Noah: Obeying in Faith
By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. (11:7)
“Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). True faith always has actions to support its claim. Earlier in the second chapter of his letter, James condemns the man who says he has faith but who does nothing to help a fellow Christian in need. In order for faith to be valid, it must visibly radiate itself in good deeds. If you really believe in God, there will be evidence of it in the way you live, in the things you say, and in the things you do.
Abel illustrates the worship of faith, and Enoch the walk of faith. Noah, perhaps more than any other person in history, illustrates the work of faith—obedience.
Satan has continually tried to confuse and mislead people, including God’s people, about faith and works. If possible, he will convince a person that he can be saved by doing certain good works. If this strategy works, the person will be lost to God. If a person trusts in God and is saved, Satan then tries to convince him of one of two extremes—that he must do good works to keep his salvation (legalism) or that, now that he is saved by faith, he can forget about good works (license). From Genesis to Revelation, however, the Bible is clear that a person is saved only by faith, and that when he is saved, good works should follow as a result.
Paul, who so strongly proclaimed justification by faith alone, also proclaimed a life of good works for those who are justified. “Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:18). Believers are, in fact, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). For all the saints listed in Hebrews 11, their genuine faith was made known in something they did. Faith cannot be seen except in the things that it does. And if it is true faith, it will do many good things.
Noah was a man of faith, and his life continually showed his faith by his utter obedience to God. “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). He worshiped God faithfully, as Abel had, and he walked with God faithfully, as Enoch had. He also worked for God faithfully.
I once heard a sports announcer interview a professional football player shortly before he was scheduled to play in the Super Bowl. He asked the lineman what he thought his team’s chances were in the upcoming game. He replied, “We believe that if we just do what the coach says, we will win.” The team had absolute faith in its coach’s wisdom and judgment. But the players also knew that winning depended on their doing what he told them to do.
Noah’s faith was stupendous. It was stupendous because of his absolute trust in God and because of his unhesitating and persistent obedience for 120 years in an undertaking that, from the human perspective, looked totally absurd and absolutely impossible.
Three things in Hebrews 11:7 give proof that Noah’s faith was genuine. First, he responded to God’s word. That is always a characteristic of true faith. Second, he rebuked the world. He was such a man of God that his very life was a rebuke to the wicked people that surrounded him. Third, he received God’s righteousness. These are the classic marks of true faith.
Noah Responded to God’s Word
By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household. (11:7a)
When God told Noah that He was getting ready to destroy the world because of its wickedness and instructed him to build an ark (Gen. 6:13–14), Noah dropped everything and started building. Noah probably lived in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a long way from any ocean or sizable lake. It is difficult to imagine how God’s message must have sounded to Noah. To most of us it would have been so strange, so demanding, so embarrassing, so absolutely overwhelming, that we would have done anything to get out of it. We would have thought up a thousand excuses for not doing it. We would have done our best to talk God out of the whole idea, or at least convince Him to get someone else for the job.
But Noah, who had but a fraction of the divine light that we have, did not argue, quibble, make excuses, complain, or procrastinate. He did not question God, but simply began obeying Him. He spent over one hundred years fulfilling this single command. True faith does not question, and Noah did not question. Among the countless faithful saints who have endured and persisted in obedience to God, Noah stands supreme, if for nothing else than the shear magnitude and time span of his one incredible assignment from the Lord.
Noah doubtlessly had a lot of things of his own to do. To surrender all his time and effort to building a boat took a special kind of commitment. He probably had little idea about what an ocean-going ship was like. Certainly he had never seen, or even heard of, a giant ship such as the ark was to be. He had no experience in shipbuilding, no easy access to building supplies, and no help except that of his sons. Even they were not able to help for many years after the ark was begun, because they were not born until after Noah was 500 years old (Gen. 5:32). One of the greatest practical acts of faith in all history was Noah’s cutting down the first gopher tree for wood to make the ark.
Noah was warned by God about things not yet seen. He had never seen rain, because it probably did not exist before the Flood. He had never seen a flood, since floods could not have occurred without rain. Noah responded to God’s message by faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). By faith Noah … prepared an ark. He had nothing to go on but God’s word, which for him was more than sufficient.
Noah built the ark in reverence. The Greek word (eulabeia) can be translated “pious care, or concern,” with pious taken in the original sense of genuine spiritual devotion. He treated the message of God with great respect and awe. He “was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). He was a man of obedient faith even before God called him to build the ark. He had been faithful over smaller things, and now the Lord gave him a great thing to do.
The ark symbolized many of God’s future dealings with men. The Hebrew word for pitch, for example, has the same root (kpr) as that used for atonement. The pitch kept the waters of judgment from entering the ark just as Christ’s atoning blood keeps judgment from the sinner.
The exact length of the cubit during Noah’s time is not certain, but using the lowest, most conservative figure it would be about seventeen and a half inches. On this basis, the ark was 438 feet long, 73 feet wide, and 44 feet high. In other words it was nearly one and a half times the length of a football field and more than four stories high. Since it had three decks, the total deck area was almost 96,000 square feet, and the total volume within the decks was about 1.3 million cubic feet. Naval engineers have discovered that the dimensions and shape of the ark form the most stable ship design known. The ark was not designed for maneuverability but for stability, in order to best protect those within it.
The ark is a beautiful picture of the salvation offered in Jesus Christ. The ark was easily large enough to hold all the animals needed to assure each species’ survival. It had plenty of room for every person who wanted to come to God for safety. The fact that only eight persons came into the ark means that only eight wanted to be saved on God’s terms. God does not wish “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). God’s nature does not change. His will in Peter’s time was the same in Noah’s time. Only those perished in the Flood who rejected God’s way of salvation. Had more come to Him for safety, we can be sure the ark would have accommodated them. Just so, Jesus’ blood is more than sufficient to atone for all the sins ever committed since the Fall. That no more people are saved than are simply means that these are the only ones who want to be saved. Jesus declared absolutely that no one who comes to Him will be cast out (John 6:37).
When God first called Noah to his gargantuan task, He told him of the covenant He would make with him (Gen. 6:18). As the Lord explained later, the covenant was also with “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (9:16) that survived the Flood, including, of course, all mankind. But the covenant was first of all with Noah, the man who had “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8).
Though Noah was “blameless in his time” and “walked with God” (6:9), he was still a sinner. He was a fallen son of Adam, as seen so clearly in his shameful display of drunkenness and immodesty when things began going well after the Flood (9:20–21). He was saved because of God’s “favor,” because of God’s grace, working through his faith. Noah’s righteousness, just as that of every believer before and after him, was “in the eyes of the Lord.” Noah was counted righteous, justified by God’s pure grace, applied because of faith. Not even Noah’s faith in itself, amazing as it was compared to that of most of us, saved Him. God would not be obligated to save a single person even because of faith, had He not in His love and mercy declared faith to be the condition on which He would save. It is God’s right to save whom He will, and He wills to save those who believe in His Son. He takes our faith and, by His grace, counts it as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).
That Noah’s faith was genuine is proved by his obedience to God’s word. In God’s economy, trust and obedience are inseparable. As we love to sing, there is no other way than “to trust and obey.” Just as Noah trusted and obeyed, God wants all who belong to Him to do the same. He wants us to trust Him in the trial we are going through, the temptation we are facing, the decision we are making. He wants us to worship Him rightly, as Abel did, and to walk with Him, as Enoch did. He also wants us to obey him, as Noah did. The Lord has arks for every believer to build. It is just as important for us to build the ark He gives us as it was for Noah to build the one God assigned him. Ours may not be as big or as awesome or as time-consuming as Noah’s, but it is the only one we can build that will please God. And, like Noah’s, when we build it in faith, according to God’s plan and by His power, it will accomplish what God wants it to accomplish. Also like Noah’s, our work for the Lord may look foolish and purposeless in the world’s eyes. But if it is His work, it will please Him, the only one a believer needs to be concerned about pleasing.
My father used to tell the story of a man who walked up and down the sidewalks wearing a sandwich board with “I am a fool for Christ” painted on the front. On the back was “Whose fool are you?” In a sense, every person is a fool for something in the eyes of someone. Many political activists and cultists are perfectly willing to look like fools for the sake of their causes. How much more should a Christian be willing to look like a fool for Christ’s cause.
Peter and his partners had fished all night and caught nothing. As they were washing their nets on shore, Jesus got into one of the boats, preached for a while to the crowd that was gathered there, and then told Peter to put out into the deep and drop the nets again. Peter let the Lord know he thought the effort was useless, but he obeyed anyway. They caught so many fish they had to ask for help, and two boats nearly sank under the load. Peter’s faith was small, but he obeyed and was rewarded far out of proportion to his faith. Like Noah, he faithfully obeyed God, and God honored his faith and his obedience.
Noah believed God’s word about the coming judgment, and about the right size and way to build the ark, and about the promise to save him and his family. He did not pick and choose what to believe and what to obey. He believed everything and obeyed everything God said.
Noah Rebuked the World
By faith Noah … condemned the world. (11:7b)
Noah’s obedience included his passing on to the rest of the world God’s message of coming judgment. In 2 Peter 2:5, he is called “a preacher of righteousness.” God called Noah to preach while he built. The preaching was probably more difficult than the building. Hard jobs are always easier to deal with than hard people.
The times in which Noah grew up were among the most evil and corrupt in history. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). If any man had reason to regret the time in which he lived it was Noah. But he did not complain about when he was born, his lot in life, or his calling. He obeyed as he was and where he was.
Noah’s job was to warn the people of his time that God would soon judge them because of their wickedness and unbelief. They had had the same opportunity to know God and His will as had Noah. The difference between Noah and everyone around him was not a difference in the amount of light but a difference in response to it.
Mankind had become largely demon possessed. I believe the “sons of God” who came down and cohabited with the “daughters of men” (Gen. 6:2) were fallen angels, demons (cf. 1 Pet. 3:19–20). Because of this cohabitation, the fallen race fell even further. The evil of man’s own nature was compounded, and it became too much for the Lord to bear. Judgment had to come. Donald Barnhouse said, “Hell is as much a part of the love story as God in heaven is.” Righteousness and sin cannot coexist. God cannot establish righteousness until sin is destroyed.
As always, the Lord’s judgment was tempered by His mercy. He is never happy with judgment, no matter how deserved. God was “grieved in His heart” (Gen. 6:6) about man’s wickedness and the fact that he would have to be judged so severely. He allowed 120 years for the people to be warned and to repent, thereby staying the judgment (6:3). Actually a type of warning was given when Noah was born, 500 years before he started the ark. As he was being named, his father, Lamech, said, “This one shall give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed” (Gen. 5:29). And then, while God had Noah build the ark—a dramatic picture of the coming Flood—He also had Noah witness to the people, warning them. “The patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark” (1 Pet. 3:20). In other words, at the same time He was preparing judgment He was also preparing a way of escape.
The people had ample warning of judgment, and they also had ample knowledge of the truth. For one thing, they had the witness of nature. “Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). They also had Abel’s testimony about proper worship of God and Enoch’s testimony about proper fellowship with God. In addition to this positive light, God’s punishment of Cain should have been a constant reminder of what He thought of sin. God’s very Spirit was striving with men (Gen. 6:3), seeking to turn them back to their Creator. Then they had 120 years of righteous preaching by Noah. What more could God have done?
The people had no excuse for their sin before Noah began building the ark, and they had even less excuse after he finished. One hundred and twenty years, even when men sometimes lived to be nearly a thousand, was more than ample time for anyone to repent who wanted to repent.
C.H. Spurgeon said, “He who does not believe God will punish sin will not believe that he will pardon it through atoning blood.” Many people are glad to hear about God’s gracious promises but want to hear nothing of His judgment. Spurgeon went on to say, “I charge you who profess the Lord not to be unbelieving with regard to the terrible threatenings of God to the ungodly. Believe the threat even though it should chill your blood. Believe though nature shrinks from the overwhelming doom. For if you do not believe, disbelieving God at one point will drive you to disbelieve God upon the other points of revealed truth.”
Just as the people must have made excuses for not repenting or for putting it off, Noah too must have been tempted to make excuses about his qualifications for preaching and boat building. Surely Satan suggested to him more than once that he had plenty of time to build the ark “later.” One hundred and twenty years gives a great deal of opportunity for procrastination. But Noah did not make excuses or procrastinate; he simply preached and built, just as he was called to do. Amidst ridicule, wickedness, long years with little evidence of success, and many unanswered questions, Noah obeyed and obeyed and continued to obey.
Not only is God’s warning of judgment an act of mercy, but even the judgment itself has a merciful aspect. For the sake of the believing remnant on earth in Noah’s day, the Lord had to cut out the malicious and destructive spiritual cancer or it would have overwhelmed the world.
Against that wicked, cruel, and dark world, Noah’s life and testimony shined in glistening condemnation. Black never seems so black as when white is put beside it. The man of faith rebukes the world just by his living, even if he never utters a word of reproach. A young man of Athens told Socrates, “I hate you, because every time I meet you, you show me what I am.”
Perhaps the saddest lesson from Noah’s day is that men have not changed in their attitude toward God since then, and will not change until the Lord returns. “For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:37–39).
The parallels of Noah’s day to our own are sobering. In Noah’s day God’s message was rejected, as it is today. In his day, wickedness, immorality, violence, lewdness, vulgarity, profanity, lying, killing, and blasphemy were rampant, as they are today. In his day a remnant found grace, just as a remnant believes today. In Noah’s day or shortly before it, Enoch was translated, picturing the rapture of believers when the Lord returns, which could be in our day. We can be as sure as they should have been that judgment is coming, because God has promised it just as clearly and men deserve it just as much. Someone has said, “If God doesn’t destroy our world, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” The next judgment will be different in two ways, however. First, it will not be by flood (Gen. 9:15) but by fire (2 Pet. 3:10). Second, it will be the last. And again the only security is refuge in God’s ark, Jesus Christ.
Noah Received God’s Righteousness
Noah … became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. (11:7c)
Noah’s faith was proved by his receiving God’s righteousness, which is only bestowed on those who trust in Him. “A righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). He was the first person in Scripture to be called righteous.
All who believe in God are righteous, not always in practice but always in position. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us by faith (Rom. 3:22). The Father sees us as He sees the Son, holy and righteous, because by faith we are in the Son. If we put on colored glasses, everything we look at will appear that color. God looks at believers through the lens of His Son, and He sees us as He sees the Son. Thousands of years before Jesus became incarnate, God looked at Noah and saw the Son, because Noah believed.
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. (Heb. 11:7)
Our study of Old Testament examples of faith in Hebrews 11 now brings us to the story of Noah, one of the great figures of human history. Noah shares a distinction with Adam, that every single human being today is one of his descendants, since God restarted the human race through his family after the great flood.
The flood from which Noah was saved is one of the great events in the history of our planet. It was an event brought on by the magnitude of humanity’s sin. Genesis 6:5 says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth,” so God expended his wrath in the destruction of our rebel race, saving only faithful Noah and his family. Not surprisingly, practically every religion and mythology, from Asia to North America, remembers Noah and the flood. A Sumerian tablet from 1600 b.c. tells how a king was warned about a destructive deluge and therefore built a great boat. In Akkadian there is the Atrahasis epic, which tells of a great flood that destroyed mankind after earlier attempts to curb its wickedness. Only Atrahasis and his family, who were warned by the creator-god Enki, escaped in the boat they were told to build. This saga seems to have provided the source material for the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, which tells a similar story. While these and other examples are corrupted by pagan ideas, they preserve a shared memory of this cataclysmic event.
Noah’s name seems also to have passed down into one language after another. In ancient Sanskrit his name became Manu, based on the word ma for water. Thus the name is “Nu of the waters.” This was passed on to ancient India, where Manu was the father of all peoples. Egyptian mythology named its water god Nu, and the mythical founder of the Germanic peoples was Mannus, from which we get the word “man.”
The events of Noah’s life have great theological significance. The words “righteousness” and “grace” first appear in the Bible in his account. He gives us a great symbol of judgment in the flood. His ark provides a symbol of salvation (1 Peter 3:20). The rainbow remains an enduring symbol of the covenant—a reminder God put in the sky for himself, standing between us and God’s judgment, just as Jesus now is “the guarantee of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:22).
Noah is perhaps best known today as a conservationist icon, a kind of Santa Claus for the environmental movement. The main thing associated with him is the animals he saved, but in Hebrews 11 it is faith for which he is remembered. Everything we have said about Noah proves that he was a very great and significant man, yet it was his faith that made him great in God’s eyes. Indeed, Noah sums up everything we have learned about faith so far in Hebrews 11. Like Enoch he “walked with God” (Gen. 6:8–9); like Abel he was an heir of the righteousness that is by faith.
A Model Faith
Hebrews 11:7 begins, “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.” This tells us that Noah is an outstanding example of faith as being “certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1 niv). There were two things Noah believed that were unseen: the great flood that God had promised and the salvation that would come by means of the ark. The key verses describing this are Genesis 6:13–18:
God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.
Genesis 6:3 tells us that God spoke these words to Noah 120 years before the flood. There had never been an event such as God described, or such a vessel. The ark Noah was told to build was stupendous in size—about the size of a modern battleship—and we can guess that Noah was to build it on dry ground, far from any ocean or sea. That is faith in things unseen! Even though he had not one shred of proof apart from God’s Word, Noah nonetheless believed. This shows that faith in things unseen is the same as faith in God’s Word, the same as faith in God’s promises. We believe things apart from tangible evidence because God has so informed us and given his promise. We believe God himself, and that is faith in things unseen.
This kind of faith required Noah to stand alone in his generation. Apart from his immediate family members—and the strength of their faith is not at all clear—Noah alone trusted in the Lord. If we are going to live by faith and not by sight, that will often be true of us as well.
Noah also provides an excellent example of what we are told in Hebrews 11:6, that “without faith it is impossible to please [God].” We know that Noah pleased God because Genesis 6:9 says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” Like Enoch, Noah was an eminent man of faith, with much to say to us.
Because Noah is described as blameless, many people argue that he was justified or that he pleased God by his works. This fails to recognize what the preceding verse says: “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8). It isn’t that he was blameless and thereby found grace with God, but that his blamelessness itself was the result of God’s favor. Indeed, God’s grace was the source of his faith, which in turn was the motivating power behind his works. Hebrews 11:7 insists that Noah did everything “by faith.” Faith was the operating principle for all that Noah did or achieved. “By faith Noah … constructed an ark for the saving of his household.” He shows us that the same faith that brings us into a right relationship with God also moves us to actions that please God in practical works of obedience.
Indeed, what God demanded of Noah was far greater than what he asks of us. God required Noah to believe something that had never happened before, something totally unprecedented and seemingly unlikely. By contrast, God asks us to believe things that have already happened, namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—things that were done not in a corner but in the full light of history and recorded in the Bible. Similarly, God promised to do something for Noah that was difficult to imagine, that is, to save him through the flood by means of the ark. But God promises us something he has done countless times before, probably in the lives of people we know personally. He promises to forgive our sins through faith in Christ, to give us his Spirit and lead us into a new life. Some promises remain for the future, such as the resurrection from the dead. But even this lacks novelty, since it already happened to Jesus, who has gone before us in all things. Like Noah, we are saved by believing things that are not seen, and we please God only by believing his Word and trusting his promise.
Faith and Works
In addition to showing us a model faith that saved him and his family, Noah also demonstrates that faith always results in works: “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household” (Heb. 11:7).
People are often confused about the relationship between faith and works. The apostle Paul insists that we are declared righteous in Christ “apart from works” (Rom. 4:6). But the apostle James says that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). James goes on to say, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (v. 18). This apparent contradiction has led many people to choose one versus the other. Martin Luther, for instance, a famous champion of Paul and of salvation by faith alone, derided James’s letter, questioning its canonicity and labeling it “an epistle of straw.”
One of the most helpful expressions in sorting this out is a famous one from John Calvin. Calvin said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” True and saving faith is always accompanied by obedience, “which flows from faith like water from a fountain.”
Hebrews 11:7 tells us two things that proved Noah’s faith, flowing forth naturally from that fountain. The first is one word in the Greek, but three in our English text: “in reverent fear.” The Greek word is eulabētheis. F. F. Bruce translates it as “out of reverent regard.” B. F. Westcott renders it, “moved with pious care.”6 Philip Hughes puts it as “taking heed” with careful attentiveness. The point is that Noah had reverence for God, which led to his attentive care to the details of what God commanded.
In Genesis 6:14–21 we read a summary of detailed instructions for building the ark. Undoubtedly Noah needed such details to do the job given him. But his faith is commended by his attentive care to all that God told him: “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22).
The Puritans in seventeenth-century England were like Noah. The name “Puritan” was given to them by scoffers because of their care for studying and obeying God’s Word in great detail. Then, as today, people think such reverent attentiveness to be narrow religion. They wrongly equate it with the attitude of the Pharisees, who made life difficult not with their biblical obedience, but with their man-made restrictions. Yet biblical obedience does not fetter you, or make you narrow. Rather, it liberates you to what is good and true and wholesome. This is why James speaks of “the law of liberty” (James 1:25). Studying and following through on God’s Word will not shrink you but make you grow. Yet the path of obedience to Christ is a narrow one, one that speaks both yes and no, one that keeps us in the ark and out of the flood. Jesus taught: “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13–14).
This was Noah’s manner of life, arising from his faith. But there is one great work that both flowed from his faith and served as its main evidence—Noah’s ark. Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is the “conviction of things not seen,” and Noah’s ark was evidence that pointed to the flood long before anyone saw the raindrops falling.
Noah’s ark provides a classic demonstration of the relationship of faith to works. Why did Noah build the ark? What caused this work? It was his faith. It was “by faith” that he built the ark. That is clearly the case, because unless he believed, it would have been lunacy to do something like this. Noah built the ark only because he truly believed that what God said about the flood was true, that the flood was going to come, and that unless he built the ark, he would be drowned with everyone else.
But what if Noah had not built the ark? What would we say about his faith? Imagine Noah insisting that he believed what God had said if he were not busy working on the ark! What would we say to a faith like that? We would say what James did—that such faith is useless and dead unless accompanied by works. If Noah did not even start working on the ark, chopping down trees and making diagrams, then the simple fact is that he could not have believed. But he did believe and therefore he built the ark. That is how faith and works fit together.
The same is true for us. We always act according to our beliefs, in keeping with our real convictions. If you believed there were a bomb in your room, you would run out of it right now. If we trust that it is necessary to repent and believe the good news to be saved, we will flee temptation and at least begin chopping at the trees of our sinful habits and building our faith. It took Noah 120 years to build the ark, and it will take a while for our sanctification. But if we believe, we will at least get to work now. There is no escaping the truth: faith and works are inseparable. As Alexander Maclaren put it, “If faith has any reality in us at all, it works. If it has no effect it has no existence.”
Faith Condemning the World
Hebrews 11:7 provides a stark comparison of faith and unbelief, as viewed through Noah and his unbelieving generation: “By this he condemned the world.” Noah can be said to have condemned the world in several ways, but before he condemned the world, we can be sure the world condemned him. Ray Stedman says:
We may rightly visualize the mockery and jeering which Noah must have daily faced as he built a huge ship. He was a hundred miles from the nearest ocean, with a ship many times too big for his own needs, and when he had finished, he filled it with animals! Had he lived in our day he would have been dubbed, “Nutty Noah!” Yet Jesus used “the days of Noah” as representative of the condition of the world before his own return, and indicated that his followers must be prepared to face the same kind of scornful hostility that Noah met day after day.
The Christian life seems just as nutty to a self-absorbed age like our own. That anyone would deny himself, willingly sacrifice, and devote himself to holiness is mind-boggling to the world around us.
Noah’s faith condemned the world, first of all through his witness. Second Peter 2:5 calls Noah a “herald of righteousness.” Surely he would have explained his actions, why he was building the ark, to those who inquired and went on to laugh at him. He would have warned the world of a judgment to come and offered the way of safety in the ark. Likewise, we are to teach and explain the life we lead, the truth we believe, and the salvation we seek. And in its rejection of our message, the world is condemned for unbelief.
Noah’s witness condemned the world, but we can also say his faith condemned the world. There it was before their eyes, evidence of God’s Word, which they rejected or ignored. Ignoring Noah comes to the fore in Jesus’ description: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:38–39). Just like today, the great mass of people paid no attention to spiritual matters; they were indifferent to God’s Word as it was proclaimed, and Noah’s faith condemned them for their unbelief.
John Calvin points out that Noah also condemned the world by his salvation: “The fact that Noah obeyed the command of God condemns by his example the obstinacy of the world, and the fact that he was miraculously saved from the midst of death is proof that the whole world, which God would doubtless have preserved had it not been unworthy of salvation, justly perished.” Noah’s salvation proved that anyone could have been saved through trust in the Word of God. Noah’s salvation certainly vindicated his faith and his testimony, once wickedly made sport of by the voices of the world. Alexander Maclaren pointedly remarks:
No doubt there were plenty of witty and wise things said about him.… And then, one morning, the rain began, and continued, and for forty days it did not stop, and they began to think that perhaps, after all, there was some method in his madness. Noah got into his ark, and still it rained.… I wonder what [they] thought about it all then, with the water up to their knees. How their gibes and jests would die in their throats when it reached their lips!
Faith Inheriting Righteousness
This leaves one final statement about Noah, that he “became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Heb. 11:7). There are two key elements in this statement: inheritance and the righteousness that comes by faith.
Let me treat the second of these first. The apostle Paul follows a similar line of reasoning in Philippians 3, where he contrasts the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of the law. First he tells about his former righteousness as a Pharisee: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless” (Phil. 3:4–6). He then places these items onto a balance sheet, noting that the very things he once considered assets, so far as righteousness is concerned, he now understands as liabilities. Only one asset provides the righteousness God accepts—the righteousness that is by faith. He continues:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Phil. 3:7–9)
The key statement is the last, that Paul wants not the righteousness of his own works under the law—which must be flawed at best and therefore useless—but the righteousness of Christ, which comes only through faith in him. Surely the writer of Hebrews is making the same point about Noah: although he did many good things, he sought not a limited and imperfect righteousness of his own, but the perfect righteousness from God that comes through faith.
This righteousness, we are told, came to Noah by means of inheritance. By faith he became an heir of righteousness. By faith he became a child of God. This is why it was so appropriate for him to act in a godly and righteous way—because by faith Noah was God’s child and therefore destined to inherit his riches. Inheritance means that the source of the gift was not his own resources, but the one who granted the inheritance. This is how the righteousness of Christ comes to us: as an inheritance from God to his children and not from ourselves as an achievement. Furthermore, an inheritance is established by a fixed law and procedure. Paul speaks of this in Romans 4:16, where he says that our inheritance “depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace.” It is a gift, and a gift is received with open hands to the praise and the glory of the Giver himself.
This is what makes the righteousness of faith so secure. When we receive righteousness as an inheritance, by the open hands of faith, it is afterward possessed as a right. It is not something that has to be protected. Children do not hold their inheritance by conquest or by cunning, but as an unbreakable right inherent in their status as children of the father. In just that manner, our righteousness in Christ, received as an inheritance by faith, cannot be lost or taken away. It is as closely joined to us as a father’s name is joined to his child who bears it. Ultimately, our inheritance is based upon the sovereign will of God and not upon our own will: “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13).
All that being true, how much more secure is this righteousness that comes by faith than any we might try to win for ourselves, a crown more steady than any we could have placed upon our own heads, perfect and completely acceptable in the sight of the Lord.
A Ministry of Salvation
Noah’s faith meant salvation to some—namely, himself and his family—and condemnation to others, indeed to all the rest of the world, which fell under God’s holy wrath. But the direct result of his faith was salvation, while condemnation was only an indirect consequence.
Hebrews 11:7 says that Noah’s faith condemned the world. Christians are sometimes encouraged by statements like this to make it their job to condemn the world; they make it their ministry to point out how rotten it is, to fixate on the reigning sins and unite in hysteria over the latest debaucheries. But that does not seem to be the way Noah lived; he charted a different course for us.
Everything Noah did was calculated to save. He acted as an instrument of salvation, even though his faith indirectly condemned the world. He was an ambassador of the grace of God, and that is what every Christian is called to be.
Noah was “a herald of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Surely that involved a condemnation of sin and a warning of judgment, but all of that was done in the shadow of the ark of salvation. That is where Noah’s real effort went. His faith set him to work upon the ark. If the world would not seek its open door, then yes, it would be destroyed. But Noah directed his labor to salvation. Our labor must have this same influence: to commend and offer salvation to others, praying that God will grant them faith to believe and be saved. This is the labor of the Christian, by faith in the Word of God. Paul said this in 2 Corinthians 5:19–20: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Believe, God says to the world through our faith, that a judgment is yet to come. And believe that in the cross of Christ—an ark as wide and long and high and deep as Noah’s ever was—everyone who believes will find safety through the storm. Peter Lewis says it well:
Christ Jesus is our ark now: big enough for the whole world, strong enough to withstand the shocks of life, the rising waters of death, and the upheavals of the last judgment. There is safety here in the Son of God, sent to be for us all the shelter, the salvation, that we so desperately needed; our ark and safe passage into the new world God has planned. From that ark we will emerge to inherit a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1).
God asks simply that you believe, that you trust him, and through that faith he will do the rest in and through you, saving you and others from the wrath to come and carrying you to the wonderful salvation he has provided in Jesus Christ.
7. By faith Noah, &c. It was a wonderful example of magnanimity, that when the whole world were promising themselves impunity, and securely and unrestrainedly indulging themselves in sinful pleasures, Noah alone paid regard to God’s vengeance though deferred for a considerable time,—that he greatly wearied himself for a hundred and twenty years in building the ark,—that he stood unshaken amidst the scoffs of so many ungodly men,—that he entertained no doubt but that he would be safe in the midst of the ruin of the whole world,—yea, that he felt sure of life as it were in the grave, even in the ark. It is briefly that I shall touch on the subject; each one can better for himself weigh all the circumstances.
The Apostle ascribes to faith the praise of so remarkable a fortitude. He has been hitherto speaking of the fathers who lived in the first age of the world; but it was a kind of regeneration when Noah and his family emerged from the deluge. It is hence evident that in all ages men have neither been approved by God, nor performed anything worthy of praise otherwise than by faith.
Let us now then see what are the things he presents to our consideration in the case of Noah. They are the following,—that having been warned of things to come, but not yet made visible, he feared,—that he built an ark,—that he condemned the world by building it,—and that he became the heir of that righteousness which is by faith.
What I have just mentioned is that which especially sets forth the power of faith; for the Apostle ever reminds us of this truth, that faith is the evidence of things not seen; and doubtless it is its peculiar office to behold in God’s word the things which are hid, and far removed from our senses. When it was declared to Noah that there would be a deluge after one hundred and twenty years, first, the length of time might have removed every fear; secondly, the thing in itself seemed incredible; thirdly, he saw the ungodly heedlessly indulging in sinful pleasures; and lastly, the terrible announcement of a deluge might have appeared to him as intended only to terrify men. But Noah attended so much to God’s word, that turning away his eyes from the appearance of things at that time, he feared the destruction which God had threatened, as though it was present. Hence the faith which he had in God’s word prepared him to render obedience to God; and of this he afterwards gave a proof by building the ark.
But here a question is raised. Why does the Apostle make faith the cause of fear, since it has respect to promises of grace rather than to threatenings? for Paul for this reason calls the Gospel, in which God’s righteousness is offered to us for salvation, the word of faith. It seems then to have been improperly stated, that Noah was by faith led to fear. To this, I reply, that faith indeed properly springs from promises; it is founded on them, it rests on them. We hence say that Christ is the real object of faith, for through him our heavenly Father is reconciled to us, and by him all the promises of salvation are sealed and confirmed. Yet there is no reason why faith should not look to God and reverently receive whatever he may say; or if you prefer another way of stating the subject, it rightly belongs to faith to hear God whenever he speaks, and unhesitatingly to embrace whatsoever may proceed from his sacred mouth. Thus far it has regard to commands and threatenings, as well as to gratuitous promises. But as no man is moved as he ought and as much as is needful, to obey God’s commands, nor is sufficiently stirred up to deprecate his wrath, unless he has already laid hold on the promises of grace, so as to acknowledge him as a kind Father, and the author of salvation,—hence the Gospel is called the word of faith, the principal part being stated for the whole; and thus is set forth the mutual relation that there is between them both. Faith, then, though its most direct regard is to God’s promises, yet looks on his threatenings so far as it is necessary for it to be taught to fear and obey God.
Prepared an ark, &c. Here is pointed out that obedience which flows from faith as water from a fountain. The work of building the ark was long and laborious. It might have been hindered by the scoffs of the ungodly, and thus suspended a thousand times; nor is there a doubt but they mocked and derided the holy man on every side. That he then bore their wanton insults with an unshaken spirit, is a proof that his resolution to obey was not of an ordinary kind. But how was it that he so perseveringly obeyed God except that he had previously rested on the promise which gave him the hope of deliverance; and in this confidence he persevered even to the last; for he could not have had the courage willingly to undergo so many toils, nor could he have been able to overcome so many obstacles, nor could he have stood so firm in his purpose for so long a time, had he not beforehand possessed this confidence.
It hence appears that faith alone is the teacher of obedience; and we may on the contrary draw this conclusion, that it is unbelief that prevents us to obey God. And at this day the unbelief of the world exhibits itself dreadfully in this way, for there are a very few who obey God.
By the which he condemned the world, &c. It were strange to say that Noah’s deliverance condemned the world, and the context will hardly allow faith to be meant; we must then understand this of the ark. And he is said on two accounts to have by the ark condemned the world; for by being so long occupied in building it, he took away every excuse from the wicked;—and the event which followed proved how just was the destruction of the world; for why was the ark made the means of deliverance to one family, except that the Lord thus spared a righteous man that he should not perish with the ungodly. Had he then not been preserved, the condemnation of the world would not have been so apparent. Noah then by obeying God’s command condemned by his example the obstinate disobedience of the world: his wonderful deliverance from the midst of death, was an evidence that the world justly perished; for God would have doubtless saved it, had it not been unworthy of salvation.
Of the righteousness which is by faith. This is the last thing in the character of Noah, which the Apostle reminds us to observe. Moses records that he was a righteous man: history does not expressly say that the cause and root of his righteousness was faith; but the Apostle declares that as arising from the facts of the case. And this is not only true, because no one ever devotes himself really and sincerely to God’s service, but he who relies on the promises of his paternal kindness, and feels assured that his life is approved by him; but also on this account, because the life of no one, however holy it may be, when tried by the rule of God’s law, can please him without pardon being granted. Then righteousness must necessarily recumb on faith.
7 From Enoch we turn to the other Genesis character who “walked with God.” Noah’s building of the ark when there was as yet no sign of a flood was a supreme example of faith triumphing over appearances. He did it not because he could see the need but because God told him what was coming. (Chrēmatizō [GK 5976], here translated “warned,” is used especially of divine communications to guide God’s people; cf. 8:5; Mt 2:12, 22; Lk 2:26; Ac 10:22.) By describing the flood as “things not yet seen,” the author again reminds us of faith’s grasp on “what we do not see” (v. 1). Noah’s response to God’s apparently bizarre command was one of “holy fear” (the same word as “reverent submission” in 5:7 and “reverence” in 12:28) in that he took God’s word more seriously than the evidence of his eyes. In this he “condemned the world” (REB, “put the whole world in the wrong”) in that his faith contrasted with their skepticism; the mockery of Noah by his contemporaries for building a huge boat on dry land, while not mentioned in the Genesis account, became a standard feature in the retelling of the flood story, as did Noah’s preaching in vain to them to repent (cf. 2 Pe 2:5; 1 Clem. 7:6; and, e.g., Sib. Or. 1:125–199; Josephus, Ant. 1.74).
The NIV’s phrase “the righteousness that comes by faith” sounds like Paul’s language about justification, making Noah, like Abraham after him, a prototype of Christian salvation. But our author’s terminology is different, using a phrase Paul never uses and more correctly rendered by TNIV as “the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.” Faith is not so much its origin as the context in which it is found. The phrase in itself could then simply mean the righteous behavior of a man of faith (Ge 6:9: Noah was “righteous” and “blameless”). But “became heir of” hardly fits such a meaning and suggests a status resulting from Noah’s response to God, namely, justification rather than righteous behavior (cf. Ge 7:1: God “found [Noah] righteous”). The meaning may not then be very far from Paul’s, though the terminology is different. Noah believed God and acted on that belief, and as a result he is counted among the “righteous” who, like him, live by faith, as Habakkuk 2:4 requires (see 10:38).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Hebrews (pp. 317–324). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Phillips, R. D. (2006). Hebrews. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 424–434). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (pp. 274–277). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 France, R. T. (2006). Hebrews. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 151). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.