again a series of examples of faith from their history. Almost the whole chapter is taken up with stories of their patriarchs – Abraham, Noah, Isaac, Sarah, Moses… again, people who were very important and familiar to them. (And it’s a long chapter. I only read a small portion of it!)
Then after all that, he brings it down to them and their faith, by leading into the famous words we read last week. And I really think this is the conclusion to this whole argument. “Since therefore, (By the way, another word Paul used a lot!) “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” – all those people he had just told them about, people who demonstrated their faith – “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” You know, maybe that’s the word that should be emphasized in that sentence! “…the race before us.” That includes them in this “lineage of faith.” And maybe we should read it that way, too. Because we are part of that lineage ourselves!
So I want you to think about that today. I want you to think about your own “faith journey.” Sometimes I’m not sure we use that term correctly. Sometimes when we think of the idea of “faith journey” we’re really talking about our “personal religious history” – the things we have done and experienced over the years. And that’s ok. History is important! Paul referred to a lot of those kinds of “histories” in this letter. But still, maybe we need to think of our faith journey more in terms of a “the progression of our belief” in things unseen, and “the growing assurance” of that hope for the future. Maybe we need to think of our faith journey, not so much as the events of our lives, but more as the growth of our faith over the years.
Again, the events are important. They lead to the growth. But growing in our faith is always the goal. Growing closer to God is always the objective – the finish line in the “race set before us.” Some Christians point to the many wonderful events in their religious experience, but if you ask them about growth, well, they’re just not all that sure about that.
So, as we think about faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” may we seek to grow in those things – the assurance and conviction – not just know about them. May we seek to trust God for the future – no matter what’s happening in the present. And may we grow in our belief in things unseen. I like to think these Hebrews were convinced by these words and the witness they contained. And I hope we are, too!
Holy God, you have indeed surrounded us with so great a cloud of witnesses. Help us, through them, to have the assurance and conviction in our own lives of faith. Give us the strength we need to run our race, to grow in our own faith journey, and to draw closer to you each day. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.