Hebrews 11: What Kind of Heroes are These?

April 10, 2019 | by James M. Harrison

I’d never seen it before. I’ve puzzled over it. I’ve questioned it. I’ve wondered how such fallible men, who sinned so much and failed so often, could nevertheless be considered to be great men and women of faith. Drunkards. Cowards. Those who tested God, made foolish vows, and who seemingly lived life with little if any concern for obedience to God’s law.

And then, in my reading of Calvin’s Institutes, I came to Book 2, and chapter 10. In sections 11 and 12 of that chapter, entitled, “The Similarity of the Old and New Testaments”, Calvin telescopes all the trials and hardships and dark providences of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into a few pages.

And then I saw it.

Like so many “revelations” I experience in my reading, it was not really the point which the author was making which struck me. Rather, while the author is making his point, which in this case has to do with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob looking forward to a land and a future which they could not see, I was making a different connection. I was asking different questions.

How could such fallible men also be considered to be men of such great faith?

And there, in the middle of the first volume of the Institutes, Dr. Calvin provided my answer.

Perseverance.

After all they endured, all the grief, all the disappointments, all the ill-treatment, they persevered. I don’t mean simply that they continued to live. I don’t mean that they merely survived. Most people who endure hardship do that. What I mean is, they continued to believe. When they came to the end of their lives, they believed.

One might respond, “Is that all?”
I reply, “That is everything!”

Abraham is taken away from everything he knew and loved, in order to live his life…who knows where? Who knows how? He endures repeated experiences of famine. His wife is exceedingly beautiful, which one might consider a good thing, right up until some of the most powerful men on earth desire to have her for themselves. And because of his fear, he is willing to let them have her. He is forced to cut himself off from his beloved nephew, only to hear that this same nephew has been captured by enemies, which forces Abraham into war. Wherever he goes, it seems, his neighbors are almost universally hostile, withholding from him even the water from wells which he himself had labored to create.

These were the things which characterized Abraham’s life, from the time he was called out of Ur to that day he turns around and finds that he has become…old. Now he must face the reality of old age believing that the blessing of a child has also been withheld from him. Finally, following the faithless counsel of his wife, he obtains a son through the maidservant Hagar, the result of which is simply additional trouble and strife within his own household as his wife becomes jealous and vindictive. Finally, Isaac is born, the son of promise. But now that Isaac has come, Abraham must forsake his first born, Ishmael, and drive him out into the wilderness. But Isaac has come! Abraham has the child he was promised! And he is bound in love to this child in a way he has never before known. Finally, Abraham knows joy. Then God comes and says, “Now, kill him.”

As Calvin writes, “In short, throughout life he was so tossed and troubled that if anyone wished to paint a picture of a calamitous life, he could find no model more appropriate than Abraham’s!”

Calvin then goes on in a similar vain to set forth the calamitous lives of Isaac and Jacob, as well.

And I ask, in the face of all this pain and hurt and fear and failure, how could one not throw up their hands, cry out in despair, and conclude: “if there is a god, surely He has forsaken me”?

But they did not. Abraham did not. Isaac did not. Jacob did not. Neither did scheming Sarah, or that drunkard Noah, or that faithless Gideon, or that foolish Jepthah, or that debauched and disobedient Samson.

At the end, they blessed God, and they blessed their children, and we are told that they looked forward to something better (Heb. 11:10, 13-16).

When Jacob came to the end, after all that he had suffered, what was on his lips? “For Your salvation I wait, O Lord.” (Gen. 49:18).

Perhaps Heb. 11 has never presented a problem for you. Or perhaps you have always considered what I’m about to say to be elementary and obvious. It seems that way to me, now. But when I saw this, it was a revelation. I have come to realize that whatever struggles I have had with Heb. 11 have arisen because I was looking at it in the wrong way. We speak of Heb. 11 as the Hall of Fame of Faith, and those mentioned in it as Heroes of Faith. And I have looked at their lives and I have seen their weakness and their failure and their sin, and I have asked, “Really? Him? A hero?”

But I was looking in the wrong way. I was looking in the wrong place. I should have been looking not at how they lived as much as how they died.

How is this for irony. I have spoken of Heb. 11 as the Hall of Fame of Faith, but when I read it, I found that I was looking for the Hall of Fame of Works. And that didn’t fit. That didn’t make sense.

As I say, perhaps this was obvious to everyone else, but for me it was a revelation. Here is the glory of God’s grace. Here is the foundation of my assurance, and the encouragement and joy and peace which flow from it. Here is the reminder that I am not alone in my trials and hardships, my griefs and my failures. More than that, it is the reminder that I am not alone. My God is with me to the end. He will never leave me nor forsake me. He will, in fact, perfect me until the day of Christ Jesus. All glory to His name.

It only took me forty years.

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