May 18, 1997
Foremost in Hebrews 11’s “gallery of faith” is Abraham, whom Paul elsewhere calls “the father of all who have faith.” Examining this important figure, Alistair Begg highlights two examples of faith in Abraham’s life: first, he obeyed the word of the Lord by packing up and leaving for unknown land; and second, he patiently waited for a son in fulfillment of God’s promise. Abraham and those grouped with him are heroes of faith. Will our portraits be found alongside theirs?
Sermon Transcript: Print
Father, we pray that as we turn to your Word again tonight, that you will be our teacher, that we might sense ourselves gathered up in your embrace, caught up in the wonder of your provision for us in this book, and stirred in our hearts to follow hard after you as we face the challenges and privileges and responsibilities of a new week which lies before us. And we seek you in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, if you would, turn back with me to Hebrews chapter 11, where we are studying at the moment in what we’ve said is the portrait gallery of faith. And we had occasion this morning to pause, as it were, before three of the portraits, the first of these being Abel, and then Enoch, and then, latterly, Noah.
In the eighth verse, as we noted in our reading, we come to Abraham, who is described in the book of Romans as the father of all who have faith. He is—in, if we might say so, reverence and in common parlance—when it comes to faith, Abraham is the daddy of them all, that he is the ultimate expression, in New Testament terms, of an Old Testament indicator of what it means to have faith: that he walked with God, he was a friend of God, he believed God, and “it was credited to him as righteousness.” And when the New Testament theologians seek for that classic illustration of what it means to trust God, to depend upon God and not upon works righteousness, then they turn again and again to the illustration of Abraham.
Now, there are three incidents from Abraham’s life which are interspersed here in the next few verses, through to the end of verse 19. Whether we make it all the way through or not is a matter of question as of now. But let us begin by noticing first of all this statement in verse 8: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did[n’t] know where he was going.”
Now, once again, it’s helpful, I think, to turn back to the book of Genesis and to see the historical context to which the writer of the Hebrews is referring. And you’ll find this, of course, in Genesis chapter 12 and the record which is given to us there of the call of Abraham. And God’s call to Abraham was a call, in Genesis 12:1, to “leave your country, [leave] your people and [leave] your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” So you have there in Genesis 12:1 the instruction: “I want you to leave all of these things. I want you to go.” There then follows the blessings and promises of his covenant with Abraham. And then, in verse 4: “So [Abraham] left, as the Lord had told him.” The Lord said to him, “I want you to go. I want you to leave behind everything that represents security to you. I want you to leave your country, I want you to leave your people, and I want you to leave your family.”
Now, we ought not just to skim over this. Think about it for a moment. You are here, and some of you are surrounded by everything that represents security to you. Indeed, most of us, in one sense, are: the people that we love, the situations with which we are familiar, and all that is wrapped up in the experience of our lives. And God comes to the individual in that context, and he says, “Now, I’d like you to go. I want you to leave all this behind. And incidentally, where you’re going is not as important at the moment as that you get going.” And Abraham left, as the Lord told him.
Now, why would anybody ever do that? He had nothing to go on save the command of God and the accompanying promises. But that was enough for him. That is faith. That is faith in every day and in every generation: the command of God, the accompanying promises, and then the step of obedience. The callings of God, said Graham Scroggie in an earlier generation, in Scotland, at Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh, seldom leave a man or a woman where the calling finds them. Indeed, said Scroggie, if we fail to go forward when God says “Go,” we cannot remain stationary. I want you to know that. When God says to an individual, to a group, to a church, “I want you to go forward,” if we refuse to go forward, we cannot remain stationary. Because our refusal to move forward is a backward movement, even though we never take a step. When God says, “Go forward,” and we say, “No, I’m going to stay here,” then we kid ourselves into thinking we’ll be staying there, because a refusal to move forward is actually to take a step backwards.
And so, the illustration here of Abraham in respect to faith is first of all faith on the move. He is to make a departure, and he’s also to make a discovery. What is he going to discover? Well, he’s going to discover that the only place to be is where God wants you to be. The only place to be is where God wants you to be. That is the only ideal place to serve God: the place which he has set you down. Indeed, to turn it around, there is no ideal place to serve God except the place where he sets you down. He didn’t know where he was going; it was sufficient for him that God had told him to go, and he said, “Fine, I will go.” He was to discover that the only place you should be is where God wants you and the only purpose that you should ever seek to fulfill is that which God has made known to you. And God had made known to him the fact that he was going to make of him a great nation, he was going to grant him a great name, and he was going to shower him with a great blessing. But what that possibly meant on the morning when he awakened and when he encountered God in this way, much of which is cloaked in silence… We can only marvel at the obedience of Abraham—an obedience which, we’re told, was to transform his lifestyle. Obedience to God will always transform our lifestyle. He obeyed and went, even though he didn’t know where he was going, and as a result of having done so, “by faith he made his home in the promised land [and] like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob” who followed him. In other words, there was this sense of impermanence about all that now was to characterize his life.
If you’ve done much camping at all—and I confess I haven’t done much; I don’t particularly like it—you pitch tents, at least in the old days―I think now that with all this tubular stuff, there isn’t much of this―but in the old days, you drove those tent pegs into the ground. And you beat them into the ground, but they scarcely got below the surface. You might think that they were a long way down and that everything was very well secured until you had one of these storms gust up around you and it blew your little dwelling to who knows where; you have to chase through the farmer’s fields after your tent. If you’ve experienced that, you’ve been camping. I’ve done that. We were camping in the northeast of Scotland. We went on a day trip, we came back, and the little tented village that we had left behind was about a mile and a quarter down the road. And I remember gathering it up and saying to myself, “This stinks!” [Congregation member: “Amen!”] Yes. Another faithful soul. Good. And there must have been many a day when Abraham felt exactly like that. And why did he do it? Because God said to do it. And when the tent moves, there’s few signs of it ever having been there.
I want to get intensely practical tonight and just ask a question, in case some of you are finding your hearts stirred and my question to you would be a further impetus in this direction: Has God been speaking to you as an individual about moving? Has been speaking to you as an individual about moving on? About moving on in obedience to him? About getting up and going? It runs absolutely contrary to everything that you have been thinking about, because you have so much that is represented in security around you. After all, you’ve worked for quite a long time in this particular place. You’ve been putting together quite a retirement for some time. You’ve just been getting to the stage where you felt that everything was really hunky-dory. And now, suddenly, there is this strange, insistent voice in your ear, and God saying to you, “I want you to move.” I want to tell you, you better move. Because if you don’t move, you won’t stay where you are; you’ll go backwards.
But you’re finding now that although you can give yourself with relative devotion to your daily routine, it no longer holds for you the same sense of prospect, there’s no longer the same sense of joy and fulfillment in it all, you have a strange sense of the roots unsettling underneath you, and every time you turn around, it’s as though the Word of God says to you, “Now listen here: I want you to go.”
Well, we’d love to talk with you and pray with you about what that might mean. It’s very important when we have that sense that we check very carefully with those who are responsible for us, with those who care for us and know us best. Because every so often, our own subjective instincts can get us in deep trouble.
I’ve told you before of the girl who came to me after the Bible study at our previous church in Scotland; she announced to me that she was going to Australia.
I said, “When are you going?”
She said, “I don’t know.”
I said, “Why are you going?”
She said, “Because God told me to.”
I said, “Well, that’s interesting. How did he tell you?”
She said, “Well, I just have a feeling in my stomach.”
I said, “Okay.” I said, “What did you have for your dinner?”
She didn’t think that was very spiritual, but it was actually a very good question. Because we don’t make dramatic moves in our lives just as a result of something going on in our solar plexus. The call of God is not directly related to a glandular condition. And there was that which accompanied Abraham’s move which was marked by the clear delineation of the unfolding purpose of God. And in the economy of the local church, God has put leaders and pastors and friends and guides and relationships there in order that the call might be tested before ever a person gets on Qantas and heads for Melbourne or for Sydney.
It’s interesting that in his move, he didn’t simply pitch a tent, but he built an altar, and he looked back to God’s call and the building of the altar, and he looked forward to God’s city. And he lived as a “stranger in a foreign country.” “He was looking forward to the city,” verse 10 says, “with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” His gaze was to a different destination, his perspective was on a different horizon, from the run-of-the-mill of those around him. God had spoken. Abram had heard. Abram decided to trust God and obey God. That’s faith.
Now, we not only have Abraham’s faith expressed on the move, but we also have his faith expressed in the waiting room, and that in verse 11: “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age―and Sarah herself was barren―[he] was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” I don’t know whether faith on the move is tougher than faith in the waiting room, but if you turn to Genesis 17, you’ll get a flavor of what is described for us here: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’” Okay. This is dramatic. This is encouraging. And God said to Abraham in verse 15, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” And “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and [he] said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? [And] will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’”
It’s good questions, huh? See, we’ve got these guys so much in the gilt-edge frames, and we know they’re there because we know the end of the story. But when we try and get underneath the beginning of the story, here’s the guy, and he’s ninety-nine years old, and God reappears to him and says, “By the way, things are moving along quite nicely, and pretty soon you’re going to become a dad. And your wife, who hasn’t looked much as if she is going to be bearing children in the immediate future, she’s actually going to become a mom.” And Abraham laughed to himself. This isn’t the laugh of Sarah, which was a laugh of rebellion or indifference. This is the laugh of somebody who, if he doesn’t laugh, will burst into tears. This is the nervous reaction of somebody who says, “You know… Man, that’s crazy! I mean, I’m… Look at me. And look at her! Look at us! I mean, stand up here beside me, Sarah, and listen to the latest thing. I mean, apparently, it’s all going through as planned. I mean, we’re twenty-four years into the waiting game, and the Lord has come again, he said, ‘Yep, no question!’ I’m gonna be dad at the age of a hundred? You’re gonna be a mother at the age of ninety?” Abram said, “That’s fine.”
Humanly speaking, you see, the possibilities of childbirth are long gone. And every year that has passed makes the promise that God has made to Abraham all the more less likely to be fulfilled. In fact, twenty-four years, as I say, have passed since what we looked at in the first verse of chapter 12. But Paul tells us, when he writes of the incident in Romans chapter 4—and I quote from verse 20 and following—“Yet [Abraham] did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” That’s faith! God had the power to do what God had promised to do.
And incidentally, if you remember in our studies in prayer, we said it is what God has promised to do that we may pray categorically and with absolute assurance. But we cannot pray silly prayers, as if somehow or another, by our wish list and by our conjecture, we can, by the vociferous dimension of our longings, somehow or another get God to do something which he has never clearly promised to do. So Abraham to believe in this way was not some blind leap in the dark. It was belief on the basis of the promises of God. God said, in the Lord Jesus, “I[’m] going … to prepare a place for you.” Therefore, I take him at his word. He said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back [for you].” Therefore, I take him at his word. Jesus is definitely coming back. He is coming back personally, he is coming back visibly, and he is coming back for his own. How do we know? Because he said it in his Word. And it is as a surety, as it was that the promise made to Abraham, which went for twenty-five years before its fulfillment, would actually be his experience. And furthermore, he promised that if he came back for us that he would take us to himself and that we would be with him forever, that heaven is our home, that this is only a place of passage, that there’s no real point in building for ourselves any lasting edifices here if, in point of fact, we are going to embrace the faith of Abraham, because we will, like Abraham, be looking for a city whose builder is God and the city that has foundations that isn’t like any other city.
But God brought him through all of this―and his wife―through all these years of delay. Let’s notice the simple, obvious truth: God always has a reason for his delays. God always has a reason for his delays. There is a sense in which impatience in our lives really ought not to be there. And I say that to my great shame.
We saw it in the story of Joseph. Remember, Joseph says to the cupbearer, “By the way, when you get out of here, uh, be great if you could put in a special word for me, because I really feel that I could be doing much better if I was out and on my way and on with business.” And the cupbearer leaves, forgets all about him, and he languishes down in the dungeon for another significant period of time. And you remember, as we looked back over the story, we saw that God in his sovereign purpose was keeping Joseph for the exact moment so that when he was released from that situation, the plan and pattern of his life would continue as God intended.
Now, in this case, in relationship to Abraham, God wants to make it absolutely clear that the son that was to be born to Abraham was a gift from himself and was as a result of his promise. And in the same way, God may choose to limit our resources so that we might enjoy the abundance of all that he makes available to us. And therefore, all of his delays, all of his hold-ons, all of the faith in the waiting room are still part and parcel of his purpose.
What was it that kept Abraham going? It was the revelation of God made clear in his name, El-Shaddai. Genesis 17: “The Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am [El-Shaddai]; walk before me.’” Now, El-Shaddai is a combination of three in the Hebrew. El is “God,” sha is “who,” and dai is “sufficient.” “God,” el; sha, “who”; dai, “is sufficient.” So God comes to him and he says… And you can imagine what an encouragement it was when he goes back to his wife and he said, “God affirmed his promise to me,” and she said, “Do you really think it’s going to happen?” and he said, “Well, you know, he came before me, and he said, ‘I am El-Shaddai. I am the God who is sufficient for everything. Before you do anything else, Abraham, I want you to know that every need that you encounter, every difficulty that you face, I am sufficient for it.’” What an amazing promise! “And … from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”
Now, there then follows this little summary statement: “All these people were still living by faith when they died.” Who are these people? Well, I think they’re the people who’ve just been mentioned―namely, Abel and Enoch and Noah and Sarah and Abraham. They were all “still living by faith when they died.”
Now, you see, again, the context is so important. He has already said at the end of chapter 10, “We don’t want to be those people who shrink back and are destroyed. We want to be the kind of people who continue and are saved.” Now he says, “Let me remind you. Let me think about Abel for a moment, and Enoch and Noah. And what about Abraham and Sarah? What about when he was called to go out? Remember when he did that? What about when God promised to him a son and all the descendants?” And he said, “Think about their devotion. It stayed the course all the way to the end. Still living by faith when they died.”
It’d be a dreadful tragedy to blow it out on the last quarter of a mile, wouldn’t it? You know, I love to watch ten-thousand-meters races. And if I was ever in a ten-thousand-meters race, I know for sure that I would run out―as soon as the gun fired, I would run absolutely to the front, so that when I saw the video later, it would say, “And Alistair Begg has taken an early lead.” Because I know for sure that that would be the last that would ever be heard of me—unless, of course, there was something to the effect of, “And there you will see, four laps behind, the emergency folks carrying Alistair Begg out of the arena.” I mean, the only hope I’ve got is a flying start. Because after that, it’s all downhill.
Now, in these heroes of faith, it’s not so much the importance of getting a flyer at the beginning; it’s just steady consistency in the middle years, and it’s staying the course right to the end. You wanna have a goal in your life? Run all the way to the tape. That’s what I want to do. I just want to run all the way to the tape. I don’t want to make a hash of it. Do you want to be known as the person with the great beginning, the average middle, and the lousy finish? It’d be better nobody heard of us and we were there at the end than that everybody talked about us and we lay down in the grass before the whole event was over.
All these people were devoted right to the end. They gave indication of their devotion because they were living as “aliens and strangers on [the] earth.” They were quite prepared to admit that they were weird. They recognized that where they were going was not where everybody else was going, in the same way, as we say in the words of the song, in recognition of what Peter says concerning the scattered believers of his day in 1 Peter 1:17 and then in 2:11,
This world is not our home,
We’re just passing through.
Our treasure is laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue.
And the angels beckon me
From heaven’s open door,
And I can’t be at home
In this world anymore.
Because I’m an alien.
Their devotion is seen in that they continue to the end. It’s seen in the fact that they were prepared to admit before anybody that they were aliens, that they were strangers. Their direction is absolutely clear: they were “looking for a country of their own.” In fact, if they’d been thinking about the country they’d left, they could have gone back. And you see, again, he’s saying, “I don’t want you boys to go back. Don’t you be like those who began well and fell away.” So all of this is purposeful. “They were longing for a better country―a heavenly [country].” And the distinction that they had lies in this: that “God is not ashamed to be called their God,” because “he has prepared a city for them.”
It reminds me of the hymn―I don’t know if I can quote it, ’cause it just comes to my mind:
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
To thee, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Something like that. Yeah. Close, but not really close. “Thou wast…” Kind of archaic language. Never mind that.
Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.
O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
You see, it’s in this continuum that you find the boy from Wheaton College, Jim Elliot. And what a mystery of God’s providence it will be when the company is gathered around the throne in heaven, and Elliot for the first time looks into the eyes of those who murdered him, who subsequently―as a result of the continued efforts of his wife and other faithful souls―subsequently professed faith in Jesus Christ. When my dear friend Mary Fisher, butchered at the hands of the guerillas in Zimbabwe, opens her eyes to the host around heaven and finds these children for whom she gave her life gathered around the throne, it will all be as an expression of the promise of God to Abraham: “In your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.”
And when we feel ourselves to be part of a small company, when we feel ourselves to be beleaguered and buffeted and really making very little impact at all, let us take a walk through the portrait gallery, and let us see this man Abel, who discovered that faith means giving your very best to God. Let us look at this chap Enoch, who considered walking with God the most important thing in his life. Let’s hang for a moment and look up at this chap Noah, who, despite all the people that said he was crazy, was so passionately concerned for the welfare of his family that he built an ark even when it wasn’t raining, with no prospect of a flood, and was swept to safety. And let’s think about Abraham leaving behind all that represented security to him―his home, his country, his father’s house―and going to a place he didn’t know, waiting all these years for the fulfillment of a promise which from every human, physiological dimension was categorically out of the question. And think about them as a group. And think about the group that has followed. And ask yourself the question, “Will my portrait be in the gallery?”
If you’ve gone in Edinburgh Castle, you’ll find there these great books, which I’m sure they have in military monuments here in the United States, although I’ve never seen them. It’s a sobering thing. There are books that simply read “1914,” “1915,” and so on. Some say “1916–1918.” Some say “1940–43.” And you go in and you look. And you look, as I did, for my uncle and for my grandfather. It’s just a long list of names. You read the names out; nobody knows who they are. But they’re precious. Their blood secured the freedom that we enjoy. And to a far greater degree, there is a book, it’s kept in heaven, and it’s full of names. Many of them we don’t know. But they’re all precious, and they’re all significant, and they’re all Abraham’s children. In the books in Edinburgh Castle, there are some pictures. Every so often there’s a big one, but most of the time they’re tiny, wee pictures that you need a magnifying glass to actually pick out who’s there. That’s the kind of picture I’ll get in the book of faith. But that’ll be fine. I’ll be glad just to have my picture in the book.
Young people, with all your life before you, and all your hopes and all your dreams, believe me on the authority of God’s Word: there’s only one list you’d better make sure you’re on, and it’s called “the Lamb’s book of life.” And God will write your name there, if you will come to him in repentance and in childlike faith. So no matter what other places you get your name written, and no matter that anybody says you’re great, and no matter that you become a hero or you become a bum, to be a man or a woman of faith is the great issue. May God grant that there won’t be a person in the room tonight who will walk out the wrong door.
Let us pray.
When we walk with the Lord
In the light of his Word,
What a glory he sheds on our way!
[When] we do his good will,
He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.
Thank you, Lord, for the example of all these who were still living by faith when they died. Help us to run the straight race through God’s good grace. And whether the remainder of our life’s journey is five yards, fifty yards, or fifty miles, God grant that we might finish well, “looking unto Jesus the author and [the] finisher of our faith.” For we pray in his name. Amen.
 See Romans 4:16.
 Romans 4:22 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 12:1 (NIV 1984).
 See Genesis 12:2.
 John 14:2 (NIV 1984).
 John 14:3 (NIV 1984).
 See John 14:3.
 Genesis 40:14 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 17:1 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 10:39 (paraphrased).
 Albert E. Brumley, “This Word Is Not My Home.”
 William Walsham How, “For All the Saints Who from Their Labor Rest” (1864). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Genesis 22:18 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 21:27 (NIV 1984).
 John H. Sammis, “Trust and Obey” (1887).
 Hebrews 12:2 (KJV).
Copyright © 2023, 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.