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Hebrews 11 has earned the reputation as the “Faith Chapter” of scripture. There is no disputing that distinction. But often overlooked is the inseparable connection Hebrews 11 makes between the faith of the believer and the promises of God. In addition to the twenty-one mentions of faith are seven mentions of promise. If faith is the rope a ship utilizes to tether itself to a dock, the promise of God is the dock to which a ship moors itself. The stability of the ship depends upon the immovability of the dock. The purpose of this document is to examine the dynamic and inseparable relationship between faith and promises as disclosed in Hebrews 11, especially as it pertains to Abraham and Isaac.
Our text is Hebrews 11:17-19:
Several observations are in order. The first is what scripture says about Abraham having received the promises. This may seem like a contradiction with other verses stating OT saints had not received the promises (11:13,39). In the context, the overriding promise is the coming of Christ. We know this because (1) “seed” is singular, and (2) Galatians 3:16 explains the singular form: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” Abraham was among those OT saints who had not received the promise of Christ. But he did receive the promise of Isaac, a promise God made to him and no one else.
The second is the phrase he [Abraham] received him [Isaac] in a figure (11:19). We should understand this in the same sense expressed in 11:35: "Women received their dead raised to life again." In the mind of Abraham, he had already received Isaac back from the dead BEFORE he ever set out for Mount Moriah. In Genesis 22:1-8, scripture states five times God required Abraham to offer Isaac as a “burnt offering” (22:2,3,6,7,8). Abraham was expecting God to raise the BURNT body of Isaac, not just his DEAD body. In The Terminator (1984), one of its final scenes shows the cyborg walking out of a fiery truck explosion. The cyborg, however, walked out without its external flesh. The resurrection of Isaac, with every body part restored, would have been far more dramatic.
The third is the word figure. It's παραβολή (parabolē), “a placing of one thing alongside another, a juxtaposition, for the purpose of comparison; an example by which a doctrine or precept is illustrated.” The English “parable” comes from this root. A parable is often described as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. In retrospect, the offering up of Isaac by Abraham was a parable, a side-by-side comparison, of what God would do with his own Son at the same location 2,000 years later. The heavenly meaning behind this earthly story prefigured what God the Father was going to do with his only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus, in making him a sin offering for us!
The fourth is the phrase God was able. It's instructive for us to consider this phrase in light of two other relevant passages. In John 11, Jesus reasoned with Mary and Martha concerning their dead brother Lazarus. He sought to make this point: “If you fully understood who it is that now stands in your midst (i.e., the RESURRECTION and the LIFE), you'd know—yea, believe—that LIFE is not out of reach for your DEAD brother!” No such reasoning was required with Abraham. He reckoned Isaac offered up and resurrected before he began his three-day trek to Mount Moriah. In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, facing a fiery furnace and willing to die for their faith, believed God was able to deliver (3:17), but had no assurance of deliverance. With Abraham, however, the belief in God's ability coupled with a promise guaranteed the resurrection of Isaac. When Abraham and Isaac got within eyeshot of Moriah, Abraham spoke thusly to his young men: “Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad [WE] will go yonder and worship, and [WE will] come again to you.” There was never a doubt in Abraham's mind about the outcome of offering up Isaac.
The fifth is perhaps the most important. We're told twice Abraham “offered up” Isaac, his only begotten son. The dual mention is instructive in that scripture uses two different verb tenses. In the first instance, the writer uses the perfect tense. In the second, he employs the imperfect tense. The perfect tense signifies past action with abiding results. The imperfect signifies durative action in time past. The use of two different verb tenses to describe the same act teaches a great truth about the will of God as to the knowing of it and the doing of it.
Let me try to illustrate. A technical writer is often tasked with composing both policy and process documents. In a policy document, he sets forth WHAT the company will do in terms of conducting its business. In a process document, he sets forth HOW the company will carry out its policy in terms of the actors and actions they take during policy implementation. In Genesis 22:2, God commanded Abraham to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering. That command, which constituted the will of God, became policy for Abraham, which is reflected in the perfect tense. In 22:3-10, scripture describes the actions Abraham took over the next three days to implement the policy, which is reflected in the imperfect tense. Those actions included saddling of an ass, recruiting two of his young men, gathering fire wood, traveling by foot forty-five miles to Moriah, preparing a fire, building an altar, binding his son Isaac and laying him on the altar. The perfect and imperfect tenses in Hebrews 11:17-19 convey perfectly the unfolding of events in Genesis 22:1-10. The carrying out of the will of God in offering up Isaac consisted of both policy and process.
Why is it so important to understand this dynamic? It's absolutely fundamental to the concept of discipleship! In a nutshell, discipleship for the child of God is studying the scriptures to discover what the will of God is (policy) and then relying upon the indwelling Spirit to guide him into those activities whereby the policy becomes part of his everyday living (process). In John 13:17, after delivering to his disciples a benchmark lesson in servanthood, Jesus said: “If ye KNOW these things [policy], happy are ye if ye DO them [process].” The overwhelming need for revival in our churches today is evidenced by so many who have mastered the policy without engaging in the process. They have come to KNOW a lot of stuff, but have failed to DO much of it.
In closing, we'll quote two passages related to promises. In 2 Corinthians 1:20, we read: “For all the PROMISES of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.” Unlike the Mosaic Law, which is largely prohibitive, all the promises of God in Christ are affirmative. One of the sad realities in many churches today is the imposition of prohibitions upon new converts and calling it discipleship. You can do no greater harm to one newly saved by GRACE than to teach him to live under LAW. In 2 Peter 1:4a, we read: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious PROMISES: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature.” The walk of faith anchored in God's promises enables one to partake of the nature of God himself as he grows in grace and becomes more like the Lord Jesus. The Christian life is an affirmative life. It's a life of power rooted in promises, not prohibitions.
Hebrews 11 is without doubt the Faith Chapter of scripture. But it is every bit the Promise Chapter as well. Faith is never a standalone commodity. Faith has the God of promise as its object. God has vested his very character in his promises, which is why a promise of God can never fail for one who believes it! It's why exercising faith that rests upon a promise of God can never disappoint. Abraham was such a man, a man with a promise. Hebrews 11 teaches us the believer with a promise is the richest man on the planet, capable of seeing with spiritual eyes what the world can never see. To express it another way, a man like Bill Gates would be RICHER with just one of our promises than we would be with one of his millions!