Isaiah 53:1-12: Israel or Messiah?


This is a verse-by-verse study of Isaiah 52:13-53:1-12. This is not only a beautiful revelation of Christ’s saving death in the place of sinners, but also a stunning confirmation of its truth. When you read the story of your salvation in detail 700 years before it happened, you have not only revelation, but validation.

Isaiah 53 is known to be the fourth in the series of “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah. The first three servant songs are found in Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–6; 50:4–11. Let’s start from Isaiah 52, verse 13:

Behold, My Servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted (Isaiah 52:13 NASB)

Behold, My Servant will prosper. Sometimes in the book of Isaiah “the servant” of the Lord is the people of Israel (Isaiah 41:8, 10). Sometimes the servant is the prophet Isaiah himself (Isaiah 49:5). But in Isaiah 53, the servant can’t be the prophet or the people because the servant is pictured as substituting himself for both the prophet and the people. Who then was this servant of the Lord? The New Testament answer is that he was Jesus the Messiah. In all the history of Israel, no one comes close to fulfilling this prophecy besides Jesus. Jesus himself said, “The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve [that is, to be the suffering servant] and to give his life a ransom [a substitute!] for many” (Mark 10:45). Isaiah goes on to say that the Messiah will prosper and triumph.  

He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted. The Messiah is greatly exalted because He is the “King of Kings” (1 Timothy 6:15). Similar expressions “high and lifted up” are used of the Almighty God in Isaiah 6:1 and Isaiah 57:15. 

Just as many were appalled at you my people, so His appearance was marred beyond that of a man, And His form beyond the sons of mankind (Isaiah 52:14)

Just as many were appalled at you.  Many were horrified by the sight of the servant Messiah. Why were the people shocked at the Messiah? [Note: The phrase “my people”, is probably not the best translation as it tends to suggest that this statement is directed at Israel (“My people”) and not the Messiah. It is not appropriate given the context of Chapter 53, and preceding verses. Also, the word “my people” is not in the Hebrew, hence it is italicized].

So His appearance was marred beyond that of a man. And His form beyond the sons of mankind. His form or appearance was so disfigured and deformed.This may be speaking of the cruel and vicious beating the Messiah endures at the hands of the people, that disfigured him and made him hardly look like a man. The result was so shocking that many were astonished when they saw the Messiah.Luke records this fulfillment. “Now the men who held Jesus mocked Him and beat Him. And having blindfolded Him, they struck Him on the face and asked Him, saying, “Prophesy! Who is the one who struck You?” (Luke 22:63-64).

So He will sprinkle many nations, Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; For what they had not been told, they will see, And what they had not heard, they will understand (Isaiah 53:15)

So He will sprinkle many nations. Sprinkling is often associated with cleansing from sin in the Old Testament (Exodus 24:8, Leviticus 3:8). Here, the promise is that the work of the Messiah will bring cleansing to many nations.

Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him. Though all will be astonished at His appearance, ultimately they will have nothing to say against Him. To shut the mouths here indicates veneration and admiration. “So that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10)

For what they had not been told, they will see, and what they had not heard, they will understand. Kings will come to recognize and understand this wonderful exaltation of the messenger of God and who He really is, which had not before been made known to them or which they had not heard before. 

Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? (Isaiah 53:1 NASB)

Who has believed our report. The answer to this rhetorical question is scarcely anyone. When the Messiah is revealed to the Jews and the world, will people believe Isaiah’s words in this chapter about the Messiah?

And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? To whom was the Messiah revealed? Arm is an emblem of power, and power of God was revealed through the Messiah to the Jews. Now Isaiah goes on to explain more about the Messiah in the following verses hoping that people will recognize the Messiah.

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of dry ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we would look at Him, Nor an appearance that we would take pleasure in Him (Isaiah 53:2)

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. Though theMessiah’s origin is from “eternity” (Micah 5:2), and He eternally “existed in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6), but when He took upon Himself the “form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7), and came to earth as a man, He did grow up, and increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God the Father and men (Luke 2:52). But all the while, He was as a tender plant, of seeming weakness and insignificance, not like a mighty tree.

He has no stately form or majesty that we would look at Him, Nor an appearance that we would take pleasure in Him.  Jesus was not a man of remarkable beauty or physical attractiveness. This doesn’t mean that Jesus was ugly, but it does mean that He did not have the “advantage” of good looks to attract people to Him.


He was despised and abandoned by men, A man of great pain and familiar with sickness; And like one from whom people hide their faces, He was despised, and we had no regard for Him (Isaiah 53:3)

He was despised and abandoned by men.  He was rejected by the Jews; by the rich; the great and the learned; by the mass of people of every grade, and age, and rank. He is also despised today by many. 

A man of great pain and familiar with sickness. His life was so full of sufferings. Jesus is not mentioned as having ever suffered under sickness but He was familiar with sickness so he can identify with our sufferings. “For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15)

And like one from whom people hide their faces, He was despised, and we had no regard for Him. Because there was nothing outwardly beautiful about the Messiah, mankind’s reaction was to withdraw from Him, to despise Him, and hold Him in low esteem.

However, it was our sicknesses that He Himself bore, And our pains that He carried; Yet we ourselves assumed that He had been afflicted, Struck down by God, and humiliated. (Isaiah 53:4)

However, it was our sicknesses that He Himself bore. And our pains that He carried. He made our griefs His own, and our sorrows as if they were His.

Yet we ourselves assumed that He had been afflicted, struck down by God, and humiliated. People thought He was subjected to great and severe punishment by God for his sins or regarded him as an object of divine punishment.


But He was pierced for our offenses, He was crushed for our wrongdoings; The punishment for our well-being was laid upon Him, And by His wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5)

But He was pierced for our offenses. Yes, the Messiah was struck by God. But now, the prophet explains why. It was for us – for our offenses or transgressions…for our sins or wrongdoings. It was in our place that the Messiah suffered death by nails piercing his hands. The Messiah took our punishment. 

He was crushed for our wrongdoings. Bruised or crushed for our sins. The Hebrew words “crushed”, “pierced” are the strongest ones in that language for violent and excruciating death. 

The punishment for our well-being was laid upon Him. This shows again that Messiah’s sufferings were not just with His people but for them. The Messiah endured the punishment, whatever they were, which were needed to secure our peace, well-being, reconciliation with God. “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

And by His wounds we are healed.  The proper idea is the wounds made by bruising Him,it has brought healing to us, primarily spiritual healing,  pardon from sin, and restoration to the favor of God.

All of us, like sheep, have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the wrongdoing of us all To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:6)

All of us, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way.  Sheep are stupid, headstrong animals, and we, like they, have gone astray. We have turned – against God’s way, everyone, to his own way. “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious [perfect] standard” (Romans 3:23).

But the Lord has caused the wrongdoing of us all to fall on Him. Here we see the partnership between the Father and the Son in the work on the cross. If the Messiah was wounded for our sins or wrongdoings, then it was also the LORD who laid on Him the iniquity or wrongdoing of us all. The Father judged our sin as it was laid on the Son. Jesus is the “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

He was oppressed and afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth (Isaiah 53:7)

Despite the pain and the suffering of the Messiah, He never opened His mouth to defend Himself. He was silent before His accusers (Mark 15:2-5), never speaking to defend Himself, only to glorify God. As a sheep submits quietly to the operation of shearing, he voluntarily took upon himself the punishment.

By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off from the land of the living For the wrongdoing of my people, to whom the blow was due? (Isaiah 53:8)

By oppression and judgment He was taken away. He was taken out of this life by oppression, violence, and a pretence of justice by the people.

And as for His generation who considered That He was cut off from the land of the living for the wrongdoing of my people, to whom the blow was due?  Who considered in that generation when the Messiah came that the Messiah was put to death on account of the sin of the people, to whom the punishment was actually due?

And His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth (Isaiah 53:9)

And His grave was assigned with wicked men. Messiah died in the company of the wicked. Luke 23:32-33 records that Jesus fulfilled this. Jesus’ grave was intended to be assigned with the wicked by crucifying him with two thieves.

Yet He was with a rich man in His death. Despite the intention of others to make His grave with the wicked, God allowed the Messiah to be with the rich at His death, buried in the tomb of the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-56, Matthew 27:57-60).

Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. Even in His taking the sins of God’s people, the Messiah never sinned. He remained the Holy One, despite all the pain and suffering.

But the Lord desired To crush Him, causing Him grief; If He renders Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand (Isaiah 53:10)

But the Lord desired To crush Him, causing Him grief. The prophet Isaiah emphatically states that the suffering of the Messiah was ordained by the LORD, and the Lord desired to do it for our sake. Messiah was no victim of circumstance or at the mercy of political or military power. It was the planned, ordained work of the LORD God.

If He renders Himself as a guilt offering. The word employed for ‘guilt offering’ means a trespass offering, and carries us at once back to the sacrificial system in the Old Testament. The trespass offering was distinguished from other offerings. The central idea of it was to represent sin or guilt as debt, and the sacrifice as making payment for it. 

He will see His offspring. If Messiah offers Himself as a guilt offering,His death shall be glorious to himself and his spiritual descendants, for he shall have a numerous offspring of believers, reconciled to God, and saved by his death.

He will prolong His days. If Messiah offers Himself as a guilt offering, then He will also live long. Messiah’s death is made the condition of this long life. It was the  resurrection of Christ, and his entrance again to immortal life (Romans 6:9), after offering himself as a sacrifice upon the cross, that fulfills these words.

And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. Christ’s Sacrifice carried out the divine pleasure, and by His Sacrifice the divine pleasure is further carried out and prospered.

Why can’t God simply forgive us? God’s love desires a relationship with us. But God’s holiness can have nothing to do with sin.  Hence, sin must be atoned for.  God’s justice demands punishment for rebellion.  His love desires another.  God’s solution was to send his Son to take the penalty for our sins.  Is that logical? Not to human minds. But that’s what God did.  God sent his eternal Son as a sacrifice so as to be just (holy) and at the same time to justify (declare innocent) those who have faith in Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus was not about love.  It was about justice, but the reason it happened was because of God’s love.


As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, For He will bear their wrongdoings (Isaiah 53:11)

As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied. The Messiah will look upon His work, with full view of the anguish caused on His soul – and in the end, He shall be satisfied. “He will see it and be satisfied” appears to be a reference to a resurrection. “Because of the joy awaiting him, he [Jesus] endured the cross, disregarding its shame…” (Hebrews12:2)

By His knowledge, the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many. By His knowledge, meaning by the knowledge of Him. It is in knowing the Messiah, in both who He is and what He has done, that makes us justified (declared righteous) before God.

For He will bear their wrongdoings. For the Messiah shall satisfy the justice and law of God for us, by bearing the punishment due to our sins and wrongdoings.


Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the plunder with the strong, Because He poured out His life unto death, And was counted with wrongdoers; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the wrongdoers (Isaiah 53:12)

Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the plunder with the strong. This verse is designed to predict the triumphs of the Messiah. It is language used from the custom of distributing spoils of victory after a king has battled his enemies. The Father will exalt His Son Jesus and give Him ‘a portion’ that is great. How much is that portion? “All things have been created through Him [the Son] and for Him [the Son] (Col 1:16). Then Jesus will divide the ‘plunder’ or ‘spoils’ with the strong, meaning those strong in faith, believers (Rom 8:15-18).

Because He poured out His life unto death, And was counted with wrongdoers. This speaks of the totality of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Poured out means that it was all gone. Jesus could never become a sinner; He could never be a transgressor Himself. Yet willingly, loving, He was numbered with the transgressors for our benefit. What is that benefit? 

Yet He Himself bore the sin of many. Over and over again, the prophet emphasizes the point. The Messiah suffers on behalf of and in the place of guilty sinners, as our substitute. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The greatest exchange of all time is when God, in His grace and His mercy, made His eternal Son became the Propitiation (payment); He became the one who paid the debt for our redemption.  He became the sacrifice for sin, so that only on the basis of what Jesus has done, He offers to exchange our filthy dirty offensive robe of sin for a robe of Christ’s eternal righteousness. 

And interceded for the wrongdoers. This passage may be referring to Jesus’ prayers on the cross itself for His people or Jesus’ ministry of intercession (Hebrews 7:25) in heaven right now. This means the work of the Messiah is made available to transgressors even now. We are saved by His death, resurrection and life. It is when we see ourselves as sinners falling short of God’s perfection that we can reach out and receive His salvation.

So who will believe this report? To this day, Jews and even many Christians do not want to accept the idea of a dying Messiah who would die as our substitute and pay our sin debt. The fact is these people have no need of a savior.  They have no need of a sacrifice for sin.  Nobody in a works system of religion needs a savior. They want a king who would reward them for what they deserve and how good their performance is. If you don’t understand the doctrine of depravity (how sinful you are), and you don’t understand that you are unable to save yourself by anything you do, then you don’t need a savior to save you, right? You think you can achieve salvation by your work and efforts.  And any system that has any achievement that saves belief, has no place for a vicarious, substitutionary atoning death of the Messiah. 

Did Judaism believe that Isaiah 53 was referring to Messiah?

While the modern view in Judaism views Israel as the servant, which was popularized by the famous commentator Rashi in the 11th Century. There are influential Jewish scholars, like Maimonides (Rambam) considered Isaiah 53 to be about the Messiah.

See (external link): Is the Servant in Isaiah 53 the Messiah?

Hebrews 11:13-22 – A Better City

We reminded ourselves last time that everybody lives by faith. It’s not just the Christians; everybody lives by faith. The question is: faith in what? “What is the object of our faith?” Everybody deep within their souls has a longing—a longing for something that will satisfy, a longing for something that gives us significance. We have these deep real longings in our souls as people made in the image of God, and there are millions of people who believe somehow, some way, those deepest longings can be satisfied in this world. They believe somehow this world will ultimately make them happy…will make them significant…will meet the deepest needs in their soul. In essence, they do believe you can create heaven on earth. Most of us here would say, “We simply don’t have that much faith.” We look at the world, such as it is, and it just seems like a reckless leap of faith. Rather we choose to believe there’s got be something different and something better. That’s what we want to talk about today in Chapter 11.  

It’s our second part in Hebrews 11, and it would be good to go back to verse 1 and just remind ourselves again of the Hebrews’ definition of faith. So: “Faith is the assurance, (the confidence) of things hoped for.” Again, hope in the New Testament is something that is certain but it is also something that is yet future. This word assurance is a word that can also be translated as the substance. In other words, it’s something I believe so strongly that it actually becomes the substance or the foundation of my life. I believe it to such a degree that I live in such a way that I actually give people a glimpse today of the world to come. It is: “…the conviction of things not seen,” which reminds us this is a faith that is thoughtful; it’s reasoned; it’s not just a reckless leap of faith, but rather we have examined the evidence and concluded, “This is what we believe is true.” The writer then goes on to illustrate this kind of faith through people like Abel, through Enoch, through Noah, through Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob, which is where we pick up the story in verse 13: 

All of these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. (*NASB, Hebrews 11:13-15) 

This is very important to understand. What the writer says is all of these died in faith, without receiving the promises. We don’t like that. We want what we want, and we want it now. “I want the promises kept and I want them kept now!” Many Christians struggle with this desire to see the promises fulfilled and fulfilled now. We want to believe that somehow the deepest longings of our soul can be satisfied in this world. We want to somehow create heaven on earth.  

It’s a little bit like building your dream house in a war zone. And let’s imagine the builder tells you again and again not to do it, “It’s not going to work,” but you won’t listen; you insist! So he builds you your dream house in a war zone. Then you don’t like it. “It’s too noisy; it’s too dangerous!” But here’s the irony: Then you turn around and you blame the builder. That’s what we do. We take these promises and we want them fulfilled now; we want our best life now!  And so that is what we try to accomplish—heaven on earth.  

But this world just breaks our heart again and again and again, and when it doesn’t work out like we want it to, then we blame God. And God says, “Wait a minute, that’s not what I promised. I didn’t promise your best life now.” You can sell a lot of books with that theme; you can fill a big auditorium with that theme, but it simply isn’t what God promises. What God promises is: this is going to be tough. This is going to be hard. The hope of the gospel is the reminder that one day Jesus is coming back and we will be ushered to the place that our souls long for.  

Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob—they all believed the promise that God would give them a land, but they all lived in tents. They all died having never seen the promise fulfilled. The text said they were aliens and strangers. They were saying, “This world is not my home—at least not as it is now.”  The writer says they wanted to find a place to call home, and if they were referring to the cities from which they left, they could have just gone back home. Moving to some other place, trying some other thing is not going to cut it. But rather with eyes of faith, they knew they were headed for somewhere else. Verse 16: 

But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.  

They understood that even the land of promise is but a shadow of the eventual city their souls long for—which is not an earthly city—it is a heavenly city that will be everything that they longed for. But they believed by faith. They lived by faith; they died by faith…believing it’s true. It’s very interesting what the last part of verse 16 says: Therefore…  As a result of that—remembering that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, these were not perfect people—go back and read their stories. There were times of struggle, times of death; there were times when they seriously messed up. Jacob was a liar; he was a schemer; you don’t even like the guy after you read his story. The message has never been on the basis of their performance but on the basis of their belief. They believed that God would keep His promise.  Therefore God is not ashamed.   

Verse 17: 

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac… (Vs. 17a)   

So this story is found in Genesis chapter 22; you can go back and read it for yourself. The verb tense here would indicate that in Abraham’s mind he had already offered Isaac. In other words, he wasn’t still wrestling with the idea.  He had settled it; he would offer his son, Isaac.  

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; (Vs. 17b)   

It’s the same language as John 3:16—For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son. The language means specifically unique or special. We’re called the sons and daughters of God, but we’re not God’s only begotten Son in that special way that Jesus was. In the same way, Abraham had other sons, but they were not the son of promise—Isaac was! And so Abraham is wrestling with this idea that God promised that the seed would travel through Isaac, but He’s asking me to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. At this point Isaac would have been 12 or 13 years old. Verse 18: 

 …it was he to whom it was said, “IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE  CALLED.”  (So, in his mind, Abraham had settled it.)  He considered… (That word is very strong. He had a deep, deep conviction…) that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type. (Vs. 18-19) 

Essentially what the text is saying is that Abraham, in his mind had sacrificed Isaac—he had settled it. But he believed so strongly in the promise and that God tells the truth that somehow God would raise him from the dead in order to fulfill His promise. As a matter of fact, if you go back to Genesis 22:5 and you read the story, Abraham says to his servants, “Wait at the bottom of the hill and we will return to you.” He believed with all of his heart that he and Isaac would return, and his way of making sense of that is, “God’s going to raise him from the dead.” 

But the other part of that story is in that moment when God stopped Abraham, He provided a ram, and the ram would die rather than Isaac. The ram would be the substitute for Isaac that would die that day. We don’t have to guess at this; the text actually tells us:  that was a type—a shadow, a picture. Isaac’s story was a type (parable, figure, illustration) of the fact that God will give us what He has promised. He was a type of Christ. We’ve had a lot of that in Hebrews. It was the reminder that one day on this same mountain, on Mount Moriah, there would be a Father who would actually sacrifice His only begotten Son for the sins of the world. He would be the substitute. He would be the Lamb of God who would die the death for Isaac, would die the death for Abraham, would die the death for all of us as sinners. We’ve learned this in Hebrews: He died our death. His blood is sufficient payment for sin. There’s nothing more that needs to be done.  

But what the story also includes is the resurrection—that Jesus not only died and was buried, but He conquered sin and death once and for all when He rose from the dead—literally, physically, bodily rose from the dead! That’s Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15—the basis by which we believe that we will experience resurrection after death, and it is not just religious talk, not just wishful thinking. It’s based on the fact that Jesus Himself literally, physically, bodily rose from the dead and conquered sin and death once and for all that we, too, might be resurrected and live even though we die. Verse 20: 

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come. By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones.  (Vs. 20-22)  

The text is reminding us that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph believed the promise, but they would die having never seen it fulfilled. They would never inherit the land in their lifetime. What did Abraham have to pass on to Isaac? The promise! What did Isaac have to pass on to his sons Jacob and Esau? The promise! “Boys, I know we’ve been living in a tent our whole lives, but God tells the truth. We have to trust Him.”  Joseph so believed the promise that he said, “Don’t bury me here.” Egypt was his home. “Take the bones to Canaan, because that will be our land.” It would be over four hundred years before God would raise up Moses to deliver them out of the land of Egypt into the land of promise.  Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, his sons— they’d all be buried in Canaan. But at the time of the burial, the land would belong to someone else. They just believed by faith, one day God will keep His promise. But it was more than that. They understood the land of promise was yet but a picture of something more. They were aliens and strangers; they were passing through; they wanted a country of their own which ultimately would be a heavenly city that would be everything their souls longed for. It is interesting that in verse 16God had prepared a place. It was past tense—God already had the city ready. . The root of this hope is found in the resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus literally, physically, bodily rose from the dead, He did not rise from the dead with a new body. He rose from the dead with a resurrected body. He showed the imprints of the nails in His hands; He showed the scar in His side. 

It was the body that was crucified and buried that rose again. This is Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15.  That is the basis by which we believe this body, such as it is, is the body that will be raised from the dead. This mortal will put on immortality. This body will be restored to me and it will be changed and it will be made the way God intended it to be. It’s the picture of redemption, of restoration, of making right what was taken and broken. This is critically important to understand because it is the message filled with such hope! The things that broke our heart, the things that disappointed us, the things in this world that simply were not the way we had hoped they would be, somehow they’re made right and restored and given back.  

The more you understand this, the more you believe this—the more it changes the way you live everyday. The more it changes your priorities, the more it changes your perspective, the more it changes your values—the more you realize what matters and what doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to create heaven on earth. I’m an alien and a stranger and I’m headed to a better place. God made a promise, and I believe that God tells the truth and I believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And I live by faith and I will die in faith, having never seen the promise fulfilled, but believing with all my heart it is true! And there will come a day…finally…where I will finally be home! 

Our Father, it’s hard to even process the depth of the hope of the gospel. God, we know this world teases us; this world breaks our hearts again and again. And it just reminds us this world is not our home—that we are aliens and strangers—and by faith we are headed to a better city—a place that will finally be home! God, until that day, find us faithful. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

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Hebrews 11:1-12 We Must Believe

The writer of Hebrews says that the righteous shall live by faith. He says that we draw near with a sincere heart, in full assurance of faith. He said we endure to the end by faith. He’ll tell us without faith it is impossible to please God—which does raise a question, “What exactly do we mean by that? What exactly does the writer mean by faith? That’s what we want to talk about today so if you have a Bible, turn with us to Hebrews 11, certainly the most familiar chapter in the book of Hebrews, often referred to as the Faith Chapter, or the Faith Hall of Fame. So in chapter 11 the writer is wanting to get very practical in the sense of, “What do we mean by faith and what does this look like lived out in real life?”  He starts with what we’re going to call the Hebrews’ definition. I don’t think Hebrews chapter 11, verse 1, is meant to be the all-inclusive definition of faith but it is the Hebrews’ definition—it clarifies how he is using the term.  Verse 1: 

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men (or saints) of old gained approval. (*NASB, Hebrews 11:1-2) 

So again the idea of hope is not wishful thinking. It’s a term that can be misleading. We say, “I hope it doesn’t snow tomorrow,” but that’s not what the biblical term hope means. It’s always future but it’s also always certainThis has been a major theme in the book of Hebrews. The hope of the gospel is not that everything in this life is going to work out and make sense. It is the promise that ultimately our salvation is completed and we are ushered into a new heaven and a new earth where it will be everything our heart desires. That’s the hope of the gospel. For people headed into persecution, that was their hope—that one day it wouldn’t be like that. So he says it’s the assurance of things hoped for.  

Now that word assurance is a word that can be translated a couple of different ways. There is lots of discussion; all of the translations would pick one or the other. The idea of assurance is the idea of confidence. The other possible interpretation carries more the idea of substance. It’s taken the idea of confidence, but I think it pushes it a little farther. It is a term that could be used to describe like the substance or the foundation of a house. It is the foundation on which everything else is built. So the idea is: this isn’t just something I firmly believe, but I believe it so much that it actually creates the foundation or the substance of my life. It is what I live for. It is what defines my values; it is what defines my worldview; it is what defines my priorities and obedience. As a matter of fact it goes so far that, because this is really what I believe and I believe it so strongly, I actually live that value system in the here and now, and by doing that, I create a glimpse today of the world to come. That’s probably the right way of understanding what the writer is talking about—that faith is such a deep conviction, there’s so much confidence, it isn’t just an intellectual assent, it isn’t just getting the right answers on a test, it actually creates the substance upon which I build my life, and in so doing I give people just a glimpse of the world that is to come. 

The conviction of things not seen—that word conviction is a legal term. It carries the idea of weighing the evidence and coming to a conclusion or a conviction. It is a reminder that biblical faith isn’t a leap of faith; it isn’t an emotional, careless, reckless, wishful thinking. It’s actually thoughtful; it’s reasoned out and this is my conviction—this is what I believe is true. That is illustrated then in verse 3: 

By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared (or created) by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible. 

Basically going back to Genesis, chapter 1, by faith we believe God created. “In the beginning God created.” Can I prove that to you? No. Were any of us there then? No. By faith we believe that God created. The second part of that verse, So that what is seen…that is this world. It takes no faith to believe that the world exists; that is the walk of sight. The faith step is, “How did we get here?” …and what it says is, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible. So the idea is even though this is what we see, we do not believe that the world created itself. We don’t believe that the world self-created, but rather there was something or someone that was invisible that created what is visible. So this reminds us that the issue is not being a person of faith or not being a person of faith. Everybody lives by faith. The issue is, “What is the object of our faith?” So, for example, if we believe as some do that the universe created itself—that something came from nothing—that’s not science; that is a faith statement. Most of us would simply say we don’t have that much faith. Something doesn’t come from nothing. The universe can’t self-create; if it doesn’t exist, it can’t cause anything to happen. We just don’t have that much faith. So, based on the evidence, we have concluded there must be a God and that God created.  

Therefore we have concluded, with conviction, that Genesis 1 is true. It is not contrary to science; it is based on science. So, “In the beginning God created.” That’s the idea, then, of verse 3.  Starting in verse 4 the writer begins to tell stories to illustrate what he’s talking about: 

By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks. 

The text is not saying that Abel’s performance made him righteous. The text is saying that by faith, what he believed was the basis of his righteousness, but that faith manifested itself in action. Cain and Abel were Adam and Eve’s first two sons. We’re not really privy to what the conversation was with God, but clearly there was something that had to do with sacrifice to God.  Abel believed in God; Abel believed God tells the truth; Abel believed that God’s way is the best way; Abel believed that God is God—Abel believed! And he believed to such a degree that it became the substance of his life, which is reflected by what he was willing to give to God. There’s a lot of conversation about what made Cain’s offering unacceptable. Some think it’s because it wasn’t a blood sacrifice; I don’t really think that’s correct. We know from the law that a grain offering was acceptable to God. We also know from the Genesis 4 text that Cain was a farmer. That’s what he had; he was to give out of what he had. If you go back and read the text in Genesis 4, what it says exactly is that God had regard for Abel and his sacrifice; He did not have regard for Cain and his sacrifice. The emphasis of the text is there was something wrong with Cain’s heart that then was reflected in what he gave; and God was pleased with Abel’s heart, which too was reflected by what he gave. It is interesting to note it is essentially the fourth page of the Bible and we are already being told that what we believe will be manifested in what we are willing to give to God. It just is a reminder that at the end of the day everybody lives out his or her belief system. Ultimately your belief system is not what you say you believe. Your belief system is how you live your life. That becomes the substance that defines your life. So what the text is saying is Abel believed; he believed God’s way is the right way; it’s the best way.  He believed that God tells the truth, and it was reflected in his gift. What the text goes on, then, to say is by faith, even though Abel has been dead for thousands of years, his story still speaks, because what he believed was true and eternal. Verse 5: 

By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; AND HE WAS NOT FOUND (literally he disappeared) BECAUSE GOD TOOK HIM UP; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God.  

Literally his life brought pleasure to God. I love the way that’s worded because it’s really helpful to think about. What God asks in return for what He has done for us is that we believe it. We believe it to such a degree that we actually live like it, and when we actually live out of what is true, it is a life that brings God pleasure. The story of Enoch is in Genesis, chapter 5. There isn’t much there; the way the text is worded it appears that when Enoch had a son by the name of Methuselah, something happened in that moment that turned his heart to God, and from that moment through the rest of his life he lived in a way that it brought God pleasure. It had to do with what he believed by faith, to such a degree it became the substance of his life and that’s how he lived. It’s an odd story because at one point Enoch disappears. He can’t be found because God simply took him to heaven. Enoch never died; he just walked into the presence of God. Now it’s really important that we don’t misunderstand. The text is not saying, “If you really believe with all your heart, you won’t die; you’ll just walk into the presence of God.”  It’s good to remember Enoch, by faith, didn’t die; he walked into the presence of God but Abel, by faith, was violently murdered. So there is a reality to the story that by faith it is not necessarily predictable; we just believe and live our lives according.  Verse 6 is a very important verse. I want to come back later to it. So I am going to skip to verse 7: 

By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence (or fear) prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. 

Now the story of Noah is really a remarkable story when you think about it. God comes along and tells Noah that He is going to bring judgment on the earth through this flood, but He is going to save Noah and his family. Noah chose to believe God tells the truth, but what would be required is he would now dedicate his life to the building of a gigantic ark through which they would be saved. The warning period was a hundred and twenty years. Most scholars think the actual building of the ark took somewhere between fifty and seven-five years. Now again, think about this:  Faith isn’t intellectual assent; faith isn’t just sitting around in a  group talking about what you believe; faith is something you believe so strongly it becomes the defining substance of your life, to such a degree that  Noah believed that  something would happen that has never happened before. Imagine spending seventy-five years of your life building a gigantic ark. You’re at least a hundred miles from any significant body of water and the world has never known a flood before. Noah just simply chose to believe God tells the truth, and if that’s what God said, then that’s true, and it defined his life. The text says the reverence—the awe, the worship—of God was so strong in Noah, he believed! The fact that he was building this gigantic ark for salvation was also a message to the rest of the world of condemnation—that judgment is coming and, if you’re not in the ark, then you will suffer the judgment of God. That’s what the text means there. Verses 8: 

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed (the text means obeyed promptly) by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Vs. 8-10) 

Abraham is just another remarkable story. Abraham and his family lived in what would have been a relatively modern city in the day, and along comes God and says, “I want you to move. I’m going to make you a great nation.” Perhaps Abraham said, “Where are we going?” And God said, “Don’t worry about that.” The text says Abraham obeyed promptly. God said it and Abraham believed it. But again, this isn’t an intellectual assent; this isn’t just a group sitting around talking about what they believe. He actually took his family and left. Having been in that part of the world a couple of times, you get a sense of just how courageous that was.  It’s not a very friendly land. Food, water, safety, protection—these all would have been significant concerns. He left the comfort of where he was to go to a place; he didn’t even know where they were going. He just believed God tells the truth. When he got to the land of promise, it would have been wonderful if immediately he would’ve moved into a lovely mansion by the sea. But he lived as an alien, as a stranger, as a wanderer, in a tent the entire rest of his life! Now just think about this. God promised he would inherit the land, but for the rest of his life—in an ancient world it was very unsafe unless you lived in a walled city—so imagine for the rest of your life you live in a tent as a pilgrim, as a alien, as a wanderer. But he believed some day God would keep His promise. That was equally true of Isaac; it was equally true of Jacob. They all lived in tents. They, never in their lifetimes, ever actually possessed the land; they just kept believing God tells the truth. It says they were looking for a city whose foundations—in other words not a tent, it’s a house, it’s a building with a foundation— foundations whose architect and builder is God.  Ultimately the land of promise was a shadow, but it was only that.  It was a shadow of the land of promise, which is the land to come in the presence of God. Abraham, never in his lifetime possessed the shadow, but he does possess the fulfillment of the promise in the presence of God. The text goes on in verse 11: 

By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him (God) faithful who had promised. Therefore there was born even of one man, and him as good as dead at that, as many descendants AS THE STARS OF HEAVEN IN NUMBER, AND INNUMERABLE AS THE SAND WHICH IS BY THE SEASHORE. 

Now the discussion moves to Sarah, and Sarah often gets a bad rap. We fail to really understand the faith and the courage of this woman. Imagine the conversation with her husband when they are quite nicely settled in a relatively modern city and Abraham says, “We’re leaving.”  “Where are we going?”  “I don’t know. We’re just going out into the wilderness, and God will tell us.” But she believed; she trusted her husband and she believed. It’s true there were moments where she struggled; there were moments when Abraham struggled. But try to get your head around this. She is told at age sixty-five, as a barren woman, that she is going to have a child, and ten years later, still no child. So she comes up with plan B: “Maybe Abraham should sleep with my maid; we’ll do it that way.” God shows up and says, “We’re not going to do it that way. You’re going to have to trust Me.” Fifteen more years go by, and what the text tells us is: she believed!  She believed that God tells the truth; she believed that God would be faithful. She believed so much that she stayed with her husband.  She believed so much that she was still having relations with her husband and, at age ninety, she had the child. That is unbelievable faith! That’s not intellectual assent. That’s not a group of people sitting around talking about it. That became the very defining substance of their lives! It caused them to take significant, courageous steps of faith, based on the belief God tells the truth. 

Back to verse 6, which I consider to be a very significant verse—in some ways a life-changing verse for me: He says in verse six: 

And without faith it is impossible to please Him, (…not difficult, not challenging…it’s impossible! I cannot live a life that brings God pleasure without faith, without really believing that God tells the truth.) …for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. 

Now what does he mean when he says we must believe that God is? He is not merely saying you believe God exists; James says the demons believe that God exists.  It is much more like when Moses is before the burning bush and he asks God His name and God says, “I Am.” It’s a very similar statement in the sense that you must believe that God is…that God is who He says He is… that God tells the truth…that He has done what He says He has done…and I believe that to such a degree that it actually becomes the substance of my life! It creates my worldview; it creates my value system; it creates the tracks upon which my life will travel. 

So now let’s get really practical with this. Last time in chapter 10, verse 22, we talked about the imagery that we brought back from the book of Galatians of the idea of the Light Room. When the writer of Hebrews tells us—commands us to draw near—it’s the invitation into the Light Room, into the very presence of Jesus, to experience the intimacy and the depth of the relationship, to dance with Jesus to the music of Amazing Grace. But he says, “When you do that, you come with a sincere heart, a true heart, rightly motivated. I’m not doing that to earn anything or prove anything, I’m just coming because of what I believe is true.” He says, “Draw near to God with a sincere heart  in full assurance of what? …of faith!” In other words it’s based on the fact I really do believe God tells the truth!  

I cannot prove to you that Jesus died for your sins. I cannot prove to you that the blood of Jesus is sufficient to cover your sins. I cannot prove to you that there is nothing else that needs to be done. I cannot prove to you that you stand right in the presence of a holy God. I cannot prove to you that Jesus is coming back. I can’t prove any of that to you. You choose to believe it by faith. Oh, we could talk about things like the authority and reliability of the Scriptures; we could talk about the record of God’s faithfulness throughout history; we could talk about changed lives, but at the end of the day I can’t prove any of that to you. You’re left with wrestling with the question: “Do you or do you not believe God tells the truth?” The alternative is to believe God is a liar. So the idea of drawing near with a sincere heart, in full assurance of faith is saying, “I believe that and that is the basis by which I dwell in the Light Room. Even on my worst days when I’ve blown it again, I still believe what God said is true, and I dwell in the light!”  

But here’s the thing you have to wrestle with. If you find yourself so often in the Dark Room, with your shame and your guilt, in the dark room with your definition again of being Loser Christian, and somehow you have to, to some degree pay for your sin again, the only thing you can conclude is you don’t believe God tells the truth. The only basis by which you dwell in the Dark Room again and again is apparently you don’t yet believe God tells the truth. Why else would you be there? Now part of it is just learning and understanding the truth. I understand that. A lot of people have been taught a lot of things that aren’t correct. I also understand that a lot of people have been taught a lot of lies and those voices can be very powerful. That’s why we gather; that’s why we open up the Scriptures to study together, to learn, to understand what God says. At some point I can explain it to you, but I cannot believe it for you. You have to decide whether or not you believe God tells the truth. That’s the essence of his definition of faith: “I believe it to such a degree I actually live that way. It becomes the defining substance of my life!” 

He says those who come to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. What’s the reward? The reward, in this case, would be to live in the light, in the presence of Jesus, the life that your soul longs for. That’s the reward of your faith if you choose to believe God tells the truth. 

Our Father, we celebrate Your faithfulness today. Lots of us would say sometimes things just make no sense. They’re painful, they’re confusing, and sometimes they just seem cruel and contrary to who You say You are. God, those are the moments we choose to live by faith. We believe that You tell the truth and that You are a rewarder of those that seek You. Lord, may that be true of us today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.