An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Perseverance of Faith
(Hebrews 11:13, 14)
Having described some of the eminent acts of faith put forth by the earliest members of God’s family, the apostle now pauses to insert a general commendation of the faith of those he had already named, and (as is dear from verses 39, 40) of others yet to follow. This commendation is set forth in verse 13 and is amplified in the next three verses. The evident design of the Holy Spirit in this was to press upon the Hebrews, and upon us, the imperative need of such a faith as would last, wear, overcome obstacles, and endure unto the end. Even the natural man is capable of "making good resolutions’’ and has flashes of endeavour to please God, but he is entirely lacking in that principle which "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things" (1 Cor. 13:7).
The faith of God’s elect is like unto its Divine Author in these respects: it is living, incorruptible, and cannot be conquered by the Devil. Being implanted by God, the gift and grace of faith can never be lost. Strikingly was this illustrated in the history of the patriarchs. Called upon to leave the land of their birth, to sojourn in a country filled with idolaters, owning no portion of it, dwelling in tents, suffering many hardships and trials, and living without any such peculiar temporal advantages as might answer to the singular favor which the Lord declared He bore to them; nevertheless they all died in faith. The eye of their hearts saw clearly the blessings God had promised, and persuaded that they would be theirs in due season, they joyfully anticipated their future portion and gave up present advantages for the sake thereof.
In the verses which are to be before us the apostle, then, stresses the great importance of seeking and possessing a persevering faith, therefore does he make mention of the fact that as long as they remained in this world, the O.T. saints were believers in the promises of God. It is the durability and constancy of their faith which is commended. Despite all the workings of unbelief within (records of which are found in Genesis in the cases of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and all the assaults of temptation from without, they persisted in clinging to God and His Word. They lived by faith, and they died in faith: therefore have they left us an example that we should follow their steps. Beautifully did John Calvin point out:
"There is expressed here a difference between us and the fathers: though God gave to the fathers only a taste of that grace which is largely poured on us, though He showed to them at a distance only an obscure representation of Christ, who is now set forth to us clearly before our eyes, yet they were satisfied and never fell away from their faith: how much greater reason then have we at this day to persevere! If we grow faint, we are doubly inexcusable. It is then an enhancing circumstance, that the fathers had a distant view of the spiritual kingdom of Christ, while we at this day have so near view of it, and that they hailed the promises afar off, while we have them as it were quite near us, for if they nevertheless persevered even unto death, what sloth will it be to become wearied in faith, when the Lord sustains us by so many helps. Were any one to object and say, that they could not have believed without receiving the promises on which faith is necessarily founded: to this the answer is, that the expression is to be understood comparatively; for they were far from that high position to which God has raised us. Hence it is that though they had the same salvation promised them, yet they had not the promises so clearly revealed to them as they are to us under the kingdom of Christ: but they were content to behold them afar off."
"These all died in faith" (verse 13), or, more literally, "In (or "according to") faith died these all." Differing from most of the commentators, we believe those words take in the persons mentioned previously, from Abel onwards: "these all" grammatically include those who precede as well as those which follow—the relative pronoun embracing all those set forth in the catalogue, namely, young and old, male and female, great and small. "The same Spirit works in all, and shows forth His power in all, 2 Corinthians 4:13" (W. Gouge). Against this it may be objected that Enoch died not. True but the apostle is referring only to those that died, just as Genesis 46:7 must be understood as excepting Joseph who was already in Egypt. Moreover, though Enoch died not as the others, he was removed from earth to heaven, and before his translation he continued living by faith unto the very end, which is the main thing here intended.
"In (or "according to") faith died all these." The faith in which they died is the same as that described in the first verse of our chapter, namely, a justifying and sanctifying faith. That they "died in faith" does not necessarily mean that their faith was actually in exercise during the hour of death, but more strictly, that they never apostatised from the faith: though they actually obtained or possessed not that which was the object of their faith, nevertheless, unto the end of their earthly pilgrimage they confidently looked forward unto the same. Five effects or workings of their faith are here mentioned, each of which we must carefully ponder. First, they "received not the promises." Second, but they saw them "afar off." Third, they were "persuaded of them." Fourth, they "embraced" them. Fifth, in consequence thereof they "confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth."
As we shall see (D.V.) when taking up later verses, some of the O.T. saints died in the actual exercise of faith. To die in faith is to have an assured confidence in an estate of glory and bliss. "And hereunto is required: 1. The firm belief of a substantial existence after this life; without this, all faith and hope must perish in death. 2. A resignation and trust of their departing souls into the care and power of God. 3. The belief in a future state of blessedness and rest, here called an heavenly country, a city prepared for them by God. 4. Faith of the resurrection of their bodies after death, and that their entire persons, which had undergone the pilgrimage of this life, might be instated in eternal rest" (John Owen).
Thousands who are now in their graves were taught that it was wrong to expect death and make suitable preparation for it. They were told that the return of Christ was so near, He would certainly come during their lifetime. Alas, the writer has, in measure, been guilty of the same thing. True, it is both the Christian’s happy privilege and bounden duty to be "looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13), for this is the grand prospect which God hath set before His people in all ages; but He has nowhere told us when His Son shall descend; He may do so today, He may not for hundreds of years. But to say that "looking for that blessed hope" makes it wrong to anticipate death is manifestly absurd: the O.T. saints had just as definite promises for the first advent of Christ as the N.T. saints have for His second, and they thought frequently of death!
It is greatly to be feared that much of the popularity with which the "premillennial and imminent coming of Christ" has been received, may be attributed to a carnal dread of death: a strong appeal is made to the flesh when people can be persuaded that they are likely to escape the grave. That one generation of Christians will do so is clear from 1 Corinthians 15:51, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, but how many generations have already supposed that theirs was the one which would be raptured to heaven, and how many of them were quite unprepared when death overtook them, only that Day will show. We are well aware that these lines are not likely to meet with a favorable reception from some of our readers, but we are not seeking to please them, but God. Any man who is ready to die is prepared for the Lord’s return: as you may very likely die before the second advent, it is only the part of wisdom to make sure you are prepared for death.
And who are they whose souls are prepared for the dissolution of the body? Those who have disarmed death beforehand by plucking out its sting, and this by seeking reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. The hornet is harmless when its sting is extracted; a snake need not be dreaded if its fang and poison have been removed. So it is with death. "The sting of death is sin" (1 Cor. 15:56), and if we have repented of our sins, turned from them with full purpose of heart to serve God, and have sought and obtained forgiveness and healing in the atoning and cleansing blood of Christ, then death cannot harm us--it will but conduct us into the presence of God and everlasting felicity. Who are ready to die? Those who evidence and establish their title to Eternal Life by personal holiness, which is the "first-fruits" of heavenly glory. It is by walking in the light of God’s Word that we make it manifest that we are meet for the Inheritance of the saints in Light.
"In (or "according to") faith died all these." To die in faith we must live by faith. And for this there must be, first, diligent labor to obtain a knowledge of Divine things. The understanding must be instructed before the path of duty can be known. "Teach me Thy way," "Order my steps in Thy Word," must be our daily prayer. Second, the hiding of God’s Word in our hearts. Its precepts must be meditated upon, memorized, and made conscious of: only then will our affections and lives be conformed to them. God’s Word is designed to be not only a light to our understanding, but also a lamp upon our path: our walk is to be guided by it. Third, the regular contemplation of Christ by the soul: a worshipful and adoring consideration of His fathomless love, His marvelous grace, His infinite compassion, His present intercession. This will deliver from a legal spirit, warm the heart, supply strength for duty, and make us want to please Him.
"In faith died all these, not having received the promises." The word "promises" is a metonymy, for the things promised. Literally they had "received the promises," for that which they had heard from God was the basis of their faith: this is clear from verses 10, 14, 16. The things promised concerned the spiritual blessings of the Gospel dispensation and the future heavenly inheritance. The promises made to the fathers and "elders" had respect unto Christ the blessed "Seed" and to Heaven of which Canaan was the type. Observe that this first clause of verse 13 plainly intimates that the same promises were given—though the outer shell of them varied—to Abel, Enoch, and Noah, as were afterwards repeated to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Each one died in the firm expectation of the promised Messiah, and in believing views of the heavenly glory. So to die, was comfortable to themselves, and confirming to others the reality of what they professed.
"Not having received the promises." The Greek word for "received’’ signifies the actual participation in and possession of: faith, then, relies upon and rests in that which is not yet ours. A large part of the life of faith consists in laying hold of and enjoying the things promised, before the actual possession of them is obtained. It is by meditating upon and extracting their sweetness that the soul is fed and strengthened. The present spiritual happiness of the Christian consists more in promises and expectant anticipation than an actual possession, for "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." It is this which enables us to say, "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18).
"But having seen them afar off." This, because the eyes of their understanding had been Divinely enlightened (Eph. 1:18), and thus they were able to perceive in the promises the wisdom, goodness, and love of God. True, the fulfillment of those promises would be in the remote future, but the eye of faith is strong and endowed with long-distant vision. Thus it was with Abraham: he "rejoiced to see My day," said Christ, "and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). Thus it was with Moses, who "had respect unto the recompense of the reward" and "endured as seeing Him who is invisible" (Heb. 11:26, 27). Solemn indeed is the contrast presented in 2 Peter 1:9, where we read of those who failed to add to their faith virtue, knowledge, self-control, patience, godliness, brotherly-kindness, love, and in consequence of an undeveloped Christian character "cannot see afar off."
"And were persuaded of them." This announces the soul’s satisfactory acquiescence in the veracity of God as to the making good of His Word. It was the setting to of their seal that He is true (John 3:33), which is done when the heart truly receives His testimony. The word "persuaded" means an assured confidence, which is what faith works in the mind. A blessed example of this is seen in the case of Abraham, who, though about an hundred years old and his wife’s womb dead, yet when God declared they should have a son, he was "fully persuaded that what He has promised, He was able also to perform" (Rom. 4:21). Ah, my reader, is it not because we are so dilatory in meditating upon the "exceeding great and precious promises" of God, that our hearts are so little persuaded of the verity and value of them!
"And embrace them," not with a cold and formal reception of them, but with a warm and hearty welcome: such is the nature of true faith when it lays hold of the promises of salvation. This is ever the effect of assurance: a thankful and joyful appropriation of the things of God. Faith not only discerns the value of spiritual things, is fully persuaded of their reality, but also loves them. Faith adheres as well as assents: in Scripture faith is expressed by taste as well as sight. Faith "sees" with the understanding, is "persuaded" in the heart, and "embraces" by the will. Thus the order of the verbs in this verse teaches us an important practical lesson. The promises of God are first viewed or contemplated, then rested upon as reliable, and then delighted in. If then we would have livelier affections we must meditate more upon the promises of God: it is the mind which affects the heart.
Ere passing on, let us enquire, Are God’s promises really precious unto us? Perhaps we are ready to answer at once, Yes: but let us test ourselves. Do our hearts cling to them with love and delight? Can we truly say, "I have rejoiced in the way of Thy testimonies, as much as in all riches" (Ps. 119:14)? What influence do God’s promises have upon us in seasons of trial and grief? Do they supply us with more comfort than the dearest things of this world? In the midst of distress and sorrow, do we realize that "our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:17)? What effect do God’s promises have upon our praying? Do we plead them before the Throne of Grace? Do we say with David "Remember the word unto Thy servant, upon which Thou hast caused me to hope" (Ps. 119:49)?
"And confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth." They who really embrace the promises of God are suitably affected and influenced by them: their delight in heavenly things is manifested by a weanedness from earthly things—as the woman at the well forgot her bucket when Christ was revealed to her soul (John 4:28). When a man truly becomes a Christian he at once begins to view time, and all the objects of time, in a very different light from what he did before. So it was with the patriarchs: their faith had a powerful and transforming effect upon their lives. They made profession of their faith and hope: they made it manifest that their chief interest was neither in nor of the world. They had such a satisfying portion in the promises of God that they publicly renounced such a concern in the world as other men take whose portion is only in this life.
The patriarchs made no secret of the fact that their citizenship and inheritance was elsewhere. Unto the sons of Heth, Abraham confessed "I am a stranger and a sojourner with you" (Gen. 23:4). Unto Pharaoh Jacob said, "The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty" (Gen. 47:9). Nor is this to be explained on the ground that other nations were then in occupation of Canaan: long after Israel entered into possession of that land David cried, "Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not Thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner as all my fathers were" (Ps. 39:12); and again, "I am a stranger in the earth: hide not Thy commandments from me" (Ps. 119:19). So too before all the congregation he owned unto God, "For we are strangers before Thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers" (1 Chron. 29:15). Clear proof do these verses furnish that the O.T. saints equally with the New, apprehended their heavenly calling and glory.
"And confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth." The two terms, though very similar in thought, are not identical. The one refers more to the position, the place taken; the other to condition, how one conducts himself in that place. They were "strangers" because their home was in heaven; "pilgrims," because journeying thither. As another has said, "It is possible to be a ‘pilgrim’ without being a ‘stranger.’ But once we realize our true strangership we are perforce compelled to be ‘pilgrims.’ We may be ‘pilgrims’, and yet, in our pilgrimage, may visit all the cities and churches in the world, and include them all in our embrace; but if we are true ‘sojourners’ we shall be ‘strangers’ to them all, and shall be compelled, as Abraham was, to erect our own solitary altar to Jehovah in the midst of them all. How could Abraham be a worshipper with the Canaanites? Impossible! This is why the ‘altar’ is so closely connected with the ‘tent’ in Genesis 12:8 and in Abraham’s sojourney" (E.W.B.).
That which was spiritually typified by the outward life of the patriarchs as "strangers and pilgrims" was the Christian’s renunciation of the world. As those whose citizenship is in heaven, (Phil. 3:20), we are bidden to be "not conformed to this world" (Rom. 12:2). The patriarchs demonstrated that they were "strangers" by taking no part in the apostate religion, politics, or social life of the Canaanites; and evidenced that they were "pilgrims" by dwelling in tents, moving about from place to place. How far are we making manifest our crucifixion to the world (Gal. 6:14)? Does our daily walk show we are "partakers of the heavenly calling"? Have we ceased looking on this world as our home, and its people as our people? Are we seeking to lay up treasure in heaven, or do we still hanker after the fleshpots of Egypt? When we pray "Lord, conform me to Thine image," do we mean "strip me of all which hinders"!
The figure of the "stranger" applied to the child of God here on earth, is very pertinent and full. The analogies between one who is in a foreign country and the Christian in this world, are marked and numerous. In a strange land one is not appreciated for his birth, but is avoided: John 15:19. The habits, ways, language are strange to him: 1 Peter 4:4. He has to be content with a stranger’s fare: 1 Timothy 6:8. He needs to be careful not to give offense to the government: Colossians 4:5. He has to continually enquire his way: Psalm 5:8. Unless he conforms to the ways of that foreign country, he is easily identified: Matthew 26:73. He is often assailed with homesickness, for his heart is not where his body is: Philippians 1:23.
The figure of the "pilgrim" as it applies to the Christian is equally suggestive. Moving on from place to place, he never feels at home. He finds himself very much alone, for he meets with few who are traveling his way. Those he does encounter afford him very little encouragement, for they think him queer. He is very grateful for any kindness shown him: sensible of his dependence on Providence, he is thankful whenever God grants him favor in the eyes of the wicked. He carries nothing with him but what he deems useful for his journey: all superfluities are regarded as encumbrances. He tarries not to gaze upon the various vanities around him. He never thinks of turning back because of the difficulties of the way: he has a definite goal in view, and toward it he steadily presses.
We ought to evidence that we are "strangers and pilgrims" by using the things of this world (when necessity requires), but not abusing them (1 Cor. 7:31). By being contented with that portion of this world’s goods which God has assigned us (Phil. 4:11). By conscientiously seeking to discharge our own responsibility, and not being "a busybody in other men’s matters" (1 Pet. 4:15). By being moderate and temperate in all things, and thus "abstaining from fleshly lusts which war against the soul" (1 Pet. 2:11). By laying aside every hindering weight and mortifying our members which are upon the earth, so that we may run with patience the race that is set before us (Heb. 12:1). By daily keeping in mind the brevity and uncertainty of this life (Prov. 27:1). By constantly keeping before the heart our future inheritance, knowing that we shall only be satisfied when we awake in our Lord’s likeness.
"If they in spirit amid dark clouds, took a flight into the celestial country, what ought we to do at this day? for Christ stretches forth His hand to us as it were openly, from Heaven, to raise us up to Himself. If the land of Canaan did not engross their attention, how more weaned from things below ought we to be, who have no promised habitation in this world?" (John Calvin). When Basil (a devoted servant of Christ, at the beginning of the "Dark Ages") was threatened with exile by Modestus, he said, "I know no banishment, who have no abiding-place here in the world. I do not count this place mine, nor can I say the other is not mine; rather all is God’s whose stranger and pilgrim I am."
"For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country" (verse 14). In these words a logical inference is drawn from the last clause of the preceding verse, which supplies a valuable hint on how the Scriptures are to be expounded. The apostle here makes known unto us what was signified by the confession of the patriarchs. Just as the negative implies the positive—"thou shalt not covet" meaning also, "thou shalt be content with what God has given"—so for saints to conduct themselves as strangers and pilgrims, and that unto the end of their sojourning in this world, makes manifest the fact that they are journeying heavenwards. "This is the genuine and proper way of interpreting Scripture: when from the words themselves, considered with relation to the persons speaking them, and to all their circumstances we declare what was their determinate mind and sense" (John Owen).
"For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country." Their confession of strangership implied more than that they had not yet entered their promised Inheritance: it likewise showed they were earnestly pressing toward it. They had every reason so to do: it was their own "Country," for it was there God had blest them with all spiritual blessings before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3, 4), it was from there they had been born again (John 3:3, margin), it was there that their Father, Savior and fellow-saints dwell. To "seek" the promised Inheritance denotes that earnest quest of the believer after that which he supremely desires. It is this which distinguishes him from the empty professor: the latter desires that which is good for himself, as Balaam said, "Let me die the death of the righteous" (Num. 23:10); but only the regenerate can truly say, "One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life" (Ps. 27:4).
To "seek" after Heaven must be the chief aim and supreme task which the Christian sets before him: laying aside all that would hinder, and using every means which God has appointed. The world must be held loosely, the affections be set upon things above, and the heart constantly exercised about treading the Narrow Way, which alone leads thither. "Seek a Country": "Their designs are for it, their desires are after it, their discourses about it; they diligently endeavour to clear up their title to it, to have their temper suited to it, and have their conversation in it, and come to the enjoyment of it" (Matt. Henry). Heaven is here called a "Country" because of its largeness; it is a pleasant Country, the Land of uprightness, rest and joy. May Divine grace conduct both writer and reader into it.