The Many Witnesses and their Walk of Faith
"Without faith it is impossible to please Him"
The portion of the Epistle with which we have been occupied up to this time is devoted almost exclusively to the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the place into which He has brought us. Beyond the exhortations given from time to time, in view of the possible turning away of the hearers from Christ, there has been very little of what is called subjective character. But there is a marked change in the chapter upon which we enter now. It has been sometimes called "The Westminster Abbey of the Scriptures," because here are enshrined the names of the great men of faith. It is occupied entirely with showing the workings of faith, and therefore has to do in a most practical way with ourselves, as setting us an example that we should walk in the steps of the same faith.
It is very suggestive, and, I am sure, according to the purpose of God, that this chapter occupies this place in the Epistle. It is the outcome, as you may say, of all the truth which has been before us in the earlier part; just as in the Epistle to the Romans the first eleven chapters are an unfolding of divine truth which is the basis of exhortations following. So, too, in the Old Testament. The great thought in Exodus is redemption. In Leviticus the truths of divine holiness are emphasized, and the means by which communion is maintained through sacrifice. After all that is settled, — redemption, access to God, communion with Him, — we pass, in the book of Numbers, to the practical wilderness experience of the people. So here we have, on a smaller scale, a book of Numbers, having learned, by God's grace, some of the lessons of the sanctuary in the ninth and tenth chapters.
We will also notice that what has led up to it is the last exhortation in the tenth chapter, where the walk of the just is described as a walk of faith. "Now the just shall live by faith." This same scripture is quoted elsewhere to show that justification is by faith: "The just shall live by faith," quoted in Romans; then in Galatians, you have it again as showing that the life of the saint is not under law. As you might say, in Romans the emphasis is put upon "the just" — "the just shall live by faith." In Galatians it is put upon "live" — "the just shall live by faith"; and here the emphasis is put upon
"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by this the elders obtained witness."
" Faith is the substance," or "the substantiation of things hoped for;" that which makes the "things hoped for" a reality in the present. It is "the evidence," or, as it should be, "the conviction," — that which is borne into the soul in the power of divine truth as a reality, "of things not seen."
These two things show us what faith has to do with, and are especially appropriate to the saints whom he was addressing. We have already spoken of Christianity as "the good things to come," and saw that the coming of those "good things" was even yet postponed in a certain way, because we have nothing visible, or tangible, yet. The "good things" are still to come, save as faith has made them a living reality now. "What a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?" It is just as real as when we shall behold it in glory, but that which makes it actual to the soul is not something visible that we can hold up for the world to see. It is faith only which can see the blessings which are ours now. One day all the world will see it.
Did you ever think what you would do with the glories described in Revelation if you had to make use of them here in the body as you are now, and with the flesh still in you? Would there be any real enjoyment of them in a divine way? We may rest assured it is in perfect love and wisdom that God postpones the glories of the new creation to the time when we ourselves, even as to our bodies, shall be in it and fitted for it. That which has to do with the new creation now is faith. Faith makes it a very real thing, and, though it is future and unseen, brings it vividly before the soul now for enjoyment and power in our lives. That is what is illustrated in this chapter.
The second verse, we might say, is rather an introductory word: "By it the elders obtained a good report." That familiar expression shows he was addressing Hebrew Christians, who could look back upon the fathers and call them "the elders," with whose history they were well acquainted. "The elders" of the Old Testament had obtained a good report by faith. What was the basis of their reputation? Was it any special intrinsic worth in themselves? Could you hold up any of these Old Testament characters for full examination and say you could glory in that? Not in the judgment of God; and faith always looks at things as God looks at them. So, as he speaks of one after another, and shows how they were men of renown in the history of Israel, he says it was faith which gave them that distinction in the eyes of God and in the eyes of His people.
"By faith we apprehend that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that that which is seen should not have its origin from things which appear.
"By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and by it he having died yet speaketh.
"By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him; for before his translation he had the testimony that he had pleased God. But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that draweth near to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him out.
"By faith Noah, oracularly warned concerning things not yet seen, moved with fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his house; by which be condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith."
In this portion we have the first principles of faith; the foundation upon which all walk must rest. There are four illustrations of that character of faith: the principles not merely of our present relationship with God, but those which govern His people in all time. They give us a complete view of all God's people, and show that, whatever dispensation they may have lived in, they were actuated by faith, and it will be so to the end of time.
He begins, as you might say, with the Old Testament Scriptures before him, turning over page after page and finding examples of the faith which he wishes to press upon these Hebrew saints.
First is the great fact of the world in which we are, and all God's creation. How has it come into being? What is the nature of it? You ask the world's wise men, and they will tell you of the form in which things have appeared, what Geology has to declare, what Physiology unfolds. They will bring forward their various theories of evolution. And when they have told you everything, what is it? Not a single shred of truth for the soul. If they are honest, they say, We have only learned how nature has manifested itself; we have not been able to go back and see the origin of all these things!
Is it not significant that the wisest men of the world, — leaving revelation aside and dependence upon the living God, which faith is, — have not one gleam of light as to the origin of all we see about us! They can tell you how things are formed by natural growth, how they have apparently developed; but when they come to propound a theory, God is not there. He is left out. As a matter of fact, it is understood that the greatest proof of wisdom as to the relation of God with His creation is to reach the point where men confess they know nothing; so the name that has become familiar with them is "Agnosticism," (knowing nothing). And it tells the truth; they know nothing of God, for without faith you cannot know Him. That is what our scripture tells us: "Through faith we understand." Faith receives the knowledge that is imparted; and if you close your eyes and ears to what God has to reveal, there is absolutely nothing that you can know.
So much for the wisdom of the world. "The world by wisdom knew not God." Let us add to that the solemn arraignment of the wise men in the first of Romans: "For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools."
Not only is the world ignorant of God, but it is a guilty ignorance. They might have known. There was the light of nature. The whole creation about us, if one has a heart for God in the least, speaks of Him. How blessed it is to think, when we know God by faith, when we have received the revelation which He gives to us in redemption, that we can go back to the work of creation, over which the world stumbles and the wise men grope, and find the fullest witness of God's wisdom, His goodness, His power; yea, more than that, Christ's atoning work is spread upon the page of nature as well as upon the page of Scripture. There is constant witness, not merely to God's creative power, and in a general sense to what is called "Theism," but to that which speaks of Christ Himself. The basis of all that is faith.
If we pass to the religions of the natural man, as we have been speaking of his wisdom, we find the same thing. Look at the mythologies of the ancient world, with their grotesque fables and all that which speaks of utter darkness. You have a witness to the fact that natural religion is not that which will bring man to God, as some people would have us believe, but is a witness that man has departed from God. And though we find in the religions of the world some glimpse of truth as to creation, — take, for instance, the Babylonian accounts of creation, in some respects slightly similar to what you find in the book of Genesis, — yet it is only a sad and humiliating witness of a people who had the light once, but have gone away from it into darkness, and made the light they had the basis of idolatry and superstition.
So it is in all the world, whether it be the world's wisdom or its religion — they know not God. And what you find yourselves shut up to is the simple fact stated here: "Through faith we understand" the very things which the world cannot understand, over which it stumbles, gropes in darkness, and falters where it once firmly stood. All that uncertainty for the world is changed to absolute assurance for ourselves. The simplest babe in Christ knows that the "worlds were framed" by the word of God. "He spake, and it was done. He commanded, and it stood fast." "All things were created by Him and for Him." "The things which are seen" (the visible world about us, in its organized life, in everything that witnesses of design) "were not made of things that do appear."
Scientists would tell us that the world as you see it now has been gradually evolved; the things which are seen were made of things which do appear. But faith says, Things that are seen were made by God, by His Word; God is above His creation, the Author of it, the Ruler, the Lord of it.
The first and great fundamental principle of faith is that the creature is dependent upon the Creator, and that is where all sin and all apostasy and departure from God begin; man turns away from the Creator, and soon he knows not God.
The second point suggests this departure from God, the universal fact of sin. God made man to glorify and enjoy Him, in subjection and obedience. We find man fallen away so far from God, groping in darkness, debased in sin, even to ignorance of God his Creator, and doubt as to His being. What does God provide for faith in view of this alienation, this spiritual death? Abel's sacrifice gives the answer.
Cain and Abel are contrasted. Here are two persons presenting themselves, as you might say, to hear what God has to say to them. Cain brings the fruit of the ground upon which God had pronounced a curse — the fruit, doubtless, of his own hands as he had toiled and sought to develop that which he had planted. He brings that which is the sweat of his brow, and offers it to God. Abel, on the other hand, brings of the flock a sacrifice which he offers to God in its death.
From that day to this God has been approached by men in these two ways. There have been various forms of Cain's offering. In various ways men have brought the fruit of their own toil to Him. Sometimes they have brought that which represents their moral life; sometimes it is their liberality, their gifts for the poor and needy. Sometimes they bring their religious offerings, their prayers, their professions and promises; but whatever form it may take, the offering of Cain has the same moral character. You find in it no recognition of man's utter ruin, and therefore no atonement. It originates with the man himself, instead of in the provision which God has made.
On the other hand, Abel's sacrifice ever points to the one great fact which God taught our first parents as soon as sin had come into the world. As soon as they discovered that they were not fit for the presence of God, He made coats of skin and covered them. The skin meant, of course, that the animal's life had to be given up. There is the gospel at Eden's door, which pointed on, ever clearer and clearer, to the Lamb of God who gave up His life in order that we might be provided with a perfect covering to hide the shame of our nakedness.
What is dwelt upon in Abel's faith is not his personal character, not the fruit of his life, but the "more excellent sacrifice than Cain." That is what distinguishes the two men. They are not held up to us, one as wicked, and the other as righteous. As a matter of fact, we know Cain a little later to be a murderer. We know the fruit of a Christless life is sin in one or many forms, but it is not of the moral character that Scripture speaks here, but of the sacrifice which they brought. Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice to God. He obtains witness by what? Not by his works, not by his faithfulness or his character, but by the offering he brought. By that he "obtained witness that he was righteous."
Here you have one of those touches which suggest to us that the apostle Paul was the writer of this Epistle: for it is Paul ever who speaks of righteousness in this way, justification before God on the ground of the work of Christ.
As we see, Abel brings a sacrifice, and God by that sacrifice declares that he is a righteous man. That does not mean that Abel was intrinsically righteous. Righteousness has to do with our standing, not with our personal condition, when spoken of in this way. God declares a man to be just even when he is an ungodly person. That is the great truth of justification. It is on the ground of Christ's sacrifice. Sins were borne by the Substitute they are put away and now, as a man by faith accepts the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work, God declares him to be righteous. His faith is reckoned for righteousness. It has put him in the place where righteousness can be put to his account. Abel was justified by the sacrifice which he brought, God bearing witness of his gifts, "and by it, he being dead, yet speaketh."
This clause is frequently quoted. You will find it on the title-pages of biographies of faithful men: "Being dead, he yet speaketh." But notice two little words which precede that. It is not merely the example, the devotedness, the life of piety. What was it by which Abel speaks? "By it," that is, by the sacrifice which he brought. Abel has been speaking from that day to this. He is speaking wherever Christ's gospel is faithfully preached, and saying, Never approach God without a sacrifice you can only approach Him through the blood of a Substitute. And so Abel speaks "by it" of the great fundamental truth that redemption is the only remedy for sin. That is the second great fundamental principle of faith.
Are you trying to approach God by virtue of anything good in yourself — by faithfulness or good deeds, by your prayers or good feelings? These are right as fruits but if you are putting them as a Saviour, if you are bringing them for your acceptance on the ground of which God will be pleased with you, it is simply Cain's offering, and you cannot be accepted. On the other hand, if you realize your guilt, your unworthiness, that you are not fit for the presence of God — like the publican of old, that you can only say, "God be merciful to me a sinner," Abel's sacrifice is at the door; it is ready for you; you can lay the hand of faith on Him who died for sinners, for the ungodly.
The next principle of faith we see in Enoch. Enoch was the great example of the blessed results of a perfect redemption and a simple faith. He does not even die he is translated. When they looked for him, they could not find him. He lived a brief time as compared with the other antediluvians; but he was taken out of the world — he was gone. Death and decay did not touch him; he was lifted out of it all and carried up to where God was, to be with Him — blessed result of redemption. Faith in Christ, in His Sacrifice, so fits us for the presence of God's glory that we are not waiting for death, but for the coming of the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our humiliation-bodies that they might be fashioned like unto His glorious body.
What a perfect view of redemption that gives you! God is so perfectly glorified that, changing our bodies, He can take us right up into His presence. He has given us an example of it in Enoch, and another in Elijah, and He has given us the assurance of it in the resurrection of our blessed Lord from the dead.
Meanwhile His beloved people are falling asleep. We are so given to speak of death as the universal necessity that we are prone to forget that Christ's death has even put away the need of our dying. We shall fall asleep if the Lord tarry. We would grow weary with long waiting. Suppose the apostle Paul had been compelled to wait here through all these weary centuries, would we not long that that beloved servant might be released from his toil to wait up there with the Lord?
For ourselves, too, as we look soberly at it, can you not say, with the hymn, "I would not live alway"? Would you desire to live always as you are — to live on here, if the Lord tarried yet a long season? We are to wait here and serve Him for a time; but if the Lord Jesus does not come soon, the brightest thing for us is to be taken to be with Him, to be "absent from the body" and to be at home with the Lord. But He is waiting to gather in all the redeemed. So far as His work is concerned, He has fitted us for the presence of God's glory.
Sometimes we hear it said we have a title to heaven by the blood of Christ, and that we remain here to be morally fitted for heaven. But we have not only a title to heaven, but fitness for heaven, the moment we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. The thief is an example, not of extraordinary faith, nor of an unusual way of saving sinners, but of the only way. I believe God has singled him out in order that we may have an example, unencumbered by any subsequent details, to show us that the title to and fitness for heaven are both given the moment the sinner believes. Look at that familiar story a moment. Here is a man with his hands red with sin. He is rightly upon the cross, as he tells us himself; and he has really been blaspheming the Lord, as one of the Evangelists tells us, along with his companion; but a change comes over him. He begins to rebuke his companion for his sin and blasphemy; he confesses his own just condemnation, and then turns to the Lord and says, "Lord, remember me when Thou comest in Thy kingdom." You remember the Lord's answer, "Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise." There was no need for preparation for Paradise beyond the preparation which divine grace gave him. He was fit for it by the precious work of Christ, which gave him his title to it unquestionably. There was the new birth which had taken place to fit him for the enjoyment of the things of God, but it was all instantaneous, and all connected with the faith that laid hold upon Christ.
That is what is brought before us in the Lord's Supper, the great memorial feast for all His saints: "As oft as ye eat this bread and drink this cup ye do show the Lord's death" — there is Abel's sacrifice. "Till He come" — there is Enoch's translation. And there is nothing, so far as God is concerned, between Abel's sacrifice and Enoch's translation, save His abundant grace to sustain us here. So far as title and fitness for heaven are concerned, the moment a man believes, he is ready to be translated like Enoch. That shows what a perfect work Christ's is. Enoch left behind a bright testimony — that he pleased God. Turning to the Old Testament, the only record we have is that he "walked with God." He lived an ordinary kind of life — begat sons and daughters; but he pleased God by walking with Him. How simple, yet wide-reaching! To walk with God means, to be in accord with His mind and will, to be separate from all that is not according to that. But this necessitates faith. One who has to do with God must believe in His reality — "believe that He is." He must also believe in His goodness — "that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him."
Dispensationally, I have no question that Enoch speaks of the Church, of the people whose hope and expectation is heavenly, and who are going to be taken out of this scene. Our citizenship is in heaven, and we are looking for the Saviour from heaven, "who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body." That is the hope that is before the whole Church of Christ, without a single exception. That many of them are not aware of it is their loss, but it does not affect the precious truth that the coming of the Lord means the translation of every blood-bought child of God, of every member of the Church of Christ.
Coming to Noah, we have, no doubt, the dispensational side of things even, perhaps, more clearly emphasized than in Enoch. He represents God's earthly people Israel, who, after the translation of the Church, are brought to repentance, — the remnant of them, — and go through the fearful tribulation which is described in the book of Revelation, and which would answer to the flood which came upon the world of the ungodly.
Noah, we read, was a preacher of righteousness. He was constantly bearing witness in the midst of an ungodly world of impending judgment. He was "moved with fear." He realized that it was "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" that there must be shelter from the impending judgment; he believed God, therefore he prepared the ark, to the saving of his house. The effect of that was to condemn every one who refused to believe that the flood was coming and accept the shelter which God had provided. Thus he was "a preacher of righteousness."
So, in the latter day, the remnant, in fleeing to Christ, will not merely be preaching righteousness to the world in which they are, but they will be practically condemning the world which will be following Antichrist, bowing to the authority of the beast, and helping to build up that vast political and ecclesiastical system, which will be engulfed in the flood of divine judgments. They will condemn the world, and will become heirs to all that righteousness by faith gives.
Noah, as he looked over the world where he was, might have said, I will be heir of all this one day, because I only am sheltered, believing in God. So, in a very real sense, faith is ever the heir of everything that God has. People in the world today, the great men of this world, are not the real possessors of all that they have. Even for us, the apostle says, "All things are yours; whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours;" for the blessed reason that we are "Christ's."
So Noah condemned the world. By his testimony he convicted it of sin, and became heir of everything that righteousness by faith gives. So when he came out of the ark he looked upon a world of which he was sole possessor. He was lord, ruler, master of it all; and he had been made that by the faith which laid hold of God's promise.
Applying it also in a simple gospel way, we have, no doubt, another beautiful type of shelter from judgment in Christ and His work. There is no shelter but in Christ. The men of the world might have looked about them and mocked, and said, Where is there any indication of a flood? They might have trifled, as they doubtless did, and laughed at Noah for what he was doing; but the only safety was in God's provision. And today the world mocks, as it did in the days of Noah. Our Lord specially speaks of it as true of the last time. Men will eat and drink, marry and be given in marriage, and mock at the thought of judgment; but just as surely as the flood came upon the ungodly in the days of Noah, so will judgment come upon the ungodly in the last days.
In the great facts of these first four illustrations of faith, the fundamental truths connected with it are plainly declared. We find now, in what follows, an illustration and enlargement. The faith that is based upon these great truths will ever express itself in like manner; examples of which we read next.
"By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into the place which he was to receive for an inheritance, obeyed and went out, not knowing whither he was going.
"By faith he sojourned as a stranger in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which hath foundations, whose designer and maker is God."
Here, first of all, you have Abraham obeying the call of God. We read in Stephen's address, in the seventh of Acts, that "the God of glory" appeared unto Abraham, and called him out from the country where he was. It was "the God of glory;" the God whose glory had manifested itself to his faith. We are not distinctly told that Abraham was an idolater, and yet there are suggestions that he was. (See Joshua 24:2.) We know that the whole family connection, in company with all the rest of mankind, had gone off into idolatry. But the God of glory reveals Himself: He tells Abraham to come out from his country, from his kindred, to give up everything that nature held dear and go to a country of which He would tell him; and Abraham believed God. There was the beginning of faith. We know there had to be a work in his soul deeper even than that, which he learned in the land of Canaan; but he learned the lesson of believing God in the beginning when he went forth, not knowing whither he went.
That is the obedience of faith shown in the first step which Abraham took. Then the next is his life in Canaan. When he got to this land of promise, what did he find there? Not that which was tangible, or actually possessed by himself. He had not so much as a foot of land which he could call his own. It is very significant that the only part he ever possessed was a tomb, a place of burial, which reminded him that in life he had nothing, but which was also an anticipation of a resurrection. He had a faith that laid hold upon the God of resurrection, that his descendants would have the very land he was in. He would leave his bones there, the witness that he laid claim to it for his descendants. He dwelt in tents, along with Isaac and Jacob. His habitation was in a form which suggested that his home was not here. A tent speaks of a pilgrim life, and it is very interesting to see Jacob associated with him in this. We know Jacob lived comparatively little in the land of Canaan. Through his own waywardness, he spent much of his life outside of his own land; and yet what God sees here is his life of faith in a tent, as well as that of Abraham and Isaac. They were "heirs together of the same promise."
Then he goes on to say that Abraham "looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." Here is a thought we would hardly expect to find the Old Testament would give any inkling of at all. It should remind us that we ought to be very slow in saying that the Old Testament saints had no hope beyond this present life. I am sure faith always lays hold of that which is unseen. I am sure that as Enoch walked with God and enjoyed communion with Him, he knew something of that blessed future that was before him. So with Abraham. What a touching thing it is that he "looked for a city that hath foundations"! It is very suggestive in the original. There it is not "he looked for a city," some kind of a city but "he looked for the city," — well known, — only one such. He looked for the city which had the foundations, for they are well known foundations. There could be only one kind of foundation for a city like that. In Revelation you find it in precious stones, which speak of God glorified in Christ. Christ Himself is the foundation of that heavenly city, and His atoning work the basis upon which it, as all else, rests.
Abraham, the man of faith, looked for that city. He was not looking for a possession in Canaan. His tent was all that he had there. He was looking for the city whose designer and builder was God. God designed it and God built it, and that was the city that Abraham was looking for.
Have you noticed that in this chapter you have nothing of Lot? Yet Lot was a child of God, and we are told that he was a "righteous man." But Lot was not an example of faith. He looked upon a city. It was the city of Sodom. He saw it there in the valley of Jordan, like the garden of the Lord, and so he pitched his tent toward Sodom. He went toward it first, and the next thing he has given up his tent and is living in Sodom, a city which had no foundations; its builder and maker was sinful man. That city was a type of the whole world, even as Cain's city. Man makes himself comfortable away from God by building a city that was doomed to judgment, and Lot was snatched out of it by God, barely escaping.
No danger of any judgment falling upon the city for which Abraham was looking. There shall in no wise enter into it that which found its abode in Sodom, but only those that are written in the Lamb's book of life. It was for that Abraham was looking — dear man of faith! — looking forward to the city for which we also are looking, in whose glories and joys he as well as we shall share.
Thus faith hears the call of God and lives in separation from everything that is about us here. It looks forward to the time when it shall enter into the full joy of the Lord, in the abode which He Himself has built for His redeemed people.