Promises that inspire faith

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 11:17-22

How great are the promises?

The way a person lives can't help but speak of what he believes in. Is he sold on what he believes in, or is he ambivalent about it? If he believes in something, does he have a concept of its greatness, or is it just a one among many beliefs that can be discarded when some new interest comes along? God promises heaven to those who believe in Jesus Christ. How great is heaven? Will God fulfill his promise to take us there? The way we answer these questions has significant impact on the way we live our lives. If we believe in the greatness of the promises and in God's faithfulness to fulfill them, we'll live differently. The greatness of God's promises calls for faith that obeys and faith that looks beyond death.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph were men who lived for God's promises. Like the other men and women cited in Hebrews 11, they lived at crucial junctures in their lives "by faith" - by believing in the promises of God. God promised them a multitude of descendants living in a land that he promised to give them. The promised land for us, and even for them, is a picture of something more. It's a picture of heaven, the new world.

Death, a common thread that runs through Hebrews 11, is prominent in Hebrews 11:17-22 as well. Faith is greater than death and looks beyond death. It looked as if Isaac would die, but because of Abraham's faith he was resurrected, so to speak. Isaac, Jacob and Joseph were old men on the verge of death, but because of their faith they looked forward beyond the span of their earthly lives. These verses bring to an end the writer's concentration on Abraham and the patriarchs, which began in Hebrews 11:8.

Faith that obeys (11:17-19)

Hebrews 11:17-19:

(17) By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; (18) It was he to whom it was said, "In Isaac your descendants shall be called." (19) He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.

The writer of Hebrews cites one of the most extraordinary acts of faith recorded in the scriptures: Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, as depicted in Genesis 22. To sacrifice one's son in obedience to God is extraordinary enough, but once we understand that Isaac represented so much more to Isaac than just a son, his decision borders on the absurd.

The writer of Hebrews, just as the writer of Genesis, says that Abraham was tested (Genesis 22:1). Certainly, Abraham's obedience was tested. God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. But something greater was being tested: Abraham's belief that God would fulfill his promises through Isaac. Abraham "received the promises." God made the promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3, 7. The Lord told him,

"And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

The Lord also promised Abraham's descendants the land of Canaan.

Abraham accepted these promises and valued them and believed God would be faithful to fulfill them (Genesis 15:6). The fulfillment of these promises was dependent on descendants, and God promised to take care of that, too. In fact, he was very specific. He told Abraham, "In Isaac your seed shall be called" (Genesis 21:12). Abraham believed that God would fulfill his promises, and he believed that fulfillment would come through Isaac. The promises of God pointed toward heaven, so they meant eternity to Abraham. Isaac, then, meant eternity to Abraham.

Abraham "was offering up his only begotten son." He was in the process of doing so when the Lord stopped him. Technically, Isaac was not Abraham's only son, but insofar as the promises of God were concerned, Isaac was the only one through whom God promised to fulfill those promises. God had made it clear that fulfillment of his promises would come through the birth and survival of Isaac. All of Abraham's hopes were wrapped up in Isaac.

Then, God told Abraham, "Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you" (Genesis 22:2). Abraham seemingly faced a contradiction between the promises of God and the command of God.

Abraham, though, refused to see it that way. He believed "in" the Lord (Genesis 15:6). He knew this God. He knew it was "impossible for God to lie" (Hebrews 6:18). He looked at the situation and saw through it. He saw God, whom he believed to be faithful. He concluded that it must be a paradox, not a contradiction.

Abraham "considered" - he thought about the situation. He thought about God, about his promises, about his command. There is something else that he factored into the equation that turned the situation from a contradiction into a paradox. He considered the power of God. He considered that God is "able." The word translated "able" is "dunatos," from which we get our word "dynamite." The power of God blows away the tension between the promise of God and the command of God. It obliterates seeming contradictions and makes the impossible possible. If understood, it destroys the feeling in dire straits that God's faithfulness is a ludicrous proposition.

In verse 19, we see the inner workings of Abraham's faith, by which he offered up Isaac. He considered the promises of God and the command of God, and he applied what he knew about God to the situation, and he used his imagination. "He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead." He believed that God could do the impossible and concluded that perhaps God would raise Isaac from the dead. The text doesn't say that Abraham knew God would do it; he simply thought it was possible. Who knows what's possible? With God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). Abraham didn't need any other possible scenarios. He just needed one, so that he could hold on to his belief in the power of God. In saying that God was able to raise men from the dead, Abraham was saying that this whole situation is God's problem. He trusts God to work it out. In Genesis 22:5, Abraham said to the young men with him, before he left to sacrifice Isaac, "Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you." Abraham believed that, somehow, he would return with Isaac. He did not rationalize his way into disobedience but reasoned his way into obedience.

Abraham's specific scenario was wrong. Before he offered Isaac, God stopped him. But in a figurative sense, one with implications far greater than Abraham could imagine, he was right. The writer says that Abraham received Isaac back from the dead "as a type" - literally, as a "parable." In Abraham's mind, Isaac was as good as dead, so when God held him back from sacrificing Isaac, it was like a resurrection to him. It was a parable, or a story, of resurrection, analogous with Abraham's scenario. A parable is a story to learn from, and the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac has been passed on through the ages as a testimony of faith. It's also a story that prefigured the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of all who believe in him. What Abraham really longed for - heaven - was dependent on resurrection. The "resurrection" of Isaac prepared the way for the resurrection of Christ, "the first fruits of those who are asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20).

God tested Abraham. Abraham offered up Isaac by faith. Abraham's faith was being tested. In the context of Hebrews 11, it's Abraham's faith in God as it relates to the future - the belief in and appreciation of God's promise of eternal blessing. God's command to sacrifice Isaac seemingly threatened that promise, yet Abraham still believed in it. He believed in it so strongly that he imagined an impossible scenario by which it could be realized. The test did what all tests do - it showed forth what was there. It demonstrated the depth of Abraham's faith in the God who promised.

It also gave us a story of faith. We too are tested. There are "Isaacs" in all our lives - dreams in which our hopes are wrapped. Perhaps those dreams are even from God, as Isaac was. What are we going to do to make those dreams reality? Are we going to manipulate and pull strings, lie and deceive, lie in wait, plot and scheme, bad-mouth and back-stab to get what we want? In short, are we going to disobey God to get it? In order to get what he wanted, even what God wanted to give him, it seemed that Abraham had to disobey God. At such moments, it seems that obedience to God will kill a dream and guarantee a lifetime of misery. Staring in our faces is a seeming contradiction between the promises of God and the command of God. If God promises that he is good and that he will bless us, we think, he can't possibly want us to do certain things and not do certain other things.

How do we face such dilemmas? By believing "in" God, as Abraham did. By "considering" what God is able to do, his power. By calling it God's problem. By using our imagination. Who knows what God might do as an expression of his goodness? Who knows what God might do to bless? There may be an infinite number of "impossible" scenarios out there. Maybe all it takes is for us to use our imagination and come up with one possible scenario, and then leave it to God, knowing that he will probably reconcile the dilemma in a different way, one that we could never think of. It may mean letting go of a closely held dream, like Abraham let go of Isaac, and watching for what comes back. Whatever comes back, it will be different than what we thought might come back - and better. If we believe in God, if we consider what he can do, if we call it God's problem, if we exercise our imagination and if we obey, then we, like Abraham, will have a parable. We'll have a story to tell of God's faithfulness, one that encourages others, just like Abraham's story encourages us.
Such dilemmas test the value we place on God's promises and our belief in his faithfulness to fulfill them. Only someone who values God's promises and believes in him and his faithfulness obeys him even when it seems like obedience would prevent the promises from being fulfilled. The promises of God are there. The God of the promises is there. The greatness of God and his promises call for faith in them. They call for faith that God will fulfill his promises even when it seems that there is no way that he could.

Faith that sees forever (11:20-22)

Hebrews 11:20-22:

(20) By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come. (21) By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. (22) By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones.

In verses 20 through 22, we see how Abraham's faith was passed on from generation to generation, to Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Each of them did something "by faith," just as Abraham did. In each case, what they did inspired the ensuing generations to value the promises of God, until the "sons of Israel," the descendants promised to Abraham, exited Egypt en route to the land promised to Abraham. In "blessing" descendants, both Isaac and Jacob passed on the promises of God (6:14, 12:17). Although the writer of Hebrews does not specifically record Joseph as blessing descendants, he caused them to remember God's promises. All three men, each elderly and on the verge of death, looked beyond their earthly life span. By valuing the promises of God, they were intimately connected to the future and to their heavenly homeland.

Isaac, understanding himself to be the child of promise, adopted his father's faith. It's interesting that the writer says Isaac "by faith" blessed his sons. In the story recorded in Genesis 27, the nearly blind Isaac was fooled by Jacob, who passed himself off as Esau, the intended recipient of the Abrahamic blessing. Isaac mistakenly gave Jacob the primary blessing and then gave Esau a secondary blessing. How, then, can it be said that Isaac blessed his sons "by faith"?

First, in issuing the blessings, it is evident that he placed a supreme value on the promises of God and wanted desperately to pass them on. His heart was right; he was a man of faith. Second, he made no attempt to correct his "mistake." He didn't revoke his blessing to Jacob but confirmed it (Genesis 27:33). Although he originally intended to give Esau the primary blessing, he trusted God to work amid the mess he had made of things. In fact, it was always God's intention that the primary blessing go to Jacob, the younger brother (Genesis 25:23). Jacob always valued the blessing more than Esau. God often turns things around and blesses in unsuspecting ways, and Isaac, in making no attempt to change what he had done, grasps hold of this. Just like his father Abraham, who thought that perhaps Isaac would be raised from the dead, Isaac didn't get things completely right. However, getting things completely right wasn't important. Isaac valued God's blessing and desired to pass it on; that's getting things as right as they need to be. God took care of the particulars.

Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau "regarding things to come." He valued those things to come, the things God promised to Abraham and his descendants, which he and the other patriarchs saw as representative of the promises of heaven (11:16). Faith is the assurance, or guarantee, of things hoped for - the things that God promises (11:1). Faith looks forward to the things to come that God promises - eternal things.

Like Isaac, we're not going to get things completely right, either. Like Isaac, we'll be fooled. God doesn't seem to be terribly concerned. If we value his promises and desire to pass them on, we'll take action. Some action will seem, in immediate retrospect, ill-advised. But God works things out. He works through people who value his promises, even when they botch things up a bit. Having faith and being fooled, in God's economy, are compatible experiences.

The next link in the chain of faith is Jacob, the conniver who schemed to get God's blessing and got it anyway. For most of his life he had a somewhat indifferent attitude toward God's promises, but he couldn't deny them, and he couldn't deny who he was, where he came from and where he was going. By the end of his life, he too was a man with faith in God and his promises. He blessed his grandsons, the sons of Joseph, as he was dying. What's most important to a person shows up as he faces death, and on Jacob's death bead, the promises of God bubbled up from his soul. In the face of death, Jacob spoke of life, with his face toward the future.

The sons of Joseph were Manassah, the elder, and Ephraim, the younger. Jacob, like his father Isaac, was old and could barely see. Instead of giving the primary blessing to Manassah, as expected, Jacob gave it to Ephraim. Joseph tried to correct his father, but Jacob assured him that he knew what he was doing (Genesis 48:8-22). Jacob the younger brother, who schemed to get the blessing that he thought would otherwise go to his older brother, at the end of his life gave the more significant blessing to the younger grandson. No one schemed for this blessing, and no one was fooled. By the end of his life Jacob knew he didn't have to scheme to get the blessing in the first place, saying as much by choosing to bless the younger grandson outright. Because Jacob couldn't see very well, it looked to Joseph as if Jacob didn't know what he was doing. Jacob had learned, from his own experience, that God blesses in surprising ways. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. He passed on God's surprising blessing to the one least likely to expect it, Ephraim, who received a blessing before he even has a chance to scheme for it.

Jacob worshiped on the top of his staff, according to the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament, after he made Joseph promise to carry his body out of Egypt and bury him with his fathers in the land of promise, in the cave that Abraham bought (Genesis 47-28-31, 49:29-32, 50:4-13). He worshiped, then, looking forward to the fulfillment of God's promise to give the descendants of Abraham the land of Canaan and in thankfulness for the value his son Joseph placed on God's promise. When he worshiped, he did so leaning on his staff, demonstrating that he saw himself as a "stranger and exile" (11:13) who longed for a permanent home.

Here we see a grand and poetic reversal in the life of Jacob. What is it that turned him around? God's promises. He couldn't deny God's promises. God's promises have the potential to turn our lives around, if we will grab hold of them by faith. If we do, we, like Jacob, will worship on the top of our staffs, so to speak, looking forward to the fulfillment of God's promise of eternal inheritance and demonstrating that we are strangers and exiles who long for a permanent home.

At the time they handed out the blessings, both Isaac and Jacob couldn't really see well enough to recognize the people they were blessing. But they could see something much more important. They saw the future. By faith they grasped the promises of God and envisioned their fulfillment. They walked by faith, not by sight. The present was a blur, but they could see the future, because they believed God's promises. The present may be a blur to us as well. It may seem that we can't even see two feet in front of us, but by faith in God and his eternal promises, we can see forever. By gazing into eternity, we live like Isaac and Jacob did, passing on God's blessing so that others, too, might see forever.

Next is Joseph. Like Isaac and Jacob, Joseph in his old age exhorted the ensuing generation to value the promises of God. Unlike Isaac and Jacob, he did not do so by means of a blessing, per se. Instead, he "made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel and gave orders concerning his bones." Genesis 50:24-25 records what Joseph did in Egypt before he died: "And Joseph said to his brothers, 'I am about to die, but God will surely take care of you, and bring you up from this land to the land which he promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.' Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, 'God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones up from here.'"

Jacob instilled into Joseph the value of God's promises, and he himself made Joseph promise to bury him in the promised land, not Egypt (Genesis 47:30-31). Jacob also told Joseph, "Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you, and bring you back to the land of your fathers" (Genesis 48:21). It all sounds familiar, doesn't it? Joseph tells his brothers the same things that his father told him. He saw the power of faith. His father's faith inspired him, so he wanted to inspire those who came after him.

Literally, Joseph "remembered the exodus of the sons of Israel." The exodus of Israel from the land of Egypt was still more than 400 years away. Joseph "remembered" something that hadn't happened yet. What he remembered was God's promise to give the people of Israel the land of Canaan. He didn't, literally, "remember" his ancestral homeland (11:15). Neither did he care about Egypt, a place where he achieved tremendous prominence. Whatever interest he had in those places, however attractive, was overwhelmed by where he was going. By the end of his life, his mind was fixed on the promises of God.

Remembering God's promise to bring the people to the land of Canaan, Joseph gave orders that his bones be carried with the sons of Israel when they left Egypt. That seems like a quirky thing to ask. More than asking, he, literally, "commanded" it. He addressed his brothers, but his brothers couldn't carry out the command, for they died long before the exodus. So did generation after generation, until one day, more than 400 years later, the "sons of Israel," who had multiplied to the point that they filled the land of Egypt (Exodus 1:7), left Egypt under the mighty hand of the Lord. The text in Exodus records this: "And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, 'God shall surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones from here with you'" (Exodus 13:19).

The exodus was not complete without the bones of Joseph. More than that, it may not have been possible without the bones of Joseph, at least the way God designed it. It wasn't simply that Joseph wanted to be buried in the promised land, although he did. It wasn't simply that his desire to be buried in the promised land represented a desire to dwell in the eternal promised land, although it did. Joseph wanted the sons of Israel to forever remember and value and promises of God, and he caused them to do so by means of his command concerning his bones.

The command made an impression. It did so because it was borne out of faith. Joseph was so emphatic about the promised land because he believed in it - he believed in the God who promised it. It was clear to his brothers how important the land of promise was to Joseph and how important it was to Joseph that they and the ensuing sons of Israel value it as well. They caught his faith. So they told the next generation about God's promise to redeem them from the land of Egypt and bring them to the land flowing with milk and honey. They probably said something like this: "God will surely take care of you, and bring you up from this land to the land which he promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob." And, they probably added something like this, "And over here - this box here - this is where Joseph's bones are. He made us promise to bring his bones with us when we leave, so when you leave this place, make sure you bring his bones with you." Such words were passed on from generation to generation to generation, through the centuries. The presence of Joseph's bones served to inspire faith for more than four centuries, reminding the sons of Israel that God had promised to free them from Egypt and bring them to a better place. His bones caused them to hope in God's promises, to believe that Egypt wasn't their home. When God fulfilled his promise to liberate them from Egypt, the promise Joseph caused the sons of Israel to remember and value and hope in, they took his bones with them. How could they not? It was Joseph's faith, evidenced by his bones, that sustained them.

After the exodus, the sons of Israel capitulated to fear and refused to enter the promised land. They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until the generation that left Egypt had died, except for Joshua and Caleb, who spied out the promised land and wanted to enter it despite the dangers it posed. Joshua then led the people into the land that God promised and conquered it. At the end of the book of Joshua, there is this little note: "Now they buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought from the sons of Habor the father of Shechem for 100 pieces of money" (Joshua 24:32). When God fulfilled his promise in the land that he promised, they laid Joseph to rest. Even in the wilderness, after they refused to enter the land, they couldn't forget Joseph's bones. Even there, his faith somehow sustained their faith. His bones pointed them beyond Egypt and beyond the wilderness to the better place God had promised. And when they buried his bones in the land, they marked the fulfillment of God's promise - the one made to Abraham so many years earlier, the one that had been passed on from generation to generation. The burial of Joseph served as a poetic commemoration of the faithfulness of God, and a rather emphatic one at that.

Like Joseph, we too can remember God's promises and leave some bones behind, so to speak. In order to remember his promises, of course, we have to first know what they are. All the promises are wrapped up in what the promised land represented: heaven. God promises us a heavenly homeland in his presence. To the extent that we value it, we value him. He has promised us an exodus as well - an exodus out of this world and into another world, a remade world. This is what God has promised, and this is what we should remember. As we remember, as we dwell on the promises and value them and grab hold of them, we want to pass them on. We are even inspired to be emphatic at times, as Joseph was at the end of his life. We may want to grab someone by the collar and get in his face. We may value the promises so much that we just can't contain ourselves. And we'll speak. We may say to someone we care about something like this: "Jesus will never leave you or forsake you, I promise you that. He promises to be with you forever. The days ahead are worth living for. Eternity with Jesus is worth hell on earth. This place is not your home. Hang on. I beg you, I plead with you, hang on to Jesus. Hope in him."

Borne out of faith, these kinds of words tend to leave an impression, like the bones of Joseph. They point beyond the turmoil of this land to the heavenly land where peace and righteousness reign. Years later, perhaps centuries later, people might say, "Remember what old Jones used to say, 'This place is not your home.'" Remember the promises of God, and leave some bones behind.

Isaac, Jacob and Joseph faced death but looked beyond it. Both Jacob and Joseph invoked God's blessings as they were dying, and though the writer does not note that Isaac was dying when he issued his blessing, he spoke of "things to come" beyond his lifetime, and the Genesis account tells us that he was an old man. They all died while blessing and hoping and encouraging faith. They died the way all of us should live. God's promises, if we believe them, cause us to think in bigger terms than the confines of our own lives. They cause us to look to the horizon and see the sweeping view of eternity. We may face death-like circumstances, and one day we will face death itself, but God's promises direct us toward heaven, which motivates us to direct others to heaven as well.

'Every man dies'

In the movie "Braveheart," William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, faces execution for leading a revolt against England. It is proposed to him that if he renounces the actions and begs for mercy, perhaps he would escape death. "Every man dies," he says. "Not every man truly lives." The promises of God, if believed in and valued, allow us to truly live as men and women zealous for God's eternal blessings, believing in them and living based on them even when all hope seems lost, eager to pass them on, just like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

- SCG, 8-16-98