Portrait Gallery of Faith — Part One
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Portrait Gallery of Faith — Part One

Hebrews 11:1–7  (ID: 1935)

In Hebrews 11, the epistle’s writer walks us through a kind of portrait gallery featuring Old Testament figures commended for their faith. As we walk past, their remarkable stories strengthen and encourage our own faith against unbelief. In this sermon, Alistair Begg draws our attention to the first three of these individuals: Abel, Enoch, and Noah. Through their lives, we see that faith is necessary to our acceptance by God, our walk with Him, and our obedience toward Him.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Hebrews, Volume 3

Fix Our Eyes on Jesus Hebrews 11:1–13:25 Series ID: 15803

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, we pray that as we come to your Word, that you will be our teacher, that our minds might be open to your truth, that our hearts might be ready to embrace you in faith, and that our wills might be brought to a position of service and commitment to you. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

I invite you to turn with me to the portion of Scripture which was read from Hebrews chapter 11, from the opening seven. If the writer of this letter had gone from the thirty-ninth verse of chapter 10 to the second half of the first verse of chapter 12, it wouldn’t have been surprising: “We are not … those who shrink back and are destroyed, but [we’re] those who believe and are saved.” “Therefore, … let us throw off everything that hinders … and … run with perseverance the race [that is] marked out for us.” It would have been a logical and an obvious transition. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he pauses to take his readers through, as it were, the portrait gallery of some of the ancient folks whose lives were commended on account of their faith. And his pause is purposeful, because he wants his initial readers to derive strength and encouragement by reflecting upon the way in which God had helped and honored his servants so that they in turn, and we as later readers, might also become men and women of faith.

And indeed, he says in verse 2, these ancient people were commended on account of their faith. Of all the things that were true of them, of all the things that might have been written of them, the one unifying characteristic which finds them in this portrait gallery is the fact of their faith and trust in the living God. These individuals had nothing to go on except God’s promises. They took God at his word, and they regulated their lives accordingly. They regarded, as verse 1 tells us, the future as if it were present, and they viewed that which was invisible as if it were actually visible to their gaze. They believed what God said, and they lived their lives accordingly. And by doing so, they made a radical impact in their day. And we want to make sure that we do not miss the wood for the trees, and pause for a second and say: the same is true in our generation. Whenever an individual, a couple, a family, a church, a community is prepared to take God at his word and do what God says, that individual, family, group, community, church will make an impact in their generation. And for this reason, we want to pay careful attention to what they were doing so that we might emulate the pattern that they’ve established for us.

The historical sequence which is here in these verses runs all the way through into chapter 12, leading up to the one who is described as the pioneer and “perfecter of our faith,”[1] recognizing that in the unfolding plan of God, all of this was moving, so that although God had spoken, as he says in the opening verses of chapter 1, in all kinds of different ways as of old, “in these last days he has spoken to us [in] his Son.”[2] And all these individuals who were welcomed by God through faith were brought into the company of the redeemed in prospect of the sacrifice which Christ would make for sin. And we who look back upon Calvary are brought into the company of the redeemed on the very same basis: on the basis of what the Lord Jesus has accomplished by his atoning death.

Now, one of the possibilities in coming to this kind of ancient material is that individuals would be saying to themselves, at least under their breaths, “Well, what has this possibility got to do with me? After all, these folks lived a long time ago, they lived a long way away from here, and I’ve got to go back to the office in the morning,” or “I have to get out of town tomorrow. I need to return to school. I’m facing new challenges and changes in my life. What does this possibly have to do and say to me?”

Well, in verse 3, he makes it clear that he is answering that question. He says, “I have defined faith to some degree in verse 1. I am reminding you that the ancients whose names and lives are about to appear before us were commended on the basis of their faith.” And he says it is “by faith” that “we understand,” present tense—that “our present experience of who God is and what he has done is impacted by the truth which I now convey.” In other words, this lesson from history carries with it a sense of practical immediacy. It has relevant application to the life of the agnostic, who is saying, “I’m not sure that there is a God.” It has immediate application to the life of the fearful, who are saying, “I’m not sure that I can continue along this journey much further.” It has application to every dimension of our lives. And he says, it is “by faith,” verse 3, that we recognize that it was by God’s power, or at God’s command, that the universe was formed.

If you watch the Discovery Channel with any frequency, as I find myself doing for want of anything else to watch, actually—when you’re clicking through those buttons, there’s precious little there—and every so often you fasten on some great creature under the water, or something swinging from the branches, or some volcanic eruption in some remote part of the universe, and you’re hooked by it, at least for a moment or two, it becomes very quickly apparent that the underlying presupposition in relationship to all that is unfolding on the screen emerges from somewhere very different than “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command.” While that may be true of an earlier generation and certainly the artwork of previous generations―its poetry, its literature, its novels all have that wonderful sequential dimension to them which emerges from a right view of creation underneath a God who has made the universe and everything in it, where you have the sky up at the top, and the mountains underneath, and the plains underneath the mountains, and the streams where they should be, as opposed to so much contemporary art, which has the sky wherever you want it to be, with rivers coming out of people’s heads and stuff going in all directions. I was in a gallery this week in Chicago, and there was just this huge, huge painting, and it was completely white. I think there was a small dash of red in the corner somewhere. It looked as though someone had brushed up against something and just bumped it. And as I gave it a passing look, I said to myself, “My, my.” And I think the artist would probably have been thrilled with that, that that would’ve been sufficient response. It would have been enough of a sort of existential reaction to his offering, which presumably had meaning to him but was really fairly meaningless to me.

Now, I know that people would say, “That’s because you’re a philistine. If you stood there long enough you would understand the deep dimensions of what’s there.” Ah, okay, well, I’ll go back and have another look before I decide definitively. But the fact of the matter is that the modern expressions of art, poetry, literature begin from a very different place than “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command.”

I believe that the universe was formed at God’s command. I believe that Genesis 1:1 gives to us the origin of the universe: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Why do I believe that? I believe it by faith because God’s Word says it. I recognize there are another number of options which I may choose to believe as a relatively rational man, but I, by faith, choose to believe this. If you, of course, want to roam the universe looking for another explanation, then spend your time wisely. The probability of life originating from an accidental explosion somewhere is comparable to the notion that your unabridged Oxford dictionary resulted from an explosion in a print factory; it just so happened to form up alphabetically and with all the various bits and pieces necessary.

For those of you who enjoy Shakespeare plays, as a few do, and have learned from time to time some of those soliloquies, I’ve also read the history which says, “Was there really a man called Shakespeare who did all this? Was there one Shakespeare? Was there a deutero-Shakespeare? Were there a bunch of Shakespeares?” But no one’s in any question that there was someone who did all this stuff—unless, of course, you choose to believe that somebody went up in a small single-engine plane carrying millions and millions and millions of pieces of the alphabet, and they had them all in big bags, they went over a flat part of the Sahara Desert—if that is not a tautology—and dropped them all out, all a bunch of a’s and c’s and b’s, consonants and vowels, and just flipped them out at about four or five thousand feet, and then they went down and landed the airplane, and started to walk through, and looked down, and came to one section, and it said, “If music be the food of love, play on.”[3] Said, “My, my, so that’s where we got Twelfth Night from, is it?” Turned further around the corner, and it said, “To be, or not to be? That is the question.”[4]

You say, “That’s totally ridiculous! Why are you even wasting your time with that?” Do you think it’s any more ridiculous than the idea that your children and your grandchildren all emerged as a result of two pieces of sludge introducing themselves to one another in some slimy pool somewhere in a primordial experience? DNA woke up and found itself? “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”

Now, this is the background to the trip through the gallery. And what we’re going to do is take a look at some of the portraits that are hanging there, and the first one has the name “Abel” above it.

The Portrait of Abel

Now, you should turn to Genesis chapter 4 to get the context for the appearance of Abel in this portrait gallery. What was going on? Well, Adam and Eve had got together. They had some children, Cain and Abel. And in Genesis 4:2, we’re told that “Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil,” and “in the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.” And God had clearly instructed that there should be these offerings brought. And

Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. [And] the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

[And] then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

So, we’re told three things. If you turn back to 11:4, we’re told three things concerning this fellow Abel and his sacrifice. Number one, that he offered by faith a better sacrifice than his brother. That’s the first sentence in verse 4. Number two, that “by faith he was commended as a righteous man,” and this righteousness was somehow related to this better sacrifice that he offered. And thirdly, that “he still speaks” by faith, “even though he is dead.” And the very fact that we are here all these centuries later considering this individual, Abel, is a recognition of the fact that he still speaks, even from his death.

Now, one of the things that emerges from the study of this verse, especially when you get in home Bible studies, is the rambling off into the mists of speculative theory concerning why it was that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and didn’t accept Cain’s sacrifice. And if your mind immediately goes that way, which is a justifiable way for your mind to go, and you’re hoping that I’m going to wander through some of the labyrinths with you this morning, prepare for a minor disappointment. Because it’s not within the sphere of reference of what the writer is doing here in Hebrews 11. He is addressing the issue, he is stating facts, and there are certain assumptions which are there, and I want to go with that this morning. When we do Genesis 1–11, then I can guarantee you we’ll pause and we’ll deal with that stuff. But for the time being, feel free to get a commentary, or a number of commentaries, and read it for yourself.

Every good teacher does not provide his students or her students simply with a series of pat answers to pat questions. Those are just adequate teachers. They prepare you for going through certain hoops. They’ll ask you a; when they ask you a, answer b; they ask you c, answer d, and so on. That’s easy. That’s not teaching. That’s not teaching. The good teachers―the good teachers of English literature―do not allow you to grasp under their instruction the totality of all that is there, but they create within you a passionate longing to go and expand your own horizons by your own further study. I hope in some small measure to be that kind of teacher of the Bible, so that you don’t come here and you get pat answers to pat questions that you can write in a little notebook and go away, press button A, press button B, but rather that you come, and your own heart and mind is stimulated, and you say, “I’m gonna become a student of that book. I’m gonna go, and I’m gonna find out. I’m going to emulate my teachers in my Sunday school class, in my Bible study, whatever it might be, from the pulpit. I’m going to become a student of the Book.”

And so, let the very question which is raised here be a stimulus for those who have ears to hear. Suffice it to say that at the very heart of what we’re told, this fact is unequivocal: the sacrifice that is acceptable to God is acceptable not on account of its material content but is acceptable insofar as it is the outward expression of a devoted and obedient heart. The sacrifice is accepted not on account of the fact that it was a beast as opposed to a vegetable. There are some who will argue that, and you can consider it. I don’t believe that’s the case. This was not a sacrifice for atonement that was being made. Certainly, blood points forward. I understand all of those arguments. But I don’t think that is the issue. I think the issue is―and it is the issue that runs through the whole of the Old Testament into the New―that when it comes to offering sacrifices to God, God is not concerned first about material content, but he is concerned that what is done regulatively and externally will be the expression of a devoted and an obedient heart.

No right work can proceed from us until we are justified before God.

John Calvin says the same thing, and therefore, I find myself to be in good company. He says Abel’s sacrifice was preferred to his brother’s for no other reason than “that it was sanctified by faith: for surely the fat of brute animals did not smell so sweetly, that it could, by its odour, pacify God.”[5] In other words, God was not jazzed, as it were, as a result of the fact that there was the smell of burning bacon, you know. The Scripture shows plainly why God accepted his sacrifice―that is, here in verse 4, “spoke well of his offerings.” It is therefore obviously to be concluded that his sacrifice was accepted because he himself was graciously accepted. But how did he obtain this acceptance, save that his heart was purified by faith? The distinction was not in the sacrifices offered; the distinction was between the sacrificers. And God has to say to Cain, “If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if you don’t do what is right, then sin is crouching at your door,” as opposed to Abel, who clearly was doing what is right.

So in other words, Abel’s sacrifice was the outward expression of his own personal obedience and faith. And it is therefore in concurrence with what, for example, God says through the prophets in the Old Testament. He says, you know, “Your sacrifices are a stench to my nostrils.[6] I’m not interested in all the bleating of the calves and the goats and the lambs. This is of no interest to me. I don’t desire this. I desire obedience more than sacrifice.[7] If you want to rely on these works as a means of making yourself acceptable to me, I want you to know it will never happen.” Because “without faith it is impossible to please God.” And so we know that if Abel pleased God in his sacrifice, he did it from the perspective of faith and not from the perspective of offering it somehow as a means. No right work can proceed from us until we are justified before God. No right work can proceed from us until we are justified before God. Because “without faith it is impossible to please God.”

Now, here’s another rabbit trail to go down on your own. I think this gives us something of the key to answering the question that is raised in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good [deeds], and glorify your Father [who] is in heaven.”[8] Are Christians the only ones capable of good deeds? No! Pagans do good deeds. Some of them do very, very good deeds! Some of them do a lot better good deeds than Christians do good deeds. Well then, are pagans accepted by God on the basis of their good deeds? No. So what is it that makes deeds glorify God as opposed to deeds that don’t glorify God? It is that those deeds which glorify God are offered from the hands and lives and lips and feet of those who have been justified by faith, and their deeds are an expression of their acceptance rather than a means to acceptance. Not all good deeds glorify God. And good deeds don’t put us in a right relationship with God. And therefore, Abel didn’t get accepted because his deal was a better deal than his brother’s deal, but it was on account of the fact that Abel operated from the principle of faith. And Cain clearly didn’t.

The Portrait of Enoch

Okay, well, let’s move around the gallery a little further, and we come to the portrait that is marked “Enoch.” And if you want to read about Enoch, you need to turn to Genesis chapter 5 and a wonderful story concerning this character Enoch. You’ll find him in Genesis 5:21: “When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. And after he became the father of Methuselah”―say that one word three times quickly―“Enoch walked with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.”

Incidentally, you really need a Scottish accent to say “Enoch,” don’t you? Enoch. I know you’re going to call him “Enock.” He is not “Enock.” That would be a k. He is Enoch, as in “Loch Lomond,” not “Oh yeah, we were over there, and we went to Lock Lomond.” “You did? Did you ever see Loch Lomond?” All right, here it is. Enoch. Practice before your mirror. You’ll be surprised at the kind of response you get. Okay?

What does it say about this guy? Well, it says that he walked with God over a long period of time. In other words, for Enoch faith was no flash in the pan. It was no burst of enthusiasm followed by periods of chronic inertia. It was not a little stimulus every so often whereby he got excited about God things and then drifted away from that and continued along the journey of life, regarding it as an irrelevancy. Enoch’s faith is an illustration of the fact that faith brings us into a relationship which is vital and relevant in every circumstance of our lives. For Enoch, faith was both a decisive act and a sustained attitude. And it is clear from Genesis 5 that there was a time in Enoch’s life when faith began. In fact, we’re told when faith began: “When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah.” Just at the time when you could fly for a little less on the airplane, when you could get on the bus with a pass, when you could get the coffee at reduced rates at McDonald’s, he has a son. “And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God.” After Methuselah showed up, he started to walk with God.

Now, there’s some significance in this, I’m sure. The fact is, we’re not told just what it is, but I think I might know. Because I’ve heard it in testimony from some of your lips. We hear it with relative frequency in our baptism services. Couples that, like myself, were brought up in the ’60s, and you embraced the “God is dead” stuff. You were convinced that the bells and the smells and the flowers in your hair was what it was all about. And you went down that journey to freedom, and you found that it was a bondage. But you were okay, because you were making progress. You had a garage door opener, and you were in process of getting a second car, and you were beginning to live the American Dream. You felt a little bit weird about it because as a hippie you weren’t supposed to believe in it, but now, in a hippie in pinstripes, you were actually enjoying it. And still there really was no interest in religious things. Every so often you had a thought to it, but by and large, nothing.

And then you’re there in the hospital, and your wife produces a little one. You gather the little one together up in your arms, and you look into the tiny little thing, you say, “Where did this come from?” Say, “Well, we know physically where it came from, but where did it really come from?” You just triggered something in your mind. You said, “You know, I wonder if that ‘God is dead’ stuff is true?”

And then you listened as they began to form their little words. And then as they began to form their words, and as they began to take their early steps and run around through the little jungle of their own world, you started to look at this child and say, “What am I going to tell her? What am I going to tell her when she asks me about the big questions of life? In fact, do I have any answer to the big questions of life?” And then, so as to preserve your own sort of sanity and distance from it all, you said, “You know, although I personally have no interest in faith or in believing in God, maybe it’s important for little Jamiel here, you know. So what we’ll do is we’ll go find a church. And we’re not really interested in it. Maybe we can push her in one end and bring her out the other end.” And you pushed her in one end, and you sat down, and you began to listen. You went in a Sunday school class, and you met other couples like yourself. You began to open your eyes, and your ears began to become unstopped.

And now, when you testify to the change that has been brought about in your life by grace through faith, you date it, actually, almost directly, as with Enoch, from the time that Methuselah was born. Because the responsibilities, the privileges, the challenges, the opportunities were so demanding that you began to look around and said, “I’m not sure that I have the answer to these questions. I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to cope in the way that is necessary to be a parent.”

Children are a gift from God. They’re a sober responsibility. They quickly reveal our inadequacies. They reveal our need of wisdom and of grace. Presumably, that’s the significance of it in the case of Methuselah. But one thing we know for sure: there were at least two volumes in his life. Volume 1: sixty-five years absent any faith in the living God. Volume 2: faith in the living God.

Do you have two volumes in your life? Do you have a volume that chronicles your life, and you would say, “Here was twenty years, thirty years of my life, and I lived without faith in God at all. And as of this day I began to live with faith in God.” See, faith is a decisive act. You don’t simply drift into it. There has to come a time where you stop believing in yourself and you start believing in God, where you stop depending upon yourself and things you can do to make your acceptance to God, and you say, “I can’t make myself acceptable to God, and therefore, I can’t do anything else other than what the ancients did, and that is take God at his word and regulate my life on the basis of it.”

And as a result of that, “Enoch walked with God” all of his days. And as a result of the fact that he walked with God, he was taken away, and he didn’t taste death. And presumably―and I think the inference is here from the text―people went down the marketplace one day, and they said, “Where’s Enoch?” Someone said, “I don’t know. I didn’t see him this morning. He wasn’t down. He didn’t get his newspaper at the regular time.” He couldn’t be found. The reason he couldn’t be found is because he wasn’t there; the reason he wasn’t there is because God took him, the way Elijah got taken in his chariot. Gone! Two Kings 2. Back to the Future can’t hold a candle to 2 Kings 2. That big plastic train coming in, that’s good, but it’s not as good as 2 Kings 2.

God takes him away. He doesn’t taste death. And in this he anticipates the glorification of the body, which will be the experience of believers when Jesus Christ returns. Isn’t that what we saw in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4? You say, “Well, I don’t know until I look at it.” Well, look at it. First Thessalonians 4:16: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel … with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” And “after that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And … we[’ll] be [together] with the Lord forever.”

Where did Enoch go? He went to God. Where did Elijah go? He went to God. And some of you are sitting there saying, “But what happened 120 seconds after this? Where did Enoch actually go? Where was he?” You got a brain that works like that? And “Enoch walked with God,” and “he was no more, because God took him.” Took him where? This is weird. Where was he? It’s the same question you have in relationship to Elijah in 2 Kings 2. It’s the same question you have in relationship to the ascension: “He was taken up out of their sight.”[9] Where?

Now, let me give you a quote in relationship to this so you don’t waste your time on it:

It is better to pass over the subtle questions with which curious men [and women] harass themselves. … Let us leave this airy philosophy to those with small intellects which cannot find a firm foundation. It should be enough for us that their rapture [that is, of Elijah and Enoch] was a kind of extraordinary death, and we should not doubt that they put off mortal and corruptible flesh to be renewed with the other members of Christ in blessed immortality.[10]

Enoch, as Trapp says in an earlier generation, “changed his place, but not his company, for he still walked with God, as [on] earth, so in heaven.”[11]

You see, he walked with God before he was taken away. He had, if you like, been translated into the realm of God’s presence while he lived his physical life, and then for him the experience of heaven was simply to be removed into the fullness of it all. It wasn’t a change of company for him. And when a person is redeemed, as it says in Colossians 1, we’ve been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son that he loves.[12] And therefore, for us to be taken up and gathered into heaven is not to change our company; it’s simply to change our place.

If we’re going to spend all of eternity in worship, then in worshipping down here, we simply get cranked up and ready for going. If we’re going to spend all of our time in fellowship and in adoration, then our experience down here is a preparation for what happens up there. But he walked with God before he left. He didn’t leave so he could walk with God. We don’t walk with God on earth, we don’t live with God in heaven. It’s as simple as that.

So, for Abel―you look at his portrait―for Abel, faith meant offering his very best to God. For Enoch, faith meant walking with God, every dimension of his life under his control and his constraint. And interestingly, when you read in the Old Testament, it doesn’t say that Enoch had faith. But the New Testament writer begins verse 5 by saying, “By faith Enoch…” So how could he speak of Enoch’s faith with confidence? Well, the explanation is in verse 6. You see, verse 6 is not an evangelistic verse to be unearthed from the context: “And without faith it is impossible to please God.” Well, we know that Enoch pleased God. Therefore, we know that Enoch was a man of faith.

If we don’t walk with God on earth, we don’t live with God in heaven. It’s as simple as that.

Now, you see, this faith in God is more than an acknowledgment of the fact that there is a someone or a something. This faith in God is actually more than an orthodox understanding that there is a God, because in James 2:19 it says that “even the demons believe” in the orthodoxy of God as Creator and Redeemer. “Half base times height” is the area of a triangle. I know that. Doesn’t really mean anything to me. The law of gravity was established by experimental knowledge in the constant apparent dropping of an apple from a tree. I know about that. It means something to me; it stops me from sliding up the street. But neither that arm’s-length knowledge or experimental knowledge is to be equated with the knowledge of genuine faith and trust in the living God. The kind of faith that gives my best to God, the kind of faith that walks with God, is the faith which comes about as a direct result of an encounter with God.

In the late ’60s, at campfires, we used to sing the song,

In the stars his handiwork I see,
And on the wind he speaks with majesty,
And though he ruleth over land and sea,
What is that to me?

I will celebrate nativity,
’Cause it has a place in history.


Though he came to set his people free,
What is that to me?

Then one day I met him face-to-face,
And I felt the wonder of his grace.
Then I knew that he was more
Than just a God who didn’t care,
Who lived away up there.

And now he walks beside me day by day.
Now he keeps me in the narrow way.[13]

See, some of you are here this morning, and you’re desperately concerned to get a little more religion in your life. And it’s frankly killing you. Because what it is doing is it is telling you again and again and again that there’s certain things you need to do. And the harder you try, the worse it gets. And so far, you’ve come to a knowledge of a God who’s a God who’s away up there, and you’re not sure whether he cares. And what is the difference? The difference is that you need to meet him face-to-face.

You see, creation is a signpost which sends us forward so that you might be brought to that great signpost which is the cross of the Lord Jesus. And suddenly you realize that your own sin and your own rebellion and your own sense of emptiness is answered there at that cross. And it is in that that we come to a knowledge of the living God which has been intimated in his creation but which has been given fullness in the Scriptures and in Jesus.

The Portrait of Noah

Now, let me just go to Noah, and then we’re done for the morning. We’ll come to Abraham this evening, God willing.

Do I earnestly seek him? There’s a fellow who worships regularly now at church, both he and his wife. I remember back in Solon High School, he used to come to me and talk to me at the end of the evening service with regularity. He would come up and say, “Um, I’m still not sure whether I should become a Christian.” And I’d say, “Well, I’m dead sure you shouldn’t.” And he’d say, “What?” And I’d say, “Nope, you definitely shouldn’t. Get outta here.” It used to annoy him dreadfully. He’d come back another week and he’d say, “You know, I’m still thinking about becoming a Christian.” I’d say, “Well, that’s good.” I said, “But I don’t think you should. I don’t think tonight’s the night you’re going to become a Christian.” And he would try and engage me in conversation. Every time, I sent him away with the same thing. And I’ll never forget the night he came up to me, he said, you know, “I have got to become a Christian.” I said, “Let’s talk!” See? ’Cause the difference is, “You know, I think I might like to get a drink of water. I don’t know. Nah, I won’t.” “Do you want a drink of water?” “Nah. Yeah? Nah.”

Some of you think that’s it. You think you’ve got all the time in the world. When you’ve got that Sahara Desert experience which says, “If I don’t get a drink of water, I’m gonna die,” that’s the earnestly seeking of verse 6. See, the person who earnestly seeks God does not come to God and say, “Now, what kind of God are you?” and “Are you the kind of God that I want to believe in?” and all this kind of stuff. The person who earnestly seeks God says, “O God, you are my God, and I will ever trust you. And step by step I’ll go on from here.”[14] You ever sought God that way?

Well, let’s go to Noah. For Abel, faith meant giving his best to God. For Enoch, it meant considering walking with God the most important thing in his life. And for Noah, it meant that he was concerned for the salvation of his household.

Now, you need to go to Genesis again for the story. And we don’t have time to read it all, but I want you just to know where it is. And if you go to Genesis chapter 6 and to chapter 7, you get this remarkable story of how Noah receives the warning of the impending flood, and he responds to it with implicit faith, despite every appearance to the contrary. God says to him, “Now, Noah, this is what I want you to do.” And for 120 years God expresses his patience. And the faithfulness of Noah as he preaches―and he is “a preacher of righteousness,”[15] we’re told―serves not only to hold out the way of salvation to his listeners, but serves, according to verse 7b, to condemn the world: “He condemned the world and became [an] heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” Every time Noah stood up and proclaimed to the people the judgment of God, he called in question their lifestyle. And out onto the terrain of his day comes this man, and he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to know that there is a judgment, and it is coming.” And they said, “Hey, Noah, you’re crazy, man!” “No, no,” says Noah. “God is going to flood the world, and that’s why I’ve started building this ark.”

They’re down at the coffee shop saying, “Man alive! Of all the things that have happened so far in our world, there is nothing more bizarre than this guy Noah. He’s got a boat thing going in his backyard. There’s not a drop of rain in sight, we’re a million miles away from the coast, and he’s planning—apparently, there’s going to be some big flood. Ha, ha, ha. Oh man, oh man. What will somebody think of next?”

And Noah stands out again, he says, “Guys, I gotta tell you, it’s appointed unto man once to die, and after this comes judgment.[16] But if you will plan on getting yourself in through the door here, then when the flood comes, you’ll be saved.”

Now, where in the world did he come up with that? Why would anybody preach that unless God told him to preach that? “Noah, I want you to build an ark. I want you to take your family into it and be saved. And Noah, I want you to tell the people about the possibility of salvation.”

Now, you don’t have to be a genius to allow your mind to fast-forward, and what am I doing here? What am I doing? I’m here to tell you: It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this comes the judgment. Eternity is a long time. We will either spend it in heaven with the Lord Jesus, or we will spend it in hell without the Lord Jesus. And it will go on forever. But God, who is rich in mercy, has, as in the days of Noah, provided a way of escape, so that those who are humble enough to admit their need, to confess their sin, and to believe unreservedly in God’s promise may come by way of the cross to the place of freedom, forgiveness, redemption, and safety. But if you would rather stay where you are, you will die in your sins.

And you sit there week after week, and you say, “Who does this guy think he is? Where does he come up with this stuff? Why would he be so passionately concerned about it?” For the same reason: I take God as his Word. I say what he told me to say, because I must. Remember, I didn’t want to do this. And most Saturday evenings, I don’t want to do this. And by most Sunday nights, I have decided that I’m never doing it again! But I can’t stop. Because I want to tell you about the love and the patience and the kindness and the goodness of God, that for 120 years he had his man say, “Hey, you don’t have to go through this, you know. You can come right in here.” “We’re not going in that stink-hole of an ark.”

Remember the story of Naaman? “You go wash yourself in the Jordan. Dip yourself in seven times.” “Hey, do you not realize who I am? Don’t you realize that I came here in a stretch limousine? Don’t you realize my influence? Dip myself in the Jordan? Are you crazy, Elisha?”[17] And so you sit: “Don’t you realize what school I went to? Don’t you realize how successful I am? Don’t you realize how much I am giving to charity? Are you honestly telling me, Alistair Begg, that I must come and bow down before the cross of Christ and that the entryway opens to me on my knees?” Absolutely! That’s the way those who are earnestly seeking God come. But for those for whom religion is an esoteric interest, an out-of-body religious experience, no change.

Listen to this quote, and I’ll just wrap this up: “The example” that is here in Noah “is the more instructive, as it naturally, and … necessarily, brings before the mind the fearfully destructive efficiency of unbelief.”[18] You want to remain an unbeliever? Go ahead and remain an unbeliever. But don’t consider the fact that you may remain in your unbelief and not be destroyed for unbelief. Just for not believing! To remain in unbelief is enough to destroy you for all of eternity. To believe in yourself rather than to believe in God, to believe in modern wisdom rather than the wisdom expressed in the cross, it will destroy you. The world that perished had materially the same message delivered to them as Noah received. Had they repented, there is no reason to doubt that the fearful infliction would not have taken place. Noah believed and feared and obeyed and was saved. He believed and feared and obeyed and was saved. They disbelieved, mocked, were disobedient, and perished. He feared and believed and obeyed and was saved. They disbelieved, mocked, were disobedient, and perished.

So, let’s imagine that there are two doors out of which you can go. Over here is Noah’s door. He feared, obeyed, believed, and was saved. That’s the Noah door. That’s the other door: they mocked, disbelieved, and went on their merry way and were destroyed. It’s as simple as this: Which door are you walking out this morning? You gonna go out as an arrogant unbeliever? Or are you gonna go out with Noah?

Our Christian obedience is one of the most decisive, impactful factors in seeing unbelieving men and women become committed followers of Jesus Christ.

Is this significant? I’ll tell you it’s significant. When Jesus―in Matthew 24 it’s recorded for us―speaks about the time of his return, what does he say it will be like? In part, he says, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be [in the day] of the Son of Man.”[19] When Peter addresses it in 2 Peter chapter 3, he uses the very same picture. Listen to what he says: “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” [of Jesus Christ]? Ever since our fathers died, everything [has been going on] since the beginning of creation.’ But they deliberately forget…” What do they deliberately forget? They deliberately forget the flood! “They deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word[s] the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water,” and “by these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word”―by the same word!―“the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”[20] Noah stands up and he says, “There is gonna be a flood, and you better get in the ark!” And the people said, “Blow it out your ear!” And down through time others like myself stand before men and say, “There is gonna be a judgment, and you better hide in the cross.” And they say, “Blow it out your ear.”

“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Listen to this: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.” Why doesn’t he just do it? Why didn’t he have the flood on day two? After all, they were a bunch of miserable wretches, weren’t they? Why didn’t he have him stand up and say, “In twenty-four hours, flooding the world, get in the ark”? A hundred and twenty years. Why? Because God is not slow concerning the fulfillment of his promise. What is he? “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but [desiring that] everyone [will] come to repentance.”[21] And those who do not come to repentance will fail to come to repentance as a result of sticking their fingers in their ears, putting their hands over their eyes, and running out in their unbelief. Choose you today whom you will serve.[22]

How ’bout this little PS and I’ll let you go. Noah’s impact on his community, if you think about it, was related in part to his preaching. But actually, his obedience was maybe a more powerful impact. Because, you see, men and women this morning are influenced not only by what we say to them but by the way we respond to what God has said to us.

See, when you go back to your work tomorrow, if you come in fifteen minutes late and leave fifteen minutes early, you made a direct statement about the nature of Christianity—a real bad one. And they don’t care about your bumper sticker. They don’t care if you got bumper stickers so much so that you don’t have a bumper big enough to carry it. Because they’re not only listening to what you have say; they are watching to see how we respond to what God said to us. They know that the Bible says you shouldn’t steal.[23] They’re watching to see if we steal. They know that the Bible says we should have no gods before him.[24] They’re watching to see if we worship God with all our heart and soul and life.[25] They know that the Bible says you should not commit adultery.[26] They’re watching to see whether by our language and our posture and our lifestyle we’re violating those commandments. And our Christian obedience is one of the most decisive, impactful factors in seeing unbelieving men and women become committed followers of Jesus Christ.

See, because when in the coffee shops they were saying to one another, “What is Noah saying down there?” a lot of them, they said, “You know, for the life of me, I don’t know what he’s saying. But I’ll tell you, it’s got to be important, ’cause he’s out there every day, and he’s got nothing to go on except a commitment that God said it, and he believes it, and he’s going to regulate his life accordingly.” That’s faith. Is that your faith?

Let’s pray:

O God our Father, look upon us in your grace and your kindness. Thank you for your patience and your love. Some of our hearts are so hard and stony. We’ve been seduced into believing that the bad choices that we have made are such that it’s too high a hill to climb to come back from where we have put ourselves. That’s a lie of the Evil One. Break our hearts, our stubborn wills, our rebellion, our unbelief.

Sure, it seems crazy—some funny guy with a funny accent getting worked up about a funny book. It seemed better just have talks on how to order your finances, how to be a good father, a kind son, the kind of thing you can get your hand around. Why spend all of this time with Abel and Enoch and Noah, save that the message which Noah preached is the message that we need to hear? That we could flee from the coming wrath and lay hold of your great and precious promises.

God grant that there will be those who today are turned from darkness to light as they reach out the childlike hand of trust and faith in you, and others of us who profess faith and are long on talk and short on action might recognize that we make an impact not simply in the words that we say but in the way in which we respond to the words that God has said to us.

May grace, mercy, and peace be the abiding portion of each one, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Hebrews 12:2 (NIV 1984).

[2] Hebrews 1:2 (NIV 1984).

[3] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, 1.1.

[4] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.1.

[5] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1853), 267.

[6] See Isaiah 1:13.

[7] See 1 Samuel 15:22.

[8] Matthew 5:16 (KJV).

[9] Acts 1:9 (paraphrased).

[10] John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St Peter, trans. William B. Johnston, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 161–62.

[11] John Trapp, A Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 683.

[12] See Colossians 1:13.

[13] Ralph Carmichael, “He’s Everything to Me” (1964). Lyrics lightly altered.

[14] David Strasser, “Step by Step” (1991). Lyrics lightly altered.

[15] 2 Peter 2:5 (NIV 1984).

[16] See Hebrews 9:27.

[17] See 2 Kings 5:1–14.

[18] John Brown, An Exposition of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews, ed. David Smith, (Edinburgh: William Oliphant, 1862), 2:54.

[19] Matthew 24:37 (NIV 1984).

[20] 2 Peter 3:3–7 (NIV 1984).

[21] 2 Peter 3:8–9 (NIV 1984).

[22] See Joshua 24:15.

[23] See Exodus 20:15.

[24] See Exodus 20:3.

[25] See Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27.

[26] See Exodus 20:14.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.