This post is meant to offer guidance to common “What now?” questions that could emerge from Pastor J.D.’s sermon on Hebrews 11:6, 17-40 preached at The Summit Church Saturday/SundayJuly 28-29, 2011.
Have you ever been discouraged or overwhelmed after hearing a good testimony of faith? Somebody shares the fears they faced and the risks they took for God and all you can think is, “How did they know it would work out?… I wish God would come through like that for me… Why doesn’t God love me like He does them?”
Or, maybe, your thoughts go more like this, “So that’s how it done!… When someone asks that question, I should give that answer, and they will accept Christ… When I am making a decision, I can expect that kind of guidance and it will ensure that I am following God’s will.”
If you have either of these tendencies, then Hebrews 11 is a chapter of Scripture that can as discouraging as it is encouraging. But the passage not only describes faith; it also helps us learn how to listen well to someone else’s story of faith. Very intentionally, Hebrews 11 moves us away from listening to faith stories in the formulaic ways described above.
First, we notice that none of the stories are the same. God wasn’t trying to give us a faith-pattern (as if faith were a dance or an incantation). Instead, God illustrates lives rooted in the firm belief that He is real and that He cares for those who follow Him (Heb. 11:6). That is the only “pattern.”
Too often we listen to testimonies as if they were recipes. If that were true, then we would be mastering God instead of following Him as Lord. Instead it is more accurate to think of a testimony as the telling of one journey on the map of faith. We are not trying to trace their steps, because we’re at a different point on the map. We are gaining confidence that the map is trustworthy for our difficult journey through life.
Second, we see that faith-stories are best heard in community. Hebrews 12:1 draws on chapter eleven and says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…” The reader is not meant to be an objective third party. Instead the reader is meant to feel a sense of belonging to the community of faith.
The implication is that we should be close enough to people who are living lives of faith that we hear the beginning, middle, and end of the story as it unfolds. We read Hebrews 11:26-28 and we know the end of the story. The invisible has already become visible. That is still our experience in modern stories of faith when we have not been walking with the story teller.
This is why being plugged into a small group is so vital. We need to be hearing the real stories of real people in real time. Otherwise, we will not experience the “delay of suspense” in their faith story in the same way we do in our story. When we miss this, we are much more prone to a distorted understanding of faith.
Third, we realize that we are the continuation and fulfillment of their faith-story (11:40). The Bible knows nothing of a passive listener to a story of faith. Every story of faith is either a call to get caught up in this life of faith (Heb 12:1) or a spotlight condemning our sin of passive unbelief (Heb 11:7).
After this lineage of the “Hall of Faith,” verse 40 transitions the focus from these Old Testament heroes to the reader and says, “Apart from us they should not be made perfect.” The verb “made perfect” can also be translated “complete.” Their faith is not finished bearing fruit, because we are still alive being “stirred up” (Heb10:24) by their example.
Similarly, when we hear our friend’s stories of faith, our response is part of what makes complete the impact and reward of their faith. We see in this why the Hebrew language had no noun form of the word “faith,” only a verb. Faith moves. It has momentum. When that momentum touches our life in the form of a testimony we will either build upon that momentum or stand in opposition to it.
So what is the take away? (1) Listen to stories of faith as journeys that give you greater confidence in the map of God’s Word, not steps to trace. (2) Be sure that you belong to a community of faith—small group—where you are regularly hearing stories of faith from people who you know at each stage of their journey. (3) Realize that what you do in response to hearing their story is the continuation of their story and, therefore, “run with endurance the race that is set before” you (Heb 12:1).