What does Hebrews 11:17 mean?
ESV: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son,
NIV: By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son,
NASB: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and the one who had received the promises was offering up his only son;
CSB: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and yet he was offering his one and only son,
NLT: It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac,
KJV: By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,
True godly "faith" is a trust in God, based on prior knowledge, and in spite of our limited understanding (Hebrews 11:1). The writer of Hebrews intends to demonstrate that God's assessment of a person is tied to their faith, not merely to their actions (Hebrews 11:6). Prior examples, such as Noah and Sarah, focused on those who trusted God in the face of general, long-term doubts or unsure circumstances. Here, the focus shifts to moments when people are confronted with immediate, dire conflict. God's desire for those moments is the same as always: to trust and obey.
The ultimate example of this is Abraham, whose faith was demonstrated dramatically in the incident with his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1–14). Abraham's life shows how he learned to trust in God's ability to keep His word, despite Abraham's own insecurities. Abraham could not see how God could provide him and Sarah a natural-born son, but God did just that (Genesis 21:5). Abraham could not see how God could judge the sins of Sodom without destroying the righteous (Genesis 18:22–23), but God did just that (Genesis 19:15–17). When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the one through whom all of His promises were meant to be fulfilled, Abraham could not see how God would keep His word. And yet, Abraham obeyed (Genesis 22:1–14).
It is that established, decades-long trust which many critics miss while interpreting Abraham's actions, as well as the Bible's definition of faith. Abraham was not coldly agreeing to murder his son. Nor was he blindly following an unknown voice. Abraham was confident that God would prove righteous, even if Abraham could not see or understand in that moment how such a thing was possible. This passage will go on to offers some insight into Abraham's mind, but the main point is his faith—demonstrated by his obedience (James 2:14–17).
Hebrews 11:17–31 makes a subtle shift from the prior verses. Earlier, the writer had given examples of faithful obedience leading to God's blessings. Those cases were mostly general, where a willingness to trust God was weighed against an uncertain future. In this passage, however, we are shown men and women who chose to trust God despite immediate, personal hardships. This, as well, is a crucial aspect of faith, which the writer has already defined as a confident trust in God.
True, godly faith is defined as trust, relying on God when looking to the future, and obeying even when we don't fully understand all details. The great figures of the Old Testament, such as Abraham, Moses, and David, all lived according to this type of faith. Ultimately, that means trusting God's intent to make good on His promises from an eternal perspective. The model of faith presented by those people, in light of the struggles they faced, ought to inspire Christians towards a more confident, purposeful faith.
Up to this point, the book of Hebrews has given extensive evidence proving that Jesus Christ, and the new covenant He brought about, is God's ultimate plan for mankind's salvation. Chapter 10 provided an additional warning about the danger of falling away from this truth. Chapter 11 begins by clarifying the meaning of the word ''faith,'' primarily by listing examples of Old Testament figures who exemplify it. The ultimate application of this knowledge should be a motivation to ''hold fast'' to the gospel, despite hardships. That encouragement is a major theme of chapter 12.
The book of Hebrews is meant to challenge, encourage, and empower Christian believers. According to this letter, Jesus Christ is superior to all other prophets and all other claims to truth. Since God has given us Christ, we ought to listen to what He says and not move backwards. The consequences of ignoring God are dire. Hebrews is important for drawing on many portions of the Old Testament in making a case that Christ is the ultimate and perfect expression of God's plan for mankind. This book presents some tough ideas about the Christian faith, a fact the author makes specific note of.
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