An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Faith of Sarah
(Hebrews 11:11, 12)
In the verses which are now to be before us the apostle calls attention to the marvelous power of a God-given faith to exercise itself in the presence of most discouraging circumstances, persevere in the face of the most formidable obstacles, and trust God to do that which unto human reason seemed utterly impossible. They show us that this faith was exercised by a frail and aged woman, who at first was hindered and opposed by the workings of unbelief, but who in the end relied upon the veracity of God and rested upon His promise. They show what an intensely practical thing faith is: that it not only lifts up the soul to Heaven, but is able to draw down strength for the body on earth. They demonstrate what great endings sometimes issue from small beginnings, and that like a stone thrown into a lake produces ever-enlarging circles on the rippling waters, so faith issues in fruit which increases from generation to generation.
The more the 11th verse of our present chapter be pondered, the more evident will it appear the faith there spoken of is of a radically different order from that mental and theoretical faith of cozy-chair dreamers. The "faith" of the vast majority of professing Christians is as different from that described in Hebrews 11 as darkness is from light. The one ends in talk, the other was expressed in deeds. The one breaks down when put to the test, the other survived every trial to which it was exposed. The one is inoperative and ineffectual, the other was active and powerful. The one is unproductive, the other issued in fruits to the glory of God. Ah, is it not evident that the great difference between them is, that one is merely human, the other Divine; one merely natural, the other altogether supernatural? This it is which our hearts and consciences need to lay hold of and turn into earnest prayer.
That which has just been pointed out ought to deeply exercise both writer and reader. It ought to search us through and through, causing us to seriously and diligently weigh the character of our "faith." It is of little use to be entertained by interesting articles, unless they lead to careful self-examination. It is of little profit to be made to wonder at the achievements of the faith of those O.T. saints, unless we are shamed by them, and made to cry mightily unto God for Him to work in us a "like precious faith." Unless our faith issues in works which mere nature cannot produce, unless it is enabling us to "overcome the world" (1 John 5:4) and triumph over the lusts of the flesh, then we have grave cause to fear that our faith is not "the faith of God’s elect" (Titus 1:1). Cry with David, "Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart" (Ps. 26:2).
It is not that any Christian lives a life of perfect faith—only the Lord Jesus ever did that. No, for in the first place, like all the other spiritual graces, it is subject to growth (2 Thess. 1:3), and full maturity is not reached in this life. In the second place, faith is not always in exercise, nor can we command its activities: He who bestowed it, must also renew it. In the third place, the faith of every saint falters at times: it did in Abraham, in Moses, in Elijah, in the apostles. The flesh is still in us, and therefore the reasonings of unbelief are ever ready (unless Divine grace subdue them) to oppose the actings of faith. We are not then urging the reader to search in himself for a faith that is perfect, either in its growth, its constancy or its achievements. Rather are we to seek Divine aid and make sure whether we have any faith which is superior to what has been acquired through religious education; whether we have a faith which, despite the strugglings of unbelief, does trust the living God; whether we have a faith which produces any fruit which manifestly issues from a spiritual root.
Having spoken of Abraham’s faith, the apostle now makes mention of Sarah’s. "Observe what a blessing it is when a husband and wife are both partners of faith, when both in the same yoke draw one way. Abraham is the father of the faithful, and Sarah is recommended among believers as having a fellowship in the same promises, and in the same troubles and trials. So it is said of Zachariah and Elizabeth, ‘And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless’ (Luke 1:6). It is a mighty encouragement when the constant companion of our lives is also a fellow in the same faith. This should direct us in the matter of choice: she cannot be a meet help that goeth a contrary way in religion. Religion decayeth in families by nothing so much as by want of care in matches" (T. Manton).
"Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised" (verse 11). There are five things upon which our attention needs to be focused. First, the impediments of her faith: these were, her barrenness, old age, and unbelief. Second, the effect of her faith: she "received strength to conceive." Third, the constancy of her faith: she trusted God unto an actual deliverance or birth of the child. Fourth, the foundation of her faith: she rested upon the veracity of the Divine Promiser. Fifth, the fruit of her faith: the numerous posterity which issued from her son Isaac. Let us consider each of these separately.
"Through faith also Sarah herself." The Greek is just the same here as in all the other verses, and should have been rendered uniformly "By faith" etc. The word "also" seems to be added for a double purpose. First to counteract and correct any error which might suppose that women were debarred the blessings and privileges of grace. It is true that in the official sphere God has prohibited them from occupying the place of rule or usurping authority over the men, so that they are commanded to be silent in the churches (1 Cor. 14:34), are not permitted to teach (1 Tim. 2:12), and are bidden to be in subjection to their husbands (Eph. 5:22). But in the spiritual sphere all inequalities disappear, for "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28), and therefore the believing husband and the believing wife are "heirs together of the grace of life."
In the second place, this added "also" informs us that, though a woman, Sarah exercised the same faith as had Abraham. She had left Chaldea when he did, accompanied him to Canaan, dwelt with him in tents. Not only so, but she personally acted faith upon the living God. Necessarily so, for she was equally concerned in the Divine revelation with Abraham, and was as much a party to the great difficulties of its accomplishment. The blessing of the promised seed was assigned to and appropriated by her, as much as to and by him; and therefore is she proposed unto the Church as an example (1 Pet. 3:5, 6). "As Abraham was the father of the faithful, or of the church, so she was the mother of it, so as that the distinct mention of her faith was necessary. She was the free woman from whence the Church sprang: Galatians 4:22, 23. And all believing women are her daughters: 1 Peter 3:6" (John Owen).
"By faith also Sarah herself received strength." The word "herself" is emphatic: it was not her husband only, by whose faith she might receive the blessing, but by her own faith that she received strength, and this, notwithstanding the very real and formidable obstacles which stood in the way of her exercising it. These, as we have pointed out, were three in number. First, she had not borne any children during the customary years of pregnancy: as Genesis 11:30 informs us, "Sarah was barren"; "Sarah, Abram’s wife, bare him no children" (Gen. 16:1). Second, she was long past the age of childbearing, for she was now "ninety years old" (Gen. 17:17). Third, the workings of unbelief interposed, persuading her that it was altogether against nature and reason for a woman, under such circumstances, to give birth unto a child. This comes out in Genesis 18. There we read of three men appearing unto Abraham, one of whom was the Lord in theophanic manifestation. Unto him He said, "Sarah thy wife shall have a son." Upon hearing this "Sarah laughed within herself."
Sarah’s laughter was that of doubting and distrust, for she said, "I am waxed old." At once the Lord rebukes her unbelief, asking "Is there anything too hard for the Lord! At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son." Solemn indeed is the sequel. "Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And He said, Nay; but thou didst laugh" (verse 15). It is always a shame to do amiss, but a greater shame to deny it. It was a sin to give way to unbelief, but it was adding iniquity unto iniquity to cover it with a lie. But we deceive ourselves if we think to impose upon God, for nothing can be concealed from His all-seeing eye. By comparing Hebrews 11:11 with what is recorded in Genesis 18, we learn that after the Lord had reproved Sarah’s unbelief, and she began to realize that the promise came from God, her faith was called into exercise. Because her laughter came from weakness and not from scorn, God smote her not, as He did Zacharias for his unbelief (Luke 1:20).
Varied are the lessons which may be learned from the above incident. Many times the Word does not take effect immediately. It did not in Sarah’s case: though afterward she believed, at first she laughed. It was only when the Divine promise was repeated that her faith began to act. Let preachers and Christian parents, who are discouraged by lack of success, lay this to heart. Again; see here that before faith is established often there is a conflict: "shall I have a child who am old?"—reason opposed the promise. Just as when a fire is kindled the smoke is seen before the flame, so ere the heart rests upon the Word there is generally doubting and fear. Once more; observe how graciously God hides the defects of His children: nothing is said of Rahah’s lie (Heb. 11:31), of Job’s impatience (James 5:11), nor here of Sarah’s laughing, "Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love" (Eph. 5:1, 2)!
Let us next consider what is here ascribed unto the faith of Sarah: "she received strength to conceive seed." She obtained that which previously was not in her: there was now a restoration of her nature to perform its normal functions. Her dead womb was supernaturally vivified. In response to her faith, the Omnipotent One did for Sarah what He had done to Abraham in response to his trusting of Him: "I have made thee a father of many nations, before Him, whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead" (Rom. 4:17). "All things are possible with God"; yes, and it is also true that "All things are possible to him that believeth" (Mark 9:23): how blessedly and strikingly does the incident now before us illustrate this! O that it may speak unto each of our hearts and cause us to long after and pray for an increase of our faith. What is more glorifying to God than a confident looking unto Him to work in and through us that which mere nature cannot produce.
"By faith also Sarah herself received strength." Christian reader, this is recorded both for thine instruction and encouragement. Faith worked a vigor in Sarah’s body where it was not before. Is it not written "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength" (Isa. 40:31)? Do we really believe this? Do we act as though we did? The writer can bear witness to the veracity of that promise. When he was in Australia, editing this Magazine, keeping up with a heavy correspondence, and preaching five and six times each week, when it was over one hundred in the shade, many a time has he dragged his weary body into the pulpit, and then looked unto the Lord for a definite reinvigoration of body. Never did He fail us. After speaking for two hours we generally felt fresher than we did when we arose at the beginning of the day. And why not? Has not God promised to "supply all our need"? Of how many is it true that "they have not, because they (in faith) ask not" (James 4:2).
Ah, dear reader, "Bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come" (1 Tim. 4:8): "profitable" for the body, as well as for the soul. While we strongly reprobate much that is now going on under the name of "Faith-Healing," yet we have as little patience with the pretended hyper-sanctity which disdains any looking unto God for the supply of our bodily needs. In this same chapter which we are now commenting upon, we read of others who "out of weakness were made strong" (verse 34). Sad it is to see so many of God’s dear children living far beneath their privileges. True, many are under the chastening hand of God. But this should not be so: the cause should be sought, the wrong righted, the sin confessed, restoration both spiritual and temporal diligently sought.
We do not wish to convey the impression that the only application unto us of these words, "By faith also Sarah herself received strength," has reference to the reviving of the physical body: not so, though that is, undoubtedly, the first lesson to be learned. But there is a higher signification too. Many a Christian feels his spiritual weakness: that is well, yet instead of this hindering, it should bestir to lay hold of the Lord’s strength (Isa. 27:5). In the final analysis, it is nothing but lack of faith which so often allows the "flesh" to hinder us from bringing forth the Gospel-fruits of holiness. Despair not of personal frailty, but go forward in the strength of God: "Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might" (Eph. 6:10): turn this into believing prayer for Divine enablement. "Though thy beginning was small, yet thy latter end should greatly increase" (Job 8:7).
Does the reader still say, "Ah, but such an experience is not for me; alas, I am so unworthy, so helpless; I feel so lifeless and listless." So was Sarah! Yet, "by faith" she "received strength." And, dear friend, faith is not occupied with self, but with God. "Abraham considered not his own body" (Rom. 4:19), nor did Sarah. Each of them looked away from self, and counted upon God to work a miracle. And God did not fail them: He is pledged to honor those who honor Him, and nothing honors Him more than a trustful expectation. He always responds to faith. There is no reason why you should remain weak and listless. True, without Christ you can do nothing; but there is an infinite fullness in Him (John 1:16) for you to draw from. Then from this day onwards, let your attitude be "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13). Apply to Him, count upon Him: "my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 2:1).
"And was delivered of a child." The "and" here connects what follows with each of the preceding verbs. It was "by faith" that Sarah "received strength," and it was also "by faith" that she was now "delivered of a child." It is the constancy and perseverance of her faith which is here intimated. There was no abortion, no miscarriage; she trusted God right through unto the end. This brings before us a subject upon which very little is written these days: the duty and privilege of Christian women counting upon God for a safe issue in the most trying and critical season in their lives. Faith is to be exercised not only in acts of worship, but in the ordinary offices of our daily affairs. We are to eat and drink in faith, work and sleep in faith; and the Christian wife should be delivered of her child by faith. The danger is great, and if in any extremity there is need of faith, much more so where life itself is involved. Let us seek to condense from the helpful comments of the Puritan Manton.
First, we must be sensible what need we have to exercise faith in this case, that we may not run upon danger blindfold; and if we escape, then to think our deliverance a mere chance. Rachel died in this case; so also did the wife of Phineas (1 Sam. 4:19, 20): a great hazard is run, and therefore you must be sensible of it. The more difficulty and danger be apprehended, the better the opportunity for the exercise of faith: 2 Chronicles 20:12, 2 Corinthians 1:9. Second, because the sorrows of travail are a monument of God’s displeasure against sin (Gen. 3:16), therefore this must put you the more earnestly to seek an interest in Christ, that you may have remedy against sin. Third, meditate upon the promise of 1 Timothy 2:15, which is made good eternally or temporally as God sees fit. Fourth, the faith you exercise must be the glorifying of His power and submitting to His will. This expresses the kind of faith which is proper to all temporal mercies: Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst save me—it is sufficient to ease the heart of a great deal of trouble and perplexing fear.
"And was delivered of a child." As we have pointed out in the last paragraph, this clause is added to show the continuance of Sarah’s faith and the blessing of God upon her. True faith not only appropriates His promise, but continues resting on the same till that which is believed be actually accomplished. The principle of this is enunciated in Hebrews 3:14 and Hebrews 10:36. "For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end"; "Cast not away therefore your confidence." It is at this point so many fail. They endeavor to lay hold of a Divine promise, but in the interval of testing let go of it. This is why Christ said, "If ye have faith and doubt not, ye shall not only do this" etc. Matthew 21:21—"doubt not," not only at the moment of pleading the promise, but during the time you are awaiting its fulfillment. Hence also, unto "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart" is added "and lean not unto thine own understanding" (Prov. 3:5).
"When she was past age." This clause is added so as to heighten the miracle which God so graciously wrought in response to Sarah’s faith. It magnifies the glory of His power. It is recorded for our encouragement. It shows us that no difficulty or hindrance should cause a disbelief of the promise. God is not tied down to the order of nature, nor limited by any secondary causes. He will turn nature upside down rather than not be as good as His word. He has brought water out of a rock, made iron to float (2 Kings 6:6), sustained two million people in a howling wilderness. These things should arouse the Christian to wait upon God with full confidence in the face of the utmost emergency. Yea, the greater the impediments which confront us, faith should be increased. The trustful heart says, Here is a fit occasion for faith; now that all creature-streams have run dry is a grand opportunity for counting on God to show Himself strong on my behalf. What cannot He do! He made a woman of ninety to bear a child—a thing quite contrary to nature—so I may surely expect Him to work wonders for me too.
"Because she judged Him faithful who had promised." Here is the secret of the whole thing. Here was the ground of Sarah’s confidence, the foundation on which faith rested. She did not look at God’s promises through the mist of interposing obstacles, but she viewed the difficulties and hindrances through the clear light of God’s promises. The act which is here ascribed unto Sarah is, that she "judged" or reckoned, reputed and esteemed, God to be faithful: she was assured that He would make good His word, on which He had caused her to hope. God had spoken: Sarah had heard; in spite of all that seemed to make it impossible that the promise should be fulfilled in her case, she steadfastly believed. Rightly did Luther say, "If you would trust God, you must learn to crucify the question How." "Faithful is He that calleth you, who also will do" (1 Thess. 5:24): this is sufficient for the heart to rest upon; faith will cheerfully leave it with Omniscience as to how the promise will be made good to us.
"Because she judged Him faithful who had promised." Let it be carefully noted that Sarah’s faith went beyond the promise. While her mind dwelt upon the thing promised, it seemed unto her altogether incredible, but when she took her thoughts off all secondary causes and fixed them on God Himself, then the difficulties no longer disturbed her: her heart was at rest in God. She knew that God could be depended upon: He is "faithful"—able, willing, sure to perform His word. Sarah looked beyond the promise to the Promiser, and as she did so all doubting was stilled. She rested with full confidence on the immutability of Him that cannot lie, knowing that where Divine veracity is engaged, omnipotence will make it good. It is by believing meditations upon the character of God that faith is fed and strengthened to expect the blessing, despite all apparent difficulties and supposed impossibilities. It is the heart’s contemplation of the perfections of God which causes faith to prevail. As this is of such vital practical importance, let us devote another paragraph to enlarging thereon.
To fix our minds on the things promised, to have an assured expectation of the enjoyment of them, without the heart first resting upon the veracity, immutability, and omnipotency of God, is but a deceiving imagination. Rightly did John Owen point out that, "The formal object of faith in the Divine promises, is not the things promised in the first place, but God Himself in His essential excellencies, of truth, or faithfulness and power." Nevertheless, the Divine perfections do not, of themselves, work faith in us: it is only as the heart believingly ponders the Divine attributes that we shall "judge" or conclude Him faithful that has promised. It is the man whose mind is stayed upon God Himself, who is kept in "perfect peace" (Isa. 26:3): that is, he who joyfully contemplates who and what God is that will be preserved from doubting and wavering while waiting the fulfillment of the promise. As it was with Sarah, so it is with us: every promise of God has tacitly annexed to it this consideration, "Is any thing too hard for the Lord!"
"Wherefore also from one were born, and that too of (one) having become dead, even as the stars of the heaven in multitude, and as the sand which (is) by the shore of the sea the countless"
(verse 12). We have quoted the rendering given in the Bagster Interlinear because it is more literal and accurate than our A.V. The "him" in the English translation is misleading, for in this verse there is no masculine pronoun: at the most the "one" must refer to one couple, but personally we believe it points to one woman, Sarah, as the "born" (rather than "begotten") intimates. We regard this 12th verse as setting forth the fruit of her faith, namely the numerous posterity which issued from her son, Isaac. The double reference to the "sand" and the "stars" calls attention to the twofold seed: the earthly and the heavenly, the natural and the spiritual Israel.
Like the "great multitude which no man could number" of Revelation 7:9, so "as the stars of the sky for multitude and as the sand which is by the seashore innumerable" of our present verse, is obviously an hyperbole: it is figurative language, and not to be understood literally. This may seem a bold and unwarrantable statement to some of our readers, yet if scripture be compared with scripture, no other conclusion is possible. The following passages make this clear: Deuteronomy 1:10, Joshua 11:4, Judges 7:12, 1 Samuel 13:5, 2 Samuel 17:11, 1 Kings 4:20. For other examples of this figure of speech see Deuteronomy 9:1, Psalm 78:27, Isaiah 60:22, John 21:25. Hyperboles are employed not to move us to believe untruths, but, by emphasis, arrest our attention and cause us to heed weighty matters. The following rules are to be observed in the employment of them. First, they are to be used only of such things as are indeed true in the substance of them. Second, only of things which are worthy of more than ordinary consideration. Third, set out, as nearly as possible, in proverbial language. Fourth, expressed in words of similarity and dissimilarity, rather than by words of equality and inequality (W. Gouge).
But let our final thought be upon the rich recompense whereby God rewarded the faith of Sarah. The opening "Therefore" of verse 12 points the blessed consequence of her relying upon the faithfulness of God in the face of the utmost natural discouragements. From her faith there issued Isaac, and from him, ultimately, Christ Himself. And this is recorded for our instruction. Who can estimate the fruits of faith? Who can tell how many lives may be affected for good, even in generations yet to come, through your faith and my faith today! Oh how the thought of this should stir us up to cry more earnestly "Lord, increase our faith" to the praise of the glory of Thy grace: Amen.