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Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Today’s text from the writer to the Hebrews was addressed to a beleaguered, wrung-out band of Jewish Christians who wrestled deeply with concerns of faith and doubt. Initially, the earliest Christians came from Jewish ancestry, worshiping in underground house churches. But before the end of the first century, their Jewish relatives, as well as their pagan Roman neighbors, were harassing these Christians for their faith in Christ. By the time the Book of Hebrews appeared, the church had endured a long beating. Some were already suffering imprisonment and the seizure of their property. Opposition and martyrdom would only intensify in the decades that followed.

Placing one’s faith in Jesus as Messiah was a bold undertaking for these Hebrew believers. Christian conversion often caused great division among Jewish families who ostracized their converted relatives. They expelled them from their families, synagogues, and the rich festivals of the Jewish calendar. It’s no wonder that many Hebrew Christians were dejected and were at risk of apostacy. In faith, they recognized Jesus as the long-expected Messiah. But emotional fatigue was taking its toll. Needless to say, morale was low.

In this context the Book of Hebrews had its first impact, opening with this introduction: “In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. In these final days, though, he spoke to us through a Son” (Hebrews 1.1-2a CEB). Here the anonymous writer exhorts Jewish-Christians who were weary in well doing to remain faithful in worship to Christ, whose finished work is greater than any priest, covenant, or sacrifice.

The Book of Hebrews is replete with inspirational quotations that illustrate this context, often used in Evangelical social circles. For instance: “…let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10.24-25, NIV); and “…since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12.1, NASB).

Hebrews 11 is sandwiched between these passages and is often considered “Faith’s Hall of Fame” by preachers. The writer begins by laying this foundation: “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see. The elders in the past were approved because they showed faith” (11.1, CEB). Here the writer reminds disillusioned Jewish Christians of Israel’s faithful patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even the matriarch Sarah is praised because “she believed that the one who promised was faithful” (11.11, CEB).

Throughout Hebrews 11, the writer emphasizes a “now and not yet” reality for each of these faith heroes: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob witnessed God’s miraculous guidance, yet they were left looking forward “to a city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11.10, CEB). Long before their descendants were as numerous as the stars in the sky, the elderly couple Sarah and Abraham (who was seen “as good as dead” in 11.12!), looked forward to God’s promises from a distance, welcoming them into their barren reality.

Today it’s easy for preachers to look back on biblical accounts like these without appreciating the passage of time between books, chapters, and verses. As a result, we’re tempted to oversimplify the links between promise and fulfillment because the span between them is often a few inches apart on the pages of our Bibles.