Why do the heroes of the faith have to wait for us before being made perfect?

Q. What does this statement in the book of Hebrews mean? “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.”

This is the conclusion to the section in the book of Hebrews that is sometimes called the “Hall of Fame of Faith.” The author describes how  people whose stories we know from the Old Testament trusted in God by faith and lived on earth as if “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” As a result, the author says, “God is not ashamed to be called their God,” and “he has prepared a city for them.”

The author describes this “city” in the next chapter. He calls it “Mount Zion, “the city of the living God,” and “the heavenly Jerusalem.” There, he says, there are “thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” This is the home of “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” It is ruled by “God, the Judge of all,” and we are commended to him by “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.” And there, the author says, are “the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”

So perhaps, in one sense, these great heroes of the faith already have been made perfect, in the heavenly city. But the Bible, in its final book, the book of Revelation, also portrays this heavenly city coming down to earth so that “God’s dwelling place will be among people.” This has clearly not happened yet. It will be marvelous when it does. Those who lived on earth as if they were longing for a heavenly home will find that they can live in that heavenly home right on earth, as God brings heaven and earth together as all things come obediently under his rule.

So why has this marvelous thing not happened yet? God is waiting for even more people to live faithfully like the ones the author describes so that they can be part of it too. This is meant to be a great encouragement to us who are reading these words in the Bible and admiring the lives of these faithful people of the past. Knowing that God doesn’t want this to happen without us, we should be all the more eager to be part of it ourselves. That is why the author of Hebrews says, between the words you are asking about and the description of the heavenly city, “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.” Jesus is the ultimate example of faith and obedience. And the other heroes of the faith are “witnesses” to us of what a faithful life looks like, and “witnesses” of our own lives as they cheer us on from heaven.

Think of it this way. It’s as if you were invited to a party, and right up to the last minute you weren’t sure whether you were going to go, but then you heard that the hosts had said that they really wanted you to come so much that they weren’t going to start without you. You would certainly feel very welcome and valued, and this would be a great incentive to get to the party. That’s what the author of Hebrews is saying in these words.

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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