Hymnology: By Faith we see the hand of God

February here at St Mark’s is ‘all-request’ month. People have the opportunity to request a favourite hymn or a song, and we’ll sing them  at services throughout the month.

My request for the month was “By Faith” by Townend and Getty. This is a song which is particularly inspired by the famous chapter 11 of Hebrews, about the ‘heroes of faith’. I chose it because I’ve been thinking a lot about the future recently, and what it means to step out by faith: so often it seems that God leads us down a road where we can’t see everything – we can maybe only see the first step or two. But we are called to take a step out in faith, and trust God that he will lead and guide us.

I thought it would be worthwhile thinking a little bit about “walking by faith and not by sight” in the book of Hebrews. Hebrews was a book which, as far as we can tell, was written to a group of Jewish believers who were in danger of giving up their faith in Christ and going back to the Jewish religion. The reason? They didn’t want to walk by faith – the Jewish religion had the temple and sacrifices and so on – things you could physically see, touch, smell etc.

What the writer to the Hebrews does is demonstrate that what Christians have ‘by faith’ is not only the true heir to what we call the Old Testament – the Hebrew Scriptures – but is actually more real than what we can see currently with our eyes.

In particular, he demonstrates that Christ and what has been accomplished through him is the reality, in a way which the Temple, sacrificial system and the Law could never be:

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. (9:24-25)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (10:1)

The earthly tabernacle and temple were not the reality: they were only “a copy” or a “shadow” of what was to come – i.e. Christ. They were only physical reminders to the people of the redemption that God was going to fully accomplish in Christ.

But Christ has come, the reality has come – and obtained “eternal redemption” with his own blood, rather than the blood of bulls and goats. He has not entered into a copy of the true sanctuary, but he has entered into heaven itself and appears for us in God’s presence. That’s an amazing thought!

So we come to chapter 11, where we see this ‘hall of fame’ of those characters from the Old Testament who the writer mentions. He demonstrates that all these characters, far from living lives oriented around what they could see, actually lived lives of faith – trusting patiently in what they could not yet see. Here’s what the writer says about them:

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. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 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.

All of these characters the writer mentions were looking for something beyond what they could see with their eyes. They were “longing for a better country – a heavenly one”. Their hope for the unseen future controlled what they did in the seen present. They were able to endure hardship and do mighty deeds because they knew that there was more to the world than simply what their eyes could see.

This is really significant for us today: I think it’s so tempting – for me at least – to simply look round at a place and see nothing but the physical. To see nothing but bricks and mortar, and people going about their days with no concern for the eternal. But God calls us to look beyond, to look to the future, to look to the heavenly city which he has prepared for all those who love him. This must control our days, not simply our immediate concerns but God’s concerns. We walk by faith and not by sight.


This is part of my “Hymnology” blog series

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