The Hebrew writer begins the Faith Hall of Fame with Abel, of whom he says, “He being dead yet speaks.” The image of dead Abel speaking reminds us of what God told Cain in Genesis 4, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” The Hebrew writer is being a little clever with us and reminding us, subtly, that the Faith is no easy thing. If you’re Abel, it gets you murdered.
The Hebrew writer slowly abandons this subtlety as he reminds us that the patriarchs “all died in faith” and that Moses chose “to be mistreated with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” He quickly crescendos from there, reminding us of “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets–who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” The Faith is not for the fainthearted.
But if those verses are a crescendo, what follows is a trumpet blast, a full-on assault:
Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–
You get the picture. The Hebrew writer has circled back to Abel’s experience with the Faith: sometimes it gets you murdered.
The Hebrew writer pivots to his next point by reminding us that the faithful dead are still with us, saying, “…we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….” What are they witnessing?
They witness to us that the Faith is hard, that it is full of trials, suffering, even death. Anyone who wants to take up the mantle of “Disciple of Jesus” must count the cost, as Jesus himself warned:
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” (Luke 14:27-29)
They witness against the world. Jesus says that faithless men were responsible for murdering all of God’s righteous prophets, from Abel to Zechariah, and that the blood of the prophets was on them and their descendants (Matt. 23:29-36). Likewise, the Hebrew writer tells us that “the world was not worthy” of the faithful people that it killed.
Finally, the faithful dead witness us, their descendants in faith. They do this because they continue to speak in an entirely different sense than we have considered heretofore. Yes, metaphorically, they continue to “speak” through their example, our memory of their words and deeds. But if we believe Jesus–and what else can it mean for us to belong to the Faith?–then we believe that they literally speak, because they are still alive.
The faithful dead are a cloud of witnesses all around us in the fullest sense then. They confront us both with their past life and with our present life. Their faith often highlights our own shortcomings, so we seek to imitate them as they imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Beyond that, we have confidence that they still live, that they are still part of the Church, because the Church spans space and time and unites the living with the dead. I suspect that those who have gone before us are watching us and rooting for us. So let us take courage and endure.
Hebrews 11 calls us to consider our own legacy as we consider these Heroes of Faith. What will we be leaving behind for our children in the Faith? Will they think on us and take courage? Will they see in us the patience of Job? The humility of Moses? The wisdom of Solomon?
The Hebrew writer finishes by urging us to consider the Founder and Forerunner of our shared Faith, Jesus of Nazareth, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” The writer chides his audience, saying that, unlike righteous Abel, “you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
They had not. Have you?