Faith is the substance of things hoped for… Hebrews 11:1-4 (Part 1)

The writer of Hebrews has an aim. It was to urge Hebrew Christians NOT to bow to the pressure to reject Christ by returning to the temple and its services. Hebrew Christians were being persecuted in a number of ways: treated violently, made fun of, and had their emotions worked on—tradition, loyalty, life-long practices. The book urges Christians not to look at what is visible, but, by faith, to hold on to the invisible things revealed in God’s word, the Bible. The letter starts with a discussion of God’s speaking to the fathers of old (meaning the believers we come across in the OT) and finally God speaks to us, in these last days, by a Son.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

The Bible uses the word ‘faith’ in at least two ways.

The first way of using the word faith indicates that it has the meaning of ‘what is to be believed’, that body of knowledge about Jesus Christ, who he is, what he has done, and what the means for us.

Jude, in his letter, speaks about [contending for] the faith which was once (and for all) delivered to the saints (Jude 3); an unchanging body of truth.  ‘The faith’ is the great gift of God to a sinful world. The Faith is God’s revealed will regarding our salvation through the life, the death and the rising again of Jesus Christ. This Faith comes to us in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

So the letter to the Hebrew Christian is very concerned about the Faith. For instance:

Chapter one–the word reveals the divine nature of the Son,

Chapter two–the word reveals the incarnation of the Son

Chapter three–hear the word, trust the word; do not harden your hearts

Chapter four–the word is a two edged sword, revealing the Son as our only hope, our rest.

Chapters five to nine–the word reveals the Son as both priest and sacrifice.  God, who cannot lie, has sworn by himself as to the truthfulness of the message,

Chapter 10–the Son is presented as the new and living way.

The second way the word ‘faith’ is used in the Bible, shows that it means ‘the appropriate response to that body of truth’. We are to trust ourselves to the Saviour of whom God has told us about in the word.

This faith is the gift of God; he gives this faith to his children.  This faith is not just that a person can repeat the things that God has revealed, but it is our relying on what God as revealed as our only hope in this life and in the life that is to come.  Again, the letter to the Hebrew Christians deals at length with the vital necessity of this faith:

Chapter 2: How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?

Chapter 3: Today, if you will hear his voice, do not harden your heart.

Chapter 4: The promise [God’s revealed will for our salvation] did not benefit some, since it was not received by faith

Chapter 6: Warns against rejecting the word which we have heard.

Chapter 10:  Warns against rejecting the Son as he is revealed in the word.

Which of these two meanings of the word ‘faith’ is Hebrews 11 dealing with particularly? Both of them.

Faith is the assurance (foundation, substance) of things hoped for,

This clause comprehends both the facts that are presented to us to trust and our trusting of them.  The assurance (foundation) are the things God has assured us of in the word. They are the statements – objective truth — of the God who cannot lie.

Things hoped for refers to our trust in these statements. We put our trust – base our hope — in these statements from God.

The second clause of the first verse does a similar thing; it also refers to the message(s) and the trusting of the message(s):

(Faith is) the evidence (something proved or tested) of things (deeds done/actions/promises) not seen (but reported to us in God’s word, the Bible).

The idea is that true things — things past, present or future, which we have not seen, but have had reported to us by God in his word — are the appropriate object of faith, our trust. Because God is both the giver of the message and the faith to receive that message, faith is evidence. It produces conviction in us regarding unseen things:

  • God is not seen—He is a spirit, invisible, eternal and unchangeable. Revealed equally to all in nature (Rom 1), but without saving faith, the truth is rejected.
  • Jesus Christ, and all his deeds (life, death, resurrection)—we have not seen him or his doings, although others have seen and have told us of him. (1 peter, you love him whom you have not seen—2 peter, gives us eyewitness testimnoy of his glory.)
  • God’s unchanging favour toward his people, in the midst of changing circumstances. In this sin blighted world, Christians suffer the same troubles as those who do not trust God.  God’s favour is certainly on His people whereas His anger remains on those who reject His offered mercy.
  • all the promises Christians have in Christ: the resurrection; that we are priest and kings unto God.
  • judgment to come, and new heavens and earth.

2Co 4:18  While we look not to the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

The Christian martyr, Polycarp, was certain that the One whom he had trusted for 86 years would not prove false in the final trial.  The Roman proconsul urged him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set you free. Reproach Christ!” Polycarp is said to have answered, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”.

For the Christian, faith is not a vague wishing for something that is uncertain—like wishing on a star. No, the faith to which we trust ourselves has been revealed to us in an objective word. God has spoken repeatedly and consistently to the world in the scriptures over hundreds of years about the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

Continued in part 2.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for… Hebrews 11:1-4 (Part 2)

Continued from part 1.

For by this faith our the elders received divine testimony.

The point of this verse is that our creator, who has given to the world good news, will be faithful and do what he has said. He promised to send a saviour, Christ the Lord, who would save his people from their sins. This testimony (or good report) was first given to the first two people who ever lived, Adam and Eve, just after their rebellion (Gen. 3:15). God had told them that if they ate the fruit that God had forbidden them, they would die. They disobeyed and brought the sentence of death upon themselves and all their children (us). But God gave them the great message of hope, and this message (Good News) was repeated to many others. We read of this in the OT and in this eleventh chapter of Hebrews. Here we are told that these elders received the message, that good testimony of what God would do to put right what Adam had made wrong.

Now, when the elders (Old Testament Christians) received this message about Christ by faith, they were justified–their trusting God’s promise of life in Christ was credited to them as righteousness. In this sense they were commended by God. They received a good report—God declared these sinful people to be Not Guilty simply on the basis of their trust in Christ. They received God’s testimony, God’s solemn promise that He will act to save them from the consequences of their sin. They received this good message of salvation by faith (eg. Gen 3:15, Gen 12:1-3 etc).  Each of the examples given in this passage points to their being justified by faith [Abel’s sacrifice approved by faith, Enoch receive testimony that he pleased God, Noah found grace, Abraham justified by faith…]

While it is true that the justified (those sinners whom God declares not guilty) will live by faith, nevertheless, their faith was not a good work which they did in order to be saved. They did not merit God’s favour by working up faith in themselves. Their justification came from God’s free gift—the living, dying and rising of Jesus Christ in their place—and the faith by which they trusted this salvation was also a free gift.

by faith we know that the present worlds were framed by the spoken word of God, so that the things that are seen did not come about from things that appear.

First example of something UNSEEN that the writer gives us is the truth of creation.

We human beings did not witness God’s creative acts in the beginning, when God spoke the worlds into existence. But He was there, and the one who did the creating has told us in His word what He did. We have God’s testimony that once there was nothing but the eternal God himself, and then He out of nothing (or into nothing) created everything that is not God. People, and the things which we experience now, once had no existence–matter, time and space have not always existed, but are things that God has made. We understand all this by faith.

Hebrews 11:3 is making an obvious reference back to Genesis 1.

And God said … let there be … let us make … “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the spoken word of God”

  • We are not products of chance; we have come from somewhere (some One) and we are certainly going somewhere—on one of two paths.
  • We are not autonomous (our own boss). We are responsible and must give an account of our actions to our Creator. God is always faithful to His word, both in His promise of mercy in Christ, and in His judgment of those who reject Christ. The best account, the only account that matters, is that Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead to rescue me from sin and death—He is my only hope.

Which brings us to the next verse:

by faith, Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, by which it was testified of him that he is righteous, God bearing witness to his gifts, and by it (faith or the sacrifice?) even though he is dead, he yet speaks.

Immediately we are confronted with human sinfulness. Two sinners–Cain and Abel–are represented to us as making offerings to God, sacrifices. The whole idea and practice of sacrifice dates from Adam’s sin and God’s promise to deal with his sin mercifully. God told Adam and Eve that one born of a woman will come and suffer, and through that one’s suffering, the works of the devil will be destroyed (Gen 3:15, as read in light of rest of Bible). And it seems, as a token of this promise, God covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve with animal skins–death of an innocent to cover the sin of the guilty. (Before their sin, Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed–no sin, no guilt–but, after they disobeyed God, their ‘nakedness’ became a symbol of their spiritual bankruptcy. Their guilt was a dreadful reality.

Taught by Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel grew up with the dual message of human sinfulness and the promise of God’s mercy through the death of a sinless substitute– that one who would suffer in their place to take away the effect, power and presence of sin. They were taught to bring sacrifices to God as testimony of their trust in him and his promise.

Abel, we are told, believed the promise and his sacrifice was accepted– “by which it was testified of him that he was righteous”. Abel was justified by faith. He was declared not guilty in trusting God’s message of mercy. Cain went through the motions, he brought a sacrifice, but was rejected since he did not believe the promise. He did not believe God’s testimony regarding the reality of his sin nor of his need for a Saviour.

There might be significance in the fact that Cain brought grain offerings instead of animal offering, in that the Bible teaches us that, without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin. It might be that Cain ought to have br0ught and killed a lamb or a calf as his offering, but even if Cain had done that, if it were not mixed with faith, he would still have been rejected.

The story of Cain and Abel is the first example given to us of the division that the Good News of Jesus Christ has brought to humanity. Once all were equally lost and under God’s eternal judgement. But by God’s promise to save a people from out of a lost and spiritually dead humanity, God has made war between those who continue in their rebellion and those whom he has saved. Abel trusted God. He believed God’s account. Cain did not trust God or His promises and remained in his sinful hatred of God and his people—so he murdered his brother.

By faith Abel looked forward to things not yet seen–the life, death and resurrection of Christ–Cain did not. Cain knew the message as well as his brother, but he did not believe it, nor did he trust himself to God’s mercy. Cain relied upon his own performance, and he was offended when God did not accept him.

Even though he is dead, Abel, still speaks of real confession of sin and trust in the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was promised to him. Abel, in a real sense, is the first Christian martyr. His faith in Christ condemned the sin of his brother’s unbelief.

The blood of Christ speaks of better things than that of Abel. The first condemns sin, the second removes it.

That Bible gives us the faith, the facts about Jesus Christ: who he is, what he has done, and what that means for people like us. May God give us faith to trust ourselves to this great God and saviour, Jesus Christ.

Christ is born in the City of David — Part 1

Luke 2:1-20

As child I heard someone say that the greatest event in history was the coming of Jesus Christ into this world.  This I doubted. Other events seems more significant to me: World War 2, the moon landing, the invention of ice cream, but I now see the great force of that claim about Jesus.

Many important happenings in history have altered the circumstances of human life, but really, there are only two great events in human history that made any change to the human condition.

The first was when Adam disobeyed God in the beginning of time; his disobedience shattered the right standing we had with God and condemned us all to sin and death. We had begun as God’s friends, but we declared war on our Creator; we became his fixed enemies. And, having no peace with God, we have no real peace at all.

The second great event – the greatest event — was the life of Jesus. Only his life, and death and rising again reversed the cycle of sin and death. In the coming of Jesus into this world, God declared peace and gave peace to sinful human beings.

Versus 1-7

Luke places the birth of Jesus in time and space – a real event in real history.  This is of great importance, because there are some people who express their dislike of God by pretending that there was no Jesus Christ – that he was never born, and the things recorded in the Bible never happened. This is a statement of faith that is contrary to fact.

Other religious people claim that the reality of the events in the Bible is not important. These people say that the stories of the Bible have spiritual meaning whether they really happened or not – the Bible, they say, gives cheering stories that provide fine examples for us to follow. This is simply nonsense.  Just think about the things recorded in the Bible and you will see that the good we humans cannot do, and the evil we do all too readily – the Bible is a book, of all books, that shows we need rescuing.

Clearly Luke presents the coming of a real Saviour. A  real Saviour is what we need.  Luke sets the “when” of the Saviour’s coming in time and space – in real history.

Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire for about 45 years, from 31 BC to AD 14. He was the first Emperor, and Augustus set about changing the circumstances of life. One thing he did was to bring administrative order to his new Empire. This involved registering subject people for taxation. This is what Luke is telling us in verse 1.  It was during this period that Christ came into the world.

Luke gives further information. It was the census related in some way to Quirinius, a Roman Governor who had much to do with the province of Syria. Some Bible scholars and historians have claimed that this verse shows that Luke got his facts wrong, because NO ancient source (besides Luke) says that Quirinius was governor of Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth – but this is too narrow a view of the historical situation.

You see John the Baptist and Jesus were both born, according the gospels of Matthew and Luke, before King Herod the Great died. That king died sometime in the period 4 BC to 1 BC (his death is dated between a lunar Eclipse and the Passover of a particular year). Quirinius is known to have been governor of Syria in 6 AD when a taxing was carried out in Judea to violent local reaction, but – here’s the good bit – there is no record (outside the Bible, perhaps) as to who was the governor of Syria between 4 BC and 1 BC.

Now, it is possible that Quirinius

  • was the missing governor 4 BC-1 BC and at that time oversaw the first census, with the second census happening in AD 6 during his governorship, or
  •  had some leading role in the 4 BC census, even if he was not governor, or
  • managed a census after the one mentioned by Luke, i.e., a registration occurred at the time of Jesus’ birth before the census that happened under Quirinius (the Greek word ‘first’ can mean ‘former’ or ‘prior to’ — there are all sorts of real possibilities.)

We just don’t know enough to know which of these things, or something else, happened in line with Luke’s statements. The point of all this is to encourage us all to have a right view of the Bible. History does not confirm the Bible, but the Bible confirms history.  If there is a real or apparent contradiction between the Bible and other sources of historical information, we must hold to what the Bible says. It has shown doubting historians to be wrong over and over again.

A wrong attitude was taken by at least one modern historian, who suggested that Luke was more likely to be wrong about the census of Quirinius than Josephus (a Jewish/Roman historian, who wrote a short time after Luke). In short, this historian believed that the Bible must always give way to non-Biblical sources.

A much better attitude was shown by John Calvin (the 16th century reformer). When he read Luke, he stated flatly that Josephus was wrong. Calvin might have been mistaken in his assessment of the historical situation, but he was dead right in holding to what he saw Luke saying rather than to what he thought Josephus was saying.

It was this census  or registration (around 4BC—1BC) that got Joseph and Mary on their way from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south. Luke doesn’t mention it, but the OT foretold that the Saviour of the world would be born in Bethlehem. How did God bring that prophesy about? God moved a Roman emperor who had no interest in the gospel message to count people.  Joseph and Mary had to see a public servant in Bethlehem.  So mundane, so marvellous! God used this act intended to spread political control and oppression to more people than ever as a step toward bringing freedom from sin to so many more people. The 150 km map distance that Joseph and Mary had to travel (longer because of the ups and downs of mountain roads) was a drag too, especially as Mary was pregnant. But these inconveniences placed them just where they needed to be. Our God is in control even when we think things are going badly.

So don’t despair. Jesus came into an inconvenient world to rescue us. We might be placed in inconvenient circumstances to meet other people who need to hear of Jesus Christ.

Christ is born in Bethlehem, in the City of David, but in a stable, and he is placed in an animal’s feed-box. Why a stable? Why a feed box? There was over crowding due to lots of people travelling back to their home town to be registered. An Inn of the type mentioned here was probably an open room with lots of mats on the floor – not very private. A stable might have given more privacy for the birth. But there were to be visitors that night – people who knew how and where to find stables and feed-boxes quickly – people who would bring a message of encouragement to Mary and Joseph.

Continued in part 2

Christ is born in the City of David — Part 2

Continued from part 1: Luke 2: 8-14

A shepherd had a dangerous job.  Jesus, the good shepherd, spoke about people who were hired to watch sheep but who ran away when wolves attacked the flock. Protecting sheep is hazardous. King David, as a young man, was a shepherd in the same area as these shepherds  of Luke 2.  David had to fight off lions and bears. To be a shepherd who kept the watch over the flock you had to be tough.

Wolves, lions and bears these shepherds could handle, but not an angel. It is only in Christmas plays that angels are cute. When confronted with a lion, the shepherds knew what to do – grab it by the mane and kill it. When confronted by a messenger from God, they knew what to do – they feared greatly.

More than that, they feared GREAT FEAR. *The* great fear. Namely, the terrifying thought that God was calling them to account right now.  Even complacent shepherds in those days and parts would have understood that death was not the end for a sinner. The sacrificial lamb was not only killed in the temple, but burned. The picture is that, after death, judgment and condemnation come.

They realised that this angel had come from the Holy One, the God who is the righteous Judge. They realised that they had offended this God in everything they had done, and they knew that they deserved to be condemned. They believed death and judgement stood before them. So they feared Great Fear.

And, if it were not for the message that the angel was actually bringing, they would have been dead right in that belief.

Instead of what they expected, they were told to stop fearing. The angel had a happy message of great joy. More than that, the message was ‘GREAT JOY’. In place of GREAT FEAR, God sent them the message: “GREAT JOY”.

But it was not a message that God would simply ignore their sinfulness. Rather, God himself would deal with sin and its due punishment. The GREAT JOY was that “Today, in the city of David, is born for you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”

This tells us at least three things:

  1. That the Saviour is the Lord God
  2. That the Saviour is now also a human being
  3. That this one will save

This Saviour will take the role of substitute for the human race. He came to take responsibility; to live a righteousness human life for sinners, and he came to receive God’s  judgement in the sinner’s place.

The saviour had to be the Lord God, because mere human beings can only be good or bad for themselves. I can’t transfer my badness to you; any ‘good’ that I might do (for the sake of the argument) I can only do for myself. As God, the saviour can do good that may be donated to others.

The saviour had to be a human being, because we need to appear before God in human righteousness which only a human can provide, Jesus the second Adam. If our death and condemnation is to be averted, a human substitute has to be condemned and die for our sins.

This Saviour saves, because we have no part at all bringing about this rescue. Sinful humans cannot mess up the salvation that Christ the Lord alone has provided. That’s good news.

The birth of Jesus is unlike any other of the extraordinary birth in the bible – Isaac, Samuel, Sampson, John the Baptist — these were all special, they all involved God acting against what was expected, but only the birth of Jesus was announced with the whole armies of heaven’s angels singing:

Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, peace, good will to men.

God is Glorified in this salvation. The Lord Jesus, in his prayer (John 17) he said that he had Glorified the Father, that he had done the work that he had been sent to do, and that he (Jesus) is glorified by it. The Eternal God says it is glorious to rescue his enemies from his own holy and fierce anger. Think about this. God says that he will not share his Glory with anyone, but he has freely joined his glory to our salvation.

God gives peace, and reveals his good will to sinful humans by the coming of Jesus Christ.

In this way God’s love to shown to the world (John 3:16), that he sent his only son so that whoever trust him will receive eternal life.

Now, what did the Shepherds do? Two things.

–          They believed the message.

–          Told the message to others.

They believed the message – they did not say, “Let’s go to Bethlehem to check if the angel is telling us the truth”

They did say, “Let as go and see this thing (reema — word) that has happened, which the Lord has told us about”.

As I said, these guys would know how to find an animal’s feed-box in Bethlehem, and when they found one with a baby in it, they knew what they had found – this was the sign to them that this baby is the Saviour.

What message did they repeat? “Don’t be afraid, for today, in the city of David is born for you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” This means God is Glorified and he brings his peace and goodwill to us.  They didn’t embellish the message; they didn’t muck around with the message they’d received. They told it plainly as it was delivered to them.

We also have received this happy message of GREAT JOY — Jesus Christ is saviour.

We need to believe it, and, if we believe it, we can pass it on.