What is the Bible trying to say at the end of Hebrews 11?

Q. Hebrews 11:39,40: Please help me understand what God is telling us as the summation of this chapter. Appreciate this site so much. Thank you. Just ordered The Books of the Bible NT.

Thank you very much for your kind words about this blog. I’m  glad you’re finding it helpful. I trust you’ll have a great experience with The Books of the Bible.

To respond to your question, Hebrews 11 ends this way: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” What God is trying to tell us through this becomes clear at the beginning of the next chapter: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In other words, we would expect that all the heroes described in what is sometimes called the “Hall of Fame of Faith” would already have been richly rewarded by God. Instead, we discover that they have not yet received their rewards. This might not seem fair to us, and so we ask why they haven’t been rewarded. The reason, we learn in these concluding words of the chapter, is that God wants all the faithful people down through the ages to receive their rewards together—perhaps as a single company united across time by their devotion to God through uncertainty, difficulty, and persecution. And that is supposed to inspire us to live up to the example of these faithful and courageous people ourselves. And just in case we need any more inspiration, the author of Hebrews describes Jesus in the same terms as the heroes of the faith who came before him, but also explaining that he is the one who  set the entire company in motion and who is the ultimate example of its character (“the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”).

So once we finish reading about all these faithful people, we’re not supposed to say, “Well, good for them.” We’re supposed to say, “God is counting on me to be like them!” And with the same kind of faith, we can be.

I can’t resist noting that this is a place where the traditional chapter divisions of the Bible, which were added many hundreds of years after its books were written, do us a real disservice in understanding its meaning. There’s not supposed to be any gap or break between “God is waiting to reward them and us together” and, “Therefore, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” As you experienced, it’s hard to understand the first part without the second part. But the way we typically approach the Bible (a chapter at a time in sermons, study groups, or private devotions), we might not hear the second part until a day or a week later. In fact, we might never hear it at all if we’re in a topical study that has chosen Hebrews 11 for “faith” and will move on next to 1 Corinthians 13 for “love.”

So I commend you for puzzling over what really is a puzzle without what comes next, and for reaching out to ask about it. I also commend you for ordering a copy of the New Testament that doesn’t have any chapters or verses!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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