Faith and the Future (Heb. 11:20-22)
In these three verses, we are given what are essentially brief bullet points on the faith of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. But I want you to notice that there are a number of common themes to all three accounts. First, all three accounts are about what these patriarchs would say when they knew they were near death. For example, Isaac wanted to bless his first-born Esau because, as he put it, “I am old, I know not the day of my death.” He went on to say that he wanted to bless him before he died (Gen. 27:2-4). Of course, through the trickery of Rebekah and Jacob, he ended up blessing Jacob instead, which is why in the text it has Jacob before Esau.
And then both verses 21 and 22 explicitly mention the fact that Jacob and Joseph where dying when they pronounced their blessings.
Then there is the common theme of the future promise of God, which is also a major theme of this whole chapter. Isaac’s blessing was “concerning things to come” (20). Joseph talked about the future exodus and even left instructions that his bones were to be removed to Canaan when the exodus of Israel from Egypt did happen (22). And though we are not told the content of Jacob’s blessing in verse 21, we can read about it in Genesis 48:15-17, and there we discover that it too is a reference to the future blessing of God upon the descendants of Israel.
I think it is a remarkable thing that on their death beds, these men didn’t spend a whole lot of time dwelling on their past. It’s not because their past wasn’t worth talking about. And they did refer to it some: Jacob, for example, points Joseph to “God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God which fed [shepherded] me all my life long unto this day, the Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads” (Gen. 48:15-16). So there is a pointing back to the past – but it is only to provide a context for the blessing which points to the future: “and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (16).
What exactly was the nature of these promises? Well, there was an element that pointed to the near future. There was this promise of the inheritance in the land of Canaan, which would be fulfilled, as we are told quite explicitly by Joshua, when the land of Canaan was conquered by the Israelites after the Exodus (cf. Josh. 21:43-45). This would not happen for another several hundred years, but it did happen. It was in this context that Joseph’s commandments concerning his bones were fulfilled. When Israel left Egypt 430 years later, we are told that “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you” (Exod. 13:19). Then in Joshua 24:32, we read, “And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver: and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph.”
And then there was the element of the promises to Abraham that pointed to the coming of Christ and to the redemption that he would accomplish by his perfect life and atoning death, by which “the blessing of Abraham” would be given to the nations (Gal. 3:14). This is of course the linchpin of all the promises. Canaan was given to Israel in order to preserve a place for the family of Abraham from whom the Messiah would come. It was not an end in itself; it promoted a purpose, a purpose which was fulfilled in the person and work of our Lord. All the promises of God to the patriarchs ultimately point to Jesus Christ and the salvation from sin which he came to accomplish. All the promises of God find their yes and Amen in him (2 Cor. 1:20).
But there is another aspect to these promises which is still future. As we saw last time, the promise was that Abraham (and hence Isaac and Jacob and Joseph) would be the heir of the world (Rom. 4:13). This is more than a promise of a patch of land on the shores of the Mediterranean: it is a promise of a world renewed by the grace and power of God for his chosen people. This was not only future to the patriarchs, but it is also future to us as well.
So as these men neared their deathbeds, they were thinking about the future, not obsessing over the past. Not a totally unknown future, but a future defined and expected by the promise of God. And it is this God-given future to which they pointed their heirs. In particular, they pointed them to the word of God, given to Abraham and passed down through the generations.
And as I read this, it hit me that this is surely an important lesson for us as well. Now we are not in the same position as those men. But we are in a similar position, in this sense: as the people of God, we still possess the promises of God in Christ, promises like the one in Col. 3:4, founded on the realty of the redemption and resurrection of our Lord: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and our life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4). We are to live in light of these realities. And we are to die in light of these realities. But more than this, we are to be concerned to pass on these promises to the next generations, just like Isaac and Jacob and Joseph did. We are to orient our children to a future defined by the promises of God, promises given to us in Christ and authoritatively recorded in the Scriptures.
And just like the promises given to the patriarchs, there are various ways in which God’s promises come to us. In fact, as Paul tells us, if we believe in Christ, then we too are sons and daughters of Abraham by faith and heirs of the world with him (Rom. 4:11-16). There are promises for the forgiveness of sins in Christ, received by faith. There are promises for daily grace and strength. There are promises for the presence and provision of God. You might call these present and near future promises. There is the promise concerning the church, that the gates of hell will never prevail against it (Mt. 16:18), a promise that will reach all the way to the end of human history. (Do you want to be on the right side of history? Then be on the side of the church!). And then there is the promise that when we die, we immediately go to be with Christ. Finally, there is the promise that at the very end of the age, the people of God will be resurrected, their souls and bodies reunited in glory, and so shall we ever be with the Lord. We ought to be living in light of these realities and pointing our children and our friends to them as well.
So what should be the object and purpose of this sermon, in light of these verses? Well, it is this: the life of faith is not just about me and my times. It is also, and primarily so, about the future of the kingdom of God. The life of faith does not exist primarily for short term gains, but it plays the long game. This is because the life of faith lives in the refreshing shadow of the future-oriented promises of God in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and our Savior. And this should be shown, not only the life we live, but also in the words we speak, which is the focus of these three verses. What the patriarchs said to the next generation was meant to confer upon them a confidence in God’s Word so that they would faithfully endure in obedience to it. We should follow their example.
Will we do this? Will our lives and our words encourage the next generation to press into the future in faithfulness to Christ and his word? Will we teach them to orient themselves in light of the future fulfillment of the promises of God? Will we teach them to look outside of the box that defines the values and priorities of this present evil world? Will we show them how to not only look along the horizontal axis of this age but along the vertical toward heaven as well?
How do we do this? How do we bestow upon the next generation an eternal perspective, a perspective shaped neither by the demands of the present nor by the pressures of the world in its opposition to God? Well, I think we do what Isaac and Jacob and Joseph did. We point them to a future which is guaranteed to them by the promises of God.
But we will never do this unless we ourselves are convinced to play the long game in light of the faithfulness of God to his word. So I want to do two things this morning. First, I want to remind you of the terrible waste that results when we live entirely in response to the pressures of the present, a present which presses in upon us and wants to completely consume the horizons of our perspective. Second, I want to remind you of the benefits that inevitably result when we bequeath to our children and the next generation a future-oriented perspective defined by the promises of God in Christ.
The price we pay when we lock ourselves (and the next generation) into the present
Again, what do I mean by this? What does this look like? Let me present before you a few scenarios to illustrate what I am talking about.
It’s the man who is so consumed with pleasing his boss or getting ahead or making his business a success that he ignores the Bible and prayer and the fellowship of the saints and kingdom service. He may know that the Scriptures are important, but the Bible on his shelf is not going to pay the bills, and so he neglects the care of his soul for the sake of making a few more dollars. Over time, his soul shrivels as he spends more and more time on the pressing needs of the present and neglects his soul. Prayer falls off, and eventually he rarely darkens the door of the church. Or if he does continue to come, it is only in and out as quickly as possible. For he has more important and pressing obligations.
Do you see what is happening? He is living in the tyranny of the present. It is this world and its priorities, not God and his kingdom, that are defining this man’s decisions and the way he spends his time. He is not living in light of the future, but entirely in light of the present. He has become a slave to what the apostle Paul calls, “the rulers of the darkness of this world” (Eph. 6:12). And this has terrible consequences. It must inevitably lead to departing from the faith unless God in his sovereign mercy awakens this man to the tragic state of his soul.
Or it’s the parent who is so consumed with having successful children as the world judges success that everything, including the cultivation of the heart and soul with the truths of God’s word, is subordinated to that. And so sports and homework and extracurricular activities dominate to the neglect of the things of God. Church is an interruption in the course of life’s more important events. College is more important that conversion. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not for a moment against any of these things. They are all well and good in their place. The problem is, what is the priority? In the rearing of our children, are we seeking first the kingdom of God or the kingdom of men? Are we raising children who will be able to endure persecution or who will join the persecutors? Do they see that our homes have Christ and his glory and his person as the center around which everything orbits and turns, or do they see themselves and the worldly ambitions we have for them as the center?
Or it’s the church and church leaders who are so attuned to the culture that they end up mimicking the culture. They are so caught up in the thought patterns of the world that they end up, sometimes unconsciously, adopting them. This is sometimes obvious, as when denominations become overtly liberal and heterodox. When a denomination starts embracing not only sinners but also their sin. When it ordains homosexuals to the ministry or promotes the murder of innocent children under the banner of healthcare. Or doctrinally, when churches begin to deny orthodox doctrines like that of penal, substitutionary atonement, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and so on. Why does this happen? Well, it doesn’t happen overnight. Almost all of these denominations start out Biblically faithful and intended to stay that way. But they didn’t and the reason why they didn’t is because over time, the present and the world came to have more weight upon them that the word of God.
But listen, this can happen more easily than you think. And don’t think that just because this church doesn’t use musical instruments and is overall very conservative in its outlook and practice that it can’t happen to us. We are not immune from the siren song of the fallen world we inhabit. Do you remember what our Lord said to Peter, when Peter rebuked him for foretelling of his death? “Get thee behind me, Satan, for thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Mt. 16:23). This is a tremendous statement because just a few verses earlier our Lord had praised Peter for his Great Confession (16-19). And here is my point: we can be perfectly orthodox on big and important doctrines. But that doesn’t mean we can’t become tools of Satan, and in so doing start to savor the things of men, the things of the world. I don’t doubt but that this attitude is partly what played into Peter’s denial of Christ later on – and if it hadn’t been for Christ interceding for him and the sovereign interposition of the grace of God in his life, he would have been lost forever.
What is the price we pay when we are captured by the spirit of the age, when the horizons of our perspective are limited to the present order of things? Well, it is always apostasy, whether that of individuals or that of groups. It inevitably means walking away from faithfulness to Christ. And so you see why the author of Hebrews is telling them these things. You need to have a future perspective, or you will drift away. But you not only need to have it for yourself, but like these three patriarchs, to pass it on to your children, the next generation. And that brings us to our next point.
Why we need to equip the next generation with a future-oriented, promised-based mindset
Here I want to answer the following questions, questions like, what is the point of teaching our children and others about the faithfulness of God to his word? How important is the role of the promises of God here? How does pointing to the future as it is revealed in God’s word help our families and our churches thrive?
First, it teaches them not to define success in terms that the world dictates. My friends, I’m not saying the world can’t give you success. It can, and that is what makes it so tempting to follow its advice. And the success it promises you is immediate and instantly gratifying. It plays also on our self-centeredness and our pride. It doesn’t prune you; it preens you. But that is also the problem. The success that the world gives does not go beyond the borders of the grave. You cannot carry its riches with you. In other words, for all the niceness and attractiveness of the world’s rewards, it comes with a significant cost. The cost is short-term gains in the place of eternal riches. Isn’t this the point of the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16? It is also the point of the examples and lessons the author of Hebrews wants us to learn. We will see this further illustrated in the example of Moses in the next few verses, who because of this eternal perspective left the treasures of Egypt in order to suffer with the people of God. Why? Because “he had respect unto the recompense of reward” (Heb. 11:26).
Don’t you want your children to be like this? Don’t we want the next generation to be like this? Don’t we want them to be like Daniel and not like Demas? Then teach them that success is not ultimately defined by the standards of broken image bearers and their books but by the God of heaven and his Book. Unless they are shaped by the promises of God, they will be molded according to the pattern of this world. Unless they can see a future sovereignly ruled over and guaranteed by Christ, they will bow to the dictates of the present.
Of course, brothers and sisters, they must see it in us first. They must see that we are men and women who live in light of God’s promises. This was true of these three men. Isaac and Jacob and Joseph lived this way, and their children could not have helped but to have seen it. I love the way Jacob refers to God to Laban: he calls him, “the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac” (Gen. 31:42). Can our children say that of us?
Second, it teaches them to have a heavenly perspective. The promises of God in Christ are not promises of health, wealth, and prosperity now. We remember what the apostle Paul said, that he had suffered the loss of all things and counted them as dung that he might win Christ (Phil. 3:8). For Paul, gaining Christ meant losing everything else. But he was able to do this in light of the future resurrection: “That I may know him [Christ], and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead” (10-11).
Nor are we to say to the next generation that if they just have enough faith in Christ, that they will be able to go through life without any worries or stresses, that they will always be happy, that they will never have to struggle with anxiety or depression. Rather, we are to “gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).
In other words, the promises of God point us to our heavenly reward, and in doing so they steel us against the winds and waves and earthquakes that beat upon us in the present. It is only as we are able to look beyond the trials and temptations of the present and into heaven that we will be able to persevere and not give up. This is why our Lord says what he says in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake;” and if you stop there, that doesn’t make any sense. How do you put blessing and persecution together? It’s insane. But not if you keep reading: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Mt. 5:9-12).
Third, it teaches them to be patient and to play the long game. We don’t want the next generation to burn out and give up. But that of course is the temptation when things get hard. That’s the temptation when you are despised and rejected of men. That’s what you want to do when the fierce heat of persecution beats down upon you and wears you down. We will be tempted to give up when there isn’t the fruit that we wanted and expected. And look, you don’t have to be a prosperity preacher to fall into this trap, for even Elijah succumbed when the victory on Mount Carmel didn’t turn out the way he expected.
But how do you keep from doing that, and how do you instill this kind of endurance in the next generation? How do you teach them to value the little victories and become depressed when nothing big happens? Well, again, you do it by instilling in them a commitment to God’s promises. You tell them to hang their hopes on God, not on their own meager efforts. God is playing the long game. He took almost 2000 years from the promise to Abraham to the coming of Christ. Think about all that happened in the middle. Think about the ups and the downs, the terrible period of the Judges, the promising reigns of Kings David and Solomon followed by the rending of the kingdoms, the apostasy of Israel and its deportation, and so on. The entire Old Testament is a roller-coaster ride, and if you focus just on a particular moment, it might look as if God had completely forgotten about his promises (in fact, the psalmists say this very clearly). But he hadn’t, and we need to remember again and again what Peter reminds us: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not wiling that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
Fourth, it teaches them to have hope in God when all seems lost. By pointing ourselves and others to the promises of God, it forces us to look up. The events of this world are not to be understood in a merely this-worldly perspective. That is one of the reasons why I think Biblical books like Daniel and Revelation are so important. In those books the curtain is drawn back, and we are able to look into heaven, a heaven very concerned in the affairs of men. The Biblical reality of which we need to remind ourselves and our children is that future does not belong to Satan, it belongs to God. The promises of God remind us of that. The Biblical story reminds us of that. And it reminds us that the present is never the interpretive grid for the future. For when did Isaac come? When his father was 100 and his mother 90. Impossible! Yes, but not with God. And when did Jesus come? Not at the height of Israel’s power and influence, but at its nadir, when it was subservient to the pagan empire of Rome. We need to be like Abraham, and we need to teach our children to be like Abraham, “who against hope believed in hope” (Rom. 4:18).
Fifth, it teaches them to be willing to be unnoticed. How do holding onto God’s promises do this? In two ways. First, by helping us to see that we are really only a small part in a grand scheme. God’s promises pass from eternity past through the entirety of human history and into eternity future. I am but a dot on that continuum. Now it doesn’t mean that I don’t play a part – of course I do – but it is only a part, and I am really not that big of a deal. God doesn’t need me; I need him. The perspective of the Bible helps us to see that. And we need that. We need, each of us, as the apostle puts it in his letter to the Romans, “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). We need to not take ourselves too seriously. It is when we do think we more than we really are that we start doing damage, and turn ourselves into modern equivalents of Diotrephes who loved to have the preeminence (3 Jn. 9-10). May God save us from that!
But the promises also help us to be willing to go unnoticed because they promise us something much better than human praise could ever give to us: they hold out for us the promise of the fellowship and friendship of God. Away with the praises of men! “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory” – and then notice the motivation here – “for thy mercy and for thy truth’s sake” (Ps. 115:1). Or, as the ESV translates it, “for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.” Faithfulness to what? Faithfulness to his covenant, of which his steadfast love and mercy is a witness. Faithfulness to his promises. He gives himself to us in his promises to be our help and our shield and to bless us (10-15). It is when we have this perspective that we will “bless the LORD from this time forth and forevermore” (18), not our own name.
Above all, it teaches us to have a Colossians 3 mindset and to set our minds on things above where Christ sits at the right hand of God. It is the only thing that makes the gospel make sense. The promises of God find their yes and amen in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Jesus Christ is the one to whom all God’s promises point. If you don’t see him in them, you are not looking at them correctly. The promises of God fuel our hope; but there is another name for hope: Jesus – the “Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1).
How is it that a single promise of God, promises for good and eternal blessing, can come to pass for creatures such as ourselves, not only tiny and insignificant, but traitors and rebels against God, dead in trespasses and in sins, foul and stinking and putrid in our iniquity? There is only one way. It is because Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). It is because in his office as Mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5), he did for us what we could not do. He kept God’s law perfectly so that his flawless obedience could be counted for those who are united to him by faith (Rom. 5:19). He suffered God’s just wrath against sinners in his own body on the cross so that we can have everlasting mercy instead of eternal misery.
In other words, the promises of God are not for people who have made themselves fit for him, but for sinners who believe in him. We are told in Gen. 15:6 that Abraham, as he heard the promise of God, “believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” That is to say, Abraham was justified before God, and he didn’t create his own righteousness through good works but received God’s righteousness through faith. It is the same today: “the righteousness of God . . . is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:22-24). That is the gospel, the good news. Do you hear it as such? My friends, be not among those who do not receive Christ, but be among those who receive him, to whom God gives the right to become the children of God (Jn. 1:11-12).
Let us then, brothers and sisters, pass on to our children and the next generation a perspective shaped by God’s word of promise so that they will endure and persevere in the faith. Let us be like Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. Let us say with the psalmist, “We will not hide them from [our] children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born: who should arise and declare them to their children, that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Ps. 78:4-7).