Hebrews 11:1-40

David Linden  ~~  University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces, NM USA  (revised September, 2011)


The stories in Hebrews 11 may be the most well known part of the entire letter/sermon.  It is obvious that stories are easier to follow than abstract reasoning. We should be grateful before the Lord that He has chosen to give us both. Thus the simple sentence, “Jesus died for our sins,” is a statement of history and a theological explanation at the same time. We cannot dispense with either one. Teaching the history/story of the Bible is the prime way to introduce God’s Word to children.  The events do not stand without spiritual significance. God is known by His deeds as well as His statements. Both fit together in a comprehensive and unified revelation of God. 


Many lessons can be taken from the persons mentioned in this chapter. The examples chosen connect to the appeal in 10:35-39. There the readers were encouraged and warned not to throw away their confidence, to wait for God’s reward, to persevere, to live by God’s promises believing He will be true to His Word. The examples were not chosen to illustrate the nobility of OT saints, even though this is evident everywhere. The overriding issue is that “He who promised is faithful” and for this reason we should “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (10:23). To miss the connection of chapters 10 and 11 is to view chapter 11 as a detached storybook rather than one reason after another to encourage their faith in the face of similar circumstances.


The visible church will be sorted into two classes of men with a gap between that cannot be crossed. Some shrink back; some believe. The destiny of one is hell and the other, heaven. The issue then presses upon us: what does it really mean to believe? What distinguishes faith from a false faith, a living faith from a dead faith that cannot save? James 2 teaches that the reality of faith is demonstrated by its results.  Hebrews 11 shows what true faith is like.


Faith in chapter 11 often looks to the future. Chapter 10 referred to Christ as the Coming One (10:37). Hebrews 11 illustrates that faith brings to reality the certainties of God’s promises. Faith does not need to see to believe. Since God has disclosed that portion of the future we need to know, which alone makes it as real as the present. In fact, the future is often more clear for us than the present, because only in it are all of God’s promises fulfilled. The world lives with an uncertain future as its norm. Believers have a certain future while living in an uncertain present. Hebrews 11 should be read in the light of chapter 10 and of Jesus, the chief example of persevering faith, in chapter 12. God commended these saints for perseverance. We should observe how greatly their faith determined the way they lived and died, and how their brief life was a pilgrimage, a longing for a better country.   


In Acts 7, Stephen made a brief review of the OT. We live in a day when two things are out of favor. In our lazy Western culture (not lazy on the sports field but in the mind) we like neither theology nor history.  That makes many view a book like Hebrews as not very relevant to the felt needs of so many professing believers. Some think doctrine is unimportant, but come running for help when a new teaching causes trouble in the church!  Hebrews boldly states our salvation doctrinally in terms of Jesus the human Son of God, our Great High Priest. This confession ran against the prevailing view of the majority of Jews in the first century.  So Hebrews used the Scriptures (in those days acknowledged as the Word of God), to refute the error of denying any priest from outside the line of Levi. It also used the long and respected tradition of Israel to give as witnesses, faithful men and women who were often misunderstood, maligned, and ridiculed by their countrymen.  For this reason we have Hebrews 11. Hebrews is a book that teaches and preaches theology and history. It humbles us by its mastery of the big picture, as it views issues from the standpoint of God’s revelation from the beginning to the end of human history.


In the notes that follow, I try to hold to how the examples relate to the situation of the readers. I plead for those reading chapter 11 to do so mindful of the end of chapter 10. For this reason, I do not delve into how Isaac and Moses are types of Christ, even though that is a fruitful and legitimate study. Because the writer saw a crisis of faith and evidence for the beginning of apostasy, this affected his use of these examples of faith. I have therefore chosen to stick with the issue of a persevering faith. The readers of Hebrews included people tempted to drift away (2:1). They needed the testimony of ancient people who in similar trials received the commendation of God. 



11:1,2   “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”(ESV)  This is a perplexing verse to understand and translate. It humbles those who try. The Greek noun (hupostasis) for “assurance” in the NIV is used 20 times in the LXX for a dozen different Hebrew words.  Trying to define the word, and thus grasp the verse fully is like fitting a mattress into a refrigerator. Nothing fits perfectly. Is this word “substance”, “being sure”, “guarantee” or “assurance”? The Bible translators have no clear consensus.  Many pages in commentaries do not result in a definite conclusion. Languages often do not have exact parallels in other languages. Thus the commentary of William Lane in his research into Greek literature outside Scripture is very valuable. 


It would be less tantalizing if the statement were not so central to the point Hebrews is making. This concise statement opens this section, and the rest of the chapter is to illustrate the point, but it is easier to understand the examples than the thesis they were given to exemplify! My advice is to admit our difficulty without worry. The chapter itself is well understood and has been a tremendous encouragement for centuries. One way to grasp v.1 is to find ways the later verses fit it.  The rest of the chapter is probably saying what v.1 means.


Another important question is whether faith/hope is objective or subjective?  In other words, is faith simply inner assurance, or is it an objective certainty.  2+2 equals 4 no matter how we may feel. We should have an inner certainty of this truth of arithmetic, which is objectively certain whether we agree with it or not. This aspect of faith is vital. Take the coming of Christ as an example.  We are subjectively certain it will happen, but it is also an objective certainty. In English, certainty has for most people the idea of subjective assurance. Seeing the word both ways may help us understand v.1. By faith we are assured of things that are real, not because we imagine them to be true, but because their reality has been established for us by the Word of God. Then when we believe, faith makes them real for us! For the first people hearing v.1, when Hebrews was read to them, it probably made perfect sense. 


In Hebrews, faith and hope at times are virtually the same, as in “full assurance of faith” (10:22) and “let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (10:23). It is quite natural for us to see hope as an internal trust we have concerning the future. However, in Hebrews hope is also presented as objective. In 6:18-20 a hope already existing is offered to us, so it is not subjective. This hope is an anchor for the soul, quite external to us, because it enters heaven (6:19,20). Our subjective hope does not enter heaven, but Christ has. So, a) a trusting hope and b) the hope held out to us by the Lord are both called our hope. In the NT the latter is more common. Christ is our objective hope (1 Timothy 1:1), and the One our subjective hope is in (1 Corinthians 15:19). Likewise, the faith in our hearts (Romans 10:9,10) is in Christ, and the truth we believe is the objective faith we confess (1 Timothy 3:9).


Apparently hupostasis could mean a guarantee, or a seal of authenticity. In this sense, faith makes a supporting statement, or it supports all the action that rests on it. Thus Hebrews 11 will say repeatedly that by faith (as a foundation) something was done. Perhaps it carries the idea that by faith we vouch for what God has said, as in John 3:33.  This, of course, pleases God (11:6) Who commends believers for their faith (11:2). The word is a combination of “under” (hupo) and “standing” (stasis), so it may carry the sense that faith is the foundation of the conduct seen in the lives of these OT people.


It may help to say that 11:1 is not defining faith as much as it is showing what faith does. When faith was present, God’s people did amazing things. Had it been absent, they would have done nothing mentioned in chapter 11. It makes them see what they otherwise could not; it makes them hold as realities what the world would find foolish. Faith connects with certainties known only by the revelation of God. It considers the future as real as the present, even when the man of faith has nothing more to support his certainty than a promise from God. He needs nothing more. God commended the faithful of early and later history for their faith.  Now the writer of Hebrews is ready to review the record of OT witnesses to show how faith pleases God so much, AND to show why we should not throw away our confidence (10:35).


11:3   The writer begins at the beginning of Genesis before there is any man. He takes up creation first and speaks of the faith of all (i.e., not just the OT saints but us as well), when he says, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command.”


Here we encounter a paradox: we must know something in order to believe, and we must believe in order to know (as in Psalm 27:13). Noah could not know of a flood before God spoke to warn of it (11:7). Yet we cannot know unless we believe.  There is no other way to know that the world was created by the word of God than by faith, but by faith we do know it is so. The world will say we only believe – the suggestion is that we are irrational – but we reply that we know. We have the Word of the Lord Who was present when He did it. When He tells us something, then we know, but only if we believe Him. Visible things were not created from visible things. Faith does not make this true, but it does bring us into the certainty of it. We do not claim to know how God can create by His Word; we simply know it is so. 


The matter of believing what we cannot see, and “seeing” what we can only know by God’s Word, is a theme that will return in vv.7 & 13. The faith of OT saints and our believing in creation from things invisible is the same kind of faith. The reason Moses persevered is that in faith “he saw him who is invisible,” (11:27).


11:4   The faith of Abel         The Biblical record of Abel is so brief that much speculation has arisen to go with it. This in itself is an indication that the brief life of Abel has acquired much attention; he still speaks. He believed in the Lord, and while we know so little of what may have been in his heart, God commends him for righteousness. No righteousness could have been in Abel had he not believed. It was not so with Cain. With both Cain and his offering God was displeased. Genesis 4:7 may be the decisive word to explain why; if the man who offers is wicked, whatever he offers will be rejected. Jesus’ offering was made only after He was perfected (5:9), and thus it has been accepted. Some think Cain’s offering was rejected because it was the fruit of the ground, and because God had cursed that ground. That hardly fits OT offerings where wine and grain offerings were given to the Lord (Leviticus 23:37). The chief distinction seems to be in the men rather than in their offerings.


It may be odd that Abel is chosen as an example of faith. He seems to have so little reward for it. The evil man lived and the righteous man died. But Hebrews is interested in who gains the commendation of God. A short life with God’s commendation speaks much more to us than a long life of sin and eventual destruction. Abel does have the distinction of being the first human being to become part of “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” (12:23). Though he is an example of personal righteousness, he was perfect because the Lord made him to be.


11:5,6  The faith of Enoch   We move from righteous Abel whose life was cut short by death to a man who never died! Faith should not be judged by duration of life, but by how that life was lived. Both men arrived in the presence of the Lord, thus both were made perfect by the blood of Christ. Hebrews was written to affirm Christ as our Great High Priest. It is not contradicting its own message here when it refers to righteous persons. They too, are accepted by God only because of the ministry of Christ. When Adam sinned he represented Abel, Enoch, and Noah, so they all needed Christ. God is pleased with faith; v.6 now adds that He rewards it. Enoch is a prime example. He believed, and God commended him. Enoch is a witness of what God does with all who believe. Enoch was simply taken to the Lord’s presence without dying. At the coming of Christ, that will happen again.  For those who die in Christ, they enter the same place as Enoch. 


The lesson of this man’s life is given in v.6 where it calls for all to come to the Lord. I take this to mean coming by prayer, and that Hebrews implies that Enoch’s walk with God was characterized by prayer. What he sought was God in a world that hated Him. Because of such faith and such a view of God’s worth, the Lord rewards by turning His gracious face  to His people (Numbers 6:22-27). Enoch was also an early example of Jesus’ desire that His own should be with Him (John 17:24). For those alive on earth before the perfection of heaven, the Lord already makes His home with the one who, like Enoch, has His commands and obeys them (John 14:21-23). 


These two verses are a combination of the most unusual (Enoch did not die) and the most general rule for all, i.e., that anyone who comes believing God exists, and that God responds, will be rewarded. It is not futile to seek the Lord, because He will be found and will pardon (Isaiah 55:6,7). Apart from escaping death, what He did for Enoch, the Lord will do for all. Those who seek His face shall have it, and those who (unlike Enoch) die, yet die in the Lord, will find that their death is an entrance into His presence (Philippians 1:23). They join the living in the city of the Living God (12:22ff). 


11:7  The faith of Noah   The example of Noah follows Abel, a righteous man, and Enoch who pleased God.  Noah was both a preacher (2 Peter 2:5) and an heir of righteousness.  In the brief and cryptic words of Hebrews 11, personal righteousness is demonstrated in faithfulness, but no detailed explanation is given how perfect righteousness is received by simple faith. The writer is moving very fast through his list of saints to show the certainty and commendation of faith (11:1 & 39). Some teach that righteousness for justification is attained by faithfulness. This is a major blunder; we should take the doctrine of justification from those portions of Scripture that actually teach it, and we should not misread the many passages that speak of personal righteounsess in the saints to contradict them. The world was wicked (Genesis 6:1-7), but Noah found grace in the sight of the Lord (Genesis 6:8). Then we read that Noah was a righteous man (Genesis 6:9). If he were a righteous man and that was why God showed him grace, that would make grace ungracious. Saving grace (to be distinguished from the Creator’s kindness) is grace because it is shown to sinners. Noah, a son of Adam, was a sinner to whom God was gracious. 


Noah believed God’s warning and so built an ark over many years.  He surely faced ridicule for this, but his certainty about the flood was as real to him as yesterday’s sunset. Future history announced by God is no less certain than past history. Noah did not build because he looked at clouds and predicted a flood. He believed God and did so over a long time. He received what he hoped for, the salvation of his family; he was certain of the flood no one could see. He believed, and he and his family were saved. The world did not believe in spite of God’s warning and Noah’s preaching. They were condemned, as are all who do not believe. Those in the church should heed both examples, not just Noah’s. Those who shrink back will be destroyed as surely as all the unbelievers on Noah’s day.  Only those who believe are saved. Because Noah believed, he built an ark; his faith was not shallow; it resulted in the good works that always accompany salvation (6:9); his faith was characterized by diligence to the end (6:11), and through faith he received what was promised (6:12).  Hebrews turns words of promise and warning into concrete examples by reference to people like Noah. Just like the temptations the readers of Hebrews were facing, Noah was tested, but he persevered (10:36).  The writer hopes they will follow his example.


Noah by faith became an heir.  Christ is the heir of all things (1:2), so for Noah to be an heir of anything, in the mind of God he must be united to Christ. There is no inheritance for any fallen son of Adam apart from Christ.  Adam in the old creation lost all for all his family. Any inheritance from Christ, the replacement head of a new family in the new creation, is grounded in the perfect, personal, law-keeping obedience of Jesus Christ.  This righteousness is received by faith in Him. Noah too, in the grace of God, became an heir (Romans 8:17,32) to a righteousness that was not his but became his by faith (Philippians 3:9). 


11:8-19  The faith of Abraham   The review from early Genesis is over. Abel and Enoch received much attention in embellished Jewish writings. Hebrews 11 now gives more attention to the father of faith (Romans 4:16,18) than it does to anyone else. Abraham is a man of whom Scripture has much to say.


11:8-10  Leaving home   Abraham was in a foreign land when God called him; this foreign land was his homeland. When he left he had no family ahead of him, no knowledge of the new land, and he went for one reason only: God had called him to go. Abraham had worshipped other gods; God took him from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him to Canaan (Joshua 24:2,3). God promised Canaan as an inheritance, one Abraham had never seen. He believed God, and therefore he obeyed and went. This is the opposite of the Israelites in Hebrews 3,4 who would not enter land their spies saw because of their unbelief. The connection cannot be broken; if we believe, we will obey; if we disobey, we do not believe. Abraham is an example of faith because his faith had lasting results.  


Abraham would see the land promised to him, but in this life he did not have it as his inheritance. He lived in it but in temporary quarters. It was his by promise but not possession. He was wealthy (Genesis 13:2) but lived in tents. Why not build a city there and a large house? Abraham knew he was a stranger there all his days. He even had to send outside the land for a wife for his son. While he lived there, the Lord said to him, The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”  (Genesis 17:8).  Abraham looked for a city with foundations; I suppose that might be intended to contrast with the tents he lived in which were pitched on a piece of ground with no other foundation. God said he was an alien, and Abraham agreed. There was something far more coming, something he could not see, but it was certain to him since God had promised it. One day he would die without seeing that city with real foundations.  The promise of God was not limited to that brief life; it would be an everlasting possession for him, so he believed in the resurrection and longed to see the day of Christ (John 8:56). Even Isaac and Jacob lived in tents. To most observers, this little group of foreigners, who believed in a promised inheritance, had very little to show for it, no land as their own. Furthermore, for a long time this little family had not many children from the man God said would be the father of many nations! The people reading Hebrews could say that it was not going well for them either, therefore the writer wanted them to know that the persevering faith of Abraham occurred in a similar situation. By faith Abraham looked for what he could not see. His faith gave substance and certainty to the things hoped for. This would be enough to show he was a man of faith, but our lives are to be lives of faith from beginning to end, so more examples in Abraham’s life follow.


11:11,12  Having a son   This subject is the most delicate and anguished of all the things Abraham faced. To the issue of his son must be added the later matter of Isaac being offered. God would not allow Abraham’s servant to be his heir (Genesis 15:2-4), nor the child born to the servant Hagar.  The son must be their biological child by the miraculous conception in Sarah with elderly Abraham as the father.  His faith was tried over a long time. He accepted the decisions of God. He continued to believe; his view of God was theologically sound; he believed God would be faithful to His word. There would be a son from Sarah’s womb. People may conclude that God is slow, but with a faithful God, faith can wait. 


11:13-16  The sermon continues   The writer steps back to review what he has said already. Not one of the examples he gave is of a person who made a claim of belief in Christ early in life and that kind of “confession of faith” was all there was to it. His examples all continued to live by faith and were still believing, trusting, hoping, and obeying when their life on earth ended. This is the kind of example the readers of Hebrews needed to emulate. God is not pleased with those who shrink back (10:38,39), but with those who believe. Those who really believe do not shrink back. Those with the faith of Abraham “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had…” (Romans 4:12).  Faith in the time of death reveals that one really does believe in the promised inheritance since there is nothing else left in life to hope in. This will be seen in the case of both Isaac and Jacob below. 


They received the promises but not all the things promised. What they saw, they saw by faith (Ephesians 1:18), not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). They knew the promise of a great inheritance would be kept after they died. Only the resurrection is consistent with the faithfulness of God. An “everlasting possession” is meaningless to the dead, but by faith they will inherit and be alive to do so. All believers will sit down with a living Abraham in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:11). 


It glorifies God, and His people identify with Him when they confess that they are “aliens and strangers” (Genesis 17:8). It meant they were looking for something else. Our Christian confession means we cannot fit in well here, and we ought to view this world as corrupt and worthy of passing away (1 John 2:15-17). Our citizenship, like Abraham’s, is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).  If we say that God’s city is our own, our better country, the heavenly one we long for, then we confess in covenantal allegiance. We are saying that God is our God, and God will not be ashamed to speak the same way of us. But if we cannot accept joyfully our property being taken from us because we confess that Christ is our true Priest, then we are denying that we have in Him “better and lasting possessions” (10:34).  In this sermon/letter, the preacher/writer reminded them that they once had an attitude toward this world like Abraham’s. Now he wonders if they will throw away their confidence (10:35). Abraham never did. Will they also die in faith (11:13) by holding their confidence firm to the end (3:14)? 


Do We Have the Same Hope?   It is puzzling to hear explanations that OT saints had physical blessings but in the NT we have spiritual blessings. That is quite distorted, because we have the same inheritance; they looked for the same city we look for (11:10; 13:14). Abraham and David are examples of justification by faith (Romans 4). They were aliens in the land just as we are in this world, according to 1 Peter 2:11 – a statement in which the church is spoken of with a description of Israel in 1 Peter 2:9. Even when they possessed the land, with many Canaanites destroyed, King David at the pinnacle of Israel’s power said, “We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers...” (1 Chronicles 29:15). So Abraham and David were looking for a country with permanence and holiness. They wanted what we can state better in the words that came through Jeremiah – when the new covenant is completely implemented on earth – “they will all know me from the least to the greatest” (8:11). The hope of OT & NT saints is for a redeemed earth (Isaiah 11:9) ruled by the Son of David, the King of Israel in Zion. The Stone laid in Zion is the cornerstone of the church (Isaiah 28:16, Ephesians 2:20). In Christ, Gentiles will no longer be aliens to Israel but fellow-citizens in it and members of the same household (Ephesians 2:19).  


Abraham had the option to return to his birthplace. (One can only wonder what he would tell his former neighbors.)  That would be like the apostate Israelites who wanted to return to Egypt and would not enter God’s rest. Their hard hearts are not examples of faith. But the surrounding country was not home either. Their real home was the place they had never been, one they could be certain of but could not see (11:1), a place God has prepared. All that is seen is temporary (2 Corinthians 4:18).  The earth we know will be destroyed and replaced with “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13). This is God’s promise, and we must look forward to it, or we are so unlike Abraham it should make us wonder if we are really his children by faith.    


11:17-19  The reasoning of faith   This test put Abraham in a position where he could only see one way that the different things God had said could be reconciled. Abraham never entertained that God could be untrustworthy. God said that it was through Isaac, and no one else, that Abraham’s seed would continue.  Isaac was the son born of promise, and God’s promise required that he live to have children. Then God told Abraham to sacrifice him. Abraham understood God’s words. They seemed to be in conflict.


Other examples in chapter 11 emphasize how faith sees, how faith obeys, how faith endures ridicule and even murder, how faith acts, and in the case of creation, that only faith understands. None of that was new to Abraham, but this example shows how faith reasons. The test must have been extremely trying, but Abraham’s mind was clear. He did not waver in faith or obedience (Romans 4:20,21); he would do what God said. He simply reasoned that if God commanded Isaac in sacrifice, and God had made these clear promises about him, that God would raise Isaac from the dead. The previous promises of God are never annulled by His later commands. This is how Abraham reasoned. It is not that he was a master of logic; he was certain without doubt that God would keep the promise that through Isaac Abraham’s seed would be called. That Word of God was all he had and all he needed to make his decision. The readers of Hebrews needed the same faith in their reasoning.   



11:20-22 The faith of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph  


Isaac   The writer quickly covers three more generations. Note that there was a living Isaac to have children. God’s promise was never in jeopardy. The words Isaac spoke concerning the future were blessings he had no power to control. He made no statement of what he would do; it was all up to the covenant keeping God of His father Abraham.  In Genesis 27:27-29, he spoke in faith of what God would do; Isaac was a spokesman. For his words to have any effect, they depended on blessing from the Lord after his death. In Genesis 27:37 his use of “I” has reference to the validity of the word he had pronounced in the Name of the Lord; even Isaac could not change it. Isaac would not have blessed either man had his faith been in his own ability to fulfill.  He spoke with certainty because God had made promises to Abraham, and Isaac knew that word was true. With Isaac, future blessing was a matter of certainty.


Jacob   Why would Jacob bless each of his sons when he was so weak he had to lean on his staff to do so?  His body lacked the strength to support its own weight.  He was near death, a very weak man.  He knew the God of his fathers could not be unfaithful. It was worth his last bit of strength to sit up and bless Joseph’s sons and later his own. Genesis 48/49 demonstrates confidence in the promises of God. Because he was certain they would leave Egypt one day, he insisted that he be buried in the Promised Land. Nothing Jacob said makes any sense apart from faith in the Word of the Lord. It is clear Jacob’s faith grew as he aged; he did not give up his confession. His early sins are notorious, but the grace of his Great High Priest was transforming (4:14-16). Jacob became more and more a holy man who was taken to glory (2:10,11). His end was characterized by bold confession of his Lord (3:6). In many ways Jacob was not a good example, but his God made him into one.


Joseph   As in the case of Jacob, Hebrews refers to Joseph’s faith at death. The dying man was looking ahead to the promises of God being fulfilled.  In Egypt a man in his position could have a notable resting place in death, but for Joseph that was the world. His God had promised his great-grandfather Abraham a land of his own, and Joseph chose to be buried there. His orders concerning his bones (Genesis 50:24,25) were obeyed. In the exodus from Egypt they took his bones with them (Exodus 13:19). “God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Genesis 50:24,25). Exodus 13 repeats the words, “God will surely…”  This is what the writer wanted to hold before his readers as normal.  The patriarchs had trouble too, but in it they held firmly to the end the confidence they had at first (3:14).    


11:23-29  The faith of Moses   v.23  The faith of Moses’ parents is mentioned first, a faith in a time of great affliction with the threat of death. We wonder what they knew of his future. We do know they feared the Lord their God more than the king of Egypt. The Lord intervened and preserved the life of the baby. He could have sent a host of flaming angels to guard his parents’ home, but He chose to have his people live by faith in danger. The hand of the Lord turned the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter (Proverbs 21:1). His working was outside the realm of what they could see in advance. Moses’ parents acted in faith in matters they could neither see (11:1) nor predict.


11:24-28   Moses is the last person to be reviewed in any detail. I suspect that by listing these well-known faithful saints, the writer was challenging his readers whether they were true Jews. The history of Israel includes rampant idolatry. Only a remnant was true to the Lord. By showing faith in the face of struggle and opposition (12:3,4), he enhanced the parallel in which they too were called to persevere and wait for God’s rich reward. We have no examples in Hebrews 11 of people regretting faith in the Lord, and there will never be one (Romans 10:11). Moses is an example of a believer in a difficult choice which would bring immediate difficulty. He did not choose the easy path.


Moses had to choose which of two peoples he belonged to.  He chose to identify with a despised and poor minority in slavery.  In this way he chose the mistreatment that would be the inevitable result of refusing high recognition as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to give up the comforts of the palace, and some of those comforts would be against God’s commandments, so they are called the pleasures of sin. He chose not to be short sighted. Life is very brief. All the nobility in Egypt are currently mummies, while Moses’ body was buried by God (Deuteronomy 34:5,6). He lives with Christ now and was even granted the most unusual privilege to appear with the Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9). He refused Pharaoh’s palace but became a noble in the courts of the Lord. The appearance is that he lost much, but the palace of Egypt has fallen into decay; Moses has received some of his reward (11:6); he remains part of an unshakable kingdom (12:28), and he awaits more to come (11:39,40). He traded the treasures of a kingdom now gone from the earth, for lasting reward in the eternal kingdom of Christ. Many in his time would mock his decision as foolish, but Moses lived by faith.


11:26   Moses not only chose disgrace for the sake of Christ, he valued identification with the coming Messiah. It is a privilege to suffer for the Lord, a privilege limited to this life (Philippians 1:29). Matthew 5:10-12 clearly applies to Moses, one of the OT prophets. We do not know exactly what Moses knew of Christ, but in the five Books of Moses the Lord Jesus is the promised seed of the woman to crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). He is the true Seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16-18). Further, Christ was the great prophet to come, One like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18,19). He was the One to whom all the signs of ceremonial bloodshed pointed. All hope of redemption and the Redeemer Himself would come through Israel. Moses chose to be part of the people of God. He was a faithful servant in God’s house (3:5). Christ is over that house, and Moses is part of it. He chose in faith and held on to the hope of which he boasted (3:6). 


11:27,28   Moses left Egypt, probably referring to his flight to Midian (Acts 7:27-29).  He left in faith; he did not go back on his decision by returning to the courts of Pharaoh. He waited for God’s time to deliver Israel. What kept Him going was believing in the promise and oath to Abraham. In this sense he saw the One who is unknown to the world and invisible to human sense. Some forty years passed before Moses saw the burning bush. The day came when he returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh in the Name of the Lord. The last plague was the Angel of the Lord killing the firstborn. The gospel was that they should eat the Passover and apply the blood outside the door. They had to believe it was necessary to do that. Since they really believed, they did so and were spared.


11:29   The faith here is of the people, and Moses is part of that people. By now it should be clear that the writer could have said “by faith” to much more detail of their history.  In the case of Moses, there is an active faith concerning him as an infant and faith expressed to the time of Passover.  The people had faith to pass through the Red Sea, or they would have turned back. Later they did hold back in unbelief from entering the land, but that was inconsistent with the faith of leaving Egypt.  There is danger passing through a sea that stands like walls on either side, and the Egyptians are the chief evidence of that danger.   Faith was expressed in relation to the unseen danger prior to the death of the firstborn; faith was expressed in the visible danger of passing through the sea. 


11:30,31   The text does not mean the wall of Jericho had faith. We read the Bible with some common sense. On that occasion, the people did something that does not make walls fall down. To many their obedience was foolish, marching around a city for seven days. After a few days with nothing happening, the inhabitants of Jericho might look on this action as silly. Israel obeyed and God brought the walls down. God’s ways may vary; sometimes He used a sword in their hands; sometimes He told them to do nothing but observe (Exodus 14:13,14).


Rahab saw what happened to kings nearby who opposed the Israelites and what happened to the Egyptians. She could not see the God of Israel, but she was convinced by His actions that He was the One who would prevail in taking the land of Canaan.  In this certainty she welcomed the spies and did not die with those who opposed the God of Israel. Rahab had a far more consistent faith than the generation that passed through the Red Sea, drank from a rock, saw the glory of God over the tabernacle day and night, and ate the manna from heaven. She only heard of God’s mighty deeds; Rahab had seen none of them, but she was certain He would take over her city. God does not push away any who believe in Him; He spared her life.  Some have hearts that will not believe no matter how much privilege they have (3:7-11). Rahab had only hearsay and believed; she shames those with so much more. (See also Matthew 12:38-42.)


11:32-38  The Concluding Review   The writer has surveyed OT history from creation to entering the land. He had made his point, but there were so many more he could refer to as examples of the exemplary certainty that comes by trusting God’s Word.  These came in the period of the judges, the monarchy, the prophets, and even Maccabean times between the Old and New Testaments. He names some judges, one king and no prophets. Their achievements could be as public as fighting a war and as private as facing torture and death.  We detect the days of Daniel and his companions when it mentions lions and quenching flames. It sounds like David running from Saul when it speaks of escaping the edge of the sword. I doubt the writer would speak this way unless he felt his readers recognized these incidents in the OT.


As the paragraph progresses, there is less of surviving hardships as in 11:32-35, and more of being killed in them (11:35-38). Some like Daniel and his friends had relief during this life, but with others there was none. Some women had loved ones returned to them from death. Others were not spared; they were content to wait for a better resurrection than a temporary extension of days on earth. Reference to insult, persecution, and loss of property in 11:35-37 is the deliberate agenda of the writer; he chose to show a similarity to the suffering expressed in 10:32-34. He is about to say, “Let us run with perseverance the race set out for us.”  First he will hold up as marvelous examples to us how well these OT saints ran their race.


The murder by stoning may refer to the killing of prophets (Matthew 23:29-36). Jewish tradition says Isaiah was sawn in two.  The world was not worthy of them. We are left to admire them and in spite of all they suffered, no effort is made to make us feel sorry for them.  Their great reward has overwhelmed their trouble; their suffering is not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed (Romans 8:18). The coming exhortation is to live up to their example. The final loss for these pilgrims was of home, shelter, and ordinary clothing. Their trouble was swept away by the reward of God’s commendation and the “something better” He has for them to enjoy eternally (11:39,40).


11:39,40  Bringing the saints together   God’s great purpose has always been “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). This truth has been a major difficulty for dispensationalism.  God does not have two different agendas for Israel and the church. 11:39 says the OT saints have not yet received all that had been promised to them. Abraham in his flesh is not now walking on this earth, yet the earth is his promised eternal possession. A resurrection is coming for him. The Lord’s timing is that the better thing planned (i.e., the resurrection and all that follows it) will not occur until all of them (the OT saints), and we who live after the first coming of Christ are made perfect together. In my opinion, this argues strongly for a single coming of Christ, (not in phases or stages) rather than a rapture of the church only – which, by the definition of “church” in the dispensational view, does not include OT saints.  For me personally, as one indebted by family and many other ties, and grateful for the love, counsel, evangelism, and nurture of very dear dispensational teachers, this great awkwardness led to a major revision of my understanding of the unity of the Bible. The dispensational doctrine I once held made it necessary to exclude OT saints from the rapture; that became the chief thing that made me reconsider and in due course adopt covenant theology.


The word perfect appears again!  It has been used of Christ in His human life when he had been perfected in obedience (5:9).  It is used of the believer who by means of Christ’s sacrifice has been perfected forever (10:14), even though the needed process of becoming holy continues. Now it is used in connection with the Second Coming of Christ. All the saints of the ages will be perfected together. The righteous in the heavenly Jerusalem are perfected spirits already (12:23); all that is needed to finish their salvation (9:28) is for them to have bodies raised at the resurrection and perfected at that time. Those OT saints commended for their faith (11:39), and we who believe and are saved (10:39), will receive what has been promised. This perfection includes being made like Christ in character (1 John 3:2) and receiving bodies like Christ’s glorified body (Philippians 3:21).


Hebrews 11 spells out what 6:12 had in mind, that we should be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises”.