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Sermon preached on Hebrews 11:8-13 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/28/2018 in Novato, CA.
Abraham, Sarah, and Faith
God’s promises sometimes find fulfillment in this life. Sometimes they find fulfillment in the future, often looking to glory. In all circumstances, we are called to live by faith. When such faith doesn’t find fulfillment yet in this life, our faith is exercised. When such faith does receives fulfillment in this life to a divine promise, our faith is vindicated. In all such circumstances, our Great God is honored and glorified. In all such circumstances, God’s promises will ultimately come to fulfillment.
We see this again in today’s passage with regard to Abraham and Sarah. We are reminded of promises that God gave them. Promises that could be roughly described as promises of a place and of a people. We can see a certain degree of how these promises began to be realized for them. We can also see how these promises were not yet realized during their lives on earth. In fact, verses 12-13 explicitly reference both fulfillment and lack of fulfillment. So, today, I want us to spend some time thinking about faith in light of both. I want us to see what this passage teaches us about how faith is at work both when God’s promises find fulfillment in our lives and when they do not yet find fulfillment in our lives. We’ll accomplish this today thinking first about the promise of a place to Abraham and Sarah, and then about the promise of a people.
So then, looking first at God’s promise to them of a place. In verse 8 we see God’s promise described in terms of an inheritance. Genesis records how God promised to give Abraham the land of Canaan. This became known as the Promised Land. And the Scriptures, especially Hebrews, like to refer to that land as an inheritance from God. God had called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans, which would be around the modern area of Kuwait and Iraq, to go to a place God would show him (Gen 15:7; Acts 7:2-4). After leaving Ur, Abraham and his family at first settled in the city of Haran which was in Upper Mesopotamia, along the modern borders of southern Turkey. After Abraham’s father died, God again called for Abraham to continue on in his migration, as we find in Genesis 12, with God bringing Abraham and Sarah, along with his nephew Lot to the land of Canaan.
Notice then how faith had to be exercised here. Verse 8 puts it in terms of obedience: “by faith Abraham obeyed”. That obedience means when God told him to pack up his family and move away from the rest of his extended family and his existing home, then that is exactly what he did. So, his faith is described here as being exercised in terms of obedience. Again, as a reminder, it’s his faith that is being specifically commended here, not the obedience. Yes, the obedience is commendable too, but what’s being highlighted is the faith that was behind the obedience. But that is an important aspect of faith. Faith in God, believing in God and believing who God is, should bear fruit of obedience to God. And it did here in Abraham’s case. God told him to pick up and move and he did.
Recognize that this faith also involved a great deal of trust in God. I mean think about it. The Scripture doesn’t even record that God told Abraham where he was going. It says that God told Abraham to go to a land he would “show” him. And of course, even if God did tell Abraham the name of the place he was taking him too, still great trust would have been needed for Abraham because surely Abraham wouldn’t have really known much about Canaan anyways. Let me give you an illustration that might help you appreciate this a little more. Imagine a husband and wife are considering relocation for a husband’s new job. What would be typical is that both the husband and the wife go and visit the new location and check out various house options and neighborhoods. Then they discuss the options and make a decision together at what neighborhood to live in and what house to buy. That would be pretty typical today. But imagine if instead only the husband went and visited the new location and only he checked out the houses and neighborhoods. What if after that he decided on what he though would be the perfect new home for them. Imagine the wife expressing concern about making such a big move without her seeing it herself. But imagine the husband telling the wife, “Trust me, you’ll love it.” Now maybe that husband is right. Maybe he’s not. But either way, if that wife were to agree to that, it would be her putting her trust, her faith, in her husband. It would be her having to believe that he really had her interest in mind and knew what she would want. And so, hopefully you see the analogy with Abraham. God calls him to make some huge life changes without a lot of details. But basically, it’s a call for Abraham to trust God. This too then is an aspect of the faith that’s commended in this chapter. It’s faith that trusts God. Indeed, we can and should trust God, that Romans 8:28 is still in effect; that in all circumstances he is working all things together for our good, as those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
So then, in terms of this promise of a “place” we see that there is an initial sense in which God’s promise is fulfilled to him. Abraham did make it to the land of Canaan safely. It did become the home for he and his family, including his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob, as we see referenced in verse 9. There is room even for his nephew Lot as we remember them back in Genesis 13 deciding to settle in separate areas of Canaan, to give them both more room. And yet, it is certainly clear here that Abraham did not truly receive the full of God’s promise in terms of a place. Looking at verse 9 we see that Abraham had to live like a foreigner in Canaan. He lived in tents as more of a sojourner and a nomad. There was more of a transient nature to his time in Canaan. It says this was true of Isaac and Jacob, too. So, again, verse 9 says that he had to exercise his faith in this. After bringing Abraham to Canaan we see God give more clear promises to Abraham how he would in the future give him all the land of Canaan as his own possession. But in Abraham’s life and even with Isaac and Jacob, that was not materialized. So then, his faith had to trust. And it seems that this faith involved living in tents and living as a sojourner. If he didn’t have faith, he would just pack up and head back to his old home. Verse 14 mentions that possibility even. But Abraham didn’t do that. He stuck it out “living out of his suitcase”, so to speak, until he his family would truly inherit the land.
Notice in verse 10 how this waiting in faith was described. He waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Ultimately, this looks to a heavenly city and a heavenly inheritance, which we’ll see very clearly stated next week in verse 16. But to clarify, verse 10 doesn’t mention the heavenly component right yet here. Rather it talks first here in verse 10 that Abraham didn’t settle down into the land of Canaan at that time because he was waiting for a city that was founded by and founded upon God. Think about the situation that Abraham came into when he arrived in Canaan. The Canaanites were evil idolaters who did not honor God. Their cities were not built and founded upon God. Case in point is Lot. Though 2 Peter 2:7 can refer to Lot as a righteous person, surely it was not by faith that Lot settled in the city of Sodom. Rather, 2 Peter 2 elaborates on what we see in Genesis, that Lot was tormented, oppressed, and even tempted by living in such a godless city. On the other hand, by faith, Abraham wouldn’t settle down in such a city. Instead, he lived in tents in the Promised Land and waited. He waited for a city and a place that God would provide. One that would be founded by God and founded upon God. And so, in verse 10 we see yet another aspect of faith. It’s put in terms of waiting. Faith as waiting; Abraham waited for the city God would bring.
Eventually, many generations later, Abraham’s physical descendants would take possession and control of the land. By the mighty hand of God, through Joshua, they would be established and founded in Israel. Many cities would be erected that were to look to honor God and be ordered according to God’s laws. However, as Hebrews 4 pointed out, the earthly Promised Land wasn’t the final rest for God’s people. As this chapter will go on to point out, these saints of old were ultimately looking for a heavenly inheritance. This is of course, what Jesus spoke of. In John 14, Jesus promised that he was going to heaven to prepare a place for us and one day come back to us there. We see this further described in Revelation 20 as a heavenly city brought down from heaven and setup on a new earth. There God will dwell with his people in glory forever. This is what we all continue to wait for in faith as God’s people.
Let’s turn now to the other half of our sermon for today and think about God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah of a people. The promise is not directly stated but clearly referenced in verses 11-12. The promise was stated multiple times in Genesis. God promised that he would make Abraham and Sarah into a great nation. As referenced in verse 12, God promised that he would make their offspring beyond count, like stars of the sky and the sand by the seashore.
For those who know the story, we remember that the issue at first was that Sarah was barren. Then add to that the ever-advancing age of both of them. Even if Sarah had not been barren, she clearly had become too old for children. The Genesis account goes out of the way to make it clear that this was just not humanly possible for them to have a child. Yet, that was the point. God wanted them to know without a doubt that the offspring from Abraham and Sarah would be by God and not by man. For example, when Abraham and Sarah come up with the idea that Abraham can have a child with their maidservant Hagar, God tells them that the child Ishmael would not be the child God would fulfill his promise through. God emphasizes it would be a child through Sarah, not Hagar. When this causes both Abraham and Sarah separately to laugh, God nonetheless reaffirms his promise and plan.
This all required faith. That faith is referenced in verse 11. Interestingly, there is quite a lot of scholarly discussion around the translation of verse 11. You might not know this by looking at the major translations because the vast majority of them end up along the lines of our pew Bible which puts Sarah as the main subject of the sentence, including the faith. Many have argued, however, that the subject is actually still Abraham, and that Sarah is referenced only in some kind of subordinate clause. A big reason for this proposal is that the language used in 11 and translated in the pew Bible as “to conceive seed” is only known elsewhere to be used for the man’s role and not the women’s role in conception. Furthermore, it is pointed out that Sarah’s faith is not stated in Genesis, only her doubt. And so, there is a decent argument that Abraham is still the main subject of the “by faith” reference in verse 11. Yet, I’m not overly convinced by that argumentation. Verse 11 has a long translation history of being understood to have Sarah as the subject. The argument for the Greek usage of the language about the seed seems overstated to me without going into technical translation details. And when we look at how Sarah treated the promised after her first laughter, I think there’s reason to see her faith implied in the text; an implication which arguable Hebrews here states definitively by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So, I could see both options but still favor the Sarah interpretation. Either way, the big point here is what it says about the faith that was exercised in this. It says that this faith judged God faithful. Such faith took God at his word because it believed that the one who made the promise was going to keep his promise. So then, that’s overarching point here about the faith seen in verse 11. It was faith that took God at his word!
So then, we see that God delivered on that promise. Here we definitely see some initial fulfillment. Verse 12 asserts that from their old age the impossible happened. They had a son. Isaac was born. As it said in Hebrews 6:15, after Abraham he patiently endured, he obtained the promise. That surely referred to Isaac’s birth. And from Isaac came Jacob. From Jacob came the twelve tribes of Israel. From their Israel continued to multiply and multiply. God indeed fulfilled that promise to bring a great people from the lineage of Abraham and Sarah.
Yet again, as much as verse 12 asserts that this was fulfilled, we should recognize that in their own lifetime, they only saw part of its fulfillment. Abraham and Sarah only had just one child together. Even then for 60 years, Isaac himself did not have any children as he and his wife were childless too for that time. Then finally Abraham got to see Isaac and his wife give birth to twins. Fifteen years later, Abraham died. So, in the grand scheme of things, Abraham did not see multitudes coming from him, even though he himself was blessed to see the start of that line of promise with Isaac and Jacob. And yet multitudes from lineage did ultimately come, even if they didn’t get to see it themselves. And we could take it even one step further. Paul speaks of how Gentiles who have the same faith of Abraham, Gentiles who believe in Jesus, that they have become spiritual children of Abraham. Likewise, Peter talks about Christian women being daughters of Sarah. And so, the promise to Abraham and Sarah of a people look beyond their lifetime ultimately to a people not tied to them in earthly genetic descent but in faith. Even verse 40 hints at that, because it mentions there how we too are connected with these saints of old, and are only perfected, completed, together.
And so, in that sense, we realize that the final fulfillment of this promise of a people yet lies in the future. So many are spiritually children of Abraham and heirs together with him of the heavenly inheritance in Jesus Christ. But the gospel continues to go forth into the world. Still there are people being gathered into this family. Until the number is complete, God’s promise in this regard is still being fulfilled.
So then, as we tie together today’s message, we’ve seen faith at work in Abraham and Sarah in light of God’s promises. Some aspects of those promises found fulfillment in their own lives. Other aspects found fulfillment later in human history and ultimately look to glory. The initial fulfillments required patience and waiting. The greater fulfillments continue to require patience and waiting. The initial fulfillments especially tended to be earthly and fleshly. The greater fulfillments typically look to the heavenly and the spiritual and to the eschatological. So, some promises and came for them in the here and now. Others didn’t come until later. But all of the promises required them to live by faith.
It’s this contrast that I think is important to remember for us today. We still have a similar dynamic. There are promises of God that we begin to experience now. There are better promises that we will have in glory. I remember how Jesus said in Mark 10:30 that Christians can begin to receive blessings back in this life in light of their many sacrifices. That’s a promise of Scripture. And yet it says that such blessings will come with persecutions in this life. Jesus there also talks about the reward that will come for Christians in the age to come: eternal life. So, do you see how that dynamic works even for us today? We need to have the proper perspective and the right valuation of the various blessings in this life versus the next.
To say this in the context of today’s message, the people and place we have become a part of in this life, need to keep in mind the eternal people and place we will be a part of in glory with Christ. In other words, sometimes we can want to cling so much to the things of this life. We can make the rewards we reap here and now a final end in themselves. But we need to see the bigger picture. We need to remember how much more we still have coming in glory. So that we can let go of the things in this life when we need to let go.
How is it that we can have such a perspective? When life is so about the here and now, how do go about prioritizing the future? When life is so full about the physical and earthly things we can see and touch now, how can we be ultimately about spiritual and heavenly and eternal matters? How can we have and live out such a perspective? The answer is “by faith.” That’s what this chapter is saying the saints of old did. By faith Abraham was content to live in tents than to settle down in Sodom or go back to his old home with the Chaldeans. By faith Abraham and Sarah kept believing God would given them a child. We too need to live by faith in light of the many promises God holds out unto us.
May our faith remember the lessons for faith we learned today. May our faith look to expresses itself in obedience; obedience to all God’s callings in this life and as given in his Word. May our faith trust that God has our good in mind. May our faith take God at his word. May our faith be faith that waits patiently. May we live by such faith while we await the final fulfillment of all God’s wonderful promises which are yes and amen in Jesus! Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.