Formations 02.18.2018: Run the Race

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32–12:2

This icon from St. Catherine’s Monastery shows the Crucifixion.

For the writer of Hebrews, rest best describes the promise given to Abraham and subsequent generations. So the vision for Israelite society in the promised land rested in sabbath. Likewise, Christian communities would be guided by a commitment to rest. But this writer also understood that the promise did not come into fullness immediately. And in these words, Hebrews identifies the tension between toil and rest experienced in our lives and our communities.

This week’s passage begins with a type of genealogy. It traces faith in the promised rest through Israel’s history up to the Maccabean period. It passes through expected characters—King David, Moses, Abraham, and Samuel—who practiced rest even as they waited for it. It celebrates the nonobvious too and calls us to reflect on their contributions. So we remember Rahab, unnamed prophets, unnamed women who received their dead by resurrection, and all those who were tortured and mocked and killed for upholding their commitment to the promise.

Since then, these traditions have been developed and carried to us by saints known and unknown. There are the mystics and theologians who are read and remembered even today. We remember family and friends, Sunday school teachers and pastors who have played profound roles in our own individual lives. Still, we might sense that even people we may never recognize have formed our faithfulness.

Our text invites us to consider these traditions in all of their diversity and to sort through them at their best and worst. As we do this, let us remember the call to look forward to “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” as we understand our place in the traditions cataloged in this passage (12:2). When we look back in light of Christ, let us see and cast off those practices that have separated us from the promised rest. Even more, let us carry on those practices that have brought true rest into our world, even as we await its perfection.

Discussion

• Who has most notably shaped your understanding of how to be faithful? What other less noticeable characters have shaped your sense of faithfulness?
• How would you describe the rest promised by God?
• What from your own traditions has encouraged and allowed rest? What has opposed rest?

Reference Shelf

By Faith

The form and content of Hebrews 11 are closely related. In terms of form, the chapter is a review of sacred history similar to reviews in Jewish and early Christian literature (see 4 Macc 16:16-23; Wis 10). It is also a catalogue of examples of virtue (see Philo, On the Virtues, 198-255). These two different types of literary construction reinforce each other. In Hebrews 11, the history of God’s people from creation through the Maccabean revolt of the second century BC is shown as an illustration of genuine virtue.

The particular virtue extolled was introduced in 10:37-38 by means of the quotation from Habakkuk 2:3-4: For yet “in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.” The theme, then, is faith as a prerequisite for endurance. The knowledge of reality that comes through faith can provide motivation to endure verbal and physical abuse.

Biblical faith is both gift and action. Paul emphasized faith as a gift. In 1 Corinthians 4:7, Paul asked, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” Faith is a gift of God. Such qualities as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control were called by Paul “the fruit of the spirit” (Gal 5:22). They are more than normal human attributes. James emphasized the fact that faith as a gift must evolve into faith as action, and the writer to the Hebrews stressed the action involved. He agreed with James that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:17).

Faith is paradoxical. On the one hand, faith alone is enough. When we begin to add requirements beyond simple trust, we are in trouble. How many requirements are we to add to faith? Have we met those requirements? Have we pleased God sufficiently? The other side of the paradox is that faith alone is not enough. Faith involves faithfulness. Faith calls for action. The author of Hebrews was anxious to see evidence that Christians have remained faithful to Christ.

The chapter begins with a description of faith and a reference to creation as an event comprehended through faith (vv. 1-3). Then comes a catalogue of faithful characters and actions from Abel through Noah (vv. 4-7). The matriarch Sarah and the patriarchs Abraham through Joseph are then featured in a lengthy section of the chapter (vv. 8-22). The faith of Moses and the exodus and conquest are treated in a short section (vv. 23-31). Then, in a final part (vv. 32-40), the author simply lists individuals and events in summary fashion, reviewing the sacred history up through the Maccabean revolt of the second century BC.

Edgar McKnight, “Hebrews,” Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004) 259–60.

Looking to Jesus

The list of the heroes and heroines who demonstrated the virtue of perseverance in their lives now reaches its climax in the example of Jesus. The addressees of this homily are exhorted in the race “set before” them (v. 1) to look to Jesus, who “for the joy that was set before him” (v. 2) endured crucifixion—the death of slaves convicted as criminals. The cross was therefore regarded as a shameful means of death (see Cicero, Against Verres 2.5.62, 162-165; cf. Gal 5:11; Phil 2:8). The Greek manuscripts are divided as to whether such hostility was directed by sinners against Jesus “himself ” (heauton) or against the sinners “themselves” (autous) (v. 3). The latter, although the more difficult reading, has the better attested manuscript support. If it is accepted, here the author is pointing to the ironic truth that evildoers, by their actions, in fact injure themselves (so Lane, vol. 2, 416-17). Given that in verses 2-3 the focus is not upon his tormentors but upon Jesus and the suffering he endured, most commentators adopt the singular “himself,” in which case it refers to the hostility directed against Jesus by his persecutors.

The readers are urged to look to Jesus as “the pioneer” (archēgōs) and perfector (teleiōtēs) of faith” (v. 2). Although many translations (RSV, NRSV et al.) have “our faith,” the possessive pronoun is not to be found in the Greek manuscripts. For the author of Hebrews, faith is not a credal statement or set of propositions, but steadfast trust in and fidelity to the promises of God—even in the face of adversity (see comment on 11:1). It is therefore a quality of life exhibited both by Jesus and those who would follow him. Jesus, however, is faith’s supreme exemplar since he is its “pioneer” and “perfector.” The Greek word archēgōs has a whole range of meanings, dependent upon the context, but all conveying the notion of primacy or supremacy (see comment on 2:10). Here the (N)RSV translation “pioneer” rightly evokes the pilgrimage imagery redolent of the previous chapter (cf. 3:1–4:14). In Hebrews it is supremely Jesus who has blazed the trail to the pilgrim’s goal, which is nothing less than being in the presence of God in heaven. Given that much of the other vocabulary of this unit is drawn from the world of athletics, here it may also carry with it the nuance of “champion” or “forerunner” (= prodromos; cf. 6:20)—the one who is out in front, leading the race. Whether as in a race or on a pilgrimage, in Hebrews Jesus is portrayed as the one who has gone ahead. More than that, he is the one who has successfully completed the course and/or reached the pilgrim’s goal. The Greek word teleiōtēs (RSV “perfecter”)—perhaps, since it is not found in any Greek literature prior to Hebrews, coined by our author—conveys the sense of one who has achieved his aim or goal (telos). “Seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (v. 2), yet another allusion to LXX Ps 109[MT 110]:1 (cf. 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12-13), makes plain that the trail Jesus blazed and the track he ran led to heaven itself. There, like a pilgrim after a long journey and an athlete after his exertions, he now enjoys rest.

Marie E. Isaacs, Reading Hebrews–James: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 139–40.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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