Witness to Faith
I didn’t grow up in the church. By the time I was fourteen years old I told everyone I was an atheist—I thought belief in God was some kind of group hypnosis, a phenomenon that happened when a bunch of people got together and pretended to worship and pray to a giant invisible manifestation of their wishful thinking. I was pretty cynical for a fourteen year old.
Some of you have heard my story before—one night I was in my backyard looking at the stars and all of a sudden I could no longer sustain my disbelief. It all seemed too interconnected to have happened by random chance. The countless stars above me and the countless atoms that made up everything—each one as vast and mysterious as the whole universe. All at once I wasn’t able to not believe. The complexity of creation was like a convincing witness to the existence of the God who created it. By the way, it can’t really be called “creation” if there’s not a Creator. It’s funny, if you listen to most unbelievers talk about human beings and animals—they will eventually slip and call all these living things “creatures.” It’s pretty much unavoidable.
So reality is quite the reliable witness to the existence of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God” as it says in the Psalms. So all at once I started believing in God—but that’s not the same thing as believing in Jesus. It’s not the same thing as having saving faith. James, the brother of Jesus said, the demons believe in God—but they’re terrified. He’s not talking about the fear of the Lord that leads to wisdom. He’s just saying they’re scared of God.
So I started believing in God and reading the Bible and eventually learned about Jesus. I started going to a local church where the pastor and Sunday school teachers and youth ministers—they told me all about the promise of salvation that only comes from being a follower of Jesus. I became a Christian. They “witnessed” to me. I believed more and more because of the witness of their faith.
Our Scripture this morning is all about how God’s Word points to Jesus. It’s all about the witness of a whole bunch of Old Testament people who had faith in the promises of God. It’s all about them living their lives trusting in God’s promises even though they just had to take His Word for it. All faith is a leap of faith. All faith is blind—but that’s not a bad thing. Faith is believing in things we can’t see.
I’m going to read the text, it’s a pretty long passage—see how many of these Old Testament characters you recognize.
It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be named.” Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead.
It was by faith that Isaac promised blessings for the future to his sons, Jacob and Esau.
It was by faith that Jacob, when he was old and dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons and bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff.
It was by faith that Joseph, when he was about to die, said confidently that the people of Israel would leave Egypt. He even commanded them to take his bones with them when they left.
It was by faith that Moses’ parents hid him for three months when he was born. They saw that God had given them an unusually beautiful child, and they were not afraid to disobey the king’s command.
It was by faith that Moses, when he grew up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to share the oppression of God’s people instead of enjoying the fleeting pleasures of sin. He thought it was better to suffer for the sake of Christ than to own the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to his great reward. It was by faith that Moses left the land of Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger. He kept right on going because he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible. It was by faith that Moses commanded the people of Israel to keep the Passover and to sprinkle blood on the doorposts so that the angel of death would not kill their firstborn sons.
It was by faith that the people of Israel went right through the Red Sea as though they were on dry ground. But when the Egyptians tried to follow, they were all drowned.
It was by faith that the people of Israel marched around Jericho for seven days, and the walls came crashing down.
It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.
How much more do I need to say? It would take too long to recount the stories of the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and all the prophets. By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. Women received their loved ones back again from death.
But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in two, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.
Prayer: Father in heaven, as we hear Your Word today, help us to be challenged by it and also comforted. Strengthen our faith and help us trust and rely on the promises of Your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. AMEN
The Book of Hebrews The letter to the Hebrews was written at a time when persecution of the church was really starting to heat up, and the author wanted to encourage the Christians to hold fast and endure through the hard times that were coming.
Sometimes Things Work Out The passage we just read is like a “who’s who” of Old Testament rock stars. Witnesses to having great faith in God no matter what they were facing. In some of the examples, things turned out pretty good. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son but at the last minute God stopped him—that had to be a big relief, right? The passage talks about Isaac, and Jacob, and Joseph. Moses is a great witness to having faith in God—he turned down his inheritance in Pharaoh’s house to one day rise to power in Egypt (that had to be pretty tempting) and instead became the leader that God used to free the Hebrews from slavery—going against Pharaoh and the armies of Egypt.
All these things are examples of people trusting God in spite of what they saw in the circumstances around them—that’s what faith means. God worked through very messed up people like Rahab, and Gideon, Sampson, Samuel, King David and the prophets. These are all examples of what it looks like to trust God and live by faith. Sometimes things work out, sometimes amazing things happen.
Sometimes They Don’t Sometimes things go from bad to worse and we need to trust in God’s goodness when things are very dark and painful. So not all of the examples in this passage are sunshine and roses. A bunch of these people faced really horrific—nightmares. We don’t always get to avoid tragic situations, even if we’ve got a lot of faith. Starting with verse 36, we’re told that people with great faith were mocked and flogged and chained and put in prison. People of great faith were killed for their belief—there’s a reference to someone being sawed in two—which probably refers to the prophet Isaiah who they say was put inside a hollow log while his enemies cut it in half with a big, jagged-toothed saw blade. This world isn’t always a safe place for people of faith. Jesus said that in this world, His followers are going to have trouble—and the people that the author of Hebrews was writing to were starting to experience some of that trouble—unspeakably awful persecution at the hand of the Romans. They needed some encouragement. He wanted them to know these things weren’t happening because they didn’t have enough faith—there have been many faithful people throughout history that were killed by swords, mistreated, outcast—people who died praying with tears in their eyes. He says that the world is not worthy of these people. You can hear the sorrow in his words even from 2,000 years away.
Holding on By Faith But all these witnesses to what it looks like to have faith in God—whether He did something cool at the last minute or if they went to their grave waiting on a miracle—none of them received what God has promised them in full. They all died hoping. They all died holding on by faith for what they had been promised.
None of those people got to see Jesus.
The Power of A Local Church So, God found me in the backyard when I was fourteen years old and I started going to church all the time. I went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night—couldn’t get enough of it. Not even kidding. My life revolved around church and I think that was a good thing. I think that saved my life. I started playing guitar and writing songs about Jesus—and the pastor of the church would let me sing my songs in church on Sunday night. My parents started coming on Sunday nights to hear me play. My songs were terrible but they didn’t care, they just showed up to support me—before long they just got in the habit of going to church.
One night the pastor came over to our house to talk with my mom and dad about Jesus. I remember my dad, Bob Hart, saying something to the pastor like, “I just can’t believe in something that I can’t see.” The pastor kinda smiled and said, “So how do you get yourself to flip the switch to turn on the lights? If you can’t see the electricity?” I think that’s when the “lights” came on for my dad. He and my mom were baptized and they were believers from then on. That’s the power of the local church—it’s supposed to be a witness to what it looks like to live a life of faith. My family was Christian from then on. Didn’t mean life was easy, but they took whatever happened by faith, trusting that God was taking them somewhere good.
For some reason, people think if they have enough faith, or the right kind of faith, or if they do everything right, pray real hard, walk the straight and narrow—that nothing bad should happen to them. But that’s not the way it works.
Princess Bride In the best movie that was ever made, The Princess Bride, Wesley says, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Sometimes God is going to ask us to do some really difficult, hard things—we’re gonna have to just endure these things by faith. Sometimes awful things are going to happen to us and we’re gonna be tempted to wonder where God is—but we have to keep going. Another thing Wesley taught us is that the best response to someone you love should always be, “As you wish.” As in, Thy will and not mine be done. Faith means that if you ever find yourself in a situation that seems hopeless then you can know your story isn’t over—because by faith we know that Jesus is leading us somewhere good. This all has a happy ending. A glorious ending.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses—which doesn’t mean an audience of dead saints are sitting up in heaven watching us while eating popcorn and Milk Duds—We’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses to what it looks like to be faithful. It means we have their examples as a witness to what it looks like to have faith in God. To be faithful. To have hope. What it looks like to trust in God’s promises no matter what’s in front of us.
The most powerful witness to faith in God, and living a faithful life is Jesus the founder and perfecter of our faith Himself. He was mocked, tortured, murdered and cast aside in the most horrific way. You think that was because He didn’t have enough faith? I don’t think so. He was perfectly faithful. You and me, we’re not going to be perfectly faithful—that’s why Jesus was faithful for us—it’s going to be okay because Jesus was faithful for us. Do you need to hear that today? You don’t have to rely on your own ability to be perfectly faithful. Jesus went all the way to the cross so you could be shown grace, mercy, forgiveness and live forever in the love of God—in spite of how much of a turkey you’ve been. Don’t put any faith in your own ability to be faithful, put your faith in what Jesus did for you. That’s what none of the people in that long list never got to see—they didn’t get to see Jesus. He’s the ultimate witness to what faith in God and living a faithful life look like. Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith—He’s the One we put our faith in. He’s the reason we can endure and make it through anything this world’s gonna throw at us. And it’s gonna throw things at us, that’s what our faith is for.
So since we have been shown what it looks like to have faith in God, here’s what you need to do: lay aside every weight that weighs you down. Confess every sin that burdens your conscience and gets in the way of living a faithful life—you are not defined by your sin. Do not be defined by your sin or your failures. You are defined by your faith in Jesus. You are defined by His forgiveness. You are forgiven because of Jesus. So keep going. Day after day. Minute after minute. Run the race that is set before you with endurance. How? By looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of your faith. He promises that you’re going somewhere good. He promises joy. He promises hope. We have hope, no matter what we go through, because He already showed us what it looks like to lay down our life for God, to give it all—and even when it looks the darkest. Even when it looks hopeless, it’s not over—the resurrection is coming. Jesus ran the race set before Him, He died, rose from the dead, He ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the throne of God—and He has promised that you are going to share in His kingdom and His power and His glory, forever and ever.
Everything that matters in this world points to putting our faith in Jesus. Our hope, our happy ending, our salvation is all founded and perfected in Him. So, look to him, point to him, point other people to Him, and no matter what happens—keep running and endure until the end.