Summary: Do the departed saints remember us, or are they only enraptured with Christ? The way we answer that question will determine what kind of connection we will have with them. Two truths in this passage give us a call for hope.
About eight months after first wife Marie died I was engaged in one of the final service calls that I would conduct before I passed my locksmith business to my son-in-law. My customer was a ninety-two-year-old lady. She had a well used Bible on the table, and I asked her if she was a Christian. She was, and it turned out that she was a very deep thinker as well. She had lost her husband several years before, so we shared both our faith and our grief. I told her that one of the passages that had come to mean a lot to me over the past few months had been Hebrews 11, because I believed that Marie could see me as I carried on God’s work.
My customer’s reply caught me off guard. She said, “Oh, I think the saints in heaven are so caught up with Jesus and his glory that they don’t know anything about what is going on down here.”
Since I did not have a chapter-and-verse retort, I could not challenge her opinion. For the next several months, I imagined my wife sitting before God’s throne, enraptured in Christ without another thought or care. I tried to accept the conclusion that neither she nor any of the other witnesses in Hebrews 11 would be concerned with the history unfolding beneath them.
A disconcerting thing began to occur. I found myself facing a growing emotional hole. I began to feel the despair of those who lack the hope of reconnection. If Marie had lost all care about her former earthly history, then any connection I imagined we had to each other was severed. For a while I slogged on, telling myself, Put the loss behind you and try not to dwell on it. In the end the tactic failed, and I began to search the Bible to see if it had anything to say about the subject.
It did. One of the places where I rediscovered hope was in a reexamination of Hebrews 11. Upon studying it more closely, I discovered two critically important truths concerning those who have blazed the trail before us. My elder sister in Christ had seen one, but not the other. We need both for a proper understanding regarding the condition and activity of the saints who have died before us.
Our objective today will be to discover what those two truths are and how they bear on our present calling as Christ followers.
THE FIRST TRUTH: THE SAINTS AS WITNESSES FOR THE COURT
Most of us are familiar with Hebrews 11, rightfully called the Faith Hall of Fame. With the skill of a virtuoso, the author has woven his two themes, doctrine and exhortation, through the book. When he presents the heroes of faith, the book achieves a full-orchestra crescendo, and we listen in awe. We sit in the presence of greatness.
Let’s look at Hebrews 11:1-2. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation” (All Scripture quotations are English Standard Version).
This is one of the six places where the writer uses the term, “witness” in this context, either as a noun or a verb. The verb form of the word is martureo, from which we obtain our modern word martyr. Many saints did die for their faith, but martureo by itself does not imply death. The verb means, “I testify,” or, “I bear witness.” Various Bibles have translated the term in this verse:
• “Obtained a good testimony” (King James)
• “Gained approval” (New American Standard)
• “Were Commended” (New International Version)
• “Received their commendation” (English Standard Version)
In other words, witnesses are not necessarily martyrs, or even eyewitnesses. They are those who proved their testimony by acting on what they believed. Early in the chapter, the author uses the term four times in three verses. I will be reading from the English Standard Bible, because it remains consistent in the way that it translates the word.
• Heb. 11:2—“For by [faith] the people of old received their commendation.
• Heb. 11:4—“ By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”
• Heb 11:5—“By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.”
The language depicts a sense of finality in these verses. The chapter almost suggests a courtroom setting in which God, the Great Judge, calls forth his saints one by one:
“Abel, Son of Adam, approach the bench.”