Chapter 11 is a list of the faithful heroes of the First Testament. It begins with Abel and continues to —
(Heb 11:35-38 ESV) 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — 38 of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
These heroes did great things and suffered horribly for the sake of the coming Messiah.
(Heb 11:39-40 ESV) And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
Even though these men and women were people of genuine faith, they “did not receive what was promised.” What was promised? Well,
(Heb 4:1 ESV) Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.
(Heb 6:15 ESV) And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.
(Heb 8:6 ESV) 6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.
(Heb 9:15 ESV) Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.
(Heb 10:36-38 ESV) 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37 For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; 38 but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”
Work your way through these “promise” passages, and you find that “promise” refers to God’s covenant with Abraham to bless his descendants, enhanced by the promise of Jer 31:31 —
(Jer 31:31-34 ESV) “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
That is, the “promise” is the new covenant promise of forgiveness by grace through faith. It’s the gospel.
(Heb 11:39-40 ESV) And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised [that is, salvation under the gospel of Jesus Messiah], 40 since God had provided something better for us [the gospel of Jesus Messiah], that apart from us they should not be made perfect [meaning that they were in fact made perfect with us due to their faith].
The point of v. 39 is not to deny that the cross saved the First Testament saints. Rather, they did not get to see Jesus. They believed in a Messiah who’d not yet been revealed or present on earth. They didn’t get to see the promises come true. They did not see the Spirit outpoured or the Kingdom coming with power.
V. 40 is a double negative and understandably hard to follow. Moreover, it’s a paradox. The faithful of the First Testament did not have the gospel in its fullness, and yet they were faithful. Were they saved? Yes, but only with us. Salvation history had to get to the cross, and so the faithful of the First Testament were faithful based on promises not yet made and on a fulfillment centuries, even millennia, in the future. They had weaker promises making their faith all the more remarkable.
The writer is not arguing that one faith community supersedes another; rather, the point is that the promises that moved forward all God’s faithful are fulfilled in these last days through the sacrifice and priestly intercession of the Son. That in which we share they also share, the “something better” that God has provided (foreseen).
Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” in Hebrews-Revelation (vol. 12 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), n.p.
In other words, just as the sacrifice of Christ reaches us at baptism and then reaches backwards in time to cover all our past sins and forward in time to reach all our future sins (“made perfect forever”; “once for all”!) — unless we rebel (Heb 10:26-27) — the same happens in salvation history. Jesus’ sacrifice is “once for all” not just going forward into the Christian era but reaching backwards to Abel.
(Heb 12:1-2 ESV) Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
And so we should run the course realizing that those who’ve gone before have sacrificed just as much and more based on a salvation they could only anticipate. We live in an age after Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection have all been witnessed and the greatest of the promises not only made but fulfilled. We should accordingly find our faith that much easier — realizing that Abel, Abraham, and the entire host of the faithful are watching us follow them.
And so —
(Heb 12:22-24 ESV) 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
— while we struggle on earth, the “spirits of the righteous made perfect,” that is, the faithful of the First Testament who receive grace through the cross with us, are in celebration with the angels because of the sacrifice of Jesus once for all.