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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : Hebrews 11:17-22

Commentary On Hebrews by Jean Calvin

Hebrews 11:17-22

17. By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

17. Fide Abraham obtulit Isaac quum tentatus est; ac unigenitum obtulit quum promissiones accepisset;

18. Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:

18. Ad quem dictum erat, In Isaac, vocabitur tibi semen:

19. Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.

19. Quum reputasset Deum etiam ex mortuis posse suscitare; unde eum quoque in similitudine recuperavit.

20. By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.

20. Fide Isaac de futuris benedixis Jacob et Esau.

21. By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.

21. Fide jacob moriens singulos filios Joseph benedixit, et adoravit ad summitatem virgae ejus.

22. By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.

22. Fide Joseph moriens de exitufiliorum Israel meminit, et de ossibus suis mandavit.

17. By faith Abraham, etc. He proceeds with the history of Abraham, and relates the offering up of his son; and it was a singular instance of firmness, so that there is hardly another like it to be found. Hence for the sake of enhancing it, he adds, when he was tempted, or tried. Abraham had indeed already proved what he was, by many trials; yet as this trial surpassed every other, so the Apostle would have it to be regarded above all his trials. It is then as though he had said, |The highest excellency of Abraham was the sacrificing of his son:| for God is said to have then in an especial manner tried him. And yet this act flowed from faith; then Abraham had nothing more excellent than faith, which brought forth such extraordinary fruit.

The word, tempted or tried, means no other thing than proved. What James says, that we are not tempted by God, is to be understood differently, (Jas.1:13;) he means that God does not tempt us to do evil; for he testifies that this is really done by every man's own lust. At the same time he says not that God does not try our integrity and obedience, though God does not thus search us, as if he knew not otherwise what is hid in our hearts; nay, God wants no probation that he may know us; but when he brings us to the light, that we may by our works show what was before hid, he is said to try or prove us; and then that which is made openly manifest, is said to be made known to God. For it is a very usual and frequent mode of speaking in Scripture, that what is peculiar to men is ascribed to God.

The sacrificing of Isaac is to be estimated according to the purpose of the heart: for it was not owing to Abraham that he did not actually perform what he was commanded to do. His resolution to obey was then the same, as though he had actually sacrificed his son.

And offered up his only-begotten Son, etc. By these various circumstances, the Apostle intended to show, how great and how severe the trial of Abraham was; and there are still other things related by Moses, which had the same tendency. Abraham was commanded to take his own son, his only begotten and beloved son Isaac, to lead to the place, which was afterwards to be shown to him, and there to sacrifice him with his own hands. These tender words God seems to have designedly accumulated, that he might pierce the inmost heart of the holy man, as with so many wounds; and then that he might more severely try him, he commanded him to go a threedays' journey. How sharp, must we think, was his anguish to have continually before his eyes his own son, whom he had already resolved to put to a bloody death! As they were coming to the place, Isaac pierced his breast with yet a new wound, by asking him, |Where is the victim?| The death of a son, under any circumstances, must have been very grievous, a bloody death would have still caused a greater sorrow; but when he was bidden to slay his own, -- that indeed must have been too dreadful for a father's heart to endure; and he must have been a thousand times disabled, had not faith raised up his heart above the world. It is not then without reason, that the apostle records that he was then tried.

It may, however, be asked, why is Isaac called the only begotten, for Ishmael was born before him and was still living. To this the answer is, that by God's express command he was driven from the family, so that he was accounted as one dead, at least, he held no place among Abraham's children.

And he that received the promises, etc. All the things we have hitherto related, however deeply they must have wounded the heart of Abraham, yet they were but slight wounds compared with this trial, when he was commanded, after having received the promises, to slay his son Isaac; for all the promises were founded on this declaration, |In Isaac shall thy seed be called,| (Genesis 21:12;) for when this foundation was taken away, no hope of blessing or of grace remained. Here nothing earthly was the matter at issue, but the eternal salvation of Abraham, yea, of the whole world. Into what straits must the holy man have been brought when it came to his mind, that the hope of eternal life was to be extinguished in the person of his son? And yet by faith he emerged above all these thoughts, so as to execute what he was commanded. Since it was a marvelous fortitude to struggle through so many and so great obstacles, justly is the highest praise awarded to faith, for it was by faith alone that Abraham continued invincibly.

But here arises no small difficulty, How is it that Abraham's faith is praised when it departs from the promise? For as obedience proceeds from faith, so faith from the promise; then when Abraham was without the promise, his faith must have necessarily fallen to the ground. But the death of Isaac, as it has been already said, must have been the death as it were of all the promises; for Isaac is not to be considered as a common man, but as one who had Christ included in him. This question, which would have been otherwise difficult to be solved, the Apostle explains by adding immediately, that Abraham ascribed this honor to God, that he was able to raise his son again from the dead. He then did not renounce the promise given to him, but extended its power and its truth beyond the life of his son; for he did not limit God's power to so narrow bounds as to tie it to Isaac when dead, or to extinguish it. Thus he retained the promise, because he bound not God's power to Isaac's life, but felt persuaded that it would be efficacious in his ashes when dead no less than in him while alive and breathing.

19. From whence also, etc. As though he said, |Nor did hope disappoint Abraham, for it was a sort of resurrection, when his son was so suddenly delivered from the midst of death. The word figure, which is here used, is variously explained. I take it simply as meaning likeness; for though Isaac did not really rise from the dead, yet he seemed to have in a manner risen, when he was suddenly and wonderfully rescued through the unexpected favor of God. However, I do not dislike what some say, who think that our flesh, which is subject to death, is set forth in the ram which was substituted for Isaac. I also allow that to be true which some have taught, that this sacrifice was a representation of Christ. But I have now to state what the Apostle meant, not what may in truth be said; and the real meaning here, as I think, is, that Abraham did not receive his Son otherwise than if he had been restored from death to new life.

20. By faith Isaac, etc. It was also the work of faith to bless as to future things; for when the thing itself does not exist and the word only appears, faith must necessarily bear rule. But first we must notice of what avail is the blessing of which he speaks. For to bless often means to pray for a blessing. But the blessing of Isaac was very different; for it was as it were an introduction into the possession of the land, which God had promised to him and his posterity. And yet he had nothing in that land but the right of burial. Then strange seemed these high titles, |Let people serve thee, and tribes bow down to thee,| (Genesis 27:29;) for what dominion could he have given who himself was hardly a free man? We hence see that this blessing depended on faith; for Isaac had nothing which he could have bestowed on his children but the word of God.

It may, however, be doubted whether there was any faith in the blessing given to Esau, as he was a reprobate and rejected by God. The answer is easy, for faith mainly shone forth, when he distinguished between the two twins born to him, so that he gave the first place to the younger; for following the oracle of God, he took away from the firstborn the ordinary right of nature. And on this depended the condition of the whole nation, that Jacob was chosen by God, and that this choice was sanctioned by the blessing of the father.

21. By faith Jacob, etc. It was the Apostle's object to attribute to faith whatever was worthy of remembrance in the history of the people: as, however, it would have been tedious to recount everything, he selected a few things out of many, such at this. For the tribe of Ephraim was so superior to the rest, that they in a manner did lie down under its shade; for the Scripture often includes the ten tribes under this name. And yet Ephraim was the younger of the two sons of Joseph, and when Jacob blessed him and his brother, they were both young. What did Jacob observe in the younger, to prefer him to the first born? Nay, when he did so, his eyes were dim with age, so that he could not see. Nor did he lay his right hand by chance on the head of Ephraim, but he crossed his hands, so that he moved his right hand to the left side. Besides, he assigned to them two portions, as though he was now the Lord of that land, from which famine had driven him away. There was nothing here agreeable to reason; but faith ruled supreme. If, then, the Jews wish to be anything, they should glory in nothing else, but in faith.

And worshipped on the top, etc. This is one of those places from which we may conclude that the points were not formerly used by the Hebrews; for the Greek translators could not have made such a mistake as to put staff here for a bed, if the mode of writing was then the same as now. No doubt Moses spoke of the head of his couch, when he said l r's hmth but the Greek translators rendered the words, |On the top of his staff| as though the last word was written, mathaeh. The Apostle hesitated not to apply to his purpose what was commonly received: he was indeed writing to the Jews; but they who were dispersed into various countries, had changed their own language for the Greek. And we know that the Apostles were not so scrupulous in this respect, as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned, who had as yet need of milk; and in this there is no danger, provided readers are ever brought back to the pure and original text of Scripture. But, in reality, the difference is but little; for the main thing was, that Jacob worshipped, which was an evidence of his gratitude. He was therefore led by faith to submit himself to his son.

22. By faith Joseph, etc. This is the last thing which Moses records respecting the patriarchs, and it deserves to be particularly noticed; for wealth, luxuries, and honors, made not the holy man to forget the promise, nor detained him in Egypt; and this was an evidence of no small faith. For whence had he so much greatness of mind, as to look down on whatever was elevated in the world, and to esteem as nothing whatever was precious in it, except that he had ascended up into heaven. In ordering his bones to be exported, he had no regard to himself, as though his grave in the land of Canaan would be sweeter or better than in Egypt; but his only object was to sharpen the desire of his own nation, that they might more earnestly aspire after redemption; he wished also to strengthen their faith, so that they might confidently hope that they would be at length delivered.

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