Taste and see
In Psalm 34:8, David says, "O taste and see that the Lord
is good." He compares the Lord to a good meal. The first
bite is a good sign that the entire meal will be delicious. People
with faith have tasted of the Lord, and they have seen that he
is good. Having seen that he is good, they want the whole meal,
so to speak. They want all of the Lord. Although they taste the
Lord now, they know that the entire meal is yet to be served,
and they await a heavenly feast. The fact that they have tasted
of the Lord proves that there is more to come, just like an appetizer
is the advertisement for more to come. So they live their lives
on this earth based on that future reality.
This is the message of Hebrews 11:1-7, which describes the function and strength of faith. By faith we taste of the Lord, and that taste is the guarantee of more to come, and that guarantee affects the way we live. Faith, then, provides the evidence of the reality of what it believes in and thereby motivates us to live in an extraordinary way.
From Chapter 7:1-10:18, the writer of Hebrews portrayed Jesus as the superior high priest, and then in Chapter 10:19-39, he exhorted his readers to endure in faith. Beginning in Chapter 11, the writer moves into another major section, which extends to Chapter 12:13 and focuses on the qualities of faith and endurance. Chapter 11 is a unit within the section, being framed by the words "faith" and "gained approval," which each appear in both 11:1-2 and 11:39. Chapter 1:1-7 can be seen as a sub-section, being marked off by the verb "to witness," which appears four times there but doesn't reappear until verse 39.
The guarantee of faith (11:1-3)
(1) Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (2) For by it the men of old gained approval. (3) By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.
The first question to ask about verse 1 is whether the writer
is defining faith or defining the function of faith. Is he defining
what faith is or what faith does? The answer lies in how one understands
the words translated "assurance" and "conviction."
Translated in this way, the words would seem to offer a definition
of faith, saying that faith is a subjective experience of the
one who believes. The old King James Version, however, translates
the same two words "substance" and "evidence."
Translated in this way, the words describe the function of faith,
saying in effect that whatever faith is, it in itself provides
some kind of objective evidence for the things it believes in.
The word translated "assurance" is also used by the writer in Hebrews 1:3, where he said that the Son is the exact representation of the "nature" of God, and in Hebrews 3:14, where he encouraged his readers to hold fast their "assurance." In both cases, the context points beyond the subjective to the objective. It would seem natural to consider the word translated "conviction" in Hebrews 11:1 in the objective sense as well. The context of the entire chapter argues for the objective sense, for it is illustrating what faith does, not what it is. Verse 2, which is connected to verse 1 by the word "for," also speaks of faith in an objective, evidential sense. So it is best to understand the writer as describing the function of faith. So, what is the function of faith?
The word for "assurance" was used in legal circles of a "guarantee" and of a "title deed" to property. We already have seen the author use it as describing the "nature," or substance, of God. Faith provides a guarantee that the things it hopes for are real, and the guarantee in itself is the substance of those things. The guarantee is similar to the function of a down payment. A down payment guarantees that more will be coming - more of the same. The writer is saying that those who have faith already have a percentage, so to speak, of the "things hoped for" and that this possession serves as a guarantee that 100 percent of the things will one day be possessed.
The word "hope" implies goodness. One only hopes for good things. The things hoped for concern our eternal inheritance, the heavenly and eternal country that is filled with the presence of God (9:15, 10:34, 11:16). The "things hoped for" will enable us to enjoy God forever. To some degree we can enjoy God now, and that enjoyment is a guarantee that one day we will enjoy him completely. In this sense, the writer agrees with Paul, who says the Holy Spirit, who reveals God to us and nurtures our relationship with God, has been given to us as a pledge, or a down payment, of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).
Faith not only provides a guarantee of things hoped for, it provides evidence of things not seen. The word translated "things" here is different from the word that implies "things" in the first part of the verse. The word is used of "events" later on in this passage, in verse 7. The events not seen are those that will bring about the things hoped for. Faith provides the evidence that those events are real, and that they will happen.
In putting together the entire verse, we can say that faith provides the evidence that events that we cannot yet see will in fact happen. We can also say that those events will bring about our complete enjoyment of God, the partial enjoyment of whom guarantees that we will one day completely enjoy him. Faith provides the guarantee of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Faith believes in things that are real, and faith is, in fact, evidence of the reality of those things. We can also say that faith is forward-looking. It banks on things hoped for and things not seen - things that haven't happened yet.
The forward-looking faith the writer speaks of gives us a taste of what it will be like to be with God forever. When we taste something good, we want more of it. Tasting the guarantee and seeing the evidence, we are motivated to pursue God, the one who satisfies in the deep and eternal places of our souls - the one who will do so forever. The more we "taste and see that the Lord is good," the more we long to dwell in the better country. The more we long to dwell in the better country, the more we are able to suffer loss in this country. In fact, the more we are liable to make radical decisions to intentionally let go of seemingly invaluable earthly possessions, dispositions and relationships. The examples that the writer highlights in Hebrews 11 show people doing precisely that. Earthly loss is nothing in comparison to heavenly gain, and those who have faith know that and are thereby liberated to live outrageous lives of obedience to the heavenly call of God. We'll see numerous examples of such obedience as we move through Hebrews 11, beginning in verse 4.
It's important to understand that faith does not create reality; faith responds to reality. Something exists or something will happen; therefore, we believe it exists or will happen. Faith is not believing that something exists or that something will happen and thereby compelling something to exist or to happen. That is a pagan understanding of faith, one that the current New Age movement holds, but one that has also infiltrated the church.
The writer provides further evidence for the validity of faith in verse 2: "For by it" - that is, by faith - "men of old gained approval." The "men of old" are people such as those, both men and women, described in Hebrews 11. Literally, they "were witnessed." In Hebrews, the scriptures provide witness (7:8, 17; 10:15), but so does God (10:15, 11:4). God witnesses the men of old, and he provides a record of his witness in the scriptures. God's testimony through the scriptures, then, provides further evidence - ultimate evidence - for the validity of faith, that what faith believes in and hopes for is real. God's witness is that these people are righteous (11:4, 7) and pleasing to him (11:5).
The evidence for the validity of faith is the way these people lived, which received God's endorsement. Where do we find evidence of God? We find it in creation (Psalm 19:1), and we find it in the scriptures. We also find it in people of faith. The way they live speaks of the reality - and of the greatness - of what they believe. The evidence of the reality and greatness of God is the faith that another has.
This encourages us on several fronts. First, if the people in the scriptures provide evidence for faith, it behooves us to become familiar with them. Study them. Feel with them. Live with them. Make them your friends. Their faith will become your faith. Second, do the same thing with living people of faith. Find some people of faith to observe. Watch how they live, and for the evidence of faith. If possible, become their friends. Third, this tells us how our lives can have lasting impact, and that it isn't so complicated as we make it out to be. The men of old in the scriptures were commended for their faith, and their faith had a lasting impact. It endures to this day. So, if you want to have a lasting impact, what should you do? Have faith! Believe God's promise of heaven and live based on that promise. Others will notice.
To help us understand what he means by faith, the writer supplies an illustration in verse 3 that is close to home: the faith that "we" exercise. By faith we understand - by faith we have evidence - that God created the worlds, or the universe, from things which are not visible. By faith we have evidence for the unseen. It's not the only evidence we have, for Paul in Romans 1:20 says that God's attributes "have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made." Creation provides evidence for the unseen, but it takes faith to believe in the unseen. It takes faith to look at creation and believe that there is a creator. Faith is some kind of spiritual ability to look through what is seen and perceive the unseen. It's to see traces of God and see God. The evidence for the unseen is faith. It may sound strange that the evidence for the unseen is something as seemingly nebulous as faith in the unseen. But if faith is some kind of ability to see what can't be seen, then that seeing is evidence for the existence of the unseen. I believe something exists because I see it, and that seeing is all the evidence I need. So it is with faith.
The writer now begins illustrating how faith worked in the men of old and how their faith provides evidence for the reality and greatness of what they believed in.
The strength of faith (11:4-7)
(4) By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks. (5) By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God. (6) And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (7) By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.
The writer in these verses calls forth three men of faith:
Abel, Enoch and Noah. They are linked chronologically, coming
before Abraham, and thematically, in that their faith somehow
transcended death. Abel died but still speaks, Enoch never died
and Noah escaped death. They are linked to all of those cited
by the author in Hebrews 11 in that they did something "by
faith" - by seeing and appreciating the unseen and awesome
reality of knowing God forever in the better country and by tasting
something of that reality now.
Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain. The writer does not say that the substance of Abel's offering was better. The account in Genesis 4 never says so, either. What made Abel's offering better was not the substance of the sacrifice but the substance of his faith. It all has to do with why he offered God a sacrifice. He did it out of faith. He did it because he valued God and wanted, from a very real place in his heart, to give something to God. Evidently, Cain, by virtue of God's rejection of his offering and by his own reaction afterward, made no such offering. He did so because it was the expected thing; there was no faith behind it. It is possible for two people to do the same "good" thing but for one of the things to have no heavenly value. Abel made a decision to part with "the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions" (Genesis 4:4), the best result of his own efforts. He gladly, not grudgingly, parted with his best earthly goods. Because of his faith, he lost relationship with his jealous brother, and he also lost his life when Cain killed him.
Because of his faith, he "obtained the testimony that he was righteous." Abel obtained the testimony from God that he was "righteous" not because he did the right things but because he had faith - he valued God and what God said. God "testified" about the gifts of Abel, for the Lord "had regard for Abel and for his offering" (Genesis 4:4). Literally, Abel was "witnessed" by God to be righteous, with God "witnessing" about his gifts. God provided the witness that faith is what he values, that faith is what characterizes one as righteous, as one who belongs to God. God is not the only one who witnesses Abel. We witness him as well, for "through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks." Abel's life, and God's testimony regarding his faith, speaks to us, spurring us on to faith.
We too can have such a legacy that speaks from beyond the grave, if we have a faith that values God to the extent that we gladly release earthly goods as Abel did. The releasing of the goods isn't important; Cain offered a sacrifice as well. Is it hopeful, or is it grudging? Hopeful offerings like Abel's receive a testimony from God and are witnessed by others, even after we're gone. It may cost us some relationships. It may even cost us our lives, but our faith will outlive the grave.
Because of his faith, Abel speaks even after death. Enoch, because of his faith, never died. Genesis 5 provides a record of the descendants of Adam through the line of Seth. The principals are mentioned, with a concluding note referencing their death. For example, Genesis 5:8 says, "For all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died." Death entered humanity with Adam's sin, and Genesis 5 records the tragic results. But when the report reaches Enoch, something strange happens. Enoch doesn't die. God simply "took him" (Genesis 5:24). Enoch broke the chain of death, and God demonstrated through Enoch that he intended to reverse the effects of the fall.
Such is the power of faith that it breaks the power of death. We, too, in a sense, can be like Enoch, who never died. Jesus himself said so. Jesus told Martha: "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die" (John 11:25-26). Our faith not only outlives the grave, we outlive the grave as well, if we have faith.
What did God see in Enoch that prompted him to simply "take" Enoch? The writer of Hebrews says it was his faith. The Genesis account twice says that Enoch "walked with God" (Genesis 5:22, 24). The Septuagint (Greek) translation of those verses says that Enoch was "pleasing to God," and the writer of Hebrews picks up on this translation. Enoch had faith: He saw through the circumstances of his life to perceive and value the reality of God. Therefore, he walked with God, the one whose fellowship he valued. God's witness was that Enoch's walk with him pleased him. God enjoyed Enoch's fellowship. Enoch wanted fellowship with God, and God rewarded him with what he wanted. God took him so that they could be together. It happened because of Enoch's faith: the value he attached to fellowship with God.
In verse 6, the writer puts forth a general principle that is illustrated by Enoch's life. Lest anyone get the wrong idea about why Enoch pleased God, the writer says that "without faith it is impossible to please him." It is faith that pleases God. The writer then proceeds to define the content of the faith of which he speaks. He talks about "he who comes to God," one who wants to draw near to God to worship (10:22). It is necessary for this person to believe two things: 1) that God is, that he exists. 2) That God is a rewarder of those who seek him. These are two fundamental components of faith. Someone who draws near to God "must" believe these things. Of course, no one would draw near to God unless he believes these things. If God doesn't exist, there is no one to approach. If he is not a rewarder, why would anyone come to God?
A person of faith not only believes that God exists, he believes that he is a rewarder. He rewards "those who seek him." This is how the writer describes people of faith. They are seeking something. There is something that they are looking for, something that they want. What is it? It's "him." They seek God. They want God! God will reward those who seek and want for him. What's the reward? The reward is him! The reward is the things hoped for, our eternal inheritance - the centerpiece of which is fellowship with God. People who seek God, find God (Matthew 7:7-8). Those who seek God must believe that the search is worth it, that they will be rewarded with what they are looking for; otherwise, they would never be able to sustain a search. They therefore believe that God is good, that he is not leading them on a wild goose chase, that he will reward them for seeking him. He "is" a rewarder. The ultimate reward comes when we reach the better country, but God is rewarding those who seek him even now - he's rewarding them with his presence. And he wants us to come to him believing that he is a rewarder.
Apart from this kind of faith, it is impossible to please him. This is a preposterous-sounding statement. All the good works in the world, if they are not borne out of this kind of faith, don't touch God's heart. The man or woman who has set his heart to seek God with the belief that God will reveal himself is the person who pleases God.
Now we know what we must do to please God. We need not live sinlessly. We need not love flawlessly. We need not succeed beautifully. We need faith - faith that seeks God and walks with God and holds onto God and believes that God will reward us with his presence. This is what pleases God. This is what causes God to be pleased with us. And it's not as if God is pleased one minute, when we seek him, and displeased the next minute, when we're not seeking him. Those who have faith, who have chosen to spend their lives seeking God, are always pleasing to him.
We seek God, and God is pleased. In the seeking, God is pleased. We seek one who is pleased with us. We are the cause of God's pleasure. Think about that for a minute. Your faith ignites God's pleasure. That should ignite our pleasure. In knowing that we are pleasing to God, we are pleased. Nothing should please us more! We experience the pleasure of being pleasing to him. All it takes is faith.
Noah was another man with faith, another man who was righteous, another man who was pleasing to God. He was warned by God about "things not yet seen." God told him in advance about the flood and instructed him to construct the ark. God told him about impending judgment and salvation. When Noah heard what God said, he responded "in reverence"; he believed God. The account in Genesis says, "Thus Noah did" (Genesis 6:22), and, "And Noah did according to all that the Lord had commanded him" (Genesis 7:5). It is never mentioned that he uttered a word. He didn't complain about having to leave his world; he didn't fight to stay in it. Instead, he believed God. His faith resulted in the salvation of his household, and it also "condemned the world." Noah's faith exposed the faithlessness of the rest of the world. His faith also provided a witness, which was rejected by the world. Noah, obviously, didn't directly condemn the world; God did. But Noah's faith demonstrated the rightness of God's judgment. Others could have believed like Noah, but because they didn't; that demonstrated their disposition toward God, which resulted in condemnation.
By faith Noah also "became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith." The word "heir" is related to "inheritance," and for the purposes of the writer of Hebrews, that means eternal inheritance (1:14, 6:16, 9:15, 11:9). Noah inherited righteousness, the status conferred on those who belong to God forever, just as Abel did. God called Noah righteous before he constructed the ark (Genesis 6:9), so he belonged to God not on the basis of his actions but on the basis of his faith, his inward disposition to see God and trust God and walk with God and believe what God said. This faith, of course, resulted in actions - extraordinary actions.
In speaking of "things not yet seen" by Noah, the writer is prompting us to think about the "things hoped for" and "the things not seen" (verse 1). Just as God told Noah about temporal judgment and salvation, he tells us about eternal judgment and salvation. God hasn't told us to construct an ark, but he has told us to believe in Christ. As Noah was saved by his faith in God, we are saved by our faith in Christ. As God placed Noah into the ark, he places us in Christ, who is our salvation (1 Peter 3:19-22). We have an eternal inheritance, and we should hold onto it and savor it and anticipate it. If we do, we'll live on earth like Noah, in radical obedience to the God who will deliver what he promises.
If we do, God will use our faith like he used Noah's - for salvation and judgment. Our faith, evidenced by our obedience that sometimes looks like foolishness, will offer a witness to the reality of God and the eternal inheritance. Some will believe the witness and be saved. Some won't and will be condemned.
Playing catch with dad
It was the Fourth of July. Having drawn the holiday shift at
my job at the newspaper, I was on my way to work. I lived close
to the office, and I would walk through a park to get there. As
I was walking downhill, I spotted a young boy walking in the opposite
direction. He was carrying two baseball gloves that looked oversized
in comparison to his tiny frame. He was working hard, climbing
the hill. As we approached each other, I asked him, "Where
are you going with those big gloves?" He said, "I'm
going to get my dad."
My heart sank. He obviously didn't live with his dad. I thought about the things this little guy might have been through. It was easy to assume that his parents were divorced and he lived with his mom across town. He had to walk across town, all by himself, to visit his father on the Fourth of July. But he was determined. I could see it in is face, as he strode up the hill, baseball gloves in tow. He wanted to play with his father, and the thought of that prospect motivated him as he walked up the hill. He could taste it.
I guessed where the boy would play catch with his father, and I decided to wait around to see the outcome. Sure enough, the boy popped out into the field, with his father close behind. I stood on the other side of the chain-link fence for a few minutes, soaking in the scene, as the boy and his father played catch together on the Fourth of July.
We are like that boy. The circumstances of our lives may have been mucked up a bit. As we walk up the hill, it takes some effort. But we can taste heaven. We can taste how good it will be to be with God. That taste is the guarantee of faith, and it keeps us going. You know that one day you will be with your Father in the new and better land. And when you get there, it will be like playing catch with your dad on the Fourth of July. The call of Hebrews 11:1-7 is to believe in that reality and to live based on it, just as the little boy lived based on the reality that he would play catch with his father on the Fourth of July.
- SCG, 7-19-98
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