When the original recipients of this epistle received Christ, they came into persecution (10:32-33). Some were even imprisoned (v. 34). They endured these sufferings joyfully because they recognized the far greater inheritance that was reserved for them in heaven (cf. 6:12; 9:15; see also Jesus' teaching in Lk 6:22-23). The character of the present threat must have been more ominous to bring them to contemplate rejecting for themselves the benefits of Christ's passion.
The former persecution arose in earlier days when they had received the light of Christ (10:32). The Jewish persecution of Christian converts became a widespread problem (see Ac 17:5-7). However, the persecution that fell upon the recipients of this epistle at the time of their conversion was milder, since 12:4 says that they had not yet shed their blood. The Roman historian Suetonius (Claudius 25) mentions that in a.d. 49 riots overtook the Jewish quarter in Rome “at the instigation of Chrestus” and that Emperor Claudius expelled them all from the city (cf. Ac 18:2). This could be the incident the author recalls in mentioning those earlier days, especially if the clue in 13:24 means the letter was sent to Italy.
Now, however, the threat was more terrifying. The possibility existed that blood would be shed. This was enough, apparently, for some to question Christ's actual teaching (see 6:1) and for others to fall away (see 6:6) and no longer meet with other Christians (see 10:25). The author clearly regards this as falling away from Christ himself.
Only those who lack faith would throw away their confidence (10:35) and be destroyed. Sustained by the light of truth in the hour of trial, faith calls for courage and carries a rich reward. Receiving what God has promised is contingent upon doing his will, and to do that one must persevere in the doing until all is done (10:36; cf. 3:13-14). Christ is soon to come, and he shall bring the reward he has promised (10:37; cf. 4:1-11; 9:15).
Here again at the head of this section a primary text is quoted, Hab 2:3-4 as found in the LXX; it is the foundation for all that follows in ch. 11. The author does an interesting thing, though. He places a definite article before erchomenos, and the Greek participle, which normally would be translated coming, must now be understood as “the coming One.” The LXX itself long before had already adopted the messianic sense the author is clarifying, and common Jewish understanding in his day interpreted the verse the same way. The novelty in the author's use of the passage is in understanding it with reference to the Second Coming. With Christ's return so imminent, now is not the time to forsake him and forfeit the reward he is bringing.
The day of Christ's coming will bring the reward of life to the righteous who have kept faith (10:38). Faith alone will stand on the day of salvation; the faithless will not be rewarded with life (v. 39). Even now, to shrink back from the confession of Christ is to court destruction.
Faith embraces the reality of one's hope in God. Faith embraces with conviction things not yet seen on earth, for faith even now sees Jesus as having tasted death for all by the grace of God (11:1). Faith sees him seated at the right hand of Majesty in heaven, crowned now with glory and honor (cf. 1:3; 2:9). Hope is the certitude that one day, perhaps soon, the entire universe will be subjected to humankind in Christ, just as in Ps 8 God ordained it to be. Hope is the certitude that we shall be brought to glory and the enjoyment of God's own Sabbath-rest (cf. 2:10; 4:9). The promise of God on oath guarantees the reality of our hope (see 6:17-19).
The starting point of faith is God and his all-powerful Word (11:3). The universe is not an accident of chance. Faith knows it was spoken into being from nothingness. Faith knows it remains only by the Word of his power (see 1:3). Faith knows the Word of God is alive and energetic (see 4:12) and accomplishes everything it purposes. Faith knows the powers of the coming age have been brought by the goodness of God's own Word to us (see 6:5). Faith hears God speaking; faith responds to God's call (see 12:25).
Time and again, the heroes of faith in former days looked forward and embraced God's promises from afar (11:13). Abel is the first example of faith; God accepted his offering (11:4; cf. Ge 4:3-10). As the author later states, Without faith it is impossible to please God (11:6). Since Abel's offering pleased God, therefore Abel's faith must be exemplary. What makes him an example worthy of note is that he was killed for being righteous and having God's approval, a fate also distinctly possible for those in Rome during Nero's declining reign. After Abel's death the voice of his blood cried to God from the ground. It spoke urgently and compellingly because of Abel's righteousness (cf. 12:24). He did not shrink back but died in faith, and God vindicated him.
Enoch is an even greater hero of faith (11:5). He never experienced death at all. Enoch walked with God and pleased God (see Ge 5:24). Because of his faithfulness God took him. The principle to be observed here again is that without faith it is impossible to please God and gain life (11:6). God rewards faith, as the story of Enoch demonstrates. The one who would approach God and walk with God must grasp in faith not merely that God exists but that God is a rewarder of the faithful. Faith trusts that he comes as rewarder to those who earnestly seek him.
Noah exhibited faith in allowing God to instruct him about unforeseen realities (11:7; cf. 11:1). In reverent attention to God's command, he did something with absolutely no apparent rationale behind it. In building the ark in faithful submission to the command of God, he saved his family from a dire fate. In remaining faithful to God, he stood alone against the tide of wickedness engulfing the world; the floods proved him right and everyone else wrong. He thereupon joined the ranks of those whose right responses accord with their vision of the unseen and whose rewards come only thereby.
Abraham showed his faith in stepping into the unknown on God's call (11:8). He left behind all that afforded him security in life. He trusted God to provide him a better inheritance, a land to call his own (see Ge 12:1-7). The faith that inherits what God has promised must be able to proceed without specific knowledge of the ultimate outcome, trusting instead for signposts along the way. For Abraham Canaan was not the ultimate destination, but a signpost or way station where the wayfarer sojourned for a time. He ever remained a nomad tent dweller even after he arrived there, as did Isaac and Jacob; for by faith the patriarchs looked forward to the new Jerusalem of God's own building (11:10; see 12:22; cf. 3:3-4).
Abraham regarded God as faithful to his promise (11:11). This enabled him to entertain even the impossible and to trust God for it, even though he himself was virtually given over to death at the age of ninety-nine (v. 12). Isaac, the child of God's promise, was born to elderly and barren Sarah (see Ge 21:2). God proved faithful and rewarded the couple who trusted his promise.
The ultimate reward for heroes of faith is the heavenly city of God. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sojourned in the land of promise in advance of the time when God gave it to Israel under Joshua's leadership. They did not possess it themselves. They dwelt upon it and were sustained by it, but they could only look ahead to the day when God would place it in their hands. Abraham at the end of his life confessed himself to be an alien and stranger among the Hittites in the land (see Ge 23:4). Jacob stood before Pharaoh and confessed himself to have been a sojourner for 130 years, as his father and grandfather had been throughout their lives (see Ge 47:9). The patriarchs still sought a homeland for themselves (11:14). They could have returned to the land of their ancestors, but they longed for a better homeland wherein they might dwell before the Lord (v. 16). Because of their forward-looking faith, God accepted them and prepared a heavenly city to be their inheritance and their reward when Christ should open the way.
Abraham offered Isaac back to God in faith (11:17; see Ge 22:9-10). The God who promised an heir and provided one in old age could provide yet again, even if by way of raising the dead (11:19). Instead, God provided a ram caught in a thicket, and Abraham's only son was returned to him from the very altar of death. Thereupon God on oath blessed Abraham anew.
Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph also looked forward in faith. With spiritual insight, Isaac foresaw Esau's eventual emergence from the shadow of Jacob (11:20; see Ge 27:40). Jacob foresaw the preeminence of Ephraim over his older brother, Manasseh, and blessed the younger with the greater blessing (v. 21; see Ge 48:19). This turnabout by divine sanction was plain to Jacob only because, as the LXX states, he worshiped God and in faith accepted the divine leading given him. Joseph foresaw the day when God would bring his people from Egypt and instructed them in advance to take his remains with them to the Promised Land (v. 22; see Ge 50:24-25). These men by faith were certain of realities not yet seen in their times.
Moses, too, lived by faith. By the faith of his parents who trusted God to preserve their son, Moses lived through Pharaoh's purge of the Hebrew male children (11:23; see Ex 2:3). By the faith that he himself had gained, Moses chose to surrender all the privileges and benefits bestowed upon Pharaoh's court in favor of the privations and brutalities laid upon God's people. In Moses' case, the sin would not have been in the enjoyment of such favors as are reserved for the elite but in the denial of his proper allegiances (11:25). All the treasures of Egypt cannot begin to compare with the rewards reserved for those who identify themselves with Christ and then bear the stigma attached thereto (v. 26). Moses, in looking to the promised reward (cf. 10:36), was actually looking to what God would eventually accomplish through Christ. He was steadfast in faith. He left Egypt, not because he feared the wrath of Pharaoh, but because he recognized the time for confrontation had not yet come (v. 27). When the time came, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, and Moses beheld God (see Ex 3:3-6). The interesting thing about the author's comment here is that Moses' steadfastness in faith was due to his unwavering vision of the invisible God (horōn, present continuous participle). That unwavering vision guided him in instituting the Passover observances (v. 28; see Ex 12:21-30). It guided him in opening a channel through the Red Sea and escaping the Egyptians (v. 29; see Ex 14:19-29). It guided him all the way through the desert wanderings for forty years until at last it brought him to Mount Nebo, where his eyes could behold the Promised Land.
Faith is rewarded. In faithful obedience to the command of Joshua, for seven days the people did a thing that seemed most foolish, and the wall fell as God had promised (11:30; see Jos 6:12-21). Faith made their hope certain. In faithful recognition that the Lord of heaven and earth was giving Jericho into Israelite hands, Rahab assisted the spies (v. 31; see Jos 2:9-11). Faith had made her sure of what would be. Her allegiance was rewarded (see Jos 6:21-25).
The annals of faith hold many more heroic stories. Gideon with but three hundred men routed the host of Midian (11:32; see Jdg 7:19-22). From Mount Tabor Barak led ten thousand against the chariots and army of Sisera (see Jdg 4:14-16). Samson prayed, then removed the pillars and brought the roof down on the Philistine lords (see Jdg 16:28-30). Jephthah looked to God for victory over the Ammonites (see Jdg 11:29-33). The shepherd boy David slew Goliath, the Philistine champion (see 1Sa 17:37-51). At Mizpah Samuel made offering to God as the Philistines approached, and the men of Israel overcame them at God's hand (see 1Sa 7:5-12). These conquered, rendered justice, and saw divine promises fulfilled (11:33).
In times of persecution the faithful persevered. When Daniel was thrown into the lions' den for worshiping God, the angel of the Lord shut the animals' mouths (see Da 6:22). The angel of the Lord kept Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego safe in the midst of the fiery furnace (see Dan 3:23-28). Elijah prayed and brought the son of the widow of Zarephath back to life (11:35; see 1Ki 17:22). Elisha prayed and restored the Shunammite son to his mother (see 2Ki 4:35). The apocryphal books of the Maccabees tell of the valor of Jews in gruesome torture martyred for their faith, all the while holding to the hope of resurrection (2 Macc. 6-7; 4 Mc 8-12). Another nonbiblical book, The Martyrdom of Isaiah, states that the prophet named in the title died a martyr's death by being sawn in half (11:37). By faith some persevered out of harm's way and others through it. Because of their unflagging devotion to God, they proved themselves of greater worthiness than this world could bear (11:38).
Their reward is an eternal inheritance (cf. 6:12; 9:15; 10:36). Yet their faith did not bring them to enter into it directly (11:39). God's provision is for the faithful of every age of human existence to enter the sanctuary through the new, living way opened by Christ, our great High Priest (11:40; cf. 10:19-22). This is the promise par excellence. This too is the key to understanding perfection in this epistle: it is bestowed corporately. It is Christ's endowment enabling all the faithful together to gain access to God forever. And it is ours even now by faith. This corporate understanding enables the author to conclude that we have already been sanctified (10:10) and perfected (v. 14). Even now, with Christ as our High Priest, we have attained the destiny God had in mind for us. That said, it still remains for us to progress in faith and obedience in order to secure what we have already gained.
The challenge is ours now to do as the faithful of previous times did (12:1). The point of this whole section has been to lift up the necessity of persevering in faith especially when adversity comes. The promised reward is reserved for those who hold firm in faith through all of life's challenges (cf. 10:35-39). We are in the arena now. Watching on all sides from above are those who met the challenge before us. Whatever encumbers us and holds us back from winning the reward, whatever sin weighs upon us and causes us to drag our feet, whatever slows our progress in following Christ, must be shaken off. Like it or not, we are in a race for the ultimate prize, and the reward goes to the one who perseveres against fatigue, the elements, and hurdles placed in the way, and who carries the torch of faith to the finish line.
The race of faith begins and ends with Jesus (12:2). Jesus pioneered the way to begin with. As God's archēgos (“pioneer”; niv “author”), he blazed the path of the perfection of faith through the sufferings of this life (cf. 2:10; 5:8). He defined the way; he set the pace. The challenge is ours now to follow and not to shrink back. Jesus perfected the way once for all. As God's teleiōt̄es (“perfecter”), he persevered in perfect faith, and he endured to the end without once shrinking back in sin, enduring even the cross. In faith he fixed his gaze on the joy of glory set before him. As God's teleiōtēs, he was brought to heaven's throne to enjoy at God's right hand the perfectness that is forever beyond the reach of corruption, and this eternal salvation he avails to all who follow and obey him (cf. 5:9). God will bring us to enjoy that divine perfectness as well (cf. 6:1), provided we do not shrink back when the test comes. From start to finish, our eyes must remain fixed on Jesus lest we get off track and lose out (cf. 10:39).