As illustrations of faith, the author presents two more examples from the Exodus: “By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.” The departure from Egypt is credited to the faith of all the people. The Egyptians had faith, too — they believed they could cross the seabed just like the Israelites did. But their faith was in vain, because it was not based on the promise of God. All the great moments of Israelite history came about through faith, so we should not be surprised if God calls on us to have faith in perilous circumstances, too.
Life in Canaan (verses 30-34)
The author now moves to the Israelite conquest of Canaan, and in doing this, he has skipped an important moment in Israelite history: Mt. Sinai. Hebrews says nothing about the role that Moses had in building the nation, because those situations were less relevant to the readers. The author is trying to get the readers to stop looking to Moses and his covenant; he is not going to praise it here. He emphasizes Moses’ role as a fugitive, as a person who went out.
When the people reached Canaan, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.” Surprise! The heroes in Israelite history include a non-Israelite woman. She was saved by faith, in contrast to people who disobeyed (disobeyed God, that is, rather than the king of Jericho).
The author could go on, but he has already amassed enough evidence to illustrate his point, so now he wraps it up: “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets….” The author does not dwell on the history of the people as a nation — he was more interested in illustrating people who were isolated and persecuted. But he mentions some blessings that came with faith. Through faith, these people “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised” (verse 33). They gained Canaan, but they did not gain all that God had promised (verse 39).
The author skips to the end of the Scriptures for some final examples. Through faith, he says, some people “shut the mouths of lions [Daniel 6], quenched the fury of the flames [Daniel 3], and escaped the edge of the sword [possibly the story in Esther], whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.”
A great contrast (verses 35-40)
Then the author moves from triumph to tragedy: “Women received back their dead, raised to life again. [But] there were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection.” In times of triumph, Elijah and Elisha brought people back to life (1 Kings 17:17-23; 2 Kings 4:17-35). But other equally great prophets were persecuted to death for that “better resurrection.” The author refers to a story from the Jewish historical book 1 Maccabees, chapter 7. There we are told about seven brothers who were tortured by the Syrian ruler, while their mother reminded them that God would resurrect the faithful — a resurrection even better than Elijah and Elisha restoring people back to life.
History is full of people who refused to give up, even when threatened with death, and God wants his people to have faith like that — a faith that sees beyond the temporary treasures and temporary trials of this world, and seeks the heavenly country, the city built by God, the place of permanent reward.
Hebrews tells us what it may cost: “Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them.” If you are persecuted, the author says, you are in good company. The world does not deserve to have such honorable people in its midst, but God puts his people here anyway.
“They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.” These trials were not punishments from God, nor were they evidence that God had taken away his protection. These people were strong in faith, and yet had troubles in this life. That’s because the promise of God is not a better life in this world — it is life in a better world.
We will all die, but for those who die in the faith, the promises are guaranteed. The readers are worried about threats of persecution, so the author encourages them to keep their eyes on the eternal, not the temporary. “Since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” God wants us to join the heroes, and we will be rewarded together; through faith, we will all be brought to the finish line.
After mentioning a long list of heroes who were faithful in difficult times, the author of Hebrews now addresses the readers directly, encouraging them to follow the example of the faithful. They should acknowledge the hardships they encounter — even be encouraged by them — and complete the journey they have begun.
Run the race (12:1-2)
In Hebrews, doctrinal information is often the springboard for practical application. After each section of information comes a brief section of exhortation, often with the words “therefore, let us….” Chapter 12 begins with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”
What kind of witnesses surround us? Perhaps they are spectators in a stadium, watching us run the race — but since the author hasn’t used the metaphor of a footrace yet, the readers might not think of “witness” in that sense. Rather, the witnesses are people who can testify that it is possible to be faithful in the face of temptations, even in persecutions.
Examples of success surround us, so we should get rid of anything that distracts us, anything that slows us down — especially sin. Sin is like an octopus that grabs us first with one tentacle, then another, and another, until we are trapped. Sin makes it harder for us to follow Christ, or to trust in him for our salvation. So, to be faithful, we need to put aside sin or any other hindrance.
“Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Now, the Christian life is compared to a race, perhaps a marathon, in which finishing the race is more important than coming in first. How can we finish? By keeping our eyes on the goal: Jesus. He is not only the one who calls us to faith in the beginning, he is also the one who will complete his work within us.
Things to think about
- Why was Rahab the only person in Jericho who put her life in God’s hands? (verse 31)
- Who turned weakness into strength? (verse 34) Can I do that, too?
- In what way were the Old Testament heroes waiting for us? (verse 40)
- What New Testament heroes of faith are there? Who had victories, and who had tragedies?
- What kind of sin tends to entangle people today? (verse 1) What pulls them away from faith in Christ?
- What joys are set before us? (verse 2)
Author: Michael Morrison