Carey Nieuwhof in a blog linked to HERE sets out four reasons he identifies as to why so many people - including believers - left both online and in-person church last year.
Across the Western world there’s no doubt things have been disrupted and changed, and this Western world-wide trend seems even to have reached to us here in the heart of rural Wales.
The future is going to look different right across our wider culture, and that’s got opportunities as well as regrets for us as potentially creative disruption takes hold.
The first thing we need to do in times like these is to put our trust firmly back again in God, and the next is to commit to keep steadily on calling out His faithful remnant of people from the folks who were previously connected to us, and those folks we find in new ways who were not.
Hebrews is in so many ways a book for such times and as we enter this new year I’ve been gripped by Hebrews 11, and I’m eager to share this chapter with you at THIS time.
What happens in the book of Hebrews is that the anonymous author addresses second generation believers from a culturally Jewish background about not getting worn down by the rigours of persevering in faith in a hostile world and not going back to the ways of their ancestors in their old culturally conditioned system of belief.
The old ways were more tangible, more visible, more … comforting. And the times of vigour and excitement, of rapid progress in the earliest days of the church were now … past.
Times were now hard for these people, as persecution remained a feature, and many of the ‘sight’-based props to faith had lost their initial force to sustain faith in the things that are unseen but still golden.
Now, faith is the focus here, and the reason for that is that this 'faith' emphasis was the distinctive of Christianity for Jewish believers, because although Father Abraham was put right with God by grace through faith alone, first century Judaism had for gotten about all of that.
So these folks were being tempted back to 'the old ways' that looked much easier, and were in need of ‘digging in’ their faith, and the discipline of faith was pressing down hard on some of them.
The old ways were not persecuted … Judaism (unlike Christianity) was a religio licita - a faith tolerated by Rome.
It had more things to see and to touch … rituals, observances, cultic clothing … it was far more tangible and cultic than Christianity.
And Hebrews 11 is arguably the high point in this epistle as the author explains the history of faith and its perseverance.
The chapter comes to us as a LOT of history and biography, supporting five paragraphs of developing analysis … and to find our way through this long chapter and expose it's message, we'll concentrate on opening up those five analytic passages.
What Biblical faith truly IS, vv. 1-2
“Now faith is
confidence in what we hope for and
assurance about what we do not see.
2 This is what the ancients were commended for.”
πίστις is what we are talking about
What this faith?
Confidence in our hope
V. 1a “confidence in what we hope for”
The word used to describe this confidence is ὑπόστασις ... something put under a weight, a structure. It is a substructure, a foundation and therefore came to be used for something which has foundation, or is firm and solid.
And from there it came to mean something with substance, and from there: steadfastness of mind, firmness, courage, resolution, confidence, firm trust or assurance.
Now, confidence is a buzzword of our time, but confidence in what is hoped for instead of held seems a foreign language to our people and our generation.
What we’re talking about here is Biblical faith … and what we’re offered is an exclusive definition of it.
And this is what the faith described here truly is. It's exclusive: Biblically faith is this … and nothing else.
This faith is described here as being confident about what we hope for, the assurance of that which is real but is nonetheless the unseen.
Assurance of the unseen
V. 1 b “assurance about what we do not see.”
Hebrews is referring to the certainty, the assurance of the truth and reality of things that are not seen in the material, physical way in the material, physical world.
And Hebrews is saying, ‘guys, that is truly what faith is … and you are going back to relying on eyesight. You’ve begun acting as if you were unregenerate materialists, and that’s why you are so seriously tempted to go backwards!’
That analysis is going to take the discussion only one way ...
Setting out the direction of the supporting argument
They’re looking to the past, so Hebrews is going to SHOW them from the heroes of the past that they are not acting consistently with their heroes of the spiritual past.
V. 2 “This is what the ancients were commended for.”
Now you’ve got to remember what we said in the introduction here. The point is that these people were growing stale in their second generation Christian faith, because they hadn’t kept the fervour in faith they'd had at first.
It’s a natural problem that can occur over time.
It’s often not so much the frontal attack on faith that does it damage, but the wearing effect of the constant flow of gravel coming down causing many minor abrasions on the boulder in the stream.
They hadn’t protected the not-so-new-now faith they had in Christ, and they thought they might go back, turn away to the old lower stress lives that they’d had.
John writes something fascinating about the precursors of this in Revelation 2 to the messenger of the later generation church over in Ephesus:
“‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.
2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.
3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
4 Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.”
That’s fascinating, because Ephesus had been and was apparently still a really strong church.
But the seeds of death lay within it even though it was working hard, persevering, testing false teachers, enduring hardship for Jesus’ sake and not growing weary.
It looked a blindingly good church!
But the seeds of failing in those things were germinating under the soil, hidden from sight down in the cold and the dark … “you have forsaken the love you had at first”
The faith these Hebrews had at first was going stale, at it was going stale way before stopping persevering when their love was lost.
It’s a RELATIONSHIP of faith we have with this Lord, and all relationships need their love constantly fed.
Mere persistence is quite simply not enough.
It’s time at THAT point to repent and do the things you did at first.
THIS is what the ancients were commended for … the faith that builds loving relationship, a relationship that’s regularly fed.
The point of this chapter is that saving faith is defined by the confident and assured perseverance that its first readers had failed to keep going. In the midst of a whole point-proving biography, THAT is the point that keeps getting made.
These Hebrews might go away from this relationship of faith. But what they think they going back to back to is not real, because that wasn’t the way of the ancients! The ancients actually lived by faith too, way back there in their hankered-after past. And now here come thirty-eight more verses to prove it!
We’re not going to drag all through the history and biography, but focus on the supporting four further paragraphs of developing analysis, because those are what give us the message.
2) The cruciality of faith, v. 6
The Declaration: You CANNOT please God without this faith
V. 6 is quite blunt and explicit: “without faith it is impossible to please God”
It’s not stated here but it was at the beginning of the belief system they’re trying to regress to that Abraham’s trust in God led to the founding of their ancient religion … that doesn't crop up until Hebrews 11:8 “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.”
But notice that v. 7 takes that principle right back to Noah!
It's just so evidently true, you CANNOT please God unless you TRUST Him ... but the rationale for this still gets explicitly spelled out.
Rationale: without this faith there is soon simply no faith left
“because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
There are two aspects listed here for what’s necessary.
For Biblical faith to exist, it’s not enough to believe that this God is actually real … that there’s a God.
You also need to TRUST that He rewards the people who earnestly seek Him.
The letter to the Hebrews addresses people suffering not a failure to believe there’s a God, but a failure to trust Him that the sacrifices involved in their faith will be WORTH it.
Biblical faith TRUSTS God with the sacrifice in the certain hope that this heavy grind we kep coming back to afresh will be WORTH it.
THAT is faith.
It’s a point picked up in the next analysis paragraph in vv. 13-16
3) Faith lives on the future in trust not the present by sight, vv. 13-16
“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.
14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.
15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.
16 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.”
The heroes of faith lived by faith without sight right through death
V. 13 “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 … ”
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah … all these lived by faith and therefore there IS a Jewish family of faith … if they hadn’t there wouldn’t BE this Judaism you want to drift back to!
Moreover, it was THIS that made God’s ancient holy people ‘holy’.
This SEPARATED them, as ‘holy’ to the Lord
“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.”
It was that future they were living for that drove the ancient people of God’s distinct and ‘separated’ (that is 'holy to the LORD) lifestyle.
They lived NOT for the things enticing this letter’s readers … things you can see and get hold of for yourself here and now … but lived as foreigners here, strangers passing through this earth, not settling here but travelling on home.
And that led to another allusion from the old ways the Hebrews were allured by ...
Faith’s life is lived as on an Exodus journey, vv. 14-16a
“People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.
15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.
16 Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.”
This is clever, very clever, because metaphors in the New Testament are so often like handles which pull wires that ring bells in the past.
The bells being run here are in the Exodus wanderings, with it’s cry to turn back from the privations of the Wilderness ‘tucker’ (hard tack manna) for the leeks and the garlic of Egypt (Numbers 11:1-6), rather than pressing on to gain entry to the Promised Land.
There were clear parallels in the narrative Hebrews shows them and the unwillingness of the Israelites in the Exodus to press on trusting God’s promise to enter into the 'promised land' future of the people of God: “they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.”
This lifestyle made the ancients acceptable to God, v. 16b
“Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
What city is it that God has prepared for them?
These Hebrew Christians are harking back to Jerusalem and its Temple.
Here’s a reminder of the coming New Jerusalem … the new Eden which God has created for mankind.
‘No!’ they cried.
‘Give us Moses, we liked the old ways of Moses!’
‘OK’, says Hebrews.
‘Let’s have a chat about what made Moses tick.’
4) Moses: ‘Law-Giver’ unpacked, vv. 24-28
“By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.”
Stood apart from the powerful godless, v. 24
““By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.”
Imagine what tangible this-world goodies Moses could have had at court as the son of Pharaoh’s own daughter!
Many tangible nice things to look at and get hold of in THIS life.
But Moses,living by faith, was not out for this life … turned his back on all that and walked away.
Chose persecution with God’s people over the pleasures of sin in this world, v. 25
“He chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.”
Can you IMAGINE the pleasures of sin for a young man that might have been his amongst the godless in Pharaoh’s court?
If it wasn’t for what he held onto by faith and lived for coming down the tracks in God’s future … why would he EVER have done this?
Chose disgrace with God’s people over all of the treasures of Egypt, v. 26
“He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.”
NET translates this really helpfully:
“He regarded abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward.”
These Hebrews as chapter 12 makes clear had NOT been suffering blood-letting persecution, so ‘abuse’ fits their experience quite closely.
Moses took it … the one they feel tempted to go back to because they weren’t currently experiencing good things in the here and now … he TOOK the abuse of his time and persevered in faith “for his eyes were fixed on the reward.”
How or why do do that?
It’s because he persevered as seeing the One Who is invisible, and that fired Moses FAITH and trust in God.
Persevered as one seeing the invisible, v. 27
“By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.”
Biblical faith means this … a willingness to persevere by looking to, by SEEING the One Who is invisible.
Even our materialistic ‘let me see it’ sort of world relies on what it can’t see all the time … often on the basis of what it wants to believe, the narrative it likes the sound of, not always on the basis of evidence!
Moses had evidence: burning bush, Egyptian plagues, budding staff, rolled back waters … but His TRUST was in the One Who was invisible, and he persevered because Moses looked to and trusted in Him.
But there was more … and here comes the New Exodus/ Jesus is better to follow through the Wilderness idea again ...
Trusted in the blood for deliverance, v.28
“By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.”
Now that there … trusting not just your own firstborn but the firstborn of your whole people to the sacrificial blood of the Passover Lamb!
THAT is faith, and faith that as gloriously justified … trusting God for what you could not see en route to an unseen but faithfully promised future reward beyond a rigorous, long trek through a full-on, tough wilderness.
As Luke put it in Acts 14 describing the actions of Paul and Barnabas with their new converts in Syria (Acts 14:21-22):
“... they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said.”
And that’s the Biblical way to encourage Biblical faith.
So these Hebrews were thinking of going back to Moses and the Law, but this chapter shows that the way of Moses was the way of this faith.
5) So here’s the point, vv. 39-40
These were all heroes of vv. 1-2’s faith, v. 39a
“These were all commended for their faith”
NONE of your heroes RECEIVED in this world what God had promised for the future, v. 39b
“yet none of them received what had been promised”
So here is WHY it is that you’ve all got to wait, v. 40
“since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
Faith waits because it trusts the plans that God has.
The Greek phrasing emphasizes this point by negating the opposite, v. 40 “so that they would not be made perfect without us.”
That in itself required them to trust God on His promised future that they could not see.
If you want to ACTUALLY go back to the old faith … that’s the old faith you need to go back to.
And this in itself requires faith … the “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1-2)
What is that ‘made perfect’ all about?
God’s plan in itself is something better for us and them … waiting, persevering while trusting, then ‘made perfect’ through what we have trusted Him for.
Now, the next chapter of Hebrews, chapter 12, makes it clear why the author has been saying these and setting out these examples of faithful conduct.
You see, that’s the thing in chapter 11 … it’s been showing us that faith puts confidence and hope in the things unseen, and acts faithFULLY.
It doesn’t play with the possibility of turning back.
The appeal based on ch. 11 comes in 12:1-3
And then ch. 12 explains the experience they are having by showing that the pressures they face are far less than their ancient pre-Gospel predecessors in faith knew (12:4) which Christ prepared His followers to face.
And then it goes on to give them a world view of the faith that portrays suffering as training … as discipline, something not to be shirked nor taken lightly but seriously, reflectively, to profit from by strengthening faith and developing graciousness and personal holiness.
In fact it should be building assurance of faith not destroying it (vv. 7-8) because the sort of thing they are facing is the authentic experience of the children of God and thereby indicates they are really God’s children.
The conclusion Hebrews draws from all of this, then, is in Hebrews 12:12-13
“Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 ‘Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.”
Those who heed this will prove to be the faithful remnant, who come through the winnowing our churches have known in the year gone by, and which appears to be extending a little way yet into our future.
These may seem hard truths to receive. But these are the ones we need to know, and THESE realities must be the ones that drive our looking, our living and our prayers.