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Hebrews 11

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Verses 1-40

Old Testament Worthies (11:1-40)

The second example of faith as response to the gospel call is derived from the experience of the Old Testament worthies referred to by name or inference in the present chapter. Before enumerating the examples which he has chosen, the author first calls the attention of his readers to the remarkable power of faith as response to God’s word and the fact that it wins "divine approval" (vss. 1-3).

This would seem to be the proper point in the study of this letter to summarize Hebrews’ teaching on the subject of faith. Examination of the various passages in which the term is used reveals the fact that for the author: (1) faith is the one response which God expects of those who have heard the gospel call (Hebrews 4:2) ; (2) fundamentally such faith depends upon God (Hebrews 6:1-3), and so may be defined as personal attachment or trust; (3) such trust results primarily in man’s receiving "the promises" of God to his people (Hebrews 6:12; Hebrews 11:13; Hebrews 11:39-40); (4) it stimulates "assurance" of one’s acceptance among God’s people at the throne of grace (Hebrews 10:22) and of being numbered among the saved (Hebrews 10:39); (5) it is the means whereby man perceives and accepts the divine philosophy of history (Hebrews 11:3); (6) it has implications for the Christian life, providing God’s people with the courage requisite to living victoriously in a sinful world (Hebrews 11:6-7; Hebrews 11:33-38); (7) it is the spiritual bond between Jesus, "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith," and his people (Hebrews 12:2); (8) and accordingly it makes its possessor "an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith" only, which means God’s final approval of his people and his acceptance of them (Hebrews 11:6-7; Hebrews 13:7).

In the present chapter the author makes it his object to show that faith exhibits the miraculous power of dissolving the time- space framework in which men live their lives. This is its primary function, and it accomplishes this for every man in the context in which he lives. No matter what his temporal and spatial limitations be, faith sets him in a large place from which he can see the distant scene from the perspective of God. The chapter opens with a description of how faith operates along the fines just suggested and thereafter follows a series of illustrations of the point.

"Faith," says our author, is related to "things hoped for," that is, those things which are beyond the boundaries set by the time dimension of man’s life. Similarly, it is related to "things not seen," that is, things beyond the space boundary set by the human eye (vs. 1). Two Greek words in the verse indicate what faith is capable of doing to these temporal and spatial boundaries. The first word, translated "assurance," relates to the underlying structure or content of anything which makes it what it is. However, the term is used eventually in many ways, and its context in this chapter would suggest that our writer may have in mind something like its use as "a title deed." A title deed is that which is guaranteed to give substance to a piece of property which one has purchased. And the context of the present chapter, indeed that of the entire essay, indicates that for the writer faith is "a title deed" which gives substance to the things beyond the barrier set by the time dimension of the framework of our lives. Similarly, the second term is one used in the common parlance of the day for "a lawyer’s brief" as well as for the "conviction" established by such a brief in the mind of the judge(s). Faith, then, is the lawyer’s brief which "convicts" us of God’s verities which lie beyond the spatial barrier of our lives. Little wonder that those who employ such faith receive the "divine approval" (vs. 2), for in doing so they are adding a divine dimension to their lives; they are set in a large place from which they may view life and the world according to the divine perspective.

Before giving examples from among the Old Testament worthies who had this faith, the author suggests that it is by "faith" that men come to understand history. Pagan peoples see no need for a doctrine which separates the Creator from the created. But the God of history, of the Hebrew prophets, and of the Christian faith is a God of every part of history, including its beginning and its end. He started the series of events which constitute history, he is the Providence who never deserts it, and he will conclude it in his own good time. This view of God and the world is one accepted "by faith." That "the world was created by the word of God" (vs. 3) is the view stressed both in Genesis 1 and in John 1 (see also Romans 1:20). Already, therefore, our author has in a quite subtle fashion indicated that his readers have "by faith" been removed from the time-space framework of their lives. With its long arm they have, as it were, reached out to the very beginning of time and history and brought even the events of the creation epoch within the sphere of their own interests, discerning their relevance for themselves.

The three examples of men of faith in the period before Abraham are particularly apt (Abel, Enoch, and Noah). Abel is chosen because it is recorded of him that he is the first to bring an offering of sheep (in later years so largely used in the Old Testament sacrificial system with which Hebrews has been dealing), and Genesis 4:4 asserts that "the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering." Though the account of this incident does not say so, it may well be argued that it is "by faith" (vs. 4) that Abel makes his offering to God. At any rate, no Jew could deny that Abel’s offering was a more acceptable one than that of Cain, as the later Levitical sacrifices appeared to substantiate. The common Semitic practice of sacrifice and belief in its general acceptance in the eyes of God formed the background for the argument.

The argument with reference to Hebrews’ second example (that of Enoch) is based on Genesis 5:21-24. Of Enoch it was said that he "walked with God." This is interpreted in Hebrews to mean that he "was attested as having pleased God" (vs. 5). From the Christian standpoint it is evident that "without faith it is impossible to please him" (vs. 6), from which it may be deduced that Enoch had faith in God. The argument that those who, like Enoch, "would draw near to God" should as a minimum "believe that he exists" (vs. 6) is perhaps not entirely happy in its expression. For as James remarks, "Even the demons believe" in the oneness of God (James 2:19). It must be remembered, however, that the author of Hebrews is consciously dealing with a very rudimentary type of faith. It is pre-Abrahamic faith, or, if one prefer, the type of faith shown by a man quite outside the boundaries of the Chosen People of God. No doubt these early examples are chosen deliberately to exhibit the breadth of the Christian faith; for its depth and height, however, we must look elsewhere.

Of the three examples chosen from beyond the pale of the "people of God" (Hebrews 11:25), the example of Noah is by far the clearest. Genesis 6:13-22 and, indeed, the entire account regarding Noah give evidence of a special call which Noah received and of special revelation made to him regarding God’s will. Accordingly, in the early Christian Church much was made of the example of Noah as "a herald of righteousness" in a sinful world (2 Peter 2:5). In one account of the eschatological discourse of our Lord, Noah figures as an example of the man of God who, by reason of his faith, is ready for "the coming of the Son of man" at the end of history (Matthew 24:37-39; Luke 17:26-27). In 1 Peter 3:18-20, Noah is made to serve as the typical person who through baptism has come within "the ark" and thus may be said to be "saved through water." Christian art of the period of the catacombs and persecutions makes much of this example of Noah, and of the ark, in representing the Church itself.

Accordingly, Noah could be held up as an example of one who by faith had become aware of "events as yet unseen" and who might be said, therefore, to have burst the temporal and spatial boundaries and come to view the events of history as God sees them. In so doing he clearly "condemned the world," its small perspective, its little framework of reference. One might well be assured, therefore, that Noah had become "an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith" (vs. 7).

Perhaps we should be interpreting the writer’s mind with accuracy if we were to conclude that in Noah, Abel, and Enoch he has chosen the three examples outside the pale of revealed religion in the pre-Abrahamic days who best exemplify the fact of God’s redeeming grace and his earnest wish to save all those who sincerely turn to him in faith. It is not, however, until we come to Abraham, "the father of the faithful," that a number of the distinctively Christian words with which we have become familiar in the letter are used. These include the ideas of the gospel "call" (Hebrews 5:4; Hebrews 9:15), "obedience" and its opposite (Hebrews 3:18; Hebrews 5:9), "inheritance" (Hebrews 6:12; Hebrews 9:15), "promise" (Hebrews 4:1; Hebrews 6:12; Hebrews 7:6; Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 9:15; Hebrews 10:23; Hebrews 10:36), and even the thought involved in the phrase "to go out" or "exodus" (Hebrews 3:16; Hebrews 13:13).

All this means that for the author, as well as for the Jewish people before him, Abraham occupied a special position of importance in the scheme of the redemption of God’s people. With Abraham it may be said that special revelation began. Moreover, it began with a "call" to go out from among the people of the world with a view to occupying a distinctive position in God’s economy of redemption. In both the Old and the New Testaments a "call" is by no means an abstraction. It does not appear out of the void or without an author. Rather, the "call" of Scripture always emanates directly from God. It is significant, too, that to Abraham as representative of the about-to-be-formed "people of God" the call came "to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance" (vs. 8). That is to say, Abraham was called out of the context (the time-space framework) in which his life had thus far been lived. His life was now to know new horizons, to start anew in a place of new perspectives. He was to find "in the land of promise" a point of vantage from which to view life as God views it.

The limitless horizons of this place are indicated by the words, "he went out, not knowing where he was to go." Moreover, that the place specified is by no means a final fulfillment of the promise of "an inheritance" is stressed. Abraham was not led, nor were his descendants, to imagine that the "land of promise" was a total fulfillment of the promises of God. Rather he looked upon that land as a "foreign land" in which he and his descendants merely "sojourned" (vs. 9). The transitory nature of their abode is shown also in the fact that they were continually "living in tents." God had directed their eyes to a more permanent abode, in fact, "to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (vs. 10). The permanence of city life, with its "foundations," as over against a casual existence "in tents," lends itself admirably to the contrast which the author wishes to make between the eternal and the transitory (vs. 16).

The use of the concept of a city to describe the permanent character of the inheritance of God’s people is by no means limited to Hebrews. It is a striking characteristic, for example, of the Revelation to John (Revelation 3:12; Revelation 11:2; Revelation 20:9; Revelation 21:2). The idea no doubt derives originally from the prophetic thought that "the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem" (Isaiah 24:23; Isaiah 27:13; Micah 4:7). The idea that the people of God are merely "strangers and exiles on the earth" (vs. 13), and accordingly are "seeking a homeland" in the eternal order (vs. 14), is also not new with Hebrews. The thought derives from Genesis 23:4 so far as Abraham is concerned, and it is related in general to God’s people elsewhere in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 20:38). Paul makes use of the idea in Philippians 3:20 with the remark that "our commonwealth is in heaven," an expression which suggests that Christians in the world are, so to speak, colonists abroad from their homeland!

Throughout the passage, in accordance with the thought expressed in verses 1 and 2, faith is treated as the instrument by means of which God’s people view the transitory world and all it contains in true perspective. The phrase "by faith" occurs again and again like a refrain. For it is only "by faith" that God’s people are enabled to assess the transitory and the eternal at their proper values. There is a very real sense in which in this life they have not "received what was promised, but having seen and greeted it from afar" they live their lives in the perspective of God (vs. 13).

Not alone Abraham, but his wife Sarah as well (vs. 11 ) , his son Isaac, his grandsons Jacob and Esau, and his great-grandson Joseph (vss. 17-22) are said to have possessed the requisite faith. Sarah’s faith is particularly significant because she had already, along with Abraham, passed the age when children are expected in the home (vss. 11-12; see Genesis 17:19; Genesis 18:11-14). Abraham was already "as good as dead." God’s faithfulness in fulfilling his promises (vs. 11), therefore, was shown provisionally in the fact that from this old couple were born "descendants as many as the stars of heaven." Hebrews specifically states, as we have observed, that this is not the final fulfillment of God’s promise to his people (vs. 13). But the fact is not to be ignored that it does represent a partial fulfillment — an "earnest" of the final one toward which God’s people may look forward. It is a parable, so to speak, of life from the dead, which is of the very essence of the salvation which God holds out for man. And it is not unlike the gift of the Holy Spirit, which, as Paul observes, is "the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it" (Ephesians 1:14).

The incident involving Abraham’s testing when he was "ready to offer up his only son" Isaac (vs. 17) carries essentially the same thought as that involved in Isaac’s birth. In both cases Abraham "considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead," from which, as our author suggests, "figuratively speaking, he did receive him back" (vss. 17-19). For, however one is to understand the story in its original form at Genesis 22:1-10, in Hebrews it is seen in the light of the promise which God had made to Abraham — "Through Isaac shall your descendants be named." This promise Abraham at all times was prepared to believe, whatever the transitory evidence of earthly existence might appear to suggest to the contrary.

In the case of Abraham’s descendants, the incidents chosen for comment are those concerned with the end of the life of each when he "blessed" his descendants, and the author’s point has to do with the faith thereby exhibited (vss. 20-22). The stress here, as previously throughout the chapter, is upon a faith which looks beyond the immediate horizons to the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people. And it should be observed that in laying stress upon this faith the author is true to the spirit of the Old Testament at the points involved (Genesis 27:27-40; Genesis 48:21; Genesis 50:24-25; Exodus 13:19). In the case of Joseph, his faith leaps forward to the Exodus and he gives "directions concerning his burial" in the land of promise. This mention of "the exodus" from Egypt naturally leads on to the next character with which our author wishes to deal, namely, the lawgiver Moses.

Abraham and Moses are the two focal points of the Old Testament revelation. The Christian Church, arising as it did out of the context of Judaism, inherited the sense of the prominence of these two Old Testament worthies. (For the importance of Moses see Mark 9:4-5; John 3:14; Acts 3:22; Revelation 15:3.)

There was, however, from the beginning this marked difference between Judaism and the Christian faith with reference to the parts played by Abraham and Moses. For Pharisaism, the dominant school of thought in the Judaism of the first century, Moses played the more prominent part, and his ministry served as a norm by which to gauge all of the revelation under the Old Covenant, including that made to Abraham. Accordingly, Abraham was interpreted in the light of the revelation which Judaism held to have come through Moses. He was said, for example, to have fulfilled the Law in its entirety before Moses appeared on the scene. His perfection, or salvation, was said to have occurred only after his circumcision and because of it. In the Early Church, however, the roles of these two were reversed. Abraham became the standard, so that the Law given to Moses was to be understood in the light of the revelation which came to Abraham. Paul spoke of this revelation as the "gospel" (Galatians 3:8) and averred that the Law, which came 430 years afterward, could not annul the Covenant previously ratified by God with Abraham (Galatians 3:17); while in opposition to the viewpoint of Pharisaism cited above, he argued that "faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness . . . before he was circumcised" (Romans 4:9-10).

It need not surprise us, then, that Hebrews at this point is not concerned about the Law which was promulgated through Moses but rather about his "faith." Moreover, it was faith and the courage born of it which the author sees exemplified in the parents of Moses (vs. 23), by the people who followed Moses’ leadership at the Exodus, by the army of Israel in the conquest of Canaan as at Jericho (vss. 29-30), and by Rahab the harlot who gave assistance to the two spies sent in to spy out the land (vs. 31).

It is noteworthy that in his account of Moses’ "choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin" (vs. 25), our author suggests that he was prepared to suffer "for the Christ" (vs. 26). The New Testament writers in general look back and see all previous events in the redemptive history of the people of God in the light of Christ. Accordingly, it is the author’s viewpoint that Moses’ sufferings can be thought of as eventually for Christ’s sake, because Moses as the leader of God’s people was in the divine succession of events experienced by that people, a succession whose culminating event was to be Christ.

This interpretation runs parallel, then, with the author’s view of Abraham. For on the one hand he can speak of him as one who, "having patiently endured, obtained the promise" (6:15), and on the other as numbered among all those who "though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised" (11:39). That is to say, Hebrews sees both a proximate and a remote fulfillment of God’s promises to his people at all times. And to this phenomenon neither Abraham nor Moses is an exception. Abraham did receive the promise in the sense that "he sojourned in the land of promise" (vs. 9); but in a larger sense he was numbered among all those who "died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar" (vs. 13). In like manner for the author, Moses was rewarded through a long period of years with the leadership of God’s people, but in a real sense the remote possession was never obtained by him; rather, "he endured as seeing him who is invisible" (vs. 27).

And now the author concludes his argument with a summary statement, because, as he suggests, "time would fail" him to give a complete account of all the Old Testament worthies who exemplified the response of faith which God desires of man (vs. 32). His summary is a very comprehensive one. Following the conquest of Canaan, which is suggested by his choice of Rahab (vs. 31), he begins with the judges — Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah (vs. 32) — and then proceeds to David as God’s choice for setting up the theocracy in Israel, and comprehends the entire Hebrew prophetic movement in the words "Samuel and the prophets" (vs. 32). Thereafter, in verses 33-38, he summarizes the experiences of the faithful throughout the period of the remaining Old Testament and Intertestament literature.

Most, if not all, of the references can be identified, and they introduce us to a wide range of characters whose lives exemplified the faith with which the author is dealing. Thus, of those "who through faith conquered kingdoms" he may very well have in mind men like Joshua and David. Those who "enforced justice" would very properly include the judges and kings like David and Solomon. Daniel is obviously one who "stopped the mouths of lions" (Daniel 6:21-23). Perhaps he and his associates in Babylon are also in mind as those who "quenched raging fire" (Daniel 3:23-25). According to Isaiah, Hezekiah by the faith shown in his prayer was the means of putting Sennacherib and his armies to flight (2 Kings 19:20-37). The widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman are examples of the women who "received their dead by resurrection" (1 Kings 17:8-24; 2 Kings 4:18-37). A number of the prophets were "tortured" (see Matthew 5:11-12), notably Jeremiah (Jer., chs. 20, 37-38). Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, was stoned (2 Chronicles 24:21). According to an apocryphal book, Isaiah the prophet was among those who were "sawn in two" (Ascension of Isaiah 5:11-14). Verses 35b-38, indeed, sound very much like a summary of the treatment which Israel and the pagan world gave to the Hebrew prophets. Elijah, for example, in the treatment accorded to him by King Ahab of Israel may very well be in the writer’s mind as one who went "wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth" (I Kings, chs. 18-19).

In the concluding paragraph (vss. 39-40), the author summarizes in a brief statement the point which the entire chapter is intended to illustrate. This is twofold: first, that the reward of faith is never immediately realized. For none of these Old Testament saints received the fulfillment of the promise in its final form. Had it been otherwise, then faith would no longer be faith. For, as the author indicated in the opening paragraph of the chapter, faith places one outside the boundaries of time and space whence one may view the distant scene, but while one lives within those boundaries only proximate realization of the promises of God may ever be experienced. Second, faith always has in view, as does the promise itself, that great company of the faithful whose arrival on the plane of history must precede the fulfillment of the promises. This is the true "communion of the saints" — a fellowship, not alone among those existing at any moment upon the earth, but extending horizontally throughout time, an ever-widening circle of men and women responding by faith to the promises of God.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Hebrews 11". "Layman's Bible Commentary".