Who is Isaiah’s Shepherd of the Sheep? Hebrews Ventures an Answer

The prophet Isaiah
The prophet Isaiah

Reading through Isaiah, I’ve made connections between biblical texts that I never noticed before. I’ve posted about Philippians and Ephesians. Today I saw something in Isaiah 63:11 that seems to have inspired the author of Hebrews.

Isaiah 63:11

English: And the one who brought up from the land the shepherd of the sheep remembered the days of eternity. Where is the one who put his holy spirit in them?

Greek: καὶ ἐμνήσθη ἡμερῶν αἰωνίων ὁ ἀναβιβάσας ἐκ τῆς γῆς τὸν ποιμένα τῶν προβάτων· ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ θεὶς ἐν αὐτοῖς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον;

Hebrews 13:20

English: And the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ, by the blood of the eternal covenant…

Greek: Ὁ δὲ θεὸς τῆς εἰρήνης, ὁ ἀναγαγὼν ἐκ νεκρῶν τὸν ποιμένα τῶν προβάτων τὸν μέγαν ἐν αἵματι διαθήκης αἰωνίου, τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦν…

Five things to note:

  1. Though Hebrews has “great” in addition to “the shepherd of the sheep,” the latter phrase (τὸν ποιμένα τῶν προβάτων in Greek) is identical in both passages.
  2. The author of Hebrews seems to want to explicitly identify “the shepherd of the sheep” from Isaiah, which he/she does by noting that this “great” shepherd is “our Lord Jesus Christ.”
  3. Did the author of Hebrews intend with “brought up from the dead” to echo Isaiah’s “brought up from the land”? The Greek verbs are different, but both have the ἀνα=up prefix, and both are in participial form.
  4. If Hebrews’s bringing up is meant to evoke Isaiah’s bringing up, is Hebrews taking Isaiah’s exodus motif in Isaiah 63 and holding up Jesus as the leader of the new exodus?
  5. Both passages have “eternity” (αἰώνιος) in view.

I haven’t checked commentaries yet, but after observing the above, I noticed that the critical apparatus (manuscript notes) in the Göttingen edition of the Septuagint notes that Hebrews 13:20 should be consulted.

I plan to see what others have written about this, but for now, the similarities above have me fairly convinced that this was a deliberate reference, and that the author of Hebrews was finding Jesus in Isaiah 63:11.

A Ministry of Interruptions

The recipients of Hebrews had a good history of hospitality. The author of Hebrews encourages them to keep it up:

Heb 13:1-2    Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

Love each other as brothers and sisters. There’s one word for this that the author uses, and it’s a word that most people know–philadelphia. Brotherly (or sisterly) love. Think of the city of Philadelphia. Filial love–it’s the love that family members show to each other.

Every time philadelphia shows up in the New Testament (Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9; Heb. 13:1; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2 Pet. 1:7), it’s in a letter addressed to Christians, telling them to love each other. It’s the kind of love a family shows to each other. In this case, it’s the family of God. In fact, the New Testament does kind of a new thing in using this word. In other Greek literature up to this point, philadelphia was just used to refer to a literal family, for example, the bond that brothers and sisters share from nursing at the same breast.

When we are in Christ, we become part of the family of God. We are really brothers and sisters. So let’s love each other like that, Hebrews says.

And yet, don’t forget about the “strangers,” too. It will be a stunted love if we just show love to the family, to those who are “one of us.”

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

Verse 1 is about love of brother and sister. Verse 2 is about love of the stranger, of the foreigner, the other. Don’t forget about those outside our zone of comfort and familiarity.

A Friendly Church vs. A Church of Friends

My father, who is himself a minister, has said that there is a difference between a friendly church and a church of friends. A church of friends does well with verse 1–love of the family. A friendly church does verse 1 and verse 2–loving each other, and being friendly to anyone with whom they cross paths. Even strangers.

rublev trinity
Hospitality (Rublev’s Trinity)

It sure seems like the author of Hebrews has Genesis 18 in mind. Genesis 18 is the story of Abraham and the three visitors who turned out to be angels of the LORD, though Abraham didn’t realize it at the time.

You never know when an unannounced visitor is going to turn out to be an angel, the author says. There’s something divine about good hospitality, so Hebrews encourages its readers (and us) to show it.

We hear echoes here of the passage in Matthew where Jesus himself says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”

If hospitality isn’t its own motivation, Hebrews is saying, realize the stakes may actually even be higher than you think!

The early church was supposed to be a beacon of hospitality for travelers, visitors, strangers. Their brotherly and sisterly love was supposed to be so strong that it overflowed beyond their community into strangerly love, we might say.

And travelers in the ancient world needed good hospitality, too. There were hostels for travelers to stay in, but they weren’t exactly renowned for their hygiene. It could be a pretty seedy scene. Early inns were immoral. And expensive!

Hebrews calls for Christians to welcome in those who need hospitality.

Jesus in Prison and Today’s Prisons of Isolation

Heb 13:3    Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

We think of Jesus again: “I was in prison, and you came to me; I was naked, and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me.” This is hospitality that leaves home. It’s possible that this verse means not just to call to mind those who are in prison, but to go visit them, to help provide for their daily needs of food and sustenance.


This could be literal prison, and we might also think metaphorically of the kinds of prisons of isolation that some people today live in. Catholic theologian Raymond Brown, in his commentary on this verse, says:

We also need to be reminded that some of our own neighbours may be suffering from other forms of ‘imprisonment’, less stark but no less distressing. Many elderly people are desperately ‘cut off’.

Brown goes on to quote the words of an 81-year-old widow:

I am still terribly lonely. It’s the evenings. The club closes at 4.30 p.m. and there’s nothing but long, empty hours until bed-time … I’ve heard so many old people say ‘There’s nothing for us now’. You’ve got to eat to sort of keep alive. But there’s nothing. The time is so long … the evenings … the weekends. I’ve heard several people say ‘I don’t care how soon the end comes for me’… I know lots of people. But that isn’t the same as a close friend.

Sex and Money… and Hospitality?

Heb 13:4     Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 5a Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have…

These are dual threats to the faithful Christian life–sex and money. Or, not necessarily sex and money per se, but the misuse and abuse of sex and money.

Sex and marriage are a God-given good–a great good–to be “honored” and “kept pure” by all. Because God will judge the ones who do not keep “the marriage bed” “pure.”

And money–it’s not a bad thing in and of itself. But when we allow the love of money and the love of continuing to acquire new things–more things–then we run the risk of replacing our God with a new one.

Wait a minute–I thought this was a passage about hospitality. What’s the author doing now?

It’s fairly common for epistles in the New Testament to close with a string of parting commands like this, that the author may not take the time to fully unpack. If you were going to take a trip for a week and leave your family behind, you’d probably do the same thing– “Don’t forget to water the plants. Check the mail. The plumber is coming on Tuesday; let him in.” And so on. So that’s what the author is doing here.

But even so, the author seems to be tying all these things together–

verse 1: love of brothers and sisters in Christ.

verse 2: love of strangers, hospitality.

verse 3: love of those who suffer.

verse 4: love your spouse faithfully.

verse 5: don’t love money and let it crowd out contentment.

This passage seems to be about a right ordering of love. This is what love looks like.

When Plans are Interrupted

Heb 11:5b    because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”

We can love because God is with us. “We love because he first loved us,” John would write in a letter.

Our love-energies, then, rather than being focused on the things and stuff and possessions of our lives, can then be spent on caring for others. Rather than storing up things for ourselves, we can be generous with our time, attention, and resources, and give it to our families–husband and wife, brother and sister. We can even give our time, attention, and resources to strangers.

So we make plans to do this.

Interrupting Cow

I was just talking the other day to a pastor friend of mine. I told him how my wife and I were this close to having our fall schedule worked out, where ministry and her school and the kids and their school and moving in would all fit together each week, down to the hour. As soon as I said that, he and I just both started laughing. I think we both realized that one can only make plans to a certain degree in life.

You know the old cliche: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

And that’s the tough thing about hospitality. That’s the challenging thing about visitors or guests sometimes… they can be unannounced. They come to us not on our schedule, but on their schedule. We may experience other people’s claims for our attention as interruptions, not invitations to offer hospitality.

“Lord, when did we see you hungry? When did we see you a stranger?”

This can happen on a large or small scale. Parents, especially we parents of young children, encounter what can feel like a steady barrage of interruptions when trying to get something done. Or when trying to make a phone call.

And, of course, there are times when our kids do need to listen to us and stop interrupting, but it’s still our noble goal to be gracious in how we handle that interruption.

Remember Mary and Martha? Martha was showing Jesus generous hospitality by having her into her home, but Jesus came before she was ready. He interrupted her preparations. She could only see a set of tasks, not a guest. Mary, the one who sat with Jesus, received him, accepted his interruption, is the one in the story who seems to show true hospitality and welcome.

There have to be boundaries, of course. We all need time by ourselves, time when we are not interrupted, or are uninterruptible. But hospitality as a posture, as a leaning of the heart, is open to receive interruptions. Life is not just what’s on the schedule.

Hospitality is about attitude. It’s about the proclivity of our heart. It’s about being open and receptive. Hospitality is about submission.

They Might Be Angels… Or Not

It’s often said that Jesus had a “ministry of interruptions.” How many miracles or healings of Jesus begin with, “As he was on his way from (point A) to (point B)…”? For Jesus it started to seem, as someone put it, like the interruptions were the job; they were the ministry. Not just the things that happened along the way.

As I’ve been meditating on this passage this week, I’ve been challenged, as I’m sure the first readers were, to try to handle the unexpected “interruptions” of life well. It’s not easy. It can be unsettling, even unnerving, to enter into another’s world, to allow them access to our attention and energies. A ministry of interruptions–a hospitality toward even unexpected guests–can be disorienting.

One commentator says, “These strangers might be ‘angels,’ but they might not. This call to hospitality is a call to ongoing vulnerability to the unknown other.”

But here’s the anchor. Verse 8: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

He is steady. He is unchanging. For Jesus, nothing is really unexpected, or a surprise, or unknown.

And as we strive to offer generous hospitality to our church family and to strangers alike, we know that God is with us, wherever that takes us. Verse 5:

God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”

We can open ourselves to interruptions, to the unexpected and unpredictable needs of our brother and sisters in Christ. We can receive the stranger who comes in to our familiar space, who doesn’t really belong, whom we might otherwise wish to ignore. Because God’s presence with us is uninterrupted.

And God is pleased when we “do not forget to do good and share with others”–whether we are sharing time, attention, or resources. In so doing, we give God praise.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached this past Sunday. See my other sermons, if you desire, here.

Local Faith, Global Cloud

We’ve had quite the readings today. We get people sawed in half, passing through a sea, and a prostitute being saved because of her faith. People are getting raised from the dead, standing up to grisly torture, and beating armies that they didn’t stand a chance against.

And it’s all because of their faith. These heroes of our religious tradition put everything on the line because they believed in God and in the promises of God.

We might add to this chapter all the stories of men and women around the world today who by faith are looking forward to a heavenly city: followers of Jesus in China who advocate for human rights, under threat of arrest; Coptic Christians whose churches and houses and business are being burned by extremists as the unrest and violence in Egypt continues.

I’m amazed at the faith of some of our brothers and sisters, past and present.

So is the author of Hebrews. This well-known and well-loved faith chapter, Hebrews 11, seems to just build and build with the inspirational stories of saints and martyrs who have gone on before us.

Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua… Rahab–a prostitute! After praising the faith of each of these, the author goes on:

“And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets,  who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions,  quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.”

Hebrews 11:39 ends the chapter just like it began, by echoing Hebrews 11:2–these women and men were all commended for their faith.

What’s the Author Doing Now?

I had a college professor, a philosophy professor, who told us in the first few days of class that none of us knew how to read a book.

Well, obviously, Dr. Talbot, we know how to read, or we wouldn’t be here.

(Philosophy majors generally have a pretty high estimation of their own intelligence.)

But he said (and I paraphrase), “I’ll bet you haven’t been taught how to really sit down and wrestle with a text. To read it slowly. To follow the logic and argument of a text.” Dr. Talbot said when you read you should always be asking, “What’s the author doing now? What’s the author doing now? What’s the author doing now?”

And he always said it like that, in threes–”What’s the author doing now? What’s the author doing now? What’s the author doing now?” Seared into my memory.

As I was reading the end of Hebrews 11 this week, I found myself asking, why is the author of Hebrews spending so much time talking about faith? Why so many examples of acts of faith? What’s the author doing now?

In one sense it’s a hard question to answer, since we don’t know who wrote Hebrews.

Was it Paul? Barnabas? Clement? Priscilla?

Paul Hebrews
Probably not this guy

There have been various theories over the years. The go-to author for a New Testament letter would be Paul. But virtually all Biblical scholars today agree that it wasn’t Paul, because the language and style of Hebrews is different than what Paul used. Not only that, but the author of Hebrews writes as one who is depending on others’ eyewitness testimony regarding Jesus, whereas Paul in his letters speaks about seeing Jesus firsthand, about having had direct revelation from Jesus himself; think about his conversion on the road to Damascus, for example.  Others have suggested Barnabas, one of Paul’s companions, Luke, Clement (an early Bishop of Rome), or sort of a fringe theory is Priscilla. She was another companion of Paul’s who theoretically would have left any letter she wrote anonymous, because a female author would have been culturally unacceptable at the time Hebrews was written.

There’s no way to prove any of these authors, and as early as the 3rd century, theologian and teacher Origen summed it up: “Who wrote this epistle? Only God knows!”

But we can still make some progress on the question, “What’s the author doing now?” even if we don’t know who the author is. All this talk of faith in Hebrews 11 seems to come because the recipients of the letter were lacking in faith.

Both inward and outward pressures led to the very real possibility that the readers of Hebrews would lose faith, some in small ways, others perhaps in bigger ways. The readers are told not to “drift away” or “neglect” their salvation. They are to “hold firm.” They are in a “struggle against sin,” the author writes.

Who You Are

So what’s the author doing now? What, in chapter 11, is he (or she) trying to accomplish with this group of readers?

The author is reminding them of who they are. Hebrews 11 tells story after story of faith throughout the Scriptures.

And there’s some pretty extreme stuff.

Gideon, for example, a judge and leader of Israel. In Judges 7 he sets out with 32,000 soldiers to take on the Midianites and God tells him to reduce his army to 300 people, so that when they win the battle, Israel can’t brag, because only God can win a battle with an army that small. That took faith on Gideon’s part. A really gutsy faith.

Daniel's Answer to the King, by Briton Rivière, 1890
Daniel’s Answer to the King, by Briton Rivière, 1890

As for Daniel and his gutsy faith, someone once said, “The faith that will shut the mouth of lions must be more than a pious hope that they will not bite.”

Hebrews just rattles off these names quickly–“Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets.” There’s more where that came from, the author seems to be saying–I’m just giving you a sampling.

And it doesn’t seem that the readers of Hebrews are in the same kind of mortal danger. So if men and women can withstand torture, war, beatings, etc., then the readers of the Hebrews can have faith to face smaller things.

Faith may lead believers into physically dangerous and psychologically threatening situations. Faith may call you to uproot and leave everything familiar to follow God. We saw this two weeks ago when we looked at the faith story of Abraham and Sarah.

Or… faith may have you stay right here. Having faith can be a very local activity. It happens right where you are. Maybe God’s not really calling you to go anywhere else right now, in a geographical sense, but to invest more deeply in the relationships and situations you’re already in. And so we long for a wholehearted faith that infiltrates our everyday routines, activities, and interactions.

4th century church father John Chrysostom said, “Faithfulness in little things is a big thing.”

“Makes Me Wanna Buy School Supplies”


I’d wager that a number of us find ourselves in such a position, as a new school year begins. We enter back into a familiar routine. And there’s excitement early on.

I love that line from You’ve Got Mail, where Tom Hanks says, “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me wanna buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.”

But it doesn’t take long for excitement and novelty to turn into daily routine. Those newly sharpened pencils get worn down a bit, but we still have to find a way to write.

Hebrews calls for a redoubling of efforts, a reaffirmation of trust in God in the midst of the unknown and the familiar. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

Faith doesn’t always mean going somewhere else.  Sometimes it takes all the faith and trust you can muster to apply yourself to a situation or set of questions or relationships that are already at hand. Faith is local.

The readers of Hebrews were being called to be faithful right where they were.

Great Cloud of Witnesses, “Watching Us from the Grandstands”

And then, the grand finale to the faith section, Hebrews 12:1-2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

“Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”–Let us run with steadfast endurance. Never give up. “Never, never, never, never give up.” Some have pointed out in this passage that perseverance, when mentioned in the context of running a race, probably speaks to a long-distance race rather than a sprint. You have to pace yourself, but stay steady.

We want to “throw off” all hindrances and sin, which so sneakily and deceptively tries to just pull us in.

And we can have a persevering faith because in some timeless, global sense we are surrounded by this “great cloud of witnesses.” It’s a massive support network, past and present, of people who have been in similar situations to ours–and worse–and somehow have managed to keep their trust in God.

Think of what they call “cloud computing”–iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, Amazon Cloud. If we get it set up right, we can access our same set of data from our phone, computer, and tablets. “The cloud” is everywhere, when it comes to computing.

crowdWe are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” They’re everywhere, just like data! In some sense, the women and men, past and present, local and global, who inspire us, are present to us… surrounding us.

Denominations have been divided over questions like this–who are the saints? To what extent are they present? Can they hear our prayers? Receive them? Should we pray for dead Christians?

But the unknown author of Hebrews seems not to really be concerned with those questions. The author just says, “We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.”

We get the imagery of a stadium here. We’re running a race. This isn’t a run alone in the woods (as much as we might love those); this is a run in a stadium with a massive crowd of witnesses–of faith examples–surrounding us as we run, cheering us on. When we’re tired we can look at them and recall their successful races, and get a new boost to keep going ourselves.

The Living Bible translation says: “[W]e have such a huge crowd of men [and women] of faith watching us from the grandstands.”

The Greatest Witness in the Whole Cloud

The chief of these witnesses is Jesus. He is the “author” of our faith–the very reason we can have faith to begin with. He is the “perfecter” of our faith–he “[carries] on to completion” the good work he started in us.

Men and women in Hebrews 11 may have stared down deep waters, undergone beatings, been ridiculed, and more… but Jesus “endured the cross” because of “the joy set before him.”

Jesus is the ultimate exemplar of faith. Out of the great cloud of witnesses, he is the greatest witness.

Whether having faith in God leads us into places far or near, situations dangerous or fairly safe, we find inspiration in that great grandstand of saints who have gone before us. We receive encouragement from those saints sitting next to us each week in church.

As we run, may we keep focused on Jesus, who enables our faith and can even increase it. May God give us faith for where we are, right now, until that day when at last we see Jesus, at the right hand of the throne of God.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached this past Sunday. See my other sermons, if you desire, here.

The Fine Line Between Faith and Stupidity

There’s a fine line between faith and stupidity, and sometimes that line can seem pretty blurry.

I still remember–vividly–driving up Interstate 90 to the Boston area in the fall of 2008. We had visited Boston in the spring of 2008. That fall we were moving there.

We had no jobs and no place to live. Sarah and I just both knew we were going to grad school–she for pre-med classes and I for seminary. We were pretty sure it was faith, but also worried it was part stupidity, that led us to leave a comfortable and settled situation in Northern Virginia. So with our 10-month old  in tow and most of our belongings off in storage somewhere, we took the plunge and followed what we sensed to be God’s leading to a new land.

I took some comfort in those days that our biblical namesakes–Abram or Abraham and Sarah–had made a similar move.

But it also wasn’t an uncommon fear in those days that we might just end up looking stupid… to our friends, our families, to ourselves. Even after some protesting with God, we came to Boston–lack of employment and housing notwithstanding.

Heb 11:1-3    Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

There’s a real “go for it” quality to faith. When we make a decision to act on faith, it so often feels like “all or nothing.”

And one thing that is so hard about faith is that we often find ourselves having to make decisions without having all the information we think we need. Faith is “being sure of what we hope for” and “certain of what we do not see.” Certain, in other words, of that which we cannot verify with our own eyes.

Hear, Obey, Go

Heb 11:8     By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.

I’d wager that many of us have said yes to a call, not sure of where that was taking us.

Just looking at the verbs in that verse, it says, “By faith, when he was called, Abraham obeyed and went.” The way Hebrews tells it, Abraham would obey and go anywhere God called him. Daniel Estes says that God was “requiring [Abraham] to obey, knowing the full price involved, but with only a hint as to the compensation. The divine demand was that [Abraham] should forsake the familiar for the foreign.”


Heb 11:9    By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  

He lived in “the promised land” but it was by sojourning in tents and living as a foreigner. Tents! Temporary dwelling places. Abraham and Sarah–because of their faith–had a real immigrant experience.

Sang Hyun Lee, a professor at Princeton Seminary, has often noted how relevant the Abrahamic pilgrimage motif is for Korean and Korean American immigrants. Abraham’s willingness to sojourn in the difficult, unsettled, unknown, in-between places was part and parcel of his obedience to God.

Heb 11:10    For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Abraham had a heavenly focus. A city with foundations is what he could see. Foundations… that word implies security, settledness. Tents don’t have foundations like houses do, others have observed about this verse.

Heb 11:11     By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.  

The source of Abraham’s faith was God’s faithfulness. God is faithful, so Abraham could have faith.

Is God My Help… Or Isn’t He?

We see in the Genesis reading, though, that Abraham is a lot more like us than we might think, if we just read Hebrews.

Gen 15:1-3    After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

He argues with God a little bit. It’s ironic, too–“Eliezer” means something like “My God is help,” or, “My God is my help.” Even as he utters this name–“My God is my help”–Abram is not… quite… sure that God can really help him.

But God is promising to be Abram’s shield, his protection, his security. When Abram protests, God takes him outside and says:

“Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Nature Photography

“If indeed you can count them”–of course Abraham can’t count the stars! That’s ridiculous! How could he possibly know how many stars are in the sky?

But if that’s true, how could he possibly know the limits of the wonderful future God has in store for him?

You think you’re so confident, God is saying, that I can’t give you a descendant? I gave you this night sky with stars (and more) that you can’t even count. Nothing is too difficult for me.

And now back to Hebrews 11, verse 12:

And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

70 Sextillion Children

I read a silly article this week, called, “Which is Greater, the Number of Sand Grains on Earth or Stars in the Sky?

The article concluded, surprisingly, that you can’t know and that you have to guesstimate. Which is what a group of scientists at the University of Hawaii tried to do, using the average size of a grain of sand and the number of beaches and deserts in the world.

The researchers mentioned in the article had a Hubble telescope and a calculator at hand, and figured that everything we’ve recorded in the night sky (they included “galaxies, faint stars, red dwarfs,” etc.) gives us a star population of 70,000 million, million, million, or 7 followed by 22 zeroes.

I don’t know what sort of exact numbers God had in mind when he told Abram to look at the sky and see the number of his descendants. It’s difficult for me to imagine the earth sustaining human life long enough to get to that number, but who knows?

But these descendants, these children of a promise, are as numerous as 7 followed by 22 zeroes, and yet they come from a man and a woman who were “as good as dead,” in childbearing terms. If they had a number assigned to their fertility potential, it would be 0. You don’t get from 0 to 70 sextillion very easily.

What do you think Abraham and Sarah experienced at dinner parties? When they started to tell friends and family members–God told us we’re going to have a bazillion descendants! No fine line between faith and stupidity there, their friends probably thought–that’s just stupid.

Or what about Noah? We just studied his life together with some really awesome children at Vacation Bible School a couple weeks ago. One song we sang says, “Noah was willing to build a great, big boat / Before there was the rain to make it float.”

What did his neighbors think? Well, if he was building his ark anywhere near their property lines, they were probably in regular touch with the Mesopotamia Zoning Board of Appeals.

The Bible gives the dimensions of the ark. It was 450 feet long (that’s one and a half football fields), 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high. That’s quadruple the size of the biggest boats known in Noah’s day.

He would have been ridiculed for building a boat a tenth of that size, let alone one that would have barely fit inside Gillette Stadium:

Gillette Stadium

But, the Scripture says, “Noah did everything just as God commanded him.”

So, too, Abraham and Sarah. Our first lesson concludes:

Gen 15:6     Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Righteousness, or right standing with God. All was well in his relationship with God because Abraham believed him.

Noah and Abraham trusted God. So have countless other men and women who have gone on before us in the faith–we can think of the families who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony nearly 400 years ago, looking to found a “city upon a hill.” We can think of those men and women who had a vision to turn a summer chapel in our town into a full-fledged, year-round church.

Some admired them as full of faith. Others might have thought they were being stupid. But they were all proved right for trusting God.

And we can think of each other. We can be encouraged by the stories we hear, each week when we share and pray and worship, about following God into uncertain territory.

To have faith in God is to put your confidence in God. It means that we believe that God’s promises will come to pass. It means that we follow God’s call, even when God’s call doesn’t seem to be detailed enough for our liking…or comfort. Faith in God is wholehearted trust and surrender. It is accepting the call of the one who can count all the stars that we can only begin to see.

And those who have faith in God are time and time again upheld, because God is who he says he is, and God will do what God says he will do. God… is… faithful.

Faith Because God is Faithful

Having lived in Greater Boston for five years now, I can say with great confidence that God has been faithful to my family. We didn’t know a whole lot about where we were going when we left Northern Virginia, but he did.

Maybe you can think of a time when you trusted God by faith–maybe a little scared, perhaps even a little ridiculed by those around you, or by your own internal voices–and then you saw God’s goodness and provision, as you followed him into the future.

And look at these physical reminders we have in nature of God’s faithfulness. Every time we see a rainbow, we can recall that God was faithful to Noah. He really did spare a remnant of the world, just as he said he would. And whenever we look up at the stars in the night sky, or go to the beach and look down at the sand, we can remember how faithful God was to Abraham, giving him not just one child–which was miracle enough–but many, many, descendants, the chief of whom was Jesus Christ.

Faith may look stupid to others sometimes. Walking out in faith may feel stupid to us sometimes.

But we can have faith in God because God is faithful. He is our shield, and our sure reward.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached this past Sunday. See my other sermons, if you desire, here.