Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
I know that salvation is by grace and not by works, however meritorious. But the writer of the Book of Hebrews does not seem to know that simple truth. For example, in describing the martyrs, he says: ‘Others were tortured, and refused to be released, in order to obtain a better resurrection’ (Heb. 11:35, NIV). Sounds to me as if they looked on martyrdom as the way to earn their place in the resurrection of the just. Comment?
A danger we face when reading the Bible is drawing conclusions based on a superficial reading of the text. Studying the Bible should not be equated with reading the Bible. Sometimes I sit down and read the Bible. I do not ask questions; I just listen to it, to what the Lord is telling me as a read. This is a devotional reading of the Scriptures. As I read it, I grow in knowledge but my purpose is to be in touch with my Savior and to meditate on the meaning of His Word to me.
When I study the Bible I am also interested in its spiritual impact on my life, but I am equally interested in understanding as clearly as possible what the text is saying. So, I ask questions, I stop to read carefully the text in its context, comparing it with other biblical passages. Hopefully, out of the experience comes a better understanding. It is that type of reading that leads me to draw general doctrinal and theological conclusions and to understand better the intent of a particular biblical writer.
A devotional reading of Heb 11:35 usually will not raise the question we are dealing with, but if it would, then we must stop and do a careful study to uncover what the biblical writer is in fact saying. Perhaps I should add that often we can grasp the true intent of the author by simply reading the text without trying to raise questions that are foreign to the text itself. A devotional reading of Heb 11:35 will usually be taken to mean that we should never, under any circumstance, relinquish our commitment to the Lord. We must even be willing to give our life for Him because of the glorious hope we have in the resurrection. What a beautiful message of hope and encouragement!
But we also have the inquisitors who want to obtain a better understanding of the text. Naturally they have questions. Is Hebrews saying that we obtain the gift of eternal life, the resurrection, by means of martyrdom? Is that not salvation through works and not by faith? Is Hebrews’ teaching on salvation in opposition with what we find in the rest of the NT? These are valid questions for analysis. Where do we begin to look for answers? Obviously, with the text in question. Then we look at its immediate context and finally to the epistle itself.
1. Exploring the Text: Let us start with the text itself and the terminology used there in our attempt to understand it. The phrasing of the first part of 11:35b is interesting: “Others were tortured but refused to be released.” The word translated “released” is apolutrosis (“the offer of release/redemption”). They could have brought torture to an end by accepting the offer of release but that would have meant giving up something–the eschatological resurrection. Apolutrosis is a key word in the soteriological vocabulary of the NT. “Release” or “redemption” is what Christ obtained for us through his sacrificial death (e.g. Rom 3:24; 1 Cor 1:30). It is ours by faith in what God did for us through Christ. Hebrews teaches that it is only through the sacrifice of the Son of God that we have redemption, release from the power of sin and death (Heb 9:12). Our release/redemption from the power of death has been secured for us by Jesus. To accept human release is to reject the one given to us through Jesus. The implication seems to be that some of the heroes of faith endured death because by faith they knew they had already been released from its power through the Son.
A curious detail is the way Hebrews refers to the resurrection. It is “a better resurrection.” Better with respect to what? Another question! A quick but invalid answer could be, “Better with respect to the second resurrection mentioned in Rev 20:4-6.” But instead of going to Revelation one should study the context of Heb 11:35b to see whether it explains what the text means. And of course the context answers the question! Notice that 11:35b also mentions the resurrection: “Women received back their dead, raised to life again.” This was not the eschatological resurrection of the dead but a resuscitation which brought a dead person back to life on this sinful planet, but which did not liberate the individual once and for all from the power of death. They died again and are awaiting the final resurrection. The resurrection of those mentioned in the second part of that verse is “better” because it is resurrection to eternal life. Nevertheless, both types of resurrection are a loving gift from God.
Finally, it is also important to notice the verb tynchano, translated “gain.” It really means “attain.” “Gain” could give the impression of a commercial transaction in which we give something in order to gain something else. “Attain” does not imply earning merit for ones actions. A study of the use of that verb in the New Testament indicates that in theological contexts it always refers to elements related to God’s eschatological salvation. In fact, the verb “always signifies a gift, never one’s own work” (G. Haufe, “Tynchano meet, attain; happen, turn out,” Exegetical Dictionary of the NT, vol. 3, Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, eds. [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993], p. 372). That should alert us to the fac that Hebrews is not dealing here with salvation by works but with faith in God’s promise of the resurrection that expresses itself in unquestionable commitment to Him.
2. Exploring the Immediate Context: We should also look at the immediate context of Heb 11:35. Hebrews 11 contains a list of individuals who modeled in their lives the true nature of faith. Whatever they did was done because of their faith in God and not in order to obtain acceptance by God. The phase, “through faith” precedes their names and acts of heroism. Therefore, 11:35b should be read in conjunction with 11:33 where the introductory phrase is used to modify each of the items in the list that follows: “Through faith conquered kingdoms, administer justice, . . . [Through faith] Women received back their dead, raised to life again. [Through faith] Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.” Before they were tortured they were already fully committed to the Lord and looking forward to the promise of the resurrection. It was not that now through martyrdom they were finally going to make theirs the future resurrection, but rather that by faith that resurrection was already theirs and they were not willing to give up that wonderful gift of divine love in order to live a few more years here on earth. Faith, according to Heb 11, is the certainty of what we do not see which expresses itself in endurance and perseverance. To separate that faith-commitment from the willingness to die for the Lord, transmuting the last into meritorious acts, is a misunderstanding of the meaning of the text.
3. Exploring the Epistle: The epistle to the Hebrews has a pastoral concern running through it from beginning to end. The letter is written to a group of believers whose faith is being shaken and who are about to reject the Christian faith. They had accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord (2:3; 7:14) and enjoyed all the benefits that accompanied that decision (6:4-5). They had suffered on account of their faith (10:32-34). But now they are losing their faith and drifting away (2:1). The hope they accepted had not been materialized and they are questioning its relevancy (10:35-37). In answer to that pastoral problem Paul, among many other things, exhorts them to “hold firmly to the end the confidence we had at first” (3:14), to show “diligence to the very end” (6:11).
Paul is not exhorting them to add to their faith works in order to gain salvation but rather to retain their faith to the end in order not to lose what is already theirs. Endurance and perseverance are indispensable and express themselves in obedience to the message that was proclaimed to them. The alternative is apostasy. Paul’s pastoral advice is, “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (3:12). The heroes of faith endured all for God and did not give up their faith. They stand as examples to those who put their faith in Christ.
Hmm. . . My devotional reading of the text may have been the right one!