Hebrews 11 is a description of faith in action — how God’s people have always lived by faith. In this chapter, several verses are devoted to the example of Abraham, who is called “the father of the faithful.” Genesis 15:6 tells us that he “believed the Lord.” Hebrews 11:8 says, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (see Genesis 12:1).
The author’s purpose is not to prove that Abraham had faith (the readers already knew that), but to give examples that 1) illustrate a life of faith and 2) encourage the readers to have similar faith when they are pressured to abandon Christianity. So the author selects situations from the life of Abraham that have some similarity to situations the readers are in. Just as Abraham had been called out of Mesopotamia, they had been called out of Judaism toward a promise they could not see, and they obeyed and went.
“By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:9). It is possible that the readers had physically left their homeland and moved to a new city, but it is more likely that the author is suggesting that the readers felt like strangers religiously. They probably met in a house church instead of a synagogue; they did not have a feeling that they had a permanent place. Welcome to the club, the author says. Abraham felt like that, too, even when he was in the Promised Land.
God does not want us to view this world as a permanent home, because he has something better for us. We are encouraged to see the future with Abraham: “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (verse 10). Canaan had many cities with foundations, but they were all destined to fall, because they were built on physical foundations, and the cities were filled with violence and idolatry.
Abraham was looking forward to something far more permanent than stone. Genesis says nothing about this, but our author believes that Abraham had religious motives that were similar to his own. We should look to the future reward, not to the circumstances we are in right now.
Verse 11 has a translation difficulty because the sentence seems to have Sarah as the subject, but the Greek verb refers to the father’s role in reproduction. Some translations choose to put Sarah as a parenthetical thought (Even though Sarah was old, Abraham was made able to father children…). Others, such as the NIV, make the verb appropriate to a mother’s role: “And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.”
Sarah laughed; so did Abraham (Genesis 17:17; 18:12). They both thought they were too old to have children, but God blessed them with a child anyway. Abraham even had children years later, after Sarah died (Genesis 25:1-2). The author’s point is that God did what he had promised, so we should also consider God faithful, and trust him to keep the promises of salvation he has made to us.
“And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (Hebrews 11:11, referring to Genesis 22:17). Just as God made the universe from something that could not be seen, he made the Israelites from something humanly impossible.
The author is not done with his examples yet, and is not even done with Abraham, but he interrupts his list of faith-accomplishments to summarize some lessons from the story for the benefit of his readers. “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own” (Hebrews 11:12-13).
The point: We do not receive all the promises of God in this life. Although we are given eternal life, we still die. But the gift is real, and the promise will be kept. We have to trust God on it. (We certainly can’t bring it about on our own power!) We look to God, not this world, for meaning and purpose in life. Our current life is a temporary training time. We do not “belong” in this society and culture; our permanent home and allegiance is the kingdom of God, and that is where our hopes should be.
“If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (verses 15-16).
As far as we know, Abraham never had a desire to go back to Mesopotamia, but he could have gone if he wanted to. He could have turned his back on God’s promises, but he did not. In contrast, the readers of Hebrews were tempted to go back to where they had come from — back into Judaism. Don’t do it, the author seems to say. There is a better country waiting for you through Christ. His kingdom is calling, and God will be pleased if you are faithful, and he is planning on your presence in his kingdom.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
The roll call resumes in verse 17, with Abraham’s most severe trial: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned’” (verses 17-18, referring to Genesis 21:12 and 22:1-18).
Abraham could not see how God would keep his promise, but in faith he did what God told him to do. He did not know how God would do it, but he guessed at one possibility: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham himself had once been “as good as dead” (verse 11); the same God who gave him life could also give Isaac life. When Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, he told his servants that “we” will return (Genesis 22:5); he did not expect Isaac to stay dead.
As the story turns out, however, God provided a substitute sacrifice (just as he later provided his own Son as a substitute for us), and Hebrews concludes: “and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” In Abraham’s mind, Isaac was as good as dead, but he was rescued from it.
The author has given many details about Abraham; now he picks up the pace with a rapid-fire summary of three descendants: “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones” (Hebrews 11:20-22, referring to Genesis 27:27-40; 48:10-20;50:25).
Isaac and Jacob believed in the promise of God, and passed it on to their children. Jacob, blind and on his deathbed, blessed Ephraim and Manasseh — acting on faith, not sight. Joseph also acted on the promise that God gave Abraham. Although Joseph was prince of Egypt, he knew that his descendants would later move to Canaan, and so he directed that his bones should also be moved. It was a reminder to the Israelites that Canaan was the land God promised to them.
Things to think about
- When God called me, did I understand where I was going? (verse 8)
- How “at home” do I feel in this world? (verse 9)
- Am I prepared to die before receiving the promises? (verse 12)
- Have I ever wanted to go back to where I came from? (verse 15)
- When faced with death, do I think of God’s promises? (verses 21-22)