“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” We have all probably heard (or maybe said) this or something like it at some point. And with good reason, there is a great deal of truth in this statement. If we do not learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before us, we are likely to fall into the same patterns and make the same mistakes. But the saying itself is somewhat pessimistic. It assumes that everything in history is bad—that there is nothing in the past that we would want to repeat—but that is not always the case!
This morning, we are going to look at three characters from biblical history whose examples we should learn from. If we learn from their examples, we will not be doomed to repeat their histories, but rather we will be blessed to repeat them!
If you recall, Hebrews chapter 11 focuses on teaching us about faith. Last week we saw the definition of true faith: being confident in the future because of our belief in the One who controls it. Today we move into a new section of Hebrews 11 where he lists examples of people who lived faithfully. These people’s stories remind us that the kind of faith we have is revealed in the way we live. Today we will look at the first three of these people to see what we can learn about what it means to live faithfully.
Example 1: Abel
The first example the writer of Hebrews gives us is Abel. He said that:
4 It was by faith that Abel brought a more acceptable offering to God than Cain did. Abel’s offering gave evidence that he was a righteous man, and God showed his approval of his gifts. Although Abel is long dead, he still speaks to us by his example of faith. (Hebrews 11:4, NLT)
We read the story of Abel (and his brother Cain) back in Genesis chapter 4. Cain and Abel were the first children in history. They were the sons of Adam and Eve after they had sinned and been banished from the garden. We aren’t told a great deal about the life of Abel, but we are told one very important story.
One day both brothers came to offer sacrifices to the Lord. Abel was a shepherd and brought to the Lord the best portions of the firstborn of his flock. God was pleased with his sacrifice. Cain was a farmer, and he brought to the Lord some of his crops. God was not pleased with Cain’s sacrifice. Cain was mad that God had accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not his, so one day he took Abel into a field and killed him. The first family in history was torn apart as one brother murdered the other.
This seems like kind of a strange story to reference as an example of faith, but we can learn a lot about Abel’s faith by comparing his actions with those of Cain. The big question that needs to be answered is what was it about Abel’s sacrifice that made it acceptable, and what was it that made Cain’s sacrifice unacceptable?
This has been a source of much debate amongst Christians through the years, but let me tell you what I think are the reasons that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and Cain’s was not. First, Abel offered the kind of sacrifice God desired (a sacrifice of blood). Now, if you know your Old Testament, you would know that God didn’t lay out the sacrificial system for the Israelites until hundreds of years after Cain and Abel lived. But God must have given some sort of instruction to them on how they should offer sacrifices to Him, because when He saw that Cain was angry that his sacrifice was not accepted He said,
6 “Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? 7 You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.” (Genesis 4:6-7, NLT)
God seems to be saying that Cain knew the right thing to do but he didn’t do it. He knew that he was supposed to offer a blood sacrifice, but offered a grain sacrifice instead. Now, we can understand Cain’s logic, can’t we? He could have reasoned that since he was a farmer, he would offer some of his crops rather than going to purchase an animal to sacrifice. The problem with that logic is this: Cain was putting himself in the place of God. He was putting his logic above God’s commands. Abel’s faith caused him to do what God asked him to do instead of making excuses to do things his own way.
The second reason Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable had to do with attitude. Abel’s attitude was markedly different from Cain’s. Cain seemed to feel that God owed him. He offered the sacrifice he thought should be sufficient and then got mad when God didn’t accept it. Rather than taking responsibility for his actions, he blamed his brother for making him look bad! When God asked him what happened to Abel, Cain became a smart aleck and tried to avoid the question. And then when God punished Cain for killing Abel, he argued that his punishment was too severe. All of this points to a person who felt entitled—who believed that God owed him blessing and should be pleased by whatever paltry offering he felt like giving. Cain felt like God should be happy he offered anything at all! Cain’s focus was on himself—Abel’s was on pleasing the Lord.
This is why Abel is held up as an example of faith—because his faith led him to put the Lord first. Cain looked for a shortcut to appeasing God; Abel looked for a way to honor God. Cain reasoned that his sacrifice was good enough; Abel trusted God’s judgment of what constituted an acceptable sacrifice. Ultimately, Abel’s faith caused him to submit to God and to trust His judgment more than his own judgment.
Abel teaches us that faith leads to obedience, to submitting to the Lord. That might mean offering the kind of sacrifice that God has commanded or dealing with a situation the way God has told us to, or any number of other things, but a person with genuine faith will obey the Lord, rather than trying to do their own thing based on their own, flawed reasoning.
Example 2: Enoch
The second example the writer of Hebrews gives is that of Enoch:
5 It was by faith that Enoch was taken up to heaven without dying—“he disappeared, because God took him.” For before he was taken up, he was known as a person who pleased God. 6 And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him. (Hebrews 11:5-6, NLT)
If you thought the story of Abel was an obscure one, the story of Enoch is probably even more obscure! We read about Enoch in the chapter immediately following the story of Cain and Abel, but Enoch’s story is recorded in the middle of the genealogy of Adam! Adam’s genealogy follows a set pattern, each entry reads like this: “When he was xxx years old, he had a son, he lived xxx more years, and then he died.” Each entry follows basically this same pattern. Apart from the exceptional ages of these men the genealogy is kind of boring. That is, until we get to Enoch. This is what we read about Enoch in Genesis:
21 When Enoch was 65 years old, he became the father of Methuselah. 22 After the birth of Methuselah, Enoch lived in close fellowship with God for another 300 years, and he had other sons and daughters. 23 Enoch lived 365 years, 24 walking in close fellowship with God. Then one day he disappeared, because God took him. (Genesis 5:21-24, NLT)
At first, it seems like Enoch’s entry in the genealogy is the same as everyone else’s…until we get to the end. Every other entry in the genealogy ends with the words, “and then he died.” Enoch’s doesn’t end that way. Instead, we are told that Enoch walked in close fellowship with God for over 300 years, and then he disappeared, because God took him. In other words, Enoch never died, God just took him to Heaven! That’s a unique story! As a matter of fact, we only read of one other person in all of Scripture who didn’t die, and that was Elijah, the great prophet of Israel, who was taken up to Heaven in a whirlwind as a chariot of fire swept by. We aren’t told any details about how God took Enoch to Heaven, but I suspect that’s because the details aren’t really important. What is important is why Enoch was taken to Heaven—because he had faithfully walked with God.
Kent Hughes explains what it means to walk with God by comparing walking with God to walking with anyone else. He said that in order to walk with someone you must do three things: You must be going to the same place, you must be taking the same path, and you must be moving at the same speed. In order to walk with God, we must submit our lives to Him. We must value what God values and do the things that He does. And we must always seek to follow His lead. Rather than trying to run ahead of God, we must wait for and trust in His timing. This is what Enoch did for the 365 years of his life. He trusted God enough to seek to be near Him in every step of his life.
So Enoch’s example teaches us that faith leads us to walk with God. So how do we do that? How do we cultivate that kind of faith? We do it by changing our decision-making matrix. Rather than asking ourselves, “What do I want to do?”, or “Where do I want to go?” we should ask instead, “What does God want me to do?” “Where does He want me to go?” In order to walk with God, we must submit our will to His. And it’s not enough to do this just once—it must be a conscious decision every day of our lives. We need to learn to submit every decision to the Lord. If we have a genuine faith, then we believe that God’s way is best, so we should trust that He will lead us in the way we should go.
Practically, it means that every time we face a decision, big or small, we should ask, what does God want me to do? For some decisions (like what socks should I wear?), the answer will be, it doesn’t matter, but for a lot of others (like should I go to church or stay in bed, or should I tell the truth or lie, or should I love this person or lash out at them), the answer is pretty clear. A person of faith seeks to walk with God in every part of their lives. Like Enoch, we should make sure that our goals align with God’s, that our path is God’s path, and that we are moving at the speed God is moving.
There is one important statement at the end of verse 6 that I don’t want to miss, however. The writer of Hebrews says that without faith it is impossible to please God. God is not pleased by simply going through the motions (for evidence, look at Cain!) God is only pleased when we earnestly seek Him. And faith is a prerequisite for earnestly seeking God. In order to walk with God each and every day, we must trust Him completely. And if we trust Him completely, we will follow Him completely and joyfully. The only way God is pleased with us is when He sees us trusting Him fully—which is exactly what Enoch did.
Example 3: Noah
The third example we are given is the example of Noah.
7 It was by faith that Noah built a large boat to save his family from the flood. He obeyed God, who warned him about things that had never happened before. By his faith Noah condemned the rest of the world, and he received the righteousness that comes by faith. (Hebrews 11:7, NLT)
Compared to Abel and Enoch, Noah’s story is pretty well-known. As a matter of fact, Hollywood released a movie called Noah in 2014, although that movie had very, very little correlation with the actual story of Noah. We read Noah’s story in Genesis 6-9. God saw that the earth was overrun by evil and that there was no one righteous except for Noah. So God told Noah that he was going to send a flood that would destroy everything and told him to build an ark that would save his family and would preserve all of the different kinds of animals in the world. God gave him specific instructions and dimensions for the ark, and Noah set about building it. When he finished, he loaded up all the animals and his family and God sealed them in. Then God did as he promised and flooded the earth, wiping out everyone and everything except those in the ark.
It’s an amazing story, but it might not be easy to see right away why Noah is listed as a great example of faith. But you need to look a little deeper to see how big Noah’s faith in God was. First, we need to recognize that Noah was the only righteous man in a world that was utterly evil. We often feel like the world around us is evil (and it is), but our world is not nearly as evil as the world Noah was living in. We have others around us who share our faith, offering us strength and encouragement; Noah was alone in his faith. Think about how hard it is for us to stand for the Lord in our society, and then imagine what it must have been like to be Noah. Noah’s faith caused him to remain loyal to God even though everyone else had turned away. He demonstrated great faith even before God told him to build an ark.
That faith is what drove him as he carried out God’s instructions to build the ark. This was no small feat, and it required great faith. The ark God told Noah to build was huge! It was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet tall. It wasn’t something that Noah was going to be able to build without attracting a lot of attention! I put together a graphic that gives you a sense of just how big the ark would have been. The ark was probably 4 times the size of our church, and it was roughly 4 stories tall—taller than any building in Hancock County. Everyone around Noah would have surely taken notice of (and probably a nosy interest in) what he was doing. You can imagine that a lot of people thought that what he was doing was foolish, and I imagine no shortage of people told him so.
And people had no shortage of time to come up with things to say to Noah. The process of building the ark probably took somewhere between 50 and 75 years! I suspect that every time people traveled by Noah’s house, they would stop to gawk at the progress he was making on his monstrous structure. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the common ways to pass the time in Noah’s town was to go out and watch the fool build his big boat. Remember, everyone on the earth was evil, so there wasn’t anyone who sympathized with him or believed him. He was surely ridiculed for claiming that he had heard from God, let alone actually building what God had told him to build. He was certainly the laughingstock of his town and had probably become somewhat of a running joke. You can imagine people calling him “crazy Noah” and over the course of 50-75 years, I’m sure he heard every insult possible.
What is most amazing to me, however, is that Scripture only records God speaking to Noah at the beginning of the project and at the end. We are not told that God continued to talk to Noah as he built. Now that doesn’t mean that God didn’t talk to him during that time, but it’s also possible that He simply gave Noah his instructions and then waited for him to carry them out. Imagine the kind of faith it took for Noah to remain faithful to the task God had given to him. I imagine Noah coming home at night and wondering if he was crazy for doing what God told him. There were surely times when he felt like it couldn’t possibly be worth it—that God didn’t tell him how hard it would be to follow Him. But Noah kept following God for 50-75 years—what we would consider an entire lifetime—even though everything around him told him to simply give up.
Noah’s example teaches us that true faith obeys even when it doesn’t make sense. Noah couldn’t fully understand why God was having him build the ark, but He knew that God told him it was necessary—that it was the only way he and his family could be saved. And Noah believed God. He believed God so much that he kept on going, even in the midst of incredible persecution. His trust in God was greater than his concern for what other people might say about him.
Faith motivates us to keep seeking God, even when it doesn’t make sense to us, even when it’s hard, and even when it feels like it isn’t accomplishing anything. Genuine faith results in radical obedience.
So, how do we develop this kind of faith? It doesn’t happen overnight. Work at trusting God in areas that stretch your faith. Strive to obey even the commands that run counter to your instincts. Your faith will grow as God delivers on what He promised time and time again. You will see that God really does know what’s best and be motivated to trust Him no matter what the circumstance. Here are some suggestions of where to start.
- Be generous in tithing to the Lord, even though the world says you’re just throwing good money away.
- Point people to their need for a Savior, even though they may not understand it right away, and they might even ridicule you for doing so.
- Live with integrity, even when it seems like those who take shortcuts are getting ahead without any consequences.
- Refuse to take part in the sinful indulgences of the world (drunkenness, sexual immorality, coarse and vulgar speech) even though those who partake in such things declare that you can’t have fun without them.
- Keep doing what you know is right, even when it seems like no one else notices, like it’s not getting you anywhere, and it’s hard.
Faithful obedience over the long-term stems from a belief that God will keep His promises, and that what He says is true. This is what separated Noah from his neighbors—He believed God, they did not.
Each of these three men is an example of faithful living. The commonality among these stories is that all three men believed in God more than they believed the voices of the world around them or even the voices of their own reasoning. Because Abel, Enoch, and Noah trusted in the Lord, they lived in a way that set them apart from the world around them, and they became shining examples of what it means to live faithfully for the Lord. Their examples teach us that:
- Faith involves living God’s way even when other ways seem more convenient.
- Faith involves walking with God daily and delighting in serving Him.
- Faith involves doing what God says even when the task seems overwhelming.
- Faith involves obeying God in spite of the opposition you may face from those around you.
The wise person learns from those who have gone before them. They learn what not to do from the mistakes of others and they learn what to do from the good things that others have done. If we are wise, we will work to cultivate faith like that of Abel, Enoch, and Noah. Such faith doesn’t come overnight, it only comes from a conscious, continual effort to trust the Lord in every area of life.