The black swans
A father once told me that when he took his 5-year-old son
to Disneyland, the boy was most fascinated by black swans in a
pond. In the middle of this artificial world designed to dazzle
the mind, it was something from a different world that captivated
this boy. It was something from the real world. If the best thing
in the artificial world is something from the real world, that
says that the real world is better. Perhaps at times it seems
as if we're living in a Disneyland of sorts. We're looking for
something of substance, of permanence. We're looking for something
real. Then something like a black swan swims across our pond,
and we know we want something more. We know we want a different
world, and in some sense, we can see it. It's a world to come.
Faith gets glimpses of that world here in this world but longs
to be there, and it knows that Jesus Christ has been sent to take
us there. Faith in Christ sees that God will take us to heaven
and secures our ultimate presence there. It secures salvation.
As the writer of Hebrews continues reciting Israel's history of faith, he leaves behind the patriarchs (verses 8 through 22) and arrives at the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the promised land. Moses is the central figure in Hebrews 11:23-31, though the faith of Israel as a whole is also cited, as is the faith of a non-Israelite, Rahab. The characters noted in this passage are depicted at crucial junctures in their lives, when they faced life-and-death choices. The passage encourages us at such crucial junctures as well.
It breaks down into two sections, with the key concept in the first section being perception ("saw" in verse 23, "looking to" in verse 26 and "seeing" in verse 27) and the key concept in the second section being destruction ("destroyed" in verse 28, "drowned" in verse 29, "fell down" in verse 30 and "perish" in verse 31).
Faith sees (11:23-27)
(23) By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king's edict. (24) By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; (25) choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; (26) considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. (27) By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen.
This section cites three acts of faith and the reasons for
those acts. The words "because" (verse 23) and "for"
(verses 26 and 27) are used to introduce the explanations. The
section opens and closes with reference to a threat posed by the
king of Egypt: "the king's edict" in verse 23 and "the
wrath of the king" in verse 27. It also begins and ends with
the role of faith in overcoming fear.
First, it is not the faith of Moses that is cited but that of his parents. (The background for verse 23 is found in Exodus 1:15-22 and 2:1-2.) The king of Egypt was afraid that the Israelites would join forces with Egypt's enemies and win their freedom (Exodus 1:9). Two other measures taken by the king failed to thwart Israel's growth, so the king ordered that all the male babies born to Jewish households be cast into the Nile. Moses' parents, however, chose to hide their son after he was born. (The Exodus account says that Moses' mother hid the boy, but the writer of Hebrews notes that his father was involved as well.) After three months, when the baby was too big to hide, Moses' mother put him in a basket and placed it in the Nile, where he was found by the daughter of Pharaoh, and eventually Moses became the son of Pharaoh's daughter.
Moses' parents took a tremendous risk in hiding their son. They risked their own lives for the sake of their son's life. What motivated them to take such a risk? The writer of Hebrews provides two reasons: 1) "They saw that he was a beautiful child." 2) "They were not afraid of the king's edict."
What beauty did they see in Moses? The Hebrew word used in the Exodus text is the same word that is translated "good" at several points in Genesis 1 where God is reacting to his creation. Genesis 1:31: "And God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good." God viewed his creation, principally humanity, as good - and even after humanity fell, God viewed us as worth redeeming. At the time of Moses' birth, Israel, God's creation, was in bondage. Like God who "saw" that his creation was beautiful and worth redeeming, Moses' parents "saw" that he was beautiful. When Moses' parents saw that he was beautiful, they saw God's purposes. Stephen says in Acts 7:20 that Moses was "lovely in the sight of God," and his parents recognized this. Moses' parents saw redemption. They remembered God's promise to redeem Israel from Egypt, and the striking features of their son somehow caused them to believe he would be used by God. Thus, they hid their son "by faith" - by believing in God's promises.
Their faith, spurred by their perception of their son's beauty, overcame fear of punishment for disobeying the king's edict. This edict they no doubt heard. They saw that Moses was beautiful, and they heard the king's edict. Beauty inspired faith. The edict inspired fear. The decision was between faith and fear, the hope of redemption and the fear of punishment. For the sake of faith and hope, they chose not to give in to the fear of punishment. They hid Moses, God's redeemer.
Seeing beauty in Moses caused his parents to remember the beauty of God's promises and to hope in them. In this fallen world, there is much ugliness. Sin has invaded all creation and left its mark everywhere. But God has left his mark as well. If we hope in God's promises of a new and better world, we will see his mark. It is the mark of Eden, and it is the mark of the new heavens and the new earth. When we see it, we know it doesn't belong here, and we know we don't belong here. We know it's from another world, and we know we're from another world. It can come to us as almost anything - a sound, a smell, a word, a smile, a song, a story, a movie, a poem, a black swan - and strike us at almost any time. And when we see it, we find courage we didn't know we had to live for the world that calls to us with beauty.
Moses grew up in Pharaoh's household, as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. Like his parents before him, he had to make an important choice: to be the son of Pharaoh's daughter or to be a son of Israel. (The background for verses 24 through 27 is Exodus 2:11-15, which records Moses' disassociation with the household of Pharaoh and his identification with the people of God.) Moses purposely went out to "his brethren," understanding them to be his people. When he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, "one of his brethren," he killed the Egyptian. The Exodus account depicts Moses as having a good heart and an immature faith, but the writer of Hebrews places Moses' faith against the relief of the choice before him and finds that faith to be commendable. When Moses "went out," he had made his choice.
It was a rather costly choice at that. He chose to "endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin." The choice before him meant either suffering or pleasure.
The writer equates suffering with "the reproach of Christ" and the pleasures of sin with "the treasures of Egypt." The reproach of Christ is abuse received in association with Christ. Christ suffered the reproach intended for the people of God. Christ identified with God's people so thoroughly that he became their representative and suffered in their place. Moses probably didn't directly consider "the reproach of Christ," but the abuse he suffered was in the same manner: He suffered for identifying with God's people. As a child of Pharaoh's daughter, Moses had untold treasures at his disposal. There is nothing sinful about riches per se, unless they happen to the riches of a pagan nation obtained with the help of the enslavement of God's people. For Moses, to accept the riches of Egypt would be to count himself among the oppressors of God's people.
Still, riches are riches, and they bring pleasure. Moses, though, was attracted by "greater riches." He considered the reproach of Christ to be greater riches. Moses not only chose suffering and reproach over pleasure and riches, he considered suffering and reproach to be more valuable.
There is something to be said for the value of being true to one's self - for choosing to be who you really are. Moses chose to be who he was - a son of Israel, and God's redeemer for the sons of Israel. The suffering and reproach he chose to bear was "with the people of God." Moses gained camaraderie with the people of God, and his suffering together with them created an intense and everlasting bond with them. On the other hand, no amount of earthly riches could have compensated for the loss of his self, and the pleasures he could have chosen were the pleasures of sin and therefore not relational and only "passing." Moses was like Paul, who said, "But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ" (Philippians 3:7). He was also like the apostles, who rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer shame for the name of Christ (Acts 5:41).
Although it is rewarding to be one's self and to suffer with God's people, Moses was spurred on by a much greater reward - one that lay in the future. The writer explains the motivation for Moses' decision in the last part of verse 26 with the words, " ... for he was looking to the reward." He was not looking for any reward in the present but for a reward in the future. The future reward was the exodus from Egypt and settlement in the land God promised. But as we have seen in our study of Hebrews 11, the Israelites with keen faith were looking for a greater kind of exodus and a greater kind of land (11:10, 13). As it was, Moses never made it to the promised land, anyway. Moses was looking for something eternal. That is the reason he chose to forsake the pleasure of riches in favor of suffering and reproach. The reward of God's eternal presence was worth whatever suffering or abuse he had to endure as a child of God. Moses was an example to the readers of Hebrews, whom the writer earlier addressed with these words: "Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward" (10:35).
If we choose to identify with God's people, there are certain pleasures we will have to give up. Wealth is not sinful, but there are ways of accumulating wealth that are sinful, and there are reasons for desiring wealth that are sinful. Whatever riches we gain, they are only passing. The bigger question is where is our allegiance - with Israel or with Egypt, with the people of God or the ways of the world? The more we identify with the people of God, the more we risk suffering and reproach. The more we identify with the people of God and the more we throw ourselves into serving him, the more we become a threat to spiritual enemies, and the more we are likely to be targeted. First Peter 5:8: "Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." Those he would like most to devour are those who are thwarting his purposes. We may suffer the reproach of the world for living as God's man or woman. Yet, whatever suffering and reproach come our way, it's well worth it for what we gain. There is great reward in being true to one's self and in the camaraderie that we gain for identifying with God's people. More than that, there is the eternal reward. As Jesus said, "For what will a man be profited if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:26)
After Moses identified himself with the people of God and killed the Egyptian, "he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king." Assuming the writer is talking about when Moses left Egypt the first time and not about the exodus, which seems likely, it seems strange that he would specifically say that Moses did not fear the wrath of the king when both the writer and his readers know full well that the Exodus account reports that Moses was "afraid" after he knew that word had gotten out that he had killed the Egyptian (Exodus 2:14). From the perspective of the author of Exodus, probably Moses himself, Moses first reacted in fear. Exodus 2:15: "When Pharaoh heard of this matter, he tried to kill Moses. But Moses fled from the presence of Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian. ... "
The writer of Hebrews is saying, however, that fear is not what motivated Moses to leave Egypt. Even the Exodus account shows that Moses disassociated himself with Egypt before he killed the Egyptian. Before he became afraid, his mind and his course were set. In effect, he had already left Egypt. Yes, he was afraid, but faith overcame the fear, just as it did for his parents. Moses still believed in the promise of the exodus, but he knew it wasn't the right time, because when he went out the day after he had killed the Egyptian, he saw two Hebrews fighting with each other, and the offender had no interest in following him (Exodus 2:13-14). He "supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him; but they did not understand" (Acts 7:25). The Israelites were not ready to be delivered.
Moses' departure was wrapped up in faith - in the "endurance" of faith. He endured in faith amid the departure from Egypt, his dangerous entry into the wilderness that was fraught with unpredictability, and the disappointment that the time had not yet come for the exodus of God's people. Through all this he endured, "as seeing him who is unseen." Faith is the conviction, or evidence, of things, or events, not seen (Hebrews 1:1). God can't be seen, nor the events that he has promised. But by faith, Moses could see God, spiritually speaking. He understood God's faithfulness and power. He believed God, who promised the exodus, who promised the reward. When Moses saw the two Hebrews fighting with each other, it looked as if the exodus was a failure. Despite apparent failure, Moses continued to believe in God's promises. He left Egypt, but he endured. The readers of Hebrews had "need of endurance," and the writer puts forth one who endured in faith.
Before he faced failure and fear, Moses had already chosen to hope in a different kind of future. His hope for the future, in God's future, overcame the despair over failure and the fear of Pharaoh. If we have made a decision to be God's man or woman, we have chosen a different kind of future, and we have chosen to hope in it. Therefore, we can endure in faith even through failure and fear. Whatever failure and fear can do to us, they can't take away what we really want. So, we do what Moses did. We endure by "seeing him who is unseen," him who we have already chosen, him who has promised us a future.
Spiritual perception is the key in this section. In each case, the principal cited saw something through the eyes of faith. Moses' parents "saw" that he was beautiful. Moses was "looking to the reward." He endured by "seeing" him who is unseen. They saw God's promise to deliver Israel from the land of Egypt, so they risked their lives; they chose suffering and reproach; they abandoned the safe, easy and comfortable way. They were looking to something greater. Such spiritual perception can help us live in similar fashion. Through the eyes of faith we can see the unseen God and the reward he promises to his children.
What's the reward? It's heaven. What happens there? We get a picture of one of the things that will happen there in a parable that Jesus told, the one about the servants who were entrusted with different sums of money (Matthew 25:14-30). The ones who were faithful heard this from their master: "Well done, good and faithful servant." Those words, or words to that effect, are what followers of Jesus Christ will hear at the end of the line and the beginning of heaven. Can you imagine what it will be like, at the end of this life, to have your Lord and Savior look you in the eye and say, "Well done, good and faithful servant"? Can you imagine what it will be like to have those words ringing in your ears for all eternity? One of the writer's points in Hebrews 11:1 is that we experience something of heaven now. Faith is the guarantee, or title deed, or down payment, of things hoped for. So, is it possible that Jesus is speaking those precious words even now? And is it possible that we can hear them now? If we shut out the other voices and become quiet and listen very closely, in our souls we can hear the voice, and we can hear the words: "Well done, good and faithful servant."
Faith saves (11:28-31)
(28) By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that he who destroyed the first-born might not touch them. (29) By faith they passed through the Red Sea as though they were passing through dry land; and the Egyptians, when they attempted it, were drowned. (30) By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encircled for seven days. (31) By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.
In this section, the focus shifts from spiritual perception
and the reasons for actions of faith, although both concepts are
implicit, to what faith accomplishes - namely, salvation. Four
acts of faith are cited, beginning with the Passover that precipitated
the exodus and concluding with the reception of the Israelite
spies in the promised land.
In obedience to God's precise instructions, Moses kept the Passover, following the Lord's commands involved in it, including the sprinkling of the blood of the Passover lamb above the doors and on the door posts of the Israelite homes (Exodus 11:1-12:28).
It may seem that this act of faith pales in comparison to some of the others cited in Hebrews 11. What faith did it take for Moses and the rest of the Israelites to keep the Passover? First, implicit in the Passover ritual was the belief that were it not for the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, Moses and the rest of the Israelites would be destroyed as well, because they were deserving of destruction. In sacrificing the Passover lamb, they acknowledged sin. Second, Moses believed that the actions called for in the Passover weren't useless exercises - that God really did have purposes in them that would lead to deliverance. The writer particularly notes the sprinkling of blood. Because Moses and the Israelites obeyed, "he who destroyed," the angel of death that God sent, did not touch the first-born of Israel. In the 10th and final plague, all the first-born of Egypt were killed, finally convincing the king of Egypt to release the Israelites.
The New Testament tells us that the Passover has been fulfilled by Christ, our Passover lamb (Matthew 26:19, 26-28, 1 Corinthians 5:7). We too are commanded to keep the Passover, but we are to do so by applying the blood of Jesus Christ, our Passover lamb, to our lives. This involves first of all the admission of sin, the acknowledgment that we deserve destruction along with the rest of humanity. It is not an easy thing to admit. It is much easier to find enough goodness in ourselves that warrants salvation. To rely solely on the blood of Christ is to admit desperate need, but it is also to have great faith. Admitting need means granting control to another, and it seems that the granting of such control might result in our destruction. It seems as if who we are, and everything that we deem central to ourselves, might no longer exist. But it's not people of faith who are destroyed but the "Egyptians" - those who want nothing to do with the blood of Christ.
After Moses and the Israelites left Egypt, in fulfillment of God's centuries-old promise, they came to the Red Sea. (The background for the this is found in Exodus 14.) Pharaoh, although he allowed the Israelites to leave, later changed his mind and pursued them, catching up to them and hemming them in at the banks of the Red Sea. The Lord placed a pillar of cloud between the Egyptians and the Israelites, preventing further advance by the Egyptians. Then the Lord swept back the sea with an all-night wind, creating a passageway through it. The Lord had commanded the people to move forward. To move forward would be to risk being swallowed up by the sea. After all, who had ever seen waters part before? Who was to say how long the parting would last? Moreover, the sea represented chaos to the Hebrews and other ancients. To move forward would be to risk their lives and step into their fear of chaos. Like Moses after he had killed the Egyptian, the people were afraid, but they moved forward. They moved forward by faith - hoping in the Lord's promises for the future.
When the Egyptians pursued them into the new passageway through the sea, the walls of water collapsed, and they were drowned. Literally, they were "swallowed up." The difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians was faith. The Israelites successfully passed through the sea because they believed in the Lord; the Egyptians failed because they didn't believe in the Lord. The very thing that the Israelites feared would happen to them - being swallowed up by watery chaos - happened to their enemies. The Red Sea proved to be the scene not of their destruction but their salvation. Because of this development that at first seemed so dreadful, the people were saved from their enemies. From a human perspective, the Lord turned things around completely. The people entered into a new freedom, free of the Egyptian threat.
Like the Israelites, there are times in life when we stand at the precipice of chaos and we face decisions whether to enter it or not. We can't go back - the Egyptians are hot on our tail, so to speak. We could stay put, but we can't see any advantage in that beyond apparent safety. There seems to be a strange passageway through the chaos, but we've never been there before, so we question whether it will hold up. The promises of God lie ahead. There is no freedom in staying put. To be truly free, we have to move forward, and keep moving forward. We have to risk being swallowed up by the chaos. But if we keep walking, a new freedom awaits on the other side. If we walk by faith, hoping in the freedom that the Lord offers, the sea of chaos will be the scene of liberation, not destruction.
When the people entered Canaan, the land that the Lord promised to give them, the first city they came against was Jericho. (For background, see Joshua 6.) When the Israelites came against Jericho, the Lord gave them some strange instructions. The men of war were to march around the city once a day for six days, with seven priests, who were carrying seven trumpets, marching before the ark of the covenant, which symbolized the presence of the Lord. On the seventh day they were to march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing their trumpets, which served to announce the presence of the Lord. At the conclusion of the seventh circle on the seventh day, the priests were to make a long blast on the ram's horn and the people were to shout. At the conclusion of all this, the city walls were supposed to fall flat, enabling the Israelites to take the city.
These strange instructions all served to communicate dependence on the Lord. Even the number seven would have been significant - representing completeness, Sabbath and rest in the Lord. Still, there are seemingly better ways to conquer a city than to march around it for seven days, blow trumpets and scream at the top of one's lungs. It's not among the strategies they teach at West Point. Fighting men come up with "better" ways to conquer a city. Nevertheless, the Israelites obeyed the Lord and depended on the Lord, and the walls of Jericho fell. It would have been easy to believe that such a strategy would have caused them to fall, not the walls of Jericho. But they had faith - they believed in God's promises regarding the land of Canaan, and they chose to do it God's way, in dependence on him, even though that way could have seemed ludicrous.
Sometimes, obedience to God will seem like the weirdest thing in the world, like marching around a city for the purposes of conquering it. If we are faithful to God's word, sooner or later it's going to look weird - to ourselves and to others. Although it may seem weird, everything about it is right, because we're depending on God.
The Israelites killed every living thing in Jericho, with the exception of one woman and her father's household. They spared a woman named Rahab. (The background is found in Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:22-25.) Rahab was the ultimate outsider. She was a foreigner from a pagan city raised up against the knowledge of the Lord, a city destined by God for destruction, and she was a harlot at that - not exactly a person who would seem to find favor with the Israelites, particularly in the wake of their receipt of the 10 commandments and the rest of God's holy law. She had heard of the exploits of the Israelites - their departure from Egypt, the way they crossed the Red Sea and their victories on the way to the land of Canaan. She concluded that their god, Yahweh, was the true God, "God in heaven above and on earth beneath" (Joshua 2:11), and that he had given the land to the Israelites (Joshua 2:9). The other people of Jericho had heard the same things (Joshua 2:10-11), but the writer of Hebrews says that they were "disobedient." The people of Jericho heard truth about the Lord, but Rahab was the only one who believed it.
When the two Israelite spies came to check out Jericho, Rahab received them, hid them and lied to authorities in order to protect them. As the writer of Hebrews says, she "welcomed the spies in peace" - and at great risk to herself. The king of Jericho knew that the spies had visited her, but she placed the Lord above the king, believing that if she failed to help the spies, she would be killed along with all the other people of Jericho. Such was her faith in the Lord that she knew that if she failed to help the spies, it meant certain death. If she helped them, and didn't help the king, it was possible that the king wouldn't find out about it and she and her father's household would be spared in the upcoming invasion. Her actions were governed by faith - a desire to be with the Lord and his people. When the Israelites conquered Jericho, they spared Rahab and her relatives. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, she "did not perish." Moreover, she became one of God's people, living "in the midst of Israel" (Joshua 6:25).
Perhaps some of us feel like Rahab, like a foreigner and a harlot. We may feel like the Lord is on the other side of the world, and that he wants nothing to do with the mess we've made of our lives. But we've heard of the Lord. We're heard of his greatness and what he's done for his people, and we're inclined to think it's all true. The king we're serving doesn't part seas, take ground that matters or give out anything of ultimate significance. Perhaps it's time to choose a new king: The King. We may risk reprisals - from family, friends, employers, co-workers. But if we choose the Lord, it means salvation - and all the eternal wholeness that it entails. Like Rahab, we are enfolded into the people of God, and we live in the midst of Israel, so to speak, in the midst of fulfilling relationships.
In this section, there is destruction, and there is salvation. If we give our lives to Christ and choose to follow him daily, it might seem like destruction; it might seem that we will be swallowed up; it might seem that we will fall; it might seem that we will perish. Instead, it is the opposition that is destroyed - everything of the world, the flesh and the devil that would thwart the fulfillment of God's purposes for us. In fact, we are saved; we become whole; we become what God intended us to be; and we live with him, in his perfect purposes for us, forever.
If we want it, we'll get it
Faith both sees something and secures it. It sees the future, like Moses and his parents, and it secures that future, like Moses, the Israelites and Rahab. It sees that God will bring us to his heavenly kingdom. In seeing it, we want it. That's faith. If we want it, really want it, we'll get it. Faith secures salvation.
- SCG, 8-23-98
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