There is something powerful and gutsy about the faith of Hebrews 11. The writer speaks of people “who through faith conquered kingdoms….” He’s taking us through a whistle-stop tour of Old Testament history, sure, but en-route gives us a flavor of the quality of life thus lived.
It’s a life that conquers kingdoms. It takes territory for God. It pioneers. It “takes the kingdom by force.” The New Testament encourages this sense of the irrepressible.“Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” (1 John 5:5). There’s a Tsunami of energy coming from within the one who believes: “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:38). And it has the supreme confidence of Mark 11:24: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
There are a couple of extra points, however, that sometimes get displaced in the adrenalin-rush of this information. The first is that we are not talking about Faith as a commodity, a super-power or an “It” that, once possessed, renders you incapable of defeat. If that was the case, then the emphasis would all be on you, you and your truimphant Success-story. No. It’s always Faith-in-Christ. It’s always the absolute confidence in the lordship of Christ who has Himself overcome the world, who is within you, alongside you, the powerful Advocate, the One who loves to answer prayer before we ask it. Faith means trust in Him.
The second point that sometimes gets forgotten is the subject of the passage that follows in Hebrews 11:33-40. It is that the faith that conquers kingdoms may not look like a human success-story at all.
We sometimes think that it should do. We measure the quality of our lives by the things we have achieved, and fall back into some version of a materialistic trap (singing “I did it my-y-y way”).
But surely, we say, that the people “who through faith conquered kingdoms….gained what was promised,” didn’t they?
Yes indeed. But don’t forget that the supreme life of faith was that lived by Jesus himself. His is the “success-story” that we are called to emulate.
So here’s how the writer develops the idea. He’s speaking of those faith-filled people:
“…who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again.
It is important to note that this is still a description of the faith that conquers kingdoms. You hear echoes of various Bible stories here and there: Daniel and his frends, various heroes of Judges, Elijah’s widow… and then the story of faith takes a darker turn:
“There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated – 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.”
Suddenly we are taken into contemporary stories of the Persecuted Church, and through that into the life Of Jesus himself, (through the parallel of Old Testament heroes of faith who prefigure a desire for “a better resurrection“). We are reminded, whether or not we want to be reminded, of the Jesus who said: “Take up your cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23), and who also said: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)
The writer concludes: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11: 33-40)
To understand this, you have to glance forward to the beginning of the next chapter: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
The “therefore” at the beginning of 12:1 points us back to this motivation in 11:39–40. “And all these [the people mentioned in chapter 11], though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us.” And what is better for us because they did not get what was promised? The answer is the last phrase of verse 40: “That apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
It simply means that we are all in this together, the past, present and future People of God, until God calls “Time!” God says: no one gets the glory of the finishing line until all have finished the race. They will not be “made perfect” without us.
So run the race—fight to persevere in faith and love and obedience; strive to complete the Great Commission and reach all the unreached peoples—knowing that the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before will not be perfected until the church on earth finishes its appointed task. When all the runners are across the line, then the joy of everyone will be even more because we will be glorified not one at a time but all together in one great consummation of the kingdom.
That’s the motivation: look back to the witnesses who have gone before: 1) they finished their course by faith, so you can too; 2) and all the saints wait with longing and excitement for you to finish the race. What lies ahead is a wonderful experience of resurrection and restorationof all the saints when the last one finally makes it across the line!
So lay aside the weights and sins and RUN in the faith that conquers kingdoms.