NOTES on Hebrews 11:35-40 (click here for study)

The author of Hebrews has just completed an abbreviated history of Israel by naming pivotal people of faith ranging from Abel, the son of Adam, to David, the nation's first king. He ends this chronology with references to many of God's faithful people whom he does not name. Rather, he lists the struggles and persecutions they endured while remaining faithful to God.

The author refers to people who lived during Old Testament times as well as to some who lived during the years between the two testaments. All of these people were familiar to the Jews and figured significantly in both their written and oral traditions.

Now, nearly two thousand years after Hebrews was written, we will examine who some of the people were to whom the author referred. In addition, we will look at several New Testament people who endured similar circumstances.


Raised from the Dead

Verse 35 begins with a reference to women receiving back their dead, "raised to life again." Two outstanding Old Testament stories tell us about miraculous resurrections. 1 Kings 17:17-24 records the story of the widow of Zarapheth to whom the prophet Elijah, at God's command, came seeking food and shelter during a terrible famine. She admitted that she was about to cook her last bit of flour into cakes for herself and her son. She had none to spare, and she planned to die after they finished eating those last bits of food. Elijah told her not to be afraid and instructed her to feed him first, then to make herself and her boy some food.

"The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land," he said.

She did as he asked, and every day she had more flour and oil.

One day her son became ill and died. Desperate, she blamed Elijah for his death. Elijah took the boy, cried out to God, then stretched himself out on the body three times. "The boy returned to life," and Elijah restored him to his grateful mother.

The second story, found in 2 Kings 4:8-37, is strikingly similar. This time the prophet was Elisha, Elijah's successor. A wealthy couple in Shunem had built a room for him to use whenever he was in their region. The couple was so good to Elisha that he asked the Shunamite woman one day what he could do for her. She was unable to think of anything she needed, but Elisha's servant Gehazi told his master, "Well, she has not son and her husband is old."

A year later the woman bore a son. The child grew, but one day he suffered a severe headache, and within a few hours he died. The woman was desperate, and she rode a donkey to fetch Elisha. She demanded that he return with her. When he entered the house he prayed to the Lord. Then he stretched himself out upon the boy twice, and "the boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes."

The woman fell at Elisha's feet and bowed to the ground.

These resurrections foreshadowed Jesus bringing several people to life. He raised to life the young daughter of Jairus (Matthew 9:18-26), the only son of the widow from Nain (Luke 7:11-15), and the most famous story of all, Lazarus, the only brother of Mary and Martha (John 11:1-44). All of these resurrections pointed out that God has always been the source of life; only He has power over death. They also foreshadowed Jesus' own resurrection, the miracle of his victory over death by the power that was in him, when he broke Satan's claim on humanity and provided a way that all humankind could be restored to oneness with God.


Stoned and Imprisoned

In his Commentary on Hebrews, William Barclay tells of the unspeakable persecution of the Jews under the cruel reign of Antiochus Epiphanes during the years between the testaments. These stories are recorded in the apocryphal books of Maccabees, and all Jews knew these stories well. They were "tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection."

In addition to the Jews of the Macabean period, Old Testament prophets also endured torture for the sake of their faith in God. Although not recorded in scripture, extra-Biblical traditions say that Jeremiah was stoned to death, and Isaiah was sawn in two for refusing to participate in idolatry.

The church as well as the Israelites suffered torture and persecution. Shortly after Pentecost, the Roman Empire began persecuting Jews, both Orthodox and newly-Christian. In addition to the Roman persecution, the traditional Jews hated the Christians. Jewish opposition became intensely focused on the fledgling church in Jerusalem on the day Stephen was stoned to death. All the believers in Jerusalem except the apostles scattered "throughout Judea and Samaria" to avoid torture and death. (Acts 8:1,2) This scattering, though, became a blessing as the believers made new converts in the cities to which they had fled.

God's people have been punished and imprisoned for their faithfulness since before Israel became a nation. Joseph landed in prison when he refused the seductions of Potiphar's wife. Jeremiah was beaten more than once, put in stocks and imprisoned for speaking God's words. Daniel was thrown into a lion's den overnight when he persisted in praying to God after the decree that all were to worship Nebuchadnezzar. Peter, Paul, and Silas endured prison for preaching the gospel. John the Revelator was exiled to Patmos.


Martyrs for Truth

Some were stoned and put to death by the sword for the sake of loyalty to God.

  • The first such martyr was Abel when Cain killed him in a jealous rage because God accepted Abel's sacrifice but not Cain's.
  • A little-known martyr for his faith was Zechariah, son of Jehoiada the priest. When seven-year-old Joash took the throne of Judah, the priest Jehoiada became his mentor and counselor. As long as Jehoiada was alive, Joash did right. When Jehoiada died, however, Joash gave his ear to the godless officials of Judah, and the nation turned to idolatry. God sent Zechariah, Jehoida's son, to confront Joash and to turn him back to the Lord.

    "King Joash did not remember the kindness Zechariah's father Jehoiada had shown him but killed his son, who said as he lay dying. 'May the Lord see this and call you to account.' " (2 Chronicles 24:22)
  • Elijah lamented to God that "the Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword." (1 Kings 19:10)
  • During the reign of Jehoiakim of Judah, Jeremiah was the most prominent prophet of God. A man named Uriah, son of Shemaiah from Kiriath Jearim, also prophesied for God and confirmed Jeremiah's message of destruction for Jerusalem and the temple because of Israel's rebellion. Jehoiakim, enraged, had his men find Uriah and kill him with a sword. (Jeremiah 20:20-23)
  • John the Baptist was beheaded at Herod's command.
  • Centuries later Stephen became the first Christian martyr when the Jews stoned him to death for proclaiming Jesus, "the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." (Acts 7)
  • Although not fatally wounded by them, Paul also endured stonings for preaching Christ.


Wanderers and Exiles

Many of God's people functioned on the periphery of society, scorned and shamed. The "went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreatedThey wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground."

  • Elijah wore "a garment of hairwith a leather belt around his waist." Afraid for his life at the hands of wicked Queen Jezebel, he ran for his life and hid in a cave. He also hid in the Kerith Ravine east of the Jordan where God provided his food by raven couriers. (1 Kings 17:2-6; 19:10; 2 Kings 1:7-8)
  • King Ahab had a man in charge of his palace who was a "devout believer". (1 Kings 18:3) This man, named Obadiah, covertly aided God's people while he worked for the king. During the time Jezebel was killing all God's prophets, Obadiah hid 100 prophets in two caves, 50 in each, and supplied their food and water.
  • John the Baptist lived and preached in the Desert of Judea. He wore camel's hair clothes with a leather belt, and he ate locusts and wild honey.


Sharing in the Promises

All these faithful people, both Old Testament and New, shared in the sufferings of Christ. Even though many of them lived before Jesus came, their ordeals foreshadowed the ordeals of Christ. In the same way that Jesus gives us his life and we receive his righteousness, we also share his sufferings as a consequence of accepting his identity.

Paul gives insight to this phenomenon in 2 Corinthians 1:5-6: "For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer."

Most of these great people of faith did not actually win a victory over all their negative circumstances. What they did get was profound and eternal: they received the commendation of God. They received eternity. Further, they stand as lasting role models to us of what lives of faith look like. They do not look perfect. They do look persevering. These were all people of integrity, people who knew their God and would defend his reputation and his truth with their lives, if necessary.

Even though the Old Testament faithful received God's commendation, "none of them received what had been promised." The promise for which they all lived was the promise of the Messiah. God first promised a Redeemer to Adam and Eve, and gradually, as the ages passed, he revealed more and more detail about his incarnation and ministry through the prophets. The Old Testament faithful did not live to see Jesus, but by faith they believed he would come, and by faith they believed God's promises of protection and ultimate victory.

Peter comments on the prophets' unfolding revelations of Jesus and their understandings of what they were saying in 1 Peter 1:10-12. "Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things."

The Old Testament prophets did not at first fully understand that the promises God was giving them would not have immediate fulfillment. But, according to Peter, God revealed to them that their prophecies were going to come true and make sense for those who would live during and after their completion in Jesus.

The people of faith who lived before Jesus received something wonderful: the confidence that God could be trusted even though his promises pointed to the future. But God had "planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect." (v. 40)

That "something better" was the reality of eternal life through Jesus Christ. We and the men and women of faith throughout the millennia received our completed salvation when Jesus died, and we received our eternal life when he rose again. All of God's faithful, whether they were already dead or not yet born, received the fulfillment of God's promises in Jesus at the same time. Those who lived before Christ lived by faith in a coming Savior, and that faith God counted as righteousness. We who live after Christ still live by faith-faith that the historical Jesus is who the prophets foretold; faith that Jesus told us the truth about himself; faith in the Jesus we know personally. We have all received our eternal life by faith.

God's plan for "something better" is now a reality. Salvation is an accomplished fact! There is no longer need for rituals and sacrifices and days of atonement. The Day of Atonement happened when Jesus died, and all those who live by faith are eternally secure no matter when they live(d) or how distressing their hardships.

There is still one more part of God's promises to be fulfilled: our bodily resurrection when Jesus comes back. The resurrection is one part of God's promises that people did not see clearly until after Jesus died and rose again. Although they did not know exactly how it would happen, those who lived by faith did believe they would eventually be in the presence of God. The book of Job, probably the oldest book of the Bible, quotes Job as saying, "And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes-I, and not another." (Job 19:26-27)

After Jesus rose, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

Our final moment of redemption will be when Jesus comes and raises the righteous dead and gives resurrection bodies both to them and to those who are alive. Both our spirits and our bodies will be redeemed!


Made Perfect

The last phrase of this chapter states the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises: all those who lived by faith, both before Jesus came and after, will "be made perfect". This perfection is intrinsic to the "mystery" that became known when Jesus defeated the power of sin and made it possible for humankind to become one with God. This mystery is the Church, the Body of Christ composed of both Jews and Gentiles. The Old Testament heroes of faith did not clearly see that God's people would include more than Jews. (see Ephesians 3:6, 10) The miracle of redemption embraced the entire world, not only those entrusted with the law and the prophets.

We, the Gentiles grafted into the vine, can praise God for this last verse in Hebrews 11: "God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect." All of us who live by faith receive our salvation together. Christ's blood binds us together for eternity. Together we will meet Jesus in the clouds when he returns. (1 Thessalonians 4:14-18)



God is calling us to live by faith. He wants to enter our lives at the level where we struggle with joy and grief. He wants to transform our guilt and shame. He wants to be in our decisions and commitments.

Jesus wants to give us an identity when we lose ourselves and the props that defined us. When we realize that our dreams will never come true, Jesus wants to come near and give us new hope. He wants to give us an eternal reason to live.

Living for Jesus is a life of intensity. When we commit all of ourselves to him, we discover that he calls us to engagement. He works and loves through us, and he increases our capacity to feel and to respond. He brings us face-to-face with our character flaws and guides us to surrender our self-centeredness to him. Jesus will strip away distractions or bring us to responsibilities we would never choose on our own. He redefines our priorities and gives us a love for truth and obedience. Living for Jesus demands more than we could normally give, but by the power of the Holy Spirit in us, God glorifies himself through our lives.

Let Jesus transform you into a person of faith. Let his love turn your timidity into confidence, and allow His Spirit to change your fear into authority. Let Jesus enter your deepest pain and give you rest. Let his grace wipe away your shame and give you peace. Let him walk with you through your sorrow and bring you into joy.

God is faithful. When he begins a work in you, he completes it. Your grief and failures are the seeds of joy and power Jesus will produce in you. Your regret and doubt will yield insight and faith. With the power of Jesus at work in you, your life will be redeemed and transformed. You are not responsible for generating your own growth and change. The Holy Spirit in you will soften your heart and open your eyes to truth.

Praise God for his faithfulness and commitment to us. Praise Jesus for his eternal sacrifice and life. Praise the Holy Spirit for his persistent work in our hearts, for producing surrender where there was rebellion and love where there was fear.

Praise God for making us people of faith.

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