Notes on the Epistle to the Hebrews

from notes of readings by F. W. Grant.

Division 4 (Heb. 11).

We come now to the fourth division of the epistle, in which the apostle shows by the example of the saints of old, how the practical life of those that at any time pleased God had always been a path of faith. We have their trials and experiences put before us, especially of those who lived before the Jewish system had been established Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — the very men who had received the promises. The complete setting aside of the Jewish ritual left them immeasurably better off than with it, for it is not of that which is seen and sensible that faith takes hold. Indeed, those who had lived under these typos and shadows only found their blessing in looking beyond them. By just so much as they rested in these they lost the reality.

There are four sections here; the first giving (after an introductory statement of principles), in three who lived before the flood, a foreshadowing of the path of faith ever since (vers. 1-7); the second, the gain to it of delaying blessing (vers. 8-16); the third, the prophetic outlooks granted to it (vers. 17-22); while the fourth shows its various trial and experiences (vers. 23-40).

Section 1 again has four parts: the first of which, think, as an introductory statement, shows the sufficiency of faith as a governing principle of practical life (vers. 1-3). First, the power of it is in this, that it is a "substantiation of things hoped for, a conviction of things unseen." The heart is drawn out of the world by the attraction of what is beyond it, of what it is convinced of, though unseen. There is independence of the world: its allurements solicit in vain; circumstances do not control us; we are masters of ourselves, clear-sighted and steadfast.

Through it also the men of old obtained a good report — of course in God's history of things, not in man's. It is easy to see that in Scripture the thing which made the old worthies what they were was faith: how perfect the contrast between the same men energized by it or when it was at ebb in them!

Then "by faith we understand 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." It would be a good thing if men of science would give heed to such a text as this. Take Darwin's Origin of Species, where he never gets indeed to the origin, and owns he cannot prove that any species ever did originate after the fashion he decrees. And think of originating in his manner Eve out of Adam! Given even the "rib," she could not have sprung out of it simply: there must have been that which did not appear — the power of God. If it is not perfectly scientific to believe that in her case, we may as well give up Scripture at once, for you cannot expunge the miraculous out of it. If it be only a question of less or more, how unreasonable to measure out the power of God, and how enormous the pretence of being able to say just how much this power, or how or when it shall be fitting for it to be displayed.

God has ordained in His mercy a stable world for man, and we may thank Him that it is so, and see abundant reason for its being so, if we were to be able to reckon aright. But then they turn round and talk learnedly of "laws of nature," as if God were not the Author of nature and its laws, and would bind Him with them, so that He shall not move except according to them. Whereas, in fact, a stable world is just what is suited as a background for the miraculous; and the miracles are a reserve of power most fitted to display Him as the living God amid all this mechanism, not to be confounded with it.

After all Scripture is at once the most scientific and rational of books, and a miracle of the most stupendous kind, always ready to hand, and with its own power of conviction for any one who will examine it. And this. one may say, in the face of all the higher critics in the world, who are simply the Darwinians of theology, and who like them theorize after the most stupendous fashion, and then talk of the credulity of faith!

God manifested in creation! If we only realized just what this meant, what a suited setting it would make for the brighter manifestation of God in Christ; and how, day by day, we should walk amid the ministries of all the creatures of His hand. Day to day would utter speech, and night to night tell knowledge. The universe would be indeed the house of God, and in what corner of it could we be without Him? Here, then, as the basis of a life of faith, we are taught to realize in nature the supernatural — the seen as having its root and origin in the unseen, and which has not given up its work in that primary effort that produced it.

In the second place (ver. 4) we have Abel witnessing and witnessed to, bringing to God his fuller sacrifice than Cain, owning the death which had come in through sin, and in a way contemptible to mere reason folly if it were not faith — turning that death into acceptable offering to God, so as to obtain witness of God that he is righteous, God testifying of his gifts. But his life exhales from the earth, the world being in opposition to God from its very beginning.

In the third place (vers. 5, 6) we have the heavenward side of this in Enoch, walking with God in a "dedicated" life, upon which no shadow of death comes. Heaven claims him, the type of the heavenly family, which now waits, not for the judgment of the earth, but for translation at the coming of the Lord.

While in the fourth place (ver. 7) Noah gives us the picture of the heirs of earth brought through the judgment, his house saved and the world condemned by that faith of his. Here, then, we have the plain foreshadowing of faith in its various history; the three witnesses together showing us righteousness, communion, heirship, as all found in it.

Section 2 (vers. 8-16). The second section gives us next the gain to faith in the delay of blessing; and here Abraham is the great example for us. It is striking the difference that we find between Abraham in the Old Testament, and as he is presented to us in this account in Hebrews. In the Old Testament you have the circumstances of his life, and his faith in God is manifested and blessed; but of the heavenly country that he looked for you find nothing. Typically, of course, there is no difficulty: wherever we read of Canaan we rightly think of it; but suppose we had no New Testament, how much should we know? Even now that we have Paul's comment here, it has been sought by some to show that Canaan, both in the Old Testament and the New, was the sole inheritance promised to him, and that it is all he is ever to have. It is impossible to maintain this, if we take the statements fairly here; but the attempt to maintain it shows how little the Old Testament by itself reveals to us what Abraham had in view. The difference is of interest in other ways; but here we may take it, believe as illustrating the gain of deferred blessing. He did not in his life-time receive the things promised as to Canaan: to the end he was a mere stranger in it; but it was thus for him made the shadow of a better and heavenly inheritance. How largely then God taught men by means of pictures of this kind, should be plain to all who will consider it: and while to us it would be dreadful to have to go back to such things only for ourselves, yet, when it was the large part of what men had, they might be expected to look into it in a way that now with our fuller light we scarcely think of doing. Look at the promise of the woman's Seed at the beginning, which even the perversions of it among the heathen show to have been accepted as speaking of the spiritual deliverance. Look at God clothing Adam and Eve with the skins of beasts, the fruit of death. And so everywhere at that time. Things were under a veil; but we may be sure that God did not allow the veil to be so thick as to hide altogether from faith the glory beneath it.

There are four subsections here: the first of which (ver. 8) gives us simply and beautifully the obedience of faith in Abraham, going out unto a place which he was to receive for an inheritance, not knowing at first where he was going. It seems, although his steps had been directed to Canaan, that it was only after he got there that he learned that that was the inheritance. Alas, even with God's people how they allow the question of where a thing will lead to divert them from the simple, all-necessary question: Is it God that is leading? Not such a man was Abraham; and the Lord give us to be as simple and childlike as he.

The second subsection (vers 9, 10) gives us more the character of the whole section: for here we find him, after the births, themselves long delayed, of Isaac and then Jacob, still a stranger in the land of his inheritance. But what was his compensation? "He looked for a city having the foundations, whose architect and builder" — devising the plan and carrying it out — "is God."

This mention of a "city" is very striking, if it means that this was actually (as such) before Abraham's sight. it may mean that this it is in which Abraham's faith will find its consummation; or it may be that God had revealed to him much more than we have knowledge of for even the earthly Jerusalem was not then existent as a city of God, except it were as Melchizedek's Salem; but this is certainly the heavenly one. The mention of "the foundations" brings before us the very city of the Apocalypse, with its twelve jewel foundations, like the high priest's breastplate, the glorious "lights and perfections" of the divine character, a city built upon which must indeed abide. Abraham's hope had surely then been lifted to a higher plane than that of earth, in the meantime of the delay of that earthly expectation.

Thirdly (vers. 11, 12), we come to Sarah — certainly a sort of resurrection of the dead for her; and a child so born, what a pledge it was of other fulfilments! Here again it cannot be questioned how largely the very delay increased the blessing.

Fourthly (vers. 13-16), it is emphasized for us how long the trial of faith lasted. They died in faith, not having received the promises; and thus upon earth, during their whole time on it, were strangers and sojourners. The land, too, which they had left, lay all this time in sight, inviting their return; but they persisted, desiring a better country. Here, once more, how great the gain God openly linking Himself with them as their God, as with these three especially "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob," being His specifically declared memorial name. And He has prepared for them a city.

Section 3 (vers. 17-22). The third section shows us faith in its prophetic realizations, which spring, as always, from the apprehension of God in the sanctuary, where everything is seen in reference to Him alone. Here again there are four subsections.

First we see Abraham at the word of God, offering up the son in whom the promises were to be fulfilled to him. It is God who has promised, He is faithful and almighty: Isaac shall be brought back, therefore, even from the dead: from which he is indeed in a figure received.

Next in Isaac, though at first obscured by fleshly impulses, faith manifests itself in the recognition of God's rights as against nature, the ruin of nature being implied in it, and His separation of His people from the world.

Thirdly, Jacob rehearses, as it were, in the blessing of the sons of Joseph, his own history; but now at the end of human strength the struggler becomes a worshiper, and the eyes dulling to earthly things are lighted up with far-off glories. It is again a sort of resurrection story, with the issues, as always thus, in God's hand alone.

Fourthly, in Joseph's case, the departure of Israel out of Egypt is anticipated by him, and he ordains his bones to be for them a continual admonition of the change awaiting them.

Section 4. The chapter closes with a more varied, yet slighter sketch of the generations following these early patriarchs. As we come to the establishment of the legal system, the record is scanty, and even Moses himself does not appear after the Red Sea deliverance. As a fourth section, trials and experiences may characterize it generally. There are, I think, seven subsections.

In the first (ver. 23) we have a remarkable simplicity of faith in Moses' parents which acts upon grounds which to most would appear slight enough — the beauty of the child. God answers it, for it was faith in Him, and how largely: for this is Moses the deliverer. Is there not here one of the natural indications of the mind of God, which we are so unskilled in finding — which the poor, perhaps, read best, and which are apt to be confounded with mere superstition — separated from it by a line too indefinite for general appreciation. But wherever faith is, God will honor it.

In the second place (vers. 24-26) we come to Moses himself, with whom faith argues, as it might seem, in the very teeth of a most wonderful providence. He will not be a patron to the people of God, but a sharer in their humiliation, which He esteems as "the reproach of Christ," and values it above all the treasures of Egypt.

Then (vers. 27, 28) we find the sanctuary in which he abides, the unseen Presence of God, which upon his return to Egypt delivers him from even fearing the wrath of the king, which is powerless against him. While in the Passover and sprinkling of blood he draws Israel also into the same sanctuary, delivered from a greater fear than that of the king of Egypt, by that which has always been a sign of the recognition of the judgment upon man — in that which puts it away forever. In this way, I think, the two illustrations of faith given here are linked together.

The fourth subsection (ver. 29) gives us in contrast the experience of faith and the "assayal" of unbelief at the Red Sea. To faith God opened the way; unbelief, seeing it open, sought to walk in, and perished.

In the fifth (vers. 30, 31) the fall of Jericho furnishes again two contrasted examples of the weakness of man and the power of God. The walls of the city fall at the mere blast of trumpets, while Rahab, whose house is on the wall that falls, is preserved amid the destruction which comes upon the unbelieving.

We have then in a sixth subsection (vers. 32-38) the time following Israel's entrance into the land. Only six names are mentioned, and of these nothing specific is recorded, though their history is familiar to us. But there follows a long catalogue of various and contrasted forms, in whom faith overcame — most often in the way of the cross — by what seemed mere defeat.

Lastly (vers. 39, 40) we are carried on in thought to the time of perfect fruition for which they wait until we too receive it — we for whom something better than they enjoyed has been reserved. So, in his way of constant encouragement and admonition, he reminds these Hebrews.