Biblical Faith, Part 3

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Having faith is easier said than trying to understand how it works or why it doesn’t. In our previous studies, we concluded that true Biblical faith has nothing to do with whether or not you appear to “get” what you’ve been praying for. The heroes of the faith listed in Hebrews 11 were all commended as having great faith even though none of them received what God had promised them.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. (Hebrews 11:13 NIV)

The proof or evidence that a person has Biblical faith isn’t how many prayers God seems to answer or how prosperous they may be or how healthy they seem to be, it’s that they never give up; they never stop believing no matter what. No matter how good they have it or how awful their circumstances, people with true Biblical faith never stop believing in the promises of God. Never.

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. (Hebrews 11:13, 14 NKJV)

People with faith are never afraid or ashamed to confess – not their faith – that they are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” What does that mean? How does it relate to the modern Christian?

The patriarchs

Abraham and all the patriarchs “died in faith.” They never stopped believing in the promise God gave them. In fact, we are told, they glimpsed that promise at a distance. God actually planted in their hearts a vision of that promise. In case you’ve forgotten, here is the promise:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1 – 3 NIV)

This was the great promise God gave to Abraham and his descendants. It’s the promise all the heroes of Hebrews 11 held to and believed. It’s the promise that would not be fulfilled until centuries after the death of the very people to whom it was given. Aged and in failing health, still believing in the promise, none of the patriarchs complained, but instead they rejoiced as they looked to the future in expectation. They didn’t run around confessing the promise to anybody that would listen. They didn’t engage in “naming it and claiming it.” Abraham’s response to his wife’s death gives us a clue as to how he confessed his faith:

Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.” (Genesis 23:4 NIV)

Abraham never denied his circumstances, in fact he embraced them; he owned up to them. He was a foreigner; he was a stranger among the Hittites. He had no property to speak of but he needed a little bit for a grave, and he was willing to pay for It. He didn’t expect God to move on the hearts of the Hittites to suddenly give him a plot of land. He was willing to exchange some of what he had for some of what the Hittites had. It would seem that faith is, more than anything, practical.

The modern believer

A person whose only interest is in the things of this world – prosperity, health, happiness, contentment – will constantly be frustrated because more often than not those things will be elusive. If all you want is happiness, you probably won’t find much of it. If you are looking for more money, you probably won’t find more money, but only more debt. But a person who knows he is a pilgrim here and who is content with being a foreigner in the here-and-now, must have a higher goal.

For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. (Hebrews 11:14 NIV)

Ben Vaughn and Peter Case, in their song made famous by Petra, captured perfectly what the writer to the Hebrews was trying to convey:

We are pilgrims in a strange land/We are so far from our homeland\With each passing day it seems so clear/This world will never want us here/We’re not welcome in this world of wrong/We are foreigners who don’t belong

And that’s the attitude every believer should have. We are strangers here. We are pilgrims here. We don’t belong here. So why are we surprised when our beliefs are mocked or our faith disrespected? Why are we caught off guard when people outside the church don’t side with the church? Why do we work our fingers to the bone just to obtain and hold onto the things of this world? If we are “just visiting this planet,” why are trying so hard to stay here? If we’re “just passing through,” why are we trying so desperately to “fit in” and gain the world’s acceptance?

It’s very hard to live a life of faith when you are too comfortable in the world. Charles Swindoll wrote –

We live in a negative, hostile world. Face it my friend, the system that surrounds us focuses on the negatives: what is wrong, not what is right; what is missing, not what is present; what is ugly, not what is beautiful; what is destructive, not what is constructive; what cannot be done, not what can be done; what hurts, not what helps; what we lack, not what we have. The result: fear, resentment, and anger.

Swindoll isn’t wrong in what he wrote. When our focus is on this world, we become like this world. We become just as negative, just as depressing, and just as faithless as the world in which we live. That’s why our focus needs to be on our homeland, our TRUE, eternal homeland. That’s why John wrote this –

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. (1 John 2:15 NIV)

Look back at Abraham. He and his family were pilgrims in every sense of the word. They lived in tents and were always on the move. Yet he gave up a lot to live that nomadic life. Ur, the Sumerian city he and his family lived in, had for a century been a hub of commerce and cultural activities. It had schools and temples, there were libraries, and Ur boasted a thriving community of artists and artisans who made and sold beautiful art and fine jewelry. Yet the patriarch chose to give all that up. What if God asked you to give up your comfortable lifestyle to follow Him. Could you? Corrie Ten Boom’s words are hard to read because they hit a little too close to home –

I’ve learned that we must hold everything loosely, because when I grip it tightly, it hurts when the Father pries my fingers loose and takes it from me!

Abraham and the patriarchs traveled on and never looked back, and they never looked at what they couldn’t have.

If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. (Hebrews 11:15 NIV)

In a very real sense, the life of faith begins between your ears. Abraham and his family left the greatest urban center of his day and chose to stay away from all of them. They always stayed on the fringes of civilization. How could they live this way? For them, it was simple:

Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. (Hebrews 11:16 NIV)

Literally that verse reads: “the stretched themselves out.” Their devotion was that intense. These ancient people, with no Bible to read or sermons to listen to, somehow had a concept of heaven, a glorious life after life. And it was that belief, not merely the promise of an earthly home, that drove them.

This is the kind of faith that impresses God. In fact, the remainder of verse 16 gives us an idea of how much the faith of the patriarchs meant to God –

Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:16b NIV)

Can you imagine? God was not ashamed to be known as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” His people became His means of identification in the world. Can we say that about us? Does our faith impress God that much? Or do we disappoint Him to the point where we He is actually ashamed of us? There are many who profess belief in God and faith in Christ who are, by their attachment to the things of this world, an embarrassment to God and a discredit to His character.

In Christ, God has prepared a “a city,” an eternal dwelling place for His people. These pilgrims of faith, because they looked forward in faith, will benefit from the work of Christ just as we will, as we also look forward in faith. We modern Christians with our numerous translations of the Bible, books about the Bible, books and TV shows about how to live the Christian life, and churches all over the place have no excuse for missing that eternal city.

We can learn a lot about how we should live by looking at how these ancient nomads lived so long ago. God made a stunning promise to Abraham, and that promise involved an earthly blessing, the blessing of land. Abraham knew, though, there was more to this promise than just Canaan. Canaan was nice, but it didn’t come close to fulfilling the great inner revelation that God had also given him; that there is life and a land beyond this one. They never felt completely “at home” anywhere on earth because they knew they didn’t belong here. It’s very unfortunate that their descendants lost the vision, as the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews had, and eventually settled in a land that they fiercely cling to this very day. But pilgrims aren’t really attached to anything of this world. They don’t cling to either their possessions or their lives. C.S. Lewis put it this way –

Many a man thinks that he is finding his place in the world, when in reality it is finding its place in him.

Hopefully that isn’t happening to you.

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