Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
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Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2 Biblical Commentary
Hebrews 11 is the great faith chapter of the Bible, first defining faith (v. 1) and then using well-known Hebrew people to show faith in action. These people heard God’s promises and believed them in spite of waiting a very long time to see the promises fulfilled—some promises never having been fulfilled in their lifetime. For instance, Abraham didn’t live long enough to see the nation that sprang from his seed.
The chapter defines faith as the assurance (hupostasis—reality) of things hoped for and the proof (elegchos—proof or certainty) of things not seen.
Then the author relates the faith journey of a number of the Old Testament greats: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses.
Our reading continues the list: The people of Israel at the Red Sea, Rahab the harlot, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel and the prophets.
HEBREWS 11:29-31. BY FAITH
11:29 By faith, they passed through the Red Sea as on dry land. When the Egyptians tried to do so, they were swallowed up. 30 By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith, Rahab the prostitute, didn’t perish with those who were disobedient, having received the spies in peace.
“By faith, (the people of Israel) passed through the Red Sea as on dry land. When the Egyptians tried to do so, they were swallowed up” (v. 29). This is the story of the Exodus, shortly after the Israelites had left Egypt. They were making good progress, but Pharaoh, who had let them go to escape further plagues, changed his mind and had his armies and chariots pursue them.
Then the Israelites came to the Red Sea. With the sea at their front and the Egyptian armies at their back, they were trapped. The Israelites complained to Moses, saying, “Isn’t this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12). Moses tried to reassure them, saying that God would fight for them.
Then God told Moses to lift up his rod, stretch it out, and divide the sea. He did so, and the Israelites escaped on dry land in the midst of the waters. The Egyptians tried to follow, but God told Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea to collapse it over the Egyptians.
“Thus Yahweh saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work which Yahweh did to the Egyptians, and the people feared Yahweh; and they believed in Yahweh, and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:30-31).
See Exodus 14 for the complete account of these events.
“By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encircled for seven days” (v. 30). See Joshua 6 for an account of this battle.
“By faith, Rahab the prostitute, didn’t perish with those who were disobedient, having received the spies in peace” (v. 31). See Joshua 2:1-24; 6:17-25 for the account of Rahab’s story.
Rahab is mentioned three times in the New Testament.
• In Matthew 1:5, she is listed in Jesus’ genealogy—although we can’t be certain that the Rahab listed in that genealogy is the same Rahab as the one listed in Joshua 2.
• In Hebrews 11 (our text), Rahab is listed as one of the heroes of the faith.
• James 2:25 says, “Rahab the prostitute (was) also justified by works, in that she received the messengers, and sent them out another way.”
HEBREWS 11:32-38. A LITANY OF FAITH AND SUFFERING
32 What more shall I say? For the time would fail me if I told of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets; 33 who, through faith subdued kingdoms, worked out righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, grew mighty in war, and caused foreign armies to flee. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated 38 (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth.
“What more shall I say? For the time would fail me if I told of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets” (v. 32).
• The story of GIDEON is found in Judges 6-8. Called by God to rid Israel of the Midianites, Gideon first tore down his father’s altar to Baal, and then led an army of 32,000 against the Midianites. Before the battle, God ordered Gideon to winnow down his army of thousands to 300 men. Following God’s instructions, Gideon and his small band of soldiers soundly defeated the much larger Midianite army.
• The story of BARAK is found in Judges 4-5. The prophet Deborah called Barak to lead 10,000 Israelite soldiers against Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army. She promised that God would deliver Sisera and his army into Barak’s hand. Barak agreed to go, provided that Deborah would accompany him into battle, which she did. God gave Barak the victory over Sisera’s army, but Sisera fled. Jael invited Sisera into her tent, fed him, and encouraged him to sleep. When he did so, she used a hammer to drive a tent peg through his temple. The book of Hebrews lists Barak as one of Israel’s heroes, but it would be easy to make the case that Deborah and Jael were the real heroes.
• The story of SAMSON is found in Judges 13-16. Samson was an exceedingly strong and brave man, but his entanglement with two women proved his downfall. The first woman was his Philistine wife, who betrayed his confidence to her countrymen, leading to violence. The second woman was Delilah, who also betrayed Samson’s confidence, which led to his being blinded and imprisoned by the Philistines. The story ends with Samson taking vengeance by pulling down a temple, killing both himself and the Philistine crowd.
• The story of JEPHTHAH is found in Judges 10-12. God had punished Israel for her repeated sins, but finally relented. Born of a prostitute mother, Jephthah was driven from home by his father’s wife. However, he was known as a warrior, so when Gilead was in danger from the Ammonites, the elders called on him for help. Jephthah tried to negotiate a peace settlement with the king of Ammon, but the king refused. After seeking God’s help, Jephthah won a victory against the Ammonite army. However, Jephthah had made a vow to God that he would sacrifice whoever came to greet him from the door of his house, and his only child, his beloved daughter, came to celebrate his homecoming. His daughter, learning of his vow, asked only for time to mourn her virginity before he carried out his vow. He allowed her time. After two months, she returned and he “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed.”
• DAVID, of course, was Israel’s second and greatest king. We find his story in 1 Samuel 16 through 1 Kings 2. The prophet Samuel anointed him to be King Saul’s successor. Although only a boy—probably a teenager—David slew the giant Goliath. After Saul’s death, David reigned over Judah for seven and a half years. Then the other tribes of Israel prevailed on him to serve as their king, and he did so for thirty-three years. His adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband, Uriah, constituted a truly ugly stain on his reign, but God allowed him to continue as king until his death of old age.
• SAMUEL was a great prophet whose story is told in the book of 1 Samuel. His mother, Hannah, had prayed for a son, and had vowed to dedicate him to Godly service as a Nazarite. After Samuel was weaned, she took him to Eli, the priest, to serve the Lord. While God punished the priest Eli for his failures, he blessed Samuel. When the people asked for a king, Samuel tried without success to dissuade them. The Lord told Samuel to appoint a king, and chose Saul as Israel’s first king. Later, God used Samuel to anoint David as Israel’s second king. Samuel spent his life serving as God’s prophet.
• God chose THE PROPHETS to serve as his messengers and to lead the people faithfully. In many cases, that involved giving people a glimpse of the future, but the foretelling was only in support of the larger prophetic message.
Prophets delivered their message in various forms. Often, they delivered it orally. Some acted out their prophecy in dramatic ways (Hosea, for instance). Many recorded their messages in written form. The seventeen books from Isaiah through Malachi are books of prophecy, but there are written accounts of prophecy in other books as well.
While most Biblical prophecy took place in the Old Testament, the New Testament also includes accounts of prophecy (Acts 11:27-28; 13:1; 15:32).
“who, through faith subdued kingdoms, worked out righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions” (v. 33). This verse and the next provide us with a brief summary of the work of the prophets. The key to understanding their accomplishments is found in the words, “through faith.” Prophets served as God’s agents, and achieved many things by God’s power. They led Israel to victories over kingdoms. They called Israel to righteousness. They obtained promises for God’s blessings for Israel.
“Stopped the mouths of lions” alludes to Daniel, who was thrown into a den of lions, but the king found him unharmed the next morning. Daniel explained that God had delivered him, because God found him blameless. You will find that story in Daniel 6.
“quenched the power of fire” (v. 34a). Daniel 3 tells the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who “quenched the power of fire.” When they refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, Nebuchadnezzar had them thrown into a fiery furnace—but by the grace of God they survived without injury.
“escaped the edge of the sword” (v. 34b). God saved Elijah from Jezebel and Jeremiah from Jehoiakim, but some prophets paid with their lives for challenging powerful people.
“from weakness were made strong” (v. 34c). God often seems to prefer weakness to strength, because when a boy like David slays a giant like Goliath, no one can attribute his victory to anything but God’s deliverance.
“grew mighty in war, and caused foreign armies to flee” (v. 34d). Gideon, David, and others serve as examples of great military prowess. The point of their stories, however, is not their prowess, but the fact that God made their victories possible.
“Women received their dead by resurrection” (v. 35a). Elijah restored the life of the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17). Elisha restored the life of the son of a woman of Shunem (2 Kings 4:8 ff.). Jesus restored the life of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21 ff.).
“Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection” (v. 35b).
• His enemies forced open the mouth of the scribe Eleazar and forced the flesh of swine between his teeth, but Eleazar willingly went to the rack to be tortured and killed rather than to cooperate (2 Maccabees 6:18 ff.).
• Stephen, a man full of faith, suffered death by stoning for his proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 6:8 ff.).
• The apostle Paul suffered a host of injuries for his proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 9:16, 28; 13:50; 14:4, 19; 16:22; 21:30; 22:22; 23:1-10; 1 Corinthians 4:9-13; 11:16-28; 2 Timothy 2:9; 3:10).
“Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment” (v. 36). This was common in the early centuries of the church, and is still common in many parts of the world. Millions of Christians are living under persecution today, especially in Muslim or Communist countries—and many are being killed.
Note the similarity between what is described here and what Jesus experienced just prior to his crucifixion.
“They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated” (v. 37).
• Stoning was a form of capital punishment using large stones to crush the victim. The prophet Zechariah was stoned (2 Chronicles 24:21).
• The apocryphal work, Ascension of Isaiah, says that the prophet Isaiah was sawn in two.
• 1 Kings 19:10 tells of prophets being killed by the sword. The prophet Uriah was killed by the sword (Jeremiah 26:23).
• Prophets were often “destitute, afflicted, (and) ill-treated,” because they spoke against power (Nehemiah 9:26).
• Jesus accused the scribes of building the tombs of prophets and approving of their executions (Luke 11:45-52).
Jesus lamented Jerusalem’s role is persecuting prophets, saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, like a hen gathers her own brood under her wings, and you refused! Behold, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'” (Luke 13:34-35).
“(of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth” (v. 38). The world was not worthy of these prophets, who suffered terribly for their faith. The same could be said today of the millions of Christians being persecuted and killed for their faith in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, China, Russia, and a host of other nations.
We should not imagine that the Lord will always prosper people of faith. Historically that has often not been the case, and it is often not the case today. The problem is that people of faith often find themselves challenging entrenched power, and power seldom takes such challenges lying down.
HEBREWS 11:39-40. THEY DIDN’T RECEIVE THE PROMISE
39 These all, having had testimony given to them through their faith, didn’t receive the promise, 40 God having provided some better thing concerning us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
“These all, having had testimony (Greek: martureo) given to them through their faith, didn’t receive the promise” (v. 39). Martureo is one of several similar Greek words from which we get our word martyr. Martureo actually means witness or to bear witness, but those who bear witness to Christ often pay a high price for their faithfulness—sometimes even martyrdom.
In this context, commendation might be a better translation for martureo. God has borne witness to the commendable faith of these ancient men of faith, and has given them the stamp of his approval.
But while God approved of these faithful people and commended them for their faith, he didn’t always permit them to receive the promise during their lives on earth. God has reserved the fulfillment of the promise for the world to come.
“God having provided some better thing concerning us” (v. 40a). Now that Christ has come, we can see more clearly what God wants of us—and we enjoy a kind of grace beyond anything found previously.
“so that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Greek: teleioo) (v. 40). This emphasizes the unity of the people of God (Israel) and the people of God (the church). “They” (the people of God in the Old Testament) and “us” (the people of God in the church) will not find ultimate fulfillment—apart from each other.
HEBREWS 12:1-2. SURROUNDED BY WITNESSES
12:1 Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
“Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Greek martys) (12:1). Having recounted the names and deeds of the heroes of the faith, the author pictures them as surrounding his readers—serving as models to emulate—sitting in the heavenly bleachers and cheering for the current faith generation. Their faith stories are inspirational, and help people struggling with problems to remain faithful.
But in what sense are they witnesses? A witness (martys) is someone who has seen or experienced something and is therefore qualified to testify to it. These witnesses—these heroes of the faith—have experienced God’s faithfulness, and are qualified to bear witness to it. Many of them lived on earth without receiving the promise, but they have now realized that fulfillment in the heavenly realm.
“lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (12:1). Runners know that they must shed every ounce of weight possible if they are to remain competitive. The author uses that as a metaphor for the spiritual race in which believers are engaged.
We must “lay aside every weight.” What does that mean for a spiritual race? There are many possibilities.
• We need to lay aside worry and fear, which can weigh heavily on us and prevent us from living a victorious faith life. God calls us to faith, not fear.
• We must lay aside anger and hatred, which have the potential to eat away at our spiritual innards—and to provoke us into actions that will harm others and ruin our witness to Christ.
• We need to lay aside the win/lose kind of competitiveness that grasps as much as possible for self with no thought for the person on the other side of the transaction.
• Consider other possibilities. There are many.
We must “lay aside…the sin which so easily entangles us.” We have all sinned and experienced sin’s entanglements. While we can’t expect to become sinless in this life, we can help ourselves and others by being alert to temptation and avoiding sin wherever possible.
“looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter (Greek: teliotes) of faith” (12:2a). The word teliotes means one who completes something or finishes it—someone who reaches the goal. With regard to faith, Jesus is the beginning (the author) and the end (the perfecter or finisher). Elsewhere Jesus says that he is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and omega is the last letter) (Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13).
As noted above, there have been many heroes of the faith. The list in Hebrews hardly scratches the surface. But Jesus is the only one whose faith was perfect—complete. He is the ultimate model of faith.
“who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame” (12:2b). In perfect faith, Jesus willingly endured the cross, despising its shame. Dying on a cross was as shameful a punishment as ever devised. It was reserved for serious criminals and inflicted terrible pain. The person being crucified was stripped naked or almost so. The cross was intended to deter crime, so the Romans made it a public display.
“and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2c). Sitting at the right hand of God was Jesus’ reward for the completion of his mission, which was bringing salvation to the world.
The right hand was the place of honor. For most men, the right hand is the dominant hand—the strong hand—the hand that wields a sword—the fighting hand. As a result, the right hand was a symbol of power and authority (Exodus 15:6, 12; Nehemiah 4:23; Psalm 18:35; 20:6; 21:8). Kings wore the ring signifying their authority on their right hand. Fathers conferred their blessing on their firstborn son by their right hand.
Sitting at the right hand as a mark of honor is still practiced today. In military staff meetings, the commander sits at the head of the table with his second in command at his right hand and his Sergeant Major (the ranking enlisted person and one of the commander’s most entrusted advisors) at his left hand.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan