My men’s small group (we call them Community Groups at our church) was gathered around the conference table at one of the guy’s businesses this past Wednesday morning. We were discussing our applications for Hebrews 11, a chapter that is often referred to as the Bible’s Hall of Faith. (The title is an obvious take-off of Baseball’s Hall of Fame—an organization that finally had the good sense to induct Cubs’ third baseman, Ron Santo. Forgive the digression.)
What’s interesting about the Hall of Faith is that its members fall into two distinct categories. The first group includes those whose faith resulted in great accomplishments. They conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, became powerful in battle, received back their dead raised to life again … and other cool exploits (Hebrews 11:33-35).
The second group was not so fortunate—at least not in this life. They were tortured, faced jeers and flogging, were imprisoned, were killed by the sword, went about in sheepskins and goatskins destitute, persecuted and mistreated (Hebrews 11:35-37). Yikes!
I asked my buddies around the conference table: Which of these two groups of Hall of Faith-ers would you rather be part of? It wasn’t even close. Without exception, we all preferred membership in the former group.
So I asked them a follow-up question: Why would anyone in the second group cling to their faith in the face of such horrible consequences? The closing verse of Hebrews 11 answered that question for us (an answer that is also alluded to throughout this chapter). These people firmly believed that God had something fantastic for them in the distant future. They were confident that the best was yet to come.
That balanced view of faith seems to be lacking among many Christ followers today (my observation as a pastor). We have a tendency to believe that the only suitable reward for faith should be an immediate one. We pray for healing—and the cancer should disappear. We pray for a job—and the phone should ring with an offer. We pray to have friends at school—and tomorrow we should be surrounded by smiling faces at the lunchroom table.
This sort of an outlook is sometimes referred to as triumphalism. But it’s not the picture painted for us in Hebrews 11. At least, it’s not the entire picture. Oh, I suppose if readers cherry-pick certain verses from the chapter—all the good ones about faith’s positive rewards in this life—they can come away with a perspective like triumphalism. But that’s why it’s so important to avoid pulling isolated verses out of context.
And that’s why it’s critical to note the theme of the entire passage that you’re reading. Look for the big picture. In my last blog I told you that there are two very simple ways to detect the theme of a text. The first is to observe the section heading of that passage in your Bible. My Bible gives one heading for the entire chapter of Hebrews 11: Faith in Action.
A second way to pick up on a passage’s theme is to take a look at what it’s called in “Encounters with God.” This is Scripture Union’s daily Bible reading schedule that you can access either in a hard-copy booklet or electronically (see the Resources tab at my biblesavvy.com website). SU actually breaks down Hebrews 11 into three days of reading, with the titles: “What Is Faith?” “Faith’s Key Choices” and “Faith’s Sufferings.”
That third title should be a dead giveaway, right? Sometimes faith won’t be rewarded in this life with stuff we’ll look forward to including in our annual Christmas newsletter. Sometimes Hall of Faith-ers will suffer. But they’ll still cling to their faith—believing that the best is yet to come.
I’d love to hear how your faith is being tested, shaped or strengthened these days.