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.
Likewise, we’re tempted to ignore the mundane, or even traumatic, events that filled the gaps between the “mountaintop events” we’re so often drawn to preach from in Scripture. Even more, we must fight the tendency of glossing over the failures of many of our biblical heroes. In Genesis 16, even Abraham, the father of the faithful, is a facsimile of failure. Rather than waiting with his elderly wife Sarah on God’s promise for a son, Abraham chooses a more efficient alternative by sleeping with their Egyptian maid Hagar, who gives birth to Ishmael. After wrestling all night with an angel, Jacob is renamed Israel to commemorate his struggling. In light of these struggling heroes, should we be surprised at our own vulnerabilities toward failed faith?
Ironically, many of us who consider ourselves “people of faith” today are often prone to yearn for a relationship with God that does not demand us to exercise much faith at all. As Philip Yancey observes in Disappointment with God, “We want proof, evidence, a personal appearance, so that the God we have heard about becomes the God we see” (51).
Take a look at your own prayer life. When faced with challenges, how often are you tempted to pray for clarity, specific direction, and relief—and to grow disillusioned when they are not forthcoming? I must confess my own preferences for pillars of smoke and fire over God’s still, small voice. Isn’t it ironic that when we’re tempted to pray for God to reveal an obvious answer, we’re typically appealing for answers that can be confirmed by common sense? In prayer, I’m often guilty of asking God to make things obvious rather than revealing God’s presence in the midst of my challenge. Yancey goes on to observe that:
God did not play hide-and-seek with the Israelites; they had every proof of his existence you could ask for. But astonishingly—and I could hardly believe this result, even as I read it—God’s directness seemed to produce the very opposite of the desired effect. The Israelites responded not with worship and love, but with fear and open rebellion. God’s visible presence did nothing to improve lasting faith.” (52)
Hebrews 11 is a tricky passage for honest preachers today, especially when parishioners are so hungry for clarity and relief. It’s tempting for us to focus on the heroism of “Faith’s Hall of Fame,” yet gloss over the writer’s honest observation that “all of these people died in faith without receiving the promises” (11.13, CEB).
But authentic preachers recognize at least two important truths when preaching from Hebrews 11: first, that the God who promises is faithful; and second, that the preacher’s vantage point from the pulpit reveals no shortage of faithful saints in their range of vision who have been facsimiles of failure at one time or another. We need to find ways for these men and women to tell their redemption stories in worship and to encourage the disheartened who yearn for a reality they cannot yet see. Like our matriarchs and patriarchs, some saints in our congregations are “longing for a better country,” and may well die in faith without fully entering in to their hopes. Nevertheless, the faithful and faith-full preacher is still called week after week to invite worshipers to take their first, second, hundredth, or millionth step in faith, placing the full weight of their confidence on God and recognizing, as Yancey puts it, “Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse” (224).
For further study:
Knuth, Donald E. 3:16 Texts Illuminated. Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1991.
Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Taylor, Daniel. The Myth of Certainty. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986.
Yancey, Philip. Disappointment with God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.