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The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 13

By Thomas Charles Edwards


      A CLOUD OF WITNESSES.

      "By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even concerning things to come. By faith Jacob, when he was a-dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when his end was nigh, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.... By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been compassed about for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot perished not with them that were disobedient, having received the spies with peace. And what shall I more say? for the time will fail me if I tell of Gideon. Barak, Samson, Jephthah; of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens. Women received their dead by a resurrection: and others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: and others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were tempted, they were slain with the sword: they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, evil-entreated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves, and the holes of the earth. And these all, having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise, God having provided some better thing concerning us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us."--HEB. xi. 20-xii. 1 (R.V.).

      Time fails us to dilate on the faith of the other saints of the old covenant. But they must not be passed over in silence. The impression produced by our author's splendid roll of the heroes of faith in the eleventh chapter is the result quite as much of an accumulation of examples as of the special greatness of a few among them. At the close they appear like an overhanging "cloud" of witnesses for God.

      By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau; and Jacob, dying in a strange land, blessed the sons of Joseph, distinguishing wittingly, and bestowing on each[289] his own peculiar blessing. His faith became a prophetic inspiration, and even distinguished between the future of Ephraim and the future of Manasseh. He did not create the blessing. He was only a steward of God's mysteries. Faith well understood its own limitations. But it drew its inspiration to foretell what was to come from a remembrance of God's faithfulness in the past. For, before[290] he gave his blessing, he had bowed his head in worship, leaning upon the top of his staff. In his dying hour he recalled the day on which he had passed over Jordan with his staff,--a day remembered by him once before, when he had become two bands, wrestled with the angel, and halted on his thigh. His staff had become his token of the covenant, his reminder of God's faithfulness, his sacrament, or visible sign of an invisible grace.

      Joseph, though he was so completely Egyptianised that he did not, like Jacob, ask to be buried in Canaan, and only two of his sons became, through Jacob's blessing, heirs of the promise, yet gave commandment concerning his bones. His faith believed that the promise given to Abraham would be fulfilled. The children of Israel might dwell in Goshen and prosper. But they would sooner or later return to Canaan. When his end drew near, his Egyptian greatness was forgotten. The piety of his childhood returned. He remembered God's promise to his fathers. Perhaps it was his father Jacob's dying blessing that had revived the thoughts of the past and fanned his faith into a steady flame.

      "By faith the walls of Jericho fell down."[291] When the Israelites had crossed Jordan and eaten of the old corn of the land, the manna ceased. The period of continued miracle came to an end. Henceforth they would smite their enemies with their armed thousands. But one signal miracle the Lord would yet perform in the sight of all Israel. The walls of the first city they came to would fall down flat, when the seven priests would blow with the trumpets of rams' horns the seventh time on the seventh day. Israel believed, and as God had said, so it came to pass.

      The treachery of a harlot even is mentioned by the Apostle as an instance of faith.[292] Justly. For, whilst her past life and present act were neither better nor worse than the morality of her time, she saw the hand of the God of heaven in the conquest of the land, and bowed to His decision. This was a greater faith than that of her daughter-in-law, Ruth, whose name is not mentioned. Ruth believed in Naomi and, as a consequence, accepted Naomi's God and people.[293] Rahab believed in God first, and, therefore, accepted the Israelitish conquest and adopted the nationality of the conquerors.[294]

      Of the judges the Apostle selects four: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah. The mention of Barak must be understood to include Deborah, who was the mind and heart that moved Barak's arm; and Deborah was a prophetess of the Lord. She and Barak wrought their mighty deeds and sang their paean in faith.[295] Gideon put the Midianites to flight by faith; for he knew that his sword was the sword of the Lord,[296] Jephthah was a man of faith; for he vowed a vow unto the Lord, and would not go back.[297] Samson had faith; for he was a Nazarite to God from his mother's womb, and in his last extremity called unto the Lord and prayed.[298]

      The Apostle does not name Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, and the rest. The Spirit of the Lord came upon them also. They too were mighty through God. But the narrative does not tell us that they prayed, or that their soul consciously and believingly responded to the voice of Heaven. Alaric, while on his march towards Rome, said to a holy monk, who entreated him to spare the city, that he did not go of his own will, but that One was continually urging him forward to take it.[299] Many are the scourges of God that know not the hand that wields them.

      Individuals "through faith subdued kingdoms."[300] Gideon dispersed the Midianites;[301] Barak discomfited Sisera, the captain of Jabin king of Canaan's host; Jephthah smote the Ammonites;[302] David held the Philistines in check,[303] measured Moab with a line,[304] and put garrisons in Syria of Damascus. Samuel "wrought righteousness," and taught the people the good and the right way.[305] David "obtained the fulfilment of God's promises:" his house was blessed that it should continue for ever before God.[306] Daniel's faith stopped the mouths of lions.[307] The faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego trusted in God, and quenched the power of the fire, without extinguishing its flame.[308] Elijah escaped the edge of Ahab's sword.[309] Elisha's faith saw the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire round about him.[310] Hezekiah "from weakness was made strong."[311] The Maccabaean princes waxed mighty in war and turned to flight armies of aliens.[312] The widow of Zarephath[313] and the Shunammite[314] received their dead back into their embrace in consequence of[315] a resurrection wrought by the faith of the prophets. Others refused deliverance, gladly accepting the alternative to unfaithfulness, to be beaten to death, that they might be accounted worthy[316] to attain the better world and the resurrection, not of, but from, the dead, which is the resurrection to eternal life. Such a man was the aged Eleazar in the time of the Maccabees.[317] Zechariah was stoned to death at the commandment of Joash the king in the court of the house of the Lord.[318] Isaiah is said to have been sawn asunder in extreme old age by the order of Manasseh. Others were burnt[319] by Antiochus Epiphanes. Elijah had no settled abode, but went from place to place clad in a garment of hair, the skin of sheep or goat. It ought not to be a matter of surprise that these men of God had no dwelling-place, but were, like the Apostles after them, buffeted, persecuted, defamed, and made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things. For the world was not worthy of them. The world crucified their Lord, and they would be ashamed of accepting better treatment than He received. By the world is meant the life of those who know not Christ. The men of faith were driven out of the cities into the desert, out of homes into prisons. But their faith was an assurance of things hoped for and, therefore, a solvent of fear. Their proving of things not seen rendered the prison, as Tertullian says,[320] a place of retirement, and the desert a welcome escape from the abominations that met their eyes wherever the world had set up its vanity fair.

      All these sturdy men of faith have had witness borne to them in Scripture. This honour they won from time to time, as the Spirit of Christ, which was in the prophets, saw fit to encourage the people of God on earth by their example. Are we forbidden to suppose that this witness to their faith gladdened their own glorified spirits, and calmed their eager expectation of the day when the promise would be fulfilled? For, after all, their reward was not the testimony of Scripture, but their own perfection. Now this perfection is described through out the Epistle as a priestly consecration. It expresses fitness for entering into immediate communion with God. This was the final fulfilment of the promise. This was the blessing which the saints under the old covenant had not obtained. The way of the holiest had not yet been opened.[321] Consequently their faith consisted essentially in endurance. "None of these received the promise," but patiently waited. This is inferred concerning them from the testimony of Scripture that they believed. Their faith must have manifested itself in this form,--endurance. To us, at length, the promise has been fulfilled. God has spoken unto us in His Son. We have a great High-priest, Who has passed through the heavens. The Son, as High-priest, has been perfected for evermore; that is, He is endowed with fitness to enter into the true holiest place. He has perfected also for ever them that are sanctified: freed from guilt as worshippers, they enter the holiest through a priestly consecration. The new and living way has been dedicated through the veil.

      But the important point is that the fulfilment of the promise has not dispensed with the necessity for faith. We saw, in an earlier chapter, that the revelation of the Sabbath advances from lower forms of rest to higher and more spiritual. The more stubborn the unbelief of men became, the more fully the revelation of God's promise opened up. The thought is somewhat similar in the present passage. The final form which God's promise assumes is an advance on any fulfilment vouchsafed to the saints of the old covenant during their earthly life. It now includes perfection, or fitness to enter into the holiest through the blood of Christ. It means immediate communion with God. Far from dispensing with faith, this form of the promise demands the exercise of a still better faith than the fathers had. They endured by faith; we through faith enter the holiest. To them, as well as to us, faith is an assurance of things hoped for and a proving of things not seen; but our assurance must incite us to draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, to draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. This is the better faith which is not once ascribed in the eleventh chapter to the saints of the Old Testament. On the contrary, we are given to understand[322] that they, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. But Christ has abolished death. For we enter into the presence of God, not through death, but through faith.

      In accordance with this, the Apostle says that "God provided some better thing concerning us."[323] These words cannot mean that God provided some better thing for us than He had provided for the fathers. Such a notion would not be true. The promise was made to Abraham, and is now fulfilled to all the heirs alike; that is, to those who are of the faith of Abraham. The author says "concerning,"[324] not "for." The idea is that God foresaw we would, and provided (for the word implies both things) that we should, manifest a better kind of faith than it was possible for the fathers to show, better in so far as power to enter the holiest place is better than endurance.

      But the author adds another thought. Through the exercise of the better faith by us, the fathers also enter with us into the holiest place. "Apart from us they could not be made perfect." The priestly consecration becomes theirs through us. Such is the unity of the Church, and such the power of faith, that those who could not believe, or could not believe in a certain way, for themselves, receive the fulness of the blessing through the faith of others. Nothing less will do justice to the Apostle's words than the notion that the saints of the old covenant have, through the faith of the Christian Church, entered into more immediate and intimate communion with God than they had before, though in heaven.

      We now understand why they take so deep an interest in the running of the Christian athletes on earth. They surround their course, like a great cloud. They know that they will enter into the holiest if we win the race. For every new victory of faith on earth, there is a new revelation of God in heaven. Even the angels, the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, learn, says St. Paul, through the Church the manifold wisdom of God.[325] How much more will the saints, members of the Church, brethren of Christ, be better able to apprehend the love and power of God, Who makes weak, sinful men conquerors over death and its fear.

      The word "witnesses"[326] does not itself refer to their looking on, as spectators of the race. Another word would almost certainly have been used to express this notion, which is moreover contained in the phrase "having so great a cloud surrounding[327] us." The thought seems to be that the men to whose faith the Spirit of Christ in Scripture bare witness were themselves witnesses for God in a godless world, in the same sense in which Christ tells His disciples that they were His witnesses, and Ananias tells Saul that he would be a witness for Christ.[328] Every one who confessed Christ before men, him did Christ also confess before His Church which is on earth, and does now confess before His Father in heaven, by leading him into God's immediate presence.

      FOOTNOTES:

      [289] =hekaston= (xi. 21).
      [290] Gen. xlvii. 31.
      [291] Chap. xi. 30.
      [292] Chap. xi. 31.
      [293] Ruth i. 16.
      [294] Matt. i. 5.
      [295] Judges iv. and v.
      [296] Judges vii. 18.
      [297] Judges xi. 35.
      [298] Judges xiii. 7; xvi. 28.
      [299] Robertson, History of the Christian Church, book ii., chap. vii.
      [300] Chap. xi. 33.
      [301] Judges vii.
      [302] Judges xi. 33.
      [303] 2 Sam. v. 25.
      [304] 2 Sam. viii. 2, 6.
      [305] 1 Sam. xii. 23.
      [306] 2 Sam. vii. 28, 29.
      [307] Dan. vi. 22.
      [308] Dan. iii. 27, 28.
      [309] 1 Kings xix. 1-3.
      [310] 2 Kings vi. 17.
      [311] 2 Kings xx. 5.
      [312] 1 Macc. v.
      [313] 1 Kings xvii. 22.
      [314] 2 Kings iv. 35.
      [315] =ex= (chap. xi. 35).
      [316] Luke xx. 35.
      [317] 2 Macc. vi. 19.
      [318] 2 Chron. xxiv. 21.
      [319] Reading =epresthesan=.
      [320] Ad Martyras, 2.
      [321] Chap. ix. 8.
      [322] Chap. ii. 15.
      [323] Chap. xi. 40.
      [324] =peri=.
      [325] Eph. iii. 10.
      [326] mart/yron (xii. 1).
      [327] perike/imenon.
      [328] Acts i. 8; xxii. 14.

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See Also:
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Preface
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 1
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 2
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 3
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 4
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 5
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 6
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 7
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 8
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 9
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 10
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 11
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 12
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 13
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 14
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 15
   The Expositor's Bible: The Epistle to the Hebrews: Chapter 16

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