"But we are not those who draw back and are destroyed, but those who have faith and are saved.""
When someone becomes a Christian, one of the things that changes is their perspective. The author of Hebrews gives us 2 perspectives here in verse 39: someone shrinking back and someone who has faith. Initially, this contrast doesn’t seem to match our way of thinking. In our thinking, the opposite of drawing back or being timid is to be bold and brash, to be confident and lean in. But this is not so for the Christian. Instead, the opposite of drawing back is to live by faith. What this means is that our initial response to difficulty isn’t to press back or to see how you can get a better position in life. Instead, living by faith means that we know difficulty will come and we trust (which is in the same word group as faith) in God for the outcomes.
In the psalms we saw this to be the case, in the midst of difficulty the psalmist in Psalm 73 says, ‘God’s presence is my good.’ In other words, what will transform my situation is God’s goodness to his people. When the waves of the world’s opinion changes in a decade like we have seen in our age, we remain steadfast in what we have learned from God in his word through the church, and we live by faith even when we have no idea where things are going.
This has actually been the case for the whole history of the church. There hasn’t been any one golden age in which Christians could have lived or should have lived comfortably. 1950 in America wasn’t a golden age, 1555 in Geneva wasn’t a golden age, and 410 in Hippo wasn’t a golden age. There have always been difficulties wherever God has placed Christians, and Christians have had to learn steadfastness in their situations. It is most enlightening to read letters and personal stories of pastors from various ages to realize that this is the case: that no age is perfect for us. So the Bible teaches us that we are sojourners. To use an updated English word, we are refugees. Where we are at right now is not our home. Abraham in the Promised Land felt like a refugee. He had left his home country in search of a better one which was promised by God. ‘For he was looking forward to the city whose architect and builder is God,’ yet he lived by faith. He is not one who drew back, but one that remained steadfast.
So we too ought to remember that our position in life is one of being a refugee even though most of us feel very comfortable in our homes. We are actually not yet home (“we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells,” 2 Pet. 3:13), and this actually gives us hope in the midst of the brokenness of the world. This is why the author of Hebrews follows up his doctrinal explanation with examples of people who have lived by faith in chapter 11. In a way he is saying, ‘You, Christian, who live by faith and don’t shrink back: here is a list of those who have gone before you as an encouragement that it is actually possible to live in such a way.’ All of these people lived by faith before even seeing or hearing about the promised messiah, Jesus Christ. If they could have lived like this, how much more can we who have heard of Jesus who has given us life through his Spirit?
If we were to read the rest of the book of Hebrews, we would see that this teaching permeates the rest of the book, i.e., ‘not shrinking back and living by faith looks like this.’ When you encounter suffering, remember that God is dealing with you as his children. When you find bitterness in your own heart, root it out (avoiding the path of Abel and Esau). When you encounter fellow refugees: welcome them as God has also welcomed you. When you hear the authoritative word from your leaders, submit to them and let them lead you with joy as it is a benefit to you. Chapters 11-13 then really are profitable to study carefully as we consider what it looks like to live by faith and what it means to live steadfastly. And all of this is the fruit of the rest of the book of Hebrews: Looking to Jesus. He is our great, perfect, and final high priest, and he is our perfect and final sacrifice. Therefore let us run the race set before us with endurance, living by faith and not by sight.