The author of Hebrews argued that his audience should look to Jesus—their High Priest—for help to make it through their time of testing. Just when they were tempted to let go of their distinctly Christian posture, they received this note of pastoral correspondence. In Hebrews 11, the author of Hebrews (again) looked back to the Old Testament, this time in search of heroes who could inspire his congregation to keep pressing on faithfully. His search was fruitful.
Yet Hebrews 11 is not just a list of the greats of the Old Testament; the chapter has a theological argument as well. Here the author argued that in faith Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and company endured greater struggles than those his readers had faced. And the Old Testament saints accomplished such feats in the days of preparation, before the time of Christ, before the age of a divine intercessor, before the age of perfection (Heb 2:14-18, 4:14-16, 10:14-18). These Old Testament saints thus did more, with less. The author listed the faithful of old in order to persuade his audience to endure their present difficulty—since they lived in the age of open access to the throne of God itself (Heb 9:11-28; 10:19-23). In three places, the author quoted the Old Testament to reinforce the need for his audience to endure in faith just as Enoch, Abraham, and Jacob did.
(1) In Heb 11:5, the author quoted Gen 5:24 to remind his readers that Enoch walked with God by faith and was approved for his faithfulness. After Cain murdered Abel, the Lord gave Adam and Eve another third son, Seth (Gen 4:25). Enoch descended from Seth. The author of Genesis gave few details of Enoch’s life, writing simply that Enoch walked with God and God took him. The author of Hebrews cited Enoch as a model of faith and one who experienced God’s faithfulness. He wanted his audience to know that God knew their faithful commitment to Him and would see to it that they, like Enoch, were rewarded because they labored in faith to please God.
(2) In Heb 11:18, the author cited Abraham’s faithful offer of Isaac as a model of faith because God had told Abraham that Isaac would carry on the covenant promises (Gen 21:12). After Isaac was born, Sarah became jealous for her son and felt that Isaac was threatened by Hagar’s son Ishmael (Gen 21:1-10). Sarah demanded that Abraham drive Ishmael away and the Lord told Abraham to heed Sarah’s word, saying, “Your offspring will be traced through Isaac” (Gen 21:12). When the Lord later called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac—after just receiving confirmation that in Isaac the promises would carry on—Abraham had to trust God. According to the author of Hebrews in Heb 11:19, Abraham knew that God could even raise someone from the dead, and figuratively Abraham saw Isaac raised when the angel of the Lord intervened to stop Abraham from sacrificing his son (Gen 22:12).
(3) In Heb 11:21, the author quoted Gen 47:31 to remind his audience of Jacob’s endurance even in his old age, even in Egypt. When Jacob and his family traveled to Egypt in Genesis 47, Joseph and Pharaoh welcomed them. Jacob and his family settled in the land of Goshen, the best land of Egypt, for seventeen years, and they became prosperous. As Jacob aged and knew that his days on earth were drawing to a close, he asked Joseph to swear to him that Joseph would not bury him in Egypt (Gen 47:29-30). When Joseph swore to his father, Jacob bowed his head in worship (Gen 47:31). The author of Hebrews wanted his audience to imitate Jacob’s enduring faith (Heb 11:21) “outside the camp” (Heb 13:13).