We have already seen in this epistle that the Hebrews, instead of walking by faith, were in danger of turning back to the things they could see—things suited to them as men in the flesh, such as ordinances and objects of outward importance, of which the Jewish system was full. But Christians were called out of these; God was leading away from them. The constant tendency of all our hearts is to go back. It is a shame for Gentiles to take up with those shadows, in a measure, it was natural for the Jews, because they had had the beggarly elements appointed for them to observe. Now there was something better. They were waiting for Christ to come again, and it is said to them, “He that shall come, will come, and will not tarry.” In this epistle we do not have the place of the Church, the body of Christ, brought out at all; in that connexion the Lord comes and takes her to Himself. “I go to prepare a place for you,” etc. Here, as pilgrims, there is responsibility before us, and we look for His appearing. In church-character the hope is to be with Him. Here it is the heavenly calling and priesthood between us and God. The apostle goes on to show the power of faith. It is not a definition, but a description of its effects. It is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Perfect certainty of realization is the effect of faith. The definition of faith is that it “sets to its seal that God is true.” It remains that, what we hope for, we with patience wait for. The promise is just as certain as if we had the fulfilment of it. We do not see it. If we saw it we should not hope for it, but we realize things not seen. This is the power of faith in the soul.
In this chapter we have faith in its active character—the working of faith when it is there. The thing that produces faith is the spirit of God bringing home the word with power, and when the soul sees anything of Christ it cannot rest satisfied without more. “Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth,” is the reception of truth in the soul. Then there follows the practical effect in the walk of the believer. There is a great deal of method in this chapter, more than appears at first sight, for it is not man’s method, but God’s. The divine mind is always at work according to the measure of divine love. Directly you get the clue to the divine mind, you get beauty and order. Thus, in Exodus, we have the account of the things for the tabernacle, and then the priests, and then again the utensils. The human mind sees nothing but disorder in all this; but when the object of the shadow is known, the most perfect order comes out.
Faith here is spoken of in connexion with creation. That nothing could come out of nothing, is man’s wisdom! The philosopher could never of himself have found out how “the worlds were framed,” etc. Creation is absolutely unknown by reason. “By faith we understand,” but man’s way of accounting for it led to pantheism, etc. Now men have got some knowledge of it from the Bible; but without scripture it never could be known simply or certainly.
On the next exampler of faith we see the ground on which man could be in relationship with God. In Abel, the faith that brought a sacrifice: in Enoch, that which led to walking with God, and the power of life in his translation. In the seventh verse, it is faith connected with God in government, and the consequent judgment of the world. In the next example we have that kind of faith that reckons on promise. It takes the promise of God, is satisfied with it, gives up everything, and gets nothing. All that flesh clings to is to be given up. These Jews had to do that. If I have nothing to do with earth I am a heavenly man. If I have nothing on earth, I am not an earthly man. God is not ashamed to be called the God of one whose heart and portion are in heaven; but He would be of one whose heart is on earth. This is the faith that gives character, heavenly character. (Ver. 8-22) Then you have faith that counts on God, the active energy of life—not merely character, but energy; not so much the giving up as the active energy of the new principle in the soul. This is from verse 23 to 31. Then the getting into the land is passed over, the rest promised in heaven. They have possession of the land. It is different to passing the Red Sea and the wilderness.
From verse 32 come out all the various difficulties and traits of faith in which individuals had to stand against the professing people of God. This is a more difficult thing than any. If you want to live a life of faith, you must often live without Christians. People have to go alone with God and no one else, and if not, they must bring in unbelief to hinder them. Communion of saints is a happy thing, but there are times when you must act alone. Jonathan acted in faith, but Saul’s folly spoiled the whole thing. We need the faith that reckons on God, let the people do what they like. This is not so brilliant an action of faith, but it is very valuable. A person who goes to preach in a heathen place knows what he has to do. His difficulty is not nearly so great as that of a Christian with the world, who profess to be Christians.
If not very near to Christ, a man cannot discern what is the world and what is of Christ.
Ver. 37, 38. They had to take what portion they could get here, and they died without receiving the promises, “God having provided some better thing for us,” etc. The beginning of chapter 12 is founded on this. The chastening there is connected with the trials of faith: the chastening is against the flesh. (Ver. 2). Our attention is taken off all the other examples of faith in chapter 11, and the eye is to be fixed on Him who has gone through all. “Looking unto Jesus.” ‘Looking away’ is the force of the expression. “He is set down on the right hand,” etc. Of the Abrahams, Isaacs, Josephs, Moses, etc., we read, they “received not the promises,” but of Christ it is not said, He has not. He has. He “is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” He has the reward; and another thing, He has run all the way, bearing mockery, scourging, etc. He has trodden every bit of the path of faith. The others all had their trial in a particular way, but the encouragement for faith now is that He has sat down, having run it all. David has not his reward yet. All these are not made perfect yet, but He is. Christianity was not brought in then. They were not brought into resurrection-glory. There were others to be brought into a better thing. He was the beginner and finisher of faith, and He has the reward.
It is well that we should see what the character of the reward is. Reward is never the motive for conduct: there would be no room for love in that; but it acts as an encouragement, when we are in the path which love has brought into, and encompassed with difficulties and trials.
These Hebrews were going back to the expectation of a Messiah they could see. They are reminded that none of those in whom they boasted did see what they waited for. “These all died in faith, not having received,” etc. You want a visible Messiah, but none of these you glory in got what they waited for. With a Jew this was an unanswerable argument. They got nothing but by faith. So with us. What have we but what we have by faith?
Without going into the details of chap. 11 we have, first, the creation—then, respecting sacrifice, “Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.” One thing to remark here is, how faith meets all cases since sin came in. It has nothing to do with innocence. Innocence does not need faith. When there was enjoyment all around, there was no need of faith. It was when sin came in that faith is known—a most blessed ordering of God; for it brings to us all that is required—righteousness, life, shelter in the judgment of the world. It can wander in a strange country, and bring in a living energy to overcome. It brings in God for enjoyment—communion—want of communion giving the sense of sin, and bringing back. It is the positive bringing in of God when sin had turned out of His presence. It takes out of flesh to God. It brings God in; or, rather, God brings Himself in His word and Spirit. There is no condition in which you cannot have it. The first thing we have it for is for righteousness.
Abel was a sinner: faith brings into a better place than innocency. I can enjoy nothing rightly according to flesh; but the moment I get hold of God, I am out of those things, and am connected with Him. When they were in the land, the occasion for faith dropped through, except where special need brought it out.
When sin had shut us out from God, righteousness is possessed by faith. “He obtained witness that he was righteous.” Cain, before his heart was laid bare, was a very decent man: he was labouring in the sweat of his brow, and then went to worship God. What would you have better? It was this very thing that showed he had not one single right thought about God. He thought he could worship God as comfortably as ever. Cain really carried to God the proof of the curse—just what the natural man does. What we find in Abel was entirely different: he brings in death; he takes a firstling of the flock, a slain beast, by which he acknowledges he is under the effect of sin, not merely outwardly. He brings blood to God—a sacrifice—a slain sacrifice—the only way. He acknowledges by it, he is a sinner, and lost unless the death of another comes in. He comes to God with a sacrifice, and that declares, I am lost without. This passage is so clear as to righteousness—“he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts.” This is not only that righteousness is in Christ: He is my righteousness—I am “made the righteousness of God in Him.” Abel obtained a witness that he was righteous, not that God was righteous. Not merely that God had given the sacrifice, but there are the actings of God in the man. God provided the sacrifice, but faith acts in bringing it to God. “God testifying of his gifts.” It is full of blessing. I have the witness that I am righteous. This is not experience. I do not want a testimony for what I experience. I want a testimony that delivers me from the things I am occupied about in myself, when I am suffering from them. I get it from God’s gift that is perfect. I am “accepted in the Beloved.” You say, There is something about myself I cannot get over. Remember, the testimony of the Holy Ghost in us is the contrary of the testimony of the Holy Ghost to us. In me, He takes notice of every fault, that is not righteousness; but the testimony to us is, “their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.” If a person brings a note to me, he does not ask what I am. In bringing Christ to God, I bring perfection. This is a peculiar figure of Christ, the sacrifice of Abel. Christ made Himself our neighbour: Israel slew Him. They have the mark on them, having cast off Christ. But He is the sacrifice through which they will be restored. Faith says, I go to God by the sacrifice.
In Enoch, life has come in, as well as righteousness. Christ is “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” Enoch, before his translation, had this testimony that he pleased God. In the Old Testament it is said he walked with God. If we are reconciled to God, we can walk with Him. Then the life is manifested in walk, and the power of that life is, that he does not die at all. Christ said, “He that liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” So, those who are alive when He comes will not die. We may not die. The “wages of sin” for faith are entirely done away. Enoch is not found, for God took him—he is not touched by death at all. That which is the power of death is done away.
Another thing accompanying this is, that “before his translation, he had this testimony that he pleased God.” Here I get life before death. That we have as a present thing, and if the Lord comes, we shall not die. His long-suffering is the reason of His not coming. Walking with God, we have the testimony that we please God. It is peace, comfort—joy of the favour in which we stand. The Spirit of God, instead of reproving us, brings the light of God’s favour streaming in upon our souls. Glory we now see, through a glass darkly; but it is a real truth that the Holy Ghost is in us, and if we are walking with God, He makes us happy in His favour; not merely I have done right in this or that; I do not think of myself at all, but of God. If I care only for what natural conscience says, I do not get God’s mind at all. That does not touch what God is at all, but what man is. It is saying that man may exalt himself—has responsibility to himself; but believing God is a great deal more—it acknowledges responsibility to God. “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder,” etc. It is coming to another that is spoken of. Do I come to a person I am with? In coming, I think of what He is—what God thinks of a thing. We have to do with Him in a living way, by faith. He is one who takes notice of everything. If you apply this practically at any moment, what a difference it will make! We are called to judge everything in the light. What do I mind about difficulties, if I know I am pleasing God? Such an one does not despise any, because thinking about God, he goes from strength to strength. Intercourse with God shows him more of God’s mind—he sees what God is doing. “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”
If he fail, there will be distress, thus walking with Him, because he has lost the thing he delights in. If accustomed to walk carelessly, he does not notice it. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” If there is diligence in seeking Him, there is the reward.
Ver. 7 If Enoch’s case is that of exceptional translation, like the Church, Noah, like the Jewish remnant of the last days, is found in the place on which judgment was coming, and warned of things not seen as yet, (besides being a preacher of righteousness, as we hear elsewhere,) is moved with fear, and prepares an ark. His is the prophetic spirit; the world is condemned, and himself becomes heir of the righteousness which is by faith. He accepted God’s testimony with the provided means of escape, and thus inherited that righteousness on which the new world is founded. Thus we have had faith in creation, faith in sacrifice, walking with God, and testimony.
From verse 8—16 we have, not the great principles of human relationship with God from first to last, as in the preceding verses, but the faith which goes and keeps out as a pilgrim, with all the strength given for fulfilling the promises. And as these realized strangership on earth through faith, lived and died in faith, not in the possession of what was promised, so God regarded them with special favour, is not ashamed to be called their God, and will exceed their hopes of heavenly things. Further, we come (17—22) to the faith that sacrifices the things which apparently accomplish the promise, to receive it from God alone, or confides, spite of all that tends to destroy confidence. This is rather faith’s patience, as what follows is its energy. Thus faith in the history of Moses (23—27) abides firm in the face of the utmost difficulties. Moreover, not providence, but faith, should regulate the believer. Again, we may observe in the next verses (28—31) that faith uses the means God appoints; which nature either refuses, or can only meddle with to its own ruin. But if the Egyptians were swallowed up—the type of those who, of themselves, think to pass through death and judgment, the harlot Rahab identifies herself by faith with the spies and people of God, before a blow was struck on this side Jordan, and thus escaped the destruction which fell on self-confident Jericho.
Then follow statements of the actings and sufferings of faith all through the history of Israel after the conquest of Canaan, not detailed as before, but general; but all, like the patriarchs, without receiving the fulfilment of the promise. This was one grand lesson for the Hebrew Christians. Besides, they were to bear in mind that God has provided some better thing for us. They are to be perfected, as well as we, in resurrection-glory; but there are special privileges for the saints who are now being called—“for us.”