What does Hebrews 11:18 mean?
ESV: of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”
NIV: even though God had said to him, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.'
NASB: it was he to whom it was said, 'THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE NAMED.'
CSB: the one to whom it had been said, Your offspring will be traced through Isaac.
NLT: even though God had told him, 'Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.'
KJV: Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:
This passage in Hebrews demonstrates that godly faith is exemplified by trust. When we cannot see the future, "faith" is our ability to trust in God that He will make good on His promises (Hebrews 11:1). This is the kind of faith which God honors (Hebrews 11:2), since it means we are confident in God's ability to work in ways we cannot see (Hebrews 11:3). Prior examples included those who faced general doubt, but persevered, such as Noah (Hebrews 11:7). The current example is one of an immediate, dire moment of decision: God's command for Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1–14). In hindsight, we know that God did not allow Isaac to die, and provided a substitute at the last moment. But when the command was given, Abraham did not have that perspective.
As this verse reminds us, Abraham had been given promises by God (Genesis 17:3–8), and those promises were explicitly tied to the life of Isaac (Genesis 17:18–19). The writer cites Genesis 21:12, where God clearly states that it is Isaac who will carry on Abraham's legacy. And yet, this is the son God commanded Abraham to sacrifice. Abraham would have been mystified, wondering why God would ask such a thing, and how God would fulfill His promises.
And yet, Abraham had learned that God was able to work in ways Abraham could not see. God had given him a son when he was 100 years old (Genesis 17:17; 21:5), and saved his nephew Lot from the judgment of Sodom (Genesis 18:22–23; 19:15–16), all despite Abraham's lack of understanding. This is the basis for Abraham's faith, and that faith was the basis for his obedience to God. The passage will continue by offering one possible explanation of Abraham's willingness to obey.
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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