NOTES on Hebrews
11:1-4 (click here for study)
The author of Hebrews has spent the first 10 chapters of this book establishing the reality that Jesus is better than all the Old Testament symbols and rituals and promises. He is, in fact, the fulfillment of every detail of the old covenant.
Chapter 11, the "Faith Chapter", is different from the rest of the book. It begins by establishing that faith in Jesus as our sure salvation is the essence of living a godly life. "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (v. 1) Having faith in God's promises is what set apart God's people since the beginning of history. Although on this side of the cross we can intimately know the risen Christ, still we are saved the same way God's Old Testament saints were saved: belief in God's sovereign love and promised redemption.
God's people have always been saved by faith in him.
Chapter 11 names specific Old Testament people who lived by faith. We will take time to look closely at these people and to discover what their experiences teach us.
Hope and Understanding by Faith
Chapter 11 begins by stating what faithis: "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."
As Christians we see the picture of salvation much more clearly than did the Old Testament patriarchs and Israelites. We live in the reality of a crucified and risen Savior. They lived in the persistent hope of a Savior. We can see that God's promises come true. We live with the indwelling Holy Spirit convicting us of the reality of Jesus and empowering us with His own love, wisdom, strength, and mind.
The "ancients", or "men of old", as Hebrews called them, lived in the confident hope of a coming Redeemer. We live in the confident hope that our Redeemer will come again. They lived with faith that God would vindicate them after they died. We live with faith that we will not only be vindicated but that we have eternal life with our Redeemer.
Both they and we live(d) by faith, "sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." The horizons of faith, however, have broadened. Much of what the ancients hoped for we now see; we live with understanding that has given us reason to hope for things the ancients did not perceive.
Our hope as Christ-followers includes the confidence that we belong intimately to God. Christ "is faithful as a son over God's house," and if we hold steadfastly to courage and to our hope in what he has promised, we are God's house. (Hebrews 3:6) The promised reality for which we hope is our inheritance of a future and eternal life with God. (Hebrews 6:11-12)This hope is based on the certainty that Jesus "went before us" and entered the presence of God-the Most Holy Place, and because he is there, we also can come directly to God. (Hebrews 6:18-19)
Our hope is better than the law, "which made nothing perfect". Jesus is better than the law, which pointed out our sin, because he came and dealt with sin. Through Jesus we have a better hope than did those who lived under the law, because through Jesus we may "draw near to God". Under the law people could only realize their need for God. (Hebrews 7:19) Now, because of Jesus' death and resurrection to pay the price of sin, we live in peace with God through faith in Jesus and what he did. Now we stand in grace, not merely hope for it. (Romans 5:1-2)
Our ultimate hope of which we are sure because of faith is our rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10-11)
Certainty Without Sight
We not only have a sure hope in our future with Jesus, but we also have a closely related spiritual sight of things that are not yet realized. This "sight" includes some of the specifics of our future with God. While Job and other patriarchs believed they would see God after their deaths, we now know more of what that will mean. We know that as born again Christ-followers, we are experiencing internal renewal by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We also know that along with this renewal, we will experience suffering to greater or lesser degrees at the hands of those who are threatened by our faith in Jesus and our commitment to truth. Overarching these realities, however, is the certainty that we will enjoy eternal glory with our Father, and that not only our spirits will be saved, but our bodies will be resurrected and redeemed also! (2 Corinthians 4:13-18)
Not only do we know for sure that we have a future with God, but now we know when this "future" begins. We know that when we accept Jesus he sends us the Holy Spirit and we pass from death to life. (John 3:3-8; 5:24) Now we also know that when we die, the essential "us", the part of us that knows Jesus, goes to be with the Lord. (2 Cor. 5:6-10) And we know that God doesn't stop with redeeming our spirits; he redeems all of us, the whole person. Now, even though our spirits have already passed from death to life, we are waiting for our bodies to be redeemed as well. (Romans 8:23-25) Because of Jesus' resurrection and his appearance to many of his followers in his resurrection body, we know that we, too, can expect to be resurrected and fully redeemed.
Creation by Faith
In addition to our hope and certainty about our redemption, another fundamental truth we accept by faith is the creation of the universe. Genesis 1 and 2 tell the story of creation. Those stories do not explain the details of how and when the creation events happened. The important thing Genesis tells us, though, is that God deliberately created our universe and the life on our planet. Not only did he create everything, he created by merely speaking. He is the Word in whom and from whom is all life. (John 1:1-3)
The exception to his creation by speaking was his creation of Adam and Eve. God formed Adam from the dust of the ground-the stuff of the planet-and he made Eve from one of Adam's ribs. He breathed life into Adam's nostrils-he physically transferred life from himself to Adam.
If God had not created us, the whole process of salvation would not have made sense. There would have been no reason for God to take on the form of a cosmic accident and save us for himself. Only in the context of our creation by God in his own image does the story of salvation make sense. God created us for himself, and he planned from the inception of the universe to save us from the sin that already infected the fabric of reality. (Revelation 13:8)
When we accept Jesus and are born again, God again literally breathes life into us. He places his own Spirit within us, and we are brought to life in a way reminiscent of God bringing Adam to life.
Cain and Abel
The first "ancient" whose faith Hebrews discusses is Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve. The first couple's first child was Cain, and Genesis 4:1 states that when Cain was born, Eve acknowledged God. "With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man." Cain, however, turned out to be evil.
According to Genesis 4:3-4, Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. The ground, which God cursed when Adam sinned (Gen. 3:17), nonetheless yielded enough to made a profitable living as long as Cain managed the weeds and tended his crops.
The day came when both Cain and Abel brought offerings to God. The Bible does not say why they both offered their gifts to God at the same time, nor does it say what kinds of gifts God expected them to bring.
All Genesis 4:3-4 says is, "In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock."
Nothing indicates that Cain brought a bad gift, or that he should have brought a lamb. During the time of Moses, Israel was commanded to bring offerings of fruits and grains to the Lord. Exodus 23:19 says, "Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God."
Genesis 4:4-5, however, makes clear that God was happy with Abel's sacrifice but not with Cain's. "The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor."
The only hint Genesis offers regarding the difference between the two offerings is that it says Abel offered "some of the firstborn of his flock", but of Cain it says he brought "some of the fruits of the soil." Cain, perhaps, did not bring firstfruits, and Abel did. The difficulty we have drawing conclusions about the nature of Cain's and Abel's gifts as related in this passage is that up to this point, the Bible does not say whether or not God had instructed people to bring him the firstfruits. There really is not enough information for us to deduce why Cain's gift was not acceptable.
If Cain's offering of firstfruits is significant, however, that significance would be linked to the ultimate fulfillment of all firstborn and firstfruit offerings which God commanded Israel to make. Jesus is the firstborn. He is the firstborn among many brothers, those of us whom God has "conformed to the likeness of his Son." (Romans 8:29) He is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation." (Col. 1:15) He was the first human to be born spiritually alive. Jesus is also the "firstborn from among the dead". (Col 1:18; Rev. 1:5)
Although the "firstfruits" aspect of Abel's offering might have been part of the reason for God's acceptance of it, that idea really is conjecture. The first concrete reason the Bible gives to explain God's rejection of Cain's gift is in Hebrews 11:4: "By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings."
Abel's offered his offering in faith of God's love and redemption. God counts people righteous when they have faith in him, not in themselves or in their works. Abel's gift was not a work offered to God; it was an act of faith.
Cain, we can deduce from this text, did not offer his gift in faith. Cain brought his offering as a work of his own, not as an act of faith and love. The fact that Cain's gift was produce and Abel's gift was a lamb does not seem, in the biblical account, to be a factor in God's rejection of one and his acceptance of the other.
Anger and Sin
God's treatment of Cain's anger is one of the most interesting parts of the story of Cain and Abel.
When God rejected Cain's offering, "Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, 'Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.' " (Genesis 4:5b-7)
The Old Testament records another instance in which God questioned a man's right to be angry. When God sent Jonah to Ninevah, Jonah did not want to go. After a detour through a fish's belly, Jonah finally arrived at Ninevah, ready to preach impending doom to the people.
The Ninevites listened to Jonah's dire predictions of destruction coming in forty day, and they repented and turned to the Lord.
But Jonah became angry. He had suffered much on account of his calling to preach to the Ninevites, and he had proclaimed their destruction as the Lord commanded. He wanted to see them burn.
When the Ninevites repented, Jonah was embarrassed and angry. He had been quick to cry to God to save him when he had been thrown into the ocean , but when a whole city cried to God, Jonah was equally quick to forget God's mercy to him and become angry.
"I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity," Jonah ranted in stark contrast to the mercy shown to him. (Jonah 4:1-4)
God then provided a vine to shelter Jonah as he sat in the sun east of the city. That night, however, God sent a worm to kill the vine. Jonah became angry about the vine, and even though God explained to Jonah that he was concerned about Ninevah in a way similar to Jonah's concern about the vine, Jonah did not relent.
"Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" God asked Jonah.
"I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die." (Jonah 4:9-10)
The book of Jonah ends without an indication that Jonah turned from his anger despite God's remonstrating with him.
In both the cases of Jonah and of Cain, God questioned their rights to be angry. When God sovereignly shows mercy or judgment, no human has the depth or breadth of understanding to grasp everything at stake. Cain and Jonah were angry at God for his mercy on someone other than themselves. They both wanted to see the other recipients of His mercy destroyed. God essentially pointed out to them that their anger was not an appropriate response to His judgment and mercy.
God pointed out to Cain that if he did "what is right", he would receive God's acceptance, too. Cain's attitude, apparently, had stood in the way of God's accepting his offering. Since the Genesis passage does not indicate any behaviors for which God was punishing Cain, the implications of this passage in conjunction with the insight from Hebrews 11:4-5 suggest that God was telling Cain that his self-seeking and self-pitying thoughts would destroy him. If Cain would trust God instead of his own agenda, he would find the acceptance Abel had-the acceptance Cain resented because he didn't have it.
Crouching in Desire
"Sin is crouching at your door;" God said, "it desires to have you." (Gen. 4:7)
The image here is that of an animal stalking its prey. Sin is not at a distance, watching Cain from afar. It is on his doorstep; it is in his personal space, and it's waiting for the inevitable moment when Cain cannot escape it. Cain has allowed his anger to fester to the point that he will not be able to escape the full acting out of his feelings. Unless he "does what is right", unless he turns to God and trusts His mercy and strength, unless Cain obeys God and gives up his self-serving and self-pitying mode of living, his own anger will destroy him.
The Hebrew for "it desires to have you" in this passage is the same expression as in "Your desire will be for [your husband]" in Genesis 3:16. (See NIV Study Notes for 4:7) The same Hebrew is also found in Song of Solomon 7:10 where it says, "I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me."
The picture here of sin is not of a passive, mindless force which automatically functions as a steamroller, squashing whoever gets in its way. "Desire" implies passion, drive, focus, relentlessness. It implies personal attraction and attention.
The significant thing about God's warning to Cain is that He did not say Cain desired sin. He said sin desired Cain. This warning suggests that sin has a personal force or power behind it.
When a person is the object of desire, the effect of that focused attention may be positive or negative depending on the desired one's feelings about the one desiring. If the desired one is intrigued by the one desiring, that passion has the effect of drawing the two together. If the desired one dislikes the one desiring, that passion acts as a powerful deterrent, pushing the one desired away.
In either case, the presence of desire changes the relationship. Either the two parties are drawn together in a level of intimacy that surpasses other relationships, or the two are kept apart by a revulsion/unrequited love phenomenon.
God's warning to Cain to do right and to master sin addressed Cain's attraction to sin. Sin's desire for him was succeeding in seducing him. Cain was willing to indulge his hate and anger, and God's warning, God's own desire for Cain, were not enough to turn Cain away from sin. Instead of turning to God and mastering it, he was allowing it to master him.
There is only one way to master sin. Its seductive deception is greater than anyone can resist-especially since we are born disconnected from God. Only God's love and his desire for us is strong enough to capture our hearts and pull us away from the otherwise irresistible desire of sin.
Cursed Ground, Cursed Cain
Cain did the unthinkable. In spite of God's personal call to Cain, he nursed his anger and deceived his brother. "Let's go out to the field," he said to Abel. "And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him." (Genesis 4:8)
Sin's desire for Cain won. Cain allowed the crouching deceiver to flatter him completely, and he gave full vent to his selfish resentment. Instead of yielding his heart to the love and discipline of God, he chose to live by his own impulses. Instead of "doing right" and making room in his heart to receive God's acceptance, he wanted God's acceptance on his own limited terms. He killed the one who lived by faith, hoping to punish and remove his competition. Sin's desire won Cain, and instead of finding satisfaction, Cain reaped disillusionment and a curse.
God again confronted Cain, this time asking him where Abel was.
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"
"The Lord said, 'What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.' " (Genesis 4:9-12)
The ground which God had cursed when Adam sinned now became the vehicle of God's curse on Cain.
" 'Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.' " (Genesis 3:17-18)
With this curse God had condemned Adam and his descendants to struggle for their livelihoods. With this curse God declared everything natural to be tainted because of sin. Sinful man would not enjoy "sinless" surroundings, or he might forget how serious was his condition. With this curse God declared that even natural man was tainted and would not produce good works. Sin had permeated every part of living.
Cain had been successful making a living from the cursed ground. By his hard work he had tamed the land, and it produced crops for him. Now God removed Cain's central identity. He could no longer be a farmer. No matter how hard he worked, the land would no longer yield its crops for him. Cain would be a "restless wanderer on the earth".
Cain was devastated. His identity was gone, and besides that loss, being driven from the land meant he would "be hidden from [God's] presence." (v. 14) He begged for mercy. He would be anathema, and he feared for his life.
Even now, after Cain had committed the multiple sins of self-indulgence, deception, and murder, God had mercy on him. He "put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him." (v. 15)
"Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground," God said to Cain. (v. 10) The ground which swallowed Abel's blood would no longer yield its riches for Cain.
Abel's blood called for justice. It continues to call for justice to this day.
" 'Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the Lord, dwell among the Israelites,' " God said to Moses. (Numbers 35:33)
Shedding another's blood, taking another's life, is a transgression for which there is no atonement except the death of the murderer. Cain had committed a sin which demanded justice. Abel's blood cried out for justice; the land could not be restored unless Cain died.
Cain had not foreseen the far-reaching consequences of his anger. In spite of God's personal warning and call, he persisted in his seduction by sin.
There was something else Cain did not foresee. He did not foresee God's undeserved mercy to him. Cain deserved to die. Only Cain's death could atone for Abel's death. But God preserved Cain. In his desperation Cain cried out to God, and God put his own mark on Cain. No one would kill him out of fear or anger as he wandered the earth, because God took responsibility for him. Cain was not at the mercy of the world; he was under God's mercy.
God loved even faithless Cain. He preserved his earthly life even though he and his lineage produced evil.
Abel's blood calls for justice. The blood of all the righteous who have been killed for their faith in God calls for judgment and vengeance. (Revelation 6:9-10) But God has taken responsibility for every innocent life lost at the hands of evil.
Jesus shed his own blood. Jesus-sinless, divine, human, perfect, all-knowing and loving-shed his own blood to atone for the world's sin. He atoned for the sin of those who killed the prophets, and he atoned for the sins of the prophets as well. Because he shed his blood, everyone, no matter how egregious his sins, can come to God and receive mercy. Everyone can receive God's mark-the promised Holy Spirit-and live eternally.
Those who refuse to accept Jesus' blood, however, will ultimately die. They will be judged, and despite God's long-suffering, they will be sent to the "eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matt. 25:41)
Jesus' blood "speaks a better word than the blood of Abel." Jesus' blood does not cry out for justice; Jesus' blood declares reconciliation. Jesus' blood stands eternally as the means of God's forgiveness of humanity and of restoring us to himself.
God warns each of us, as he did Cain, to "master sin". Each of us is born with dead spirits-spirits separated from God-and Satan is trying to seduce each human to surrender to self-centeredness and corruption. Satan desires us-not because he loves us, but because he wishes for us to perish as he knows he will.
God, however, also desires us. But his desire is based on love, not on self-justification and manipulation. God desires us so much he took responsibility for the sin of the race. He died so we wouldn't have to die for every unjust act we commit. He died so we could live eternally with him.
Every sin you have committed against someone-even against yourself-has left a trail of brokenness and guilt. The wounds of those who have suffered from your sins cry out for justice.
God hears their cries, and he has already taken responsibility for what you did. Jesus died so you don't have to atone for your own transgressions against others. Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God, the Creator of the universe, the only perfect human, our Savior, has taken onto himself your sin. He bears not only the penalty for your sin, but he also bears the pain you caused others.
He bears the pain others have caused you as well. He has promised to avenge the sins done against you. If those who have betrayed you do not repent, God in his mercy and justice will deal with them. He bears the weight of justice and forgiveness. Only he, the one who has taken onto himself the sin of the entire human race, is qualified to be the righteous judge.
Jesus is asking you to face the sin that is crouching at your door, desiring you. That sin may be something easily defined as sin, such as lust, greed, hate or anger, substance abuse, or immorality. That sin may also be something more easily justified than "common sins". It may be arrogance, worry, pride, control, complacency, or laziness. It may also be resisting giving your decisions and dreams to God.
No matter what the sin is that crouches in lustful wait for you, it will have you if you refuse to acknowledge it and turn from it to God. Jesus is asking you to look to him. He's asking you to let his blood speak a better word to you than do the wounds which you have caused. He's asking you to let his desire for you speak truth to you. He's asking you to hear his blood speak of his love.
Jesus is asking you to let his sacrifice and forgiveness restore you to intimacy with him and to eclipse the seduction of the sin crouching at your door. He's asking you to let him into even the hard, resistant places in your heart, and when you do, He will send away the sin that desires you. His love and desire will replace the desire of sin that had claimed you.
Jesus is asking you to let him be your master over sin. Just as he bore your guilt, he also bears your pain. He will give you a new heart, and he will fill the empty places in you that sin had tried to claim.
God is asking you to live by faith. His Spirit is real; his forgiveness is real; eternal life is real. Jesus asks you to reach out to him now. Receive his eternal atonement, and roll onto him the struggles you have with sin. Let him give you a living soul, and his Spirit will begin a new work in you.
By faith present yourself to God. By faith receive Jesus' blood of atonement. By faith allow the Holy Spirit to enter your soul and give you eternal life.
By faith live, and rejoice that God calls you righteous!
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised July 1, 2001.