By Gregg Bing
The 11th chapter of Hebrews is often referred to as the “Faith Chapter” or the “Hall of Faith.” The opening verse reads:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)
This is not a definition of faith, but a description of the nature of faith. Contrary to what many critics of Christianity contend, faith in God is not a blind faith. Faith has substance; it has a basis or a foundation on which it rests. Faith is based on evidence, even of things we cannot see. This substance, this evidence is the Word of God, for “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).
A Great Cloud of Witnesses
Difficult concepts, such as faith, are sometimes best understood when demonstrated in the actions of real people as they face the challenges of life. Hebrews, chapter 11, records how the saints of old, both men and women, responded “by faith” to God’s Word, and, by their actions, bore testimony to the character of true faith (Heb. 11:2). Hebrews 12:1 refers to these faithful servants of God as “a great cloud of witnesses.”
As we consider Hebrews 11, two questions arise: “Why are these men and women selected as examples of faith?” and “Why are these particular instances of their faith singled out?”
For example, why isn’t more space given to people like Gideon, David, and Daniel? Gideon and David are identified by name, but no act of faith is highlighted, and while it says that God “stopped the mouths of lions” (Heb. 11:33), there is no mention of Daniel’s faith.
We can understand why some are included as examples of faith: Abel’s faith in offering a more excellent sacrifice than Cain (Heb. 11:4), Noah’s faith in building an ark to save his family (Heb. 11:7), and Abraham’s faith in leaving his home to go to a land God would show him, dwelling in tents as a stranger in this land, and being willing to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. We might wonder, though, “Why is Isaac identified as a man of faith?” and “Why is his blessing of Jacob and Esau considered an act of faith?”
We know little about Isaac’s life: his miraculous birth, the selection of his bride, his role as the father of Jacob and Esau, his sojourn in Egypt, and his digging of wells; much of which casts Isaac in a negative light. As far as Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau, the Scriptures clearly indicate he intended to bless Esau, but was tricked into blessing Jacob instead. Where is the faith in this?
We have to remember why God included the men and women of Hebrews 11 as examples of faith. Not necessarily because their entire lives were characterized by faith, but because there was a particular act of faith by each one that illustrated an important aspect of the nature of faith.
Dr. E. W. Bullinger has written a fine book on Hebrews 11, The Great Cloud of Witnesses, which outlines these aspects of faith. Abel (vs. 4) illustrates “Faith’s Worship of God,” bringing the offering God required. Enoch (vs. 5-6) shows us “Faith’s Walk with God” and how vital faith is in pleasing Him. Noah (vs. 7), who moved with godly fear to build the ark, demonstrates “Faith’s Work and Witness for God.” In the extended section on Abraham and Sarah (vs. 8-19), we see “Faith’s Obedience of God” as they trusted in His person, His promise, His power, and His purpose for their lives.
Moving on to Isaac (vs. 20), we find “Faith Overcoming the Will of the Flesh.” Isaac clearly preferred his oldest son, Esau, over the youngest, Jacob, but for fleshly reasons. Esau was a man’s man, an outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting, and Isaac loved to eat the game his son provided (Gen. 25:27-28). Isaac intended to bless Esau over Jacob, though he knew God had told his wife, Rebekah, “the older shall serve the younger” (Gen 25:23). He only blessed Jacob because he was tricked into doing so. Where, then, do we find faith in Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau? It comes after the fact.
When Esau learned his father had blessed Jacob instead of him, he sought to have his father change his mind about who would inherit the blessing. Nevertheless, “he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears” (Heb. 12:17). Isaac, by faith, refused to change his mind, knowing it was God’s will that Jacob be blessed over Esau. Isaac made this clear to Esau, when he said, “I have blessed him (Jacob)—and indeed he shall be blessed” (Gen. 27:33).
When we come to Jacob (vs. 21), we find a similar situation involving Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons, but we see “Faith Overcoming the Will of Man.” Joseph was Jacob’s beloved son, the one he doted on. Yet, in spite of Joseph’s desire that his oldest son, Manasseh, should be blessed over his younger son, Ephraim, Jacob acted “by faith.” Instead of bowing to Joseph’s will, Jacob followed God’s will instead, blessing his younger son over the older one.
The Faith of Joseph
This brings us to Joseph (vs. 22) and his act of faith. The life of Joseph is remarkable in many ways. To begin with, Joseph’s life serves as a type of the life of our Savior, Jesus Christ: the beloved son of his father, rejected by his own brothers, suffered unjustly and considered dead, but later raised up and exalted to become a savior and a ruler of his own family and of the world.
Joseph’s life also provides a wonderful example of faith and integrity. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers while he was still a teen-ager. He was taken to Egypt, where he faced numerous trials, suffered terrible injustice, and, no doubt, felt great disappointment at his circumstances. In spite of these difficulties, Joseph remained true to God, continuing to trust and obey Him. Thus, the Lord was with Joseph and prospered him in all he did.
Joseph must have wondered why he had to undergo such tribulation, and he certainly longed to go home, but he never doubted God. Eventually, Joseph learned that, while his brothers meant evil against him, “God meant it for good,” to save the lives of his family and to preserve God’s purpose for the nation they would become (Gen. 45:4-8; 50:19-20).
However, none of these examples of Joseph’s life of faith are mentioned in Hebrews 11. Instead, Joseph is noted for an act of faith at the end of his life, an act that involved two things:
“By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones.” (Heb. 11:22)
At first glance, we wonder how this was an act of faith, but a closer look at this verse and the record of when it happened helps us understand another significant characteristic of faith.
The expression “made mention of” is translated from the Greek word mnemoneu which means “to remember” or “to call to mind.” Our English word mnemonic, which refers to a memory aid, is a transliteration of this same Greek word. While the primary meaning of this Greek word is “remembering,” it also includes the idea of “reminding.” Joseph remembered and reminded his brothers of something specific: “The departure of the children of Israel”—and he did so “by faith.”
Since it was by faith, Joseph must have heard the Word of God (Rom. 10:17) and was persuaded that what God said was true. How did Joseph hear about “the departure (literally ‘the exodus’) of the children of Israel?” There were no Scriptures for him to read; they did not exist yet. There is no record of Joseph receiving this truth directly from God through an appearance, a dream, or a vision. This truth was likely passed down to Joseph by “the fathers.”
The day God made a covenant with Abram, He told him:
“Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” (Gen. 15:13-14)
Abram could be certain these things were true because they came from the mouth of God, who cannot lie (Tit. 1:2).
God later confirmed this same truth to Joseph’s father, Jacob, as he journeyed with his entire family to Egypt where Joseph would provide for them during the seven years of famine. Jacob may have been hesitant to go down into Egypt, knowing what happened when his grandfather, Abram, went there (Gen. 12:10-20), but God assured him:
“I am God, the God of your father; do not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again.” (Gen. 46:3-4)
After blessing Joseph’s sons, Jacob passed this promise of God on to Joseph:
“Behold, I am dying, but God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.” (Gen. 48:21)
When you consider the statement God made initially to Abram, it was not general or vague, but quite specific and clearly related to the covenant God initiated with him and his descendants. However, at the time of Joseph’s death, none of the negative conditions spoken to Abram were true yet. Jacob’s family was not in bondage and under affliction in Egypt. They were actually highly favored among the Egyptians, dwelling in a special land in Goshen, their needs fully taken care of—all because they were the family of Joseph.
As for Joseph himself, we might say he was “on top of the world.” He was the prime minister of Egypt, second in power and prestige only to the pharaoh. His wise planning had saved not just his family, but the land of Egypt and the world. Everyone knew the name of Joseph—he was a national hero!
At that time, it might have appeared that Egypt was a great place for Joseph’s family to be. Joseph’s legacy in Egypt was seemingly assured, thus providing protection and provision for his descendants after his death. The prospects for the people of Israel in Egypt looked to be quite good.
But, Joseph walked by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). He knew that Egypt offered no future for the children of Israel. He knew that what awaited them in Egypt was bondage and affliction (Gen. 15:13-14), and though these trials would be long and difficult, Joseph knew that God would one day bring them out of Egypt and back to the land promised to their fathers. Joseph knew these things because he had been taught the promises God made to Abraham, and he had faith that these promises were true.
Therefore, when Joseph neared the end of his life, he remembered God’s promises and reminded his family of them.
“Joseph said to his brethren, ‘I am dying; but God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land to the land of which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (Genesis 50:24)
Joseph then acted again “by faith” and “gave instructions concerning his bones.” The expression “gave instructions” is from a word which means that he commanded or charged his brethren regarding his bones. He “took an oath” from the children of Israel, saying:
“God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” (Genesis 50:25)
How many times Joseph must have dreamed of returning to his family in the land of Canaan, yet he remained in Egypt the rest of his life. Joseph died there at the age of 110, was embalmed, and then laid in a coffin. Looking at things from the vantage point of “the flesh,” Joseph could easily have been carried away with the prospects of Egypt, both for himself and his family. Egypt had been his home for over 90 years, since he was a teen-ager, and for the last 80 years Egypt had been very good to him. Upon his death, Joseph would likely be given the type of state funeral typically reserved for a pharaoh; he would be buried in a majestic tomb; and the legacy of his salvation of Egypt and the world from the seven years of famine would seem to assure the future of his people, Israel.
But, as history records, Egypt offered no such future for the people of Israel. After Joseph’s death, time passed, and the family of Israel grew to become the nation of Israel. Eventually a new pharaoh arose who did not remember Joseph; he and his legacy were, indeed, forgotten. Fearing the growing numbers of the people of Israel, the new pharaoh did exactly what God told Abram would happen; he enslaved the Israelites and afflicted them with hard bondage. Though all this would not happen until many years after his death, Joseph saw it all—with the eyes of faith. He trusted God’s prophetic promise to “the fathers” instead of relying on the prospects that appeared to be available in the land of Egypt.
Joseph knew God had promised something more for his family, for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants. The land of promise was Canaan, not Egypt, though, during their lifetime, his family dwelt in tents and lived as strangers in the land, never possessing it for themselves.
The land of Canaan was to be an eternal possession of Israel, but not particularly the cities and homes that were built by the Canaanites. Abraham had an eternal perspective, one that rested on the promise of resurrection (Heb. 11:19; Matt. 22:31-32). Abraham “waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). This city and homeland that God promised Abraham was heavenly in origin and would be Israel’s eternal home (Heb. 11:14-16); it is the new Jerusalem seen coming down from God out of heaven in the Revelation, chapter 21.
Therefore, “these all died in faith (as did Joseph), not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). They never experienced the things God promised them, but they saw them with the eyes of faith, and thus, were assured of them. They were willing to dwell as strangers and pilgrims in the land because they had hope, they had confidence in God that He would one day fulfill His every promise to them.
Joseph understood that his hope, his future, as well as that of his people was not in Egypt, but in the promised land of Canaan. What led to this strong faith in Joseph? As we saw earlier, he had been taught God’s promises by his father, but Joseph had also heard God’s Word for himself in the form of dreams: his own two dreams of his family bowing down to him, the two dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker, and the two dreams of Pharaoh of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. All these dreams were fulfilled exactly as God gave them. Joseph also had faith in God because he experienced God’s presence with him at all times, God’s prosperity of all he did, and God’s providence in working out His purpose in and through Joseph’s life.
What This Teaches Us
Joseph spent most of his life in Egypt; it became his home. The culture, the language, his wife and children, even his work were all centered in Egypt and must have exerted a strong pull on his life, especially considering the success he enjoyed there.
We live in this world, as Joseph lived in Egypt (a type of the world). We are born here; we grow up here; we have family and friends here; we go to school here; we fall in love here; we marry here; we have children here; we work here; we play here. While there are times of pain, sorrow, and trouble in this world, we also experience pleasure, prosperity, and success. There is nothing wrong with this, for even these things God gives us richly to enjoy.
However, if we are not careful, we can become so caught up in the world and its prospects, that we forget this world is not our home; we forget this world is under the sway of Satan, the wicked one (1 John 5:19); we forget this world offers no hope for the future, certainly no prospects for eternity.
Our time here on earth, and all the world affords us, is temporary. As believers, we must look beyond the world, beyond the things we can see with our eyes, to the things which are not seen, the things which are spiritual, the things which are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
By faith, Joseph remembered God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. As believers, we need to remember God’s promises to us, as members of His body, the church. This world is not our eternal home. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20-21). Our hope is eternal life (Tit. 1:2), a hope that is laid up for us in heaven (Col. 1:5).
Our time here on earth, like that of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and even Joseph, is spent as strangers or pilgrims. We are here as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20), representing our Savior to an unsaved world. Joseph was sent to Egypt by God and through the wisdom and knowledge imparted to him by God, he saved his family and the people of Egypt. As members of God’s church, we are in this world to share the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ with those who are in spiritual darkness; to proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, came into this world and “died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). As we impart this wisdom and knowledge that God has entrusted to us, those who hear and believe are saved from their sins (Eph. 1:12-13; 2:8-9) and reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20).
Joseph knew God had promised that, in His time, He would visit His people in Egypt and bring them out. When our time on earth is done, we know that God will take us home to be with Him for all eternity. As believers, if we physically die, we will leave behind our bodies of sinful flesh, and enter into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). If we remain until Christ appears to take His church home, then we will “appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4). He will transform our lowly bodies and conform them to the glorious body of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20-21), and “thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).
Remembering God’s promises regarding our future and looking forward to this blessed hope, encourages us to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age (Tit. 2:11-13); it helps us keep our minds focused on what is most important in life, not the things of this world, but the things which we have in our Savior, Jesus Christ (Col. 3:1-2).
Walking by faith, not by sight, enables us to overcome the pull the world has upon us, just as Joseph’s faith overcame the pull of Egypt upon him. The world will pass away, along with everything it offers. Only what we have in Christ and only what we do for Christ will last eternally. Let us be careful, then, to walk each day in the footsteps of faith, the type of faith exhibited by Joseph—the faith that overcomes the world.