Hebrews 11:1-12:3 - Hearing Helps Us See

June 30, 2013 Speaker: Series: Hebrews

Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Hebrews 11:1–12:3

[Text: Hebrews 11:1-12:3] “Hearing Helps Us See”

[Pray – Father, you have given us your Word and your Word is a lamp to our feet, helping us see in dark places. By the work of your Holy Spirit would you please help us to see Christ more clearly so that we may run well in the race you’ve set before us? In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.]

When you look at this world, this life, what do you see? People call themselves optimists, pessimists, or realists. Some are near-sighted, some are far-sighted and others have astigmatism (though I’m still not really sure what that is). But what we see has a profound impact on the way we live.

At the end of World War II Eric Arthur Blair (better known by his pen name – George Orwell) saw little hope that English democracy could survive. After seeing the brutal power of Fascism and the corrupting strength of revolutionary Communism, he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in a mood of dark despair. He fully anticipated there would come a day when humanity saw the destruction of the individual under the control of the few. With Blair’s mind meditating on the horrors of Nazism and the long nightmare of Soviet communism, one of the powerful antagonists in Nineteen Eighty-Four summed up what the author saw on the horizon. He said, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.”[1]

For the early Christians who first heard this sermon (that is, the book of Hebrews), what they saw was the boot of Rome raised over them and the sight of it was filling them with fear. Those who called themselves followers of Christ were faced with a future full of anxious possibilities. If scholars are correct about when this was written, the lavish night- parties of Nero – lit up by the burning bodies of Christians – were not far off.

And seeing this near-future the pastor understood there were only two responses. In 10:38 he saw that they could “live by faith” or “shrink back” from Christ. To shrink back could have looked like going back to Judaism – a protected religion under Rome – or simply denying Christ and swearing allegiance to Caesar.

But the pastor said something about the life of faith in which he was calling them to endure. He said that living by faith was pleasing to God. And pleasing God was something these Christians saved by grace very much wanted to do.

If our desire is to please the living God, then you and I have to make the same choice as our brothers and sisters of old. There are always only two responses: unbelief or belief; no faith or faith. But like our brothers and sisters, the things we see in front of us can make it a difficult choice.

When looking at an uncertain future, what we see can be scary. We see the danger of our own walking away from God into sin and we see the possible outcomes for the questions in our minds. What if this relationship ends? What if they don’t come back? What if this job doesn’t work out? What if the market declines again and I see my retirement disappears again? What if the cancer comes back? What if this depression continues? What if this culture of “tolerance” continues to be increasingly intolerant of Christianity? What if…what if…? The things we see in front of us can easily lead us toward fear, not believing God is able to keep His promises.

But what if we can see further past these present circumstances to the far horizon? What if our eyes see something that helps us endure? What if our eyes are the eyes of faith?

[Read Hebrews 11:1-12:3]

Speaking to his friends who saw a fearful future, the pastor told them of a “cloud of witnesses” who testified to the hope that what they saw in front of them wasn’t the sum total of reality. In v. 13, the believers of old had seen the things promised. And though they could only see and greet them from afar since the promises stood on the horizon beyond their own lifetime, what they saw transformed the way they lived. They lived differently because their faith saw more than what their eyes saw in front of them. And they saw more because they had heard more from their God.

In the same way the early Christians – along with you and me - can hear and believe God’s word, seeing through the eyes of faith our present reality and our future hope in Christ.

So, what was true for the believers of old – the believers in this catalogue of the faithful – is true for believers in the era of the New Testament. The faithfulness of the God who makes promises and keeps promises is the foundation of our faith. By looking to Him, we may – we must – live today “celebrat(ing) the reality of promised blessings”[2] and the certainty of the things promised which we haven’t yet seen.

That’s really the essence of faith in Hebrews and why chapter 11 opens with these words: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is seeing what isn’t seen; it is being certain that the future blessings Christ promises will come. And that certainty gives the “tomorrow” of Christ the full force of “today” so that what we see today isn’t thought to be everything. Faith means we see what is in front of us – the joy and pain; the suffering and the glory – and we also see what is beyond it; hope for today and a sure hope for an eternity of tomorrows because of the death and resurrection of Christ.

That sight of faith is what believers have always needed. And as we enter into the details of the text, we need to see two things. First, we need to see that the sight of faith has always begun with the hearing of the Word. And second, we need to see how faith was lived out in the history of the church.

So, first, we need to see that the sight of faith has always begun with the hearing of the Word.

As the pastor comes to chapter 11 and wants us to see the promises and live in light of them, as he says in chapter 12, “…let us run…looking to Jesus…,” with eyes of faith, the thing to recognize is what got us to the point where we could actually look at him. The word of God in the previous 10 chapters is the starting point. That is to say, we see by faith because we hear the Word first!

The connection between hearing and sight is evident. In 11:8, Abraham “obeyed when he was called out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.” Abraham heard the word of God and then walked. And although he never saw the fullness of the promises come, as he heard and believed and obeyed it says that he “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar…” (11:13). He heard God’s promises and it helped him to see the invisible.

We see it earlier in Hebrews, too. In chapter 1, God is the God who speaks and has spoken finally and completely through His Son, Jesus. In 2:1 it says, “…we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” Then in 2:9 it says what happens when we hear and believe; “we see” the reality of Christ’s reign even though the fullness of his reign isn’t actually here yet. Then for chapter after chapter the pastor takes them back to the Gospel of Jesus so that they can hear again what God has done for them through Christ in order that they, too, could continue seeing things clearly – so that they could see beyond the boot of Rome about to come down, enduring by living in light of the promises of God.

And what did He promise? He said that it was He who made this world through Christ and Christ will endure forever (Ch. 1). He said that Jesus, indeed, reigns now and will always reign to help you. God promises that Jesus came and became one of us, enduring death to free us from the power of death (Chapter 2). God promises that there is a rest for you – His rest – which you enter by faith in Christ (Ch. 3-4). You don’t have to keep working for His approval. In Christ, you already have it! God promises that Christ your high priest sympathizes with you and that in him you may approach God with confidence, finding mercy and grace to help in times of need (Ch. 4-5). God promises that there isn’t any sacrifice left to offer for sin. God promises that the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross is enough to fully cleanse your conscience before God so that no accusation – from Satan or from yourself – can stick to you. It was all put on Christ and was left behind in the grave when he rose from the dead. And you have been raised with him and brought into the service of God as a priest yourself, free to come into His presence through Christ at all times (Ch. 7-9). God promises that you and He are at peace and He invites you to sit and eat with him and with each other as you hear what He promises and simply believe it (Ch. 10).

The promises of God in His Word are the glasses we wear to help us see reality clearly so that we can run this race, picking ourselves up when we stumble. So, if you have forgotten the promises, if you can’t see Christ right now because of what’s in front of you, do what we’ve always had to do. Faithfulness to God looks like going back to His Word, listening and believing and praying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

And you don’t have to do that alone. Part of the grace God has given us is this place, the church. This is where we live out our faith together, doing what it says in 10:24: “stir(ring) up one another to love and good works…encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

It’s because we’re so prone to stumble and forget what we’ve heard that we always come back to the Word and preach the good news of Christ to ourselves and each other. Our faith begins with the Word, but then it breaks into life as our vision improves. That brings us to the second thing we need to see…

We need to see how faith was lived out in action throughout the history of the church.

This “cloud of witnesses” (12:1) is included by the pastor so that his friends could see that faith in God - living under the conviction that His promises are true even if they aren’t seen yet – faith is what has always been pleasing to God. He says, “For by it [that is, faith] the people of old received their commendation.” (11:2) This isn’t talking about the approval of other people, it’s talking about the approval of God Himself. God is please with you when you direct your faith toward His Son, Jesus!

I’ll take a cue from the pastor in 11:32 and say that time would fail us if we tried to walk through each of these stories today. (If you want to hear a more detailed look at one of their stories, you can pull up the sermon on Joshua 2 from April 21, 2013.) But there are some main ideas from each paragraph that can help us understand what it means to live by faith in the face of uncertain futures. Because each of these saints lived assured of the things for which they hoped and under the conviction of things they couldn’t see, they lived differently in an uncertain world.

Abel and Enoch and Noah were pleasing to God as they drew near to Him by faith. If our desire is like the early Christians, if we want to be pleasing to God then it won’t come by any other way than through faith in Him. Gone is any self-righteous hope of pleasing God by being a better person. And gone is any anxiety that I can’t possibly please Him because it says here He is truly please with us as we hold fast to Him by faith.

Abraham and Sarah lived with their boys in the land of promise, but they lived there as strangers and exiles, living in tents because they looked for a better homeland, a city with foundations whose designer and builder was God. The faith that is pleasing to God is a pilgrim’s faith, a faith that says, “What I see here is not enough. I need a better country, a heavenly one.” God is not ashamed, 11:16 says, of those who desire better than what they see, if what they desire is a place with Him.

Abraham and Isaac; Jacob and Joseph are included here as those who endured to the end; to the end of the test as Abraham raised his knife in obedience and to the end of life as Joseph gave instructions to carry his bones out of Egypt and into Canaan. These had heard the promises and their faith endured to the end of their days. Now, these men were deeply sinful, but by faith they were counted as pleasing to God and in that faith they endured. The early Christians and you, Christians, have need of endurance to the end, too. And you will endure as you direct your faith to the faithful God!

Moses’ parents and Moses himself are included as those who did not fear men, but feared God. When the threats of the enemies of God are loud and the mistreatment of those called “Christians” is as ordinary as breathing to the culture in power, the call of faith is to see who really sits on the throne. It wasn’t Pharaoh or Caesar and it isn’t the spirit of this age. Christ our King and high priest reigns and is waiting for the time when his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet (10:12). That is the promise of God in Christ by which we can see beyond today to things that will certainly be.

The Israelites crossing the Red Sea by faith are contrasted with the unbelieving Egyptians who pursued them and drowned. Rahab’s faith is held in contrast with her countrymen’s unbelief and rebellion. So, we see it is the slave set free and the prostitute who believes who are pleasing to God rather than the powerful and self-sufficient who believe in themselves. We, too, can celebrate his deliverance as we live by faith in our faithful God.

In vv. 32-35a, the pastor flashes through the history of the faithful, seeing how faith in God and trust in His promises led the church to do great things. And they were delivered gloriously, even experiencing the resurrection of the dead as they lived by faith, seeing what wasn’t seen and living out their sure hope in God.

But faith does not always look triumphant. No, in vv. 35b-38, we see that faith can endure in the face of suffering, too. In fact, it was this kind of suffering that many of these early Christians would soon experience. But whether they were delivered gloriously or suffered all the evil this world could bring to bear, they could endure in their faith, assured that God had not failed them. He had promised eternal life to them and, according to v. 35b, they were willing to take Him at His word. They saw that God had something better for them and were willing to hold fast to Him even when the blade fell on their neck before the promises came.

All of these faithful, 11:39 says, were commended by God through their faith, even though they only saw the promises from afar. But God has acted since they lived and through Christ has provided something better for us, so that they and we together – by faith – are being made perfect. In Christ, the promises have already come – sin has already been atoned by his death and our high priest has by his sacrifice “perfected for all time those who are being [set apart for service to God]“ (Heb. 10:14). The reality of tomorrow has already broken into today and has brought with it promises of a more beautiful reality still to come.

That is why chapter 12 opens the way it does. We are called to take our place in this race, expressing the same faith as the people of old and yet directing that faith toward the object of faith that the saints of old saw only at a distance. But what they saw at a distance has come into our Story and by hearing the Word we have seen Jesus, the Son of God.

It is because we have seen Jesus by faith that the pastor calls us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” When we hear the word of God and see with Jesus with eyes of faith, then we must understand that things are different than they seem!

We are able in Christ to “lay aside every weight” because Christ has already removed from us the weight of the world. Christ sits on the throne! So even though we often see our present circumstances and think the burden lay entirely on us, in Christ we lay those weights aside. We have no need to carry anything that our king himself promises to carry. Though he calls us to action and to live out our faith, we entrust the weight to him.

And the sin which clings so closely is laid down as well when we hear that our guilty and stained consciences have been cleansed by his blood. What seems to be in view here is not some specific besetting sin, but rather the sum total of our sins that have been dealt with by Christ in his sacrificial death. Where we used to try to run the race of life while carrying our sins – like a marathon runner in a space-suit – we have now been freed by Christ to run freely. And though we may still stumble at times, we can stand up and keep running as we consider the faithfulness of Christ who is forever helping and keeping us.

That is why the pastor ends this section with the call to look to Jesus. As we run the race God has set before us, we fix our eyes on Jesus, being assured that what we hope for is true in him, and living out our conviction that what we don’t see is coming because of him.

Seeing Christ beyond the “today” keeps us from being stopped in this race by two obstacles. The first is the obstacle of seeing good and beautiful things in this world and holding fast to them instead of Christ and his promises which are on the horizon. The second obstacle is seeing the pain and brokenness of today – either our own sin or the fallenness of this world – and despairing that these things are the sum total of reality, despairing that there is nothing beyond them.

If you can’t see beyond those things right now, if your vision of the future is as dark as Eric Arthur Blair’s, then you have come to the right place. Because here in this room is another cloud of witnesses who see – sometimes dimly and sometimes more clearly – that this is not all there is. So, listen to each other, speak the Word of God to each other in your families and with your friends so that when you can’t see clearly, they can remind you of what the truth actually is; that Jesus has come and has gone on before us so that where he is we may be as well. Ask Mr. Julian if his hope is only in this life. Ask Jeff what he sees on the horizon beyond ALS. Ask Jean  what she sees on the horizon beyond grief. Ask Adam and Laura what they see past the testing that is foster-parenting. This is why (as the pastor already said in 10:25) we can’t neglect meeting together. We need to encourage each other to endure in faith with eyes looking to the same hope – “to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

[Pray – Father, thank you for your Spirit who gives us ears and eyes to hear and see Jesus. Thank you for giving us your Word so that we can know what you have promised and thank you for the gift of faith that helps us see what is invisible, believing that what you have promised in Christ has already come – already we are forgiven, already we are welcomed into your presence through Christ, already we are brought into your service. And thank you for the faith to see that what has yet to come will certainly come because of Jesus. We see our hope for tomorrow and the finish of our race, when we see not by faith but with our own eyes the Savior who is seated at your right hand. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.]

[Benediction, from Hebrews 13:20-21]

“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”


[1] Part III, Chapter III, Nineteen Eighty-Four

[2] William L. Lane, Hebrews: A Call to Commitment, 147.


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