The writer to the Hebrews has given us a cloud of witnesses. It was not a comprehensive list of Old Testament saints who lived in faith. There were many more who lived during the periods of time we considered. But the cloud of witnesses given is sufficient to exemplify faith. Now we have reached the conclusion of Hebrews 11 and therefore also the conclusion of our series of broadcasts on this chapter.
We read in the last two verses of this chapter, that is, verses 39, 40, “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” One more time the writer to the Hebrews points us to this all-important subject of faith. But he does this by drawing us into this cloud of witnesses. He informs us that the faith of God’s saints in the Old Testament is not made perfect without us. God has provided something better for us today that the saints then did not have.
We will take a close look at what we have today that they did not have, in order that we might take to heart the Word of God we have studied in this chapter. Then we will perhaps—just perhaps—be able to lay aside the weight of sin that so easily besets us in our prosperity and run the race God sets before us. A race that God sets before each new generation of believers. May God focus our eyes on the prize that awaits us at the end of that race. With that in mind we conclude our series today.
I. The Promise Received
We cannot understand the Word of God before us properly without viewing it from the vantage point of God’s covenant. Not only is this true because the promise spoken of in the last verses is the promise of God’s covenant, but it is true as well because God’s covenant ties the church today together with the saints of old—a concept that stands on the foreground in the Word we consider. God’s covenant is a relationship of love and fellowship that God establishes with His people in Christ. It is not an agreement or contract that God enters into with man. It is not a relationship that is conditioned on what man does. It is not conditioned on his works or on his faith. God’s covenant is His relationship of love, grace, and favor by which He binds unto Himself a certain people for Christ’s sake.
This relationship He shares only with His elect people who are in Christ by a true and living faith—no one else. He reveals His love and grace only toward the people He chose from eternity as His own and gave to Christ, who saves them from sin. Now, we mention this because from this point of view God’s covenant is one. He does not establish different covenants with different people at different times in history. God’s covenant is one covenant established with His elect people from all ages—a covenant established in eternity with the body of His elect whom He foresaw in Christ.
But, that being said, God’s covenant does go through various stages of development in the history of this world. We have found that in the Old Testament God dispensed or administered the blessings of His covenant in an age of types and shadows. This could be seen in the sacrifices offered to God by Cain and Abel. It could be seen in the sign of the rainbow with Noah. And God’s covenant was ratified with Abraham, who became the father of all believers. Galatians 3:17 teaches us that, to the covenant God established with Abraham 430 years later,the law was added. God’s covenant for a long period of time was administered to His people through the law—a schoolmaster that constantly pointed them to Christ. So there was a certain development of God’s covenant as time progressed. During this time God made lots of different promises to His people. He promised Abraham that his children would inherit the land of Canaan. God fulfilled this promise. God promised Joshua that He would give him the victory over the Canaanites. God fulfilled that promise. God promised David that He would establish his sons on the throne of Israel. God fulfilled that promise. To His people who lamented their captivity in Babylon, God promised that He would bring them back to Canaan after 70 years. God fulfilled His promise.
These are but a few of the promises God made to His people in the Old Testament. But there is one promise of God that none of these Old Testament saints saw fulfilled. It is the promise spoken of in verse 39, where it speaks of the promise. The Old Testament saints received not the promise, we learn. They received the fulfillment of many different promises. But this one promise they did not receive. It was the central promise of the covenant: the coming of their Messiah. They all died in faith never seeing that promise fulfilled. Christ did not come. All the promises they saw fulfilled centered in the coming of their Savior, but they never received in Christ the blessings He would impart upon His church through His coming.
You and I now live in the church of the new dispensation or administration of God’s covenant. Whereas God’s people in the Old Testament received the promises by way of types and shadows, by way of pictures given them through the law, that is no longer true today. They had Old Testament priests that administered Old Testament sacrifices in an Old Testament temple. They had Old Testament feast days, the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision. All these pointed them ahead to the coming of Christ, but Christ never came. In verse 40 of our text the writer explains concerning the church today, “God having provided some better thing for us.” Christ has come! That one promise that the Old Testament saints never received, we have! Christ has come a Mediator of a better covenant, one that is established on better promises.
What better thing, then, has God provided for us in Christ? We do not need the laws and ordinances as pictures to lead us to Christ anymore. Christ has fulfilled all these with His coming. It is true, of course, that the saints in the Old Testament were saved in like fashion as we are, that is, by faith. Christ was slain before the foundation of the world, we learn in Revelation 13:8, to save His people by His grace and His righteousness. But they had Christ only in the promise, whereas we have Him in fulfillment. They had Christ only in types and shadows, we have Him in reality. They believed in a Messiah that was yet to come, we believe in a Christ that has come. They did not fully understand how their Messiah was going to save them. We have a full knowledge of our salvation in Christ. Christ is become our high priest, our sacrifice, our Passover. We do not need the law to tutor us. Christ is here and works in our hearts by His Spirit and grace. All this is the “something better” that God has provided for believers in the New Testament. Further, God has revealed all of this to us in His great love.
But there is a promise that God’s saints in the New Testament have not received as yet—you and me included. It is inseparably tied together with the promise of Christ’s advent, His first coming into this world. This promise is also implied in the words of our text, as we will find. That promise is that Christ comes again on the clouds of heaven to usher in the new heavens and the new earth. Peter speaks of this promise in II Peter 3:13: “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” John speaks of it in I John 2:25: “And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life.” We have spoken of this promise before, but we have never elaborated on it. We must understand the reason for the hope that dwells in us, for indeed believers look for and wait for the fulfillment of this promise.
This promise includes the return of Jesus Christ from heaven. Paul writes in Philippians 3:20, “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The promise you and I as the church of Christ today yet receive is: Christ returns—the Captain of our Salvation, our Lord, the one we love and cherish, returns. At that time the final resurrection will take place. Our bodies will be changed to be made like unto Christ’s most glorious body. The final judgment will take place, when Christ’s enemies and ours will be judged to receive their just reward.
But the greatest joy in this second coming of Christ from heaven is that He returns to receive us to Himself in a place that is without sin, without sorrow, without pain. A place of pure bliss, filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Such is the promise that God’s people look for and wait for in hope. God’s saints in the Old Testament looked for that promise too, though, given their place in God’s covenant, they could not distinguish between Christ’s first coming and second coming. The point is, all of God’s people since the beginning of time live in that hope of Christ’s coming and life eternal.
II. Obtaining a Good Report
But there is an important reflection the writer to the Hebrews adds in verse 39 that is vital to understanding our text. The saints in the Old Testament did not receive the promise of the coming Messiah, that is, they never saw it fulfilled. But here is the point, yet through faith they obtained a good report. This refers to the truth that these saints received testimony that God was pleased with them. All those recorded for us in Hebrews 11, yes, but also all of God’s people in the Old Testament who lived in faith. All of God’s saints of the Old Testament who lived in faith obtained this testimony from God: He was well-pleased with them.
There are some, of course, who maintain that the believer can only bring forth works worthy of condemnation. His righteousnesses are as filthy rags. Therefore the believer may never view his life in this world as well-pleasing to God. Only Christ is well-pleasing to God. The works that flow out of a true and living faith can never be said to be something that please God. But the Word of God before us speaks otherwise. God saw the deeds of faith these Old Testament saints brought forth, and they received the testimony or report from God that they pleased Him. They obtained a good report.
We contend this on the basis not only of the verses we study here, but on the basis of this chapter of Hebrews 11 as a whole. Of Abel we read, in verse 4, that by means of his sacrifice he obtained witness (that is the same word used in our text translated “obtained a good report”). That he was righteous. Then it is repeated in the very next phrase: “God testifying [obtained a good report] of his gifts,” that is, the sacrifice he offered. Enoch walked with God. Before he was translated, we learn in verse 5, he had this testimony (good report), that he pleased God. God always gives a good report of His children. He is pleased with them as they strive to walk in His ways and precepts, just as a parent is pleased when he sees his children walking in truth. How does John put it in III John:4, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” This can be said of God too.
But then, what becomes of the fact that even our best works are polluted with sin? What becomes of the testimony of Isaiah that even our righteousnesses are as filthy rags? How is it possible for us to obtain a good report if our works are far from perfect? Ah, dear listeners, it is because we know by faith that these works are cleansed in the blood of Jesus Christ. By faith we are bound together with Christ. The works we do flow forth only out of the life of Christ that dwells within us. The imperfections of those works He cleanses in His blood, and He presents us spotless before God. God is not pleased with us on the ground of our works—not even on the ground of our faith! He is pleased with us because we are righteous in the blood of our Savior. But being made righteous we are also made holy. The works that proceed from faith are therefore works that flow forth out of the life of Jesus Christ in us. And therefore for Christ’s sake God is pleased with us when we walk in His ways.
That same faith testifies to God’s people, as they strive to walk in the way of good works, that God is happy with them. He is pleased, He has a good report, a good opinion of them. Is that not true? We may not walk through this life with the attitude, “woe, is me! I’m such a horrible sinner. I do not know if I am going to make it into heaven. Woe is me!” If there is anyone who may be happy in this world, it is the child of God. He believes that God is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. He believes that Jesus Christ lives in him by His Spirit and that he is led in the way that leads to everlasting life. He believes that he is made righteous on the ground of Christ’s work on the cross alone. His sins are forgiven him. He has been adopted by God as one of His very own children. No, not of our own merits! That is not the point. Faith obtains a good report from God, and the life of the believer is filled with joy. For Christ’s sake he is approved of God!
Now, the saints in the Old Testament obtained that good report. They lived in faith that their Messiah was coming to save from sin. But they never saw the fulfillment of that promise. They never saw their Savior! They never completely understood what was involved in the fulfillment of the promise God gave them. But those who lived in faith in the Old Testament clung to that promise in the hope of its fulfillment. They were able to perform acts of faith at which we marvel today. But so ought the believer today! As I mentioned at the beginning of this broadcast, in these last two verses the New Testament believers are tied together with the Old Testament saints. We are members of the one and same covenant. They lived in the old dispensation or administration of that covenant. We live in the new. God has provided some better thing for us today: we live in the age of the fulfillment. We live under a covenant established on better promises. The saints of old lived under but a dim foreshadowing of heaven, yet their faith then led them to heaven. The light of grace had not yet shone in the face of Jesus Christ for the saints of the Old Testament, yet they endured some of the greatest persecutions, not accepting deliverance. They performed deeds of faith at which we marvel today.
The point is: if they endured such great perils, what of us today who now live in the fulfillment of the gospel and are given the better promises? As one commentator asks: “With what pretense can we excuse ourselves if we still cleave to the earth?” What a penetrating question! What excuses can we come up with when we in lack of faith would rather enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, or complain that the affliction God sends us is simply too heavy to bear? It is impossible to deal with. Compare your faith to that of the saints of old. When such an abundance of God’s grace is revealed to you and me in Christ, how is it possible that we would have less faith than the saints of old? The Old Testament saints did not even have the promises that we do today. Why would they be so strong in faith while we are so weak?
We live in the last times. When the hope of Christ’s second coming ought to be burning in us because He soon comes, how is it that our faith only flickers? The temptations, the allurements, of this present world press themselves upon us. Need I enumerate how often our desires are placed on the life here below—especially in the whole realm of entertainment! How often we lust after the pleasures that this world offers. Jesus asks the penetrating question of us: “When I return, will I find faith in the earth?” Seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us in these last days run the race that leads us to heaven—setting aside the weight of sin that so easily besets us!
III. A Church Made Perfect
Here is the incentive given us in the concluding phrase of this chapter: the saints in the Old Testament without us are not made perfect. Beautiful! God’s covenant with the body of the elect will not be complete until Jesus Christ returns on the clouds of heaven. The promises given to the Old Testament saints were not complete. That is what the word for “made perfect” means. The promise of the coming Messiah was not fulfilled, and therefore the church under the old covenant was not perfected as yet. The development of God’s covenant was not yet complete. God’s friendship with His people as a whole was only in part in the Old Testament.
This was true because the Old Testament church needed the church of the New Testament for her to be made perfect. God needed to gather into His covenant bonds the entire body of His elect. To understand the words of our text requires that we view God’s covenant with His people as a whole, organically. We need to see that the church is one both in the Old and New Testaments. Then we can understand that the church of the Old Testament without the church of the New Testament was not complete. With the New Testament God brings His church to completion. When all God’s saints are gathered in from the beginning of time to the end, Christ comes and ushers us into the perfect rest of God’s covenant. The Old Testament saints will share in the eternal rest of heaven with us. That is incentive to live in faith and run the race set before us in these last days. God preserve us in that faith of our fathers!