“Without Faith it is impossible to please God…”

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“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.

By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.

By an act of faith, Abel brought a better sacrifice to God than Cain. It was what he believed, not what he brought, that made the difference. That’s what God noticed and approved as righteous. After all these centuries, that belief continues to catch our notice.

By an act of faith, Enoch skipped death completely. “They looked all over and couldn’t find him because God had taken him.” We know on the basis of reliable testimony that before he was taken “he pleased God.” It’s impossible to please God apart from faith. And why? Because anyone who wants to approach God must believe both that he exists and that he cares enough to respond to those who seek him.” 

That’s Hebrews 11:1-6 in the Message. It’s a paraphrase of which I’m particularly fond, since everytime I read a passage in it with which I’ve become over-familiar in “the original,” like this one, it pulls me up short and forces me to re-examine what I thought I knew. That’s the justifcation for every new translation, isn’t it?

Of course, there’s a difference between knowledge and understanding. Jesus criticised the Pharisees who knew the words of Scripture in microscopic detail but didn’t connect with the Author:  You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

There’s an old song that goes: “Oh, you know all the words, and you sung all the notes, But you never quite learned the song, she sang.”

So what is the song? To the writer of Hebrews, it’s faith. Faith is the underlying song behind the entire story of the world “from life’s first cry to final breath.”

Within this long letter, the author is working to re-orient the whole of [what we call] the Old Testament revelation upon the new Fact of Christ.  Christ is the Messiah! Christ has come! The Promises of ancient times have been fulfilled! So what is the purpose and place now of that long story of the Hebrew people?

There are two opposite errors that kick into play here. The first is the mistake of Marcion who proposed that we simply snip away that first thousand odd pages of our Bibles and ditch them forever. They are irrelevant and redundant. We don’t need that stuff because Christ has come. So he took scissors and cut us free of Genesis-to-Malachi; and then, realising just how intrinsic the Old Testament was to the New, he took the scissors to huge tracts of the New Testament too, saying quite logically that we don’t need all those tedious Old Testament references either. The consequence was that rather than read the”Bible-in-a-Year,” you could read one of Marcion’s “Bibles” in about twenty minutes flat.

That’s the mistake of subtraction, of under-emphasis.

The opposite error is one of over-emphasis. It is to maintain the ongoing validity of the regulations of the Hebrew Scriptures on their own, separate terms. Of course, it’s not really practicable to continue animal sacrifices, and almost as hard to repudiate mixed-fibre clothing or to insist on the destruction of walls containing mildew (all are Old Testament ordinances), but nonetheless, the attempt is sometimes made to maintain the Sabbath along Jewish lines, certain Old Testament regulations (like tithing) and a sort of reworked version of Old Testament Feasts and Festivals.

The underlying principle of the letter to the Hebrews, however, is that all those beliefs and practices have to be re-understood in the light of the coming of the Messiah. Christ is like the hub of the wheel, and every aspect of the Old Testament is like a spoke in the wheel which only finds its cohesion when slotted into place in Him.

So Sabbath, law, festivals, sacrifice, temple, priesthood… everything is re-oriented in Christ. Indeed, this point is one of the main reasons that the whole letter was written. It is clear that he wanted to encourage faltering Jewish Christians not to drift away from the message which they had heard ( Hebrews 2:1; 5:12-14; 12:1-2).  But the “drift” was not towards atheism  as such, but a drift back to the Law of Moses.

The author wanted to show the absurdity of forsaking Christianity and returning to the Law system ( Hebrews 8:6-23; 9:13-15; 10:1-4; Gal. 4:21).

The key word in Hebrews is “Better.” It is the author’s chosen term to describe the connection between Christ and the Old Testament. This is a better revelation, Christ’s is a better name, a better sacrifice, a better priesthood, a better covenant, a better hope built on better promises…

One might deduce then, that the author veers towards the Marcion view, but this would be a false deduction. In fact, the very word “better” insists on the ongoing validity of the Old Testament revelation as a point of comparison, Can the flower say to the root system, “I no longer have any use for you”? Can the skyscraper dismiss the ongoing validity of the foundation as irrelevant and redundant?

We have two Testaments but only one Bible, and its author is Christ.

But there is one central point where there is a living, flowing continuity between Old and New, according to Hebrews 11. And it’s the point of faith. Faith is “the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living.” It’s “our handle on what we can’t see.” And that’s always been the case. Every Old Testament character who turned to God did so by faith. In fact, “the act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”

And that’s the point where Hebrews 11 starts. It’s a voyage into the discovery of the lifestyle that has always pleased God: the adventure of faith.

For “Without Faith it is impossible to please God…”

 

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