The Faith that God Desires
The Very Rev’d Canon Robert S. Munday, Ph.D
The Letter to the Hebrews is my favorite New Testament epistle. It could almost be called the Gospel to the Hebrews because of the way in which it relates the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ to everything of significance in the Old Testament. Hebrews chapter 11 gives us that wonderful list of the saints of old who accomplished great things by faith and those who suffered and endured great things by their faith. And the chapter ends with these words (verses 39-40):
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised (emphasis mine). God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Let’s consider four things we see in this text:
(1) What was the content of saving faith in the Old Testament? What is there about the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Rahab and all the rest of these Old Testament figures that would cause the Holy Spirit to inspire a New Testament writer to extol them as heroes of the faith?
(2) Faith is an attitude of the heart. There is a way of saying yes to God, so that, even though you don’t know the details of God’s plan, when the plan is fulfilled, you aren’t surprised, you aren’t disappointed; you are thankful.
(3) The Scriptures are not teaching a form of universalism. Just because these people were saved without explicit knowledge of a baby in a manger and a man on a Cross doesn’t mean that they were saved apart from that life and death of Jesus. The passage from Hebrews makes it clear: “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” In their looking forward by faith, they were included in God’s covenant and made to be recipients of the promises even though the promises would not be fulfilled until the coming of Jesus.
(4) Now if all these people could be saved looking forward to the vague outline of the promises of God, how much more are we without excuse who can see it all very clearly in the rear-view mirror?
So, as we begin Hebrews 12, the writer brings the train of thought right on home to us. Since we can see so clearly what Jesus has done, it should:
(1) inspire us to throw off everything that hinders us.
(2) free us to throw off the sin that so easily entangles. (Those who have wrestled with some sin over which it seems impossible to get the victory know that this is no small thing—but, God’s covenant promise—fulfilled in Jesus’ sinless life, atoning death, and life-giving resurrection have the power—if we have the faith—to break the sin that so easily entangles.)
(3) empower us to run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Just as when the Letter to the Hebrews was written, so today we face circumstances and situations that discourage and depress us and keep us from being all that God wants us to be and accomplishing what he intends us to do. And so Hebrews 12:1-3 gives us some encouragement:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before (the faith of Jesus—Gethsemane) him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Finally, in light of the example of Jesus set before us, the writer admonishes us in verse 3: “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that (however heavy the burden, however strong the hindrances, however long the race) you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
As we look at these verses let us ask three questions: (1) What are the Hebrews experiencing? Suffering—so much that the Hebrews are in danger of growing weary and losing heart. (2) Where is the suffering coming from? The first answer is that the suffering is coming from hostile adversaries. This was true in chapter 10:32-34; and it was true of the Old Testament saints in 11:35-38; and you can see that it is true here in verse 3.
The suffering is coming from the hostile will of sinful adversaries. That is the first answer. But it is not the fundamental answer.
This whole passage is built on another answer to the question: The main answer of the passage is that God is in charge here, and that he is in ultimate control of these afflictions and that they are in fact the loving discipline of a perfect heavenly father. That's the burden of this passage.
Which leaves one last question: (3) What is the purpose for their suffering? What is the design of God in this sovereign governing of our adversaries and circumstances? The answer is that much of the hard things we experience in life are not mere accidents; they are not even merely the result of the sinful actions of others. They are formative hardships put in life by God precisely for our betterment. The text is wonderfully clear on this. “Those whom the Lord loves he disciplines” (Hebrews 11:6). The design of God is love. Our suffering is not the result of God's hate, but of God's love. Will you believe this? That is the question.
The Very Rev’d Canon Robert S. Munday, Ph.D., is Dean and President of Nashotah House Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Quincy.
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