In the Bible, great promises are given to those who conquer. “To him that overcometh [conquers] will I [King Jesus] give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). “He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death” (2:11). “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it” (2:17). “And he the overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father. And I will give him the morning star.” (2:26-28). “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels” (3:5). “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of the city of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name” (3:12). “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne” (3:21). “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son” (21:7).
When you consider that there are no promises for those who do not conquer (in Rev. 21:7-8, those who conquer are contrasted with those whose end will be in the lake of fire), it makes overcoming all the more important and serious. So we really should want therefore to answer the question: overcoming what? And the answer is that those who overcome, who win the victory, are precisely those who overcome Satan and all that he stands for (cf. Rev. 12:10-11; 15:2). In other words, the victory here is victory over the devil and the world as it joins Satan in opposition to God. Being victorious means not joining the enemy of God by giving in to his deceptions and his flattering and his enticements.
But that naturally leads to another question: how do you do this? And the answer to that is: you do it by faith. “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5).
But here’s the deal: those who overcome are those who endure to the end (Mt. 24:13). You don’t win the victory until you can say with Paul, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7- 8). We are not urged to win Pyrrhic victories. Or, to put it the way our text puts it, those who are victorious are just those who die in the faith (Heb. 11:13), not out of it.
I want to die in faith, not out of it. I don’t want to be like those whose faith was overthrown (2 Tim. 2:18), or like Hymenaeus and Alexander who didn’t hold on to their faith but put it away and made shipwreck (1 Tim. 1:19-20). No, I want to be like Paul, and I want you to be like him, too. And I want us to be like Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob. Let it be said of us, that like them we died in faith.
We have had occasion to notice that there is in our day a lot said about certain deconversion stories, people who once claimed to follow Jesus, sometimes with large public followings, and then have fallen away (often also very publicly). But even though such stories generate a lot of publicity, these are not the people you should really focus on. Because for every deconversion story, there go unnoticed by our
secular media a thousand faithful believers whose entire lives to the very end were one fragrant offering to Christ, who were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. People like James Meece, Ernie Godbey, and Lois Sargent. They give the lie to the argument that there is nothing to Christianity. I want to be like them, and I want you to be like them, and like Abraham.
We have already been encouraged in the book of Hebrews to follow the faith and example of Abraham: “That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12, and the next verses 13-17 are about God’s promise to Abraham). We are being encouraged again here to be like him in our faith. Now last time we noticed that Abraham’s faith produced obedience to God (11:8), and how it did so. Today, we want to look at verses 9-19 and ask the question, “What was it about Abraham’s faith that sustained him through so many trials and setbacks and difficulties, so that he persevered in the faith to the end of his life and overcame and won the victory of faith?”
To answer this question, I want us to notice two things. First, I want to look at the ways that are highlighted in this text in which Abraham’s victory over the world was shown. And then I want to look at the ways that his faith enabled him to do that.
The ways in which Abraham’s victory over the world was shown
First of all, it was shown in his not making Canaan his homeland. Now this might seem strange, because God promised to give Canaan to Abraham’s seed (cf. Gen. 13:14-16). And yet we are told that Abraham “sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange [foreign] country” (9). Note that: he was living like an exile in the land God had promised to him! Abraham and his family “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (13).
Now brothers and sisters, the people of God have always been like this since the fall of man into sin. The meek shall inherit the earth (Mt. 5:9), but not yet. We are told that there will be a regeneration for the physical universe (Mt. 19:28), when all things are renewed. It is for this that our world groans and travails in pain until now (Rom. 8:22). There is coming a New Heavens and a New Earth wherein dwelleth righteousness (2 Pet. 3:13). But this is all future. However, the fact of the matter is that we are walking on an earth that will one day belong to the people of God. We are living on our land. But now we have to do so as strangers and foreigners, as pilgrim people. And that means we need, like Abraham, to retain a pilgrim mindset. We need to remind ourselves that our inheritance is future. But that does not make it any the less certain!
What this means is that we need to be careful that we don’t settle for less. That is what worldliness does for you. It makes you settle for less because you are settling on this world. Of course, those who are worldly will laugh at this. They will tell you that you are the one missing out. They will point to their possessions and power and prestige, and then point to you and ask you: who has it better? Well, they often have a point. They often do have it better now. (By the way, I’m not suggesting that riches are indicative of godlessness or that poverty is a sign of piety. Abraham was a wealthy man in his day. Nevertheless, he probably could have had more, more riches and more power, but he never sought to possess as much of this world as he could – see Gen. 14:22-24). But let me ask you this: who would you rather be like – Lazarus or the rich man (Luke. 16)? You see, what really matters is how you end up, and God’s elect will end up with immeasurable riches in eternity that will make this world’s pleasures look like mud cakes in the slum. It isn’t even a contest (cf. Rom. 8:18).
So Abraham didn’t settle for less. He never put down stakes, even in Canaan. Did you notice that? He lived in tents his entire life (Heb. 11:9). He never lived in a house with foundations. He never dwelt in a city. He was a nomad, a sojourner, on purpose, because he was living in light of the promise. We should do so as well.
Second, it was seen in his doing what was impossible, humanly speaking. The Lord promised Abraham and Sarah a son, long after it was physically impossible for this to happen. This is highlighted in verses 11- 12. Sarah herself “was past age” to have children (11) and Abraham was “as good as dead” (12). Nevertheless, Sarah “received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child” so that there “sprang . . . even of one . . . so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.” This language is similar to that of the apostle Paul’s, who said that Abraham, “being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Rom. 4:19-20).
God loves to call us to do the impossible, too. At least from a human standpoint. Now I know that Paul says that God “will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able” (1 Cor. 10:13), but we must remember that our enabling comes from the Lord, just as Sarah received strength to conceive. This is why Paul goes on to say that the Lord “will make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” Our strength doesn’t come from within but from God. This is why it’s not a contradiction when Paul wrote later of some “trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8). Yes, it was beyond Paul’s resources, but not beyond God’s, a lesson he was meant to learn and a lesson we all have to learn as well through trials that are above our capacity to meet on our own terms and strength: “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God, which raiseth the dead” (9).
It is the victory of faith when we follow through in a path of obedience that seems beyond our own resources or wisdom or power to accomplish. And yet Abraham and Sarah show us it can be done. And thousands of others throughout history have demonstrated this as well.
Third, it was shown in his not returning to his homeland. In verse 15, we are told that Abraham didn’t spend his life grumbling about what he had been told to give up: “And truly,” we read, “if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.” But they didn’t because they didn’t even think about it. Abraham moved on; he didn’t look back. Neither did Sarah. It reminds me of the way J. I. Packer comments on Paul’s relationship with his past. The apostle wrote, “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Phil. 3:8). On this Packer comments: “When Paul says he counts the things he lost as rubbish, or dung (KJV), he means not merely that he does not think of them as having any value, but also that he does not live with them constantly in his mind: what normal person spends his time nostalgically dreaming of manure?” [Packer, J. I., Knowing God (IVP: Downers Grove, 1973), p. 25.] Paul and Abraham were cut out of the same cloth. Abraham wasn’t mindful of the land of Ur of the Chaldees because it was no longer of any value to him; it was like dung to him, and he wasn’t going to go around nostalgically dreaming about manure.
What a lesson we could learn from both Abraham and Paul! For our Lord has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). We have been called to live separately from this world. Though it is true that we are in this world, yet we are not of it (Jn. 17:15-16). Though it is true that we are called to go into the world, not retreat into Christian enclaves, yet the Christian is always to appear as different from the world in its tastes and values and thinking. As the apostle exhorts the Corinthians, “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 6:17-7:1).
And the victory of faith is shown when we don’t go back, and that we don’t spend our days wishing we were back in Egypt. It is heart-rending to hear of those who do go back, who like Lot’s wife look back. That’s what apostasy is. It is forsaking the work of the Lord for the love of this world, like Demas.
I am convinced that the main reason people grow cold in the walk with the Lord and distant from the church is not because they are convinced by the arguments of a godless culture but because they are in love with the world. The mind is convinced because the heart is captivated. If you love the world, you will find a reason to justify your love to it. Our Lord put it this way: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24). Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t engage with the world on an intellectual level. Of course we do: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). But it means that no amount of argument is going to change a person if their heart is enslaved to the lusts of the eyes and the lust of the flesh and the pride of life. We need to have a genuine love to Christ if we are going to successfully remain faithful to him. Otherwise we will end up going back. It is the victory of faith that we keep loving Christ over this world.
Finally, another way we see Abraham’s faith comes in verses 17-19. We had occasion to look at them last week as well. It is seen in Abraham giving up his most precious possession, his only begotten son Isaac. We are specifically told that his faith was tried (17). Yet Abraham did what God asked him to do, however painful and confusing this must have been for him.
What we see in this instance of Abraham’s faith is an illustration of the principle that God calls all his people to hold the things of this earth loosely. Of course, that means that we give them up when God takes them from us. For Abraham, God gave his son back to him before he was able to follow through with the sacrifice. But he was certainly willing – the knife was in his hand, and it was stretched out to give the killing blow (cf. Gen. 22:10). But for others, what God takes isn’t given back this side of heaven. Maybe it’s your health or your possessions or your reputation or something else. Fill in the blank. What will you do in that moment? Will your faith be victorious or not?
How faith enabled Abraham to achieve the victory
How do you live like a stranger? How do you adopt a pilgrim mentality? And how do you stay like that? How do you become to the kind of person who holds things loosely, and gives them up when God takes
them from you without becoming bitter and turning away from the faith? How do you live a life that constantly demands from you what seems impossible and beyond you?
Another way to put this is: what is it about faith that enables us to overcome and obtain the victory? That is what we want to look at now.
First, let’s look at Abraham’s pilgrim mindset. What enabled him to live in those tents in the land of promise? What kept Abraham from putting down roots? Well, the reason is given for us in verse 10: “For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” That word “looked” points us to Abraham’s faith. It is by the eyes of faith that Abraham looked for that city, for it was not something to be seen with his physical eyes. It was Abraham’s faith in the promise of God.
Consider this. God promised to Abraham the land of Canaan for his posterity. But he also promised that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. I think Abraham saw through that promise a promise of a renewed world, and it is that insight that I think is behind how Paul describes the promise to Abraham: “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). Abraham didn’t settle for less by refusing to settle for this world. The reason why he was able to dwell in foundationless dwellings – aka “tents” – is because he looked for a city which has foundations laid down by God himself. Abraham wasn’t giving up anything, really. He was giving up this world in hopes of the next.
We need to be the same way, don’t we? We can be exiles in this world because we won’t be in the next. It is faith in the sure word of God that gives this to us: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced [greeted] them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (13). You won’t confess yourself a pilgrim until you have by faith seen and greeted the promise of the future inheritance.
And then, what was it that kept Abraham from going back to Ur? Well, we are told throughout these verses – it was the promise of a better land. Not only a sure inheritance, but a better one: “And truly if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (15-16). You know why they were not mindful? Because they desired a better country – heaven. And it is faith in God’s word that enabled them to see the beauty and the superiority of that country. The power of perseverance, brothers and sisters, is not learning to be hardened to hardship, being a Stoic – it is seeing that what God gives us in Jesus Christ is infinitely better than anything a life lived in independence of God can give.
Or what was it that enabled Abraham to follow through with the impossible task of founding a people – even though he was 100 and Sarah 90? It was because he believed God – “he was persuaded that what he had promised he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:21). When Jesus called Peter to go out on the waves, it wasn’t Peter’s dexterity and nimbleness on the water that kept him afloat – it was his sight of Christ and his confidence in him, and when he put more stock in the winds and waves than he did in Christ, that was when he went down. I don’t know what God has called you to do that seems impossible to you, but rest assured that the power doesn’t belong to us but to God.
And he has promised it. This is not just for guys like Abraham. It’s for everyone who belongs to Jesus. You are to know “what is the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe, according to the working of his might power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him
at his own right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:19-20). “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to power that worketh in us” (Eph. 3:20). Lay hold on these promises, lay hold on the power of God! Yes, we are full of infirmities, but God is greater than them all. The Lord loves to use little children and their lunches to feed five thousand men. He loves to use tiny armies to defeat large ones. He loves to do great things with little ones.
Finally, what was it that enabled Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his son? It was this: he accounted “that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, whence also he received him in a figure” (19). What the author means by that last phrase is just that it was as if Isaac had actually been killed and had been raised from the dead. What happened there upon the mountain was a miracle of no less amazement than if Isaac had been killed and raised from the dead. So what enabled Abraham to hold loosely the one he loved so much was the fact that he knew that God raises the dead.
Brothers and sisters, God raises the dead. God will renew all things. He will put all things right. Hold this world loosely; hold your loved ones loosely. We can do this because we serve a God who is the God of resurrection. Jesus Christ is God’s Son who died and rose so that those who belong to him will be raised again. He will restore all things. There is nothing you can lose here that you will not in the age to come be recompensed infinitely times over.
But above all things, we must remember the background of Hebrews 11. It is Hebrews 1-10. And in those chapters, the central figure is Jesus Christ the Son of God and our High Priest before God. By his perfect life and his perfect sacrifice he opened the way into the very presence of God. Through Jesus Christ we have access to God the Father and into his love and fellowship. It is by faith that we receive this – which means that we aren’t looking to ourselves but away from ourselves to Christ. It means that we are not trusting in our goodness or righteousness but in the goodness and righteousness of Christ. It means that we don’t see our salvation in our trying but in trusting in Christ. We don’t depend on our doing but on Jesus. And this not something that we’ve cooked up – this is something which God himself reveals to us in the gospel. It is not something that we become worthy for, for God justifies the ungodly in Christ.
How does this play into the victory of faith? Well, clearly it does, as John tells us (1 Jn. 5:4). Those who overcome are those who believe in Jesus. This is so because it is by faith that we receive Christ and in receiving him we receive a right standing before God along with every other blessing needed to continue to the end and overcome. This is the reason why John would say in his Revelation of the saints who went to war with the beast, “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev. 12:11). It is always by the blood of Lamb that we overcome. It is his sacrifice for us that is the basis of all our victories.
In other words, the call to enduring faith in Hebrews 11 is not a call to look to yourself and your resources and your worthiness but to look to Christ and his grace and his worthiness for you. You won’t make it to the end if your focus in on yourself. Hope in God, hope in his Son. Look to Jesus and rest your soul in him and in him alone and in doing so you will find the victory.