The Father of Faith Hebrews 11:8–22
Now the book of Hebrews moves from the faith of men before the flood to the faith of men in the patriarchal period. The author uses Abraham’s faith to illustrate the type of commitment Jewish believers in Christ should emulate.
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called” by God and immediately left Ur of the Chaldeans, “not knowing where he was going.” With his wife, Sarah, and nephew Lot, he traveled to Canaan, which became the land of promise that “he would receive as an inheritance” (Heb. 11:8).
By faith, Abraham settled in this foreign country “with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise” (v. 9). He lived a nomadic life, dwelling in Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, and Beersheba. The only land Abraham owned in Canaan was the burial plot at Machpelah that he purchased for Sarah (Gen. 23).
Abraham had no permanent house (he lived in a tent) throughout his life because “he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). His eyes were not fixed on an earthly city but on a heavenly, eternal one—the New Jerusalem whose architect was God (v. 16; 12:22; 13:14; Rev. 21:1—22:5). Since Abraham’s faith was fixed not on his temporal but on his ultimate destiny, he could wait obediently with patient endurance until God’s promises to him would be fulfilled.
Keep in mind how great Abraham’s faith was: He trusted God totally for the route he would take from Ur; he had no promise of inheriting any land during his journey because God only told him of the land inheritance after he reached Shechem (Gen. 12:6); and though he was promised the land by divine decree, he never took possession of it during his lifetime.
Along with Abraham, Hebrews calls Sarah a person of faith:
By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore (Heb. 11:11–12; cf. Gen. 11:29—23:2).
Sarah knew God had revealed to Abraham that He would give him a son. But her faith wavered because she was barren for years and well past the age of childbearing. On hearing the news, she laughed at such a thought (Gen. 18:10–15); but a year later (after Isaac’s birth), she laughed with joy. Sarah had exceptional faith to believe she would become pregnant, carry the child to full term, and have the strength to survive childbirth at 90 years of age (17:17).
All commentators consider the phrase received strength to conceive seed a difficult text. Scholars take various positions on whether it refers to Abraham receiving strength to impregnate Sarah or Sarah receiving strength to conceive. The first position teaches that Abraham’s faith is the subject of the phrase and that he alone caused Sarah to conceive. Because of Abraham’s faith, Sarah received “strength” (power) to conceive after menopause. Therefore, God honored the faith of Abraham, not Sarah, in giving him Isaac.
The second position says Sarah is the subject of the verse and that it should be read that, even at her advanced age, she did her part in conceiving a child. Whichever interpretation one takes, Sarah possessed exceptional faith in this situation.
Hebrews 11:12 concludes, “Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.” A number of wonderful applications can be made. First, every Jewish person ever born was conceived because Abraham exercised faith and trust in God’s promise. Second, God was willing and able to provide the promised son, but He acted on the basis of Abraham’s faith. Third, Abraham, though 90 years old, did not waver at God’s promise but, by faith, claimed the impossible. Fourth, God honored Abraham’s faith and gave him a vast multitude of descendants. Fifth, the key to the impossible is faith in God.
In the midst of talking about Abraham and his descendants, the author stopped abruptly to reflect on how these patriarchs lived by faith (Heb. 11:13–16). All of them (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) died in faith, never receiving the promises given to them—many of which were contained in the Abrahamic Covenant that was passed down to Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 12:1–7; 26:2–5, 24; 28:10–15; 35:9–12; 46:2–4). These men steadfastly clung to the promises, though they saw them “afar off” (Heb. 11:13).
Although the patriarchs could only view these promises from a distance, they “were assured of them, [and] embraced them” (v. 13). Their faith gave them inner conviction that all God promised them would eventually be theirs—if not in their lifetimes, in the generations to follow.
They “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (v. 13; cf. Gen. 47:9; Ps. 39:12). They had no citizenship in the land in which they lived and “declare[d] plainly that they [sought] a homeland” (Heb. 11:14), but one much different from Ur in Mesopotamia or the land of Canaan.
Truly, if Abraham had yearned to return to Ur, he had many opportunities to do so (v. 15), but he and his posterity “desire[d] a better, that is, a heavenly country” (v. 16). The word desire means to “stretch out, yearn and strive after”; it was a continual, consuming desire that pervaded their lives on Earth.
The patriarchs were steadfast in their faith with a view to the promises of God: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them” (v. 16). In other words, Abraham and his posterity did not go back to where they came from or doubt God’s promises. Thus God was not ashamed of them, nor were they ashamed to call Him their God. The precise nature of the city they were looking to receive is described in Hebrews 12:22–24 and Revelation 21:1—22:5.
Abraham’s character and faith were tested to the ultimate degree. He was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative [parable] sense” (Heb. 11:17–19; cf. Gen. 22:1–19).
God told Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Although Ishmael (through Hagar) was Abraham’s first son, Isaac is identified as “his only begotten son” (Heb. 11:17). This means that Isaac was unique and irreplaceable because he was the only son promised through Sarah and the son who would inherit the covenant promises passed down from Abraham.
The words offered up (v. 17) appear twice, first in the perfect then in the imperfect tense. In God’s mind, the act of offering Isaac was already completed, and He had already accepted it before Abraham put Isaac on the altar. Abraham’s obedience was a great act of faith. He knew God had promised him many descendants through Isaac who was the long-awaited son of promise and miraculous child of his old age. Abraham must have struggled trying to reconcile God’s command to offer Isaac and the promise of descendants through Isaac; but neither Genesis nor Hebrews addresses this issue. It seems that Abraham left the problem with God (Rom. 4:20–21).
So convinced was he that God would fulfill His promises that he believed God would raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:19). In fact, Abraham had told his servant, “The lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you” (Gen. 22:5, emphasis added). Abraham must have been convinced that, if God could birth Isaac through two reproductively dead bodies (Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born), He could raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:12). The phrase also received him in a figurative sense (v. 19) means Abraham received Isaac from the dead, not literally but symbolically.
Sons of Faith
The book now moves from Abraham’s faith to that of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. It mentions incidents near the end of their lives, probably to emphasize that they, like Abraham, trusted God’s promises throughout their lives.
- “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come” (v. 20; cf. Gen. 27:1—28:5). Isaac was a man of faith and believed in God’s promises to Abraham his father (Gen. 28:4).
- “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph” (Heb. 11:21; cf. Gen. 48). Although Jacob blessed all his sons while on his death bed (Gen. 49), the author only mentioned the blessing of Joseph’s sons. Jacob knew he would die before God’s promises would be fulfilled, yet by faith he passed the blessing on according to God’s will. Both Isaac and Jacob manifested the same faith in the promises given to Abraham.
- “By faith Joseph, when he was dying…gave instructions concerning his bones” (Heb. 11:22; cf. Gen. 50:24–26). The author could have illustrated Joseph’s faith many ways, but he chose this incident because it clearly shows how strongly Joseph believed God would fulfill the promises made to his forefathers. His request was the same as his father Jacob’s, yet he knew he would never live to see the promises fulfilled. During the Exodus, Moses honored Joseph’s request and brought his bones up from Egypt (Ex. 13:19; Josh. 24:32).
The men of faith who lived in this period of Israel’s history were highly cherished by the Jewish people. During times of persecution, the patriarchs’ faith and endurance gave them hope and encouraged them never to give up their faith. The hope was that Jewish believers would emulate these men of faith.