“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” Hebrews 11:1-3
“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews 11:39-40
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2
The Letter to the Hebrews is a beautifully-written piece of Christian theology and doctrine. Though there are numerous speculations as to who its author was, the true identity is still unknown. What is known, however, is the purpose for which this letter was written. In the years following Christ’s ascension into Heaven, there was the belief that His return would be imminent. However, as time carried on, and Christ had yet to return, some Jewish believers began to think that maybe Jesus had not been the promised Messiah. These people began to go back into their old rituals and practices and started to once again wait for the coming of the Messiah. The author of Hebrews, determined to correct this fallacy and “falling away” (Hebrews 6:4-5), gives detailed teaching about the Jewish rituals and observances, and how Christ fulfilled all of these things in His life and death. The author of Hebrews uses the traditions and teachings of the Old Testament to make the fact that Jesus is the Messiah crystal clear.
In chapter eleven of Hebrews, this systematic approach of teaching through the Old Testament is on full display. In this chapter, the author highlights the importance of faith, and how it was by faith that the heroes and heroines of the ancient days, of the Old Testament, were gained their approval from God, and it was through a life of faith that they bore witness of God. It was by faith, by the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) that the people of old lived; they never saw God in the flesh, and many of them never lived to see God’s promises to them fulfilled, yet they trusted in God nonetheless. The writer of Hebrews goes through the Old Testament, person-by-person, to demonstrate how the figures in this “ Hall of Faith” lived out their faith in God, regardless of the cost. For some, like Noah and Abraham, this life of faith did not cost them their lives. For many of the prophets, their faith in God cost them everything: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:35-38). None of the people mentioned by the author of Hebrews received what was promised to them in their lifetime–they did not live to see their inhabitants become a great nation or live to see the coming of the Messiah–and yet they persisted in their faith, knowing that God would keep His promise in His time.
Where Hebrews 11 ends with those who did not live to see God’s promises come into fulfillment, Hebrews 12 begins with those who are living after the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Though the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled, we must still live a life of faith. We must always press forward in life toward the promise of eternal life with God in His Kingdom. The heroes and heroines of the Old Testament, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), surround us and they have modeled for us how we are to live. We are to live as they did; with our eyes to the future and our faith firmly rooted in God. Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is now seated at the right hand of God. Since He endured our shame and punishment, He has enabled us to continue in the race that is life, and through our faith in Him, we can put aside the sins which so easily trip us up and drag us down.
As we run our race, we must keep our eyes focused on Christ–as those of old focused on God the Father–because without Him and His help, we cannot finish the race. The race before us is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is a race that will push us to our very limits; it is a race that will be long and arduous. Like those of old, our race might end painfully, and it might end without us seeing all of God’s promises coming into fruition. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” While we live, we run the race that is before us; when we die, our race is done, and we are with Him.
Our lives today are just as much rooted in faith– rooted in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”–as were the lives of those in the Old Testament. We have not seen God, nor have we seen Christ. While we can look back at our individual lives before Christ saved us, and see how God worked in us and changed us, it is our faith that lets us know that the things that happened were done by God and not by chance or karma. It is by faith that we believe the Bible to be true. It is by faith in the hope that there is a better life to come that we continue forward–sometimes trudging–in this life. Most importantly, it is by faith in Christ, in Christ alone, that we are saved.
Those who came before us lived by faith, so too must we. Those who came before us left us a witness and a model to live by, we must do the same for those who will come after us. We can only do this by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. We can only live by faith.
Draw courage from those who went before you. Keep your eyes on Christ. Live by faith. Leave a witness for those who come after you.
Artwork: Marc Chagall Tapestry in the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, c. 1960-1970