Against the Flow
Hebrews 11 describes many heroes of the faith; one of these is Noah, whose four-chapter biography in Genesis is condensed into one verse:
By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. Hebrews 11:7
Before making three key applications, let's take a look at what this verse says.Several key
1. By Faith
Every hero of faith in Hebrews 11 is introduced with the two words by faith. What do we mean faith? Simply:
Faith is the settled confidence that something in the future – something that is not yet seen but has been promised by God – will actually come to pass because God will bring it to pass.
We'll get to the to the something promised to Noah in a moment; faith is settled confidence that whatever God has promised, he will bring it to pass.
Faith is believing what God has promised. As we walk through Hebrews 11, the thing we see is that every one of these people had an encounter with God in which God spoke some kind of promise.
The other thing we see is that in every example given in this chapter, FAITH produced ACTION. Faith here is not mental assent – it is not an intellectual agreement. It includes believing that God’s word is true, but believing it in such a way that we act on it and obey it.
Anyone who ends up with their name in the Bible is remarkable; more than just a name on a list, Noah ends up with four chapters. Two key things help us understand something about now.
First, according to Genesis 6:5, Noah lived in a really dark time:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
After Adam and Eve uncorked the genie bottle of sin and polluted God's perfect creation, the world got darker and darker. At the time he was alive, Noah is the only believer on record.
Second, according to Genesis 6:8-9, Noah found favour/grace with God, lived in righteousness, and walked with God. There are many people in the Bible who experienced God's grace, lived righteously, and walked with God; remarkable are those who, like Noah, seem to have done so by themselves. There is no record that Noah had an encouraging group of fellow believers to bolster his faith; in a real sense, it was Noah against the world.
3. Swimming against the tide
If we put 1 (Faith) and 2 (Noah) together, we get a picture of a man who was swimming upstream against the cultural current of his day.
One of the great feats of nature is the annual salmon run that happens in many places around the world. Salmon start out life in fresh water rivers, then swim out to the ocean where the live life, then return to the place of their spawning to start the cycle over again. Their ability to return to where they were from is AMAZING. But it also illustrates this fact that – to fulfil our destiny, we have to swim against the current.
To follow Jesus, we have to swim up stream, against the flow. And in doing so, we have to swim past some big barriers – like salmon avoiding the grizzly bears waiting to have a salmon salad for lunch.
4. Animal House
Hopefully you are too young - or too righteous - to remember the film Animal House. It’s about uni students in a particularly wild fraternity who party too much and study too little. At the centre of the movie, to assuage their remorse for being expelled from the university, they decide to throw a toga party.
This was my university experience – not drinking too much – although I probably did study too little. But I went from growing up in a small town, small church, good Jesus-loving family to being thrown into the middle of a what felt like a giant toga party.
I remember my first night at university, and I stayed up really really late, enjoying my newfound freedom as a fresher, and went to bed around midnight. At 2am, the wall separating my dorm room from the corridor was undulating with the intense music booming from the gargantuan speakers in the room across the way. It was like a stepped onto the set of the Animal House film, except it was live, and it was real.
I found a good church, and our church had a prayer meeting every Friday night. I remember going back to my doorm after the prayer meeting, getting off the lift at the 4thfloor of Granville Towers West … and there was literally a TOGA party going on. It was wild!
I remember the very first night I was there as a fresher, laying in my bed, the corridor wall vibrating, the world’s loudest, drunkest party just inches from head, thinking, Dear God – what have I gotten myself into? And in that moment, in the midst of the craziness that surrounded me, the Holy Spirit spoke very clearly to me: You haven’t gotten yourself into anything, I put you here. I put you here to be light in the midst of darkness.
If the world was already full of light, we wouldn’t be necessary. We could just go home to be with the Lord. And that’s the big idea. The Lord intentionally puts us in the midst of situations because we are needed. But to be light in the midst of darkness means that we have to swim against the tide. To be light in the midst of darkness means that we understand how life is against us.
5. BY FAITH ... being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen
Here we encounter the essence of what Faith is about. In this particular case, the word of God to Noah was about the destruction of the world through the flood. Now, there are many times when God speaks to his people throughout scripture. The key bit of this phrase is ‘concerning events as yet unseen’. That’s why this is the essence of faith. The author puts that in here precisely to remind us about the nature of faith: it is rooted in promises God makes about the future that have yet to come to pass.
It's true that there is part of faith that is based on what God has done in the past. We believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead. By trusting in the message of what God has done in Christ and what it means for us, we experience salvation. Our faith in what God has done in the past is based on the testimony of others and confirmed by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.
But our faith in what God has done in the past shapes our faith in the future. Based on what God has done, we believe he will do certain things. Now in this case, the word – the thing that Noah heard from God – this had never happened before. There had never been a flood like this before, Noah could not draw on any point of experience to trust that God would do what He said He would do.
This is why it is difficult to live in a world of unbelief, a world that is cynical towards God and the claims of God. Imagine Noah having a conversation with this neighbour.
Oh, by the way, there’s going to be a flood. You should repent and join me in this ark I’m building and God will save you.
Noah would have been a laughing stock. In 2 Peter, Noah is called a preacher of righteousness. We don’t know how long it took him to build the ark, but it was YEARS.
This was a MASSIVE construction - approximately 450 feet long. And just Noah and his three sons working on it. It would have taken Noah years – decades to build this thing. There would have been many gospel conversations during that time.
Noah preached righteousness. But he had no converts. No one believed his messave. And that’s what is difficult about swimming upstream. We live in a under a different plausibility structre that the world. A plausibility structure is simply a system of ideas that are held to be true in a particular context. The world around us lives in a plausibility structure that goes something like this: The only thing that is real is what can be proved with empirical evidence.
And so, the world Noah lived in inhabited a plausibility structure called ‘there hasn’t been a flood like that before, so there won’t be one the future, so I can go on living life the way I want to live life’. That’s the equivalent of: God hasn’t judged me for my sin, so there’s not going to be a great judgment, so I can live how I want to live.
On the other side, we live in a plausibility structure called ‘defined by the word of God’. That is, we hold to be true what God has said, not just what we can prove based on empirical evidence. Noah had NO empirical evidence that there would be a flood. And yet, he believed and he obeyed.
But this raises the question: if we haven’t seen the thing yet, how can we believe it is true? Where does the faith come from to believe the promises of God? This is what we read in Romans 10:17:
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
God’s word produces the faith for us to believe what God has said and to act on it. So God’s word came to Noah, and that word produced the faith to do what God had said.
6. BY FAITH ... in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.
This is the thing Noah did. The phrase reverent fear is a Greek word that means respect or carefulness and is sometimes translated as piety. In other words, Noah was simply motivated by fear, although, the idea of a ginormous flood is scary.
Neither was he simply motivated to save his family, although that surely was a motivation, and that was the outcome of his faith in action. But he did all of this with reverent fear, with respect for God.
In other words, he wasn’t simply motivated by personal gain, although there was substantial personal gain to be gained from obeying God in this instance. Rather, he did what he did for the glory of God.
The grace of God, the mercy of God, the righteousness of God was on display in the salvation of Noah. And yes, it saved his family.
But notice that if take out all of the description or clarifying clauses, the action in this verse is quite simple: BY FAITH NOAH CONSTRUCTED AN ARK. This brings us back to one of the main points in this passage:
Faith does stuff. It gets things done. The word of God came to Noah, and he didn’t simply say, yeah, that’s cool, I intellectually agree with that, but I’m going to get on with life. No. When we really believe the word of God, it leads us to ACTION.
Now, that action has consequences. A positive consequence is that his family was saved.
A negative consequence is the next phrase:
7. BY THIS he condemned the world.
Now, the first question is what is the ‘this’ to which this refers. The choice is between this faith and this obedience in building the ark. I suggest that it’s both, that in this chapter, the faith of believing God and the faith of obeying God can’t be separated.
What kind of condemnation did Noah bring? Very simply, by believing the promise of God, he removed the counter-argument someone might make against the judgment of God, 'Well, no one else believed!'.
Not so. Noah believed, and his faith was an indictment against the unbelief of the world around him. Even if you keep quiet about your faith (not a luxury afforded to Noah, who was building a very public, giant boat!), the simple fact that you believe, that you are walking against the flow of this age - it's an indictment against the unbelief of your friends, coworkers, and family members.
As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 1:18 the 'word of the cross' is always foolish to an unbelieving world. But the foolishness of God is always wiser than the wisdom of men.
8. BY THIS he became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
Throughout scripture, God equates righteousness - right standing before him - with faith (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17). That is, we are rightly related to God when we believe the promise of the gospel. Believing the promise means acting on the promise.
On this point, it is possible to give too great - or too little - a place to obedience. In short, we are saved by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone; genuine faith always produceds obedience. We are not saved by our works, but neither are we saved without them; God's grace works in our lives to produce the fruit God intends. What then, shall we learn from Noah?
So What? Three Points of Application
1. The life of faith is powered by the Word of God
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Because we are so susceptible to the counter-narratives of doubt, unbelief, and cynicism dominating the world around us, we need a steady diet of God's word in our lives. His word breeds, builds, and imparts faith to us. It is through the operation of his Word on our minds and hearts that faith is born so that we can believe the promises he gives. The invitation is to build a life within the 'happy house' of God's promises.
2. The life of faith is always a swim against the tide.
Sorry, but there simply is not other way; following Jesus means swimming against the tide of this age. There are many scriptures that point to the fact that Jesus calls us us to a counter-cultural lifestyle. For example, in Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus said:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Prepare to feel flow of water hitting you in the face. The reward is beyond your imagination, but it comes with a price tag.
3. The life of faith is safe because Jesus is our ark of salvation.
If my faith were up to me, I would have quit a long time ago. On my own, I simply lack what it takes to do well with God, to stay in the game, to keep going in the face of ups and downs and twists and turns. But God is faithful.
Our salvation depends on Jesus holding, sustaining, and keeping us, not on how well we perform. The invitation is to only, ever, always keep our eyes on Jesus, to keep trusting Jesus, to keep believing in Jesus. Why? He is a safe ark, and He will take us safely home.