Horizons Bible Study 2017-2018
“Cloud of Witnesses: The Community of Christ in Hebrews”
Lesson 5: In Community with the Traditions of the Past (Hebrews 3:1-6; 11)
We were sitting in the college cafeteria drinking terrible coffee after dinner. Generally, my college friends and I tried to best each other in coming up with bad puns, but that night we were talking about hope and faith. I kept saying that we hope for what we do not see. Who knew that somewhere along the way I had picked concepts from the letter to the Hebrews?
Faith is initiated by God. Because of the work of the Holy Spirit moving in our hearts and minds, we are drawn to God as known in Jesus Christ. We experience the love of God and respond by trusting God with our lives. Faith and hope are central to chapter 11 of Hebrews. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is a multilayered word that can indicate trust, belief or loyalty. Here in chapter 11, faith is described in the context of other words like “assurance,” “endurance” and “firm hope in the promises from which we do not shrink back.” (See “The New Interpreter’s Commentary: Letter to the Hebrews” by Fred Craddock for more.)
A brilliant sunset, a huge luminescent moon, waves thunderously crashing against the shore, a blue heron rising suddenly from the marsh — all these cause wonder in human beings. Some people come to believe in God through the beauty of creation. “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3a).
Hope in our culture is used broadly as in: “I hope tomorrow that the weather will be cooler” or “I hope that I get a Wii for my birthday.” The Merriman-Webster Dictionary describes “hope” as “a feeling of expectation and a desire for a certain thing to happen.” Yet, hope in Hebrews is a deep trust in God and in the promises of God for a future yet unrealized. Jesus’ promises of eternal life and the promise of a new heaven and earth in Revelation are examples of this kind of hope.
A dear friend heard the news that his 28-year-old son had stage 4 colon cancer. He was crushed. In prayer, he poured out to God his sorrow, pain and cries for help. An image came into his mind of his son being baptized and he remembered the words, “In life and in death, we belong to God.” This answer to his prayer sustained him through the two-year battle and eventually death of his son. My friend’s sorrow was intense, but he clung to the promise that his son was in the loving arms of God.
In a letter meant to encourage believers to stand firm in their faith, the people in chapter 11 are illustrations of those for whom faith was taking action. Noah by faith respected the warnings of God and built an ark. (One can only wonder what the neighbors thought of building this large boat and gathering animals.) Abraham set out for a place that he did not know and trusted in the promise of a multitude of descendants — a promise that he would never see fulfilled. Moses persevered and saw One who is invisible.
In the graveyard of the church I currently serve, there are two headstones that stand out to me. One says, “He tried to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with his God.” The second says, “Service before self.” I would so much like to know the stories of these two people whose lifelong faithfulness to God defined their life.
Who do you know whose lives witness to a firm hope in the promises of God from which they do not shrink back, and thus find favor with God? I think of many people:
- The business man who is joyfully open about being a Christian;
- The mother whose dearest desire is that her children grow up loving God;
- The older women who were called to open a food pantry in the church after a Sunday school study;
- Middle Eastern Christians who daily remain faithful in the face of persecution;
- Presbyterian Disaster Assistance personnel who work for years to help redevelop communities devastated by hurricanes;
- Bishop Tutu who has lived, amid terrible racial discrimination, as one who believes that “goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.”
We are the ones who live by faith. We trust that our actions give witness to our loving and steadfast God who does fulfill promises now, in the future and in the life to come.
Rosalind Banbury is the interim pastor of Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church in Fishersville, Virginia.
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