Commentary on Hebrews 11:29—12:2
In recent decades, best seller lists have been tracking the rise of the memoir.
In our high-tech age where the art of conversation has been waning, our hunger for stories has only grown. If book sales are a reliable indication, we long especially for the stories of ordinary people who share from the depth of their lives all the complexity of being human. We want to hear the stories of others because in them we recognize our own experience and discover a greater sense of belonging.
In today’s reading, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews addresses a community needing to hear that it belongs. Seemingly having grown weary of the Christian life and perhaps worn by external pressure put upon the community, some were struggling with their faith and others were even neglecting to meet together (Hebrews 10:25). After previously enduring hardship and having shown great love for one another (6:10), the community had become, over time, less confident, less enthusiastic, and less cohesive (10:35).
In this passage, the letter continues what it began in 11:1, telling the stories of those who had gone before, living out their faith in God’s promises, and laying the path of endurance for others to follow. The letter recounts over and over again how it was “by faith” that Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses’s parents, and Moses endured. The list of names, clearly intended to inspire and encourage the letter’s readers, surely would have caused them to recall the stories of these biblical figures in all their complexity. It is because of their faith alone that the writer sees each of them, these flawed and messy human beings, as righteous (10:38). Along the way, the letter specifically mentions “Rahab the prostitute” who “did not perish with those who were unbelieving, because she had received the spies in peace” (11:31). As a Canaanite woman who welcomed the spies “by faith,” she represents the letter’s insistence that outsiders, like she and Melchizedek (5:6; 6:20; 7:1-17) can also embody the pattern of Christ. Faith is key, above all else.
The letter continues to recall story after story, moving from memories about individuals to recounting how “[b]y faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land” (Hebrews 11:29). Finally, the writer exhorts his hearers, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by a such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (12:1). The letter has implicitly connected the community’s story to those of the ones who have come before them, signaling that they, too, belong and that they, too, can live out lives of righteousness “by faith.”
Not all of the stories to which the writer alludes are easily traced or identified. It is not clear who specifically was “stoned to death,” “sawn in two,” or “killed by the sword” (Hebrews 11:37). The figures themselves are left unnamed, making clear that what letter seeks to convey is the accelerating impact of recounting the many who endured great suffering because of their faith. They become the norm, not the exception. Thus it is striking when the writer adds, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect” (11:39-40). This is so, because the cycle of stories reaches its fulfillment in the example of Jesus. As the letter’s audience is exhorted to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” (12:1) it is also inspired to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1) by Jesus who is “the pioneer and perfector of our faith” (12:2) because he “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2) and sits “at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
The stories of men and women of faith that the writer summons to mind for the readers not only weaves the community’s own story with those of the ones who have come before, it also connects them to the story of Jesus. For the writer and the community, Jesus is the consummate model of faith. In the same way that he disregarded the shame that accompanied his suffering, so can those who seek to follow “by faith” set aside shame and endure the kind of suffering that can accompany the life of discipleship. It is important to note that Hebrews is not here valorizing any and all forms of human suffering. Rather, it seeks to speak directly to both the cost and the promise that the life of faith entails. What the passage does not do is question why hardship is part of the Christian life. It draws on Jesus’ own example and simply assumes that such is the case. Life is difficult and the Christian life is no exception. In fact, discipleship will likely entail new challenges and unanticipated costs. The key for the author of the letter to the Hebrews is that faith discerns where real life is to be found, knows which values are true and which are counterfeit, and endures hardship in the face of divine promise.