"But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. 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. -- Hebrews 10:39-11:2 (ESV)
In the darkest moment of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Sam, the hobbit, looks up into the poisonous skies of Mordor, and receives an unexpected comfort.
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
For the first time in days, Sam curled up into a deep untroubled sleep. He once again had the strength to endure.
This story of little Sam being heartened by the star is so poignant because it resonates with the Christian experience. Every Christian knows what it is like to want to give up, to lay down the sword and just surrender if that will quiet the world’s constant battering. The early Christians who read the book of Hebrews knew that feeling well. With some of their brothers in prison, others being plundered, and others probably dead, they were ready to quit—to throw up their hands and go back to being safe, innocuous, government-protected Jews (10:32-35). The author of Hebrews, however, would not let them. Endure, he told them, because you know that God has promised you victory (10:39).
To the author of Hebrews, faith is more than the instrument of justification (though it is certainly that as well). It is the very ground of the Christian’s endurance, his reason for pressing on in the face of the most dreadful hardships. The apostle does not expect his readers to simply “gird up their loins” and tough it out. They would endure because their faith gave them assurance—beyond any shadow of doubt—that the salvation they hoped for would eventually come. It gave them proof, however unseen, that God would fulfill His promises (11:1). This was the same faith which allowed the heroes of the Old Testament to stake their lives on God’s promises, even when the realization of those promises was nowhere in sight (Heb. 11). Bolstered by such faith, the Hebrew Christians, like the saints who went before them, could face their persecutors with firmness, reliability, and steadfastness. Theirs was not an empty hope. It was a hope rendered secure by faith.
Celebrating people of faith as Hebrews 11 does would have been unthinkable in pagan Greek culture. To fashionable Greeks, faith was the last mental stronghold of the uneducated, who blindly believed things on hearsay without being able to give precise reasons for their beliefs. The pagan observers were astonished by the willingness of Christians to suffer and die for the indemonstrable. Today, faith is still an enigma to most. The world sees Christians suffering ostracism, ridicule, poverty, even death, and they call it “foolishness.” They wonder why people would endure such suffering for a “fable.” But for those who actually endure the suffering, take the contempt, and make the sacrifices, it really is no mystery at all. They endure because they know by an unshakable faith that in the end their suffering is only a small and passing thing: there are promises and rewards laid up for them forever beyond its reach.