Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:35-40)
Key Observation: The heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 were not able to receive the promise of atonement because only Jesus could bring it. They lived their whole lives with faith without receiving the promise.
Understanding the Word
The faith chapter of Hebrews 11 continues to tell of many other heroes of faith and situations where individuals from Israel’s history showed faith of various kinds. Abraham showed faith when he offered Isaac. He knew that Isaac was the child of promise, and yet here was Isaac facing his death. So the audience might face death, but God could bring back the dead.
Jacob and Joseph both saw promises that would come to pass long after their deaths, but they believed them anyway. So the audience of Hebrews needed to believe, whether Jesus saved them or not. Moses’ parents faced the threat of the king, but they disobeyed him all the same. So the Roman government might threaten the audience of Hebrews, but they should not fear but move forward in faithfulness.
Moses himself could have enjoyed “the fleeting pleasures of sin” (11:25). He could have enjoyed the opportunities of the world he could see. Instead, he chose to be mistreated as part of the people of God in order that he might receive a great reward later. He could see the invisible God with the eyes of faith, and that faith was the substance of things for which he hoped. By faith Moses crossed the Red Sea on dry ground. By faith the walls of Jericho fell. Sometimes faith brings victory in this present time and not only in the promised future. By faith Rahab picked the right side, and it was not the side of the people with whom she visibly lived at the time.
It is at this point that we reach the verses above. The author of Hebrews did not tell the individual stories but he listed a number of individuals whose stories of faith could certainly be told. Their stories differ from each other. God granted victory to some over their enemies. Gideon and Barak won. Jephthah and David won. Others did not win. Hebrews 11:35 may refer to a Jewish story about a mother and seven brothers, all of whom had the faith to die in the face of persecution because they believed in the resurrection.
What is very interesting is that Hebrews tells us that none of these actually received the promise in their lifetimes. That is to say, the promise of true cleansing and atonement would have to wait until Jesus Christ. They were not made “perfect” apart from Christ. They died in faith that God would resolve the problem of the world. God would one day solve the problem of the world, but it did not take place while these heroes were alive. They were waiting for the promise of Christ, a promise that had now come to pass. Now they could be perfected because Christ’s offering has been made. Now not only these heroes but the audience of Hebrews could be perfected. Indeed, we can be perfected if we will only continue in faith.
The faith chapter of Hebrews 11 is thus about endurance to the end even more than it is about believing what is not seen. It is about being willing to be sawed in half, as the tradition suggested happened to Isaiah. Sometimes God grants victory over our enemies, but our task is to have faith even if his will is different for us.
Questions for Reflection
- Are you prepared to live your life out in faith even if it is not God’s will
to deliver you from trial and persecution?
- Sometimes we ourselves are not the target of persecution, but we have to decide whether we are going to stand with others who are. Are we prepared to stand with the oppressed, should the time come?
- There are always Christians-in-waiting watching us on the sidelines. How we react to hard times could be the difference between faith or no faith. Does that create any resolve in you?
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