These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
Hebrews 11:39 | NIV (1984) | Other Versions | Context
Hebrews chapter 11 is generally reputed to be the Hall of Faith in the Bible, where several characters who were exemplary in their faith had been honored. Hebrews 11 starts off with a very helpful definition of faith – now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see [Hebrews 11:1|Article]; and from verses 4 all the way to 38, we see a list of faithful people and their acts of faith – and also a section devoted to people not named. The people named were all from the Old Testament, which complements Hebrews 11:2 – this is what the ancients were commended for. Yet, after reading through the list of faithful people inducted into the Hall of Faith, a sweeping statement in verse 39 often chills my heart. They were all commended for their faith, but none of them received what had been promised. What is the price of faith? What is the ultimate outcome of faith? Is our faith a meaningless one, that we will ultimately yield no result? In this study, we will examine what exactly did the author mean with such a cold, sweeping statement.
These were all commended for their faith – The author emphasized again that the list of names and deeds were all based on faith – they had been sure of what they hoped for and certain of what they did not see. They suffered and some were saved from their sufferings; some died in their sufferings. Some were delivered from their misery; others were honored in their misery. No matter how they suffered, no matter whether they were delivered in their lives from their suffering, they were all commended for their faith. They were inducted into the Hall of Faith.
yet none of them received what had been promised – this is such a sweeping statement that at first glance, what it suggests is extremely bleak and frightening. Does this mean that the reward for being faithful is nothing? Sure, we know that our rewards will be in heaven – even so, it’s still a scary prospect to be able to have faith even when you know that that you will not receive what you were promised. The more I think about this statement, the more dubious I get at the implication that I got. Thinking about it further, is our God someone who would promise us anything that he will not deliver? Let’s examine the case studies listed in the Hall of Faith – did they not receive what they were promised? Looking at it case by case – Abraham and Sarah were promised a son, and they got Isaac even in their old age. God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians, God granted victory to them through on numerous occasions. Certainly all of them received the promise of eternal life as well. What did the author mean, then, when he said that none of them received what had been promised?
Most scholars understand it to mean the promise of the Messiah. The case studies listed here were all ‘ancients’ – people from the Old Testament, and even the last stated name lived at least several hundred years before the birth of Christ. They never lived to see the coming of the Messiah. If you read the Old Testament closely, the biggest promise that kept recurring was the promise of the Messiah. Perhaps only the promised land – Canaan – came close to the massiveness of this Great Promise. They never received this promise. The last written book was at least four or five hundred years before the birth of Christ. No matter how much they craved and desired to witness the Messiah, they never got to.
Perhaps we can understand the significance of what this meant if we use a smaller example. Moses bore the responsibility of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land – and while he got to see the Promised Land, he wasn’t allowed to enter it. Can you imagine that? Having worked so faithfully for God and for God’s people, having sloughed for 40 years – but yet the promise was not received by you. And yet Moses died with the greatest honour when God personally buried him. These people, none of them received the promise of the Messiah, yet all of them lived through their lives, whether they were ever delivered from their suffering or not, holding on to that promise.
Their faith meant that, even if they didn’t manage to see the promise being fulfilled in their lifetimes, they are certain that it will be fulfilled after their lifetimes, and thus all the good work that they’ve done in their lifetimes were worth it. Today, the promise of the Messiah has already been received – and therefore, we as people who have already received that promise have the burden of being more up to task in the work that we do for God. After all, if the ancients can be so faithful even without seeing, what more we, who can see?
Just like how the ancients were waiting for the coming of the Messiah, aren’t we in a similar situation? We, too, are waiting for the Messiah – we’re waiting for Christ’s Second Coming. It’s something that may not happen in our lifetime. It’s a promise that we may not be able to receive in our lifetime. But even so, can we believe that it will indeed happen and all the good work that we’re doing today is worth every effort in the lead up to the promise?
Have you ever wondered why only the Biblical Characters from the Old Testament were mentioned? By the time the book of Hebrews was written, there would have been many many New Testament characters whose faith would have made them a convincing entry into the Hall of Faith. People like Stephen – immense, immense faith, seriously. Apostles like Paul, Peter, John, James – though most of them were probably not dead yet; and what about Christ? How can you leave Christ out of a Hall of Faith? That doesn’t quite make sense, does it? I believe that Hebrews 11:39 explains this for us. This Hall of Faith was inducted for those whose faith is commended despite them not receiving the promise of the Messiah. They lived out the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 – being sure of what they hope for and certain of what they did not see.
Even today, there’s no guarantee that our faith will result in earthly rewards that we can see in our lifetime. Our faithful perseverance may only result in unending misery. Our faith may cost us our lives. But even so, even if we will not receive our deliverance, and even if we do not see the second coming of Jesus, the examples of the ancients who were inducted into the Hall of Faith show us that this faith is worth every effort.
It doesn’t matter if at the end of the day, our faith results in nothing earthly. Our assets are in heaven.
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