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Hebrews 11:23-40

Roger Hahn

Hebrews 11:8-22 focused on the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those heroes of the faith had lived with a forward-looking confidence that God was leading them to a better homeland. They had ample opportunity to settle down and settle for success as their culture defined it instead of waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled. The hindsight of history enabled the author of Hebrews to describe Joseph as prophesying the Exodus in Genesis 50:24, "I am about to die, but God will come to you and bring you to the land he swore to Abraham. . . When God comes, take my bones back." Faith did not know the details, but it knew that God would honor his promise. Mention of the exodus in verse 22 also provided the author of Hebrews with a transition to the next major character whose faith he will describe, Moses.

The Faith of Moses - Hebrews 11:23-29

Though verse 23 begins a new paragraph it continues the pattern of words the author has been using. Verse 23 is the eleventh verse since verse 4 to begin with the words, "By faith . . ." In the seven verses dealing with Moses the same expression appears five more times.

This treatment of Moses is unusual in the New Testament. Moses was the most influential person in Biblical history in the perspective of Judaism. Jewish literature contained extensive comments on and exaggerated accounts of the exploits of Moses. In contrast, the New Testament writers usually only mention Moses in passing. The references are most often to the books of Moses or to an event in the history of Israel when Moses was the national leader.

Only twice does the New Testament devote a section to Moses. The sermon of Stephen described in Acts 7 has the longest treatment of Moses in the New Testament. Acts 7:20-44. Stephen emphasized the conflict between Moses and the Israelites as background for the conflict between Judaism and the earliest Christians. The second longest treatment of Moses is here in Hebrews 11:23-29. The apostle Paul, in all his treatment of the Old Testament Law, never makes more than a passing reference to Moses. Although Paul twice spent several verses describing Abraham he never mentions Moses as a pattern for faith.

The first instance of Moses' faith that the author of Hebrews relates is really an act of faith and faithfulness on the part of Moses' parents. The parents' reason for hiding Moses is because they saw that he was a beautiful child. Some people have responded negatively at this point declaring that outward appearances of a child are not a worthy basis for the decision or the claim of "by faith." Montefiore (p. 202) points out that it is hard to say much else about a new born baby. Few other characteristics are observable. However, the word beautiful or "striking" as Lane translates it was understood to mean more than outward appearance.

Several Jewish writers in the first century stated that the beauty of the baby Moses was a sign of God's favor and blessing on him. Thus the writer of Hebrews was simply using a shorthand way of saying that Moses' parents hid him because God had set his divine favor and protection over the baby. We would say that the action of Moses' parents was used by God to preserve the child for the place in history that God willed for him. The author of Hebrews saw faith as the real motive for Moses' parents. They trusted that God was at work in their lives, in the life of their child, and in the life of their nation, and they acted in accordance with their confidence that God was working.

That does not mean that they knew the exact role that Moses would play in the future of Israel. It did mean that they knew he could be someone God would use in the deliverance of his people and they chose to keep that option open to God. Thus their action could just as appropriately be called "faithfulness." This is an important insight into the meaning of faith in Hebrews 11. Because faith is confident trust in God it means living one's life in that confident trust. Thus obedience and faithfulness are a part of the Biblical concept of faith.

Verse 23 also notes that Moses' parents were not afraid of the edict of the king. In fact, they probably were afraid of the king and his orders. However, because of their faithfulness to the vision of what God would do when he came to bring Israel out of Egypt (Genesis 50:24) they hid Moses anyway. The sentence is designed to tell the readers that Moses' parents did the very thing that would frighten any normal human being by defying the king of the greatest nation on earth. The reason for the author of Hebrews mentioning this is clear. The readers of Hebrews were up against persecution. If the date of the writing of this book is the mid 60's then they were up against the Emperor of the greatest empire on earth. Any normal human being would be terrified by what they were facing. But faithfulness to the vision of what God had done, was doing, and would yet do through Christ, would require them to lay aside their fear and remain true to Christ. Faith for them would also be faithfulness. The confidence in God that Moses' parents showed was an example for the first readers of Hebrews. It is for us also.

Verses 24-26 describe Moses' choice as an adult to separate himself from identification as an Egyptian. The comment that this took place when or after Moses had grown up has a two fold significance. First, it makes clear that the decision that will soon be described was Moses' own decision instead of the decision of his parents as had been the case in verse 23. Secondly, the words had grown up echo the wording of Exodus 2:11 especially in the Greek Old Testament. Exodus 2:11 begins the description of Moses' encounter with the Egyptian beating the Hebrew. The choice of Moses - as an adult - at that point was not simply a matter of justice but of whether to identify himself with Egypt and Egyptians or with Israel and the Israelites.

Hebrews 11:24 states that Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter. Judaism in general and the author of Hebrews in particular understood that at the moment Moses sided with the Hebrew slave by striking the Egyptian he had cut himself off from Egypt. The act of standing up for the Hebrew against the Egyptian had ramifications far beyond that place and moment. It meant rejection of all the privileges and power of being part of the Egyptian court.

Verse 25 picks up the other side of the issue choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. The rejection of Egypt could not happen without an accompanying commitment to some other persons and values. The author clearly understands that there is no middle ground in which one has no commitment or identity. Moses had to cast his lot with Egypt or with Israel. To choose one was to reject the other. Moses could not choose Israel and keep his affiliation with Egypt or even move to a merely neutral relationship with Egypt.

Part of the reason the author of Hebrews has picked Moses as an example is the fact that there was no middle ground for Moses. Neither was there any middle ground for his readers. They were in a position in which they had to choose between obedience and faithfulness to Christ and rejection of the Lord. As much as they might have wished reality to have been some other way, those were their options. They could not return to Judaism and be neutral about Jesus. Many of the attendant circumstances were similar also. For Moses to choose Israel meant the loss of status and privilege. It meant the end of financial security and material possessions. It meant that his life would always be at risk. For the readers of Hebrews the choice was between staying true to Christ and returning to Judaism with the accompanying rejection of Christ. To stay true to Christ would mean risking life, financial security, possessions, and their status in the community.

At this point is important to remember the words "by faith." That meant not only the courage to make the first move, but also faithfulness in living the rest of life in a way that was consistent with his choice. For the readers of Hebrews, the choice to stay true to Christ would be a choice by faith. The author was calling on them not only to trust God for a moment of decision but for a faithful life of living with the consequences of their choice.

The final part of verse 25 puts the whole matter in a rather frightening perspective. Moses' choice of identification with Israel was not only rejection of Egypt but also rejection of enjoying the fleeting pleasures of sin. Two issues are in mind here. First Egypt was notorious for the practice of the sensual sins. Second, the very choice of Egypt rather than Israel was sin for the author of Hebrews. Within the book of Hebrews the real sin was abandoning faith in Christ. Thus the author is still working on the concept that faith and faithfulness of Moses should help motivate his readers to stay true to Christ.

Verse 26 places the whole story of Moses more clearly in the context of the first readers and their faithfulness to Christ. Historically speaking Moses did not consider the reproaches of Christ greater than the treasure of Egypt since Christ had not been born or specifically mentioned at that time. However, spiritually Moses' choice was the same choice facing the first readers as they decided whether or not to suffer the rejection and abuse that they would experience if they stayed true to Christ.

When it comes to the commitment of our lives there is no neutral ground either. We will either be committed whole-heartedly and enthusiastically to Christ or we will reject and oppose him. As much as our culture might pressure us to think otherwise, we have no other choices. At this point in history commitment to Christ is not leading directly to persecution and loss of property and life. However, the choice is still a clear and demanding choice. There is always a price to be paid when we reject worldly values to embrace wholehearted commitment to the way of the cross. Sometimes people even experience pressure from other churchgoers and/or from the institutional church to not pay the price of total commitment to Christ. However, anything less is the temporary enjoyment (or relief) of sin. Faithful obedience is still the way the choice must be lived out.

The third instance of Moses' faith is mentioned in verse 27. By faith Moses left Egypt not fearing the anger of the king for he committed himself as one who sees the invisible. New Testament scholars do not agree about what event in Moses' life was being referred to by the author of Hebrews here. The flow of the context implies that the departure from Egypt by Moses mentioned here was his flight into the wilderness after he had been confronted with his killing of the Egyptian. This leaving is described in Exodus 2:15. The difficulty with this interpretation is the fact that Exodus 2:14 clearly states that Moses was afraid, while the author of Hebrews claims that he was not afraid of the king's anger.

To solve that problem some interpreters believe that Hebrews 11:27 describes the departure of Moses from Egypt with the Israelites in the event we now call the Exodus mentioned in Exodus 12-14. The Old Testament makes no mention of Moses being afraid at that time which is consistent with Hebrews 11:27. However, the chronological flow of the story may be disrupted by this interpretation.

There are strengths and weaknesses to both interpretations. More important than which departure is being referred to is the insight of the author of Hebrews that Moses gained the courage to go by faith and that he envisioned that which was not yet seen. The pastoral application is clear. By faith the readers of Hebrews could gain the courage to stay true to Christ (whether they were afraid or not is less important than whether they obeyed or not). Also by faith they could begin to trust God to bring to reality help and protection that was invisible at the present.

Verse 28 presents the fourth instance of faith from Moses' life. By faith he kept the Passover especially fulfilling the instructions to sprinkle the blood on the doorframe as described in Exodus 12:21-32. The content of Moses' faith is his obedience to the instructions of God. This obedience came from Moses' confidence that God could and would protect the firstborn of the Israelites from the destroyer. Once again faith and obedience are inseparably linked. Too often we do not really have confidence that God will do what he said he would do. As result we are not committed to doing what he instructed us to do. Lack of confidence leads to lack of obedience. On the other hand, when we refuse to obey our relationship with God is inhibited by guilt and even hostility and we cannot trust God because we know we deserve his punishment.

The final instance of faith from Moses' life that is mentioned appears in verse 29. As in the first instance the faith is not that of Moses personally. By faith the Israelites passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians tried to do so they were drowned. The crossing of the Red Sea was described first in Exodus 14:13-28.

The fact that the author of Hebrews shifts from the faith of Moses to the faith of all the people is interesting. According to Exodus the people were terrified at the approaching Egyptian army and had complained bitterly about having left Egypt. Yet at the moment Moses lifted his rod and commanded them to move forward they obeyed. The link between faith and obedience is still at the forefront of the author's mind. The application to his first readers is also important. If Moses' example did not inspire them because they saw him as a great leader and unique individual, then they could look to Israel. The Israelites were not noted for their courage or faithfulness. However, at the critical time they obeyed "by faith" and God delivered them. The same could happen for the first readers of Hebrews. The same could happen for us.

Miscellaneous Examples of Faith - Hebrews 11:30-38

After finishing his treatment of the faith of Moses the author of Hebrews moves quickly through the rest of Old Testament history. Verses 30 and 31 continue the literary pattern of beginning with the words "by faith." Both verses highlight a specific event of Israelite history. Verses 32-38 change the literary form. The typical sentence construction beginning with "by faith" no longer occurs. Rather than mentioning the specific instances of faith of a particular person by name the author "scrolls" through about a thousand years of history. Highlights and general descriptions roll off his pen. One gets the impression that he has made his point and is simply waving his hand at the rest of history so his readers will see that the pattern and meaning of faith continued down even to their own time.

Verse 30, like verse 29, is an affirmation of the faith of the nation of Israel as a whole rather than of a single person. Lane (WBC, p. 378) notes that since the author of Hebrews had emphasized the disobedience of the Israelites in the wilderness back in Hebrews 3:16-19, it would not be likely that he would find any examples of faith from that generation. Verse 30 jumps ahead 40 years in history from the crossing of the Red Sea to the battle of Jericho. Verse 30 is also the shortest of all the verses beginning with the expression "by faith." The verse is almost shorthand: By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled seven days. A review of Joshua 6:1-21 shows that the key to the walls of Jericho falling was the obedience of the Israelites. Once again the author of Hebrews is saying that faith and obedience are the two sides of the same coin.

The fall of Jericho naturally brought to mind Rahab the prostitute since she had figured prominently in the successful spying out of Jericho according to Joshua 2:1-21. As a reward for her help her family was spared and she became a part of Israel according to Joshua 6:22-25. (Some scholars believe the original Hebrew word in Joshua 2:1 translated "prostitute" simply meant "to act in a friendly way to an enemy." It is possible that her "prostitution" was political infidelity to Jericho rather than sexual infidelity to her husband.) However, the author of Hebrews is concerned with her faith that was most powerfully expressed in Joshua 2:9 when she said, "I know that the Lord has given you this land."

What Rahab exemplified was confident trust in the Lord when the circumstances were not favorable and actions that were built on that trust. There was no human reason to believe that the Lord would give Jericho over to the Israelites. But Rahab did believe and risked her life to protect the Israelite spies. The message for the readers of Hebrews is clear again. They had more reason to believe that God would deliver them from the persecution they were facing than Rahab had to believe God would give Jericho to Israel. She had risked her life on her confident trust in the Lord. They could too.

Verse 32 begins with a typical rhetorical expression, What shall I say more? Time would fail me to speak of . . . " Several ancient writers, both Jewish and Greek, used almost identical phrases to indicate the line of thought has been sufficiently established and will now be cut short. The summing up process begins with a listing of other names whose faith could be developed in the same way the same way that of Abraham and Moses had been. Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, and both David and Samuel are mentioned. The first four were judges who led Israel at various times in the chaotic interval between the death of Joshua and the establishment of the monarchy, a period of between 200 and 350 years.

None of the six heroes were considered by the Old Testament to be perfect, but Judaism had developed a tradition of special praise for them. The author of Hebrews is not white washing the sins of these men but reminding his readers of an important point. At a critical time or times in their lives they boldly trusted God when the odds were all against them (and God) and obeyed the Lord. God used those great moments of faith to deliver his people. The point is again clear. God could do the same for the readers of Hebrews if they would trust and obey.

Verse 33 then begins a list of exploits attributed to these six heroes. The list flows past the actions of the six men mentioned in verse 32 and on through Israelite and perhaps Jewish history as it continues on through verse 38. Conquering kingdoms, administering justice, and obtaining the promises of God could have been said about most of the judges. Shutting the mouths of lions draws most minds to Daniel, but it could have also been a reference to the victories of Sampson and David over lions. Quenching raging fires could refer to the colleagues of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It could also have been either a figurative or literal allusion to the judges fighting foreign invaders who often set fire to villages and fields. The rest of verse 34 would have applied to the judges and David.

Verse 35, however, moves past the time of David into the era of the prophets. The women who received their dead back by resurrection would have reference to the two widows whose sons were restored to life by Elijah and Elisha. Others were tortured the verse continues. Different ones suffered mocking and flogging, chains and imprisonment verse 36 declares. The author is clear that faith is no protection against pain and persecution. The Greek words bring to mind the descriptions of the torture of Jewish people in the intertestamental period at the time of the Maccabean revolt in 167 B.C.

Verse 37 continues by noting that some were stoned to death and sawn in two. Intertestamental Jewish tradition claims that Isaiah was sawn in two. Verses 37 and 38 list a variety of other privations and difficulties, but the most important words appear in verse 38. These sufferers were people of whom the world is not worthy. In other words this world is not a good enough place for people like them. Only heaven really befits their faithfulness under horrible pressure. The message is still being directed to the first readers of Hebrews. Even if they suffer death in the growing persecution they are facing they must not lose heart. They would only be the latest of a long line of righteous people who gave their lives for the sake of obedience to God. Since those people were too good for this earth, joining their ranks by martyrdom would be an honor not a tragedy.

The Conclusion of the Matter - Hebrews 11:39-40

After having listed all the great heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 the author points out an astounding fact. Though these heroes were all commended for their faith, they did not receive the promise. The promise for our author is clearly Jesus. The phrase something better in verse 40 sums up all that the argument of Hebrews 1:1-10:18 had been saying about Jesus. The readers, and you and I, have received the promise. The coming of Christ was the great turning point in history to which all the faith heroes of the Old Testament had been looking. If they were able to live lives of confident trust in and obedience to God without having ever experienced Christ, how much more should those of us who have received the promised blessing of Christ and the outpoured Holy Spirit live the faithful life? Yet those heroes are not just remote spiritual examples. The author declares that they and his readers, including us, are linked. The perfection of the Old Testament heroes of the faith only achieves its goal when we live lives of confident trust in and faithful obedience to Christ.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.

First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 11:23-40. Look up the Scriptures references that were given.

1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why were they significant?

2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies to you.

3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to teach you to live in confident truth in and faithful obedience to him.

Second Day: Read Hebrews 12:1-24. Focus your attention on verses 1-2.

1. Who do you suppose the author had in mind when he wrote of a "great cloud of witnesses?" Who are the great witnesses to faith in your life? What contribution have they made to your spiritual life?

2. What do think are the "weights" and "sin" that concerns the author in verse 1? What things hinder you from running the Christian race?

3. What aspects of Jesus does the author highlight to his readers? Why? What aspects of Jesus most appeal to you? Why?

Third Day: Read Hebrews 12:1-24. Now turn your focus to Hebrews 12:3-8.

1. What response does the author want from his readers as they think about Christ?

2. What comparisons does the author draw between parental discipline of children and the trials of life?

3. Verses 5 and 6 quote Proverbs 3:11-12. Read Proverbs 3:1-12 and note other verses that contain an important message for the readers of Hebrews.

Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 12:1-24. Now focus on Hebrews 12:9-11.

1. What purpose does the discipline from God have? How does such discipline work to accomplish its purpose?

2. How important is timing in the disciplining work of God? Can you illustrate that importance from something God has done in your own life?

3. What have you experienced in the recent past that you think was the discipline of God? What lessons did you learn from that experience? Where experiences that you wonder whether or not it was God disciplining you or just hard times?

Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 12:1-24. Now turn your focus on Hebrews 12:12-17.

1. Hebrews 12:12 echoes the language of Isaiah 35:3. Read Isaiah 35. What other parts of the chapter would speak a word of encouragement to the readers of Hebrews. What parts speak encouragement to you?

2. What do you think could cause a person to fail to obtain the grace of God as verse 15 warns? How can you avoid such a failure in your own spiritual life?

3. Meditate on verse 14 for a moment. What do you believe God would have you do to more fully obey verse 14?

Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 12:1-29. Focus now on verses 18-24.

1. To what was the author referring in verses 18-21? What kind of feeling do you get as you read and think about those verses?

2. How do verses 22-24 contrast with verses 18-21? What is the most important contrast to you? Why?

3. Have you come to Jesus and to all the blessing mentioned in verses 22-24. If not, you can. Write a brief prayer accepting the Lord's invitation to come to Christ and the blessings listed here.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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