1. Losing Virtue
Increasingly in the West virtue is an alien word. Worse than this the pursuit of virtues is something alien. The idea that virtue should be desired and pursued, that it is a high priority in the lives of individuals and communities is simple not a contemporary agenda.
There is a suspicion about the pursuit of goodness and of wanting to be good. Virtue and goodness depend on moral certainty and absolutes which are not popular in our culture. The closest we come to virtue in secular discussion in terms of other categories, such as values and rights. These are not the same as virtues. Values and rights are, however, seen as more neutral, ‘democratic’ and self-evident than the pursuit of goodness.
This has not always been the case as much of Western culture has celebrated virtue. Until a hundred years ago the idea of virtue was a popular concept and the pursuit of goodness was not only acceptable but was seen as desirable.
In the Church, virtue is also an unusual word today. In our Church tradition there can be a number of concerns which have undermined the pursuit of virtue and the goal of being good:
1. The theology of salvation by grace alone can cast a shadow over pursuing virtue.
2. The Church has been caught out too often as its members have claimed virtue whilst practicing vice.
3. Perhaps we think it’s not biblical. But if we translate virtues as another window on the fruit of the Spirit and the pursuit of goodness as sanctification, we can see that virtue is biblical.
In Hebrews 11 we find two of the so-called theological virtues, faith and hope, worked out in the lives of the ancient heroes of First Testament faith. The implication is that the best of the people of God display hope and cultivate right behaviour—and we too are called to do the same.
The basis of Hebrews 11 and its fixation on the future hope is incredibly counter cultural. In our culture we are taught to see an end horizon marked by our physical demise. Hebrews 11—the gospel of Jesus Christ—sees beyond an end horizon beyond this, the heavenly city.
Because of this:
- Hope in God will mean that we know we are foreigners and behave as strangers in this world.
- Hope in God will mean we will struggle at times with God.
- And finally, and perhaps less surprisingly, such a hope means fixing our eyes upon Jesus.
2. Strangers to Vice
Both our hope in God and our faithfulness to him are easy to misunderstand. The promises we have ‘hope in’ and the God to whom we are faithful, are longer term prospects than anything else in our lives. What we put our hope in outlasts us in our mortality. Such hope and faith in God go beyond the more human hope and faith we place in our spouses, partners, or close friends.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
Hebrews 11:13, NIV
In the world’s eyes this sounds like those of faith, hope, and trust have been deceived. What is the point of a life of hope in which what is promised is not to be found? Why would anyone be faithful for a lifetime, only to die without receiving what is hoped for?
But such is the life of faith—at least to some extent. The life of faith in Christ is about something bigger than us—this is the ultimate in counterculture. We are called to a faithfulness in a God who is even more faithful to us. We know the truth of his faithfulness in the beautiful gift of Jesus Christ:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The guarantee, or taste, of the fruit of faithfulness is known here and now but the fullness of that fruit is yet to come in the inheritance of God’s Kingdom in the age to come. We are like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11:
they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
And yet we also have more than ‘the ancients’—we have knowledge of Christ and we are in Christ by the power and grace of the Spirit of God. What we await in patient faithfulness comes after death, or the return of Christ. In this life of faith and hope, we are strangers on earth. What a challenge and what a remarkable call.
How can we be distinctive—salt and light—rather than just peculiar?
We of course share the same promises as the heroes of faith:
People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:14–16, NIV
God has prepared city for us.
Verse 21 of Hebrews 11 says this:
By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.
Perhaps the implication is that Jacob leans upon his staff as he is old and in need of total hip replacement. But it’s quite likely that the author of Hebrews also has something else in mind. For like all people of faith, Jacob had wrestled with God—more so than most in fact. It all came to a head in Genesis 32. In this life, most people of faith will at some points wrestle with God.
We might suppose that struggling with God about anything is a denial of our hope in him. But this is not the case. The wrestling with God that Jacob experienced like that of many people of faith is entirely faithful and hopeful—it is the complex working out of how we achieve what God has called us to do.
What is the right way to go about finding blessing? Jacob had attempted to find blessing by deceiving his brother. It is as he is about to meet his brother, Esau, who he assumes will be very angry, that he wrestles with the angel of the Lord. That wrestling with God is not wrong is evident from the Psalms. One third of the biblical psalms are psalms of complaint or lament—a rich vocabulary given to us to complain to our God. More pragmatically we can note that:
“A faith that never feels challenged is most likely dead.”
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well
To be truly faithful to God means wrestling with him—complaining to him—about how things are in this broken world. Many of those named in Hebrews 11 contended with God. When done for the right reasons and in the right way this is hope in action. Hope in God is not fatalism it’s about a real relationship with the living God. If we don’t in fact question God, and wrestle with him, we risk one of the two alternatives to hope.
On the one hand there is the risk of presumption. We presume all is well with ourselves without checking in with our Creator. We assume that because Jesus died once for all we are the finished article. But no, our hope in our future with God should be transforming us. Day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, we should be better disciples. Bearing the fruit of goodness in both character and deed.
On the other hand, another alternative to hope is despair. Events can take their toll on us and the hope of dwelling with God can become too much to hope for. This is when we need our brothers and sisters in Christ. Who are those you can look to in your hour of need?
We live in a society where those around us do not have gospel hope. They have variously chosen presumption (putting their hope in something other than Jesus Christ) or despair (finding no hope).
4. Fixing (12:2)
We are of course in a different relationship with the living God than the heroes of Hebrews 11. They knew Yahweh the God of Israel and indeed they often experienced him first-hand. And yet despite this blessing we are fortunate to surpass the revelation they had.
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
For we know the Father through, and in, Christ. The Incarnation of the Son of God, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection provide the fuller revelation of the very heart of God. This is not just knowledge but is part of the fabric of reality—we are the body of Christ and he is the head.
We are a body in which the very Spirit of Christ is at work. Virtues are the fruit of the Spirit. We are sanctified, made virtuous, through the work of the living God in the Church his body.
The call to fix our eyes upon Jesus is a better one, than to fix our eyes on the heavenly city as those in Hebrews 11 did. As wanderers and pilgrims, they knew of the heavenly city that was the reward of their faith and faithfulness. For us this heavenly city is home to Jesus Christ seated at the right hand of the Father.
In Jesus Christ we have a redeemer who also founds a new creation- a new heaven and a new earth.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.