The Roll Call Continues: Hebrews 11.32 – 12.3

Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral 15 July 2018 – led by Paul Beasley-Murray

A roll call of the faith – where faith becomes progressively more costly.

“And what more shall I say” – the preacher is running out of time!

Examples of the faith by name (11.32): Gideon (Judg 6.11-8.32); Barak (Judg 4.6-5.31); Samson (Judg 13.2-16.31); Jephthah (Judge 11.1-27); David (1 Sam 16 – 2 Sam 24); Samuel (1 Sam 1-12) – and various other later prophets.

Examples of faith by action (11.33-38)

  • conquered kingdoms (Joshua, David)
  • administered justice (David, Solomon)
  • obtained promises (David? Solomon?)
  • shut the mouths of lions (Samson in Judg 14.6; David in 1 Sam 17.34-36, Daniel in Dan 6.22)
  • quenched raging fire (Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego in Dan 3.13-30)
  • escaped the edge of the sword (Elijah in 1 Kings 19.1-8; Jeremiah in Jer 26.23-24)
  • won strength out of weakness (Jael & Sisera in Judge 5.24-27; or Judith in Judith 13.7)
  • became mighty in war
  • put foreign armies to flight (David? Solomon)
  • women received back their dead by resurrection (1 Kings 17.17-24; 2 Kings 4.25-37)
  • suffered mocking and flogging (Jeremiah)
  • were stoned to death (Zechariah in 2 Chron 24.20-22)
  • were sawn in two (Isaiah in Martyrdom & Ascension of Isaiah 5.11-14)
  • were tortured: literally beaten like a drum, tympanizo (reference to Eleazar Maccabeus, who was “stretched on the rack or tympanon & beaten to death” in 2 Macc 6.19-20)
  • were put to death by the sword (prophets in 1 Kings 198.10)
  • went about in sheepskins & goatskins (Judas Maccabeus & others in 2 Macc 5.27)
  • wandered in deserts & mountains, hid in caves & holes (Jews under Antiochus in 2 Macc 6.11; 10.6).

Some of these heroes are flawed individuals (e.g. Samson) – but “our author chooses examples that his flawed audience could identify with, because, in spite of their flaws, those chosen for this list still exhibited faith/faithfulness at some crucial juncture or in general” (Witherington).

The lesson from all these examples is that faith both accomplishes and suffers great things

v39, 40: “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect”. Chrysostom: “Do you also consider what a thing it is, and how great, that Abraham should be sitting and the apostle Paul waiting till you have been perfected, so that they may then be able to receive their reward? For the Saviour has told them before that, unless we also are present, he will not give it to them… In order that they might not seem to have the advantage over us of being crowned before us, God appointed one time of crowning for all… God did not wrong them, he honoured us” (Homilies on Hebrews 28.2)


The pioneer and perfecter of our faith” NRSV, also Revised New Jer Bible; similarly REB: “the pioneer and perfecter of faith”. The GNB: ‘on whom our faith depends from beginning to end’ – true, but not true to the text; similarly Peterson: Jesus “who both began and finished this race in which we’re in”)

The pioneer (archegos) – a word often used for a leader.

The word found first in Hebs 2.10: “It was fitting that God… in bringing many children to glory should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering”. NIV translates as “author” of our faith – but I prefer to see Jesus described as £the trailblazer”: so FFB wrote “Jesus is presented as the one who has blazed the trail of faith and as the one who himself ran the race of faith to

The perfecter (teleiotes) of our faith: interesting, nowhere else in Greek literature of this period is this word found. “Jesus is the one in whom faith has reached its perfection”; FFB: “It was sheer faith in God, unsupported by any visible or tangible evidence, that carried him through the taunting, the scourging, the crucifying, and the more bitter agony of rejection, desertion and dereliction”.

It is to this Jesus we are to look for inspiration as we run the race of faith: in the words of Thomas Long: “When we see the disciplined, loving, strong, merciful, and faithful way that Jesus ran the race, we are motivated to lace up our running shoes, to grasp the baton, and to sprint for the crossing line”.

The race in question, of course, is the marathon – a marathon by definition a long-distance race. BUT at this point the runners have just entered the stadium – the crowd of witnesses are in their seats – or rather they are out of their seats – they are standing up shouting – urging the runners. The marathon now turns into a final sprint – the runners are giving their all – straining with every sinew to get to the tape Have you got the picture? Incidentally, the Greek word used for this race is agon – the word from which we get our word ‘agony’ – a fitting description for this stage of the race where every muscle is now aching.

Let’s look at Hebs 12.1 in more detail: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race, that is set before us”.

We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses – in this context the witnesses are surely the past heroes of faith. The Greek word for ‘witness’ is martus, from which we get our English word martyr. According to Ben Witherington, it is not impossible that the word here has the more specialised meaning of those who have died for their faith. Frankly, we don’t know. What is certain is that the witnesses are there to encourage us.

The aim of this race is not so much to come first, as to finish. Many give up half-way, but we are called to keep going. How? The author gives some advice:

  • Negatively, we are to be stripped for action – nobody in their right mind would enter a race togged up in an overcoat, hat and scarf – instead they change into the right gear – and wear shorts and singlets. Indeed, in the ancient world athletes were more radical – they ran naked! “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely” Weights and sin are not synonymous. Sin is always wrong – weights may be OK in themselves, but in particular circumstances may proved to be a hindrance. Anything which gets between us and God, anything which hinders us from going all-out for Jesus, is to be discarded
  • Positively, we are to “run with perseverance (hupomones) the race that is set before us” – the GNB translates ‘determination’ but there is more to the word than that – it involves ‘endurance’. It’s a tough race – and we will also succeed as we look to Jesus. “Let us run… looking to Jesus”. The GNB “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus”. Better, looking alone to Jesus. Let me quote from Ben Witherington III: “When combined with eis, the verb aphorountes in Hebs 12.2 means a definite looking away from other things and a fixing of one’s eyes on only the goal”. Peter T. O’Brien in his commentary says something similar: “The author’s appeal calls for concentrated attention that turns away from all distractions with eyes only for Jesus”. In a note he goes on: “The verb occurs in the description of the Maccabean martyrs who “avenged their nation, looking to God, and enduring the torments to the point of death” (4 Macc).

Notice that here we are not called to focus on the Saviour – nor on the Lord – nor on the Christ nor indeed on the Son of God – rather we are called to focus on Jesus. “The use of the simple personal name ‘Jesus’ shows that the accent is upon his humanity, and especially his endurance of pain, humiliation and the disgrace of the cross” (WL Lane, Hebrews 410). Jesus, in the very way in which he lived life God’s way, has set us a pattern for our living. We need to keep on looking to him, and in looking look to him for help and strength.

Jesus… who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God

Notice the phrase “he endured the cross”. This is the only place this expression is found. It refers to his positive action of persevering to the end rather than his passive acceptance of death. Jesus, in persevering to death, sets an example to the author’s readers.

Notice the word “shame”. Cicero called the cross “the tree of shame”! To quote FFB: “To die by crucifixion was to plumb the lowest depths of disgrace; it was a punishment reserved for those who were deemed of all men most unfit to live, a punishment for sub-men. From so degrading a death Roman citizens were exempt by ancient statute; the dignity of the Roman name would be besmirched by being brought into association with anything so vile by being brought into it”.

In this context Witherington wonders whether from a Jewish perspective there is another aspect to this shame: viz. being naked in public – for nakedness was the natural condition for both runners and those hanging on the cross.

Jesus, however “endured the shame” – and in so doing “overturned the opinions and values of the world” (O’Brien)

He did this “for the sake of the joy that was set before him”.

FFB: “His exaltation there, with all that it means for his people’s well-being and for the triumph of God’s purpose, is “the joy that was set before him”, for the sake of which he submitted to shame and death”.

An alternative translation is found in a footnote to the RSV: “instead of the joy that was set before him” – the Greek preposition anti was capable of both translations. In which case the meaning is that “renouncing the joy that could have been his, he endured a cross – instead of the joy of heaven he chose to go the way of the cross”.

Whatever translation we adopt, the Cross was not the last word. Jesus has taken his seat at the right hand of God. The crucified is now the exalted Lord

Hebs 12.3: Consider him who endure such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (GNB: “Think of what he went through; how he put up with so much hatred from sinners! Do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up”.).

Here again we are back to the theme of perseverance – to this group of Christians who were in danger of going back to their former Jewish faith, the writer says ‘Don’t give up’. Instead, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s wonderful paraphrase: Keep your eyes on JESUS, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s THERE, in the place of honour, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. THAT will shoot adrenaline into your souls.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Who are today’s heroes of the faith? Worldwide there are many candidates – Christians who have experienced extraordinary suffering for the sake of Jesus Christ. However, in my work with retired ministers I have come to realise how many of them are unsung heroes of the faith…..”By faith they set out in ministry not knowing where the journey would lead them – by faith they lived in homes not their own – by faith they offered up their wives and children in the service of God – by faith they climbed the mountains , but also plumbed the depths of human experience – by faith they preached the good news and lived out the life of the kingdom – by faith they saw their churches grow, but they also saw their churches decline – by faith they experienced the love of their people, and by faith they experienced rejection and misunderstanding – by faith they were abused……”
  2. How helpful do you find this metaphor of running a marathon? While preparing this study, in my QT I was reading from John 15, where Jesus calls us to abide in him. As I grow older I much prefer the thought of abiding rather than running – what do you feel?
  3. The author encourages us to “look to” Jesus and to “consider” Jesus. When and how has Jesus been an inspiration to you?

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