Thursday, January 27, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Hebrews 11:8-22

11:8 By faith Abraham, being called, obeyed to go into a place that he was about to receive as an inheritance and he went out, not knowing where he was going. 11:9 By faith he sojourned in the land of promise as a foreigner in tents, dwelling with Isaac and Jacob, his co-inheriters of the same promise. 10. For he was awaiting the city having foundations, whose architect and builder [is] God.

The theme of being strangers in the land is a major part of the next few verses on Abraham. He was in a land that was promised to him, but he was not in possession of that land. There is a sense of alienation from the people around him. He does not belong. He doesn't know where God is leading him. They live in tents rather than permanent houses. The city they are in is not their city.

These images were no doubt meant to speak to the audience of Hebrews. If they were in Rome, indeed, if some of them were Roman citizens, they were alienated from their own city. They lived there but did not belong there. It could also apply to Jerusalem, which was arguably the center of the early church and its fundamental Jewish identity. If Jerusalem were recently destroyed at the time of writing, we can imagine the sense of disequilibrium and alienation that would have resulted.

Whatever the precise scenario, the author reorients them around the heavenly city, the heavenly Jerusalem. This city was designed and constructed by God, not Romulus. [1] The heavenly city has real foundations. Earthly cities like Rome or Jerusalem had far inferior foundations. 

The sense of the land being his by promise but not yet obtained may suggest the theme of new creation. The land would belong to him after the resurrection, after the removal of the current created order and the recreation of all things. So the audience may live on the earth, but it would not be theirs until after the new creation.

[1] Note once again that God the Father is the creator of the cosmos in most of Hebrews rather than Christ. 

11:11 By faith also Sarah herself, sterile, received power for the foundation of seed, even beyond the time of age, since she considered faithful the one who had promised. 12. Therefore, even from one [man]--and these from one having been dead--as the stars of the sky in multitude and as the sand on the shore of the sea without number. 

There are some variations in the Greek manuscripts of 11:11, mainly centering around whether it is Abraham or Sarah's faith that is in question. In either case, the point is that the descendants of Sarah and Abraham did not exist. It was like they were dead. It would have been easy not to believe even though God had promised them descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach.

But God is a God who raises the dead! God raised Jesus from the dead and, if the audience should have to die for their faith, God will raise them from the dead. They fear they are going to face persecution again, as before. They are possibly afraid that the promises they have heard are not real, that Jesus perhaps is not the Messiah, perhaps even that the God of Israel is not a true God.

Hebrews reminds them of salvation history. Death is not the end of the story. God brought Sarah and Abraham multitudes of descendants when it was humanly impossible. And God did this because they had faith.

At points like this we might remember that Sarah did not seem to be full of faith in Genesis 18. We remember what we have said of Old Testament engagement throughout. The moment of inspiration for Hebrews is independent of the moment of inspiration for Genesis. The inspired point of Hebrews is what the Holy Spirit breathed through the author of Hebrews. It does not have to be the same meaning or point as the Old Testament text.

11:13 In faith these all died, not having received the promises but from afar having seen them and having greeted them and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles in the land. 14. For those who speak such things make it clear that they are seeking a country. 15. And if, on the one hand, they were remembering that [one] from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16. But now, they desire a better [one], that is, a heavenly [one]. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he prepared for them a city.

Now the author of Hebrews steps back and gives the general point. The audience may die before they receive the promises of Christ's return and the shaking of the created realm, before the judgment and the true Jerusalem. Or perhaps Christ will come immediately and deliver them. Whatever happens, they must continue on in faith like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Abraham died in faith. He had been given the promise of the land, but he died before his descendants were in full possession of it. He saw the promise from afar, but he did not fully receive them while he were in this world.

So he was an alien in the land of his own promise. He was a stranger. He was an exile. His true country was not the one from which he came. Otherwise, he might have returned. Rather, he was looking for a better country, a heavenly one. He was looking for the heavenly Jerusalem, the heavenly city that God had prepared for him.

These remarks would have been extremely poignant in the aftermath of Jerusalem's destruction. Worried about the truth of a religion whose central city had been destroyed. Worried about a God who would let his temple be obliterated. Given the way people thought about gods and their temples at the time, this must have shook many early Christians deeply. 

We are heirs of those who have long reformulated their faith around heaven and not around any earthly site. They were just in the process of figuring such things out.

11:17 By faith Abraham has offered up Isaac, being tested, and the one who has received the promises was offering the only-born, 18. to the one whom it was spoken, "In Isaac your seed will be called," 19. having reckoned that even from the dead God was able to raise, whence also he received him in a parable.

Death cannot stop God's promises. Just as Isaac's birth was a miracle of life from death, so Isaac's escape from sacrifice was such a rescue. And the audience can know for sure that God can both rescue them from dying if it should come to that, and God can raise them from the dead if they are martyred for their faith. Abraham had a promise. Even death cannot stop the life of God!

The tenses of this verse are fascinating. Abraham "has offered" Isaac. The perfect tense suggests that Isaac remains offered. The tense seems to speak to the permanent witness of Abraham's faith in Scripture. Scripture "stands written," as the often used perfect tense indicates. Regardless of what happened to Abraham in history, the testimony of Scripture stands forever.

Abraham's constant obedience in faith is thus the witness of this text. The imperfect tense is then used at the end of the verse, he "was offering." The continuous flavor of that tense may also suggest the constant, ongoing faith of Abraham while being tested.

The echo of God offering Jesus may also be present. The statement at Jesus' baptism, "This is my son whom I love" echoes the Genesis 22 story where God tells Abraham to offer his son whom he loves. So Abraham's faithfulness in offering Isaac is like God's faithfulness in offering his only-born son as well.

11:20 By faith also concerning things about to be, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. 21. By faith Jacob, dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and he bowed down on the head of his staff. 22. By faith Joseph, nearing the end, remembered concerning the exodus, and commanded concerning his bones.

The witness of Scripture is that Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all showed the same faith in the unseen that Abraham did. Isaac saw a future of promise for Jacob and Esau and blessed them. Jacob and Joseph may have died in Egypt, but they believed in a future where their descendants would return to the land and possess it. Jacob blessed Ephraim and Manasseh, who would also die before their descendants inherited. Joseph commanded that his bones be returned, believing in an exodus that was four hundred years in the future.

In each of these cases, the audience is instructed to persist in faith. Perhaps they will escape persecution. Perhaps they will not. But like the patriarchs, they must continue to run with patience the race set before them.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Interesting thought: The tenses of this verse [17] are fascinating. Abraham "has offered" Isaac. The perfect tense suggests that Isaac remains offered.