Hebrews 11 is one of those chapters that tends to get treated apart from its context. Many people who are largely unacquainted with the basic themes of book of Hebrews are nonetheless acquainted with this one chapter. But this chapter fulfills a specific purpose in the argument of the book as a whole. Without any intention of denigrating the independent use of the faith chapter, I’d like to look at it’s place in the overall argument.
To review the general outline, our author begins by establishing Jesus as a superior source of revelation to the Torah (1:1-4), and moving forward to discussing Jesus as our High Priest (chapters 2-4 passim). Prior to chapter 11 he focusses on the human aspects of the High Priesthood of Jesus (2:16-18), how he is one of our brethren (2:5-15) and able to sympathize with our weaknesses (4:15). He has pioneered our way into the presence of God, before the throne of grace (4:14-16).
At the same time he has developed a foundation for the idea of something better to come, the “rest” that still waits for the people of God in the future (3:7-4:11). We have not attained it, he tells us, but it is coming. At the same time he notes that people in his audience are in danger of quitting the struggle before they attain the goal. This leads us into chapter 6, in which we have the famous passage about those who fall away, and are told that they can no longer repent (6:4-6). Nonetheless the author resumes his narrative with a statement of confidence that those to whom he is writing will not fall by the wayside (6:9).
In chapters 7-10 he goes into more detail about the priesthood, developing the divine aspects, and the reasons why the priesthood of Jesus is better than the old priesthood. He ends chapter 10 with more admonitions to endure to the end. This endurance is based on the better promises and the faithful one who promised (10:19-25).
But then he turns back the clock again and looks at this faith/faithfulness. There is a repetition in Hebrews 11 of the phrase “by faith,” and we need to broaden our conception of the word “faith” here to understand the full meaning. Faith is not merely a loose assent to a proposition; it is putting one’s confidence in that. Thus, “do not throw away your confidence (or boldness)” (10:35), this confidence being a result of putting one’s full trust in the way that has been provided. So we go all the way back to Abel (11:4), and we see that he worked also “by faith.” In the view of our author, Abel did not have what his readers have; he didn’t have any of the intervening revelation. He didn’t have the ultimate revelation that came through Jesus Christ. But he put his trust in God and was able to please him.
This formula is repeated throughout the chapter. This is the cheerleader’s approach of pointing out all the prior victories and all the other people who have done what the readers are being called upon to do and saying, “Yes! You can do it! Just keep your confidence!” All these men and women of faith succeeded in pleasing God, even though they were much further from the reward and didn’t see even as much as the readers have seen themselves.
But there is an additional element. Try looking at the stories of many of these individuals in their Old Testament context. Many of these folks do not look nearly so good in the first telling as they do on the honor roll. What’s going on? Is our author lying about them for effect?
Let’s just take one example. If you compare the story of Moses in Exodus (Exodus 2:11-15), and then the report of the same incidents in Hebrews 11:24-27, the tone is completely different. In Exodus, Moses kind of falls into the situation, commits murder, thinks he has been caught, is in terror, and finally flees for his life. In Hebrews, he has a plan. He makes a choice: the right choice. He isn’t afraid of the king, but rather goes where he has to go and chooses who he’s going to be.
I don’t know if that’s lying, but it’s certainly a different perspective. I would like to suggest it’s the “faith” perspective. The author of Hebrews looks back on Moses, and because Moses endured, completed his task, and died faithful to God, he is the person of decisive faith described in Hebrews 11. He may have done some stumbling along the way, but that’s not in the picture now. Moses endured. That’s really the point the author is trying to make. His point is strengthened by the fact that some of the people on the honor roll were not always perfect, were not always absolutely faithful at every moment of their life, but the testimony that can be given over their whole life when it was complete, is that they were faithful. They did it by faith.
One can’t hope to have a better testimony than that. When I’m feeling that I’ve gone too far off the track to be regarded as a person of faith, I remember Hebrews 11. By faith all kinds of people made it to God’s honor roll. All they had to do was keep right on moving forward.