Following the opening phrase of the benediction are two profound statements that contain the essential elements of the letter. Each statement of thought revolves around Jesus. The first statement stresses what God has done by His Son to secure a people. The prayer acknowledges that peace has come because God has “brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant” (13:20). God raised Jesus from the dead thereby exalting Christ as Lord who is now at His right hand. In acknowledging Him as the great shepherd, it is declared that Jesus surpasses all the other leaders of God’s people. Jesus is the One who ultimately fulfills all the roles God desires from the One who is over His people (Ezekiel 34:10-16; John 10:11,14). The exalted position granted to Jesus has been secured on the merits of His sacrificial death, which effected the establishment of a new covenant. In contrast to the old covenant, which was temporary, the new covenant is everlasting. The prophets promised an eternal covenant that would bring God and His people together forever (Isaiah 55:3; Jeremiah 31:35-37; 32:40; Ezekiel 37:26). The new covenant is the ultimate expression of how God’s eternal purposes of redemption are secured.
Although followers of Christ no longer participate in the old covenant sacrifices, they do offer appropriate sacrifices. The author lists two practical sacrifices that typify followers of Christ. First, “let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (13:15). Whether the brethren assemble or are out among the unbelieving world, followers of Christ are to publically praise Jesus through confessions, prayers, conversations, and songs. Second, “do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (13:16). As they had already been doing (6:10; 10:34), followers of Christ eagerly meet the practical needs of one another.
But it is interesting that the writer of Hebrews concludes with a few very practical instructions. Where has this practical instruction been up to this point? Christianity, since it is absolutely true, is relevant and practical. The Bible and its teachings are not just things to think about; they are to be applied to life (2 Timothy 3:14-17). However, Christianity is not simply a collection of practical directions for making life nicer or more pleasant. The heart of Christianity is not simply practicing hospitality, showing compassion, maintaining faithfulness in marriage, and handling money properly. Each of these practices is precious and important, but Christians are called to do them in a distinctively Christian fashion. They cannot be done Christianly without proper grounds.
The difference in mood between the two mountains is profound; the fervent joy that characterizes the heavenly gathering stands in contrast to the foreboding terror the Israelites experienced at the base of Mount Sinai. The reason for the difference is due to the different message that is now spoken from Mount Zion: “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:24). Whereas the blood of Abel spoke a message of condemnation on Cain, the blood of Christ speaks a word of forgiveness and cleansing. Thus, the difference in God, presented as the “judge of all” at Mount Zion in contrast to Mount Sinai is the difference between God as the judge who graciously vindicates His people through the blood of His Son, and God as the judge who justly condemns the guilty in their sin.
The readers needed to realize that their sufferings were ultimately discipline from their Heavenly Father. Therefore, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons” (12:7). The Lord’s discipline is not arbitrary, but rather an expression of genuine relationship. In fact, the term discipline suggests loving training given to correct or improve actions and attitudes. The Lord only gives such training to those who are legitimately His: “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (12:8). By reflecting on the link between their adoption and their sufferings, they could take heart that the Lord has not abandoned them. He truly loves them! What God was doing is what any loving father does.
Long-distance running is difficult. Running with endurance requires concentrated attention. The strong call to run with faithful endurance is set in the context of a crucial accompanying call to consider Jesus’ faithful endurance: “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). Since chapter 11 likened faith to seeing, the writer’s call to look to Jesus is a call for running to be done with complete dependence or reliance upon Him. The support and strength required for running the race that God has fixed, is found in Jesus.
Hebrews 11:32-40 concludes the Old Testament models of faithful endurance. Hebrews 11 has explained the nature of faithful endurance by primarily pointing to examples of faithful endurance under the old covenant. In this concluding unit, and before the readers are reminded of Christ’s faithful endurance (12:1-12), a summary is given, which not only names additional examples, but also describes a full array of outcomes that the Old Testament believers experienced. The outcomes described, amid faithful endurance, were both triumphal and tragic. Hebrews 11:32-40 has three parts. First, some who faithfully endured would receive great triumph in life (11:32-35a). Next, others who faithfully endured would face great tragedy in life (11:35b-38). Finally, God, who has something better planned for them, commends all who faithfully endured (11:39-40).
The exemplars of faith listed in 11:4-31 were each introduced by the phrase, “by faith.” After each person was introduced, particular details about their faithful endurance were explained. Now, 11:32 changes to simply a list of six names: “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets.” The particular details surrounding their faithful endurance were omitted. However, the original readers would have been able to recall details from the corresponding Scriptures that told about these men.
The six figures span the periods of Israel’s history from the judges through the united monarchy. Then the mention of the prophets could include the periods from the divided monarchy to the exilic and through to the returning remnant. While the Scriptures present Samuel in an exceedingly glowing fashion, it explores both sides of the other five exemplars of faith: Gideon was tentative and doubtful; Barak was passive and fearful; Samson was morally lax; Jephthah was foolishly rash; and David was an adulterous murderer. The list illustrates how God works through a people who trust Him.
Gideon (Judges 7:1-25) was a judge of Israel, whom God used to bring about a crushing victory over the Midianites. By faith, Gideon and 300 men equipped with torches in clay jars and trumpets, sent the Midianite forces into confusion. Barak (Judges 4-5) was also a judge of Israel. Barak, accompanied by the prophetess Deborah, went up against a Canaanite force of 900 chariots. But God gave the Canaanites into Barak’s hands, when a downpour immobilized their superior military edge. Samson (Judges 13-16) was a judge of Israel as well. Set apart as a Nazirite to deliver Israel from the Philistines, Samson was endowed by the Spirit of God with great strength. Jephthah (Judges 11), also a judge of Israel, was a mighty warrior whom God used to overthrow the Ammonities. David, Israel’s dearest and greatest king, from the time that he slew Goliath as a young man until the time that he took the reigns over Israel and established her borders in peace and security, consistently showed great reliance upon and love for the Lord. Samuel (1 Samuel) was Israel’s last judge and long tenured prophet whose life was marked by courage and intercession on behalf of Israel. The prophets, mentioned in a generic way, exemplified faithful endurance amid extremely hostile circumstances, both in their message as well as in their lives.
Hebrews 11:33-34 moves from individuals who modeled faithful endurance to list some of the great triumphs that they received, “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” Nine descriptions are strung together to describe the various types of deliverances that were experienced by those who received triumph by faith. Some of the men just previously mentioned could specifically be linked to these descriptions, but in other cases, many other exemplars of faith come to mind: Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednigo, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah. Then a tenth description is a pinnacle of triumph: “women received back their dead by resurrection.”(11:35a). The poor widow of Zarapheth and the woman of Shunem each received sons back from the dead through the hands of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:17-37).
In the middle of verse 35, the emphasis shifts from the triumphs received through faith to the tragedies faced through faith: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated” (11:35a-37). Certainly, the lives of the prophets would come to mind as this list of tragedies is considered (Matthew 23:37). There is a wide range of outcomes that can be experienced through faith: some are brought back to life (11:35a), while others suffer death (11:37); some escape the sword (11:34), while others are killed by the sword (11:37); some rout armies (11:35), while others are captured and imprisoned (11:35-36); some rule over others (11:32), while others are ruined by others (11:37).
But of these who suffered mistreatment, Hebrews adds: “of whom the world was not worthy” (11:38). Judged by the world to be unworthy, God saw things differently. God actually assessed that the world was unworthy of them. And as it was stated in 11:2, it is now restated: “And all these…” were, “commended through their faith.” And yet, though commended for their resolute determination to trust the Lord, they had yet “receive what was promised” (11:39). While many of the original readers were facing a great testing, the old covenant believers faced much more severe affliction. Faithful endurance would be the proper path for a people who were called by a Savior who faithfully endured, for faithful endurance was the path of a people awaiting the Savior.
In fact, because of Christ’s faithful endurance, what the previous exemplars of faith never received has now arrived: “God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (11:40). With the ratification of the new covenant by the death of Christ, old covenant believers join together with new covenant believers to know the conscience-cleansing, drawing-near-to-God-enabling, eternal inheritance of all the saints. What the Old Testament believers awaited is now here.
Hebrews has already described Moses as a faithful servant in God’s house (3:2, 5). Hebrews 11:24-28 highlights three episodes of faith from Moses’ life. The first episode involved Moses’ response to his upbringing. Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house as Pharaoh’s daughter, who found him in a basket in the Nile, adopted him. But, “by faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (11:24). Moses renounced his status as a part of the royal family of Egypt, “choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (11:25). Faith directed Moses to identify with God’s people rather than the ungodly. Moses’ deliberate choice was made as he, “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (11:26). Moses found loss of wealth and relinquishment of status to be of lessor value than the future promises of God. So, he embraced mistreatment.
Faith acts on the basis of the unseen. That is far from saying that faith acts without any foundation. Faith’s foundation is the sure Word of God. Faith is an essential link to all aspects of God’s Word. When that Word is a call to trust, faith embraces the promise and waits for the promises’ outcome. When that Word is a call to obey, faith embraces the command and submits to its orders. So for Abraham, believing God meant that He would wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises as well as comply with the instructions to follow God’s commands. So, while faith acts on the basis of what is unseen, faith always expresses itself in some seen manner. For instance, faith is not obedience (obedience is not faith), but faith expresses itself in obedience (obedience shows faith).
Hebrews 11:1-7 introduces faith by describing it as a kind of seeing the unseen. The bookends of this unit revolve around the mention of “things not seen” (11:1), which references the creation of the world, and “events as yet unseen” (11:7), which references its destruction. Hebrews 11:1 is not a complete definition of faith, but it does describe some essential characteristics of faith through two parallel descriptions: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The first aspect of faith is that it is a resolute confidence. Faith realizes that some realities are future, not immediate and that some realities exist in a spiritual realm and are physically unseen. Faith is a resolute confidence in God, rooted in His Words and actions. Faith is a response of resolute confidence because something here and now (i.e. God’s Words and actions) creates a calm anticipation for something that has yet that fully unfolded and also a peaceful courage for something real and solid, though as yet unseen.
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