Biblical Faith, Part 8


Let’s compare what the author of Hebrews says concerning the Israelites to what Moses wrote in his historical account in the book of Exodus:

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.  (Hebrews 11:29  NIV)

They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?  What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?  Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”  (Exodus 14:11, 12  NIV)

As we have noted before, Hebrews doesn’t always tell us the whole story.  We read about people with incredible faith in Hebrews, but when we dig a little deeper, we discover more often than not their faith wasn’t all that spectacular.  In the case of Israel, evidence of faith is, in fact, miniscule.

It is true that the nation joined in with their leader, Moses, and sung with great joy and gladness in his famous song of praise:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:  “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted.  Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea…”  (Exodus 15:1  NIV)

But that was after the fact.  It’s always easy to have faith after the fact!  God noticed the Israelites distinct lack of faith, too.  The fact that almost every single Israelite, except for Joshua and Caleb, died during the 40 year desert wandering solely because of their manifest lack of faith in God indicates that the author of Hebrews was being very general and generous in his use of the phrase, “by faith.”

An honest assessment

In truth, our letter-writer has already given his honest assessment of his ancestors:

Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt?  (Hebrews 3:16  NIV)

Far from being people of faith, almost all of the Israelites that followed Moses out of Egypt were rebellious.  They didn’t have faith.  Moses had faith.  They didn’t.  But these stubborn, rebellious people did do one thing right:  they listened to Moses and did what they were told – eventually.  They weren’t happy about it, they had their doubts, they vocalized their complaints constantly, but when push came shove they sucked it up and did what Moses wanted them to do.  This is not the main point of Hebrews 11:29, but it is a point we need to understand because it impacts the modern Christians today.

The nation of Israel is spoken of as being full of faith simply by virtue of  the fact that they followed the man who had faith:  Moses.  Because Moses had faith, the people who followed him were said to have faith.  They were identified with their leader.  In actuality they didn’t have the faith; their leader had the faith.  But they were identified with their leader.  Their leader had the faith, therefore those what followed him had faith, too.

If you’re thinking that isn’t fair, you’re right.  It isn’t fair.  But it is how God works.


The doctrine of “identification” isn’t explicitly found in Scripture, but it’s there implicitly.  Just as the ancient Israelites were identified with Moses, so Christians are identified with Christ.  Those Israelites were reckoned as being faithful (when they, in reality, were not) because of Moses and his faithfulness, and Christians are reckoned as being righteous (when we, in reality, are not) because of Jesus Christ and His righteousness.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20  NIV)

Here is a trustworthy saying:  If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.  (2 Timothy 2:11, 12  NIV)

When you came to Christ, he set you free from your evil desires, not by a bodily operation of circumcision but by a spiritual operation, the baptism of your souls. For in baptism you see how your old, evil nature died with him and was buried with him; and then you came up out of death with him into a new life because you trusted the Word of the mighty God who raised Christ from the dead.  (Colossians 2:11, 12  TLB)

Thanks to our being identified with Jesus Christ, God reckons us to be as righteous and as faithful as His Son.  The truth is, while we have been justified by faith, we have a lot of work to do to live up to our justification!  That’s why Paul wrote this:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.  (Philippians 2:12, 13 NIV)

It’s up to us “work out our salvation,” that is, to put forth the effort to live lives in accordance to God’s will.  That positively Herculean task is made possible because God is working in us to accomplish it.  It’s His purpose for us that we should be reflections of His Son.

Of course, the Israelites paid dearly for their rebellion.  They may have been identified with their leader, Moses, but almost all of them had to pay with their lives.  But think about this:  God wouldn’t let them enter the Promised Land, but He did give them their freedom from slavery.  He set them free from the Egyptians.  He fed them in the desert.  He gave them His law and a way to worship Him – a way to relate to Him.  He protected them.  Even during their so-called wilderness wanderings, God never left them. His presence remained steadfastly with them.  All for the sake of Moses.

We are treated like sons and daughters of God all for the sake of Jesus Christ.

The wrong kind of faith

Because of the faith of Moses, God saved the whole nation of Israel from certain slaughter at the hands of the highly skilled Egyptian army by leading them  safely to the other side of the Red Sea.  The people had their doubts, but they followed the man who had NO doubts.

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”  (Exodus 14:13, 14  NIV)

In spite of their doubts, they did.  And the Lord did.  He led them safely across to the other side.  They had the tiniest bit of faith, but it was enough.  And they had courage.  They must have.  You know who else had courage?  The Egyptians.  They must have.  They saw the waters part and they forged on – believing they could follow the Israelites across the Red Sea on dry land, just like they had done.

And that is the point of Hebrews 11:29.  If you thought this verse was all about a gesture of faith  on the part of the Israelites, you missed out completely.  The point of the verse is to contrast the faith manifested by the nation of Israel with the presumption of an unbelieving king and godless army.

Let’s read the historical account of what their presumption wrought:

The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea.  During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion.  He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. 

The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea.  Not one of them survived.  (Exodus 14:23 – 25; 28  NIV)

The Egyptian army was close behind the Israelites and they saw God doing the same things the Israelites saw.  The Israelites listened to Moses’ instructions and begrudgingly did what he told them. The Israelites, like the Egyptians who were hot on their trail, saw the Red Sea split in two.  Both the Egyptian army and the Israelites witnessed the pillar of cloud leading the Israelites through the Red Sea and both parties saw the supernatural cloud move from its position in front of the Israelites to right behind them.   The Egyptians tried to do exactly the same thing as the Israelites did, but it didn’t end very well for them.  That’s because, as Johann Albrecht Bengal wrote:

When two do the same thing, it is not the same thing.

What was the difference?  The Israelites exercised faith in the Word of the Lord spoken through Moses.  They may have had their doubts, but they followed through.  That’s the essence of faith, remember:  action.  Faith is doing something God wants you to do, even if your mind tells you differently.  But the Egyptians had no Word from the Lord to go on.  They simply mimicked what God’s people did, assuming their actions would yield the same results.  They found out the hard way that faith doesn’t work that way.

How many people, both inside the Church and without, act like the Egyptian army; practicing the worst, most dangerous kind of presumption, thinking it’s faith?  Faith cannot be learned by copying what faithful people have done.  It’s good learn about faith by studying the example of faithful people, but it’s ridiculous to copy their acts of faith thinking in doing so they become your acts of faith.  God may have told one man to quit his job and start preaching, but that doesn’t mean He wants all Christian men to quit their jobs and start preaching!  Or congregations think singing certain songs or raising their  hands at the appropriate moment will bring down God’s presence because doing those things once before, or seeing others do those things, seemed to have that affect.  That’s not having faith in God!  That’s having faith in yourself.  Or it’s presuming on God.

Similarly, unsaved people very often want all the privileges associated with living a life of faith but without the corresponding commitment to Jesus Christ.  They want the peace and joy and they want God to answer their prayers so they copy what they see their Christian neighbor doing without understanding acts of faith without a relationship with Jesus Christ are valueless.

The Israelites were victorious and were commended as having faith because they listened to the instructions of God through Moses.  They acted in faith.  Sadly, this is one and only act of faith on record as far as the Israelites were concerned.  Yet God noticed it.  And He notices your true acts of faith, too.




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