By Faith (Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16)

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One of the toys our kids are currently collecting are small plastic pencil-top figures called Ooshies. There are two main ways to buy Ooshies. One way is in a multi-pack where you can see what characters you’re buying, except for a mystery Ooshie which is included. You can also buy single packs called ‘blind bags’ where you don’t know what you’re getting. In either case, buying Ooshies can be thought of as an act of faith because we are hoping for something good even though we can’t see exactly what we’re getting.

In some ways, this is the kind of faith the Letter to the Hebrews talks about in chapter 11. The author looks back at Old Testament heroes and shows how their faith meant that they lived their whole lives trusting in God’s promises to them even though they couldn’t see what they were hoping for.

Hebrews 11 teaches us some important things about the nature of Christian faith:

1. Faith is grounded and grows in God’s promises
The faith of the Old Testament people in Hebrews 11 was directed towards God’s promises to them. For example, God promised Abraham a land that his descendants would inherit. To Sarah, God promised a child. As Hebrews 11 looks back at the other Old Testament heroes, in every case their faith was connected a promise God gave them. It’s the same with us. Saving faith is always grounded in and grows from God’s promises to us in Jesus. As Paul writes in Romans 10:17, ‘faith comes from hearing … the Good News about Christ’ (NLT). For us and for our faith, then, hearing God’s promises in the Bible becomes vital to a living, active and saving faith.

2. Faith makes a difference to our lives
In every example that Hebrews gives, people’s lives were changed because of their faith in God’s promises. For Abraham the change was leaving his home and living in tents in the land God had promised him. The difference to Sarah’s life was having a child and becoming a mother at the age of 99. For the rest of the people in Hebrews 11, faith in God’s promises led to some sort of action. This is very different from an understanding of faith I come across sometimes which is more about intellectually agreeing with a church’s teachings or doctrines. Good teaching and doctrine are important in a church, but their purpose is always to point us to faith in God’s promises in the gospel which changes our lives.

3. Faith generates hope
The big difference faith in God’s promises made to all the people mentioned in Hebrews was that it gave them hope. Using the examples of Abraham and Sarah, both of them found hope when they believed what God had promised them. For Abraham, the hope was that his descendants would have a homeland. Sarah’s hope was that her shame would be removed through the birth of a child. For us, too, faith creates and sustains hope in our lives. When so many people in our society are struggling for something to hope in, when we trust in God’s promises and bring that good news to others, faith in those promises will lead to a greater hope in our lives and in the lives of the people around us.

4. Faith means trusting in what we can’t see
None of the people of faith in Hebrews 11 actually received what God had promised them. In verse 13 we read, ‘they did not receive what was promised,’ and again verse 39 states, ‘none of them received all that God had promised’ (NLT). This is the most difficult thing about faith – it’s trusting that something is real and living like it’s true even though we can’t see it and don’t fully experience it. This is especially hard in a culture which teaches that ‘seeing is believing’ and that if you can’t prove or have empirical evidence of something, then it doesn’t really exist. The very nature of Christian faith is that we hope for something and live like it’s true even though we can’t see it or prove it. The best we can do is look back at the ways in which God has kept his promises in the past. Based on that evidence, we can continue to hope that God will keep his promises to us in the same way that God kept his promises to all the people of the Old Testament. This is the purpose of Hebrews 11, and in fact all of the stories in the Bible: to encourage us in our faith. As we hear how God kept his promises to the people of the past, we can trust that God will keep his promises to us in the same way.

I have known people who say that living in the way of faith is easy because there are no absolute moral standards to reach and no rules that we have to follow. I disagree. Living by faith is much harder than a rule-based or self-help life because it asks us to trust God’s promises and live like they’re true, even though our experiences in life might indicate something different. Faith means hoping for what God promises, even though we can’t see it.

When I buy an Ooshie for my kids it’s an act of faith. We are hoping for something good, even though we can’t see what we’re getting. God makes us amazing, life-giving promises in Jesus. He asks us to trust him enough to live like what he promises is true, even though we might not be able to see what he promises us. As we read Hebrews 11 and look back at the heroes of faith from the Old Testament, God is showing us that he can be trusted so our faith can grow and we can bring the hope he gives to the people of the world, even when we can’t see it.

More to think about:

  • I’ve heard it said that everyone has faith – what’s important is in what you have faith. Would you agree with that statement? Why or why not?
  • What do you have faith in? Why do you have faith in it? What does it promise you? Can it actually deliver what it promises?
  • As you read Hebrews 11, which is your favourite Old Testament character? Why is that person your favourite?
  • I’m suggesting there are four things we can learn about faith from Hebrews 11. What was the promise your favourite character received from God? What difference did it make to his/her life? How did s/he find hope through faith in the promise? Why did s/he never see what was promised?
  • What are some promises God makes you in Jesus?
  • What difference might having faith in those promises make in your life?
  • How might those promises give you a greater sense of hope?
  • How might you be able to live like those promises are true, even if you can’t see them?
  • Who is someone you know whose life might change for the better through faith in God’s promises to them? How might you be able to share a promise form God with them this week?

Looking Past What We See (2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1)

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One question in particular nagged me as I prepared my message on this text last week:

How do we ‘fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen’?

It doesn’t seem to make sense. If we cannot see something, it is out of our sight. So how are we supposed to ‘fix our eyes’ (NIV) on something when our eyes can’t perceive it in the first place?

I understand the theory behind what Paul is saying. He suffered a lot for bringing the gospel to people. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 Paul describes what he went through for the sake of Jesus – beatings, shipwrecks, various other dangers, hunger, thirst, nakedness and more. However, through it all Paul kept his focus on the glory of eternal life God promised him through the gospel. Paul didn’t go through all of these hardships to gain eternal life. Instead, he endured them because he considered the life he had been given through faith in Jesus to be so valuable that we wanted others to share in this life. He figured that if his suffering meant life for others (v15), then it was worth it.

So he kept his focus on what he had to look forward to and it gave him perspective on what he was suffering. He believed that his difficulties and hardships would one day come to an end. When they did, and he entered into the eternal life Jesus promised him, then the life that would never end would make his suffering seem very small and light in comparison.

So I think I understand the idea. I still wonder, though, how do we keep our eyes fixed on this eternity which we cannot see?

Most of the time, our sense of reality is based on and determined by what we see. One of the basic ideas of a scientific worldview which is foundational to our culture is that for something to exist, you have to be able to see it. If you can’t see it, then you can’t be sure it exists. Which, in the world of science, I understand. However, when what we see in our lives is darkness, pain, regret, disappointment, or suffering of any kind, then that becomes our reality. Sometimes it is impossible for us to see beyond our hardships or suffering. This becomes all that is real to us, and we can’t see anything else. To a small degree, I can understand what it is like to see nothing but the problems we face. At those times, it looks like there is no way out, no future, or no hope. Life can just look dark.

It is good to remember that scientists are continually looking at things they cannot normally see. They use instruments like microscopes to look at things that are too small for the eye to detect, or telescopes that are far beyond what we can perceive with the naked eye. Even from a scientific perspective, it is possible to gaze at things we cannot see if we are using the right lenses.

Maybe the key to what understanding Paul’s words about keeping our gaze fixed on what we can’t see, then, is to view our lives or our suffering through the right lens.

For Paul, that lens was Jesus.

When he looked at his life through the lens of Jesus, Paul saw that God was with him in his suffering through his suffering Son. He also saw that God had overcome and defeated his suffering through Jesus’ resurrection. In Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection we can see that God enters into our reality of suffering but also carries us through it to a better future. Like Paul, God gives us the promise of an eternal life with him where ‘will wipe every tear from (our) eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever’ (Revelation 21:4 NLT). All we will experience will be love, joy and peace. This is God’s gift to us because of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection for us. This is the good news that Paul dedicated his life to bring to others. This is the gospel for which Paul suffered. This is God’s promise to all who need hope.

Just like scientists look through a microscope or a telescope to gaze at what they cannot see, so Paul is encouraging us to look at our suffering, our hardships, our pain, grief, regrets or loneliness through the lens of Jesus. This doesn’t mean we dismiss or ignore the darker realities of life in this world. Instead it means we recognize that our suffering or hardships had a beginning and they will have an end. They are finite and temporary, but what God promises us in Jesus is infinite and eternal. Keeping our gaze on the glory that is ahead of us helps us to keep what we are going through now in perspective. It gives us the confidence to face each day in the hope that what we endure will not overcome us. It does not define us. It will not defeat us because Jesus has overcome the suffering of this life in his death and resurrection. He gives us an eternal future which will be good in every way, where what we suffer now will be a distant memory which pales in comparison to the glory of life with God for ever.

I understand it can hard to hear that when we’re trapped in our suffering or difficulties because we just can’t see it. We might be able to understand the theory of what Paul is saying, but living it out can seem impossible. That’s when we need the Holy Spirit to be working in our lives to give us this focus. As we remain in God’s word, the Holy Spirit can work through God’s promises and the stories of people God brought through hard times to give us faith. As we remain connected with Christian community, the body of Christ can walk with us, support us, and even carry us to give us a glimpse of what is coming. As we hear the stories of how Jesus brought God’s eternal realities into people’s lives, and when we bring the reality of God’s love, grace and hope into each other’s lives, the Spirit of the living God can lift our eyes from the hardships and difficulties we experience every day and give us a glimpse of what God has for us in the future.

So, how can we help each other fix our gaze on the goodness of God in Jesus, even when it’s really hard to see?