Studies in the Book of Hebrews—Chapter 11:8-21

The Father of the Faithful

THE FAITH LIFE OF ABRAHAM stands out very prominently in the Scriptures, and the more so when we realize that in the city of Ur where he was living when God called him, he was one of a very few—perhaps almost the only one—who had faith in and worshiped Jehovah, the Creator and only true God. Findings of archeologists reveal that the citizens of Ur as a whole were worshipers of the moon god, but despite his heathen surroundings, Abraham maintained his belief. Even his father seemingly did not share his faith, although the Scriptures indicate that Sarah, his wife, did; and to some extent this was probably true of his nephew Lot.

VERSE 8  “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.”

Abraham maintained his belief in the true God despite his surroundings. Now his faith was put to a further test, for the God whom he worshiped spoke to him and invited his cooperation in a Divine plan for the blessing of all the families of the earth. (Gen. 12:1-3) In God’s call to Abraham we see exemplified the manner in which he deals with practically all his faithful servants; that is, he told him something about his plan, and then invited Abraham to participate in it. If he has given us an understanding of his Word and plan, we should construe it to be his call to become “workers together with him.”—II Cor. 6:1

Abraham was called to go to a place which he ‘should after receive.’ In the Hebrew text the thought here is that Abraham believed he was about to receive the land; and, of course, there is nothing of record in what God said to him which would indicate that he would not possess the land as soon as he complied with the conditions and entered into it. But in this also his faith was severely tested, for actually he never did become the owner of the promised land. See Acts 7:4,5.

Abraham demonstrated his faith by the fact that he ‘obeyed.’ James stated the thought differently, saying, “Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” (James 2:18) Regardless of how much faith we may claim to have, or believe in our own hearts that we possess, if it fails to pass this simple, though exacting test of obedience, we are deceiving ourselves.

Abraham obeyed, ‘not knowing whither he went.’ His lack of knowledge concerning the outcome of his obedience made the test more severe and caused his faith to stand out more resplendently by contrast with the unbelief of many with whom he was associated in Ur. Sometimes the expression ‘blind obedience’ is used, and this was essentially the sort of obedience by which Abraham demonstrated his faith by leaving Ur and starting for the land of Canaan.

VERSE 9  “By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise.”

If Abraham believed that he would possess the land of Canaan soon after he reached it, his faith in God’s promises was again tested, for he was only a sojourner in the land, living there ‘as in a strange country.’ He lived in ‘tabernacles,’ or, as the Hebrew text indicates, tents, or cloth huts.

VERSE 10  “He looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”

Abraham gladly lived in tents throughout the remainder of his life after leaving Ur, for he ‘looked for a city.’ So far as the Old Testament record is concerned, the only promises God made to Abraham were those pertaining to the land, and that in his “seed” all the families of the earth should be blessed. (Gen. 22:18) Apparently it was from the promises relative to the ‘seed,’ and the blessing to reach the people through this seed, that he was encouraged to look for a ‘city.’

In Galatians 3:8 Paul mentions the promise made to Abraham, and uses the word “nations,” instead of ‘families,’ in his reference to the blessings which are to reach the people through the seed. When we take into consideration what constituted nations in Abraham’s day, there is really no difference in the meaning of these two words, for nations then were merely family arrangements, or tribes, and usually the leading member of the family was ruler of the tribe.

In comparison with nations of today these tribal arrangements were small, usually with only one main aggregation of people in a central city which frequently was walled for protection, and looked to by the surrounding tribesmen as their center of government. A city then, to Abraham, contained the thought of rulership, or a governing center.

Abraham probably was a respected citizen in Ur, but there is nothing to indicate that he was in any way associated with the rulership of that people. So, when God spoke to him and promised a seed through which all the families, or nations, of the earth would be blessed, he probably visualized himself as becoming the head of a new governing family which, under Divine blessing, would become so large and so powerful that it would extend its beneficent influence over all the other nations. Jesus said that Abraham “rejoiced” to see his day—that is, he believed that all mankind would be blessed.—John 8:56

God’s people know that the city of which Abraham will actually become a part is the glorious kingdom of the Lord; but it is doubtful if he visualized it as clearly in his day as we do now. Since he had no spiritual insight into the plan of God, his concept of the Divine promise would of necessity be limited to the knowledge which was based upon his own experiences and observations. His faith, that God was indeed the builder and maker of the city for which he looked, was strengthened from time to time by the marvelous manner in which the Lord dealt with him, particularly in the birth of Isaac. In this there could be no doubt that the Lord was building the promised city, for otherwise Isaac could not have been born.

VERSE 11  “Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.”

From this text we learn that Sarah shared the faith of her husband. She also believed that God would fulfill his promises. The fact that Paul emphasizes the power of Sarah’s faith, which resulted in a miracle conception, ties in with his reference in the previous verse to Abraham’s belief that God was the builder and maker of the city for which he was looking. Sarah was barren even in her youth, and now she was old, yet God gave her strength to conceive and to bear Isaac. What better proof could they both have that God was working to fulfill his promises?

VERSE 12  “Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.”

As the great plan of God unfolds throughout the Scriptures, we learn that the promised seed will be of two parts, the heavenly and the earthly. This seems to be suggested by the double comparison; that is, to the ‘stars of the sky,’ and the ‘sand which is by the sea shore.’ True, in this text, the special emphasis of the illustrations seems to be that of the great numbers involved, but this will be true of both the heavenly and the earthly seeds.

The heavenly seed of Abraham will first of all be Christ and his church, the “little flock” to whom it is the Father’s good pleasure to give “the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) But included with the heavenly seed will also be “a great multitude, which no man could number.” (Rev. 7:9) These will serve God in his spiritual temple. (Rev. 7:15) They will be the “companions” of the bride class, who will “follow her” and be with her.—Ps. 45:14

The earthly seed, as represented by the sand, will, to begin with, be the resurrected Ancient Worthies, who, receiving a “better resurrection,” will be made “princes in all the earth.” (Heb. 11:35,39; Ps. 45:16) Then will follow, and be included in the earthly seed, the entire resurrected human race; that is, all who, when given a full opportunity, prove themselves worthy of everlasting life. Thus seen, it will be true of both the earthly and the heavenly seed that their number will be great.

VERSE 13  “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

The ‘all’ here referred to as having died in faith, are particularly Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob; although the same statement is true of the entire Ancient Worthy class. They received not the promise—that is, the actual fulfillment of the promise. In Hebrews 6:13 Paul tells us that the promise had been made to Abraham, and then in verse 15 he says that after Abraham endured, “he obtained the promise.”

The ‘promise,’ which Abraham obtained after he patiently endured, was something more than he originally received when God promised him the seed and the land—it was an assurance, the guarantee of God’s oath. This is indicated in the Greek text by the use of a stronger word, a word which means more than the mere making of a statement. It is this stronger word which Paul uses again when he says that ‘these all died in faith, not having received the promises.’

There is no contradiction in these two statements, for Paul is using the Greek word epaggelia in the first instance to describe ‘a Divine assurance of good’—as Strong’s Concordance defines it—and in the latter case to denote the actual realization of the good which had been assured. The fact that Paul uses the word in this sense indicates that it embraces this stronger meaning. The inspired use of a word can always be relied upon as a correct interpretation of its meaning.

Paul says that the patriarchs saw the fulfillment of the promises ‘afar off.’ As we have seen, when Abraham first left Ur to go to the promised land, he believed he was about to realize the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises. But the circumstances of the ensuing years gave him, as well as Isaac and Jacob, a different viewpoint. As they went through year after year of their long lives without the city for which they were looking coming into actual view, their faith extended their vision farther into the future. They continued to look for the city, however, even though it was afar off, even in a resurrected life beyond the grave. By their steadfast adherence to God’s promises, they ‘confessed,’ the apostle says, that they were ‘pilgrims and strangers on the earth.’ Some might try to read into this statement that the patriarchs entertained a heavenly hope, but this is not the correct thought.

The Greek word here used by Paul, and translated ‘earth,’ is ge. Its basic meaning is ‘soil;’ by extension, it can be used to describe a region, and it sometimes denotes the solid part of the entire globe. Paul uses it in this text, however, to describe the land in which, as stated in verse nine, Abraham ‘sojourned … as in a strange country.’ Here, the word land is a translation of the same Greek word ge. In Acts 7:3 this word is used twice. It is a quotation of God’s command to Abraham, and reads, “Get thee out of thy country [Greek, ge], and from thy kindred, and come into the land [ge] which I shall shew thee.” It was in this land that the patriarchs continued to be pilgrims and strangers until they died.

VERSES 14-16  “They that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”

‘They that say such things’: The patriarchs testified their faith in God’s promise concerning the land and the seed by their steadfastness in remaining in the land even though it had to be as nonowners, or strangers. Paul suggests that they had opportunity to return to the land of their fathers, where they would be at home and among their own people. But they did not do this, which demonstrated that they had their hearts set on a better inheritance, even on that which the God of heaven had promised to them.

The contrast in these verses is not between the earth and heaven, but between the former home of the patriarchs and the one which the Lord had promised and in which they continued to be strangers. Paul’s lesson is on the faith of the patriarchs; their faith, that is, in the promises of God; and God had not promised them a heavenly home, but a home in Canaan; and they died in faith, not having actually received this home.

God was greatly pleased with their faith, so much so that he was not ashamed of them. They became his friends because of their faith. And while they did not grasp the fullness of their part in the Divine plan, God actually ‘prepared,’ or promised, for them a ‘city,’ or kingdom, for they will be among the ‘princes’ in the Messianic kingdom.

Paul’s assertion that they desired a ‘better country, that is, an heavenly,’ must be construed to mean that which the God of heaven had promised, for they were given no basis to desire anything except earthly blessings. Jesus understood this, and told the Jews of his day that they would “see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” in the kingdom of God, and he shows clearly that it will be right here on the earth, not in heaven.—Matt. 8:11; Luke 13:28

VERSES 17-19  “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed by called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.”

God’s request that Abraham offer up Isaac as a sacrifice was doubtless the severest test that had been placed upon the faith of this ‘father of the faithful.’ One reason for the request was that Abraham’s faith might be further tested. Another was that God was making a picture, or illustration, of what he would later do, that he would offer up his own Son in sacrifice for the sins of the world.

There is a veiled reminder of this in the expression, ‘only begotten.’ Later, as we know, this term appears in the Bible and is applied to God’s own Son. Abraham fathered Ishmael, and by his wife, Keturah, he had many children. But, as the record states, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” (Gen. 21:12) and because Isaac was the promised seed, he was also, in the Divine plan, Abraham’s ‘only begotten son.’

Abraham’s faith did not waver when it was confronted with this test, for as Paul explains, he believed that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead; and he did thus receive him back, ‘in a figure.’ This completed the illustration of the sacrifice of the antitypical Isaac, and of his actual resurrection from death. What a wonderful privilege Abraham and Isaac thus had in the outworking of the Divine plan!

VERSE 20  “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.”

That Isaac did not entertain a heavenly hope, either for himself or for his children, is evidenced by the blessings which he pronounced upon Jacob and Esau shortly before he died. (Gen. 27:28,29,39,40) Isaac received the birthright blessing, which included future rulership. We have already noted how Abraham would construe God’s promise concerning the seed to mean that his descendants would become rulers; and this comes more clearly to light in Isaac’s blessing upon Jacob.

The remainder of the blessing upon Jacob was “the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.” Esau also received this part of the blessing, but in selling his birthright he forfeited the right to become a part of the ruling seed of Abraham. This right continued with the descendants of Jacob until the first advent of Christ, when, because of their rejection of him as their Messiah, their house was left unto them “desolate.”—Matt. 23:38

Isaac’s blessing upon Jacob and Esau is one of the clear evidences that the patriarchs were beginning to perceive that the promises of God were not to be fulfilled in their day. Nevertheless, this did not weaken their faith. They continued to believe that God would keep his covenant, so they died in faith, not having received the fulfillment of the promises.

VERSE 21  “By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.”

Jacob actually blessed all twelve of his sons, but in keeping with the theme which Paul follows in tracing the faith life of the patriarchs, he specially mentions Jacob’s blessing upon the two sons of Joseph. Genesis 48:4 records a part of this blessing, and in this text the land is again especially emphasized. Jacob was then in Egypt, but he still had confidence that God would fulfill his promise concerning the land of Canaan, this better country, in which, together with his father and grandfather, he had lived as a stranger. So in this again is emphasized that the patriarchs’ hopes were earthly, not heavenly, and those earthly hopes will yet be realized.

Click here to go to Chapter 11:22-40
Dawn Bible Students Association
|  Home Page  |  Table of Contents  |