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Hebrews 11:11-12 - Sarah Lived By Faith

This past weekend Mindy and I attended church with my mother. This church was built during the oil boom in Oklahoma so it is a beautiful cathedral style building. When I entered into the lobby I saw a very old portrait of a man on the lobby wall.At the bottom it had his name but it did not tell us anything else about him. His portrait looked impressive so he must have made a significant impact upon the church. Was he the first pastor of the church, or a beloved elder, or a faithful congregant?

When you consider Hebrews 11 and the Hero’s of the Faith that are mentioned there you might think that their biblical portraits would look something like the portrait of that man. They would look strong, confident, displayed as a faith that never wavered, or faltered, or weakened, or ever sank into the depths of disbelief.

You’ve probably seen those ads where they say, “This is how I think I look”. Then it shows a picture of a strong confident person whose life is perfectly put together. Then it says, “But this is how I really look” and it shows the picture of tired, worn-out, frazzled person who is at their wits end. We always want to believe that we are like the man in that portrait who is strong, confident, and picture perfect.

We don’t want to be the person who is tired, faithless, worn-out, frazzled and who is slowly descending into unbelief. If we are honest, however, we are that person more than we would like to admit. And because of this I think ourtext will be an encouragement to us. It will encourage us because the picture put before us of Abraham and Sarah in Hebrews 11 and in Genesis 17-18 is a real honest portrait of what a life of faith can look like. Some days we are swimming well and other days we find ourselves sinking like Peterwhen he took His eyes off of Jesus (Matthew 14:29-31).

The London Baptist Confession 14.3. reminds us that every Christian will experience these times. It says, “Faith may exist in varying degrees so that it may be either weak or strong. Yet even in its weakest form, it is different in kind or nature (like all saving graces) from the faith and common grace of temporary believers. Therefore, faith may often be attacked and weakened, but it gains the victory. It matures in many to the point that they attain full assurancethrough Christ, who is both the founder and the perfecter of our faith.

I would like to read Hebrews 11:8-16. It says,

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 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 for them a city.

This morning we are going to consider Hebrews 11:11-12 which says, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

In this text we can see that there was great tension and anxiety in Abraham and Sarah’s life. First, we see that Sarah was not able to conceive and to bear a child. If this were to happen it would require divine power (11). Sarah could not conceive a child on her own. She could try to do all the advice that otherswould given her but it would never have made her womb able to conceive. Like the cripple man at the pool of Bethesda who thought that his only need was to be carried by others to the pool. He greatest need was to come face to face with Jesus and His power. (John 5:1-8).So too, Sarahcouldtry all the best known options of the day to conceive but it would not have mattered. Her body was, and had always been, incapable of conceiving a child. She needed an encounter with the LORD.

The very first time that we are introduced to Sarai in the bible we become very aware of the great problem that she faced. We are told in Genesis 11:30,Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

Secondly, there is tension and anxiety when we considerAbraham. God gives Abraham and Sarah this promise after they are alreadybeyond childbearing age. And after the promise is given twenty-five years goes by and there is still no child. By this time Abrahamis described in scripture as a man who was ‘as good as dead’ (11:12). Because of this it would require Abraham to believe ‘against all hope’ that God would do this because nothing is too difficult for Him (Romans 4:18; Genesis 18:14).

Having pointed out the tension and anxiety that all of this would have created for Abraham and Sarah we should be surprised that there is almost no tension to be felt by us as we read this text in Hebrews 11. This is because the larger context has removed the tension before and after we read about Sarah and her barrenness.

The purpose of Hebrews 11 is to teach us that our journey in faith is to begin, to continue, and to find fulfillment through trusting and believing in God and in His promises. As we live by faith we can experience God’s peace even under these conditions (Romans 15:14).A faith that trusts in God and in His Word can overcome our fears, our anxieties, our disappointments, our ill advised plans, etc. At the appointed time (11:11) our faith will receive its blessing from the LORD. Some of these blessings will be experienced in this life but most will find there fulfillment in the life to come in the Eternal Kingdom.

You may be wondering how I say that this text has almost no tension? I say this because as we come to this portion of our text we have already been told that Abraham and Sarah had a son and that she received power to conceive a child. We see this in Hebrews 11:9, “By faith Abraham went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.” Not only did Abraham and Sarah have a son Isaac; but Isaac had a son named Jacob.Abraham and Sarah become grandparents.

Things get even better when we are told in Hebrews 11:12that there ‘were born to themdescendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’ (11:12) God is faithful to fulfill His promises!

When I read the Hebrews 11account concerning the faith of Abraham and Sarah I conclude that this is my favorite kind of story. I don’t like to much tension, stress and anxiety in life.Not many people do. In fact, we live in a time when we can see that so few people really know how to conquer these things through faith and belief in the scriptures and through prayer (Philippians 4:6, Romans 15:1-13). When it comes to trying to live by faith Samuel Ward says, “You see schools disputing faith, preachers preaching it, professors discussing it, profane men swearing by it, but few or none living by it.

Hebrews 11:11-12 is fun to read because a fantastic promise is fulfilled, there is only a little tension in the middle, and it is quickly resolved in the end with an incalculable multitude of people being born as the result of what God has done. Out of these people comes a nation and kings. Out of this fulfilled promise has come Jesus Christ who is the King of kings. All of this in just two verses.

However, these two verses were not at all easy for Abraham and Sarah to walk through and we see this when we readGenesis 17-18.There we read how their faith in God and His promises waspreserved, nurtured,strengthenedthroughout this difficult process. This story becomes a testimony to a faith that endures throughthe tension and anxiety of a long and impossible situation. The Genesis account gives us a portrait of Abraham and Sarah that we can all appreciate and identify with. And despite the picture that we see here of them they make it into the Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame of Faith.

When you read the Genesis account you see that most of the tension and anxiety in this story happens because Abraham and Sarah struggled to understand how these promises would come about and what part in it they were to play in the fulfillment of these promises.

In Hebrews 11:11 we are told, ‘By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.’ After reading this verse you might expect that you would turn to Genesis 18 and see that this was an easy and quick process for Sarah to go through. We might have the impression that God gives the promise and she immediately believes. However, we discover that this was not quite like that. Sarah, even in her old age, kicked against the goads like Paul (Acts 26:14). She struggled like Gideon when he heard the word of the LORD (Judges 6:36-40). She struggled like Moses when he was called to go before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:10-17).

This process was not any easier for Abraham and Sarah than it is for you and I. I believe that this is one of the most encouraging parts of this story for us. We also struggle in our walk of faith. We often begin the journey by faith but then we struggle to comprehend how to walk towards these promises by faith. Because of this, I think this story is urgently needed to be considered by us today.

To see this we must look back at Genesis 17-18. In Genesis 17:15-16the LORD says to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she will become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.

How do you think Abraham will respond to these wonderful promises which the LORD begins to speak about in Genesis 17:1?

We see Abraham’s reaction in Genesis 17:17, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before you!’

(Interesting fact, Abraham says he is 100 but Genesis 17:1 says he was 99 years old. Could it be that faithlessness always exaggerates the problems and the things that make us anxious?)

Notice that Abraham laughed at these words from the LORD! If we were standing next to Abraham we might step away from Abraham just in case he will be struck by lightening or the ground would open up underneath his feet.

One might ask, ‘Where is Abraham’s faith in this story?

I don’t wish to dismiss the seriousness of this situation but I think we can see three subtle ways that Abraham’s faith can be seen. First, we are not told that Abraham fell down onto his face laughing. No, we are told that He fell on His face and then he laughed. I see a pause, even if ever so slight, between Abraham falling down and laughing. His first reaction was to fall when he is given this promise. It is a reaction of humility before God. It is a reaction of marveling at what God had promised.

Can we not see faith at work in this initial response of Abraham? Yes!

Secondly, we are told that Abraham ‘laughed to himself’. Abraham’s initial response was to fall down before the LORD and then he began to laugh to Himself. He laughed as he pondered the probability of this happening with his own understanding when he considered their age and the condition of their bodies. In that moment he inwardly laughs at the thought of this. Abraham does not laugh at the LORD. He does not laugh mockingly at the promise. He laughs to himself.

Again, is there not a little bit of faith that can be seen in Abraham in this moment? Yes!

Third, notice that Abraham had just been told that he is no longer to call his wife Sarai; rather, he is to call her Sarah. This would be hard to do after having been married to Sarah for almost a century! Snd yet, in this initial moment where he falls to the ground and struggles to understand how this promise could be he obeys the Lord and refers to his wife by her new name saying, “Shall Sarah (not Sarai), who is ninety years old, bear a child?’

Can we not see faith and a willingness to obey the LORD in Abraham’s response in this moment? Yes!

Abraham is struggling to understand how this could happen. So he offers to the LORD a different plan. This is the plan that He and Sarah had begun to implement thirteen years before when Sarah gave her servant Hagar to Abraham to bear him a son. Surely this plan will suffice.

God responds to this suggestionclearly and emphatically, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him...I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” (17:19,21)

After receiving this rebuke Abraham immediately goes out and obeys all that God had spoken to him by circumcising everyone according to the covenant that was given (17:1-14, 22-27). We see that faith has sprung fourth in obedience rather quickly in Abraham.

How is it that Abraham laughs and then obeys this quickly? I would think that Genesis 17:6can help us understand this. In Genesis 17:6the LORD says to Abraham, “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she will become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” (ESV)

It is important to note thatfour of the five verbs hers are in the ‘perfect tense’. Only the last verb is in the ‘Imperfect tense’. The perfect tense of these verbs is hard to see because of the way its translated. In Hebrew the perfect tense speaks of a past action that has already been accomplished. The imperfect tense speaks of a future action yet to be done. So, four of the first five verbs are in the perfect tense which speaks of something that has already been accomplished by the LORD when He gives these promises to Abraham.

When the translators translated these verbs they made a choice to translate these verbs as…

  • ‘I will bless’

  • ‘I will give’

  • ‘I will bless her’

  • ‘she will be(come)’

  • kings shall come from her

This translation makes sense to us. These things don’t appear to be done yet from the perspective of the context. However, from God’s perspective it makessense that He would have spoken to Abraham in a way that emphasized the perfect tensenature of these promises. After all, “Is anything to difficult for the LORD?”.

The translators point this out in the ESVfootnote.There we see that the translators admit that there was another way to translate these verbs in the perfect tense. They could have translated themin such a way that it would show what God had already done. They could have translated it as…

  • ‘I have blessed’

  • ‘I have given’

  • ‘I have blessed her’

  • ‘she has become a mother of nations’

The contrast between the perfect tense verbs and the imperfect tense verb at the end of the sentence becomes more clear if it would have been translated in this way. It would read, “I have blessed her (perfect tense), and moreover, I have given you (perfect tense) a son by her. I have blessed her (perfect tense), and she has become (perfect tense) a mother(KJV) ofnations; kings of peoples shall come from her(imperfect tense).

(A person with great faith can receive words like these and respond according. Matthew 8:5-13 or Matthew 15:21-28)

When God spoke this way to Abraham his faith engaged with these words and heresponded and obeyed the LORD. (If your faith is weak make sure you are spending time in the Word of God and responding to it in faith. {By faith consider what God has done for you in Titus 3:4-7 and 1 Cor. 6:9-11})

When we turn toGenesis 18we read about when the LORD comes to Sarah. The LORD and two other angels come to visit Abraham and Sarah. Abraham offers them a meal and they accept the invitation. After the meal they ask, “Where is Sarah your wife?” (9) Abraham says, “She is in the tent.”We are told, “Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him.” (10)

Sarah is in the tent but she is not busy at the sink doing dishes. She is not like Martha who was too busy and distracted to hear what the LORD had to say (Luke 10:40-42). No, Sarah is standing close to the doorway of the tent listening.

Then we are told that the Lord says, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” (10)

When Sarah waited by the door and heard this promise, like her husband, she laughed to herself because ‘Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah’ (11). We read in 18:12, “So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’

The LORD says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (13)

Would this be a hard question for any of us to answer? No! We would say that Sarah laughed because...

  • Sarah is old.

  • Abraham is old

  • Abraham and Sarah already have a plan that seems to be working with Ishmael. Why change the plan now?

  • The way of women has come to an end with Sarah.

  • Abraham is as good as dead in his old age.

The LORD had come and made this opportunity happen so that He could confront Sarah’s unbelief and speak to her about the promise. Then the LORD gives this promise,‘At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.’ (14)

Genesis 18:15then tells us that Sarah denies that she laughed and said, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?”. Sarah responded this way, “...because she was afraid.”(16)

Often times our reaction maybe like Sarah’s. It may not always be what we would have desired. We may laugh, roll our eyes, dismiss the promise, offer a plan ‘B’, bargain with the LORD, etc.Like Sarah we also might respond in a way that needs to be confronted, rebuked and addressed.

The LORD comes to strengthen Sarah’s faith, He does not come to quench it. He shows her mercy and compassion when she fears. He does all of this even while the LORD is about to go and judge Sodom (Genesis 19). God knows how to preserve the righteous and judge the wicked (2 Peter 2:9, Psalm 28). In fact, God was quite willing to show mercy upon the city of Sodom if even 10 righteous people were found (18:32-33).

In Genesis 18:15 the LORD exposes Sarah’s denial saying, “No, but you did laugh.” Then this story is over. This is the portrait that we are left with of Sarah on this occasion. She laughs at the promise and then lies about it to the LORD! This is not how you would expect this story to end if Sarah is going to be enshrined in Hebrews 11 and the Hall of Fame of Faithful people.

We know, however, that this is not the end of the story because of Hebrews 11:11 where we read, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.

Genesis 18 does not show us how this process exactly played out for Sarah. Did this process play out as fast for her as it did for Abraham? We are told any of these details.

Nonetheless, according to Hebrews 11:11, we know that Sarah believed the LORD and the promise that He had made to her saying, “At the appointed time she will have a son.

If someone were to take a portrait of a Christian they might capture them in a moment of weak faith. Or maybe they would capture them in a moment where their faith was strong. This story about the faith of Abraham and Sarah teaches us that sometimes our faith seems weak but God will perfect it in us like he did with Abraham and Sarah...

  • He gives to us more than just ‘Common Grace’ but a saving effectual grace to believe

  • He will come to us through the Word and by His Spirit and send others to build up our faith

  • He willconfront our unbelief

  • He will challenge and reject the plans that we have made and implemented

  • He will clarify the promise of His Word to us

  • He will certainly do what He has said at His appointed time

  • We should consider this great cloud of witnesses that surround us

  • Cast aside the sin that clings to us and easily entangles us

  • And consider Jesus who is the founder and the perfecter of our faith

  • Jesus Christ, the descendant of Abraham and Sarah is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God!


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