THE ELDERS OBTAINED A GOOD TESTIMONY BY FAITH (Hebrews 11:2)
That faith is indeed the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen is proven by the testimony which the elders received from God Himself through this faith! The writer in speaking here of “elders” is not referring to elders as office-bearers in the New Testament Church, nor exclusively of the elders of the people in the Old Testament, but rather of the ancient fathers generally. It need not be necessarily true that the writer here limits these “elders” who obtained a good report to the elders whom he selects here in Hebrews 11. All the elders, the entire Old Testament church in every age of the long period from Abel to Christ, is here referred to. The witness is borne to all whose lives were “by faith.” These all are the “cloud of witnesses” which surround us, and cheer us on in the battle in which we must look to Christ Who endured the Cross, despised the shame, and is set down on the right hand of God because of the joy which was set before him! (Heb. 12:1, 2) The writer selects some outstanding and representative cases of all these who form the “cloud” of witnesses.
The writer here simply is content with the general statement that these elders “obtained witness.” They were witnessed, attested to on every page of Scripture, receiving this honorable mention from the lips of God: “Well-done! thou good and faithful servant.” They received this witness only in the sphere of and in the power of faith, the mysterious gift and power of God in the inner man. This is the power of the Holy Ghost, Who empowers us from on high.
From this general statement concerning faith and the participants of this faith, the writer now will turn to the particulars.
THE GIST AND OUTLINE OF THE EXAMPLES OF FAITH CITED (Hebrews 11:3-40)
Many writers have written expositions and given exegesis of the book of Hebrews in the past. We have profited from their studies, particularly from those of Westcott. Dr. Westcott gives much food for thought in his careful analyses of sentence, words, grammar, etc. We found his outline of the contents of Hebrews 11, particularly penetrating. Writes Dr. Westcott (page 349, “The Epistle To The Hebrews”):
The development of the work of Faith appears to follow an intelligible and natural plan. The writer first marks the characteristics of Faith generally (v. 1) and its application to the elementary conceptions of religion (v. 3, compare v. 6). He then shows that the spiritual history of the world is a history of the victories of Faith. This is indicated by the fragmentary records of the old world (4-7) and more particularly by the records of the growth of the Divine Society (Hee Eccleesia). (the church, G.L.) This was founded on the Faith of obedience and patience of the patriarchs (8-16); and built up in the faith of sacrifice, sustained against natural judgment (17-22) and carried to victory by the faith of conquest (33-31). The later action of Faith in the work of the people is indicated up to the last national conflict under the Maccabees (v. 32-38); and is then declared that all these preliminary victories await their consummation from the Faith of the Christians. (39, 40)
The contents of the chapter may therefore be arranged thus:
1) vv. l-2. Preliminary view of the characteristics and work of Faith.
2) vv. 3-7. Faith as seen in the prophetic records of the old world.
3) vv . 8-22. The Faith of the Patriarchs:
(a) The Faith of Obedience and Patience.
(b) The Faith of Sacrifice.
4) vv. 23-31. The Faith of Conflict and Conquest.
5) vv. 32-38. Faith active in national life.
6) vv. 39-40. Conclusion.
A careful reading of this chapter will indicate that the outline here given by Dr. Westcott is most instructive and helpful to obtain a bird’s-eye view of the whole, and showing the progressive pattern of Faith in the entire Old Testament History from Abel to the Maccabees! One may differ with this outline on minor details, but in the main this outline, in my judgment, is quite correct.
FAITH’S UNDERSTANDING OF CREATION’S MYSTERIES (Hebrews 11:3)
Here we have the “key” to the proper understanding of the revelation of God in Genesis 1 in regard to the origin and nature of the visible world about us. The proper understanding of our world is not simply by sight, by empirical experience. Also in the matter of the visible world, the certainty concerning the things which we see does not rest on what our senses observe and our rational interpretation of the same, but is only understood and interpreted by faith. We must first ascend to the Creator God in faith, before we can be certain concerning the origin, meaning, and purpose of all things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
“By faith we understand,” says the writer. We do not understand to believe, but we believe to understand. Such has ever been the basic starting-point of all theism which holds to the revelation of God from heaven. Hence, not only in the matters of sin and grace, Christ and the world to come, do we walk by faith. We walk by faith also in relationship to what may be called the Logos in creation, as unfolded by the Lord in the Prologue of John’s Gospel account. (John 1:1-18) For this Logos is the true light that enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world. For “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork; there is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their speech to the end of the world.” This speech of God in the things made, even his eternal power and Godhead, transcends the barriers of the languages caused by the confusion of tongues at Babel. (Psalm 19; Rom. 1:18ff.) Yes, this truth, which is manifested to the entire world of men, evil men keep down in unrighteousness—by which they become without excuse before God. It is sufficient for their final and eternal condemnation. The entire, awful reality of idolatrous image worship can only be explained by man’s trying to “touch or find” God. (Acts. 17) Poets of the heathen speak of it. Yet, they do not understand. They do not see the sparks of Divine glory in every creature, whereas they will not bow before the Creator God. They do not believe in God. They do not even worship God ignorantly. Paul does not say, “Whom ye ignorantly worship, Him I preach unto you,” but says, “what ye ignorantly worship,” (“ho—touto” in the Greek text in Acts 17:23b) Surrounded by the glory of the Creator, His power and Divinity, the unbelievers do not understand. They even worship the creature, and attempt to explain the things seen out of the things seen.
Now faith in God does not do such. Let us remember that this faith by which we understand the framing of the worlds, that this faith is saving faith. This is faith which we have in God through Christ. Apart from Christ there is no faith in the Creator of heaven and earth. The first Article of the Apostolicum is Christologically dated. This is faith in our heavenly Father, who is our God and Father for Christ’s sake. (Confer Question 26, Heidelberg Catechism) The writer here is not speaking of a general faith which is for al1 mankind m general, a faith which believers and unbelievers would have in common. Or, if you will, a certain “common grace” of God. Not at all! For faith here is a faith by which “we understand!” This we must keep ever in mind. This “we” does not receive any special emphasis in the text. It was not contradicted in the days of the writer. However, the writer had emphasized this “we” in distinction from unbelievers who slip back into perdition, in Hebrews 10:39. And this emphasis, therefore. is understood. That only the church understands this language and revelation from God is also the clear position of the Belgic Confession which is a confession “which we believe with the heart and confess with the mouth.” (Article I) And in the next Article we read:
We know him by two means: first by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his power and divinity, as the apostle Paul saith, in
This “we know” refers to the Christian believers, and to no one else!
Thus it is here in this text. We know the world’s mysterious creation and preservation, its beginning and end—by faith! And in this faith we understand how the Lord fashioned the entire world in the Six Days of creation as given in Genesis 1. Each part was fashioned by the Builder and Creator. And when this finished product stands before our believing eyes, with the Scriptures in our hand, we say: I believe in God! We see God the Builder and Creator. And we see that the things which we see were not in their finished product, (gegonenai) now already for 6000 years, to be explained out of the creature. The light came from the creative word of God. And when God put this light in the sun and moon and stars on the fourth day, then He fashioned this in such a way that faith sees that the light and the sun both must be explained out of the will of the Creator God.
We span the “ages,” the world, in our text. And we see that there is the creation and providence of God. Moment by moment not a blade of grass grows but by the hand of the invisible God, who demonstrates His power and divinity in the flower of the field and in the blade of grass. Then we get a consideration of faith. We “consider” the lilies, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin, and yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these! That is simple Christian faith which understands that flowers are not to be explained out of the power of flowers, or from some other creaturely phenomena, but that flowers are a direct product of the fashioning hand of their Maker, God. Very simple, isn’t it? It is revealed to the babes, and hid from the wise and prudent.