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What Does the Bible Say About Faith? A Look at Hebrews 11

If you’re looking for a biblical definition of faith, the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is an inspiring and informative place to start. In The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, George H. Guthrie painstakingly unpacks how the author of Hebrews approaches this integral passage. The following post is adapted from The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews and the Hebrews video course.

Examining faith in Hebrews 11

Hebrews 11, often referred to as the great “Hall of Faith,” has become through the centuries one of the church’s most-loved portions of Scripture. Poetic in its cadence, panoramic in its historical sweep, and imminently relevant in its challenge, this chapter calls the believer to faithful endurance by use of voluminous testimony from the lives of ancient saints. The whole of 11:1–40 may be divided as follows:

  1. Overture (11:1–3)
  2. Movement 1: First Examples of Faith (11:4–12)
  3. Interlude: A Faith of Pilgrims (11:13–16)
  4. Movement 2: More Examples of Faith (11:17–31)
  5. Crescendo and Conclusion (11:32–40)

In this passage the author challenges his hearers to live lives of faith according to the pattern seen in those who by faith were faithful to God in their earthly pilgrimages.

Two literary devices give form to the writer’s challenge in Hebrews 11. (1) He uses the phrase “by faith” (pistei) repeatedly, reiterating the phrase over and over again, driving it into the hearers’ consciences like a poignant, monotonous melody. Through this literary tool the author focuses attention on the centrality of a life of faith for the people of God.

(2) The author follows the form of an “example list,” a rhetorical tool used by ancient authors to challenge hearers to action.¹ This device worked by impressing the audience with the extensive evidence that the desired course of action is indeed the best one to take. In the case of Hebrews 11 the author, through his list of biblical examples, provides strong support for his contention that God’s people must be people of faith—even in the face of disheartening difficulties. The general pattern followed with each example throughout chapter 11 is as follows:

  1. The word pistei (“by faith”)
  2. the name of the person who by his or her own faith or the faith of another is being used as an example
  3. the action or event by which faith is expressed
  4. the positive outcome

Sometimes the positive outcome is omitted, as in each of the examples at 11:20–22; at other times the author includes a concession (e.g., “even though” at 11:11) or a rationale for the act of faith (e.g., 11:10, 19, 23, 26).

The definition of faith: Overture (Hebrews 11:1–3)

The writer of Hebrews begins chapter 11 with a two-part definition of faith: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The word hypostasis, translated by the NIV as a participle (“being sure”), is in fact a noun, which was used variously to communicate the idea of substance, firmness, confidence, a collection of documents establishing ownership, a guarantee, or a proof.²

It probably should be understood in 11:1, as in 3:14, in the sense of a “firm, solid confidence”³ or a “calm courage” with reference to things hoped for. Thus, we can translate this part of the verse: “Now faith is the resolute confidence. . . .”⁴ The examples that follow demonstrate a posture of firm confidence in the promises of God even though the believers had not yet received the fulfillment of those promises (11:39). This interpretation stands in parallel with the assertion in the second half of the verse: “and certain of what we do not see.”⁵ The word elenchos, used here, means a conviction [that] is not a static emotion of complacency but something lively and active, not just a state of immovable dogmatism but of a vital certainty which impels the believer to stretch out his hand, as it were, and lay hold of those realities on which his hope is fixed and which, though unseen, are already his in Christ.⁶

Some realities are unseen because they belong to the spiritual realm and some because they lie in the future, when that realm will break into the earthly sphere.₇ In either case, the person of faith lives out a bold confidence in God’s greater realities.

It was by a life lived in this bold confidence, this firm assurance in what was not immediately observable, that the Old Testament saints “were commended” by God (v.2). In other words, not only did they bear witness to God, he bore witness to them, affirming their lives of faith.

This principle of faith grasping the reality of the invisible may be seen in the believer’s confession that God created the world (v. 3). The author states what would have been a foundational point of theology for his community, namely, that God brought the visible, created order into being by his word and out of nothing. The author of Hebrews probably has in mind the creation song of Genesis 1, in which the creative word of God called forth the various aspects of creation. ⁸ Faith is what looks at that created order and has a firm and resolute confidence in the God to whom it bears witness, who, though unseen, has provided a foundation for such a confidence through his mighty acts.

First examples of faith: Movement 1 (Hebrews 11:4–12)

The writer now follows, in sequence, great examples of faithfulness from Genesis, beginning with Abel and progressing to an initial discussion of Abraham’s faith. In each example the emphasis lies both on an act accomplished by faith and the right spiritual posture of the exemplar.

By faith Abel presented God with a sacrifice superior to that of Cain (v. 4). The account of this action in Genesis 4:4 does not provide us with details as to why Abel’s offering was pleasing to God and Cain’s was not, but we are given hints. Abel’s sacrifice consisted of “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock,” which may speak to his giving the best of what he had.

Notice that the Genesis text reports “the LORD looked in favor on Abel and his offering,” while he rejected Cain and his offering. Cain had not done what was right (4:7), revealing that he himself was not right spiritually. His brother Abel, by contrast, was “a righteous man” (according to Heb. 11:4), the author tying Abel’s example back to the Old Testament quotation found

in 10:37–38, which states, “But my righteous one will live by faith.” Consequently, he was “commended” by God⁹ and still today “speaks” even though he has been dead for a long time. His attitude and action were such that his example of faithfulness continues among people of faith.¹⁰ Thus Hebrews emphasizes this vital link between internal attitudes and external actions.

The emphasis in the Enoch example (11:5–6) rests even more squarely on the importance of one’s spiritual posture. This faithful believer, according to Hebrews’ interpretation of the Old Testament text, was taken out of this world by God without experiencing death (Gen. 5:24). Why? Because in his life he was “commended as one who pleased God”; that is, he brought God pleasure. This observation reflects a conviction inherent to the Genesis text, which tells us that Enoch “walked with God.” Most significantly, however, the author still has in mind the quotation of Habakkuk 2:3–4 (Heb. 10:37–38), which speaks of God’s lack of pleasure toward one who shrinks back from commitment. By contrast, Enoch was resolute in his commitment, thus bringing God pleasure.

Although the Old Testament text does not mention Enoch’s faith, our author can assume that he exemplifies such a stance towards God, based on that Habakkuk quote. “Without faith,” he goes on to tell us in 11:6, “it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” In other words, the life of faith may be said to have at least three components.

  1. It involves a life of coming to God and seeking him earnestly. This point is in keeping with the author’s challenge to approach or draw near to God (4:16; 10:22). Thus God’s people are called to live lives of radical openness to and in conversation with God.
  2. This life of faith involves believing that God exists. It is absurd to think that a person can sincerely come to God in prayer without a firm confidence in his existence. A foundational belief in God supports further acts of faith in which the believer comes to God for help.
  3. This life of faith involves confidence that God will reward those who exercise such faith. The acts of persons expressing confidence in the living God do not go unnoticed or unrewarded. God, by his nature and in accordance with his promises, rewards those who act in faith toward him.

Rounding off his account of exemplars prior to Abraham, the author introduces Noah (Gen. 6:1–9:17), the first to act in faith based on a message from God. Noah acted on the divine warning in regard to a flood that was not yet seen and did so “in holy fear” (a form of the verb eulabeomai, meaning that he paid close and reverent attention to God’s instruction).

Accordingly, Noah built an ark to save his family and, correspondingly, condemned the world. His building of the ark both bore witness to the unseen God and his Word and constituted a stark, prophetic rebuke to that godless generation.¹¹ Their unbelief stands in bold relief to Noah’s faith stance toward God. As one who lived by faith, or confident boldness, with regard to God’s Word, he became an heir of righteousness.

The author now moves to an extensive treatment of the greatest example of faith in the Old Testament, Abraham the patriarch. Verses 8–12 focus on two foundational events from the great exemplar’s life as evidencing his faith.

(1) Abraham obediently followed God’s call to move to a place with which he was unfamiliar (see Gen. 12:1–9). Abram’s father, Terah, originally had taken his son Abram and his family from Ur of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran, intending to go to Canaan (Gen. 11:31). In Haran Abram received the word of the Lord (12:1–3):

Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

Abraham demonstrates his faith by obeying God, even though he was completely unfamiliar with the land to which he was going. This thought continues the motif that faith consists of acting with reference to the unseen. It is important to note that the promise that his descendants would inherit the land did not come until Abraham was already in Canaan, and the promise would not be realized by Abraham himself but by his offspring. Thus, he did not go to the land to possess it but to live out an act of obedience to God.

Also, his mode of living in Canaan—dwelling in tents—served as a symbol of his commitment not to settle into the earthly cities of the Canaanites, but to seek a more permanent city built by God.

(2) Abraham was enabled to become a father because he believed God (see Gen. 18:10–15; 21:1–7).¹² Faith, moving beyond the normal boundaries of possibility, works miracles. Abraham, an old man, and Sarah, his wife, well past the age of being able to conceive, became parents, trusting in the faithfulness of God. Again the emphasis here challenges the hearers to take their eyes off of the obvious—in this case the inability of old people to become pregnant—and to focus on the faithful God of integrity, who keeps his promises.

In verse 11 the writer alludes to Genesis 15:6: “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” The happy result, in accordance with the promise of God (Gen. 15:5), is recorded in Hebrews 11:12: “And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” Out of nothing comes a multitude too numerous to count.

The implications of faith: Interlude (Hebrews 11:13–16)

The author now pauses in his person-by-person account of the faithful to tease out certain implications he wishes his hearers to recognize. The interlude is both didactic (the principles here are highly instructional for their current crisis) and rhetorical (the author, ever the skilled orator, interrupts his rapid-fire list to heighten his audience’s attention).

The “all these” of 11:13 almost certainly refers to Abraham and his family and does not include Abel, Enoch, and Noah, since the travel motif found in verses 13–16 fits best the patriarch and his company. Enoch for sure cannot be included since the author has already noted that he did not see death (11:5), which means he was not among those “living by faith when they died.” Rather, the focus continues on Abraham, his wife, and his son Isaac.

That “they did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance” alludes to the content of God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:2–3; 15:5; 17:1–8. The possession of the land, the multitude of descendants (including those who would be kings), and the blessing of the nations all would be fulfilled in a time after Abraham and his immediate family passed from the scene.

Yet to what does the author refer when he says, “And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth”? In the Old Testament narratives the patriarchs and their descendants refer to themselves as “aliens and strangers” in the land (e.g., 1 Chron. 29:15; cf. Gen. 23:4; Ps. 39:12).

Both in Jewish theology during the New Testament era and in the New Testament itself, this concept developed to emphasize the disparaging of earthly desires and the longing for a heavenly home.¹³

For example 1 Peter 2:11 reads, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.” In Hebrews 11:13–16 the author likewise wishes to emphasize that the patriarchs’ faith relationship to God was their preeminent commitment, not the obtaining of an earthly, secure place of residence. They died in a state of trust, never having seen their descendants’ reception of the land. Thus, the true object of their deepest desire was God himself and God’s city. Consequently, “God is not ashamed to be called their God.”

The message to the original hearers must not be missed, for their circumstance must be seen as analogous to that of the patriarchs. Perhaps their current experience of persecution has highlighted the alien nature of their earthly existence. They cannot perceive the fulfillment of God’s promises to them; all they can see is the difficulty of their present crisis. The writer’s point is that this is normal for people of faith. The promises of God must be embraced even though their fulfillment lies in the future. Life must be lived in our challenging, terrestrial cities in light of a better, heavenly country that will be experienced in the future. God is not ashamed of identifying with those who live in this way.

More examples of faith: Movement 2 (Hebrews 11:17–31)

Hebrews 11:17–19 continues the author’s exposition on Abraham, offering a third major event exemplifying this father’s faith. Abraham, in a test by God, “offered Isaac as a sacrifice.”

As an interpreter of Old Testament material in the tradition of the rabbis, the author of Hebrews draws out implications of Genesis 22:1–8, a brief narrative that had come to carry great significance in Jewish interpretation by the time of our book’s writing.¹⁴ This is the example par excellence of a magnanimous act of faith, born as it was of an excruciating decision placed before the patriarch by God.

The crux of Abraham’s crisis is the seeming contradiction between the promises of God, which were to be fulfilled through his heir, Isaac (Heb. 11:18), and the command of God to sacrifice that heir (11:17). Thus Abraham was forced into a radical posture of trusting God. Our author’s logical deduction is that “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead” (11:19)—the only way that both the promises and the command could be fulfilled.

The author of Hebrews moves rapid-fire through the next three generations in his example list, using his formulaic pattern cited above (11:20–22). By faith Isaac offered a blessing to Jacob and Esau (Gen. 27:27–40). By faith Jacob continued the pattern, blessing the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh (48:8–22). By faith Joseph himself spoke about the exodus from Egypt and provided instructions as to what should be done with his bones (50:24–25). In each of these events death confronted the person of faith, who spoke of things that were as yet unseen.

Moses has been presented already as a stellar example of faithfulness in 3:1–6. In that passage the author uses the lawgiver as a picture of “servant faithfulness,” who fulfilled his duty to God as leader of the Israelites. The author focused on the greatness of Moses to highlight the even greater status of Jesus as God’s faithful Son. Moses was specially venerated by Greek-speaking Jews of the first century as one who was unusually close to God. In certain expressions of Jewish tradition he was considered to be the greatest person in history.¹⁵ Therefore, it is not surprising that in his example list (11:23–28) the writer gives sustained attention to Moses.

The author’s treatment of Moses actually begins with the faith expressed by Moses’ parents (the emphasis in the Hebrew text is on Moses’ mother) when he was a baby: “By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.” This synopsis recounts the narrative of Exodus 2:1–4.

Two points of the retelling are significant:

  1. In describing the child Moses, the author of Hebrews follows the LXX in using the word asteion, a word meaning “beautiful, attractive.” The only other New Testament text to use the word is Acts 7:20, where we are told that Moses was “beautiful before God.” This probably communicates a superior quality about the child. Thus, the NIV translates Hebrews 11:23 with the phrase “no ordinary child.” The writer, therefore, depicts the parents as having spiritual insight into his significance.¹⁶
  2. As a result of this insight they directly disregarded the king’s command to drown the boy in the Nile (Ex. 1:22). The author of Hebrews states that “they were not afraid of the king’s edict,” deducing this fact from their action of hiding the child. This lack of fear does not speak to the parents’ not having the negative emotions we generally associate with fear, but rather suggests a firm boldness in which they refused to shrink before the hostility of Pharaoh.

Moses himself also exhibited such boldness, and the writer to the Hebrews points out three events from the lawgiver’s life that illustrate his faith.

(1) Moses chose to identify with God’s people rather than with the godless (11:24–26). The author already has made much of the virtue of standing with those under duress because of their commitment to God (e.g., 10:32–34). Moses chose his biological family over his adoptive family at great personal cost: loss of wealth, relinquishment of status, and intense mistreatment. The author explains that he “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt.” The NIV’s “disgrace for the sake of Christ” (lit., “disgrace of Christ”) renders the genitive tou Christou in terms of the “benefit” or “advantage” for Christ. Yet, the sense of this phrase may be understood more accurately as “the disgrace experienced by Christ.” P. E. Hughes comments:

[This disgrace] was not simply the reproach accepted by identifying himself with the people of God but, more precisely, the reproach of the coming Messiah with whom he was united by faith. Hence (as Stephen reminded his accusers) his assurance to the Israelites: “God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up” (Acts 7:37); and hence, also, the rebuke of Jesus Christ to his adversaries: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:46).¹⁷

Thus Moses experienced the same kind of reproach experienced later by Christ—rejection faced by a prophet standing on the side of God, proclaiming the word of the Lord in boldness against an ungodly generation.

(2) By faith Moses left Egypt and persevered in the mission given him by God (11:27). This verse seems to discount Exodus 2:14, which says that Moses was afraid concerning the consequences of his act of killing the Egyptian. But the author of Hebrews wishes to emphasize the boldness of Moses’ actions rather than his negative emotion of dread. He made a decision to leave Egypt, and that step the writer understands as a step of faith. In line with his larger emphasis on endurance (e.g., 10:32, 36; 12:1–3, 7), the author notes that Moses persevered because he paid attention to the unseen God rather than to a visible king.

(3) By faith Moses led the Israelites in the observance of the Passover ordinance (11:28). The mention of “the sprinkling of blood” calls to mind the author’s earlier references to Christ’s sacrifice as paralleling the old covenant sacrificial rituals (9:12–14, 18–22). Here, however, he specifically has in mind the smearing of blood on the Israelites’ door posts to avoid the death angel’s work. This act was an act of faith since Moses led the Israelites in obedience to God’s command with regard to an as-yet-unseen event.

The author rounds out his primary example list with three other events from the life of God’s covenant people. In 11:29 he mentions briefly the crossing of the Red Sea (see Ex. 13:17–14:31). The confession that they passed through the body of water “by faith” does much to illustrate the emphasis the author puts on acts of obedience carried out in light of God’s command. This group of people, according to the Old Testament narrative, in general was marked by timidity, complaining, and a lack of trust in God or his deliverance, as the author already has detailed in Hebrews 3:7–19. However, when God told them to “move on” (Ex. 14:15) they did so, and this constituted an act exemplifying faith.¹⁸

In obedience to another seemingly illogical command, the Israelites, under the command of Joshua, marched around the city of Jericho for seven days. Their obedience was rewarded with the walls falling down (11:30).

Finally, Rahab, in accordance with God’s will, helped the spies who had come to investigate the land (Josh. 2:1–15). Her faith is expressed in her confession of 2:9 (“I know the LORD has given this land to you”) and was rewarded with deliverance from death.

Crescendo and conclusion (Hebrews 11:32–40)

The author realizes that time constraints do not permit him to continue a detailed account of old covenant men and women of faith.¹⁹ So, with the rhetorical “and what more shall I say?” he turns a corner, finishing the section with what one commentator calls a “sledge-hammer style”²⁰ summary of Old Testament and, perhaps, intertestamental acts of faith.

The writer begins his summary with six figures spanning the era of the judges through the united monarchy, and to these adds the expansive “the prophets.” Many commentators note that the six names are not listed in chronological order, since the author, rather, intends to provide random examples of valor in the face of great challenges.²¹ Presumably he hoped to prompt his audience to think of memorable events behind these names. The list of mighty deeds that follows would call to mind a whole host of those who lived faithfully before God in a hostile world. This is the intention of an example list—to provide a sample of people and events that point to a much larger body of data that can be brought to bear on a given subject—and the author brings his list to a crescendo with enviable skill.

Gideon, of course, serves as a powerful example of faith, since he and his three hundred select men routed the massive Midianite army with torches and empty jars (Judg. 7:7–25). Barak, a military leader who served under Deborah, led Israel in a defeat of Sisera and the Canaanites (4:8–16). Samson, in spite of his vices, served as a great champion of the Israelites during a period of Philistine oppression (13:1–16:31), and Jephthah, in spite of his foolish, horrific vow, led in the defeat of the Amorites and Ammonites (10:6–12:7). Samuel serves as somewhat a bridge-figure between the time of the judges and the united monarchy,²² with his great commitment and sensitivity to God’s laying the foundation for the monarchy’s golden years.

David (the only king named), although having his own faults and grievous sins, lived a life of devotion to God, performing outstanding acts for God. Finally, the author of Hebrews mentions “the prophets,” presenting a host of stellar figures who, by their words and deeds, lived for the unseen God in mostly hostile circumstances.

The passage now turns from the great “performers” of faith to their actions (11:33–38). They “through faith conquered kingdoms,” especially calling to mind the period of the judges through the reign of King David. That they “administered justice” speaks of governmental administration and is an extension of their conquering. As God’s servants they carried out his justice and righteousness to the people under their rule (e.g., 2 Sam. 8:15; 1 Kings 10:9).

These saints of old “gained what was promised,” an affirmation that can be interpreted as their reception of the promises themselves or as their reception of the fulfillment of those promises. From the context it would seem that the emphasis lies on God’s giving them promises, some of which were not fulfilled in the receptor’s lifetime (cf. 11:39).²³ Nevertheless, the covenant promises to Abraham’s children, such as the Promised Land and the promise of God’s abiding presence with his people, are certainly in view. The author’s twin points are that the promise-making God is faithful to his oaths, and that people of faith live in light of God’s promises. With this confession the author echoes his earlier treatment of God’s oaths in 6:13–20.

These great heroes of the faith, moreover, “shut the mouths of lions,” an obvious reference to that great exemplar Daniel, of whom it was written, “no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God” (Dan. 6:23). Daniel’s associates, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were cast into the furnace because of their stubborn refusal to serve false gods, “quenched the fury of the flames” (3:16–30). Several prophets, including Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah, “escaped the edge of the sword.”

There were many others “whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.” One thinks, for example, of the boy David facing Goliath, or of Gideon, a most unimpressive figure of his day; nevertheless, God used both as instruments of power and victory. The author may also have in mind the Maccabees, who, during our author’s time, were considered among the greatest of military heroes of history. Even death could not stop the work of God on behalf of his people, for women such as the poor widow of Zarephath and the woman of Shunem received their sons back from the dead by the hands of Elijah and Elisha respectively (1 Kings 17:17–24; 2 Kings 4:17–37).

In the middle of verse 35 the writer to the Hebrews shifts gears from more positive outcomes encountered by faith to faith expressed in the face of great hardship. Although some experienced resurrection, others expressed faith by embracing torture and death, refusing deliverance in light of a greater reward beyond the grave. F. F. Bruce, for example, points to the account of Eleazar of the Maccabean period, who chose death over disloyalty to God (2 Macc. 6:19, 28). He also refers to the story of a mother and her seven sons who spoke eloquently of the afterlife even while being tortured to death (2 Macc. 7:1–41; 4 Macc. 8:1–17:24).²⁴ It could have been said of many throughout the era of the prophets, the intertestamental period, and even the New Testament era that they “faced jeers and flogging while still others were chained and put in prison.” The author has already stated these uncomfortable circumstances had occurred among those in the community to which he is writing (Heb. 10:32–34).

Still others “were stoned” (e.g., Jeremiah, according to tradition), “sawed in two” (the fate of Isaiah, according to tradition), or “put to death by the sword.” When the author speaks of those who wore “sheepskins and goatskins,” who were “destitute, persecuted and mistreated,” wandering “in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground” (11:37–38), he may be referring to prophets such as Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel, as suggested by Clement of Rome (1 Clement 17:1). But these words also describe the Jews persecuted under Antiochus IV Epiphanes during the Maccabean revolt.²⁵ By its rejection of such great figures of faith, the world condemned itself as unworthy of those who live for an eternal reward (11:38).

The author concludes his example list with a fitting epilogue (11:39–40), contrasting these great exemplars of faith, who were commended by God, with the new covenant community. The wording of verse 39 echoes that of 11:2, forming an inclusio that marks the beginning and ending of the passage.

When the author notes that the great heroes of faith “were commended by God,” he means that God himself had born witness to their faithfulness. They had faced a plethora of trials, tortures, and tests and, therefore, paralleled the challenging experiences of the recipients of this book, who, however, had yet to experience martyrdom (12:4). Moreover, by living out faith in the unseen God these men and women of history had established themselves as appropriate examples for the hearers, who were now being faced with choosing the path of faith or the alternative, the path of faithlessness.

The author’s main point through his example list is that faith is the only right path for God’s people. The heroes of faith demonstrate a resolute determination to live faithfully even though “none of them received what was promised.” True, the author has mentioned that some indeed did receive certain promises (11:11, 33), but his point here is that they did not receive “the definitive fulfillment of God’s promise,” that is, the eternal inheritance known through the new covenant established by Christ.²⁶

When the author says that “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (v. 40), he means that historically these people of old did not experience the coming of Messiah and the new covenant. Yet now they are made “perfect,” seeing that the great community of faith that had lived for God throughout history has been “brought to fulfillment” or “to a desired goal.” Their faith in God has been vindicated since God has broken into the world in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. With us they now know the perfecting power of Christ’s sacrifice and the eternal inheritance of the saints.

Learn more about the book of Hebrews in George H. Guthrie's Hebrew video course on MasterLectures.

  1. Michael R. Cosby, “The Rhetorical Composition of Hebrews 11,” JBL 107 (1988): 250–70.
  2. Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, 3:421.
  3. See Lenski, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 373.
  4. Some have suggested the alternate translation “title deed” or “guarantee,” but F. F. Bruce is correct to express caution in the face of a lack of contextual evidence (Epistle to the Hebrews, 277).
  5. The verse does not contain a conjunction “and” (kai), perhaps lending support to the interpretation that the first and second halves of the verse are parallel thoughts.
  6. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 440–41.
  7. Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 277, fn. 11.
  8. Ibid., 279.
  9. In biblical literature God is the witness par excellence since he has the ability to look at a person’s heart (Jer. 42:5). His testimony is certain (Ps. 19:8) and greater than that of people (1 John 5:9). See Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, 2:447.
  10. Attridge, Epistle to the Hebrews, 317. Attridge points to a quote from Philo, Quod deterius potiori insidiari soleat, 48: “[Abel] is alive with the happy life in God. To this the declaration of Scripture shall be our witness, where Abel is found quite manifestly using his ‘voice’ and ‘crying out’ the wrongs which he has suffered.”
  11. Lane, Hebrews 9–13, 339–40.
  12. For a discussion as to whether Sarah should be understood grammatically as the subject of v. 11 see Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 471–76.
  13. Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 594.
  14. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 333–34.
  15. Mary Rose D’Angelo, Moses in the Letter to the Hebrews, SBLDS 4 (Missoula: Scholars, 1979), 91–131.
  16. Hagner, Hebrews, 202.
  17. Hughes, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 496–97.
  18. Lane, Hebrews 9–13, 377–78.
  19. The phrase translated “I do not have time to tell,” found widely in both classical oratory and Philo, is highly stylistic. See Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 320. The author of Hebrews does, in fact, go on to tell of those he has in mind but in a much more succinct fashion than his treatment thus far. I once heard a gifted preacher use this device. He proclaimed, “I don’t have time to tell you about . . . ,” then proceeded to give the audience a stirring account of all that he did not have time to preach on! The homiletical device was quite effective.
  20. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle of Hebrews and of the Epistle of James, 415, citing A. T. Robertson.
  21. E.g., Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 623; Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 506. Samuel may be listed last of those named to place him in conjunction with “the prophets.”
  22. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 507.
  23. Yet see, e.g., Josh. 21:43–45, which emphasizes the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people.
  24. Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews, 325–26.
  25. Ibid., 329.
  26. Lane, Hebrews 9–13, 392
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