The excerpt from chapters 11 and 12 of the letter to the Hebrews, offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday, concludes a long chapter of forty verses, providing a long list of the many witnesses who have lived their lives by faith. There was is a reference to Abraham and Sarah in the section we heard last week, but there is also mention of Abel and Enoch, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Joshua and Rahab, Gideon and Barak, Samson and Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets—people who lived through many adventures, women who were faithful throughout their lives, martyrs who met an early death and rulers who bore responsibility for leading a nation.
These people are all drawn from the pages of our shared scriptures, the “heroes of the faith” from the stories of the Hebrew people. The excerpt offered this coming Sunday by the lectionary (Heb 11:29–12:2) canvasses many examples of faith, culminating in the opening verses of chapter 12, where the final example of faith which we are offered is the most familiar figure: “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2).
Faith, it is stated, is about what we cannot see, and what is not immediately evident in tangible ways when we look around us. We cannot point to an object, and claim: “there it is”. We cannot hold up a particular item, and say: “look at it ..? do you see it?” Because faith, in the end, is about what we value inside ourselves; it is about the qualities we hold dear, the principles by which we live.
And yet, in the stories offered in this reading, we are invited to consider what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews described as something which is “hoped for, but not seen”. This is a real thing, there is no doubt about it; but it cannot be documented or measured in specific, physical, tangible ways. It points us to something different, something other, than the obvious reality in front of our eyes. Faith, in the understanding of the author of this letter, invites us to look at the world in a different way; to perceive reality in a new fashion; to consider the evidence from an unfamiliar angle.
And in the story of Jesus, that faith becomes tangible, visible, knowable—a story filled with many details, a multitude of scenes, encounters, teachings, travels—all providing material that enable us to perceive of Jesus as a real, tangible human being, a fine example of faith.
Three images of Jesus dominate the extended sermon which we know as the epistle to the Hebrews: Jesus as the pioneer of salvation, the great high priest, and the perfecter of faith.
These images are combined at key points (2:8b–11a; 5:7–10; 12:1–2), as they are developed in an interconnected fashion throughout the book. Their common point is the author’s focus on the death of Jesus on the cross (2:9; 5:7–8; 12:2). It is this “suffering of death” which transforms Jesus from his state of being “lower than the angels” to being “crowned with glory and honour” (2:9).
In his death, Jesus is the “pioneer of salvation” (2:10) who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2). Through his death, Jesus “brings many children to glory” and is made “perfect through sufferings” (2:10). This image recurs in the claim that Jesus was made perfect after “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8–9; see also 7:28; 12:2). It is this claim which undergirds the call for believers to “go on toward perfection” (6:1; see also 10:14; 11:40; 12:23).
The image of Jesus as the perfecter of faith is also related to the third image, of Jesus as the great high priest (4:14; 7:11). This image is firmly grounded in his humanity. Jesus shares “flesh and blood” with God’s children (2:14) and became like these humans “in every respect” (2:17). He has been “tested as we are” (4:15) and is chosen to be priest from among mortals (5:1, 5).
Yet this image also allows a place for the transcendent nature of Jesus. When he is designated high priest according to “the order of Melchizedek” (5:10; 6:20), Jesus is understood to be the high priest who has “passed through the heavens” (4:14) and is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26).
As Jesus is seated at God’s right hand (8:1), he is able to enter into the holy place of “the greater and perfect tent” (9:11–12) to offer the sacrifice which “makes perfect those who approach” (10:1, 14). This sacrifice brings the process of sanctification to a head (13:12; see also 2:11; 9:13–14; 10:10, 14, 29) and enables believers to “approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19–22).
Paradoxically, Jesus both stands in the place of the priest slaughtering the sacrificial beast (2:17; 3:1; 5:1–6; 6:20; 7:26–28; 8:3; 10:12) and simultaneously lies on the altar as the one whose blood is being shed (9:11–14; 9:26; 10:19; 12:24; 13:20). Although the details of the imagery are confused, there is a consistently firm assertion developed through this image: Jesus is the assurance of salvation (2:10; 5:9; 10:22).
A sense of hope thus permeates the sermon, with references to “the full assurance of hope” (6:11), the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain” (6:19), “the confession of our hope” (10:23) which is undergirded with the assurance that it is offered by God, for “he who has promised is faithful”. (See other references to hope at 3:6; 6:18; 11:1.) It is the work of the high priest which brings believers “a better hope” (7:19) and assures them of their salvation—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22).
Throughout the sermon, the author of Hebrews presses his audience to live a moral life in response to this message, beginning with an opening exhortation which warns of penalties if the message is not heeded (2:1– 4). This warning is intensified by references to God’s anger in response to “an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:7–12), leading to the directive to “exhort one another every day” (3:13). In his capacity as high priest, Jesus has “passed through the heavens”, resulting in a further encouragement, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness” (4:14–16).
More practical guidance regarding the behaviour which is expected of believers is set out in succinct commands: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another’ (10:24–25); “pursue peace with everyone…see to it…that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (12:14–17). A more extensive list of instructions appears in the final series of exhortations which close the sermon (13:1–19). These exhortations are delivered in a sharp, staccato style, one after the other, in short, sharp bursts.
By contrast, a distinctive and well-loved feature of Hebrews is the lengthy paean in praise of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (11:1–12:1), in which each attest to a vibrant faith in God. The poem, as we have noted, offers many examples of faith from amongst this cloud of witnesses, culminating in
Jesus, through whom “God provided something better” (11:40).
By his entrance into the heavenly realm, Jesus has been proven “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2), an exalted status similar to earlier descriptions of him as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (3:1), “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14), “the mediator of a new covenant” which offers “the promised eternal inheritance” (9:15).
The hope of these witnesses points to the deeds of Jesus, which provide the motivation for the lyrical exhortation which draws this section to a close: “therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (12:12–13).
As Sarah and Abraham travelled this journey, as pilgrim people; as Moses and the people escaped slavery and trod the long wilderness path to Canaan; as people conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, quenched raging fire, endured so, so many battles; as people were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment, were stoned to death and were killed by the sword; as others were persecuted and tormented; and as Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding its shame”, so we also are invited to travel in similar manner – on a journey into the future, a journey infused with hope, a journey grounded in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, which was their fundamental resource for life. And so may it be for us.