Author: Ron Graham

Christ in Hebrews

A Great Cloud of Witnesses
—Faith among the ancients

Our topical studies in Hebrews now consider the famous eleventh chapter which teaches about faith by reminding us of many courageous Old Testament believers.

In our two previous lesssons we studied the chapters either side of chapter 11. In those chapters we saw Jesus as "the author and perfecter of our faith". Now, in this present lesson (and continued in the next), the Hebrew writer helps us to focus on the quality of the faith authored and perfected by Christ. We are simply taken through through several inspiring examples of godly men and women in Old Testament times who believed in Christ and sought eternal life.

The Old Testament provides us with inspiring examples of faith even unto death. Time might not permit all their stories to be considered, but to be reminded again of some of these men and women of God, helps us to share in their faith.

1 The Necessity of Faith

The Hebrew writer makes some comments about faith which we will notice first. These statements are found in Hebrews 11:1-3 and 6.

Faith is the Substance of Things Hoped For. Faith is not unsubstantiated hope and belief. Imagine two people who each hope one day to own a home. One has an inheritance coming her way soon, and is saving money in the bank. The other just believes in luck and saves no money, but gambles it away. Each feels sure of owning a home in future, but their hope and belief differs in substance. Our faith and assurance of heaven has great substance in the solid promises of God.

Faith is the Evidence of Things Unseen. Faith is not belief without evidence to support it. God has made promises and given us his word on them. God’s promise is his testimony. It is evidence on which our conviction is based. You will recall too, that God made his testimony under oath (Hebrews 6:16-19) In addition to all this, there is "a great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) to encourage our faith.

Without Faith it is Impossible to Please God. The Hebrew writer allows no way that a person can please God except by faith (Hebrews 11:6). Nobody can have a valid assurance that God is pleased with them, unless they can show that their belief is substantiated by God’s word. This is illustrated by the first three witnesses.

2 The Understanding in Faith

Faith understands where we came from. Without faith (or belief), there is no explanation of our origins. Imagine someone says, "Seeing is believing" and refuses to believe in anything that is not visible (or otherwise physically perceptible). He must believe that every visible thing originated from other visible things. But what of the totality, what about "the worlds" (Hebrews 11:3) as a whole, all visible things that ever existed, now exist, and will ever exist? Let’s think about this universe of visible things for a moment.

If we believe in visible things at all, then we must believe that there is a universe of visible things. Since it includes all visible things, there is no visible thing outside it from which it could originate. Now if we believe only in visible things, then we cannot understand how the visible universe originated, because we believe only in what is contained within it, and we leave nothing existing outside of it to explain its origin. We are left to believe that the visible universe must originate from parts of itself, which have no origin.

Those who have faith do not have such problems. By faith they understand that visible things were made out of things that are not visible, and the word of God brought "the worlds", the universe of visible things, into being. They understand that their origins can therefore be traced back to the word of God.

As well as where we came from, we need to know where are we going. Faith is said to include the belief that God "is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him" (Hebrews 11:6). Faith looks forward to that reward in the future.

3 Faith Among the Ancients

The first witnesses that the Hebrew writer mentions are from the dawn of history stretching back almost to creation. He mentions three persons, Abel, Enoch, and Noah.

Abel Abel pleased God with a sacrifice that he made. His brother Cain also made a sacrifice but did not please God (Genesis 4:1-7). What made the difference? Abel acted on faith, whilst Cain apparently acted without faith. Now using the Hebrew writer’s own description of faith, this must mean that Abel acted on what God spoke, therefore Abel could be confident that he was doing what was right and pleasing to God, and his offering would be respected and rewarded. He had evidence that his sacrifice would be acceptable. Cain must have acted without this, and simply done what was right in his own eyes.

Enoch Enoch was so righteous that God took him up and he did not see death (Genesis 5:23-24). He did not have to wait till he was taken up to know that he pleased God. The Hebrew writer tells us that before he was taken up, he had a testimony that he pleased God. He had God’s word on how he should live, and he followed it. So he could believe that he was pleasing God and would be rewarded, even though he had not yet seen heaven.

Noah Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord (Genesis 6:8), and he and his family escaped the flood that destroyed the world. Noah had commandments from God, and he faithfully kept them all (Genesis 6:22). Although Noah had yet to see the great rain, the flood, and the new world afterward, he certainly believed in it because God had told him. He was not a crazy prophet. What he believed and preached was founded on solid evidence, no less than the testimony and promise of God himself.

A Cloud of Witnesses The Hebrew writer now goes on to mention many more examples which he calls "a great cloud of witnesses". They testify to the faith that rests upon the promises and commandments of God. In our next lesson we will look at them and the rest of chapter eleven.