Heb 11:33-12:2; Job 1 and 42; Ex 20:12; Deut 6:3; Ps 119:50; Lk 1: 7 and 24:49
The end of the passage in Hebrews concerning the cloud of witnesses is so important that we read it liturgically several times a year—we hear it both as we begin Lent, and as we cap Pascha and Pentecost on All Saints. Let us listen yet again to Hebrews 11:33-12:2:
[Let us remember those] who through faith subdued kingdoms, enacted righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
No doubt we read this passage frequently because it has much to teach us. Within it we find treasures concerning Christ, the relationship of the Old and New Testaments, the Church, and living faithfully in Christ. We also find some mysteries to contemplate. Perhaps, for example, you noticed what seems to be an inconsistency. We hear about those who “obtained promises” under the Old Covenant, but are also told that “they did not receive the promise.” Here it appears that, despite the old saying, a “promise” is not “a promise”: or, rather, “promises” are not “THE promise.”
The passage begins with a description of the faithful who were strong, and lived what we could consider victorious lives in God’s grace, even to the point of stopping the mouths of lions! It is of these that the letter says, that some “received promises.” And they did, didn’t they? Abraham received a land, and Isaac, the children of Israel received the promised land, Elisha raised a son for the distraught widow. Many of them received the promises of a fruitful and happy life when they lived, as well as they could, according to God’s will. That kind of physical happiness was even enshrined in the commandments: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Ex 20:12). And Moses, in giving the commandments, enjoins the Hebrews, “Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 6:3). God’s natural blessing was understood to be contingent upon the loyalty of the people, and so it was not surprising that in those days folks assumed that disaster came upon those who were ungodly.
Think for a moment about Job. The story begins with a godly father, who even sacrifices on behalf of his adult children, in case they have committed unwitting sin: he is the epitome of God’s blessing, possessing lands, animals, a perfect family. Here, in the opening scene, is the OT equivalent of the family with 2.2 children, a successful breadwinner, and a cosy house with a lovely white picket fence. Of course, as we read on, we come to know something that those living around Job did not—life and success are more complex than anyone imagines. For affliction and illness do not simply visit the ungodly. In fact, sometimes they come to a person (like Job) BECAUSE he or she is godly.
So Job begins by personifying the human being who has received God’s promises of bounty. He then, for mysterious reasons, becomes an object lesson concerning suffering and faithfulness, and passes the test just about as well as any person could—though not perfectly, because, as he explains later, he had never actually seen God, only heard about him. Yet, he does not curse God, but holds on to hope, looking to something that he knows internally must be God’s true promise, a promise of deliverance: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25).
In this dreadful experiment between Satan and God, Job has moved from one who “receives” natural promises to one who hopes against hope that the one promise he needs will be fulfilled. This verse stands luminously in the midst of the text, even before God condescends to meet with Job personally and (sort of!) sort things out. We never hear any more about it in the story. In fact, the story, after God’ mind-blowing encounter with Job, finishes much more sedately, without another word about this Redeemer to come. This is the dramatic resolution, as God speaks to the faithless friends of Job and sets them straight:
“And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them, and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer. And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before. (Job 42:7-10)
The final chapter then describes the new family, the earthly success, and the physical blessings that Job received because of his faithfulness and his humble encounter with God. I imagine for most Jewish people this story would have been experienced as having a successful resolution, though I have always wondered how new children could REALLY replace those lost at the beginning of the story. But I don’t think that this is the only thing that Job is about—being faithful, being tested, staying faithful, and being recompensed. No, the most alluring thing about Job is that God actually speaks with him, and speaks honestly, too. The most comforting thing about the book is that God receives prayers on behalf of the confused and narrow-minded, Job’s so-called “friends.” And the most mysterious thing is that Job utters a prophetic word about a greater promise—a Redeemer or Deliverer who will stand on earth, and in whom we “in our flesh” may behold God. Job received many promises, both at the beginning and at the end, but he looked forward to what the book of Hebrews calls “THE promise.” There are promises, and then there is THE promise. And so, in our passage in Hebrews, we don’t only hear about the outwardly strong, the physically successful, but also about those who met torture, disaster, and affliction, because of their faithfulness to God. Unlike Job at the beginning and end of the story, these heroes did not have positive proof of God’s promises. But like Job, they looked forward to the GREATER promise.
That promise of God is weighty enough to comfort us when we feel that we are in the place of besieged Job. As Psalm 119:50 puts it, “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” And as blessed Zechariah, father of St. John the Baptist said, just as THE promise was about to dawn upon the world, God would be seen in Christ “to show the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant” (Luke 1:72). Israel was about to be delivered, to be redeemed, and this prophetic priest saw this just before it happened!
But our redemption is not a bare-naked promise. Job knew the need of a Redeemer, and hoped for him. But, just as the Hebrews were not simply released from Egypt, but also given a promised land, so the final promise of God is rich and plentiful. Together, says the book of Hebrews, we have received the promise of God with all the faithful—a promise that makes us able to look to Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith. This Jesus, the one who taught, lived, died, rose again, and ascended with our human flesh to the Father, also sent us the Comforter, who makes even fishermen “most wise.” The disciples were assured and instructed when Jesus left them: “Behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
So, it is the gift of the Holy Spirit caps the great Promise of God himself in our midst. Jesus, Emmanuel, shows us the Father and secures our redemption; the Holy Spirit, this other Comforter, comes to bind us together, to seal God’s promise, and to lead us into all truth. This is the “received promise” made perfect, of which our passage speaks. And it is only because of THIS promised gift that we can understand how we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, whenever we pray: the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see them with us. It is by His power and prompting that we can learn how to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us”—for He is the One who shows us sin, and gives us the mind of Christ. It is in His power alone that we can “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” And it is by the fruits and gifts that He gives that we can even now see Jesus, the One who pleads in Heaven for our complete sanctification, glorification, and final joy. Perhaps some of us will be treated gently in this life, and see some of the outer physical promises of God from this good creation; others of us will see sorrow, illness, and trials. For most of us, it will be a mixed bag. In talking to Peter about the crucifixion he, the apostle, would endure, Jesus told Peter not to bother about the path laid out for “the beloved disciple”—each one has his own way of “following” (John 21:22). The calling is to be faithful, no matter what life brings us. We are in God’s hand, and God aims to perfect what He has begun in each one of us, and among us in His Church. As we hear from Isaiah, God assures us, “I am He; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?” (Is 43:13).
Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!