7 By faith Noah, when he was warned about things not yet seen, with reverent regard constructed an ark for the deliverance of his family. Through faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. 9 By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, he received the ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy. 12 So in fact children were fathered by one man – and this one as good as dead – like the number of stars in the sky and like the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore (Hebrews 11:7-12).1
The name of this well-loved professor of whom I am about to speak will be withheld. In part, it is because these stories describe events from many years ago. But primarily, it is because these stories are apocryphal, the kinds of tales that circulate among seminary students concerning their revered professors. With this caveat, I will tell a couple of the stories I have heard.
First, I have heard that this brilliant professor once drove to Houston, Texas, where he spoke at a church over a weekend. It was not until after he flew home to Dallas that his wife inquired about the car he had left behind in Houston.
Then there was the story that my beloved professor was deep in scholarly study at his home when he realized that he needed something from a neighbor. He left his study to borrow the item, and when he did not return soon enough, his wife (as I heard the story) went down to check on him. He was there, in front of his own back door, knocking and patiently waiting for the neighbor to answer.
But here’s the story I’ve been working up to – the most popular one (so far as I can gauge) among seminary students. When this professor was himself a student in seminary, he was in a Hebrew class taught by Dr. Merrill F. Unger. Dr. Unger would assign the students a certain passage to translate in Hebrew, and then the next day in class he would call upon some student to read that text. Hebrew was not easy, and many of the students faltered as they sought to read from the Hebrew text. On a certain day, Dr. Unger called upon my beloved professor to read a text. As he read that text, he hesitated momentarily. He made no mistakes, but it wasn’t a perfect performance. His fellow students were elated. Mr. Perfect didn’t perform perfectly that day! Everyone was elated, not so much because my professor faltered, but because it was now apparent that he was not perfect. Now his fellow classmen could identify with him.
But wait! My story is not finished. As the students filed out of the class, my esteemed professor spoke apologetically to a fellow student. “I’m so embarrassed,” he shared, “I was busy last night and I didn’t even have a chance to look at the passage that was assigned. I had to sight read it when I was called upon today.” (His peers could not match his performance even after they had spent hours preparing.)
There is a way in which those saints in the Bible who failed are more of an encouragement to us than those whose failures are not as visible. For example, I find I can much more easily identify with Peter (foot in mouth) than with Paul (Mr. Perfect, or so it often seems.). Maybe this is one of the reasons why the Bible is so candid in revealing the failures and flaws of men.
In our text for this lesson, when the author focuses on Noah and Abraham as examples of faith, there is no indication of the flaws of either, and yet from the biblical accounts of the lives of these men, we know that they did fail. So how do we reconcile the flaws of Noah and Abraham with the rather pristine description of their faith in our text? That, my friend, is the key to understanding this text. So let us proceed, looking for the answer to our question, and for the point of this passage.
We will begin by considering the author’s description of the faith of Noah and Abraham, seeking to identify what the author wishes us to grasp about each of these great men. Then I will point out some of the flaws which other texts of Scripture reveal about these men. Finally, we will endeavor to discover why the author left out any reference to the flaws of Noah and Abraham and also attempt to show how the author’s description is consistent with the message of the Book of Hebrews.
By faith Noah, when he was warned about things not yet seen, with reverent regard constructed an ark for the deliverance of his family. Through faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith (Hebrews 11:7).
Let’s begin with some general background. Noah lived in the last dark days before God destroyed human civilization. As Moses makes clear in the early verses of Genesis 6, men were exceedingly wicked. This generation was ripe for judgment. Noah was 500 years old when he had his children (Genesis 5:32). He was 600 years old when the rains began, commencing the flood (Genesis 7:6). After the flood, Noah lives another 350 years, dying at the ripe and very old age of 950 (Genesis 11:7). Imagine this, the author of Hebrews sums up Noah’s life of 950 years here in but one verse.
In his brief summation of Noah’s life, the author’s only aim is to convey that he was an example of faith. He tells us three things about Noah’s faith.
First, God warned Noah of things that were unseen. This is entirely consistent with what he has said in verse 1:
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1, emphasis mine).
Just what was it that was not seen? If there had never been rain before the flood,2 then neither Noah, his family, nor any who died in the flood, would have seen rain before. That would mean that no one had ever seen a flood before, either, and surely not a flood that would destroy every living creature on the face of the earth.
I am reminded of Peter’s words in 2 Peter 3:
3 Above all, understand this: In the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges 4 and saying, “Where is his promised return? For ever since our ancestors died, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately suppress this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water. 6 Through these things the world existing at that time was destroyed when it was deluged with water (2 Peter 3:3-6).
In the last days, there will be those scoffers who seek to convince themselves and others that there is no coming judgment. They will point to the fact that nothing catastrophic has happened for many years, but they will overstate this by speaking as though there has never been an instance of judgment on the world. Peter reminds his readers that there have been instances of judgment, the first of which was the flood. But for the people of Noah’s day, there was no precedent for a worldwide judgment. Judgment was therefore “unseen.”
One must also go beyond this to realize that God had not only warned Noah that judgment was coming upon the world, but that He would spare Noah and his family by means of the ark he was to build. Thus, one might say that the ark was “unseen” at the time Noah commenced its construction, as well as the salvation it would bring about.
Second, God made it known to Noah that the ark he was to build was the means by which his family would be rescued. I believe that we should be informed not only by what God told Noah, but also by what He did not say. God gave no indication that anyone else would believe, enter the ark, and be rescued. Indeed, God made it quite clear to Noah that it was only his family who would be saved, while all of the rest of mankind would be destroyed. The ark was built large enough to accommodate Noah and his family and the animals that were to be saved, and no more.
In 2 Peter 2:5, Noah is called “a preacher of righteousness,” but we should be careful not to think of him as an evangelist. His “message” was one that was dramatically acted out as he built the ark for so many years. No doubt Noah warned those whose curiosity prompted them to take a look at this ark close up, but he was far too busy building to do much else. Noah was not called to save that generation, but to condemn it. His mission was similar to that of Isaiah, as we read in Isaiah 6:8-10.
Third, so it is that by obeying God by faith, Noah was commended as righteous by God, while at the same time, he condemned the world. Noah’s faith was evident in his obedience to God’s instruction, whereby he built the ark. Now I do not think that the construction took a full 120 years, as some conclude from Genesis 6:3. I am of the opinion that God is lowering the life expectancy of men, and that this generation will not live beyond 120 years. Others see this as an indication of the number of years remaining for this wicked generation – in other words, how long it will take Noah to construct the ark.3 If Noah was 500 years old when his sons were born, and the flood began when he was 600, then it would seem to me that it would have taken something less than 100 years to build the ark, unless Noah began to build the ark by himself.
The author of Hebrews devotes his attention to Noah’s faith. We can infer from his words what other accounts make clear. Only eight people entered that ark: Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives. Not one other person came to faith and escaped destruction, though by building the ark, Noah “preached righteousness”5 for around 100 years.
To press this matter a little farther, there is no clear indication that Noah’s family shared his faith. It is interesting that the “you” in Genesis 6:14 and 19 is singular, but the first verse of Genesis 7 is even more instructive:
Then the Lord said to Noah, “Enter the ark, you and all your household, for you alone I have seen to be righteous before Me in this time” (Genesis 7:1).
The translators differ on this, for the word “alone” is supplied, but it has been supplied because the “you” is singular6 once again, and not plural. Thus, God calls attention to the faith of Noah and to no one else, not even a member of his family.
But wait, there’s more. Consider this text in Ezekiel:
13 “Son of man, suppose a country sins against me by being unfaithful, and I stretch out my hand against it, cut off its bread supply, cause famine to come on it, and kill both people and animals. 14 Even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would save only their own lives by their righteousness, declares the sovereign Lord. 15 “Suppose I were to send wild animals through the land and kill its children, leaving it desolate, without travelers due to the wild animals. 16 Even if these three men were in it, as surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, they could not save their own sons or daughters; they would save only their own lives, and the land would become desolate. 17 “Or suppose I were to bring a sword against that land and say, ‘Let a sword pass through the land,’ and I were to kill both people and animals. 18 Even if these three men were in it, as surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, they could not save their own sons or daughters - they would save only their own lives. 19 “Or suppose I were to send a plague into that land, and pour out my rage on it with bloodshed, killing both people and animals. 20 Even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, they could not save their own son or daughter; they would save only their own lives by their righteousness (Ezekiel 14:13-20, emphasis mine).
I find it most interesting that Ezekiel would speak this way. It does not appear that Daniel ever married or had children, but both Noah and Job did have children. The inference seems to be that Noah appealed to God to spare his family (even if they did not have faith in Him), and God granted his request. Ezekiel is saying that when the judgment he speaks of comes, this will not happen. Unbelievers will face God’s judgment. In my mind at least, there is a question of whether Noah’s family shared his faith. The author of Hebrews simply chooses to focus on Noah, and on no one else.
But are there no skeletons in Noah’s closet? Could a man who lived 950 years not have some failures? The Bible tells us of one failure for certain:
20 Noah, a man of the soil, began to plant a vineyard. 21 When he drank some of the wine, he got drunk and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers who were outside. 23 Shem and Japheth took the garment and placed it on their shoulders. Then they walked in backwards and covered up their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so they did not see their father’s nakedness.
24 When Noah awoke from his drunken stupor he learned what his youngest son had done to him. 25 So he said,
“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
he will be to his brothers.”
26 He also said,
“Worthy of praise is the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem!
27 May God enlarge Japheth’s territory and numbers!
May he live in the tents of Shem
and may Canaan be his slave!” (Genesis 9:20-27)
There is some discussion over what “seeing Noah’s nakedness” meant. Personally, I’m not sure this discussion is profitable. But we can all agree upon was that this was a failure on Noah’s part, involving something serious enough that two of his sons took special measures so that they would not see their father in this condition. And the son who did not was cursed through his son, Canaan.7 My point in all of this is that while Noah was a man who was commended for his faith, he was not perfect.
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. 9 By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, he received the ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy. 12 So in fact children were fathered by one man - and this one as good as dead - like the number of stars in the sky and like the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore (Hebrews 11:8-12).
Not surprisingly, Abraham gets a great deal more attention than does Noah, for this patriarch was regarded as the “father of the faith”8 by the Jews. We are told several things about Abraham’s faith:
First, Abraham obeyed God by leaving his homeland and going out to a place God had promised, but a place not yet made known to him (i.e., he couldn’t “see” it).
Second, Abraham sojourned in that land, living in it as a foreigner, but not possessing it in his lifetime.
Third, Abraham hoped for a city designed and built by God, a city that would last.
By faith, Abraham (and Sarah) bore the child God promised, even though they were as good as dead with regard to bearing children. It was through this child that God fulfilled His covenant promise to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore.
It is not at all inaccurate or dishonest for the author to say that Abraham left his homeland by faith and went to an, as yet, undisclosed location which God promised to give to him as an inheritance. But there is a good deal of information that is not included in this statement. I do not believe our author excluded certain information in the futile hope that the readers would not think of these things. As Hebrew believers, they would know these unmentioned facts very well. So let us remind ourselves as to what some of these additional pieces of information were.
Let’s begin at the beginning. God initially called Abraham while he was still living in Ur of the Chaldeans.
7 “You are the LORD God who chose Abram and brought him forth from Ur of the Chaldeans. You changed his name to Abraham. 8 When you perceived that his heart was faithful toward you, you established a covenant with him to give his descendants the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, and the Girgashites. You have fulfilled your promise, for you are righteous (Nehemiah 9:7-8, emphasis mine).
1 Then the high priest said, “Are these things true?” 2 So he replied, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our forefather Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your country and from your relatives, and come to the land I will show you.’ 4 Then he went out from the country of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After his father died, God made him move to this country where you now live (Acts 7:1-4, emphasis with underscoring mine).
Abraham (Abram) was in Ur when God called him, but what we read in Genesis does not sound like instant and complete obedience on Abraham’s part:
27 This is the account of Terah.
31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (the son of Haran), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and with them he set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. When they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The lifetime of Terah was 205 years, and he died in Haran (Genesis 11:27-32, emphasis mine).
1 Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household
to the land that I will show you.
2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you,
and I will make your name great,
so that you will exemplify divine blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
but the one who treats you lightly I must curse,
and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (Genesis 11:31—12:3,
Genesis 12:1-3 reads much like Jonah 3:2 in that God repeats an earlier command:
1 The Lord said to Jonah a second time, “Go immediately to Nineveh, that large city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:1-2).
Here we see that this was the second time God had given Jonah this command to go to Nineveh and cry against it a warning of judgment. When all of the information is considered, we likewise find that Genesis 12:1-3 is not the first command God gave to Abram. In this well-known text which spells out the essence of the Abrahamic Covenant, God repeats an earlier call to Abraham. And thus we see that Abraham did not immediately “leave his country and settle in the land God would reveal to him,” nor did he “leave his relatives.” The facts appear to be something like this:
It was Terah, Abraham’s father, who seems to have led the family out of Ur, going only as far as Haran, where the family settled until Terah’s death.
Abraham’s relatives were not left behind, for Terah, his father, was acting as the leader of the clan and Lot was tagging along as well. This Lot would continue to do, which would become the source of troubles for Abraham in the future.
The Abrahamic Covenant recorded in Genesis 12:1-3 was declared by God while Abraham was dwelling in Haran, not while he was living in Ur.
While Abraham did not completely leave his relatives behind, and while he did not seem to assume the leadership we would have expected, and while his obedience was not immediate, Abraham eventually obeyed God’s commands, and this he did by faith.
Now, if you think I am embellishing the facts, let me press on to the second area of Abraham’s obedience by faith – his faith and obedience regarding God’s promise of a son, and through him, a multitude of descendants. Eventually, we do see Abraham exercising great faith in regard to his promised son, Isaac, when he is willing to sacrifice his son at God’s command (Genesis 22). But this will be at least 35 years after God’s covenant promise in Genesis 12.9 It is what happens in this intervening 35 years that the author of Hebrews chooses not to include in his account of Abraham’s faith. Abraham’s first failure is recorded in Genesis 12:
10 There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to stay for a while because the famine was severe. 11 As he approached Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “Look, I know that you are a beautiful woman. 12 When the Egyptians see you they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will keep you alive. 13 So tell them you are my sister so that it may go well for me because of you and my life will be spared on account of you.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. So Abram’s wife was taken into the household of Pharaoh, 16 and he did treat Abram well on account of her. Abram received sheep and cattle, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. 17 But the Lord struck Pharaoh and his household with severe diseases because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Here is your wife! Take her and go!” 20 Pharaoh gave his men orders about Abram, and so they expelled him, along with his wife and all his possessions (Genesis 12:10-20).
Abraham’s faith is far from strong in this text. Abraham leaves the promised land and sojourns in Egypt. There, he fears for his own life, even though God has made great promises to him. These promises presume that Abraham will live. But somehow Abraham fears that God will not be able to protect him in Egypt, beyond the borders of the Promised Land. And so he instructs Sarai to lie about her relationship to him (okay, it was a half-truth, but that was the same as a full-blown lie – ask Pharaoh). In doing this, he put Sarai (the mother-to-be of the promised child) in Pharaoh’s harem. Even Pharaoh could see the wrong here. Nevertheless, God spared Sarai’s honor (sexual purity) and Abram’s life.
One would hope that this was a lesson Abraham would have to learn but once, but this was not the case. A number of years later Abraham and Sarah settled in Gerar, where virtually the same failure occurs once again:
2 Abraham said about his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” So Abimelech, king of Gerar, sent for Sarah and took her. 3 But God appeared to Abimelech in a dream at night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken, for she is someone else’s wife.” 4 Now Abimelech had not gone near her. He said, “Lord, would you really slaughter an innocent nation? 5 Did Abraham not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ I have done this with a clear conscience and with innocent hands!” 6 Then in the dream God replied to him, “Yes, I know that you have done this with a clear conscience. That is why I have kept you from sinning against me and why I did not allow you to touch her. 7 But now give back the man’s wife. Indeed he is a prophet and he will pray for you; thus you will live. But if you don’t give her back, know that you will surely die along with all who belong to you.” 8 Early in the morning Abimelech summoned all his servants. When he told them about all these things, they were terrified. 9 Abimelech summoned Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? What sin did I commit against you that would cause you to bring such great guilt on me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done!” 10 Then Abimelech asked Abraham, “What prompted you to do this thing?” 11 Abraham replied, “Because I thought, ‘Surely no one fears God in this place. They will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 What’s more, she is indeed my sister, my father’s daughter, but not my mother’s daughter. She became my wife. 13 When God made me wander from my father’s house, I told her, ‘This is what you can do to show your loyalty to me: Every place we go, say about me, “He is my brother”’” (Genesis 20:2-13, emphasis mine).
The failure here is worse than the first, in my opinion, for several reasons. First, Abraham should have learned his lesson earlier. He had already failed this way once before and had been corrected for it. Even though he failed, God protected Sarah, and him. Second, Abraham now knows for certain that it is Sarah who is to become the mother of the child God promised Abraham (Genesis 17:16; 18:9-10). The time for Sarah to conceive is near, and yet Abraham’s feeble faith places his wife in the harem of yet another king, Abimelech. Third, this deception of passing Sarah off as his sister is not merely a failure that is now repeated for the second time; it is a policy that Abraham imposed upon Sarah that was his normal practice (see 20:13).
There is yet another failure of Abraham’s faith recorded in Genesis 16, only this time it is Sarah who urges Abraham to act contrary to his faith. This failure occurs somewhere in between the two failures cited above:
1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not given birth to any children, but she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. 2 So Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from having children, have sexual relations with my servant. Perhaps I can have a family by her.” Abram did what Sarai told him. 3 So after Abram had lived in Canaan for ten years, Sarai, Abram’s wife, gave Hagar, her Egyptian servant, to her husband to be his wife. 4 He had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant. Once Hagar realized she was pregnant, she despised Sarai (Genesis 16:1-4).
First, we should acknowledge that there are skeletons in the “patriarchal closet” and that our author deliberately omitted them from this account.10 The author of Hebrews did not fail to remember the failures of Noah and Abraham; he chose not to mention them.
Second, this should serve as a reminder that there are proverbial skeletons in everyone’s closet. We are fallen, fallible creatures. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin, but it does not keep us from failing in this life. When you look at the eleven disciples of our Lord, you find men of faith, but you also continue to see men who fail. Both Peter and Barnabas failed regarding Gentile Christians and giving in to the influence of Judaizers, and thus it was necessary for Paul to rebuke them (see Galatians 2:11-21). Men of faith fail, and this is why we find such comfort in the teaching of Hebrews regarding the high priestly role of our Lord Jesus, who can sympathize with our weaknesses, come to our aid, and give us mercy and grace in our time of need (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-16). Living by faith means trusting God when we fail, knowing that only our Great High Priest has lived a perfect human existence.
Third, we should assume that the author expects his readers (who are steeped in the Old Testament stories) to immediately notice the omission of these failures on the part of Noah and Abraham. In my opinion, the author of Hebrews deliberately omitted the failings of Noah and Abraham, expecting that his readers would note the omission and ponder the author’s reasons for leaving them out of his account.
Fourth, we can summarize by saying that the author of Hebrews has deliberately left his readers with a tension (his emphasis on their faith; our recognition of their failures), which they (and we) must acknowledge, and ponder carefully to resolve.
So what is the solution to our dilemma? How do we explain the author’s omissions that would be known to his readers? The answer is so simple I’m reluctant to admit how long it took me to see it. The author’s purpose in this chapter is spelled out in verse 2:
For by it [faith] the people of old received God’s commendation (Hebrews 11:2).
The author has set out to demonstrate that those who received God’s commendation are those who lived by faith in Him, and in His promises.
What is the basis for our faith? The author has taken the first ten chapters to establish the foundation of our faith: Jesus Christ and His high priestly ministry. Two of the first ten chapters highlight the sinfulness of all mankind, and of our need for salvation apart from our own efforts. The other eight chapters focus on the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ: His origin, His role as the High Priest of the order of Melchizedek, His atoning sacrifice which has dealt with our sins once for all. The coming of Christ in human flesh has qualified Him to die for our sins and has provided the means whereby He could become a merciful and faithful high priest, One to whom we may draw near in our time of need.
The benefits of Christ’s work are summed up in the fact that by His death, burial, and resurrection, He has inaugurated a New Covenant, one which sets aside the old, one which provides a salvation based upon His work, not ours, one that is based not upon human effort (law-keeping), but by faith in the work Christ has already accomplished. And thus, the author has focused our attention on Jeremiah 31. The lengthy citation is found in chapter 8:
6 But now Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second one. 8 But showing its fault, God says to them,
“Look, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.
9 “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not continue in my covenant and I had no regard for them, says the Lord.
10 “For this is the covenant that I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people.
11 “And there will be no need at all for each one to teach his countryman or each one to teach his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ since they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.
12 “For I will be merciful toward their evil deeds, and their sins I will remember no longer.”
13 When he speaks of a new covenant, he makes the first obsolete. Now what is growing obsolete and aging is about to disappear (Hebrews 8:6-13, emphasis by underscoring mine).
The shorter citation comes in chapter 10:
14 For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are made holy. 15 And the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us, for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will establish with them after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws on their hearts and I will inscribe them on their minds,” 17 then he says, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no longer” (Hebrews 10:14-17, emphasis by underscoring mine).
Do you see the answer to the question before us? The question is this: “How can the author speak only of the faith of these two great men, while passing by their sins as believers?” The answer comes from the words of Jeremiah, cited twice in Hebrews. God has forgotten them! Under the Old, Mosaic, Covenant men were reminded of their sins, sacrifice after sacrifice, year after year:
3 But in those [Old Testament] sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year. 4 For the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins (Hebrews 10:3-4, emphasis mine).
Under the New Covenant, the blood our Lord shed once for all covered all of our sins for all time! As God promised, this enables Him to forget our sins, to remember them no more.11
So, our author’s description of Noah and Abraham is perfectly consistent with the fact that those who trust in God’s provision for sin by faith are fully forgiven, and their sins are remembered no more. Is this not the way God sees us, in Christ? Is this not what allows and encourages us to “draw near” to God, assured that our sins have been forgiven and forgotten? So what purpose would be served by pointing out the failures of these men, when they are saved by faith and their sins are washed away? I believe this is precisely the truth that our author wanted his readers to see in his description of the faith of these two men of faith.
And since this is true under the New Covenant (our sins are permanently forgiven and forgotten), why would any reasonable person turn back from trusting in Christ in an effort to put themselves back under the Old Covenant? Why would anyone go back to the old system with its inferior priesthood, its inferior place of worship, and it inferior covenant when faith in Christ results in a cleansing from sin that is so complete and final we are assured that God not only forgives but forgets all our sins, including our sins committed as believers? To forsake Christ for living under the Old Covenant would be to abandon a salvation that cannot fail to save us for one that cannot ever save us.
You see, being a Christian is not about us trying harder to please God; it is about God being pleased because of the work of His Son on the cross of Calvary. It is not about us living perfect, sinless, lives so that we can stay saved; it is about Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, which saves us and keeps us saved. This kind of salvation is sure and certain because it is based upon the work of Christ, rather than upon our works. This kind of salvation is so sure and certain that we can endure all of life’s trials with absolute confidence that the good work of salvation which God commenced is a work that He will bring to completion.12
Here is a wonderful, liberating, truth: Faith in Christ does not require our perfection to be saved, or to stay saved, only our perseverance in that faith. Faith in Christ rests solely on His perfection (which has been so majestically spelled out in Hebrews), not on ours. If the certainty of our salvation rested on our perfection, then we might just as well give up now. But since the certainty of our salvation rests on the perfection of Christ and His work, we should draw near to Him and hold fast to Him. He is our Savior. He is our security. He alone should be the object of our faith. The issue is not the greatness of our faith, but the greatness of Him who is the object of our faith. A small, faltering, faith in a great God is vastly superior to great faith in the wrong object.
Please do not misinterpret what I have been saying, so as to suppose that I am saying once you are saved, you can live as you please. Paul addresses this distortion of the truth in the sixth chapter of the Book of Romans. How can we who have died to sin in Christ continue to live in sin?13 We should always strive (through His Spirit)14 to live according to His Word. But we should also be aware of our human weakness and frailties, which will sometimes lead to sin.15 We should draw near to our Lord Jesus as our Great High Priest, knowing that He can sympathize with us, and that in Him we can find help in our times of need.16 The goal of the exhortation of chapter 11 (indeed all of Hebrews) is not perfection, but perseverance.
What a glorious Savior, and what a glorious gospel! Here is a gospel we can count on, or rather I should say, “Here is a gospel which is worthy of our faith.” This gospel does not rely on our performance, but upon the perfections of Jesus Christ and especially the perfection of His saving work in our place at Calvary. He took our sins and their punishment upon Himself, and He offers His righteousness and eternal salvation to all who trust in Him by faith.
This gospel is not glorious to those who are self-righteous. No indeed! It is an offense to those who wish to gain God’s approval by doing good works. To the self-righteous, the gospel is like charity, and that is offensive to those who would rather trust in themselves than in Jesus. But to those who know that they are helpless and hopeless sinners, rightly condemned by God, the gospel is music to their ears. No wonder sinners drew near to Jesus.
My friend, you can be a Hebrews 11 person or a Revelation 20 person, but you will be either one or the other. A Hebrews 11 person knows that they are a sinner, and trusts in the person and work of Jesus Christ and His perfections, especially the perfection of His saving work on the cross of Calvary. A Revelation 20 person is one who insists on standing before God on the basis of their own merits:
12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. Then books were opened, and another book was opened – the book of life. So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death – the lake of fire. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:12-15, emphasis mine).
The self-righteous will be judged by God on the basis of their performance, and none will be able to stand before a Holy God on this basis. The saved will stand before God on the basis of the saving work of Jesus, and God will look upon them as the writer of Hebrews looked upon Noah and Abraham – men who were saved on the basis of their faith. So, what is the basis on which you will want to be judged: by your merits, or on the basis of God’s mercy in the person and work of Jesus Christ? I, along with the author of Hebrews, would urge you to draw near to the Lord Jesus on the basis of faith.
My Christian friend, be encouraged, for your salvation is secure. Your sins have been forgiven and forgotten. Cling to Jesus alone, and rest in the salvation He has provided. And when you fail, confess your sins, and delight in the forgiveness that He promises. It is not your flawless performance as a Christian that assures you of the salvation God has promised, but the perfections of Christ. Here is the basis for perseverance.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
2 See Genesis 2:5.
3 The translator’s note in the NET Bible reads: “his days will be 120 years.’ Some interpret this to mean that the age expectancy of people from this point on would be 120, but neither the subsequent narrative nor reality favors this. It is more likely that this refers to the time remaining between this announcement of judgment and the coming of the flood.”
4 I don’t really know what to make of this, so I will mention it for the reader to ponder. Noah’s father, Lamech, named his son Noah with these words, “This one will bring us comfort from our labor and from the painful toil of our hands because of the ground that the Lord has cursed” (Genesis 5:29). If my math is correct, Lamech died five years before the flood began, but he would have lived through most of the years that Noah was constructing the ark. It seems as though Lamech was hoping his son would be the promised Messiah, but Noah was actually a messenger of God’s judgment on the world, rather than the instrument of salvation for those outside his family.
5 See 2 Peter 3:5.
6 To be more exact, second person masculine singular.
7 I’ve often wondered why Canaan would be cursed when we are told that it was Ham who seems to have made light of his father’s sin. The thought occurred to me that if Ham shamed his father by failing to be the kind of son he should have been, the cursing of Canaan, Ham’s son, would be a reproach to his father. Hmmm.
8 See Matthew 3:9; John 8:39; Romans 4; Galatians 3:23-29.
9 Remember that Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran (Genesis 12:4), and he will be 100 years old when Isaac is born (17:1, 17; 21:5). We do not know exactly how old Isaac was when Abraham took him to Mount Moriah, intending to sacrifice him, but it is very likely that he was at least ten because he was the one who carried the wood for the burnt offering (22:6).
10 I believe we see the same kind of editorializing in 1 Chronicles 20:1-3, where David’s sins regarding Uriah and Bathsheba are not mentioned, but are described in detail in 2 Samuel 11 and 12. We also see the same thing in 2 Samuel 1:17-27, when David eulogized Saul and Jonathan. We know that Saul did many things wrong, but David chooses not to dwell on these failures when honoring him at the time of his death.
11 My thanks to my friend, Dave Austin for reminding me specifically of the fact that God “forgets” our sins. I had grasped the truth of this text in general terms, but not with these precise words, found twice in the text of Hebrews.
12 See Philippians 1:6; Romans 8:28-30.
13 Romans 6:2.
14 See Romans 8:1-17.
15 See 1 John 1:8-10.
16 See Hebrews 2:16-18; 4:14-16.