Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Promise Not Received: The Meaning of Hebrews 11:39–40

The list of heroes of the faith in Heb 11 makes explicit reference to sixteen individual heroes of the faith. In Heb 11:4–31 there are ten individuals mentioned: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab. These all receive a least a line or two from the author illustrating their faith. Then in Heb 11:32 another six individuals are named: Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel. However the exploits of the faith of these believers are not explored. But Heb 11 does not just list individuals: the people of Israel are implied in v. 29 and v. 30, and the prophets are mentioned in v. 32.

In real life these heroes had their ups and downs. Commended for their faith, at times this faith was not as strong as it could have been. Yet despite their weaknesses
through faith they conquered kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some, not accepting release, were tortured, in order that they might attain a better resurrection. Others experienced mocking and flogging, and even chains and prison. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in sheep skins, in goat skins, destitute, afflicted, mistreated … wandering about in deserts and mountains and caves and the crevices of the earth (Heb 11:33–38).
Through faith these heroes of faith experienced a mixture of things: victory as well as suffering. Through faith some “obtained promises” in the sense that they saw the fulfillment of some of God’s promises to them. Yet it is clear from Heb 11:39 that none of them experienced “the promise.”

But what is meant by the promise at this point? The phrase the promise (allowing for different grammatical case) also occurs in Heb 11:9, whereas the plural form the promises appears in Heb 11:13, 17. All of these have an Abrahamic connection. Abraham was promised nationhood (Gen 12:2), fame (Gen 12:2), blessing (Gen 12:2), land (Gen 12:7), and offspring (Gen 12:7). All in all, this would seem to be the promise of life in the heavenly land, the eternal city of God (Heb 11:10, 16).

The use of the phrase the promise elsewhere in Hebrews also supports the idea that the promise in Heb 11:39 is the promise of eternal life. Hebrews 4:1 speaks of the promise of entering an eschatological Sabbath rest. In Heb 6:15, 17 the promise is the promise of blessing and many offspring that God made to Abraham (and specifically the promise in Gen 22:17). The idea of the new covenant legally established on “better promises” (Heb 8:6), and talk of “the promise of eternal inheritance” in Heb 9:15, strengthens the idea of the promise in Heb 11:39 as being related to the promises of the eternal (i.e., the new) covenant. This is the promise which is the object of the Christian’s hope (Heb 10:23), which centers on entering into the presence of God in the heavenly temple (Heb 10:19–20). It is the promise that is fulfilled for believers after endurance in doing the will of God until “the coming one” comes (Heb 11:36–37). According to Heb 12:26, it is the promise of Hag 2:6 concerning the unshakeable eschatological kingdom, the heavenly Jerusalem (see Heb 12:22, 27–28).

We can conclude, therefore, that the ancient heroes of faith saw the fulfillment of some of God’s promises; but despite their faith testifying that they were people of faith, “they did not receive the promise” of eternal life realized in their lifetime (Heb 11:39). Faith is prepared to accept that there may be no reward for the faithful in this world, but that if this is the case, then the reward will definitely come in full in the heavenly country (Heb 11:6, 13–16).

In the plan of God, “God foresaw something better for us” (Heb 11:40), i.e., God had in mind that the full realization of his promise of blessing and life would be experienced by us, the new covenant believers. Hebrews 11:40 acknowledges that God’s plan of salvation is worked out in stages that lead to an eschatological climax. Believers under the old covenant by definition could not receive the fullness of blessing and salvation, because the fullness of blessing and salvation is something that was going to be achieved as part of the new covenant. It is for this reason that the ancient heroes of faith did not receive in full the promise of eternal life in their lifetime, “lest they be perfected without us” (Heb 11:40).

Through faith, and ultimately by way of resurrection, old covenant believers and new covenant believers alike will experience together the reward of faith, the fullness of the blessing of eternal life.


Mike said...

So, how do you explain Enoch (v5, "By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death")? I've heard some suggest that the bad guys were trying to kill him and that God simply translated (i.e., moved) him someplace (on earth, not to heaven) where the bad guys couldn't find him.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Mike,

Good question! I’m not sure we have much evidence to the effect that bad guys were after Enoch. Hebrews 11:5 is fairly clear that his removal was in order that “he might not see [i.e., experience] death.” I assume he was taken up into heaven as an indication of what the destiny of the godly (i.e., those who please God) is, namely, living in the presence of God. Note how the author takes Enoch as being an example of faith in the sense that (from what is implied in v. 6) he believed in God’s existence, and in the doctrine of divine reward, and pleased God as a result.

If Enoch is in heaven, how does this fit in with Heb 11:39? Following this verse, my assumption is that this implies that even Enoch has not yet received the fullness of everything that has been promised. There is a corporate dimension to the new covenant that will only be fully revealed on the final day (Heb 11:40); but on an individual level, perhaps we need to take it that Enoch has not yet received his glorified “resurrection” body. The people of Israel enjoyed some kind of access into the presence of God in the old covenant age through the temple priesthood; but this access was nonetheless limited or restricted. There must be some kind of analogous restriction involved for Enoch, a bit like Moses upon Mount Sinai. Moses stood in the presence of God, but he was still a mere mortal. Enoch has gone further than Moses ever did (back then), but perhaps there’s more in store for him in the future (just like for us).

Susan Mongeau said...

I am still trying to figure this out....what promise did they not receive?

Steven Coxhead said...

Hi Susan!

Receiving the promise in Heb 11:39 really means experiencing the realization of what was promised. The Old Testament saints received the promise of eternal life in the sense that God promised them eternal life (on the condition of faith), but this promise would not be completely realized for the faithful until the day of resurrection, which is the culmination of the new covenant.

inspiredword said...

Hi Susan,

I believe that the promise that they did not receive was the promise of Christ Jesus our Lord, who came to die and bring about the new covenant which is better:

Galatians 3: 8

And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.

Galatians 3: 14

That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

Hebrews 11: 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.

What the better thing?

Hebrew 8: 6
But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.

De'Anthony Allen said...

"The PROMISE of the Father"

De'Anthony Allen said...

God hadnt come in the flesh yet & been glorified. None of them received the promise of the Father which is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. "Christ "in you" the hope of glory." And we are complete(perfect) in Him. That promise wasn't yet provided yet thus they weren't Privy to it. Mystery hidden since the foundation of the world yet now revealed to us (new testament/covenant church) in these last times. Don't believe me? Search these scriptures as they by simultaneously search you: Hebrews 8:8-12, John 7:36-39, Colosians 1:26-28, Luke 24:46-49, Acts 2:38-39............... Beloved, Be blessed in the only saving name of the Godhead (Zech. 14:9, Acts 4:12, Colosians 2:9-10)

KG said...

Hi, all!

Thanks for the clarification.

However, I am still confused on the premise of the plurality of the promises from Hebrews chapter 11. In verse 13, it refers to the promises as plural when it reads, "the things promised". Then, in verse 39, it refers to the promise as arguably singular or plural, as it reads, "what had been promised".

After reading the post, I think that verse 39 is referring to the new covenant salvation through the death an resurrection of Christ. But what, then, is verse 13 referring to?

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello KG!

There are six uses of promise in Heb 11 altogether. These are found in vv. 9, 13, 17, 33, 39. All of these instances are in the singular except for vv. 13, 17 where the noun is in the plural. The translation the things promised in the NIV, for example, is literally the promises in the Greek. In v. 39 the promise is singular.

My view is that the plurality of promises in v. 13 is basically referring to the same thing as the singular promise in v. 39, but the plural number just serves to indicate that there are various aspects to what God will fulfill in the heavenly country for those who are people of faith. Note that the promises in v. 13 relate to what believers will ultimately experience when reaching our heavenly destination (v. 16). The promises in v. 13, therefore, are also eschatological promises. They relate not to this world but the world to come.

Anonymous said...


Roskylove said...

To me, it is the promise of heavenly kingdom because all the deciples were mentioned in verse 36-37. That place is reffering to the sufferness of the diciples

g said...

Titus 1:2, st John 3:13-36, 1John5:12, The promise of eternal life which is in Christ Jesus,the seed of the woman that that did bruise the serpent's head, the promise of the prophet liken onto Moses Deu18-15 and ultimately the promises of resurrection and immortality from the dead for born again regenerated saints of God.1Cor15,1Thess4:16-19, St John14:1-4,(This will be fulfilled through repentance and faith in Christ THE PROMISE and obedience to his commands.)

This is and will be filled by faith in Christ both present and future tenths. The rapture / resurrection of the body of Christ the church and old testament believers Acts 24, Acts 26,which is yet to come.(future tenths)

But we have this treasure in an earthen vessel, 2Cor4:7 (in part)present tenths. Christ in you the hope of glory.

For we see through a glass darkly; but then(at the trumpet sound) shall I know even as as also I am know.

This blessing the old testament saints did not received but saw and embraced by faith. all these promises will be fulfil by Christ and the believers faith in Christ & reigning with Him

g said...

Has for Enoch and Elijah they died like all other righteous men awaiting the trumpet sound, 1Cor15:20-23, heb 9:27, Gen2:16-17, 2Sam 14:14, Heb11:13, Heb11:32-40, Romans5:12-19, Psa49:47-48, Job30:23

Hebrews 11:5

First Enoch was translated out of natures darkness(sin) to Righteous by faith in the Word. Second he was translated from life to death like Moses and now awaits the rapture / first resurrection. Isaiah 57:1

Emily Kinya said...

Just wondering, if the promise that these heroes have not yet received is the glorified body, what of Abraham. At least we're sure he's in heaven according to the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Is he an exception in terms of having to await the trumpet sound?

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Emily!

The bosom of Abraham in Luke 16 is contrasted with Hades in v. 23. So they both seem to be referring to the intermediate state after death. If so, then this would most likely be Abraham and Lazarus in their intermediate state before the resurrection.

Irene Garcia said...

Hi:-) thanks for this clarification. very helpful.:-)

Michael Henderson said...


In verse 13 the bible says: these all died in faith, not having received the promises, yet in verse 17 it says: he who had received the promises. Abraham was a part of, these, in v 13 and is the, he, in verse 17. I am a true believer and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the word does not contradict. What am I missing that gives the appearance of contradiction?

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for that question, Michael.

The verbs used for receive are different in vv. 13, 17 in the original Greek. In v. 13 λαμβάνω is used. When used with promise, this seems to mean receive in the sense of experiencing the realization of something that has been promised. See Acts 2:33; Gal 3:14; Heb 9:15, where similar language is used. In v. 17 the verb ἀναδέχομαι is used. It probably means to receive in the sense of to accept the promises.

Overall, therefore, there is no contradiction. Two types of receiving are in view.

Michael Henderson said...

:) thanks so much. Made my day! God bless.

Ronald Koons said...

This passage, Hebrews 11, is my favorite text in the new testament.

I like your description of the final two passages of 11: 39-40.

Typical biblical text where the bulk is inspiring, but the conclusion: the climax, requires research to understand.

I too have a blog that I am proud of. I am now following yours and would like to introduce you to mine:

Anonymous said...

I read Hebrews 11:32–40, didn't understand 11:39-40; your explanation was helpful. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Please does that mean all the heroes mentioned in hebrew 11 are not heaven. If so please where are they and in what condition.

Justin De'Anthony said...

Baptism of the Spirit...which comes by faith and is an awesome experience!!! The PROMISE of the Father! For it is written in Isaiah 28:11 and later quoted later by Paul the Apostle in his epistle to the church In Corinth: “This IS THE REST wherein ye REQUIRE the weary TO REST...and again Jesus said come unto ME and I will GIVE YOU REST...

Rlaw said...

I believe it’s refering to the fact that when they died the cross had not yet happened and so at that time they were not yet able to receive this final promise. That instantly changed upon Christ’s last words saying it was finished

Emmanuel Dzakpasu said...

I have learn alot over here
Thank you so much