The story is told of a newlywed couple whose first argument after marriage was over who should brew the coffee in the morning. The husband said it should be the wife; the wife said it should be the husband. The argument went back and forth, until the wife finally appealed to Scripture, saying that, according to the Bible, it was the man who should brew the coffee. Obviously surprised, the husband challenged her to show him where in the Bible it said that. She picked up her Bible and turned to the book of “HE-brews”!
The book of Hebrews is unique and special in many respects. It also contains one of the greatest chapters on the central Christian theme of faith—chapter 11. The chapter begins with a succinct, but unsurpassable, definition of faith, and then goes on to list a number of Bible heroes and heroines of faith.
While the chapter is devoted exclusively to the single theme of faith, it also underscores the diversity of faith stories and experiences. The faith journeys of the people mentioned were very different, and their faith produced, as it were, very different results. When we look at the way these different Bible characters are juxtaposed, the diversity that emerges is fascinating—and encouraging.
We have Abel who believes, or has faith in, God and becomes the first person to die; then we immediately have Enoch who also believes, and becomes the first person to not die.
We have Noah who receives a message from God regarding the depopulation of the world, and by whose faith the world is condemned and destroyed; then we have Abraham who receives a message from God regarding the repopulation of the world, and by whose faith the world is blessed and redeemed.
Abraham is followed by Isaac. (Isaac is one of those poor fellows of whom the saying “The first half of our life is spoiled by our parents; the second half by our children” is particularly true!). In Genesis 27, Isaac, with all his sincere faith, leans on his two sons, Jacob and Esau, carefully feels and smells them, and then blesses them—and gets it wrong. Esau’s blessing goes to Jacob. His son Jacob, on the other hand, in his old age, simply leans on his staff, and by faith blesses his twelve sons from a distance—and gets it spot on.
Then we find Joseph whom God prepares in the desert but uses in the palace; only to be followed by Moses whom God prepares in the palace but uses in the desert.
The two women who get a mention in the passage are Sarah and Rahab. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was a barren woman who was desperately trying to conceive. Rahab, on the other hand, was a prostitute who could ill afford to get pregnant; and so, presumably, was desperate to not conceive.
The point that this list of characters seems to be making is this: The personal faith journeys and stories of these people were different. So are ours—and so should they be.
We are often tempted to compare our experiences with that of others. We often feel frustrated that our faith in God is seemingly not as effective as that of others. Other times we are tempted to be somewhat prideful that our lives and ministries appear to be more productive and fruitful compared to others.
But this passage seems to be making the point that such comparisons are inappropriate and misleading. God calls, leads, and uses us in different ways, and we had better realize that.
In reading a passage like this—a “hall of fame” list of spiritual “celebrities”—we must also take care that we do not romanticize Bible heroes and their stories too much, lest we end up with false and faulty notions about them—just like the way we do today when we collude with the media and their celebrities in creating and projecting false images and ideals.
Take, for example, Sarah again. When we look into the actual story in Genesis 16, we initially find a Sarah with an overzealous and misguided faith (or perhaps even a lack of faith) trying to give God a hand in fulfilling His promise made to Abraham. She gets her husband Abraham to lie down with their servant Hagar. And what happens? She messes things up terribly.
Then again Genesis 18, when God reminds her of his promise, she blurts out laughing because she was almost ninety years old. What we find is that the “real” Sarah is not exactly the kind of person we would normally associate with great faith. But here, she and her faith get a mention.
The passage thus seems to be making another point: The lives of these heroes do not necessarily bear witness to their “greatness” or even the “greatness” of their faith. Some of them were undoubtedly towering personalities with truly great faith who played key roles in the Bible. For the most part, however, they were really ordinary people who, in their feeble and erring ways, by simply believing in the promises of the true and living God, and by aligning their lives accordingly, as best as they knew how, were graciously caught up in a story much bigger than they ever dreamed or imagined: the story of God’s redemption of the world. History, as they say, is HIStory—God’s story.
That is why in Hebrews 12 (which is, in a sense, the application of Hebrews 11), the writer begins by telling us to fix our eyes, not on these great men and women of faith, but on God himself.
And how do we do that? We do that by fixing our eyes on the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s nature—even Jesus himself, the author and perfecter of our faith. He is the only one who perfectly demonstrates what true faith is, and his is the only faith according to which we may ultimately pattern our own.
As we fix our eyes on him and live our lives of faith in our ever so feeble and erring ways, we, with our own little faith stories, also get graciously caught up in God’s larger story. And I suppose we can, every now and again, fancy ourselves with the thought that, if the Bible were being written today, perhaps even you and I might stand a chance of getting a mention.
A speaker and writer with RZIM India, Aniu has researched political ethics and focuses on theology, Biblical studies, apologetics, politics, peace studies, and ethics.