|Take Heart from Others' Stories (Hebrews 11:1-40)
Take Heart From Others’ Stories
Minister’s Summary: As we have learned from Robert Coles and others, the power of stories to teach, inspire, and improve their hearers was already known to this teacher. A litany of OT stories underscores the meaning of faith/faithfulness to those who are discouraged, threatened, and beginning to weaken under the strain.
For those who have experienced hardship and tragedy in life, the call to perseverance in faith can often sound shallow. Those of us who have experienced deep hurt (death of a child, death of a spouse, divorce, etc.) hear those simple pithy though well-intended sayings (“Hang in there, it will get better,” or “trust God, he will deliver you,” or “have faith”) with a bit of skepticism and cynicism. What we are thinking usually, but what we won’t say is, “you don’t know what you are talking about; you have not been there.”
Our preacher understands the future hostility that his community will face. They will experience martyrdom on an unprecedented scale, presumably Nero’s persecution in Rome (if that is the right setting for this sermon; you can search the internet for the ancient reports of his persecution by Suetonius and Tacitus). They have not yet resisted to blood (Hebrews 12:4), but they will. Consequently, he knows the need more than a few theological ideas. They need something concrete; something real.
In Hebrews 10:19-39, the preacher has brought them to a theological understanding of their confidence before God. He has reminded them of their own communal history when years ago the stood the test of persecution. He has affirmed their future reward and assured them that God is coming (the Day will come). But this does not seem enough. He wants to encourage, motivate and strengthen the faith of his hearers. Consequently, he reminds them that they are not the only ones who have endured through faith nor are they first to suffer because of faith.
Hebrews 11 provides models for and witnesses to the endurance of faith. What sufferers and strugglers need most is to know that there are others who have gone before them. Others have suffered and endured. Others have struggled and won. Faith needs models in order to endure. Faith needs fellow travelers on the journey. It needs pioneers and champions.
Our greatest pioneer and champion, of course, is Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-3). But there are others who have gone before as well throughout Scripture. Their stories are scattered throughout the Bible. The preacher draws on these stories to provide models for faith. We have examples of people who have “been there, done that.” They have experienced hardship, suffering and persecution, but they have endured! They remained faithful. These are the “witnesses” of Hebrews 11 (cf. Hebrews 12:1).
Usually, in this section I divide the text in to various sections with a few notes. However, the enormity of this text persuades me to use a different tactic. Rather, I will treat the text more thematically and this will then segway into the theological section below. However, the text does fall into a nice historical picture of the biblical narrative—it is structured by history: Antediluvian (11:3-7); Patriarchs (11:8-22); Moses and Conquest (11:23-31); and Varied Stories from Israel’s History (11:32-38). These stories are bracketed by a description of faith (11:1-2) and the importance of faith (11:39-40).
1. The Description of Faith (Hebrews 11:1-2)
This is probably the most famous description of faith in the New Testament. It is not a definition of faith, but rather a description that relates to the context of the preacher’s intent. He describes faith in a way that connects with the situation of his hearers and the narratives to which he is about to point them. Faith in Hebrews 10:39 is a steadfast trust in God’s promise.
Lane (Word Biblical Commentary, 2:325) offers this translation: “Now faith celebrates the objective reality [of the blessings] for which we hope, the demonstration of events as yet unseen.” I think this catches the heart of point. Faith relies on the reality of hope—it banks on the future. Faith, thus, gives present reality to something that is yet future. Faith is the experience of the future. When faith acts—when it endures, obeys, and lives out its way of life—it demonstrates the reality of what we do not yet see. It is the proof of that reality.
Faith is directed toward the future, but it is a present experience that gives that future reality in the present. Faith grasps the future as if it is already here. Thus, faith endures because it is future-oriented and experiences that future in the present through that faith. The future has not yet come, but its reality is demonstrated in the experience of faith. We see that demonstration in the lives of those who have endured hardship through faith. They claimed the promise even though it was yet future. They believed even though they had not yet received. They endured despite the hardships.
2. The Value of Faith (Hebrews 11:6).
Through faith people received divine approval. God witnessed in their favor—he bore witness to their faith (Hebrews 11:2). God commended people for their faith, that is, God is pleased with faith.
Hebrews 11:6 is a critical summary text. It is a well-known text in Hebrews. But it states in a summary way the fundamental orientation with which God is pleased. God is pleased as people seek him through faith. Seeking God is important OT language. We might summarize the theology of Chronicles as “God seeks seekers” (cf. 1 Chronicles 28:8-10; 29:17; 2 Chronicles 7:14; 15:2). God yearns for his people to seek him just as he seeks them. God seeks us (Psalm 119:174; John 4:24) and want us to seek him (Psalm 119:2,10; Hebrews 11:6).
God rewards those who seek him, which is the point of Hebrews 10:35. Don’t throw away your confidence; don’t throw away your faith because it will be rewarded. Again, the emphasis is future-oriented. God will reward those who seek him; God will reward those who endure through faith. The preacher again points his hearers toward the future and their hope.
3. The Endurance of Faith.
The narrative stories, it seems to me, all have the point of endurance. Perhaps some are a bit more difficult to construe in this light (such as Abel), but the whole contributes to this point. Enoch may represent endurance since he is found in the context of Genesis 5 where the most common words are “and he died.” Death surrounded Enoch, but through faith he was delivered from death. There is hope in the midst of death. I wonder if Enoch is mentioned specifically because his was a victory over death—a hope that Roman hearers need.
Noah built an ark because of what he believed about the future. He persisted despite the hostility of his culture because he trusted in what God promised about the future. Abraham followed God’s call even though he did not know his destination, but he knew the promises of God. He lived oriented to the future (Hebrews 11:10)—a future city, but also a future son/descendents.
The preacher even interprets Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in terms of his orientation to the future—he believed God would raise Isaac from the dead. Isaac gave a blessing about the future through faith. Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons concerning the future. Joseph’s faith was demonstrated by instructions about the future. Moses endured his identification with slaves and their experience because of what he believed about the future. He kept the Passover because he believed God’s promises about the future. The Red Sea and Conquest (Jericho and Rahab) experiences were based upon what Israel believed about the future.
The summary experiences are rooted in how faith gains what is promised—it succeeds, it wins, it endures because it receives what is promised. More particularly, they believed and endured through hostile opposition, through persecution and martyrdom (11:35b-38). This is the encouragement Roman Christians need. They need to hear that faith success not when it wins by cultural or worldly or Roman standards, but when it endures, trusts the promises of God and receives the promises in the end. Faith wins when it endures.
4. The Promise of Faith.
Hebrews 11:13-16 is descriptive of the people of God in every generation. It is particularly a comment on the Patriarchs, but it applies the every generation of God’s people in the history of redemption. It applies to Israel in the land of Palestine under a victorious Davidic king (cf. 1 Chronicles 29:15), and to Christians (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). We are pilgrims, or refuges, in this world. This world is not our home, because we hope for something better.
We are the people of God and we wait for the “heavenly city”—the one which God has prepared for us. Thus, the people of God are oriented toward the future, and the road for that journey to the future is faith. It follows the path of many who have traveled it before us. They died in faith, yet hoping for the future. So, too, these Roman Christians will die in faith—just as we will, hoping for the future. But the future is demonstrated by the faith exercised in the present. The future is present through faith though it is not yet fully realized.
The point of these stories is not to provide models of obedient faith, though these believers did obey. Rather, they provide models for the endurance of faith. They continued the journey despite the hardships and problems. These are not proof-texts for obedient faith, but models of enduring faith.
They continued their journey because they sought God and trusted in his promises. They endured through faith and their faith submitted to God’s call to the journey and as they journeyed. Theologically, faith is oriented to both past and future. Because of God’s work in the past (both in terms of his “word” to us and his actions), we trust God in the present. Consequently, our faith is oriented to the future beyond the present distress. We trust God’s promises because we have reason to trust him—God has a track record.
Hebrews 11 teaches us that faith also has a track record. When faith trusts God’s word to us and looks toward the future, it can endure the present. We have models of faith that confirm this. Faith, then, means embracing the hope; trusting that what we hope for is real. It is trusting that the journey has a goal and therefore the journey is worth the effort. Hebrews 11, then, can be seen as an illustration of the exhortation of Hebrews 10:35—don’t throw away your confidence because you know the promise is secure.
The future is the key, but faith is the present experience of that future. Nevertheless, the future is the hope that enables endurance. “This World Is Not My Home”—a song that reflects our pilgrim journey. We are not at home here, though we often feel at home because we are too shaped and tuned into our culture. We are too comfortable here. Perhaps a little persecution would be helpful as faith must take center stage and orient us toward the future rather than settling into our present comforts.
Those who have experienced the tragic circumstances of this present world understand the yearning for the future. They live oriented to the future. Their joy is found in hope because the tragedies sap them of their strength. As one song title by New Song reads, “Hope Changes Everything.” But hope is only real by faith and faith celebrates the reality of hope. Thus, faith endures.
How do we teach such a vast amount of material? It is impossible to go verse by verse. Consequently, I think we need to choose illustrative material.
There are two kinds of material in this text. First, one is narrative re-telling, that is, short summaries of biblical narratives. These short summaries recall the fuller stories in the biblical narratives themselves—the stories of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc. Second, there is narrative reflection or didactic material, that is, short theological summaries of the point of the narrative in the light of the present situation of the hearers.
You could teach this material by focusing on a few of the narrative stories (11:2-5, 7-12, 17-31, and the pithy summary of stories in 11:32-38) so as to illustrate the narrative reflection (11:1-, 6, 13-16, 39-40). For example, you could focus on Abraham (Hebrews 11:9-12, 17-19) and then make the point of the chapter by concentrating on the narrative reflection the preacher offers based on that story (Hebrews 9:13-16). Teaching, then, could be focus on Abraham and how he models the endurance of faith for the hearers of this original sermon, and then also how he models it for us.
You could teach this material by focusing on the narrative reflections, or, the theological points of Hebrews 11:1, 6, 13-16, 39-40. This would mean that you only illustrate very briefly with the stories and concentrate on the theological/pastoral point the preacher seeks to apply to his hearers.
I like story + reflection. I think I will probably set up the stories with the theological points of 11:1, 6. Then, illustrate those points with a few of the stories, maybe mostly recalling the list of 11:32-38 in the light of the expected experience of persecution by the believers in Rome—only briefly. And focus primarily on the theological function of 11:13-16 as the source of encouragement for the original hearers and for us.
My teaching outline will look something like this:
1. The setting of Roman Christians anticipating persecution and the need for faithful endurance.
2. The nature of faith in Hebrews 11:1-2 & 6.
3. The stories that illustrate the nature of faith, particularly 11:32-38 in the light of the expectation of persecution in Rome.
4. The hope that gives faith endurance and strength for the journey, Hebrews 11:13-16.
5. The concluding exhortation in Hebrews 11:39-40.