Volume 10, Issue 2: Exegetica
Something Better for Us - Hebrews 11:35-40
We who look to Jesus overcome the world by faith. Faith is our victory. That victory of faith is sometimes publicly manifested: Moses leads the people out of Egypt; Joshua leads them into Jericho; judges and kings conquer kingdoms, all in God's name and to the praise of His glory. The author of this epistle has presented us with examples of many such men "who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises." But at other times that victory is veiled, cloaked in obscurity by the enemies of God who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. These victories of faith are won, not on fields of open battle, but in dungeons behind closed doors. It is this second sort of victory to which the author now turns.
"Women received their dead raised to life again. And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection" (Heb. 11:35). The phrase "raised to life again" literally means by resurrection. So we see contrasted here two types of resurrections. The first is exemplified by the Shunammite woman's son, whom Elisha raised to life (2 Kings 4:17-37), and the son of the widow in Zarephath, who was similarly revived by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24). These resurrections, remarkable as they were, were but resurrections back to this life. But for those who have died for the cause of Christ—prophets, apostles and martyrs throughout church history—there awaits a "better resurrection," a resurrection to eternal glory. It was that hope of glory firmly held which enabled those witnesses to endure the most miserable torments the enemies of God could invent. That his readers might better grasp the greatness of this faith, the author briefly summarizes more of the torments the faithful of God have endured.
"Still others had trials 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" (Heb. 11:36-37). These phrases recount the sufferings of several great men of faith. Many have suffered with godly patience the "mockings and scourgings" of God's enemies, even as our Lord Himself did (cf. Mark 15:16-20, 29-32). So also "chains and imprisonment" were endured by numerous faithful witnesses of old: the patriarch Joseph and prophet Jeremiah come to mind. "They were stoned"—a punishment peculiar to the Jews, which, in addition to all the other sufferings mentioned, the apostle Paul endured (cf. 2 Co. 11:25). "They were sawn in two" is probably an allusion to the martyrdom of the prophet Isaiah, who according to some early church fathers was murdered in this gruesome manner. Many faithful men also have been "slain with the sword," such as the prophets of the Lord at the hand of Jezebel (1 Kg. 18:4), and James the brother of John, the first apostle to be martyred (Acts 12:2). The greatest of the prophets "wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins"; both Elijah (2 Kg. 1:8) and John the Baptist (Matt. 3:4), the Elijah who was to come, were clothed in this mean manner. These faithful servants of God and others were "destitute, afflicted, tormented." They endured all, yet in all things were more than conquerors.
These men "of whom the world was not worthy . . . wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth" (Heb. 11:38). They despised the world and were despised by it, dwelling instead in forsaken lands. David fled from Saul and dwelt in the cave of Adullam (1 Sam. 22:1); Elijah fled from Jezebel and dwelt in a cave of Mount Horeb (1 Kg. 19:8). While "those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings courts," these men wandered the wilderness in animal skins. Yet the men of this world, in spite of their wealth and power, are unworthy of these sons of light whom they persecute.
"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" (Heb. 11:39-40). This is a rather surprising statement. The author had earlier said something similar, that the patriarchs "died in faith, not having received the promise" (v. 13). We might have taken this "promise" to mean the land of Canaan. But here we learn that it must mean something more, since none of these men of faith received it, until they could receive it with us, being made perfect.
What is this promise, this "better" thing, that they have now received together with us? We have received the "heavenly country," the city prepared by God, the blessings of the new covenant purchased for us by the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. We have inherited the earth, the world over which Christ is now reigning from His Father's right hand. But most glorious of all we have received this hope: That when we leave this world, we will be with Christ, a promise which is better by far.