We're so glad you've chosen to join us today!
When we meet together in person, we share our joys and concerns with each other before we focus on our Sunday school lesson. Think about your needs and concerns right now, and if you like, you can share them in the comments.
Today’s lesson is from the 11th chapter of the book of Hebrews. It is about how faith has been the thing that set visionaries apart from others in every age. Many have sacrificed a great deal, even their very lives, for their belief in something better, even though they never saw it realized in their lifetimes. The lesson asks us if we would emulate that kind of faith in our generation.
Our Sunday school and church is now open so that we can join to worship God, to learn about God’s word and to encourage each other in person. We are grateful to be back together, but we continue to pray for those who not yet able to or who do not yet feel comfortable participating in person. We are glad that those who cannot be with us physically are able to learn and worship with us here online.
The following prayer was written by Dr. Richard Einerson and published in his book, “Prayers of the People.” Dr. Einerson also has a website that features prayers inspired by the Revised Common Lectionary at richardeinerson.com. In this prayer, we ask God to give us the gift of faith that reveals itself in the way we live our lives.
Let’s pray together.
O holy One, we thank you that we stand in a long line of believers who have been faithful through the ages. You have been leading your people through trial and difficulty and have always set before them hope for today and hope for a better tomorrow. We pray that you would bless us in our time as we seek to be as faithful as our forebears. May we too know the faith which is filled with hope in things not seen.
• Give to us a faith like the grain of mustard seed which had small beginnings but which yielded large results.
• Give to us the faith to move the mountains of difficulty which come to each of us.
• Give to us the faith that sees a distant goal and is willing to work to achieve it.
• Give to us a faith which has a vision of a new world where peace and love characterize the transactions of people and of nations and where war is no more.
• Give to us a faith such as Abraham’s to move forward not knowing our destination but trusting in your guiding providence.
• Give to us a faith which is able to endure those moments of personal disquiet and to trust that you are with us.
• Give to us a faith which sees the welfare of humankind as our business because it is the focus of your enduring love for your people.
• Give to us a faith which sees beyond the years to an eternal city.
God, give us faith to walk with you through the ebb and flow and the victories and the defeats of life and to achieve victory and mastery of life. Amen
This week's lesson is on Hebrews 11:1-8, 13-16.
Introduction and Lesson Context
The 11th chapter of Hebrews is often called “The Hall of Fame of Faith” because it lists an impressive number of characters from the Old Testament who demonstrated faith in their particular times.
However, the chapter is not simply a recitation of heroes from the past. It is the culmination of an argument the author has been building since the beginning of the book. The purpose of this chapter is to show that for generations before Christ people of faith stood apart from the principles that guided most other people of their time because they believed in a better future that God had for them and for the world.
The author wants us to see that the reality they were looking for arrived in Jesus Christ. He also intends for us to see that, even though we live on the other side of the cross, we still must emulate their faith as we wait for the culmination of Christ’s work on the cross.
There was a time, maybe 100 years ago, when most scholars believed the book of Hebrews was written by the Apostle Paul. Almost no modern scholars hold that position today.
Still we can tell that the letter was written by a person who, like Paul, was well educated and understood Greek culture and philosophy as well as the historical faith of the Jews.
Although we often remove the 11th chapter of Hebrews from its context in the book, the author began writing about the importance of faith and endurance in the previous chapter. We can even detect the beginnings of his idea of faith as a pilgrimage as far back as chapters 3 and 4. So faith, according to the author of Hebrews, is not something we simply have or do not have. It is something that we live into as we follow God’s leading from day to day.
The Meaning of Faith (verses 1-3)
Like Socrates, the author of Hebrews believes that there is an invisible reality beyond the visible world. Socrates also argues that the invisible world is more knowable even more real than the visible world. This has led some scholars to say that the author of Hebrews bases his argument on Platonic philosophy.
However, Hebrews only goes as far as to say that faith is based on the belief that there is, indeed, a reality beyond the one we see now. It is a deeper and more perfect reality. Those who have faith that such a reality exists and that we will experience it in the future, order their lives around that belief. They have an assurance and a confidence that what we do not see now truly exists.
That firm belief is what drove the people of the Old Testament to behave contrary to others who lived in their time. And God commended them or “gave a good report of them” because their lives of faith gave witness to a deeper reality.
Question: How might people behave differently today if they truly believed there was a deeper reality waiting for us at the end of this life? What lifestyle change might we make if we were sure of it?
None of us was around when the universe was formed. In fact, no human being was. And yet, by faith, we believe that God was somehow behind its formation. Yet we see the effects of creation around us every day.
On an invisible molecular level, our lives are effected in tremendous ways. We need only think of the hundreds of thousands of people who have died in our country or the millions who have died around the world from the coronavirus to understand that the invisible has a great impact on our reality.
The author of Hebrews argues that there is a deeper, invisible reality that affects our lives and that the Scriptures attest to. This reality is not seen even with electron microscopes but only with our “spiritual eyes.”
II. Examples of Faith (verses 4-8)
The passage now moves to some examples of how this invisible reality worked out in the lives of ancient people. Abel, for example, brought a better sacrifice than Cain. The author does not say what made it “better,” but it was probably because somehow Abel understood that a blood offering was superior to one of fruits and vegetables, looking forward to what would be the Hebrew sacrificial system.
Even though Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, God heard Abel’s blood calling out for justice. And somehow, the author of Hebrews says, Abel still speaks to us, as a witness to to the importance of righteousness.
Next we move to the brief story of Enoch, who lived a life that was so pleasing to God that God did not allow him to suffer death. Instead, God took him. In other words, I think, Enoch based his life on the belief that a better world existed beyond this one, and because of that faith, God allowed him to see it without even having to pass through death.
The faith exemplified by these two people (and many others) shows that faith is at the heart of every life that pleases God. There are two requirements for the kind of faith Hebrews describes. The first requirement is that we believe that God exists. People can live their lives as though everything around them is by random chance and natural phenomenon that we don’t yet understand. They can believe that there is no deeper reality and that death is simply the end of existence. In that case, they have faith only in the natural order but no place for God.
But the kind of faith Hebrews describes requires a belief that God exists. And not just any kind of God, not a god like the Greeks believed in, gods that were unpredictable and distant. The God we must believe in is one who is just and who rewards those trust God and seek God. This God must be both good and powerful.
With that in mind, the writer of Hebrews turns to the story of Noah. He trusted that God’s warning about a future flood were true, even though no one else heard the warning or believed it would happen. But eventually his actions showed that his belief in an invisible future reality were justified, and his act of faith in building the ark saved his family and condemned those who refused to believe. In fact, the writer says, they condemned the world.
The Sunday school lesson explains that the Bible uses the phrase “the world” in three ways:
* Referring to the physical planet (Acts 17:24 and Romans 10:18)
* Referring to the human inhabitants of the planet (Luke 2:1 and John 3:16)
* Referring to the world’s value system as opposed to God’s (John 14:17 and Colossians 2:20)
All three meanings could be intended here because the flood condemned the planet, at least in part, because it led to the literal death of people and because it acted as a condemnation of the world’s value system, which rejects God and God’s word.
As Noah’s decision to act in faith was in and of itself a condemnation of the darkness around him, so it is in our day. The truth of the gospel, faithfully and charitably lived out, is a testimony against sin. It is sufficient on its own to condemn the darkness that is all around us.
Question: What could you do or what do you already do (that might not even involve saying a word) that “preaches” the gospel and, in a sense, “condemns” the world?
The writer of Hebrews next mentions Abraham, the great father of faith. Abraham heard God calling him to go to an unknown land that God would show him. Contrary to all common sense and culture at that time, Abraham obeyed God and left the safety and security of his home.
By nature, human beings want certainty and security. Most of the time, however, we are driven by fear, insecurity, and uncertainty. The fears are so common to human experience that no examples are needed. Chief among them, though, is the fear of the unknown. So many people have been held back from achieving great things for God because of this kind of fear. In fact, probably almost everyone has.
When God calls us to a task — as when he called Abraham to a higher mission — he calls us to trust in him and to follow his directions. We may never be called to head out to an open desert as Abraham was, but we will be called to many things that we cannot anticipate or imagine. Are you ready to trust God even when you can’t see the finish line or aren’t (yet) equipped with the resources to get there?
III. The Goal of Faith (verses 13-16)
All of these people were still living by faith when they died, the scripture writer says. In other words, faith never ends and they remained faith to the end. All of these faithful people died without ever seeing the fruits of their labor — in other words, the verification of their faith. This is hard to imagine in our world, which expects instant gratification and quick results.
But these “foreigners and strangers on earth” still speak to us of the importance of faith, even though they are long deceased (except perhaps, for Enoch). This world was not their final home. They were on a pilgrimage to God.
There is a German word, “fernweh,” that literally means “farsickness.” It refers to being homesick for a place you have never been. Had the fathers of the faith been homesick for a place they had left, they could have gone back to their home country. Given the risks and challenges they faced, it would have been understandable for them to return home. But they yearned for something better.
Perhaps the Jewish Christians the author of Hebrews wrote to seriously considered doing just that, returning to the Judaism in which they grew up. But in following Christ, they had sought better place.
“Better” is a key word in Hebrews. Of the New Testament’s 19 occurrences of the word translated “better,” 13 are in Hebrews. All of this served as a model for the writer’s original audience. If they oriented their desires toward a heavenly country, they would find the true and living God there — the one who “is not ashamed to be called their God, who has prepared a city for them, a permanent place of rest. (See Hebrews 4.)
The apostle Paul wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). We sometimes undervalue the role of imitation in spiritual maturity. Perhaps you don’t feel confident enough to invite others to use your life as a model for their own discipleship. Wouldn’t it be arrogant to do so?
Paul didn’t see it that way, and neither did the other apostles. All of us can think of others — ministers, Sunday school teachers, ordinary congregants — who were influential in teaching us and molding us in the life of faith. We too are called to live in such a way that we can add surnames to the list of “the righteous one[s] [who] will live by faith. (Hebrews 10:38)
Lord God, we come to you acknowledging our struggle to trust your promises as the distractions of life cause us to lose focus. Strengthen our faith so that we may follow you wherever you lead. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Today's benediction is from the New International Version.
Next week's lesson will be on Hebrews 10:23-36.
Remember, next week we will not be meeting in person, since worship will be at the fair.
We are a small, rural Presbyterian church in southwestern Pennsylvania.