Hebrews 11 has always perplexed me. My good friend Matt preached on this passage this past week, and while he did a fine job of using the passage as a basis for exhortation, I couldn’t quite grasp the passage much beyond the call to perseverance and faith and discipline, the same message I’ve always heard whenever this passage was preached. I found myself asking a couple of questions about things I had never noticed before.
First of all, there are very specific people that are chosen for this Great Hall of Faith. Most notably, Job is entirely excluded from the list. He’s not even included on the off-handed addendum “I do not have time to tell you about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets.” (By the way, nice work, Hebrews author guy. Ya knocked out all of the prophets in one fell swoop. Clever, you.) Job’s been a bit on my mind lately, so this time I was quick to notice the exclusion of Job from this list, this patient individual who underwent extreme suffering. If you’re going to laud and immortalize a “saint” via literary narrative tradition, who better than Job to serve as the example of perseverance and faith amid trial?
I felt as though either the author had entirely forgotten about Job, or simply had no idea how to fit this guy in the middle of this Great Hall of Faith and so conveniently skipped over him. And no wonder. Job’s not an easy character to deal with. His story makes us uncomfortable because there’s something about the economics of his life that doesn’t sit well with our modern sense of justice or a fluffy view of God.
Second, there were not only specific people that were chosen to be highlighted in this passage, but specific actions. Some of them were quite obviously appropriate, like with Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. That seemed to be the defining moment of not only Abraham’s life of faith, but of the Israelite nation to come.
But what about Joseph? The author highlighted his prophecy of the exodus of Egypt and that his bones be carried out of the land, not the years he spent languishing in jail or the prophetic dream interpretations or even his own perseverance despite egregious abuse by his older brothers and injustice by Potiphar. These are the events we often look to when celebrating Joseph’s faith, not some prophetic words spoken at the end of his life. My next question was, not only why did the author pick these specific people, but why did mention the specific actions?
So I decided to go back through Hebrews 11 and circle every action committed by the individual, in response to “by faith.” Of course, we know that faith is foremost where mind meets heart, where an intellectual knowledge intersects with heart-oriented action. In its stripped down form, faith by definition implies action, James’ ole “Faith without works is dead” mantra. As I began to circle these words, I began to notice a pattern emerging. Nearly every action could be traced to something Christ Himself did:
- From Abel “offered a better sacrifice”—Jesus offers the better sacrifice, once and for all
- Enoch being “taken up so he would not see death,”—Jesus’ ascension to heaven, not tasting death; victory of life over death
- Noah “prepared an ark,”—Christ preparing a vessel of salvation from divine judgment
- Abraham “offered up Isaac,”—a Father allowing His precious Son to be sacrificed
- Sarah “received ability to conceive,”—God working through a woman to miraculously produce a child—sounds like Mary’s story
- Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau “regarding things to come,” Jacob “blessed each of the sons of Jacob,”
- Joseph “made mention of the exodus” and “giving orders concerning his bones”—this echoes a prophecy concerning Joseph and Mary’s flight to and from Egypt
- Moses “refusing to be called son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God,” and “keeping the Passover” and “passing through the Red Sea.”—Jesus giving up rights as God to choose suffering on behalf of the people, becoming the Passover lamb and delivering people from slavery
Every story and action that the author highlights points to the larger narrative of Christ, of the Father orchestrating events and working through the faith of people to accomplish redemption. This list isn’t a random assortment of great faith heroes where you merely say “Look at the amazing faith of these people. Now you go and do this same thing.” It’s so much more than that: It’s deliberately structured—like the building of some great pyramid—to draw our eyes and attention to one point or peak or zenith.
It kind of remind me of those recaps like “previously on LOST” where you string together the pertinent highlights of the past narrative to bring you to the current story. If the present episode is a “Jack and Kate”-centric episode, then the “previously on LOST” recap splices together past scenes of past episodes featuring Jack and Kate. There’s a sense of culmination, of all the pieces coming together for one express narrative purpose. This is what the author of Hebrews seems to be doing in this passage. He’s bringing together all the threads of the gospel story together to feature the person of Jesus.
And one glaring reality: These people—limited by space and time—had no idea that their lives were part of the greater Christ narrative. They were faithful with what they had in relation to Yahweh, but there was no way they could predict—or anyone could predict for that matter—how closely intertwined their stories and lives would be with the story of humanity’s redemption. But this immense “cloud of witnesses” surrounds us today as we take our own part in the story.
This is where the story brings me back to Job. We’ve been discussing in our small group the idea of this “great cosmic drama.” Poor Job had no idea he was the center of this cosmic drama playing out in heaven between God and Satan. He only saw loss and grief and sickness and what he thought was God’s apparent hand of judgment on His life. One rare time we get a glimpse behind the supernatural curtain and we see there’s Satan walking around earth, creating havoc and destruction, and God sitting on His throne. God allows this bet, this wager by Satan to progress, because He knows the power of faith and love, of freely choosing, rather than allowing mere circumstance to determine Job’s response. And Job’s faith—even amid his questioning and pain—had widespread ramifications that echoed through the hallways of heaven and hell, but not even so loud as the booming God of voice resounding across creation as He shows how far outside of time and space He truly is.
I really can’t conclude if Job was excluded for any particular reason. Knowing me, I likely am just reading far too much into it. He is one among many in a great cloud of witnesses. If anything, his exclusion forced me to think on those who were included–and why.
As much as we humans claim we wish we could see the actual hand of God—fire from heaven, miracles, some obvious manifestation of His power—sometimes I wonder if we are choosing the lesser thing—a sign—over the greater thing—faith. And I do not intend this as the cop-out answer “Just have faith.” It’s not an irrational leap as some would say, but reacting and responding authentically to the person of Christ—the One who loves and suffered on our behalf—with a life of discipleship, of denying self and taking up the cross daily in pursuit of Him. This is what the author means when he says “let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”