The Conquest of Faith and the Climax of History-- Heb. 12. 1-4, 18-29
Delivered at St. Salvator’s Church St. Andrews Scotland July 21 2006 for the Hebrews Conference
In 1993 I managed to run the Boston Marathon--- yes all 26 miles of it. I had trained for it, but nothing could ever prepare you for that sort of life experience. I knew that the only way I would ever see the ‘archegos’ the trailblazer out in front of the pack, was if I went up to the starting line before the race began and looked at the Kenyans and Nigerians with their huge upper legs and otherwise lanky and diminutive frames. They would run the race in just over two hours. It would take me about five. But there were many things I learned along the way. For one thing I learned that I needed to follow the leader and go exactly the same path he had trod. Going off the course would disqualify me. Nor was I to follow the pseudo-runners, like the man wearing a rainbow afro wig and zigzag across the couse for a few miles with a T-shirt on which read ‘Kiss Me, I’m Jesus’. No he was not my trailblazer either. For another thing, while I could take encouragement from the cheering of the great cloud of witnesses lining the race course which wound through numerous small Massachusetts towns like Ashland before arriving in town, still I would have to run the race myself. They could not do it for me. I took inspiration from a man running while pushing his quadrapelegic son the whole 26 miles down the course, and from a 74 year old lady who urged me to run with her up heartbreak hill. When I entered the city exhausted, as it was very hot that April Patriot’s Day, I was roused to new life by the cheering Harvard and BU students riding the above ground tram as I headed for the Prudential center. And when I turned the final bend and saw the finish mile I kept repeating to myself the title of one of my favorite old books--- Are you running with me Jesus?’ Finally I fell into the arms of one of my best friends, who took my picture crossing the finish line. Suddenly I was wrapped in a NASA foil blanket and give fruit juices and I collapses in a happy heap. I had finish the course.
The great encomium of faith we find in Heb.11 begins with the following stirring phrase--- “Now faith is the substance/assurance of things hoped for, the proof/conviction of things not seen. About these things the ancients bore witness.” On this showing faith is not about looking back in longing or in dread or in belief, it is about looking forward towards our hope with conviction and assurance, for the very existence of the miracle of forward looking faith is called a proof of things not seen. But this stirring beginning to the ‘hall of faith’ chapter in Hebrews has an equally stirring climax, only its not in Hebrews 11, it is in Heb. 12.1-4 which has been read as part of our lesson for today.
Unfortunately Stephen Langton (1150-1228) the one time Archbishop of Canterbury, did not serve us well when he provided us with the still current division of the Bible into chapters and verses, which divisions I keep having to remind my students are not inspired, and indeed sometimes are not even very inspiring. Especially unfortunate is the separation of Heb. 12.1-4 from the material in Hebrews 11, for in fact Christ is the climactic exemplum of faith, as we shall see, the paradigm and paragon of true forward looking faith and faithfulness in this sermon called Hebrews.
Famously Jesus is said to be the pioneer and perfector, or trailblazer and finisher of faith. You will notice that I did not say “of our faith”. There is no word ‘our’ either hinted at or explicit in the Greek text. Our author is telling us that while in the marathon race to the finish line of life we are surrounded by many forward looking folk, a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, never the less we are meant to cast off our leg irons and arm weights and focus entirely on Jesus, the leader of the pack, the trailblazer of our path into the heavenly sanctuary, the pioneer of true forward looking faith and faithfulness. Our author goes on to make VERY clear he is saying Christ is our ultimate example of faith and faithfulness for he goes on to add “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Heb. 11-12 brings to mind the words of the naturalist John Muir who said, ‘we look at life from the backside of the tapestry. What we normally see is loose ends, tangled threads, frayed chords. But occasionally light shines through the tapestry and we get a glimpse of the larger design. Heb. 11-12 is giving us that big picture glimpse.
Our author is worried about the level of morale amongst the Jewish Christians in Rome in the 60s, who have already seen Peter and Paul go down for the count, and while they themselves have not yet suffered to the point of bloodshed, they have had property confiscated and they have seen their leaders martyred. The temptation to go native, or to turn back to a safer more licit form of religion must indeed have been great. Our author, who provides stern warnings against apostasy throughout his epideictic discourse (see e.g. Heb. 6) is certainly one of those who believes that the Christian believer is not eternally secure until they are securely in eternity.
Thus he exhorts the audience, with real concern about their breaking or abandoning faith, to follow the example of and keep their eyes on the trailblazer Jesus, to endure the same sort of shame he did, to die if need be, and to sit down with him in glory. Thus far our author sounds rather like an ancient version of those who promise pie in the sky, by and by and we must indeed seriously ask has our author exchanged eschatological afterlife thinking for ethereal other world thinking? Many have thought so, and have drawn analogies with Philo, or the neo-Platonists. I am unconvinced however, for our author is not at the end of the day a Platonist who sees this world as but a pale shadow of eternity, he is an early and thoroughly eschatological Jewish Christian, as my old mentor C.K. Barrett long ago pointed out, commenting on the eschatological character of Hebrews. In fact, as it turns out, our author is much like the author of Revelation affirming both a vibrant afterlife and a glorious other world as lying in the future of true believers. In different places in his discourse he places different stresses on one or the other, but at no point has he simply exchanged his eschatological birth rite for pie in the sky by and by.
This becomes especially clear not only when we consider our author quoting Hab. 2.3-4 in Heb. 10.37—“he who is coming will come and will not delay” or Heb. 10.25 where we hear about “the Day” of judgment and redemption that is coming, or Heb. 9.28 where we hear that Christ will appear a second time not to bear sin but to bring salvation. Or Heb. 13.14 where the heavenly city ‘to come’ is to be entered not merely by dying but by resurrection from the dead, and we could go on. What is surprising in this epideictic discourse is not the focus on what is true now in heaven, for the time focus of such rhetoric is the present time, what is surprising is the future references we do have in a piece of rhetoric which is not deliberative in character and is not arguing for an adoption of some new course of behavior or action in the near future. Instead he is arguing for persevering in the beliefs and behaviors the audience had already embraced long ago. And this brings us to the remarkable theophanic language used in the peroration in Heb. 12.18-29, the truly stirring and emotive climax meant at once to thrill and send a chill down the spine of the audience as final judgment and final salvation is vividly depicted.
Here we have a tale not so much of two cities as of two theophanies. God comes down on Sinai mountain and the people cannot bear the numinous presence and the trumpet blast and the final words of doom and gloom on a sinful people who had been building golden calves while Moses was visiting with God up the hill. No, says our author, if you will preserve in true faith, a better fate awaits the present audience he addresses. Rather, he says you have come to the very edges of a very different mountain--- Mount Zion rather than Mount Sinai. Our author has perhaps learned this contrast from Paul (see Galatians). It’s the heavenly city, the better country that Abraham saw from a far, that they have now drawn near to. Is our author envisioning his audience being raptured into heaven, into the presence of the angels and the living God or simply dying and going to heaven?
In fact he is not. Like the author of Revelation he envisions a corporate merger of heaven and earth, or perhaps better said, a replacement of this current world, both heavens and earth, that is wasting away, with an eternal form of heaven and earth, which when Jesus returns and the dead are raised will become heaven on earth. Our author says we who are still earthbound are receiving a kingdom (12.28), the very one devoutly to be wished and long prayed for—“thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”. And so it is that our author envisions the second coming as a second theophany, a coming down of the heavenly city to earth, a final judgment and redemption in space and time, not an escape into the bodiless existence of a purely spiritual heaven without a final resolution of the matters of justice and redemption. John Chrysostom ably summed up things in his homily on this very text, and I am paraphrasing him here-- At the former theophany the people stood far off. At the final one they are said to have drawn near and are beckoned to stay close. At the former theophany they are in the wilderness, at the latter they are at the gates of the new Jerusalem, the ultimate symbol of true human civilization. At the former theophany there was gloom and darkness at the latter a festal celebration complete with partying angels. At the former theophany the people begged God to speak through Moses and not directly, at the latter they are urged to listen directly to God. At the former theophany even Moses the mediator trembled and no one dared to touch the holy mountain, but at the latter Jesus the mediator will be present and God’s people are beckoned to enter in at his return. At the former theophany sinful Israel is present, at the latter the spirits of just persons made perfect. At the former theophany there is blood from violence and judgment on sin, but at the latter theophany there is only the sprinkled blood of Jesus which preaches peace and enables mercy. At the former theophany worship amounts to fear and trembling before God, at the latter worship involves awe and wonder and thankfulness and acceptable worship of God.
This brings us back to the opening definition of faith. It is not just about faith in things in heaven not currently seen. It is also about things hoped for in space and time that are coming to a theater near us when Jesus comes back. In his recent scintillating Freitas lectures at Asbury Mark Allan Powell spoke about the difference between Christian faith’s great expectations and the resort to calculations or prognostications. The early church earnestly expected Christ to return, but that expectation was not trivialized into calculation. Expectations, even great expectations are not dogma or doctrine, they are things devoutly to be wished and earnestly desired. They are based on the promises of God, but they do not try to resolve the tension between the already and the not yet by giving way to predictions.
The earliest Christians, including the author of Hebrews knew that God has revealed enough of the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not need to live by faith. Indeed, our author insists that we must live by faith just as all those who have come before us, including Jesus, the ultimate model of faith and faithfulness, have done. We have assurance of what is hoped for, but this is in no way the same as having knowledge of when faith will become sight, and hope will be realized. When faith degenerates into speculation, or even worse into pretended knowledge that “the end is at hand” then it ceases to be the hopeful forward-looking, trusting of God about which our author speaks.
It is ironic to me that both Albert Schweitzer and modern Dispensationalists are wrong about the eschatology of Jesus, Paul and other NT writers in the very same way. Schweitzer thought that Jesus and his followers believed and predicted that the end was definitely at hand, and acted accordingly, though bless their hearts, they were wrong. Modern Dispensationalists think the end is now at hand and think they can prove it with multi-colored charts, Left Behind novels, and escapist theology. One has to say, that bad theology came out of that revival in Glasgow in the 1820s which Darby attended and which got the rapture theology rolling for the Plymouth Brethren, then for D.L. Moody, then for C.I. Scofield and on and on.
And what is interesting about this comparison of two bad misreadings of the early Christian hope is not just the misreading of the NT evidence, but the fact that in both cases expectation was wrongly assumed to equal prognostication or prediction, which is not the case. Indeed, to predict the timing of Christ’s return with accuracy would make unnecessary the very sort of trust in God, and assurance about the future hope that our author says we should embrace and insists is essential for a Christian as they look forward into the future. Great Expectations when coupled with true faith and trust, should never degenerate into paltry prognostications of whatever sort. That is just human beings getting an itchy trigger finger and not being able to leave matters in God’s hands. I want to leave you with two stories of forward looking faith.
Adoniram Judson was a remarkable missionary to Burma, remarkable not least because he seemed to have no success, no converts for well over a decade yet he stuck to it. Indeed the tribes he was ministering to had become impatient and hostile towards him. There came a day of confrontation when the chief of one tribe was ready to throw Judson to the flames and had him tied up. He came and eyeballed Judson and said “what do you think now of your God, now that you are about to die?” Judson stared right back at him and said in memorable words “the future is a bright as the promises of God”. Famously, it was the tribal chief who blinked, untied Judson, and said he would hear more of this God. This was the day Christianity took root in Burma. Notice Judson did not say “the future is as bright as the predictions of human beings.” He knew the difference between trusting in God’s promises, and reducing expectations to calculations.
I was privileged enough to study in seminary with Elizabeth Elliot, the wife of Jim Elliot, the subject of the recent movie “The End of the Spear”. It is a stirring and true tale of young Christian couples working with the violent Waodani Indians in South America. On furlough, and shortly before he was martyred, Jim Elliot was asked by a reporter why he was so hopeful in his work with such resistant and violent people. He replied “He is no fool, who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” Shortly thereafter, Jim was killed by one of the Waodani. Only a couple of years ago at Franklin Graham crusade in Florida, the man who killed Jim Elliot came and gave his testimony. He said: “Formerly, I lived badly badly. But when Jim Elliot came and helped me to see Jesus, and then gave up his life for me, I knew I must respond in faith.” Indeed so. The great cloud of witnesses referred to in Hebrews did not cease to march the trail into glory in the first century. It has continued on into the present.
The question for us is—will we embrace this faith in God’s promises, will we live as the church expectant, not the church triumphalistic? Will we fix our eyes on Jesus and follow his model of trust in God and faithfulness unto death? If we will, then indeed there is assurance of things hoped for, and even internal proof of things not seen.