Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16


The word "faith" occurs twenty-four times in this chapter. The writer of Hebrews defines faith and gives us it characteristics. And it is saving faith. Non-Lutheran commentators are reluctant to say that the writer here defines faith. Furthermore, they hesitate to call it Christian faith because it speaks, in all cases, of Old Testament saints. But we insist that the faith in the Old Testament which looked forward to the fulfillment of the promises of God is Christian, God-given faith. There is only one true faith, that which the Holy Spirit bestows through the means of grace. True Lutherans are monergistic in their understanding of faith. Perhaps that is the basic difference between Lutherans and non-Lutherans when it comes to the understanding of what Hebrews 11 is discussing.

Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Bruce: In Hebrews 1:1 'being sure' has the objective sense of 'substance' or 'real essence,' as opposed to what merely seems to be so. In 3:14 it has the subjective sense of 'confidence' or 'assurance.' . . . On the whole the subjective means 'assurance' is the more probably, especially as this meaning chimes in well with the companion word 'conviction.'

Note that in this verse we have something akin to Hebrew parallelism. The first and second members of the verse are coordinate and, in a sense, synonymous. In each case "faith" is the subject.

This verse says that faith gives a person the conviction that future, promises things are as real as if they had already happened. Faith causes a person to see things as they really are, though mere human senses cannot perceive them.

This verse says nothing about the origin of faith. Lutherans distinguish themselves from others by insisting that faith is a work of God, John 6:29, a gift of God, Ephesians 2:8, produced by God, Colossians 2:12. Faith is never a mere decision. Even mere human faith is caused by an outside force. When I say: "I believe in so and so" I make this assertion because his character and actions have caused me to make this observation. Faith is never a mere decision.

Hebrews 11:2 This is what the ancients were commended for.

Bengel: Paul (he considered Paul the author) shows the nature of faith from the examples of men of old. Many things, which they hoped for and did not see, afterwards occurred and were seen, the event confirming faith.

This is true through very little is said, as such, about faith in the Old Testament.

Kretzmann: Faith is not an expectation of dreadful happenings, but a hope of blessed, glorious gifts; it keeps its peculiar form and characteristics, even when it is weak.

The Old Testament saints were approved of God because of their faith. If it hadn't been for their faith, there would have been nothing to recount. By the way, remarkably enough, the sins of the Old Testament saints are not mentioned in this chapter. Faith covers sins.

Luther distinguishes between mere human faith, that of poets, philosophers and those mentioned in Romans 1:20, and divine faith which is based on the converting work of the Holy Spirit and can cause a person to persevere in the face of sorrow, tribulation and death. In Hebrews chapter 11 the writer is speaking of saving, divine faith.

Hebrews 11:3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

Before the writer goes on to recount what faith caused individual Old Testament saints to do he makes an exceedingly important observation concerning faith. Before anything else, in verse 3 he speaks about creation out of nothing because it is so repugnant to human reason.

Furthermore, this verse tells us that faith perceives that the world and history are not the result of blind fate but an expression of God's will. The true meaning of the first article of our Christian faith can be apprehended only by saving faith.

"We understand" is repeated eighteen times in this chapter. Such repetition is called anaphora.

The translation "the worlds" found in some English versions cannot be used as evidence for life on other planets in the universe. The text does not say that.

In Romans 1:19 and 20 Paul mentions that natural man can have a knowledge of God's eternal power and Godhead based on his observations of creation. Though that is a gift of God, it is not saving faith.

"By an utterance of God." God spoke and there was. That is already clear proof of creation out of nothing. This idea of creation out of nothing was not favored by the contemporary Greek world.

Kretzmann: Faith is the knowledge which tells us that it was the almighty word of God which called things into being out of nothing, created something which was not there before. . . . It is a matter of comfort to us to know that the same almighty God rules the universe today, and that His promise concerning the preservation of the world still stands, Genesis 8:22.

Hebrews 11:4 By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead. Hebrews 11:5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. Hebrews 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Hebrews 11:7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

Hebrews 11:8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.

The fact that Adam is not mentioned as a man of faith does not mean that he was not a believer. Some are of the opinion that he is not mentioned here because he is to be remembered as the one who brought sin upon all people, Romans 5.

Each item in this chapter keeps reminding us of 11:1-2 and anticipates 12:1-2.

More space is devoted to Abraham and Sarah than to anyone else. Abraham is known as the father of believers, Romans 4:17. He is know as "believing Abraham", Galatians 3:9.

Next, so far as space is concerned, is Moses, verses 23-28. He, like Christ, was faithful to God, Hebrews 3:2. "Faith" as an adjective is used of Abraham, Galatians 3:9, and also of Moses, Hebrews 3:2, with the meaning of "faithful." Note the account of Abraham in Genesis 12:1-4 and, in particular, that 12:3 is purest Gospel, the first mention of objective justification in the Old Testament. Look at Galatians 3:8. Abraham was a Christian.

The immediate act of obedience is emphasized. His immediate obedience is proof of his faith. He obeyed the call while it was still sounding in his ears.

Bruce: Abraham would not have obeyed the divine call had he not taken God at His word; his obedience was the outward evidence of his inward faith.
Guthrie: He left behind the 'seen' world of his former days and launched into a project involving an unseen inheritance.
Westcott: The future was safe in God's counsel.
Lenski: He went wholly and completely on trust.
Kretzmann: Since he was the faith of the Old Testament believers, the example of Abraham is treated at length, no fewer than five points in which his faith stood out prominently being given in this chapter.

On this verse compare Genesis 15:7 and following.

Hebrews 11:9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.

Here is the second point of Abraham's faith. In verse 8 it was "going by faith." Here it is "living by faith."

"The same promise." Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had different temperaments, but the same promises. Faith apprehends which already exists. The object of the faith is never a mere potentiality. Verse 9 is type, verse 10 is fulfillment. The latter governs the former. It is always so with type and antitype.

Bengel: Nowhere else are sons called joint-heirs with their parents but merely heirs.
Guthrie: Faith made a reality of what was not even apparent.
Westcott: Abraham dwelt throughout the time of his sojourn in tents, so declaring that which was to be permanent was not yet attained.
Lenski: He remained a foreigner who was permitted to remain in the land as an alien by those who as citizens owned and controlled it.
Bruce: To Abraham the promise of God was as substantial as its realization.

Hebrews 11:10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Here is an explanation. This verse, fulfillment, explains verse 9, which is type.

"Foundations" denotes permanence, eternal permanence. Here look at Revelation 21:14 and 19. The new Jerusalem has permanent foundations. The tents of life are temporary. By faith everlasting life was as real to Abraham as if he were already there. Something the think about.

Westcott: There is something particularly attractive about a quality of faith which sees stability in other than material things.

Correct. Sinful human nature is ever so materialistic. Also that of Christians. They need to be reminded often of their eternal inheritance which does not fade away.

Bruce: Abraham kept his eyes fixed on the well-established city of God which was to be revealed in the time of fulfillment.

Hebrews 11:11 By faith Abraham, even though he was past age -- and Sarah herself was barren -- was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.

Here we have the third instance of faith with reference to Abraham. But, surprisingly enough, it involved Sarah.

Westcott: Sarah is evidently regarded in the closest union with Abraham. Her faith was a condition for the fruitfulness of her faith.
Bengel: The laughter of Sarah argued a mixture of distrust; but yet more of faith, especially after the reproof.
Guthrie: It is perhaps surprising to find Sarah spoken of as an example of faith, for according to Genesis she was more conspicuous as an example of doubt. . . Her mockery must have turned to faith long before Isaac was born.
Westcott: Sarah, who was a first unbelieving, was at last inspired with her husband's faith by his example and influence.
Kretzmann: The faith of Abraham was shared also by his wife Sarah, though not in the same measure.

Sometimes we find faith where it is least expected.

God is faith to His promises. Look at Hebrews 10:23 on this same thought. The faithfulness of God is a principle found throughout Scripture.

Guthrie: The conviction that God is faithful is one of the cardinal aspects of biblical doctrine. It is as strong in the Old Testament as it is in the New Testament.

Abraham was faithful, a believer. Moses was a believer in his faithfulness. God Himself is faithful. He always keeps His promises.

Hebrews 11:12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

"And so" points back to the final clause in verse 11. Note the contrast. There was but one Abraham but his spiritual descendants, believers, are countless.

With God nothing is impossible, not even death. This is followed by two metaphors from nature which have one meaning in common, the countless number. Who can numbers the stars of the heavens or the grains of sand on the sea shore? We can number the believing descendants of Abraham? And they came from one whose body was already dead.

Guthrie: Teeming life was to come from apparent death, a superb example of God's ways of differing from men's estimate of what is possible . . . It is worth observing that the 'therefore' at the beginning of this verse shows the importance of Sarah's faith in the fulfillment of the promise of Abraham.
Westcott: Sarah, who was a first unbelieving, was at last inspired with her husband's faith by his example and influence. . . . Her act of faith completing his faith is made the reason of the fulfillment of the promise.
Kretzmann: The Lord's gentle rebuke on the occasion of Genesis 18:12-13, seems to have had the beneficial effect of banishing all doubts from her heart, simply because she relied on God's promise.

We have a double miracle in this verse, first the faith of one who formerly doubted, and secondly, the amazing results of this faith.

Hebrews 11:13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.

Verses 13-16 might be considered a sort of parenthesis because verses 17-19 return to the theme of Abraham. These verses might be used as text on the occasion of the death of a Christian. Old Testament saints looked forward to the fulfillment of promises in time and therefore looked forward to everlasting life. New Testament Christians look forward to the fulfillment of promises after death and therefore look forward to everlasting life.

The first part of verse 13 reads, word for word: "In faith there died these all." What are "all"? Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But they are only representative. The word "all" means all Old Testament believers.

Goodspeed: All these people lives all their lives in faith and died.

"Admitted" or "confessed." Note the confession of Abraham in Genesis 23:4: "I am a foreigner and a sojourner among you."

Bengel: The worldly cleave to the world; believers scarcely cling to it in any part. See John 8:56.
Guthrie: It is all of a piece with the underlying principle of the epistle that it is the heavenly and not the earthly things which are most important.
Kretzmann: Their being sojourners in the Land of Promise was a type. Look at Genesis 23:4; 47:9; Psalm 39:12; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:11.

Verse 39 plainly tells us that the Old Testament saints did not realize the fulfillment of the promises. Strictly speaking the "all" of this verse refers especially to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who lived more so as pilgrims and strangers in Canaan than did later Old Testament saints.

Hebrews 11:14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.

Again, an explanation. Verse 14 explains verse 13. This is very graphic. In fact, the sentence is well nigh an axiom. Under ordinary circumstance people speak of a fatherland as a country from which they have come. These people set their hearts on a fatherland to which they were going.

"A homeland," "a country of their own," "their real homeland." Look at 1 Peter 1:1 and 2:11.

Bengel: Citizens of the world do not call themselves strangers in the world.
Guthrie: 'Country' means a fatherland where the nation can find its roots.
Westcott: As 'strangers' they acknowledge that they were in a foreign land; as 'sojourners' that they had no permanent possession, no rights of citizenship.

Hebrews 11:15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.

Verse 15 is an example of the contrary to fact condition. "If their hearts had been in the country they left, etc."

Bruce: When Abraham's servant suggested to his master that Isaac might have to go to Mesopotamia in person to persuade his bride to come to Canaan, Abraham said: Gen 24:6 '"Make sure that you do not take my son back there.'
Guthrie: This is all the more remarkable when it is recognized that the land they left behind had reached a much more advanced stage of civilization than the land of Canaan to which they went.


Hebrews 11:16 Instead, they were longing for a better country -- a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

"Instead" can be translated: "The fact is."

God is not ashamed, He is very proud of those who set their hearts on the fulfillment of His promises. Not only is He not ashamed, but glories in it. God is no ashamed of them, namely, to be called their God. How often did not God identify Himself as "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." The person who trust God's promises can put his own name there. For example "The God of William, John and Henry."

A tent is a living place, but only temporary. A city is a dwelling place, but permanent, by comparison.

Kretzmann: The cordial relationship between God and them is brought out.
Westcott: The proof of God's acceptance of the patriarchs lies in what He did for them.
Lenski: These Old Testament men of faith are the models for all New Testament believers when it comes to what faith is and ever must be.

Yes, and it might be said too that today God not only forgets all of the believer's sins and weaknesses but also is proud to be his God.

Bruce: It is noteworthy that, while Jacob is in many ways the least exemplary of the three, God is called the God of Jacob much more frequently in the Bible than He is called the God of Abraham or of Isaac. For all his shortcomings, Jacob had a true sense of spiritual values which sprang from his faith in God.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series C Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1985, pp. 59-64. Used with permission.

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