Sermon preached on Hebrews 11:16-22 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/18/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Concerning Things to Come”
If only we could tell the future! How many of life’s decisions would be easier to make. And yet as Christians we have been told at least some things about the future. And for the patriarchs they too had been told concerning certain things to come. Our passage for today then explores the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph in this regard. By faith, they lived looking forward to how God would fulfill what he promised.
Let’s begin then with Abraham. This is the last part of chapter 11 that deals with Abraham, and here its about how God tested his faith in Genesis 22. There, in Genesis 22:1 it specifically describes what happened there as God testing Abraham. There, God told Abraham to go and sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. Would Abraham obey God? More so, would he keep his faith and confirm his faith through this?
On the one hand, it’s a bewildering request of God, to say the least. It immediately raises a question of ethics. Ethically, why would God tell Abraham to do this? To further support what we surely instinctively feel about such a request, we might remember what happens later in Israel’s history. Later, in Israel’s history, they began the pagan, idolatrous practice that involved child sacrifice to the false god Moloch. In Jeremiah 32, we see God respond to that action. There God says that he never commanded them to do such child sacrifice, nor did it even enter his mind, and that such a thing is an abomination to God. So, I think we should feel right about having a sick feeling about thinking of such a request. On the other hand, we also can’t help but consider that it was God’s free choice to sacrifice his only begotten Son on the cross that became the sacrifice for sin we all needed. Yet, in further reflection those things aren’t that far off. It’s abominable to think of God sacrificing Jesus on the cross. But our great abominable guilt of sin required such. The sacrifice of our children wouldn’t be able to atone for all our great guilt. But Jesus’ sacrifice would.
But I digress. That issue of the ethics of this is really not raised in either Hebrews or Genesis, though the typology that looks forward to Christ’s sacrifice surely comes through in both books. What is the point raised is whether Abraham would pass this test of faith. In fact, Abraham did pass the test. He passed it “by faith”. Again, this was faith that expressed itself in obedience to God. But here is one of the clearer ways that we can see from Genesis that it was faith that was behind it. For we see in verse 18 what was at the heart of the test of faith. God said that it would be through Isaac that his offspring would be named. In other words, all God’s promises of a people and a place were going to be fulfilled specifically through Isaac. That Scripture reference in verse 18 is from Genesis 21:12 where God speaks in response to Sarah wanting to get rid of Ishmael from the house. Remember, Ishmael was the son born to Abraham from their maidservant Hagar. God says to Abraham that Sarah’s concern is right; that Ishmael is not to be his heir; it would only be through Isaac that God would work his promises for Abraham.
This then too is part of the bewildering aspect to this command of God. If God said he would work the line of promise only through Isaac, then how could God do that if God has Abraham kill Isaac? Verse 19 gives us the answer that Abraham came to. God does not lie, so therefore God will be able to raise Isaac from the dead afterwards. That’s faith! This is not only what Hebrews tells us. But we see it in Genesis too. In Genesis 22:5, just before Abraham and Isaac go off to make the sacrifice, he tells the two servants he brought with him to wait there with the donkey while he and Isaac go and worship. Abraham tells the servants that after they worship that we will come back to you. He doesn’t say to them, “I will return.” He says, “We will return.” Abraham believed God would keep his promise through Isaac and so he knew that one way or another Isaac would be coming home with him that day.
Interestingly, verse 19 says that Abraham did effectively get Isaac back from the dead. What is also interesting there in the Greek is that what is translated as “in a figurative sense” is most literally “in a figure”. Some have understood this in the sense of “as a figure”, meaning that receiving back Isaac from the dead is a figure or type of resurrection in general. If that is case, it means Isaac’s effective resurrection looks either to the notion that God’s people will find resurrection for themselves in the future, or maybe most specifically prefiguring Christ’s resurrection after his sacrifice. It’s hard to be dogmatic about that point exegetically. But it’s easy to be dogmatic about that point in terms of our biblical theology. In other words, whether the text here makes that point in terms of its words – very possible. But either way, it would be right to discern that typology in light of the whole of the sacred history in the Bible concerning redemption.
To sum up then, what we see with Abraham is he had faith in what God had promised to do specifically through Isaac. That meant that no matter what happened in the here and now with Isaac, he trusted God for the future of what he would do through Isaac. Because of God’s promise to bring the blessing through Isaac and in Isaac alone, Abraham could have faith.
So then, let’s turn now to our second point and see something similar with both Isaac and Jacob in how they both invoked future blessings. Starting with Isaac, we note that it mentions the blessings he gave to both of his sons, Jacob and Esau. You might recall that before their births, by divine prophecy, God said Esau the older would serve Jacob the younger. You might also recall, that despite that prophecy, that as Isaac neared death, he at first prepared to bless Esau over Jacob. Esau was his favorite child, and it appears he was going to give the greater blessing to Esau instead of Jacob. If Isaac had succeeded in doing that, surely it would not have been “by faith” and surely even his desire to do it was not by faith either. But after that did not happen, and Jacob in sinful guile to his father secured the greater blessing, that’s when Isaac next steps are seen expressing faith. When Isaac realized he had been deceived and had blessed Jacob instead, hear what immediately happened next. Genesis 27:33, “Then Isaac trembled very violently.” Then Isaac continued to explain to Esau how Jacob took away his blessing and that Jacob would indeed be blessed. After that Esau pleaded with his father Isaac to also bless him too. Isaac did, but his blessing on Esau then began to sound in line with the previous prophecy given about the boys before their birth. Then finally, in the very next chapter, Isaac calls for Jacob and reaffirms the blessing, specifically bestowing upon Jacob the “blessing of Abraham.” The promises that God gave Abraham, he was putting them upon Jacob. So then, Isaac took what God had put upon him and ultimately put it upon Jacob just as God had prophesied from before their birth. As we see in Romans 9:11, all this was so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.
So then, we see this continued unto the next generation with Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons, referenced in verse 21. There are several things to note here about Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons. First, unlike with Isaac and Jacob, there was no prophecy that preferred one child over their siblings in terms of the overall promise. God had told Abraham it would be Isaac and not Ishmael. And God had said it would be Jacob and not Esau. But that was not said regarding Jacob’s twelve sons. Through Jacob, God would finally begin to make those multitudes through his sons, each becoming a tribe of Israel. In fact, Jacob prophetically blessed each of his sons in Genesis 49 with unique blessings for each of them. But that’s not what Hebrews references here. Here, it references the end of Genesis 47 and Genesis chapter 48 which brings together two scenes between Jacob and Joseph. In chapter 48 he gives the double blessing, the blessing of the firstborn to Joseph. There, we see the interesting way that he does this. He does it by taking Joseph’s two children, Manasseh and Ephraim, and putting a blessing on each. And interestingly, Jacob gives the greater of the blessing to the younger one, Ephraim. Surely, that reflected on Jacob’s own heritage and a recognition of the grace that he had personally received from God in such a way. Surely, it was part of Jacob’s own personal “by faith” response. And there we see Jacob especially references the name and heritage of Abraham and Isaac, putting that on the boys, and pointing to the promising future as God had promised long before to both Abraham and Isaac.
But what becomes especially telling in terms of faith and in this interaction between Jacob and Joseph is the part referenced from Genesis 47. It’s the reference to Jacob worshipping while leaning on his staff. We find this in Genesis 47:31, though it may be noted that the LXX understands the Hebrew vowel points there as “staff” whereas the later Masoretic Text supplied the vowel points for the same Hebrew letters as “bed”, but I digress. The point in context is that Jacob began to worship God after requesting Joseph to swear that Joseph would not bury him in Egypt but back in the Promised Land in the Cave of Machpelah with the other patriarchs. It was once Joseph swore to that fact, that Jacob began to worship. Jacob knew in his death that he would also join with his fathers in resting in the grave of the Promised Land. It was a recognition of faith that their time in Egypt was only temporary; that God’s promises to bring his family line into possession of the Promised Land was still the future. Joseph’s oath to bury him in that Promised Land, in the family tomb, in that little bit of the land that they currently owned, only further confirmed God’s promises to Jacob. And so, both living and dying in faith, Jacob worships God looking to the future, concerning things to come.
To sum up then what we see with both Isaac and Jacob, they both invoked future blessings in terms of what they believed God would do through their lineage. Theirs had become the ongoing line of promise, and so they invoked such blessings in terms of faith in that promise. Turning then to our third point, we see the same sort of faith at work in Joseph. This is verse 22 and it refers back to the very last chapter and section in Genesis, Genesis 50:22-26.
There we find Joseph in his old age, living to see his great-grandchildren, speaking of his death. But he also spoke of the future beyond that. He spoke of how one day Israel would leave Egypt and when he did, they were to take his bones with them so he could be buried in the promised land. Verse 22 has the word “departure” in our translation, but the Greek word is literally the word for exodus. And so, by faith, Joseph already begins to speak of the Exodus. Philip Ryken in his commentary points out that God had already prophesied this to Abraham back in Genesis 15. There, God had told Abraham how before his descendants truly would possess the Promised Land, they would first have to live as strangers in a foreign land and be afflicted during that time for four hundred years. Only after that, would God bring the people back into the Promised Land and give it to them as their own. Joseph, surely knowing this promise, speaks of it, and puts his faith in it. Joseph even surely recognizes the part God had him play in all of it. But by faith, at the end of his life, Joseph yet looks forward concerning the good things to come. He puts his gaze on things yet future, promises he won’t receive in his own life. But he puts his stock in them, even as he binds the Israelites by oath to bring his bones with them into the Promised Land when finally, they make their exodus from Egypt. As a side note, we again see with both Jacob and Joseph concern of how the burial of their bodies reflect their hope and faith that they had when they sojourned in this life. Surely that has an application for us to consider how our own burials point to our hope as well.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, all these patriarchs are being commended for their faith that looked to what God would yet do in the future. They were content in their faith even as their faith directed itself beyond their life. Abraham looked to what God would do in Isaac. Isaac looked to what God would do in Jacob. Jacob looked what God would do in the future for all his sons, and especially in Joseph. Joseph story, as it found closure outside the promised land and looking upon a time of affliction, looked beyond in faith to the future when God would bring them out in glory to that land of promise and blessing. Each of these looked ahead to the future and were content to how they played a part in leading up to that future of glory.
As that sacred history continued to unfold, it has finally become so clear that in the fulness of times the promise to Abraham’s line would come to its full in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, and Jesus alone, would God’s people be named. In Jesus, and in Jesus alone, would God’s blessing for his people come. Remember the blessings held out here in this passage. The blessings ultimately came to Christ and we share in them in Christ! The fact that along the way it was first Isaac and Isaac alone and then Jacob and Jacob alone looked ultimately how God’s promise and blessings came to be worked out in Jesus and Jesus alone! God’s promise to Abraham was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus and in no one else. For there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. Rather, it’s in Jesus Christ that we come into the blessings held out to the patriarchs. Isn’t that what Ephesians 1:3 says? Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places! We now have the ultimate exodus in Christ and in him alone. We have exited from the affliction and bondage of sin and are brought into the inheritance of the glorious age to come. No one else brings this. It is in Christ and Christ alone.
For us then, a big part of our faith looks backward. Whereas the patriarchs looked forward by faith to what would come in Christ, we look backward in faith. And yet this faith, like Abraham’s, will surely still be tested and tried. And in leading to our own deaths, we remember in faith concerning good things yet to come. Let us live and die in faith looking to that future which is ours in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.