Why Do We Need Heroes?
True heroes are in short supply these days. Loyalty to causes larger than one’s own personal interests seems to be out of favor with the “me” generation. A token, but obvious, illustration came to the fore in the media coverage of last winter’s Olympic games. Significant blocks of air time and print space were devoted to estimates of how much winning a gold medal would enhance each athlete’s financial fortunes. Capturing a gold medal was deduced to be worth as much as $10 million. Thus skaters, skiers, lugers, and fellow competitors were “going for the gold” in more than figurative terms.
The Word of God, however, sets a higher standard for heroism than economic gain or self-gratification. It can be categorically stated that the Lord’s Hall of Heroes contingent found marching through Hebrews 11 has left us a legacy of immense value. The encouragement and inspiration flowing from the lives of ordinary people through whom He chose to accomplish extraordinary things have brought inestimable enrichment to the lives of saints for nearly two millennia.
The backdrop against which the Holy Spirit chose to project the lives of Abel, Enoch, Abraham, and their companions in the faith is fascinating. Going on with God is the theme, prefaced by a warning to those who started out on the way but decided to turn back to the old paths of failed religion. These were the seed in stony places people (Mt. 13:20) who, in the words of Jesus, received the word with joy, “Yet hath he no root in himself, but endureth for a while; for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, immediately he is offended” (Mt. 13:21). Such was the case with some early Jewish stony places professors of the faith described in the Hebrews epistle—those who professed to follow Jesus but never possessed true saving faith. When the tests of their faith began to fall upon them, they turned away from the “new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us” (Heb. 10:20). In other words, they turned from the better way provided in the Messiah Jesus and turned back to the Temple, sacrifices, and ceremony of the old economy.
Accentuating the Positive
“Cast not away, therefore, your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward” (Heb. 10:35).
In contradiction to the warning of those who drew back was the word to true believers to stand fast and be encouraged that they were destined for better things both here and hereafter. Their confidence was rooted in the assurance that they were “not of them who draw back unto perdition, but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb. 10:39). Within the pale of professing believers in Jesus were those steadfast contenders for the faith who made up the infant band of believers who would shake and shape the world for God.
In reality, a sort of crossroads issue is raised here. Were these true believers going to be preoccupied with those who were turning back or with those who were going on with the Lord? Such temptation to distraction has been a persistent companion of Christians from that day to this. As a matter of fact, some have had their thinking about the message of Hebrews so fixed on attempting to decide the true status of those mentioned in verses 6:1–6 and 10:26–29, that they have neglected important, positive aspects of the message. Of one thing we can be certain: Sorting out possessors of faith from pretenders of faith can be an exceedingly difficult task—one that is virtually impossible for finite-minded humans. The good news is that the Lord has not left the final determination to us. A concise lesson is set forth in the parable of the tares and wheat recorded in Matthew 13:24–30. The admonition is to allow God to identify and separate the tares from the wheat in His own good time. You and I are to select our companions along the way from those who consistently evidence the fruits of the Spirit, which mark those who live by faith.
The Scope of Saving Faith
The definitive phrase in the positive preamble to Hebrews 11 is “the just shall live by faith” (Heb. 10:38)—words taken from Habakkuk 2:4. At a moment in Israel’s history when turning back seemed to be a national lifestyle, a sublime word of encouragement was offered to those who desired to go on in spite of bad conditions and worse people.
The writer of Hebrews focused his better things application of this message of hope by making the Second Coming of Christ the central pillar of expectation for believers who “seek a country” (Heb. 11:14). “For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith” (Heb. 10:37–38a). So Habakkuk’s “it” (Hab. 2:2) became a “he” (Heb. 10:37)—none other than the Messiah, who was crucified, risen, and is coming again.
The marvelous Old Testament declaration is repeatedly referred to in the New Testament. Every reference touches a particular aspect of the enabling ministry of Christ. Three vital dimensions are revealed:
- Salvation: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For in it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:16–17).
Salvation’s center and scope are bound up in these two verses. The gospel of Christ alone is “the power of God unto salvation.” Christ’s gospel, therefore, is the heart of God’s redemptive program. The scope of His gospel is “to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” The reality of the faith life is offered freely to all who will receive it—no turning back—and be born into the family of God by simple faith in Christ’s finished work.
- Security: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident; for, The just shall live by faith” (Gal. 3:10–11).
The perpetual fear and uncertainty plaguing the lives of people honest enough with themselves to agree that they “continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them” are more than a burden; they are a “curse.” But now that unrelenting taskmaster has been impressed by God into a schoolmaster who awakens us to the need of a deliverer. The deliverer is identified: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). There is now, therefore, a glorious reality open to all who believe: “The just shall live by faith!” The songwriter caught the triumph of the transaction:
Free from the law, O happy condition,
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission.
- Inspiration: “Cast not away, therefore, your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward … For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition, but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb. 10:35, 37–39).
Like the hand of the master conductor leading a grand orchestra, the Holy Spirit leads us through surpassing crescendos of inspiration as a prelude to the high places of Hebrews 11. “Cast not away, therefore, your confidence,” for after reaping comes “great recompense of reward.” Keep looking up, for “he that shall come will come.” Therefore, dare to walk boldly, for “the just shall live by faith.” With fellow pilgrims, raise your voice in the triumphant strain that “we are not of them who draw back unto perdition,” but of that faith band that goes on living with God.
Living on Faith’s Higher Ground
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders received witness. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Heb. 11:1–3).
Over the years I have talked with many who seem to have difficulty with the introductory verses of Hebrews 11. Indeed, many times, I fear, our explanations of the passage are much more confusing than clarifying. I wonder, however, if this is not another instance of our making the issue much more complicated than God intended it to be. We all realize, of course, that whenever one is called upon to translate abstract propositions into concrete terms, the potential for problems exists. But let’s look at the text without prematurely complicating what is being said.
Standing on the Promises
The saints of the Old Testament era relied on promises of what God would do through the Messiah in the dim, distant future. By New Testament standards, they had very little light. But their faith in that light was unshakable, and their lives were ordered daily by what had been promised. The King was coming. He would one day occupy a throne. What God had promised to the heirs of Abraham would be theirs to possess. The will had been written and sealed; the heirs would inherit the promises.
Acting on the Promises
Faith, then, is living with total confidence that the promises will be performed. Such assurance translates into substance—a substance that gives shape and form to every moment of every passing day. I mentioned a written will. It is a viable comparison. When an heir is named in a will and there is an assurance that, while not knowing all of the specifics, considerable assets will one day be possessed, a person’s life becomes ordered in some measure by that confidence.
The object, then, of God’s giving us the host of Old Testament examples found in Hebrews 11 is to illustrate how the solid saints of old fleshed out their faith—how reality, shape, shade, and, yes, substance were the stuff of their everyday lives. Their faith was not wishful thinking, not leap in the dark uncertainty. No, their true faith was absolute certainty.
A few weeks ago, Maxine and I were driving to Virginia to spend a few days. As we often do, we passed the time listening to audio tapes. Among our favorites is one given to me by a friend who for years was the pianist for the Jordanaires quartet. We like that particular tape so much because the selections are almost all spirituals. Listening to the intensity of the words about heaven and the joys awaiting us beyond this vale “of trials and tribulations” brought the assurance that the singers of those words were exulting in the substance of their experience with God. It was a reach out and touch it kind of expression. Heaven is there; it is real; we’re almost home; the “great gettin’ up mornin’” is coming soon. So go on for God because we hear that the “chariot is comin’.”
These faith is substance expressions are no less the stuff of reality than was the expression of a feeble, saintly woman I visited the night before she slipped away into eternity. As I prepared to leave her hospital room, after we had prayed together, she lifted a hand, cast a bright smile, and said, “Good night, pastor. I’ll see you in the morning.” We both knew that she wasn’t talking about breakfast at General Hospital. She was speaking confidently about the morning to come when we will sit down together at the table of the Lord. My friend was simply stepping through a door from one room to another. God was about to turn on the light and let her see what her faith had possessed.
Resting in the Faith
Hebrews 11:13 says, “These [Old Testament saints] all died in faith, not having received the promises but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
This is really the essence of it all. Those spiritual forebears of ours were privileged to see beyond. Although far off, they were persuaded, and it was enough. Anything they were forced to bear, they could face in the absolute assurance that they were only temporary residents here. They sought another country. In this we too can find rest and perfect peace.
So, whatever confronts you as a believer today, read about the lives of those who have gone before, and learn the marvelous lessons each one has for you. With them, you can see beyond the horizon.