What is the faith to which the Bible calls us? What is Biblical faith? What is saving faith? Or does it even matter what kind of faith you have? Maybe just as long as you have some flavor of faith, is that all we need to have? These are questions which are squarely confronted in the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews. In particular, this chapter shows us that it matters what you believe, and it matters how you believe. It matters because, as we are told in the sixth verse, Biblical faith is the only faith that pleases God. And the reality is that God is the only one that matters when it comes to how we evaluate our faith. You may be pleased with your faith, but if God isn’t it, that’s not going to matter in the long run.
What we are going to see in the following verses is that faith believes certain things and faith does certain things. It believes certain things: it believes that God exists (6), that his promises are trustworthy and true (1), and that he is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him (6). But it also does certain things: it brings an offering to God (4), it walks with God (5), and it heeds the warnings of God’s word (7). Faith also receives certain things, one of the most important of which is the righteousness of God. Those who trust in God’s saving promises are accounted as righteous, like Noah, who was an “heir of the righteousness of God by faith” (7), and like Abel who “obtained witness that he was righteous” (4).
The key verse in this part of Hebrews 11 is, I think, verse 6: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Brothers and sisters, we should want, above all else, to be people who please God. The problem is that so often we end up seeking to please men instead of God. But God is really the only one for whom this matters in any ultimate sense. What does it matter if the whole world stands against you if God is for you? In fact, as the apostle Paul puts it in Romans 8, if God is for you, no one can be against you in any lasting or meaningful way (Rom. 8:31-33). So we should want to please God, not the world. We shouldn’t want to be a friend of the world, for to be a friend of the world is to be the enemy of God (Jam. 4:4).
But how do you please God? Well, Heb. 11:6 gives us a necessary condition: “without faith it is impossible to please him.” Let that word “impossible” land on you the way it ought. You cannot please God, no matter what else you do, apart from faith.
But again, at this point it is a temptation to pour into that word “faith” what we want it to mean. For some people, “faith” is just an optimistic attitude about life. For others, faith is believing in yourself, a confidence that you will be able to overcome whatever obstacles life puts in your way. And then there are those who think that faith is just some vague spiritual feeling that we are dependent somehow on some force or power outside of us.
That is not what we see here, however. That is not the faith that pleases God. The fundamental and primary feature is that Biblical faith is centered on God, not on ourselves. Moreover, Biblical faith takes God at his word. In other words, there is a God-centeredness about the kind of faith that is celebrated in the Scriptures that sets it apart from its imitators. We will see this as we look together at the first three examples here in the Faith Hall of Fame: Abel, Enoch, and Noah. What we will see in these three men is that faith secures God’s approval, it seeks God’s fellowship, and it submits to God’s word.
As we look at the lives of these men and the faith they displayed, my prayer is that we will be encouraged to imitate their example. For that is the purpose of this chapter, isn’t it? Let us beware of thinking that
Biblical figures are superheroes that we can admire but not imitate. They are not. They are like Elijah, who the apostle James tells us “was a man subject to like passions as we are” – in other words, he was just like us (Jam. 5:17). And just as the example of prayer in the life of Elijah was meant to be an encouragement to pray, so the life of faith here exhibited through Abel, Enoch, and Noah, is meant to be an encouragement to live a life of faith just like they did.
Abel: faith securing God’s approval (4)
In verse 4, we read, “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 being dead yet speaketh.” This verse is a commentary on the history of Abel recorded in Genesis 4:3-5, which reads, “And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.”
There have always been two questions that people have asked of this text. First, why was Abel’s offering accepted by God when Cain’s wasn’t? And second, how did they know that God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s? Starting with the second question, a tradition developed that the way the brothers knew whose offering God accepted was that fire came down out of heaven and consumed Abel’s offering while Cain’s offering was left as it was. Of course, the Biblical record doesn’t say this, so it’s speculation, although God did do this very thing at the tabernacle, Solomon’s temple, and with Elijah’s sacrifice on the top of Mount Carmel. Perhaps that’s where the tradition came from, but we have to be content to simply say that the text doesn’t say. God did communicate to both of them in some way, however, and that’s apparently all we need to know.
As for the first question, it has long been conjectured that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice because it came from the flock, whereas Cain’s was from the fruit of the ground. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that in the Law of Moses God required food offerings as well as animal sacrifices. Again, we could speculate that Abel understood the need for a sin offering and Cain did not, and that’s what set them apart, but again we would just be guessing. However, we really don’t need to guess as to why God accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. Our text tells us, doesn’t it? “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.” What set the two brothers apart was not so much what they offered but how they offered it. Abel offered his in faith. Cain offered his with a wicked heart: “Cain . . . was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (1 Jn. 3:12).
Faith is what set them apart. Now of course, this means that faith is more than a bare belief that God exists. We see from verse 6 that this is obviously necessary, but the faith that secures God’s approval is not a bare notion that God exists. Saving faith is more than not being an atheist. Devils know that God exist too, and they tremble (Jam. 2:19). In fact, Cain not only knew God existed, he talked with God!
Not only so, but Cain’s offering also shows that saving faith – I’m using this phrase to distinguish it from a dead and useless faith as James describes in his epistle (Jam. 2) – is more than just religious service. Cain was a religious man. Cain made an offering to God. But he was rejected, and Abel was accepted.
So what did Abel have that Cain didn’t? What was it that made Abel a man of faith and Cain not a man of faith? To answer that question, we have to understand what is at the essence of faith. It is this: it is to put your trust in God, rather than in yourself. Trust is at the heart of true Biblical faith. I like to illustrate this sometimes with John 2:23-25, where the gospel tells us that many people believed in the name of Jesus when they saw his miracles, but that Jesus “did not commit himself unto them.” To “commit” in verse 24 is the same verb as “believe” in verse 23. Some translations have it as “entrust.” That’s what it means to have faith in God: it means to commit oneself whole and entire to God and to his mercy and grace. It means to look outside of myself for salvation and hope and to God and his grace alone.
Cain didn’t have faith, which means that he must have believed at some fundamental level that he didn’t need God. Yes, he would offer something to him to get him off his back, but he didn’t really believe that God was the great need of his soul. The Bible makes it plain that he was a wicked man, that he murdered his brother because he couldn’t stand to be around a righteous man. He didn’t want to submit his life to God. He wanted to be his own God. He didn’t have faith.
What was the outcome? What is the author of Hebrews holding out for us as the incentive to live lives of faith? It is this: Abel was accepted by God; Abel received God’s approval. You see it in the words: “more excellent sacrifice.” It was more excellent, not because of anything in the sacrifice itself, but because this is what God thought of it. It’s God’s opinion, not ours, that makes a religion true or false. You also see it in the words, “by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying to his gifts.” Who is the witness here? It is God. Who is the one testifying to Abel’s gifts? It is God. And in fact the word “witness” and the verb “testifying” both carry the connotation of divine approval. The ESV translates it like this: “he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.” It is by faith that Abel obtained God’s approval when Cain did not.
Of course, every now and then you will hear someone say that they don’t care what God thinks. They don’t care whether they have his approval or not. Well, it is easy enough to say that now. But there is coming a day when there are going to be a lot of people who realize too late that it’s only what God thinks that ultimately and eternally matters. God’s approval matters. God’s commendation matters. Nothing else does in the final analysis. It doesn’t matter how many ribbons you have on your wall, how many trophies, or how high you are in the company. What matters is God’s approval. Are we pleasing him? The only people who please him are those who entrust themselves to the God who reveals himself in the Bible, as the Triune God: Father, Son, and Spirit. It means approaching him, not on the basis of the spoiled fruits of your past and present or on the unripe fruits of a promised future, but on the basis of his grace alone through Jesus Christ. It means laying down your quest to be Lord of your life and surrendering that to Christ.
By the way, note the last words of verse 4; they are important: “and by it he being dead yet speaketh.” God approved of Abel, but Cain didn’t. He killed his brother. Just because God loves you doesn’t mean the world will also love you. In fact, the Bible teaches that if God loves you and you love God, it is almost certain that the world will hate you. Our Lord put it this way to his disciples: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (Jn. 15:18-19). It follows that there are not always happy endings in this world even for those who live by faith. But Cain’s revenge was not the end of the story. Abel to this stay speaks to us and encourages us to live by faith. And the reason you want to listen to his words is because his physical death was not the end of his story. Abel lives on in glory and in the presence of God. We need to remember that. This is, in fact, a very important aspect to our next character, Enoch.
Enoch: faith seeking God’s fellowship (5)
In the next verse, we read: “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 this testimony, that he pleased God.”
Enoch shows up in Genesis 5, in the midst of a long list of names in a genealogy starting with Adam and going on to Noah. In verses 21-25 we read this: “And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begat Methuselah: and Enoch walked with God after he begat Methuselah three hundred years, and begat sons and daughters: and all the years of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: and Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” The only other place in Scripture that we can glean more information about this mysterious man is in Jude, where we read, “And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these [false prophets], saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (14-15).
It is interesting to note that our author says that Enoch pleased God; the Genesis text says that he walked with God. Of course, one implies the other: you cannot walk with God if you do not please him – he wouldn’t allow it! What we learn from this is that Enoch was a godly man – he clearly hated ungodliness – who walked with God and sought fellowship with God. The words “walked with God” are exactly the words used to describe Noah in contradistinction from the world of the ungodly taken away by the flood: “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9).
This is the impact of a life of faith. Do you want to know what a life of faith looks like? It is the kind of life that walks with God, that seeks communion with him, that knows what it means to have fellowship with God. And that means it is a life that seeks holiness, that hungers and thirsts after righteousness. For you cannot have fellowship with God in any meaningful sense apart from holiness. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8). This is what the apostle John teaches us in the first chapter of his first epistle: “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:3-5). John goes from inviting his readers to have fellowship with God to telling them that God is light and has no fellowship with darkness. He goes on to say, “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (6-7).
Those who live lives of faith, who walk with God and please God show that they are the children of God. Of course, I am not saying that we commend ourselves to God on the basis of our works. That is not possible. Any good works are the result of the grace of God in our lives (Eph. 2:10) and God gets the credit, not us. If we are holy, it is because of the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God who is communicated to us on the basis of the redemptive work of Christ for us. The one who glories, let him glory in the Lord.
But good works are evidence of grace. And it separates the people of God from the world. In the case of Enoch, God did something that set him apart from literally everyone else. For we are told that God translated him: God took him out of this world and into the next without death intervening. This is the explanation of our text: “Enoch was translated that he should not see death.” Enoch is one of only two people that Scripture tells us did not see death. The other guy was Elijah, who was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. What makes this especially remarkable in terms of Enoch is that in the fifth chapter of Genesis, every other person listed there is also said to have died. “And he died” is a recurring phrase in Genesis 5: with the exception of Enoch.
What was God doing? What was being communicated to us in Enoch’s translation? Well, I think one of the things being communicated to us is the significance of walking with God. Enoch is also the only one in this list of whom it is said that he walked with God (with the exception of Noah, of whom it is recorded in the next chapter). And the author of Hebrews connects this to faith. By faith Enoch walked with God. And God is giving us a preview, so to speak, of the future resurrection in the translation of Enoch. What Enoch experienced is what all God’s people will experience when Christ returns: “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). Those who trust in God are those who will be resurrected in the last day. Our Lord put it this way: “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (Jn. 11:25-26). In other words, those who by faith look to Christ will experience resurrection life, which is what Enoch was given without having to experience death.
Noah: faith submitting to God’s word (7)
In verse 7, we read, “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.”
Here we note the connection between the description of Noah’s faith and the definition given in verse 1: “Faith is . . . the evidence of things not seen.” Thus it was by faith that Noah was “warned of God of things not seen as yet,” namely, the flood. Noah believed God’s word, seen by his being “moved with fear” so that he “prepared an ark to the saving of his house.” In doing so, he “condemned the world,” who obviously did not believe that this would happen. The ungodly refused to believe that God was going to destroy the world with a flood. Nothing had ever happened like that before; I’m sure they mocked Noah the entire time he was building the ark. Why spend so much time preparing for something that was not going to happen? It sounds a lot like the mockery of the wicked today. They mock us for living in light of eternity. The apostle Peter himself draws the same connection:
Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless. (2 Pet. 3:3-14)
I want you to note in particular the connection that Peter makes between the word of the Lord spoken to Noah and the word of the Lord spoken to us: it is the same word (see verse 7). And just as Noah believed and submitted to God’s word, so it befits us to believe and submit to God’s word. At the same time, we can expect the world to mock us for believing it. They will say there is no evidence that a final judgment is going to happen; that it is all just wishful thinking, pie-in-the-sky type stuff. But the reason for believing it is that it is the word of God. It doesn’t matter if what God tells us is going to happen has never happened before. God does not do things according to statistics. We believe it because God said it. His word is faithful and true and sure.
And though Noah I’m sure had many good reasons for believing God’s word, we have even more. We look back on the flood, on the judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah, on the judgment against Jerusalem. We also look back on all the promises of God that he has fulfilled. Most of all, we look back on the resurrection of our Lord. We are not left with a paucity of reasons to believe but with a panoply of reasons to believe.
That’s what faith does. It believes and submits to the word of God. Not an empty, intellectual believing that has no effect upon the life, but a living faith that transforms the life.
One more thing: I want you to notice that phrase, that Noah “became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.” As one commentator put it, this is almost Pauline and strikes a note that that apostle sounds again and again in his epistles. Noah received the righteousness of God by faith; so do we. We inherit God’s righteousness; it is given to us by grace so that the only appropriate way to receive it is by the open hand of faith. Would you be right with God? Well, you don’t become right with God by being good enough. Now of course we ought to live righteous and holy lives, but that is not the point here. We are not justified before God by our righteousness, but solely by the righteousness of Christ, a righteousness which he performed and purchased on our behalf through his perfect life and sacrificial death, and which he gives to all who trust in him. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Gen. 6:6), and that grace was communicated to him through faith on the basis of the future work of Christ. It is the same way for all of us.
What is it that compels faith to act in these ways?
You may have noticed that although I said that verse 6 was the key and central verse, I still haven’t come to it to deal with it in depth yet. That is because it seems to me to stand behind the faith of these three men (and including everyone else mentioned in this chapter), and so I wanted to wait until we had dealt with all three so we could see how the realty spoken of in verse 6 motivated the faith and faithfulness of
Abel and Enoch and Noah. What was it exactly that motivated Abel to seek God’s approval, even when it cost him his life? What motivated Enoch to seek God’s fellowship in a world that was increasing alienated from him and hostile to him? What motivated Noah to endure the reproach of sinners against himself as he prepared an ark for the saving of his house? Verse 6 gives the answer.
Verse 6 flows from verse 5, of course, which says that Enoch had this testimony that he pleased God. Then we read, “But without faith it is impossible to please him, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” What we see from this verse is that Biblical faith produces a life rooted in the conviction that God is our incomparably great reward.
It’s important that we see that faith is not about seeking God as a means to an end. We don’t seek God so that we can get some reward from him. We seek God for God’s sake. If we read the verse carefully, we can see that. For whom or what does faith come to? It comes to God. God is not the rewarder of those who seek him for a reward outside of himself, but he is the rewarder of those who seek him diligently. Faith sees God as its shield and its exceeding great reward (Gen. 15:1). Faith speaks in the language of the psalmist: “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever” (Ps. 73:25-26).
And so you can see why Abel was willing to risk his life for the sake of seeking God’s approval. God was more precious to him than life itself. As Paul would say many years later: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). And you can see why Enoch sought the fellowship of God. For if God is your reward, if you treasure him above all things – and that is the only way to properly honor him – then you will desire to walk with him more than all the praise and riches and power that this world can offer. And you can see why Noah would heed God’s words, despite the ridicule and the persecution. If God is your treasure, his words will be your treasure too. In fact, you can tell just how much one treasures God by how much they treasure his word. You see this over and over again in the 119th Psalm. When you see that God is blessed you will want to learn his statutes (Ps. 119:8). When he is your portion, you will keep his words (Ps. 119:57). “The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver” (Ps. 119:72).
God is pleased – indeed, he cannot be pleased in any other way – when we find him to be our reward and our treasure. Because that is what he is. God is not a cosmic killjoy. He is not out there to destroy true joy but to uproot out of our hearts false pleasures that kill us in the end. The world can give you a high; there is no doubt about that. But that high will addict you and enslave you and will finally destroy you. On the other hand, “The blessing of the LORD maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it” (Prov. 10:22). And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. . .. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (Jn. 8:32, 36). There is everlasting joy and eternal pleasures at God’s right hand (Ps. 16:11).
So brothers and sisters, the fight of faith is a fight for joy. It is a fight for the true and better and lasting reward. Though we are called to deny ourselves, self-denial is not ultimate. We are simply denying ourselves lesser and destructive pleasures for the sake of better and life-giving and eternal pleasures. May we therefore imitate these examples of faith, and like them seek God for his approval, his fellowship, and his word.