The writer of Hebrews turned to the faith of the ancients in a passage often called the “Hall of Faith,” or “Faith’s Hall of Heroes.” These were of the believing remnant spoken of throughout the Hebrew scriptures, who persevered in faith against great odds, and chose to believe in God’s promises, though they would not be fulfilled in their own lifetime.
Hebrews’ Hall of Faith
The people listed in Chapter Eleven considered themselves strangers to the world, to the cultures and religions surrounding them. Though their goals were earthly in the sense of fulfilling God’s purposes throughout their lives, and claiming the inheritance God had given them in the land, their vision was for a future time. Each believed Messiah would come, even though, for thousands of years, they died before Jesus’ arriving.
Their decisions in life, their lifestyle and priorities, their way of doing things must have made little sense to the people around them. But it made all the sense to the writer of Hebrews’ audience, as it does to you and me today.
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.
They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.
But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.Hebrews 11:13-16 (NRSV)
Patriarch Abraham, the Forefather of Faith
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.
For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.Hebrews 11:8-10 (NRSV)
Ur was one of the most sophisticated, wealthy, and technologically advanced cities of the ancient world, and Abraham was a wealthy man. This was no easy decision! Yet Abraham did not go to a place he did not know on blind faith. He went with complete confidence of God’s trustworthiness. And let us, by the way, remember his wife Sarah, who willingly cooperated with God’s call on Abraham, and left all she knew in order to live the life of a nomad.
Jesus, acknowledging this patriarch’s faith, said
“Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”John 8:56 (NRSV)
Paul said Abraham was ”the father of all who believe.”
[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.
The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.Romans 4:11-12 (NRSV)
Abraham, based on his knowledge of God, believed that God would give him a son by his hundred-year-old body, and Sarah’s ninety-year-old body. And even when this principal fulfillment of God’s promise was put to the test, Abraham prevailed in faith.
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.”
He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.Hebrews 11:17-19 (NRSV)
The portent of Christ in this supreme and prophetic act of faith came in Abraham’s humble and trusting willingness to sacrifice his one and only beloved son. He was convinced that even if Isaac had died, God would literally raise him up to life again in order fulfill God’s promises to Abraham.
The substitute God provided for Isaac in that last moment also foreshadowed Jesus, who would one day become the substitute for all humankind.
Patriarch Isaac, Faithful Steward of the Future
By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau.Hebrews 11:20 (NRSV)
This episode in Isaac’s story reveals how Isaac had not really wanted to bless Jacob at all. But, he had stood firm, even after realizing he had been maneuvered into giving Jacob the patriarchal birthright and promises, and had had nothing left with which to bless his favorite son Esau.
Isaac understood by faith that God had chosen Jacob to continue in the trajectory of faith God had begun with Abraham. Esau’s blessings would be earthly—ultimately fulfilled in fathering the nation of Edomites, and establishing the land of Edom. Esau’s legacy included the notably impregnable city of Petra, carved from the living rock on the slope of Mount Hor in what is now Jordan.
Patriarch Jacob, Famously Renamed Israel
By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, “bowing in worship over the top of his staff.”Hebrews 11:21 (NRSV)
It was a powerful and dramatic moment, in this last hour of Jacob’s life. He blessed Joseph’s two sons, then blessed his own sons, speaking prophetically over each of them in full confidence God would fulfill all God had promised.
When the time of Israel’s death drew near, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favor with you, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal loyally and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt.
When I lie down with my ancestors, carry me out of Egypt and bury me in -their- burial place.” He answered, “I will do as you have said.” And he said, “Swear to me”; and he swore to him.
Then Israel bowed himself on the head of his bed.Jacob and Joseph, Genesis 49:29-31 (NRSV)
Jacob was absolutely confident that God would produce the great nation the Lord had promised, and worshiped God ahead of that time. So strong was his faith, that he insisted on being buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, that Abraham had bought within the borders of the Promised Land.
Patriarch Joseph, Pharoah’s Friend and Israel’s Savior
By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial.Hebrews 11:22 (NRSV)
Joseph was so convinced that Canaan would one day belong to the descendants of Jacob that he ordered his embalmed body to be carried from Egypt into the Promised Land.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, “When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”
And Joseph died, being one hundred ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.Genesis 50:24-26 (NRSV)
This solemn obligation was kept four hundred years later.
“And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.”Exodus 13:19 (NRSV)