Bible Studies on the Real Heroes of the Faith Hebrews 11
Part 1: Move over Ironman: An introduction to the real heroes

By I Gordon

Introduction

We’ll be kicking off this New Year with a new series and I want to look at some real heroes. As a society, we like our heroes... we like to hero-worship. [1] We’ve moved on from cowboys and Indians today. We’ve turned it up a notch and now our heroes are super – Super heroes! Batman, Superman, Ironman... and recently Hollywood has been pushing that giant of a superhero, Antman! What’s next? Slugman? Snailman? Slothman? We also hero worship actual real people... when Obama won his first Presidency the journalists wrote of him like he was literally the long awaited Messiah. Years later in 2013 Barbara Walters, the respected American journalist and broadcaster said of Obama: “He made so many promises...We (the media) thought that he was going to be – I shouldn’t say this at Christmastime, but – the next Messiah.” Uh - hello? Earth to Barbara!

Today people are oohing and aahing over the Pope. Late last year the Guardian newspaper had an article entitled: “Why atheists love Pope Francis - The pope ignites unprecedented secular excitement”. So here we go again. Movie and sports stars get the same treatment because everyone knows that if you can catch and throw a ball or if you are handy at pretending that you’re someone that you’re not, then you are pretty special indeed! Now when you come to the Bible, it’s not without its own list of heroes. It has its hall of faith. But it’s fair to say these were a different breed of character to those popular today. So this slightly long introduction is really just to say that I want to start a new series of God’s hall of faith – His heroes if you like. It is a study of Hebrews chapter 11. It is the “faith” chapter.

Brief chapter overview

Hebrews chapter 11 contains a list of people that God says are noteworthy. See if you can name who these people are from my wee clues: There is the lowly shepherd boy who became a king. There is a would-be king who gave it all away and became a shepherd. There is the despised brother, hated and sold into slavery... or the one who was, quite literally, left for dead at the hand of his own jealous brother. Then there is the reluctant hero, the one who was least in his family and whose family was least in their tribe that God used to save the nation of Israel; Or the preacher of righteousness who saved no one outside of his own family. And let’s not forget the harlot who put her life on the line to help God’s people and defy her own nation. They are a list of stars whom God places His stamp of approval upon saying “The world was not worthy of them.” [2]

The American author and poet Henry David Thoreau wrote the following and I want you to think about this quote... He wrote: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” That sums up the characters we will read about in Hebrews 11. They listened, and marched, to a different drum beat. But hopefully that should be said of all of us. Do you feel out of step with this world that you live in? Do you see a lot of things differently than many others do? The faith that we hold and the life that we live, should reflect something of the heavenly music that we listen to, and God’s people should be marching to the beat of a different drummer! If that means we are out of step with the rest then good. So be it. This study is just a starter as we will examine Hebrews 11:1-3. It touches on an initial definition of faith and introduces the first aspect of our faith that hopefully we can all put our name next to. Let’s read:

Hebrews 11:1-4 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (2) For by it the men of old gained approval. (3) By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.

In Hebrews 11, the faith described is more practical than theoretical. It is not so much trying to define what faith is through a verbose theological discussion but is more focused on how that faith is outworked in the life of God’s people. It lists what people did by faith... how faith affected their lives. But it does start, in the very first verse, with what is the only place in the Bible (that I know of anyway) where a definition of faith is given.

Faith – A definition

Heb 11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

I’m not sure how you would define faith. You may have heard, or possibly even feel, like the little girl who was asked to define faith and said "Well, faith is believing what you know ain't so." That may raise a smile but actually, faith isn’t believing what ‘you know ain’t so.’ But that is how the world often sees it. Faith isn’t positive thinking (‘everything is going to be alright, things are getting brighter, I’m feeling better”) or just a vague wishful hope that things will work out somehow. Here is what the Bible says about faith:

‘The assurance of things hoped for’: Now that sounds pretty certain! We see first of all that faith is linked to hope. Now this is not a wishy-washy hope. Biblical hope is based on certainty. Faith is not just hoping that things will be ok and work out alright in the way we would say ‘I hope it doesn’t rain today’. It is based on the certainties of the promises of God – which are based on the very character of God. That’s why it says that faith ‘is the assurance’. It means that the promises of God, the very things that we place our hope in become so real that they impact how we live today. Hebrews 11 doesn’t try to define this further but instead gives various examples, such as Abraham who was able to leave his home and live as a stranger and an exile in this world because he was looking for a heavenly city. His assurance of what is still to come changed how he lived today. And faith can bring light to the darkest of times. It gives great optimism!

An illustration from a great missionary

I read a story recently about Adoniram Judson, the American who served as missionary to Burma for nearly 40 years. In the early years of his work in Burma he was respected and even held favour with the king of Burma. However, in 1824, with the impending war between Burma and the English based in India, all the white foreigners were viewed with great suspicion and Judson was arrested and thrown into infamous, vermin-ridden death prison of Ava. His feet were shackled with chains and all the prisoners in this death prison had their feet bound to a long bamboo. Along with this they had no ventilation in the prison and were in extreme heat. At night the guards would raise the bamboo so that their feet were in the air (with the chains handling off them and weighing them down!) while their shoulders could rest upon the ground. That was how they would spend the whole night till the guard came in the morning. Judson was in this prison for 12 months. At one point a fellow prisoner said, with a sneer on his face, "Dr. Judson, what now about the prospect of the conversion of the heathen?" Judson’s instant reply was, "The prospects are just as bright as the promises of God... ." Goodness! What faith!

‘Conviction of things not seen’ : Hebrews also tells us that faith is the conviction of things not seen. The believer is one who is aware that there is more to this world and life that what can be seen with the natural eyes. We walk by faith and not by sight. There is an inner knowledge and conviction that is hard to explain to an unbeliever but it is one that can lay hold of the things that are invisible and possess them today. A staunch atheist wrote in to the website asking me to give him the best evidence for the existence of God. He saw the Bible on the same level as myths and fairly tales. I discussed my testimony, my experience of God as a Christian and also spoke of the amazing fulfilment of Bible prophecy. I tried. No luck. He just responded with ridicule. It is difficult for someone that only goes by their natural senses to see past that. Actually, as a related side issue, I read of an atheist who said to a Quaker, "Have you ever seen your God? Have you ever touched your God? Have you ever smelt your God? And you say you have a God!" The Quaker thought for quite a while and after a long pause, replied, "Hast thou ever seen thy brains? Hast thou ever touched thy brains? Hast thou ever smelt thy brains? And thou sayest thou hast brains!"

But we understand what the atheist is getting at. If you said to an unbeliever that you have received forgiveness and had been given a gift of righteousness by God, they may well say “ok well, where is it? Where is this forgiveness, where is this gift of righteousness?” What would you say? You don’t receive a certificate from God that you can pin up on your wall when you become a Christian. The fact is, the spiritual blessings of God cannot be seen. They cannot be touched, smelt, licked or sniffed. And yet the eyes of faith apprehends them, the hand of faith receives them and the heart of faith appropriates them and receives the peace and joy that accompany such great gifts of God. And God commends us for it! But without faith, it is impossible to see these things and please God.

Want to gain approval?

Hebrews 11:2 For by it the men of old gained approval.

As we move forward with this series, we will see that the heroes of this chapter were all ‘approved’ by their faith. They were all different types of people with varying strengths and weaknesses. They weren’t supermen. They were, apart from God, ordinary men who made mistakes and were, in some cases, unlikely heroes. But that is good because it means we can relate to them. And their lives speak to us of different types and tests of faith. For example:

Person

Main Theme

Description

Abel

Righteousness by faith

Speaks of the righteousness that comes by faith as he knew he had to approach God through a sacrifice that was not of his own works.

Enoch

Walk of Faith

His was a constant and consistent walk of faith with God, motivated by a desire for God (until he was taken!)

Noah

Faith to obey and stand apart

His faith was in obeying God’s command which meant standing alone in righteousness even in the midst of opposition.

Abraham

Faith to Go!

By faith he left and gave up all that he knew to follow the call of God

Sarah

Faith to believe the impossible!

She had to believe the impossible could be possible. She had to believe God when all of nature and those around her said that she couldn’t conceive... And by faith she did!

Moses

Faith to overcome self

He had to overcome his focus on his own weaknesses and inadequacies to obey what God was calling him to do.

David

Faith to overcome giants!

David, you could say, had one giant problem... but overcame it through faith!

And so we could carry on. Maybe you see yourself in something of their trials and difficulties that they faced. God will spend all of our lives teaching us about this life and to walk by faith if we will let Him. Remember – in themselves these were ordinary people. But one thing was the same – they could all see more than the common man – they all saw the invisible. They all were able to walk according to the eyes of faith.

For by it the men of old gained approval – that is, “By faith...” It is worth pulling over for a minute and thinking about this. Nineteen times in Hebrews 11 you will find the little phrase ‘by faith...’ to describe what motivated and empowered the people in this chapter. Faith enabled them to do remarkable things, whether they saw the fulfilment of the promise or not. But it is not a walk in the park! Our faith is tested and tried.

Martin Luther said "Faith sees the invisible, believes the incredible and receives the impossible. Then, it accepts the impossible, does without the indispensable and bears the intolerable." Notice that this quote, like what we see in Hebrews 11, involves things we like to hear as well as some we may not.

“Faith sees the invisible!”... Yay wonderful faith!

“It does without the indispensible”... Ooooh, I’d rather not.

“It receives the impossible!”... Hooray, give me more!

“It bears the intolerable”... Hmmm, do we have to?

We see this in Hebrews 11 as mentioned. By faith some quenched the power of fire and shut the mouths of lions! Hooray! Others, by faith, were stoned and sawn in two not receiving what was promised. Ugh. By faith women received back their dead by resurrection (yippee!) while others, by faith, were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection. Eeeek.

But they did what they did ‘by faith’. How about you? Are you currently walking by faith? Ok, your current story may not be a lion-mouth-shutting, goliath-stone-slaying epic like some in Hebrews 11. But you have your story and so do I. Life throws us all enough curve-balls that require a daily entrusting of our life into the hands of the One who upholds all things and cares for us. We should also remember that faith thrives when living by normal sight fails. Those aren’t generally the times we look and pray for but they are the times that faith comes into its own. George Mueller said ‘God delights to increase the faith of His children...I say, and say it deliberately--trials, difficulties and sometimes defeat, are the very food of faith...We should take them out of His hands as evidences of His love and care for us in developing more and more that faith which He is seeking to strengthen in us.’

Something we should all be able to put our name next to!

Hebrews 11:3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.

We come now to the first step in this walk of faith. It used to be a very simple step to take. This very first step is this – believing that there is a God who created the Heavens and the Earth. Now you might think that you aren’t some hero like the ones listed here in Hebrews 11. You may think that your life of faith is pipsqueak in comparison. But hopefully you can put your name next to this first step in the walk of faith – ‘By faith, (put your name here) understands that the worlds were prepared by the word of God.’ [3] Historically, people learning to walk by faith had very little problem taking this first step in believing there is a God who created what we can see. It was obvious to all. As scripture says Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.’ (Rom 1:20) Unfortunately, with the current wisdom of this age (in the West especially) some are finding this first little step just too big to take. Many believe that there was no cause for the Universe. That it is just the result of random processes and a lot, a real lot, of time. They believe that in the beginning there was nothing, and then it exploded.

But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that there has to be a cause for the logic, beauty and intelligence displayed in creation. From a mathematical point of view statisticians have shown that it simply isn’t possible that life could have arisen on this planet by chance. What design, anywhere, doesn’t have a designer? What building doesn’t have a builder? What coded system, like we find in DNA, doesn’t have a coder? I did a science degree at University. Science can tell us many things. We can learn a tremendous amount of knowledge through scientific exploration and endeavour. But science can’t answer mankind’s most fundamental and important questions:

How did we get here or how did life originate?
What is the purpose in life?
What is wrong with the heart of man?
What are good morals?
What happens when we die?

In contrast, through faith I know who created me, I know why I am here and I know where I am going when I die. In fact, through faith and our understanding of God’s word, we can even speak of future events and know how things to come are going to play out and how this age will end!

The greater miracle than creation

But let’s look at verse three in a different way. Verse three, in a roundabout way, sums up what the rest of this chapter is all about. It speaks of a God who caused light to shine where there was darkness. It speaks of a God who created something out of nothing. There was just darkness and He spoke saying ‘Let there be light!’ And there was. Amazing! But that isn’t His greatest miracle. Yes, He can make something out of nothing but His greater work is making ‘a somebody out of a nobody’. That’s what the rest of this chapter and these stories of faith are all about. God’s first act of creation back in Genesis also points to what God would do in the New Creation which all true believers have become. Paul understood this and wrote:

2 Corinthians 4:6 For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

The first act of creation was a wonderful miracle, but it pales in comparison to the wonder of the new creation. We don’t see what God has done here very well yet. It is hidden in Christ. But we will.

Conclusion – Faith: More precious than gold

To conclude, let’s look briefly at another great passage about faith.

1 Peter 1:3-9 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, (4) to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, (5) who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (6) In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, (7) so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; (8) and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, (9) obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.

This is a great passage and we can’t do it justice here but I just want to end with three points from this passage:

  1. You faith will need to be proved . It will be tested. Faith is not theoretical. Yes, it based on truth but it has to be proved. I remember my first big test when I got really sick back in 1997. Boy did I flunk. It was like it was the end and I didn’t want to go on. I was like Peter sinking fast while he looked at the waves! I’m not sure what would have happened had Jesus not extended His hand and lifted me up. Do not think it a strange thing when your faith is tested.

  2. Your faith is precious. It is precious to you and it is precious to God. Do not let anyone steal it. And listen up – everything, everything, that is precious to God will come under attack from the enemy who hates God and hates those that love Him.

  3. Your faith will end in sight. Someone once said ‘Faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of faith is to see what we believe.’ That’s true of today but even more so, how great shall it be at the end of our days or at the end of this age (whichever comes first!) when our faith is rewarded by seeing Him whom we believe? ‘Faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of faith is to see what we believe.’ Our faith will be rewarded. At the moment we walk by faith and not by sight but our faith will end with sight. We will see, with our eyes, Him who currently cannot be seen.

If you have been struggling, hold on and set your eyes on Him who is unseen once again. If you have been getting complacent in your walk, think again as to what is important and precious in this life. God says it is your faith. If you have been running well, don’t get proud but keep living in a constant relationship with your creator and finish well!

In Hebrew 11:13, after speaking about some of the ‘heroes’ of the faith it says this:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. (Heb 11:13)

That is why they are heroes!

Faith in God isn’t just how we start the Christian life. It is how we walk in this life and how we want to finish it.



[1] I was thinking about who my first ever hero was and that is an easy one – Colonel George Armstrong Custer of the US Calvary! Now I have no idea whether he was actually a nice guy but as a little 6-7 year old, hearing about his battles against the Indians such as Sitting Bull and Crazy horse (both of whom I also liked!) was enough to fill me with as much awe and respect as a little 6-7 year old can muster. He died in the battle of little big horn and to this day it is disputed who killed him. White Bull said he did. So did Brave Bear. This only angered Rain-in-the-Face who had claimed credit. This in turn infuriated Flat Lip who said he did it! Oooh... ‘tis one of life’s great mysteries right up there with Loch Ness, Bigfoot and the mystery shooter on the grassy knoll! But such was my awe of Custer that I got my pocket knife out and carved his name into the side of the dressing room drawers in my bedroom. Pretty sure the parents didn’t want to sell those. Well... I hope! Bit late now.

[2] How did you go? In order we’ve got David, Moses, Joseph, Abel, Gideon, Noah and last but not least, Rahab.

[3] Even this is not without its challenges! The last time I took children’s church I was speaking about God and a young boy called Caleb said ‘Where did God come from?’ Then another piped up quickly with ‘Yeah, who created God?’ I proceeded to answer that as best I could talking about His eternal nature which is difficult for us to understand etc., and when I was finished a young girl said ‘Yeah... but where did God come from?’ Defeated by a 4 year old girl! The eternal nature of God is something our minds can’t fully grasp. But creation testifies of an intelligent creator and by faith we understand that He created what we now see and enjoy.