By Faith

Original Date: 
Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hebrews 11:1-3 Hall of Faith: By Faith

To Get in, You have to be Great
The Hall of Fame. It’s a sporting tradition. Athletes play their whole careers with the hope that once their playing days are over they will be honored for their accomplishments in the sport they love. Usually elected by a committee of their peers, induction into the Hall of Fame is an accomplishment no one can take away.

We all know about the famous Halls: the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio; but there are many more than those two. Nearly every sport has a Hall of Fame, and there are even Halls of Fame for lesser known activities.

So, I give you now, the lesser known Halls of Fame:

For example, if you find yourself in Wildwood, NJ you might want to check out the National Marbles Hall of Fame. The museum will inform you that marbles were played by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The game was brought to the US by European settlers and is still played today. In fact, every year Wildwood plays host to the National Marbles Tournament, which is held in the “Ringer Bowl”. It’s always held on the Monday after Father’s Day, so if you leave after the sermon, you can probably get there in time. Good news: if you win the tournament you are automatically inducted into the Hall. Bad news: you have to be between the ages of 7 and 15 to compete.

Or, again, if you happen to be in Arlington, TX you can check out the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame. Bowling is pretty popular, so it is not a surprise that it would have a Hall of Fame. But what’s notable is that Taylor Swift is one of their honorees. Apparently, every year the Hall elects one celebrity who has promoted the sport, and Swift likes to go bowling. So, if you’re hoping to meet her, you might want to work on picking up that 7 – 10 split.

Or, here’s a weird one: In Chattanooga, TN there is an International Towing Hall of Fame. At first I thought this was for tractor and truck pulls and that sort of thing, but no: this is for guys who drive tow trucks, wrecker services. The museum showcases tow trucks of all shapes and sizes. Those elected to the hall have made significant contributions to the towing and recovery industry either as pioneers, drivers, or engineers. There is even a “Wall of the Fallen” memorial on the grounds, for those who have died in the line of duty. On the one hand, that’s a reminder that working on the sides of busy highways is a very dangerous job; on the other I find it kind of funny because it almost equates tow truck driving with service in the military.

But my favorite Hall of Fame is found in Plano, Texas. It is the Cockroach Hall of Fame. This is actually a free museum in the back of Michael Bohdan’s pest control shop. And it features dead bugs dressed up and posed like celebrities. So, you can see Liberoachi. Marilyn Monroach. And Elvis Roachly. The owner says he doesn’t really like roaches, at least not in people’s houses. But when they’re dead and dressed up, he says, they’re not too bad.

NonHeroic Heroes
I call your attention to these Halls of Fame because today we are starting a new series of sermons, and the passage of scripture which we’ll be looking at this summer is its own Hall of Fame, of sorts. From now until the middle of August, we are going to be focusing our attention on a rather famous chapter of the Bible: Hebrews chapter 11. It’s often called the “Faith Chapter” or “The Hall of Fame of Faith” or, simply, “The Hall of Faith.”

This is a chapter that references a lot of the “big names” from the Old Testament. Folks like Noah, and Abraham, and Moses, and Rahab. It talks about how they followed God and served Him faithfully.

And so, this summer we are going to follow Hebrews 11 and look at these great Old Testament stories. We’re going to spend time in the Hall of Faith. That’s why we have these great drawings that kids in the church have done hanging on our walls. We’re going to go back to these great stories and see what they have to teach us.

And the thing that all these Bible characters have in common is faith. Take a look at our text for today, the first three verses of Hebrews 11:

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for. 3By 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.

After this, the chapter goes on to start telling the stories of various Old Testament people. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and so on. And each time it moves to a new person, it starts the same way: “By faith…” “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice…” “By faith Enoch was taken from this life…” “By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born…” “By faith…” “By faith…” “By faith…”

As verse 2 says, this is what these ancients were commended for. They get into the Bible’s Hall of Fame because they have faith.

Sometimes we call these folks “heroes” of the Bible. They’re the ones who do great deeds and face enormous challenges. And yet, oddly enough, they are never the heroes in their own story. What we’re going to find is that God is always the hero in each of these stories. It is always God who comes through. Their role is always to trust.

In fact, that is a pretty good description of faith: Faith means letting God be the hero in your story. These folks are heroes of faith. They are heroes because they let God take the lead. What gets them into the Hall of Faith—and what will get us into the Hall of Faith as well—is operating not out of our own strength, but trusting God to provide.

My agenda for us today, then, as we start this new series, is twofold. We’re not going to start looking at the inductees in the Hall of Faith yet, that will start next week. I want to begin by looking at why faith matters—I want to try to set this chapter in its context—and then I want to look more closely at what faith is—we’ll look at the chapter’s definition of faith. So: Why faith matters, and then What faith is.

Standing Your Ground
First, why faith matters. I want to look at how this faith chapter fits into the rest of the book of Hebrews so we can see what the author is trying to teach us by putting it here. But to do that, I need to take a few moments to tell you about the book of Hebrews.

Hebrews is an unusual book in the Bible. For one thing, we don’t know exactly what it is. It is often called an “epistle” and it is grouped with the letters of Paul; but we’re not really sure if it is a letter or not. It doesn’t have any of the greetings that usually begin a letter and there is no naming of the author. A lot of scholars suspect that rather than being a letter, it is a sermon that was written down and then distributed for study to various communities.

Which leads to the second thing we don’t know about Hebrews: we don’t know who it was written for. The fact that it is called “Hebrews” would indicate that it was written to a group of Jews—possibly Jewish Christians or perhaps a community of Jews that the author was hoping to convert. But that word, “Hebrews” does not come from the text itself. A title, “To the Hebrews,” was placed on a number of early copies, but we’re not entirely sure why. The book does make many references to the Old Testament sacrificial system—references that would be better understood by a Jewish reader than a Gentile reader—but we don’t know exactly who the intended audience was. Most likely it was written for Jewish Christians living either in Palestine or in Rome, but we can’t be sure.

And, of course, the most vexing problem is that we do not know who wrote it. As I said, it is grouped with Paul’s letters, so some have thought it might be a letter of Paul. But the fact that it is placed at the end of Paul’s letters even though it is longer than most of them (and Paul’s letters are organized from longest to shortest) indicates that early on people had doubts about Paul’s authorship. Paul tends to sign his letters, and this is unsigned; and the style of writing is just a whole lot different than anything else he wrote.

Other suggestions have been that Apollos wrote it; or perhaps even Priscilla (which would explain why it is unsigned: female authorship in that culture would have hurt credibility.) But the fact is, we just don’t know. Origen, a church father from the early third century said: “who wrote the Epistle, God only knows the truth.”

So we don’t know a lot about the form or the audience or the author of the book. But one thing we do know is that the people who received the book faced persecution for their faith. We know this from Hebrews 10:32-34, just a few verses before the faith chapter begins:

32Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. 33Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.

Again, we don’t know all the details, but we can figure out that these folks faced some pretty severe persecution. Verse 32 calls it “a great contest in the face of suffering.” There were public insults and prison time and the seizure of property and other indignities based on their faith.

And we can also figure out that these folks stood their ground. They stayed faithful to Jesus. They refused to recant just because they were uncomfortable. More than that, they identified with others who were being persecuted. They took steps of risk taking love in order help those who were suffering. They endured hardship for the sake of proclaiming the good news of Jesus and advancing His kingdom.

And the question might be: why did they do that? Why did they suffer and sacrifice and risk insult and maybe even death? And the answer is there in verse 34:

You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.

The power to stand their ground for Christ and to be joyfully sacrificial in the path of love came from knowing that they had a better possession beyond the grave. They were willing to give up comfort and security in the here and now because they were confident they had something better coming. In other words, they had faith.

They had faith in God’s promises. They believed that God had their back. They knew that nothing that could be taken away from them now could compare to what God had in store for them later. So they stood their ground for Jesus.

And I want you to see that this is the set up for chapter 11, because this is why faith matters. The book says this about them taking radical steps of obedience for Jesus and then, just a few verses later, it launches into this chapter that describes a whole bunch of people who have such a clear picture of their future with God that they were able to live lives of incredible impact here on earth.

That’s what Hebrews 11 wants to teach us. It wants to teach us that faith gives the power to risk and love joyfully for the cause of Christ. Faith helps us to see beyond the short-term losses we might experience for being loyal to God--the self-centered comfort we might lose by serving our neighbor, the brief pleasure of sin that we might give up by resisting temptation, the public ridicule we might endure for speaking up for Christ, and so on—and instead faith sees the far greater rewards of standing our ground for Him. “The better and lasting possessions.”

Faith matters because it is the power to live a high impact life for Jesus. Faith matters because when we let God be the hero in our story we are able to live lives of radical commitment to Him. Faith matters because it is how we get into the Bible’s Hall of Fame.

Substance and Evidence
So, second item on my agenda: What is faith? I’ve said that faith is letting God be the hero in your story, but can we drill down deeper into it than that? Here we turn to our text, where we see that Hebrews 11 begins with a two part definition of faith. Hebrews 11:1:

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

This is a classic verse of scripture, and one well-worth memorizing. Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see. The definition of faith centers on surety and certainty.

There’s actually more going on here than meets the eye. In English, the words “sure” and “certain” mean pretty much the same thing. I checked my computer’s thesaurus and both of them showed up as the most similar word to the other. But in the original Greek, the words these words represent are both complex and deep with meaning. Some of you may remember the King James Version translation, which does a pretty good job of getting at the depth of what is being said here:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Let’s use the two parts of this translation to dig into the meaning of faith.

So, consider: Faith is the substance of things hoped for. The word that lies behind “substance” is a very rich Greek word. It’s the word “hypostasis” and it means the “essence” or “nature” or “reality” of something. When I saw that word this week it took me back to our series last November on Trinity, because hypostasis is one of the words theologians chose to describe the essential, divine nature of Jesus. It’s a word which literally means “that which stands under.”

So if you take the word figuratively, you can see why the NIV translates it as “sure”. It’s a way of saying that faith is deep confidence that the promises of God will come true so that we can bank on them. That confidence would be enough to free us from the fears and greed and worldliness that prevent us from risk-taking, sacrificial, God-honoring love. If we have a strong confidence that God will care for us and bring us to glory and fulfill all His promises to us, then we will be able to set our self-interest aside and freely serve others.

But the literal translation, the King James Translation, is even more evocative. Because if you think about a substance or reality, then faith becomes more than something you believe will happen later, to something that—in some sense—you already possess.

In other words, by saying that “faith is the substance of things hoped for” this is saying that the goodness and power of God’s promises are so clearly present in our lives that it is as though we already have them.

It’s like, when you are driving to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving Dinner and the anticipation of turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie is so vivid to you that you can say: “I can already taste it.” Though it is still in the future, there’s a sense in which you already have it.

John Piper puts it like this:

Faith grasps - lays hold of - God's preciousness so firmly that in the faith itself there is the substance of the goodness and the sweetness promised. Faith doesn't create what we hope for - that would be a mere mind game. Faith is a spiritual apprehending or perceiving or tasting or sensing of the beauty and sweetness and preciousness and goodness of what God promises… Faith does not just feel confident that this is coming some day. Faith has spiritually laid hold of and perceived and tasted that it is real. (What Faith knows and Hopes For, June 1, 1997)

Faith, in a sense, already has the substance or nature of what is hoped for in it. Faith is a way of possessing the reality of God’s promises before they even come to pass.

That is a deep confidence in God.

Or, again, consider the second half of the definition in Hebrews: Faith is the evidence of things unseen.

This seems very unusual. We’re talking about something that is unseen, something that is not readily evident to the senses. Evidence is something that is readily apparent to the senses. So how can we have evidence for something that, by definition, there is no evidence for?

Once again the King James Version has chosen the literal translation of the Greek word, which usually means “proof” or “test.” As the word “evidence” would indicate, it’s a word that gets used in judicial settings. The NIV chooses to go with a more figurative interpretation, using the word “certain.”

And you can see why: how can faith be evidence? Doesn’t faith need evidence to justify it?

But I think the KJV has it right. And we can go to verse 3 for an illustration of what this is saying:

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.

Do you see the connection? Verse 1 says "faith is the evidence of things not seen," and verse 3 says that faith understands that the world - what is seen - was made out of what is not seen - the command of God.

Here's the question: How do we know that God made the world out of nothing? Not only were we not there when it happened, but, even if we had been there, we would not have been able to see the act of creation, because you can't see the command of God. So how can we know or "understand" that what is seen was made out of things invisible?

And the answer is: “by faith." “Faith is the evidence of things not seen."

As I understand it, this is a way of saying that when we look at the creation around us, it is self-evident that there must be some deep intelligence and creativity behind it. As Psalm 19 says: “the heavens declare the glory of God.” Romans 1:20 says that through the creation around us God’s invisible attributes become clear. The creation itself makes it obvious that there must be a God. The evidence that God made the world is in the things He made.

Faith, then, is the spiritual perceiving of the fingerprints of God upon the things He has made. The order, the beauty, the greatness, the complexity and so on are the evidence that God has made the world. And the ability to see those fingerprints is a kind of evidence as well.

We all look at the same fingerprints, but some see and some don't. Those who see have the evidence - the testimony - in themselves. And that is faith.

Bernie and Leona
So let’s review: we are going to spend the next couple of months in the Bible’s Hall of Faith. We’re going to learn the stories of some of the Bible’s most famous people. And what makes them famous, what they all have in common, is faith. They are found in this prestigious chapter because they let God be the hero in their story.

That means that they had such confidence in God that they took hold of His promises even before they came to pass. The substance of things hoped for. And they had the spiritual insight to see God at work even when it wasn’t obvious to the senses. The evidence of things unseen.

And this faith allowed them to risk and love joyfully for the cause of God. because they had faith, because they let God be the hero, they were able to do things that changed the world.

Now, to close, let me tell you about somebody who would be in my personal Hall of Faith. At my last church there was an elderly couple—dignified and saintly and beautiful people. Their names were Bernie and Leona Engelkes.

And back in 1947 they had a baby girl with Down’s Syndrome. Now, this was an era where it was common for special needs children to be sent to special homes. They weren’t called special needs children back then, the terms for them were not very kind. And the advice to parents was to keep them out of sight.

But not Bernie and Leona. They kept their daughter at home, and they became advocates for her. When the only school that would take her was 40 miles away, Leona became a bus driver and started a route for other families who were fighting for their children in the same way. As their daughter reached adulthood, they pioneered employment opportunities and saw to it that she had the chance to live a life of meaning and dignity. At an age when most parents had become empty-nesters, Bernie and Leona kept their daughter at home well into their 80s. One of my enduring memories of them is settling into their pew at church, checking the bulletin for that morning’s scripture lesson, and then helping her look it up in her Bible.

When their daughter was born, the life expectancy for someone with Down’s Syndrome as severe as hers was somewhere in the 30s. She lived to be 59, and her Mom and Dad loved and cared for her right to the end. Four months after I spoke at her funeral, I spoke at Bernie’s. Once his daughter was gone he knew it was o.k. for him to depart in peace.

Now, I tell you about Bernie and Leona not to make heroes out of them, but because they would tell you it was God who was the hero in their story. They were able to make sacrifices of love, they were able alter their family, their work routines, and their retirement, because they had faith. They possessed the promises of God that told them anything they gave up in this life was minor compared to what He had in store for them. They had confidence that one day they were going to see their daughter in heaven, and she would be whole. They saw the evidence of God’s fingerprints throughout their daughter’s beautiful life.

Oh, and by the way, the name of Bernie and Leona’s daughter was Faith.