All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
While most of the stories in Hebrews 11 show clear, straightforward examples of our biblical heroes’ faith, there are a few stories where it is not immediately clear how a person’s actions demonstrated faith. The story of Joseph in Hebrews 11:2 says, “By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.” How did Joseph’s words reflect faith?
It is helpful to get a little backstory on Joseph. In the book of Genesis, God gave Joseph’s great-grandfather, Abraham, a set of promises: he would make his offspring into a great nation, his family would inherit a land of their own, and they would be a blessing to all nations. As the book of Genesis unfolds, God begins to fulfill these promises. He provides children for the childless Abraham, He enables Abraham to buy a burial plot in the land God promised him, and He also uses Abraham’s descendants as a means of blessing other nations, particularly Joseph who masterminded a plan to deal with a famine in Egypt.
Even though God had begun to fulfill these promises, the book of Genesis ends with the promises only partially fulfilled. When Genesis ends, Abraham’s descendants are only 70 in number, hardly a great nation, and his descendants own a burial plot in Canaan, but not the whole territory. In fact, the final verses of Genesis that are alluded to here accentuate the fact that they were living outside the land God promised them: “And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.’ So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.” (Genesis 50:25-26).
So how did Joseph’s words reflect faith? They reflected a faith that believed that even though God had not yet completely fulfilled His promises, He eventually would. God would eventually return the Israelites from Egypt and give them all of the Promised Land. This is important for us as we also sit in the tension of having partially received what God has promised us, but not all of it. If we ever find ourselves doubting or wondering whether this is all there is to the Christian life, Joseph’s example reminds us that the best is yet to come.
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
17 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, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.
21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, bless- ed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.
22 By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.
23 By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.
After reading today’s passage, we are reminded in Hebrews 11:13 that each one of these people died without seeing the fruit of their faith on earth, yet they never lost sight of their vision of Heaven. In what ways do you find yourself discouraged or frustrated with God when your needs, wants, or expectations go unmet? How do you respond when God doesn’t answer your prayers the way you want Him to? What do you need to do stay focused on the vision of Heaven?
Our faith is not meant for earthly purposes. Our motivation should never be for personal comfort or gain. Instead, our faith should have an eternal vision. Take a moment to reflect on what your faith means to you. What is the eternal significance causing you to persevere in your faith journey?
In Hebrews 11:23, Moses’ parents are remembered for trusting God to protect their son’s life as they placed him in a basket and pushed him into the river. Imagine having the kind of faith in which you can give up control of caring for your child! Have you trusted God to fully care for your children, parents, siblings, or spouse? Or, do you try to control their safety, health, or well-being? Take some time to pray that God will protect your loved ones and ask Him to give you the faith to trust in Him.