Volume 9, Issue 4: Exegetica
By Faith When He Was Dying - Hebrews 11:17-22
Faith is believing and relying on the promises of God. The faithful believe that God has promised to bless and keep them, and resting in those promises they are enabled to live, and die, in faith. That the faith of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph held firm, even in the face of death, is the message the author declares in this portion of the epistle to the Hebrews.
"By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, 'In Isaac your seed shall be called,' accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense" (Heb. 11:17-19). The Lord had promised Abraham that, through his seed, He would bless all the families of the earth. Abraham believed this promise of God, a belief by which he was justified. This belief God first tested by allowing Abraham to wait for its fulfillment, the birth of the promised son, until his body was "as good as dead." Abraham waited, believed, and relied on God, who had clearly announced to Abraham that "in Isaac," and not in anyone else, the promised blessing to the world would come. Then the final test: God commanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. And Abraham obeyed, knowing that somehow God would fulfill His promise, though he slay and burn to ashes the one by whom that promise would come. Indeed, the author of Hebrews tells us that Abraham was counting on a resurrection from the dead. In his heart Abraham had already given Isaac over to death as he "took the knife to slay his son" (Gen. 22:10), and thus "in a figurative sense," he received him back from the dead.
In this narrative throughout the ages God has given His church a marvelous picture of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The parallels between the sacrifices of Isaac and Christ are many and striking: both are sacrifices of an only begotten son (Heb. 11:17); both occurred in the region of Moriah (Gen. 22:2, cf. 2 Chr. 3:1); both carried their own wood for the altar (Gen. 22:6); both resulted in the fathers receiving their sons back from the dead. These parallels and more have been detailed by many other expositors of Scripture. The point here is that Abraham was trusting God in the face of death, and beyond, because he was relying on His promises.
Isaac himself trusted God as he approached his final hours. "By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come" (Heb. 11:20). Though Isaac failed to seek the blessing of Jacob, of whom it was said, "the older shall serve the younger," yet in the providence of God he did in fact bless him in faith. That faith is seen in the words of the blessings which echo the promises given to Abraham; first, when Isaac believed himself to be blessing Esau: "Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. . . . Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be those who bless you" (Gen. 27:29); later, when he blessed Jacob before sending him to Padan Aram: "May God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful and multiply you. . . . And give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and your descendants with you" (Gen. 28:3-4). Isaac knew the promises God gave his father and his seed, and relying on those promises in faith, he blessed his sons accordingly.
Jacob carried that blessing with him throughout his long life. We see his faith mature at each step: in his dealings with Laban, his wrestling with God, his meeting with Esau, his return to Bethel (where God Himself appeared to him and blessed him), and his journey to Egypt. As his body weakened his faith grew stronger, till at the point of death his faith was perfected. God's guidance of his hands and words in blessing provided clear evidence of this. "By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff" (Heb. 11:21). Jacob blessed them according to the promises given his fathers: "Bless the lads, let my name be named upon them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth" (Gen. 48:16). And so the covenant promises were passed on to his descendants as he died, worshiping God in faith.
"By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones" (Heb. 11:22). In many other instances - in Potiphar's house, in prison, in Pharaoh's court - Joseph's faith is powerfully displayed. But the author of Hebrews takes us to this instance, his death, to show us that Joseph, like the other patriarchs of God's people, trusted in the promises of God as he departed this life. For Joseph said to his brothers, "I am dying; but God will surely visit you and bring you out of this land to the land which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob" (Gen. 50:24). Joseph was a powerful prince in Egypt, living in the palace, his family given the best of the land. Yet he forsook it all in his heart and openly put his hope rather in the promises of God, telling his brothers, "God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here" (Gen. 50:25). Thus he strengthened their faith and the faith of his sons, his remains preserved till that day of deliverance.