Hebrews Week 10
The Rules of the Race: Hebrews 11:1—12:13
By Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Hebrews 11:1–12:13
Perhaps you know people whose businesses were bankrupted during the recent financial meltdown and who subsequently filed for protection from creditors under “Chapter 11.” When granting protection, the court must determine whether the reorganization plan is feasible and compliant with federal rules, and whether those proposing the plan do so “in good faith.” Good faith is an especially important characteristic the court seeks in those fearful of their futures. Fear often fails us, prompting bad decisions or careless actions. Those whose plans and practices are grounded “in good faith” typically resist the fears and frustrations provoked by a bankruptcy and instead trust in solid evidence and reasoned judgment to create a plan for a more secure financial future.
Introduction to Hebrews 11
Chapter 11 of Hebrews is not the roll call of the spiritually bankrupt unfaithful — just the opposite. It’s a celebration of those faithful Old Testament figures who anticipated the Christ and form a “cloud of witnesses” for those who presently follow him (Hebrews 12:1–2). The list is by no means exhaustive. In the manner of other Jewish writings in antiquity, the Preacher carefully recruits virtuous exemplars and their biblical stories to make a point. This list is illustrative of “the sort of people who have faith so that [their] whole beings are preserved” (10:39).
The Greek word translated “preserved” is a rarely used verbal noun that refers to the acquisition of promised goods. Paul always uses it in reference to a congregation’s future possession — the promised inheritance (Ephesians 1:14), salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:9), glory (2 Thessalonians 2:14) — goods distributed by God at Christ’s second coming. 1 Peter, however, uses it as an idiom of conversion (1 Peter 2:9), in which Sinai is the location where Israel becomes God’s “most precious possession out of all the peoples” (Exodus 19:5).
These are all overtones cued by the Preacher’s use of the word in Hebrews 10:39 and illustrated by his own “chapter 11” story. The practical question he raises is this: what “sort of people” form God’s “most precious possession”? The chapter’s repetition of “by faith” reminds us that the community which God’s Son brings to perfection is not marked out by its ethnic purity or national identity, but by its confession of faith in one God and by its Christ-like faithfulness during the long journey to the Promised Land. The chapter’s opening two verses (11:1–2), among the most quoted from this letter, set the table for what follows. If our faithful response to God saves us from sin and death, then the nature of this saving faith is among the most important topics a community can study.
The Nature of Faith
“By faith” is the “reality” — the underlying substance (hypostasis) — of what we actually see and hear (11:1). In an earlier Lectio I commented that the Preacher understands the incarnation of God’s Son in a similar way: through the historical Jesus, the eternal substance of our transcendent God was made visible and audible for those of us living “in these final days” (see 1:2–3). Each Old Testament exemplar listed in this sacred chapter 11 cues a biblical story of a particular historical person who embodies a costly allegiance to God’s way of ordering reality.
“By faith” also refers to the substance of what Christians hope for, which is the promise of God’s coming kingdom — the real world. Even though our hope looks ahead to that which is not yet visible, derived hope is hardly a personal opinion or a hunch. Christian belief in God’s future is based upon a certain kind of evidence. The Greek phrase that the CEB translates as “proof” (11:1) is pragmatōn elegchos, which is better translated as the persuasive “hard evidence” of a claim. (You can see the Greek word from which “pragmatic” derives; this is evidence that guides life!) In Hebrews this evidence is derived mostly from Scripture’s promises, but also from the apostolic proclamation of Jesus (2:3) and those who have experienced “the powers of the coming age” (6:5). While we don’t yet see God’s future, we catch glimpses of it in Scripture and in the transformed and transformative lives modeled after the faithful of chapter 11.
These are the Church’s celebrated elders through whom God spoke in the past (cf. 1:1). The verb translated “approved” (11:2) more literally means “to testify”; these elders continue to influence the present because they testify to the sort of people God “approves” and who then are preserved for kingdom come.
Surprisingly, the Preacher doesn’t begin chapter 11 with his recital of faithful figures but with our confession of faith in Scripture’s opening event: the creation of the universe (11:3). Actually, the word he uses for “universe” is literally the plural “ages,” which he first uses in Hebrews 1:2 while introducing readers to the Son through whom God created “the ages” (which the CEB translates as “the world”). Faith transforms our understanding that the world around us is part of God’s unfolding creation, which has a past, present, and future age. We believe each age is formed, being formed, and will be formed in conformity to or continuity with God’s Word.
Background on the Preacher’s Reading of Old Testament Figures
Before launching this study, let me offer some background [see Author’s Note 1]. The Preacher is an interpreter of Scripture with a particular Christological agenda. Like other rabbis reading Israel’s Scripture, the Preacher rereads Scripture from a slant, and his slant is Jesus. You will surely observe that his characterization of faithful figures rarely lines up with what we actually find in the Old Testament. His is often an imaginative retelling of Scripture’s story, not its simple rehash [see Author’s Note 2].
The Preacher also has a congregational agenda. He adapts a theological reading of the biblical text for his audience’s instruction. They are a wilderness people who face temptations, suffering, public ridicule, and marginal social standing (cf. 10:32–33). He adapts the Old Testament stories of these faithful exemplars to his audience and emphasizes the manner of faith they must own to persevere to the end.
The Faithful Abel, Enoch, Noah
What does Abel’s faithfulness teach a wilderness people about a forward-looking faith? He exemplifies those who offer God “a better sacrifice” (11:4; cf. Genesis 4:4). His sacrifice is “better” not so much because it’s more valuable but because it’s motivated by a righteous desire to gain God’s approval even at the risk of costly consequences, as Abel experienced. And Enoch? He exemplifies the faithfulness of those who seek to please God (cf. Genesis 5:22) because of a firm belief in God’s existence as a personal deity who can be named, approached, and pleased [see Author’s Note 3]. Noah’s faithfulness is symbolized by his famous ark, which stands as a monument to one man’s obedience to God’s instruction (cf. Genesis 6:22; 7:5). His faith gave him insider information about the future, and “he criticized the world” that thought him foolish (Hebrews 11:7). As with the first two exemplars, Noah acts in the present based upon trusting what has been revealed to him about the future.
The Faithful Ancestors
The most space is granted to describing the faith of the ancestors (11:8–22; cf. 1:1) and Moses (11:23–28; cf. 3:1–6). Abraham is introduced in Hebrews as the recipient of God’s promises (6:13) and exemplar for all those who share in those promises. He shows up again in the next chapter with Melchizedek (7:4–6), and their brief encounter establishes the basis for the Preacher’s dramatic claim that the exalted Christ holds the office of heaven’s High Priest.
Like a wilderness people on its way to the Promised Land, these spiritual ancestors are “strangers and immigrants on earth” (11:13) in search of God’s heavenly city (11:10). They are homeless nomads, and their promised future is threatened by Sarah’s barrenness, by spiritual tests (most passed only with retakes!), and even by the fragile succession that follows the death of each predecessor (11:17–22). Through it all, the constant theme is that the Church’s ancestors trust God’s promises “without knowing where [they are] going” (11:8), seeing only “the promises from a distance and welcom[ing] them” (11:13).
Although the Preacher follows the ancestral metanarrative of Genesis (LXX) [see Author’s Note 1] in portraying these figures as exemplars, he again does so with an agenda. He speaks of Abraham’s faithful response to God’s call (11:8) and promises (11:9, 11, 17), language not found but implied in the Genesis narrative and crucial in the exposition of the Preacher’s priestly Christology in Hebrews. What is clear from the Preacher’s character study is that the destination of the ancestors’ wanderings is not Canaan but “a city that has foundations” — i.e., a real down-to-earth place, not an ethereal one — “whose architect and builder is God” (11:10, 16; cf. 12:22, 28). This is the true “homeland” (11:14) and future “inheritance” (11:8) of God’s people. Until then they are resident aliens of their earthly address (11:13). Lacking the securities and niceties granted to the citizens of earth, they live by faith in God, whose promises of an eternal home motivate their long obedience in God’s direction.
The Faithful Moses
The land promised to the succession of Israel’s ancestors is ultimately fulfilled in the Moses-led exodus from Egypt and the Joshua-led entrance into Canaan. Of course, the faithfulness of Moses’s service to God has already been noted (see Hebrews 3:1–6), but the Preacher’s chapter 11 interest in Moses (Hebrews 11:23–28) transforms him into an example of saving faith and of motivation for covenant-keeping practices against long odds. That is, his retelling of Moses’s biblical story portrays faith’s performance in the face of hostile opponents.
Mention of Moses’s faithful parents’ fearlessness in response to demonic political power is not found in the Old Testament story (cf. 11:23; Exodus 2:1–10). Perhaps the Preacher upgrades it here to underscore the importance of a family’s spiritual DNA that children inherit at birth. (Consider the biblical snapshot of Jesus’s holy and faithful parents.) The Preacher also adds Moses’s decision to side with God’s mistreated people over the pleasures of the palace to illustrate the importance of motives cued by an unseen future (11:1–2). This is the substantive hope of saving faith, and it is this material sense of what is unseen-and- not-yet that inspires a faithful people to disregard earthly power and wealth for the ways of God (11:26–27). Stuff doesn’t last; God’s kingdom does.
The Preacher’s messianic reading of the biblical story slants a fearless Moses in Christ’s direction. Moses responds to the pre-historical Christ in a manner that Christian readers of Hebrews — to whom the historical Jesus has been proclaimed (cf. Hebrews 2:3) — should imitate. The Preacher’s messianic angle on his case study of Moses is intended to help readers connect their own experiences of political opposition and the evils of wealth with the Old Testament Moses.
The Faith of Other Old Testament Figures
The sparse recital of the exodus typology neatly recounts Scripture’s story of the faithful. This includes the Passover (the culminating event of Israel’s exodus from Egypt; 11:28), the crossing of the Red Sea (the inaugural event of Israel’s wilderness wandering; 11:29), and Jericho’s conquest and Rahab’s conversion (critical events in telling how Israel at long last takes possession of the land God promised to Sarah and Abraham; 11:30–31). Walter Brueggemann has said that the exodus story is “the most simple, elemental, non-negotiable storyline that lies at the heart of biblical faith” [see Author’s Note 4]. This story, stripped of its details, illustrates what Hebrews considers the bottom-line truth of life-saving faith: the righteous live because of their active faith in God’s promises (cf. Hebrews 10:38; Romans 1:17).
The rhetorical question “What more can I say?” is quickly followed by the rhetorical apology “I would run out of time” (11:32). For the first time, the Preacher inserts himself into his exhortation to underscore his impression that this “cloud of witnesses” (12:1) is sufficient to encourage and guide his readers. The “rhythmic barrage” of names, as Michael Cosby calls it [see Author’s Note 5], is framed by the phrase “through faith” (11:33, 39, NRSV) to integrate those whose life-saving faith is demonstrated in military battle (11:32–35a) and in suffering (11:35b–38), to whom are added generations of saints acting faithfully because they trust that God’s promised future is as real as rain (11:39–40).
God’s Better Promise
Because the destiny of these saints is God’s heavenly city, “the world [doesn’t] deserve them” (11:38). And while they don’t live to see the unseen future, their heroic lives carve out the pathway of righteousness for all the Christians following in their steps, and the Creator God will one day give them approval “for their faith” (11:39).
The old is made new because the incarnation results in something materially better or more complete than what was promised to our faithful ancestors. That is, I take it God’s eternal city is measurably better by any metric than the land promised to Israel. God’s provision “for us” (i.e., for Christ’s disciples) is “better” precisely because the Son’s priestly work makes us perfect (11:40; cf. 2:10–11; 7:19; 10:10, 14) and thereby allows us to complete our wilderness wandering in God’s eternal city. This is the destiny Abraham and our other ancestors had in mind all along (11:10). Christ makes it possible for all those who trusted God for their future to join us there, no longer “strangers and immigrants on earth” (11:13), but citizens of God’s city (cf. 11:40).
Chapter 11’s concluding phrase, “so [the faithful of previous generations] wouldn’t be made perfect without us,” is worth a lingering look. The prospect of perfecting human existence is inaugurated by the incarnation of God’s Son who is “made perfect” (or entirely sanctified) by his human experiences of temptation and suffering (2:10–11; 5:9). This enables Christ’s effective priestly ministry of making Christians holy (10:14) in order to serve a holy God (9:14) and to have complete (or perfect) access to God (10:1) as residents of God’s city (cf. 12:22–23). This is the “something better” to which the Preacher refers in 11:40.
But in what sense is our full salvation because of Christ the condition of the salvation of the faithful who lived prior to Christ? The Preacher clearly says that God wouldn’t make Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and Rahab “perfect without us” (11:40). Why do these Old Testament saints need us? They don’t. God’s providential outworking of God’s plan of salvation, however, considers its various “ages” — past, present, and future — as of a single piece. After all, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Salvation is not simply for Jesus-followers, as though the Church has replaced Israel in God’s affections or plan of salvation. The way in which the saints of old understood their own situation — Hebrews even claims that Moses “suffered for Christ” (11:26)! — implies that the incarnation and its perfecting result in Christians are redemptive events that complete the process. “Without us,” then, is another way of saying that without our salvation, God’s plan to save the saints of old would not be completed (11:40).
Running the Race of Faith
These exemplars of faithfulness, including all those faithful Christians we remember as role models, gather as a “cloud” (12:1) — a traditional Hellenistic metaphor for a cluster of all-seeing onlookers — to provide a protective hedge around God’s people today. The wilderness typology has been momentarily replaced by a well-known athletic typology to reimagine our spiritual journey as a race whose contestants must train hard and wear appropriate gear that will not weigh them down. My wife, Carla, will tell you that my closet at home is full of running shorts, shirts, and shoes that I purchased for Crossfit workouts because they are lightweight. Likewise, we want to rid ourselves of anything clinging to our spiritual lives — sins, temptations, wrong thoughts and ambitions — that will weigh us down and make our race toward God more difficult.
We “fix our eyes on Jesus,” not only because he’s the faithful ones’ “pioneer and perfecter” (cf. 2:10–11; 5:8–9; 7:28), but because he’s our messianic exemplar of the single-minded runner who kept his eye on the “joy that was laid out in front of him” despite the distractions along the way (12:2), similar to those we face (cf. 12:3).
Typical of this letter, the Preacher concludes his exposition on the faithfulness of the saints with a word of exhortation (12:4–13). He continues his athletic typology, this time describing the kind of “no pain, no gain” discipline a runner must undertake to finish the race.
Imagine that God is our coach. God always has salvation’s endgame in mind. Likewise, the discipline God enforces in spiritual training targets this future hope — “the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those who have been trained by it” (12:11; cf. Isaiah 32:17; Psalm 85:10; James 3:18). Toward this future, then, readers are encouraged right now to strengthen their “drooping hands and weak knees” (12:12) — areas of their fitness that reduce their capacity to finish this long obedience in God’s direction. Similarly, Scripture often calls its readers to a season of self-evaluation in the company of the Holy Spirit to identify areas of weakness — the “drooping hands and weak knees” of our spiritual lives. According to Hebrews, this must begin with an evaluation of our understanding of Christ. The perfection of our life with God requires what Origen calls a catechism of the Spirit, in which we learn completely (or perfectly) Scripture’s witness to Christ. Begin there. Knowing Christ is the “straight [path]” (12:13) that both heals and strengthens our forward lean toward God’s heavenly city.
Questions for Further Discussion
- Who in your own life or experience would you add to the list of faith exemplars, according to Dr. Wall’s categories: forward-thinking faith like Abel, God-pleasing faith like Enoch, trust-in-the-unknown faith like Noah, etc.?
- Do you think the Preacher’s process of interpreting Scripture — with a “bone to pick” — is appropriate? Why or why not? How is the Preacher’s interpretive method a model for our own interpretation of Scripture?
- Wall writes: “God’s provision ‘for us’ … is ‘better’ precisely because the Son’s priestly work makes us perfect and thereby allows us to complete our wilderness wandering in God’s eternal city.” Have you ever felt like a stranger or foreigner in the world, whether literally or spiritually? What does it feel like? Do these passages give you hope?
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