First Mennonite Church
May 29, 2022
Imitating the Cloud of Faithful Witnesses
Text: Hebrews 11:1-7
Today, I want to conclude this series in the Letter to the Hebrews. As I have said time and time again, the author of this letter compares the Christian faith journey to Israel’s wilderness journey to the Promised Land. This morning, I want to focus on why this journey, the journey of faith is deemed extremely difficult to merit such a comparison. As we will see, the comparison lies on the definition of faith, as the qualifier of the journey, both for Israel’s and ours. So, what does the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says about faith? In short, a whole lot. You would be surprised to know that the word “faith” with its adjectival form “faithful” appears 37 times in the letter. That is more than in any other New Testament book, including the letter to the Romans.
Faith according to the Bible
In the Old Testament, faith is not a mental affirmation about something. Faith is tied to the concept of keeping a covenant, of keeping a commitment, or a contract. Faith, therefore, is visible because the two parties in the covenant act or behave according to the obligation they bound themselves to. Therefore, to have faith means to live in faithfulness to the other.
In the case of Yahweh, the deliverer of Israel, he promised to take Israel to a “good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). The Lord said, he will take Israelite to be his people, and that he will be their God (Exodus 6:7).
And in Sinai, the Lord made a covenant with Israel, when he said, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine,but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6).
In the covenant, Yahweh made promises and he fulfilled each of them. In the case of Israel, unbelief became a major reason for failing to live according to the covenant. Israel’s rebellion, idolatry, desire to return to Egypt, to prefer death than to trust God, all stem out of their unbelief. They could not trust that God would do what he promised. Therefore, when food was scarce, Israel yearned for Egypt’s garlic, cucumbers and onions, and forgot the hardship and slavery. When the nations they met along the way threatened, Israel desired to die instead of trusting in God’s protection. When Moses, Caleb or Joshua insisted on God’s deliverance, many among the people threatened to stone them to death. Unbelief led to disobedience and rebellion. Thousands died because they tempted the Lord.
How does Hebrews describe faith?
Hebrews 11, verse one reads: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (NRSV). This definition is dense and complex. In fact, such difficulty is reflected in the various translations of this verse. Here are a few versions:
- Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen (ASV).
- Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (KJV).
- Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (NIV).
- Faith means being sure of the things we hope for. And faith means knowing that something is real even if we do not see it (International Children’s Bible, ICB).
- Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see (CEB, Common English Bible).
Hebrews 11, verse 1. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (KJV).
The word “substance” is the translation of the Greek word “hypostasis.” This word is a compound word of “hypo” which means under and “stasis” which means to stand. It can refer to a foundation, as that of a building. It can refer to something that is concrete, contrary to something like a ghost. It can mean firmness or courage, like in reference to the character of a person. But it can also mean something that has actual existence—the proof that something is alive. Now, if we would like to insert this meaning to describe faith, the text would read something like this: Now faith is the real living evidence of things hoped for, the evidence—elengkhos, proof of things not seen.
This way of understanding faith tells us that faith is the living evidence, the visible proof of things we are hoping for, things not seen. In the case of Israel, they were hoping for a fertile good and spacious land, flowing with milk and honey. They were hoping a glorious kingdom of peace and wellbeing. They hoping to live under God’s protection and provision. They were hoping to be a holy nation, distinct from all the surrounding nations. But the reality of the harshness, the extreme heat of the arid desert, and the dangers they faced prevented them from living according to what they were hoping. Therefore, in order to give specific examples of people who in the past lived and acted upon promises, the author of the letter gives, what he calls “a cloud of witnesses.”
This cloud of witnesses includes Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Each of them acted on God’s promises, despite the hardship, the ridicule, or the immensity of the task given to them by God.
In our case, what are we hoping for in Christ? What are his promises to us? Last Sunday, I said that the author of the letter speaks about our hope, salvation, promises, reward all in superlative form. He speaks of greater and better promises, a better resurrection, a glorious an heavenly homeland, etc. Therefore, at the closing of the letter, chapter 13, is where we find the visible evidence of faith.
Let mutual affection continue.
2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them, those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
4 Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterers.
5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for he himself has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” 6 So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings,
13 Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
15 Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.
16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will give an account.
A faith that shows affection in the midst of a world of hate, faces an uphill battle. Such faith can shrink back. But as the Hebrews says, “we are not of those who shrink back.”
A faith that shows hospitality even to strangers, goes against every natural instinct in us and it certainly puts us at risk.
A faith that walks along with those who have made time in prison is likely to make anyone a bit uncomfortable. But that is what we are called to.
A faith that keeps our marriage vows holy, certainly goes against the social trend.
A faith that frees us to live content, trusting that the one who feeds the birds will also take care of us, will be considered abnormal and lacking ambition.
A faith that honors the calling of our pastors, teachers, and other forms of church leadership might be called naïve and gullible—easy to believe anything.
A faith that moves us to do good and to share what we have can certainly grow tired and cold.
You see, my brothers and sisters, a faith that is of the head only is not easily affected and can go on for a long time, yet there would not be much living evidence of what it is hoping for.
But a faith that is alive and gives living proof of its hope can grow weary, get cold, and shrink back, things which the letter warns against. In this journey of faith, we are called to live according to what we are anticipating, a day when we see God face to face. It is faith grounded in the hope that one day God will wipe every tear from the eye, thus we comfort those who mourn their dead and we weep with those who are weeping. Our faith is anchored in the hope that one day justice and righteousness will flow like the waters, thus as of today we seek to do what is right.
Our journey under the leadership of Christ is one that goes against the world’s values, thus is an up hill battle every day. That is why in this letter a warning is given three times, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” We are reminded of our call each and every day. Today is the day when we walk together in this journey. Christ Jesus is at the front leading us. We do not dismay, not because we are strong, but because the one who is leading us is greater that Moses.
Let us continue walking together and may we keep listening to the one who is leading us. Amen!