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Hebrews 11

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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A. Perseverance in Faith ch. 11

The writer encouraged his readers in chapter 11 by reminding them of the faithful perseverance of selected Old Testament saints. The only other historical characters beside Jesus that the writer mentioned so far were Abraham, Melchizedek, Moses, Aaron, and Joshua. Of these the only one mentioned in connection with faith was Abraham (Hebrews 6:13-15). The section is expository in form but parenetic in function, inviting the readers to emulate the example of the heroes listed. The linking word that ties this section to what precedes is "faith" or "faithfulness," which the Habakkuk 2:4 quotation introduced (Hebrews 10:38-39; cf. Hebrews 10:20). The Habakkuk quotation gives "faith" the nuance of "faithfulness." The writer repeated this word (Gr. pistis) 24 times in chapter 11. It occurs in the first and last sentences of the section forming an inclusio. Classical orators and authors frequently used lists of examples to motivated their hearers and readers to strive for virtue. [Note: See M. R. Cosby, "The Rhetorical Composition and Function of Hebrews 11 in Light of Example-lists in Antiquity" (Ph.D. dissertation, Emory University, 1985), pp. 45-106.] These lists also appear in Jewish and early Christian literature indicating that this was a distinctive literary form. [Note: Ibid., pp. 114-61.]

"As J. W. Thompson has observed, ’a catalogue of heroes of pistis, introduced as patterns of imitation, is unthinkable in any Greek tradition.’ [Note: J. W. Thompson, The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy: The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 53.] The reason for this is that to the formally educated person, pistis, ’faith,’ was regarded as a state of mind characteristic of the uneducated, who believe something on hearsay without being able to give precise reasons for their belief. The willingness of Jews and Christians to suffer for the undemonstrable astonished pagan observers. [Note: Cf. E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, pp. 120-22.] Yet this is precisely the conduct praised in Hebrews 11:1-40. This fact constitutes the note of offense in this section of the homily." [Note: Lane, Hebrews 9-13, p. 316.]

Another feature of this chapter is the anaphoric use of pistis, "faith." Anaphoria is the rhetorical repetition of a key word or words at the beginning of successive clauses to give unity, rhythm, and solemnity to a discourse. Pistis occurs 18 times without an article (anarthrous) in Hebrews 11:3-31 but nowhere else in Hebrews. This literary device serves to stress the importance of faith and to unite the chapter. [Note: See also Victor (Sung Yul) Rhee, "Chiasm and the Concept of Faith in Hebrews 11," Bibliotheca Sacra 155:619 (July-September 1998):327-45.]

This chapter is one of the strongest proofs that eschatological reward is the full inheritance (rest) that the writer urged his readers not to sacrifice. The reward of these saints in the past lay beyond the grave (cf. Hebrews 11:1; Hebrews 11:13).

Verse 1

Essentially faith is confidence that things yet future and unseen will happen as God has revealed they will. This is the basic nature of faith. Hebrews 11:1 describes faith rather than defining it.

"This word hypostasis ["assurance," NASB] has appeared twice already in the epistle. In Ch. Hebrews 1:3 the Son was stated to be the very image of God’s hypostasis; in Ch. Hebrews 3:14 believers are said to be Christ’s associates if they hold fast the beginning of their hypostasis firm to the end. In the former place it has the objective sense of ’substance’ or ’real essence’ (as opposed to what merely seems to be so). In the latter place it has the subjective sense of ’confidence’ or ’assurance.’ Here it is natural to take it in the same subjective sense as it bears in Ch. Hebrews 3:14, and so ARV and RSV render it ’assurance.’" [Note: Bruce, The Epistle . . ., p. 278.]

"Faith is the basis, the substructure (hypostasis means lit. ’that which stands under’) of all that the Christian life means, all that the Christian hopes for." [Note: Morris, p. 113.]

". . . faith celebrates now the reality of the future blessings that constitute the objective content of hope." [Note: Lane, Hebrews 9-13, p. 328.]

Someone else described faith as the spiritual organ that enables a person to perceive the invisible realities of life.

Verses 1-7

1. Faith in the Antediluvian Era 11:1-7

The writer began by stating three facts about faith. These are general observations on the nature of faith, some of its significant features. He then illustrated God’s approval of faith with examples from the era before the Flood.

Verses 1-13


"In chapter Hebrews 10:22-25 there were three exhortations, respectively to Faith, Hope and Love. These are elaborated in turn: chapter 11 dealing with Faith; chapter 12 with Hope; chapter 13 with Love." [Note: Thomas, p. 140.]

In this fourth major section of the epistle, the writer concentrated on motivating his readers to persevere in their faith with steadfast endurance. He continued the idea that he introduced in Hebrews 10:35-39. Some writers do not acknowledge this connection in the flow of the writer’s argument. They view chapter 11 as a revelation of what faith will inevitably do rather than what faith should do. [Note: E.g., John MacArthur, Faith Works, pp. 37-54.] Having introduced "faith" and "endurance" in Hebrews 10:39, the writer proceeded to develop these concepts further. He celebrated the character of faith in chapter 11 and then summoned the readers to endurance in Hebrews 12:1-13. The first of these sections is exposition and the second exhortation.

"The characteristic vocabulary of this section relates to the vital issue of enduring disciplinary sufferings. Anticipating the subsequent development in Hebrews 12:1-13, the writer underscored the community’s need for hypomone, ’endurance,’ in Hebrews 10:36. That note is resumed in Hebrews 12:1, when the commitment required of the Christian life is reviewed under the metaphor of an athletic contest, and the key to victory is found in ’endurance.’" [Note: Lane, Hebrews 9-13, p. 313.]

"The story of God’s people includes a succession of examples of persistent, forward-looking faith. The story is not complete without us. We, in our turn, must submit to God’s fatherly discipline and stand firm together in the faith." [Note: Ellingworth, p. 558.]

Verse 2

God has approved such confidence, as is clear from His commendations of Old Testament men and women who walked by faith.

Verse 3

However faith is a way of viewing all of life, what lies ahead as well as what is in the past. It involves accepting God’s viewpoint as He has revealed it in His Word. This extends to how the universe came into being (cf. Hebrews 1:2-3) as well as how it will end.

"Belief in the existence of the world is not faith, nor is it faith when men hold that the world was made out of some preexisting ’stuff.’ (In the first century there were people who did not believe in God but who held to some kind of ’creation.’) But when we understand that it was the Word of God (’God’s command,’ NIV) that produced all things, that is faith." [Note: Morris, p. 114.]

Notice that the writer did not say that God created the universe out of nothing (creation ex nihilo), an idea that the Greeks rejected. [Note: Guthrie, p. 227.] He simply said that the universe did not originate from primal material or anything observable. His description does not rule out creation ex nihilo, but neither does it affirm it. Genesis 1:1-3 and logic seem to indicate that God did indeed create the universe, something visible, out of His word, something invisible.

Verse 4

The readers could identify with Abel because he, too, had a better sacrifice. Those who based their hope of God’s acceptance on an inferior sacrifice, as in Judaism, would experience disappointment, as Cain did.

By the way, what made Abel’s offering superior to Cain’s was evidently its being an offering of the "firstlings" (first-born) and its including the "fat" (Genesis 4:4). Ancient Near Easterners commonly held that a deity deserved the first of whatever man, beast, or crop brought forth. The fat likewise represented the best part of an animal offering. Abel’s offering shows the respect he gave God as worthy of the best whereas Cain’s offering, as Moses described it in Genesis 4, indicates that he did not so reverence God. [Note: See Bruce K. Waltke, "Cain and His Offering," Westminster Theological Journal 48:2 (Fall 1986):363-72.]

"The general tenor of Scripture indicates that the superior quality of Abel’s offering derived from the integrity of his heart rather than from the nature of the offering itself. This is the clear implication of Genesis 4:7, where the Lord says to Cain, ’If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?’" [Note: Lane, Hebrews 9-13, p. 334.]

". . . what gave Abel’s offering greater value was his faith, not the fact that it was an animal sacrifice." [Note: Ellingworth, p. 571.]

Faith must inspire any worship that God will accept. Even though Abel died long ago, he still speaks to us, through the scriptural record, and so challenges us to continue to worship (show reverence for) God by believing His promises.

Verse 5

Whereas Abel suffered murder, Enoch never died, and both demonstrated faith. Enoch set an example of walking by faith all his life that readers would do well to follow. [Note: See Timothy J. Cole, "Enoch, a Man Who Walked with God," Bibliotheca Sacra 148:591 (July-September 1991):288-97.] The Lord may return at any time to take modern Enoch’s into His presence just as He took that great saint.

Verse 6

Walking by faith involves not only believing that God exists but also believing that he will reward the faithful. The original readers faced temptation to abandon that hope, as we do. Note that those He will reward are those who "are seeking after Him" (present tense in Greek), not believers who have stopped seeking after Him. Ultimately we know God’s will by faith.

In almost all of the following exemplars of faith that the writer cited, there is a clear and direct relationship between faith and reward. [Note: Lane, Hebrews 9-13, p. 339.]

"The best way to grow in faith is to walk with the faithful." [Note: Wiersbe, 2:318.]

Verse 7

Noah prepared for things to come. He did not live for the present. By continuing to believe the promises of God, even when everyone else disbelieved them, Noah inherited a new world after the Flood. The writer had promised the readers "the world to come" (Hebrews 2:5-8). Noah’s faith led to the preservation of his family. Likewise as we continue to trust God we will encourage others to do so and they will also enter into their inheritance if they follow our example of faithful perseverance.

Verses 8-10

Like Abraham we should look forward to our inheritance in the coming world and should live as strangers and pilgrims in this world (1 Peter 1:1). [Note: See Daniel J. Estes, "Looking for Abraham’s City," Bibliotheca Sacra 147:588 (October-December 1990):399-413, for evidence of Abraham’s pilgrim character in Genesis.] Abraham demonstrated faith in three phases: when God called him to leave Mesopotamia (Hebrews 11:8), when he reached the Promised Land but still had to live in it as a foreigner (Hebrews 11:9-10), and when God called him to sacrifice Isaac (Hebrews 11:17-19).

"Abraham’s faith accepted God’s promises and acted on them even though there was nothing to indicate that they would be fulfilled." [Note: Morris, p. 117.]

As Abraham later received some of the land he formerly lived in as a stranger, so we will, too. The city Abraham looked for was a city God would provide for him. A city with foundations offered a permanent, established home in contrast to the transient existence of a tent–encampment.

"To cultured men in the first century, the city was the highest form of civilized existence." [Note: Ibid., p. 118.]

We look for such a habitation as well, namely, the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1; Revelation 21:9-27).

This writer referred to Abraham 10 times; his example is especially helpful for those tempted to abandon faith in God. Only two other books mention him more: Luke (15 times) and John (11 times).

Verses 8-22

2. Faith in the Patriarchal Era 11:8-22

Verses 11-12

Sarah believed God would fulfill His promise and provide something (a child) totally beyond the realm of natural possibility. God wants us, too, to believe that. God rewarded her faith far beyond what she imagined, and He will reward ours in the same way (cf. Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

Verses 13-16

"All these" probably refers to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob (Hebrews 11:8-9; Hebrews 11:11) who lived as exiled strangers by faith, not all whom the writer had listed to this point. "Strangers and exiles" is probably a hendiadys meaning "exiled strangers." Hebrews 11:13-16 interrupt the recital of Abraham’s acts of faith. Evidently the writer decided to preach a little at this point, the middle of his exposition of the patriarchs’ example. He emphasized the eschatological perspective that is the point of this entire unit (Hebrews 11:8-22).

These patriarchs all continued to live by faith, and they died believing God would fulfill His promises to them eventually. They looked forward to possessing a land that God promised to give them. They did not turn back to what they had left, which might have encouraged them to apostatize. In the same way we should not abandon our hope. God was not ashamed of them because they were not ashamed to believe Him and to remain faithful to Him. Likewise we will not shame Him if we resist the temptation to turn from Him in shame (1 Samuel 2:30; 2 Timothy 2:12). God prepared a heavenly habitation for them, and He has done so for us (John 14:1-3).

Each example of faith that the writer cited so far is a positive one involving a believer who kept on trusting God and His promises in spite of temptation to stop trusting. That is what the writer was urging his readers to do throughout this epistle. In every case God approved and rewarded the continuing faith of the faithful.

Verses 17-19

Here the writer began to develop the idea that he expressed in Hebrews 11:3, that faith should be the way the believer looks at all of life and history. He did so to help his readers see that continuance in faith is the only logical and consistent attitude for a believer.

"A new movement, the author’s exposition of the life of faith, begins here. In a multiplicity of varied experiences faith remains the constant factor by which these experiences are met and understood. Faith constitutes a Christian’s true ’world view’ (cf. Hebrews 11:3)." [Note: Hodges, "Hebrews," p. 808.]

It is the belief that God could and would raise the dead that is the key element in these verses. From Abraham’s perspective God’s promise and His command seemed to conflict.

"We are apt to see this as a conflict between Abraham’s love for his son and his duty to God. But for the author the problem was Abraham’s difficulty in reconciling the different revelations made to him." [Note: Morris, pp. 121-22.]

Abraham was willing to continue to trust and obey God because He believed God could even raise Isaac, his unique (Gr. monogenes) son, from the dead to fulfill His promises of an heir. Similarly we need to continue to trust and obey God even though He may have to raise us from the dead to fulfill His promises to us. Isaac’s restoration was a type (Gr. parabole, parable, figure, illustration) of the fact that God will give us what He has promised if we continue to trust and obey Him. When Isaac arose from the altar, it was as though he had risen from the dead.

Verses 20-22

Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all demonstrated confidence in God’s word in the ways mentioned. They believed He would provide for them what He had promised. We should do the same. The faith of all three of these patriarchs affected their descendants. Ours should as well.

"With all three the significant thing was their firm conviction that death cannot frustrate God’s purposes." [Note: Ibid., p. 123.]

Verse 23

Faith confronts hostility in a characteristic way that the writer began to emphasize in this verse. We see Amram and Jochebed’s faith in God in their placing His will above Pharaoh’s command. Moses was no ordinary child among other ways in that His parents saved his life even though Pharaoh had ordered all Jewish male babies killed. The writer mentioned Moses 11 times, more than in any other New Testament book except for John and Acts. Amram and Jochebed regarded God’s will concerning the sanctity of life as more important than obedience to the state when national law required disobeying God’s will (cf. Acts 4:19). God honored their faith.

Verses 23-31

3. Faith in the Mosaic Era 11:23-31

Here the writer began to focus on the way faith deals with hostility and persecution, a subject of special interest to his audience, which was facing opposition from Jewish brethren.

"Moses and Abraham hold the most prominent places in the roll of faith; and the central event of both their lives, as Hebrews presents them, is a journey." [Note: Ellingworth, p. 608.]

Verses 24-26

Moses had a true appreciation for the promises of God. This led him to choose the reward associated with Israel’s promised Messiah over the temporary material wealth he could have enjoyed had he stayed in Egypt. We should also be willing to suffer temporary disgrace, reproach, and loss as we continue to cast our lot with God’s faithful disciples.

"As with Abraham and Moses of old, the decisions we make today will determine the rewards tomorrow. More than this, our decisions should be motivated by the expectation of receiving rewards. . . . The emphasis in the Epistle to the Hebrews is: ’Don’t live for what the world will promise you today! Live for what God has promised you in the future! . . .’’" [Note: Wiersbe, 2:279.]

Verse 27

Moses persevered in spite of the king’s wrath, and so should we in spite of the wrath we may experience from ungodly opponents. Probably Moses’ departure for Midian 40 years before the Exodus is in view here. This seems likely in view of the chronological sequence the writer followed in this passage. The reference to the king’s wrath is appropriate because Moses left Egypt then because Pharaoh sought to kill him (Exodus 2:15).

"The emphasis . . . falls not on endurance but on continually seeing, as it were, the unseen God . . . The reference is not to the awesome event at the burning bush . . ., as if to say that Moses saw one who is invisible, but to a fixed habit of spiritual perception. . . .

"From the pastoral perspective of the writer, the firmly entrenched habit of Moses in keeping God continually in view establishes a standard for imitation by the community in its experience of fear and governmental oppression." [Note: Lane, Hebrews 9-13, p. 376.]

"’The courage to abandon work on which one’s heart is set, and accept inaction cheerfully as the will of God, is of the rarest and highest kind, and can be created and sustained only by the clearest spiritual vision’ (Peake)." [Note: Moffatt, p. 181.]

Verse 28

Furthermore, as Moses continued to demonstrate confidence in the blood of the lamb that God provided, so should we. He avoided and we avoid God’s judgment by doing so.

In this verse there is a subtle transition from emphasis on exemplary persons to exemplary events (cf. Hebrews 11:29-30; Hebrews 11:33-38).

Verses 29-30

The people of Israel experienced victory over their enemies as they trusted God, and we can, too. At the Red Sea the Israelites willingly went forward at God’s word rather than turning back. Trust and obedience resulted in the Israelites’ preservation and eventual entrance into their inheritance. The believing community that originally received this homily could identify with a group of people who persevered, not just individuals who did.

Verse 31

Even though Rahab was a Gentile sinner (i.e., a secular prostitute), God spared her when he destroyed all those around her. Likewise God will preserve the faithful, not because they are personally worthy, but because of their faith in Him.

"Although a foreigner to the covenant people, she manifested a faith that was oriented toward the future and that found specific content in the acts of the God of Israel (Joshua 2:11). She was prepared to assume present peril for the sake of future preservation (Joshua 2:12-16)." [Note: Ibid., p. 379.]

Verse 32

The rhetorical question, "And what more shall I say?" suggests that the writer did not consider that there was much point in citing more examples. [Note: Guthrie, p. 243.] The Old Testament is full of good models of persevering, living faith. Nevertheless, the writer selected these few additional Israelites for brief mention along with what their faith accomplished. Each individual that the writer mentioned was less than perfect, as is every believer. Yet God approved the faith of each one.

This is the only New Testament reference to Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah. The writer employed the rhetorical device of paraleipsis here. In paraleipsis the speaker or writer suggests that he is not going to mention something but then does so. This technique stresses the suggestiveness of what he has omitted. In this case the writer suggested that he could have cited many more examples of persevering faith.

"The order of names here may be understood if they are read as three pairs, Gideon-Barak, Samson-Jephthah, David-Samuel, the more important member of each pair being named first." [Note: Ellingworth, p. 623. Cf. 1 Samuel 12:11.]

Verses 32-40

4. Faith in subsequent eras 11:32-40

Verses 33-35

Joshua conquered kingdoms. Daniel shut the lions’ mouths (Daniel 6:17-22), as did Samson (Judges 14:5-6), David (1 Samuel 17:34-37), and Benaiah (1 Chronicles 11:22). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego escaped fiery deaths (Daniel 3:23-27). David, Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah avoided execution. Women even received their dead back because they believed God could and would do what He had promised (cf. 1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:17-37). Some commentators have seen allusions in Hebrews 11:34-35 to experiences that the Israelites underwent during the Maccabean struggle (1 Maccabees 2:7; 1 Maccabees 3:15; et al.). [Note: E.g., Moffatt, pp. 186-87.]

Verses 35-38

Faith does not result in deliverance in every case, however. These verses refer to many different forms of persecution, which would have been particularly comforting to the original distressed readers. Traditionally Isaiah suffered death at King Manasseh’s hand by being sawn in two. [Note: The Martyrdom of Isaiah 5:1-14.]

"According to . . . mutually complementary rabbinic sources, Manasseh, enraged because Isaiah had prophesied the destruction of the Temple, ordered his arrest. Isaiah fled to the hill country and hid in the trunk of a cedar tree. He was discovered when the king ordered the tree cut down. Isaiah was tortured with a saw because he had taken refuge in the trunk of a tree . . ." [Note: Lane, Hebrews 9-13, p. 390.]

Sometimes the faithful person’s reward comes on the other side of the grave. Some of the readers, and we, might have to endure death. Those who accept death without apostatizing are those the world is not worthy of because they do not turn from following the Lord even under the most severe pressure.

Verses 39-40

Those faithful believers who died in Old Testament times have not yet entered into their inheritances. This awaits the future, probably the Second Coming when Christ will judge Old Testament saints (Daniel 12:1-2; cf. Isaiah 26:19). We will have some part in their reward. We will do so at least as Christ’s companions who will witness their award ceremony. Their perfection refers to their entering into their final rest (inheritance) and rests, as ours does, on the sacrificial death of Christ (cf. Hebrews 9:15).

"God’s plan provided for ’something better for us.’ The indefinite pronoun leaves the precise nature of the blessing undefined. The important thing is not exactly what it is but that God has not imparted it prematurely. ’Us’ means ’us Christians’ . . ." [Note: Morris, p. 132.]

Hebrews 11:39-40 summarize the chapter by relating the list of exemplary witnesses to the audience’s experience, and they provide a transition to the argument of Hebrews 12:1-13.

God intended this inspiring chapter to encourage us to continue to trust and obey Him in the midst of temptations to turn away from following Him faithfully. The implication is that our reward, as theirs, is eschatological.

". . . it is the future, and not the past, that molds the present. . . .

"The men and women celebrated in the catalogue of attested exemplars all directed the capacity of faith to realities which for them lay in the future (cf. Hebrews 11:7; Hebrews 11:10; Hebrews 11:13; Hebrews 11:27; Hebrews 11:31; Hebrews 11:35-38). They found in faith a reliable guide to the future, even though they died without experiencing the fulfillment of God’s promise (Hebrews 11:23; Hebrews 11:39). . . .

"The most distinctive aspect of the exposition is the development of the relation of faith to suffering and martyrdom." [Note: Lane, Hebrews 9-13, pp. 394-95.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Hebrews 11". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.