I have several favorite books of the Bible, but one of them is surely Hebrews. I had a class on it at King’s College in 1952 and from that time on I have often read it. After Joice died, I looked at it in a new way, especially chapters 11 and 12. Hebrews 11 is the “faith” chapter in which we read about people who had faith and how we can think about it and have more ourselves.
In “ancient times” the people looked forward in faith for what God had in store and we also look forward in faith for what God has in store. We can’t see what is ahead any more than the ancients could—we all must rely on the faith God gives us to “know” what is ahead.
It takes faith to be sure of the things we believe and read in Scripture because, from the beginning to the end of the Bible, it is all miraculous and generally outside the realm of our experience. However, it is by faith that the ancients, as well as we who live now, won and win God’s approval. He could see that the ancient people of God understood—by faith—He created the world by speaking it into existence. He was the Word, and it was by means of His words that He manifested His power to create everything. This beginning in time Word is the same person—but not a person like us—who was Jesus, although He was not named Jesus at the time. Only later, when born of Mary did he have the earthly name of Jesus.
The first person we read about and who exhibited faith was Abel and he paid dearly for it. His brother Cain killed him because he was jealous of God accepting Abel’s sacrifice and not his. Abel, who was a shepherd, offered the “best parts” of a first born lamb, and Cain, a farmer, offered some of his “harvest,” perhaps grain or vegetables that did not shed blood and were not killed as a sacrifice. One sheep was obviously more precious than some grain. The result was gruesome: Cain killed Abel and we have paid dearly for his murder.
As an aside, notice that atheists, who do not believe in God as the creator of the world, nevertheless believe in chance. They have complete (usually) “faith” in something which is random and which they can only examine in retrospect. They often claim that they cannot believe in a God who “allows” for example, the murder of a child, famine, floods and destruction of any sort. They can’t believe that God allows evil and yet they believe that “anything can happen given enough time.” And how much is “enough time”? It doesn’t matter, as long as one “believes” that chance can “produce” what it wishes, given enough time.
But back to Hebrews and Abel, who speaks to us even though he is “dead.” He speaks to us through the example of the gift he gave to God—a sacrificial lamb, which foretells us that the “Lamb of God” will satisfy God and be the way that the sins of the world will be paid for.
After Cain and Abel, there are numerous people mentioned in Hebrews 11 who demonstrate faith, but the first is Enoch. Somehow, he had enough faith that he did not die; he was simply “taken up” into heaven. Not his soul, but the man Enoch in flesh and blood, that is, with a body. Genesis 4.17 relates that Enoch was the son of Cain, who was building a city and named it after Enoch. Enoch “walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Genesis 5.24). We don’t know why—many people walk faithfully with God and they live and die here on earth. Most people follow that course although Elijah got taken to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2), surely a dizzy way to go.
We expect people, for the most part (that is, excluding war, famine, flood, and so on) to die of “natural causes,” meaning disease and old age. But not always: Saul died “because he was unfaithful to the Lord” (1 Chronicles 10:13) and consulted a medium for guidance. We assume that Saul went to heaven, but we can’t be sure.
Another person commended for his faith was Noah, who found “favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6.8). He was “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 6.9). To walk faithfully, one must have faith and Noah demonstrated his in a most unusual way: he built an ark, knowing that God was about to destroy humankind. But his faith required him to wait until he was 600 years old (Genesis 7.6). He didn’t live a perfect life—sin happened with him when he was drunk—but he did last a total of 950 years (Genesis 9.29). Despite the faith of Noah, God did not spare the ancient world (2 Peter 2.5).
Abraham, who is referred to 235 times in the NIV, was the epitome of faith: In addition to all that is said about him in Hebrews, Luke and Paul refer to him often as an example of faith. Abraham is responsible for the many lineages that followed him, so much so that Luke writes about Jesus referring to a man as a “son of Abraham” (Luke 19.9) and Paul assures us that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4.3; James 2.23). Therefore faith, believing in God, counts as “righteousness.”
It is hard to say enough about Abraham: leaving for an unknown country at the prompting of God, becoming a father at an old age, offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God, and being the “father” of so many descendants. Isaac is mentioned 129 times in the NIV, the same as Jacob.
There is not much said in the book of Hebrews about Jacob and Esau, sons of Isaac, except that Jacob blessed Joseph, one of his sons, before he died. The story of Joseph and his brothers is not mentioned as an example of faith, although Joseph is mentioned 248 times in the Bible, beating his father handily.
Moses is the big man in the Bible, mentioned 803 times in the NIV and his faith meant more to him than “all the treasures of Egypt” because “he kept his eyes on the future reward” (26), which is something that all people of faith must do.
It seems fascinating that the harlot Rahab would be mentioned in this “roll call of faith,” However, when she sheltered the spies that Joshua had sent out, she gave us another example of faith. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that he two spies are not mentioned as having faith when they visited the house of a prostitute.
The writer of Hebrews is now in a hurry: he (or she) does not have time to tell of the faith stories of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, or the prophets. The are commended in general terms: they fought enemies and won; they did what was right; they killed lions and put out fires; they escaped from capture; they defeated enemies and foreigners and, somehow “through faith women received their dead relatives raised back to life” (35). One would like more explanation of who, when, where and why, that happened, but none is given.
There are more examples of faith, but the heroes are anonymous: they died under torture, refused freedom, were mocked and whipped, put in chains, stoned, sawed in two, and so on. They did all this “in order to be raised to a better life” (also 35). They demonstrated that they were not giving up their faith in God because He had an “even better plan for us. And here the writer of Hebrews includes those who have gone and died before the Jesus came but who would “be in company with us” and be made perfect (40).
All of these heroes are now part of a great cloud (throng) of people who have gone to heaven as witnesses to the power of faith in God. With them are our loved ones who followed Jesus faithfully, including my wife Joice. She, with them, are somehow “around us” (12.1), living out joyfully now what they faithfully believed. Imagine! Joice is with Abraham and Paul, Wopa Eka and Phil, George and Pat, and on and on and on it goes. So many that it would be impossible to count them, but they are people with names, not vague spirits floating around in the heavens.
This, then, is part of the great promise that I cling to with all the faith I have—and I pray earnestly to God for more! Seeing loved ones is not, as CS Lewis once maintained, an idle promise. In A Grief Observed (p. 37) he said “Unless of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible.” He says this because he believes that “The exact same thing is never taken away and given back.”
Lewis is of course trying to help us not to want heaven solely to see our loved ones: there is much more to heaven than that! I want to see Jesus and to worship God with all my being, but why would He exclude Joice from the pleasure of us worshipping Him together? That sounds more like hell!
The rich man and Lazarus saw each other and there was communication; Peter, James and John saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus and there was communication; the angels see sinners repent on earth and there is joy and laughter; the thief on the cross went with Jesus to Paradise; and the faithful witnesses mentioned in Hebrews 11 “surround” us, as do angels. We are not alone in our journey to heaven, and we will be surrounded with friends, those who were faithful “witnesses” here on earth. It includes people we loved, knew well, or knew only in passing.
As Joice would often pray, “keep us faithful to the end.”
December 27, 2021