In Hebrews 7–13, the Apostle Paul continued to emphasize the preeminent role of Jesus Christ in the plan of salvation, focusing particularly on the superiority of the Savior’s priesthood, atoning sacrifice, and ministry. Paul taught his readers that the ancient tabernacle and its Mosaic ordinances prefigured Christ’s sacrifice and that only through the shedding of His blood can we obtain remission of our sins and gain access to God’s presence. The Epistle to the Hebrews concludes with an eloquent exhortation for the Saints to remain faithful (see Hebrews 10:19–13:25), including a discourse that presents scriptural examples of men and women who demonstrated extraordinary faith (see Hebrews 11). Such examples can inspire us to live our own lives more faithfully.
Melchizedek was “a great Old Testament high priest, prophet, and leader who lived after the flood and during the time of Abraham. He was called the king of Salem (Jerusalem), king of peace, king of righteousness (which is the Hebrew meaning of Melchizedek), and priest of the most high God” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Melchizedek”; scriptures.lds.org). Other scriptures relate that Melchizedek conferred the priesthood upon Abraham, received tithes from Abraham, and was unsurpassed in his greatness (see D&C 84:14; Hebrews 7:4; Genesis 14:18–20; Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 14:25–40 [in the Bible appendix]; Alma 13:19). In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Melchizedek stands as a prototype of the Son of God (see Hebrews 7:15–16).
The Joseph Smith Translation of Hebrews 7:3 clarifies that it was the priesthood that was “without father, without mother”: “For this Melchizedek was ordained a priest after the order of the Son of God, which order was without father, without mother” (in the Bible appendix). This phrasing indicates that, unlike the Levitical or Aaronic order in ancient times, the Melchizedek Priesthood is not conferred based on lineage alone. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles further explained: “The right to this higher priesthood was not inherited in the same way as was the case with the Levites and sons of Aaron. Righteousness was an absolute requisite for the conferral of the higher priesthood” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. , 478).
One of Paul’s purposes in Hebrews 7 was to show the Melchizedek Priesthood’s superiority over the Levitical or Aaronic Priesthood and its accompanying ordinances. If perfection and exaltation were attainable through the Levitical Priesthood, why was there a need for a change to the higher priesthood? Paul taught that perfection, or being “made like unto the Son of God” (Hebrews 7:3), does not come by the Levitical Priesthood but through Jesus Christ and His order of the priesthood. Jesus Christ “sprang out of Juda,” not Levi, so Paul taught that His right to the priesthood would be based not on ancestry but on “the power of an endless life” (see Hebrews 7:14–16). As the premortal Jehovah, He had created the earth and governed the events of the Old Testament with the same priesthood power He would hold during His mortal ministry. “The priesthood held by Melchizedek is the very priesthood promised [to] the Son of God during his mortal sojourn, which is to say that Christ was to be like unto Melchizedek” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah , 450). The Melchizedek Priesthood is the power of endless lives because it administers the ordinances that bring endless posterity (see D&C 132:19–24).
Elder Craig A. Cardon of the Seventy discussed the refining influence of the Melchizedek Priesthood: “The priesthood also has the power to change our very natures. As Paul wrote, ‘All those who are ordained unto this priesthood are made like unto the Son of God’ [Joseph Smith Translation, Hebrews 7:3; see also Moses 1:6]. This likeness is not only in ordination and ordinance but also in the perfecting of individual hearts, something that occurs ‘in process of time’ [Moses 7:21] as we ‘[yield] to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and [put] off the natural man’ [Mosiah 3:19]. When a man is ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, he enters into an ‘order’ [Alma 13:2, 16; D&C 107:3] by which he may be refined through service to others” (“Moving Closer to Him,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2006, 95).
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that though the priesthood is conferred upon male members of the Church, both men and women are blessed by the perfecting power of the priesthood and its ordinances: “The blessings of the priesthood, such as baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, the temple endowment, and eternal marriage, are available to men and women alike” (“Priesthood Authority in the Family and the Church,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2005, 26).
Paul pointed out that in ancient Israel the priests of the Levitical or Aaronic Priesthood did not receive their priesthood with an oath but because of their lineage. The oath mentioned in Hebrews 7:21 refers to Psalm 110:4: “The Lord hath sworn, … Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” In the latter days, the Lord revealed that “all those who receive the [Melchizedek] priesthood, receive this oath and covenant of my Father” (D&C 84:40) and that the eternal blessings conferred upon faithful priesthood holders come “according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood” (D&C 84:39; see also verses 33–42).
The word “surety” in Hebrews 7:22 refers to one who guarantees another person’s financial debt. “Better testament” refers to the superior gospel covenant established by Christ. Through taking upon Himself our sins and giving His life, Christ paid our spiritual debt, guaranteeing salvation and the promises of the covenant for all who would come unto Him. He is the ultimate assurance of our covenant relationship with God the Father.
The Greek word translated as “uttermost” means “completely” and “eternally.” Thus, as recorded in Hebrews 7:25, Christ is able to save us completely and for all eternity. Elder J. Devn Cornish of the Seventy explained that the real question we should ask ourselves is not whether Jesus Christ can save us but whether we are willing to place our faith in Christ and come unto God:
“Some have a difficult time accepting in their hearts that when the Lord says [He atoned for] ‘all’ He means them too. They seem to say to themselves, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ died for the sins of mankind, but what I have done is so terrible or so repeated that I don’t think the Atonement will work for me.’ Some who are faithful members of the Church actually seem to believe that they will never make it back to Heavenly Father’s presence. It is the idea that Christ can save all mankind, but He may not be able to save me. …
“Others can sense that this idea is false and that Christ can save them, but they are not sure He will. The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob taught, ‘He cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken to his voice; for behold, he suffereth … the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children’ (2 Ne. 9:21). The question is not whether we are perfect or whether we are worth forgiving, but whether we are willing to admit when we do wrong, feel sorry, confess as appropriate, do all we can to set things right, and ask the Lord to forgive us” (“Learning How the Atonement Can Change You,” Ensign, Apr. 2002, 22).
Paul explained that Jesus Christ can save us because He lived a perfect life. Elder Bruce D. Porter of the Seventy explained how the undefiled and perfect life of Jesus Christ was crucial to His Atonement: “The trial of Jesus in Gethsemane would not have been possible and could not have occurred had it not been preceded by a lifetime of sinless virtue. … From his temptation in the wilderness to his rejection in Nazareth to the illegal trial before the Sanhedrin, Christ paid the price of a perfect life, walking in holy sinlessness despite adversity, physical suffering, deep sorrows, and the snares of ruthless and determined adversaries, both seen and unseen. ‘He suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them’ (D&C 20:22). All this he did with the knowledge that one misstep would mean creation’s doom! For had he sinned even in the smallest point or slightest negligence of thought, the Atonement would have become impossible and the whole purpose of creation frustrated. The burden of the whole world weighed upon him through every moment of his life” (The King of Kings , 92).
In Hebrews 8, Paul summarized the ideas of the previous chapter and explained that because Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice was superior in every way to the temple offerings made by Levitical priests, He became “the mediator of a better covenant” (Hebrews 8:6). The Greek term translated as “mediator” in Hebrews 8:6 refers to a third party who stands between two others to resolve their differences and to bring them together. Jesus Christ is the Mediator through whom the gospel covenant is established between Heavenly Father and us. Paul also called this “better covenant” a “new covenant,” quoting from Jeremiah 31:31–34 to show his Jewish-Christian readers that the Lord had revealed to Old Testament prophets that He would someday make a new covenant with Israel that would supersede the old (see Hebrews 8:8–12).
The Prophet Joseph Smith (1805–44) noted that although Jews in New Testament times generally rejected this new covenant, it would again be offered to them at a later time: “Christ, in the days of His flesh, proposed to make a covenant with them, but they rejected Him and His proposals, and in consequence thereof, they were broken off, and no covenant was made with them at that time. But their unbelief has not rendered the promise of God of none effect: no, for there was another day limited in David, which was the day of His power; and then His people, Israel, should be a willing people;—and He would write His law in their hearts, and print it in their thoughts; their sins and their iniquities He would remember no more” (in History of the Church, 1:313).
Paul continued his comparison between the Levitical high priest and Jesus Christ by discussing the work of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Once a year on the Jewish holy day called the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the high priest was permitted to enter into the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle or, later, the Jerusalem temple. (The Holy of Holies is referred to as the second tabernacle in Hebrews 9:3–5, 7.) On that day, “the high priest, clothed in white linen, took a bullock as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering for himself and his house; and two he-goats as a sin offering. … He then cast lots upon the two goats. One was to be for the Lord for a sin offering. The other was … to be sent away alive into the wilderness [a scapegoat]. … He then killed the bullock, his own sin offering, and, taking a censer full of live coals from off the brazen altar with two handfuls of incense into the Holy of Holies, cast the incense on the coals there so that the cloud of smoke might cover the mercy seat and, as it were, hide him from God. He then took of the blood of the bullock and sprinkled it once on the east part of the mercy seat (as an atonement for the priesthood) and seven times before the mercy seat (as an atonement for the Holy of Holies itself). Then he killed the goat, the congregation’s sin offering, and sprinkled its blood in the same manner, with corresponding objects. … Over [the scapegoat] the high priest confessed all the sins of the people of Israel, after which it was sent by the hand of a man into the wilderness to bear away their iniquities into a solitary land. This ceremony signified the sending away of the sins of the people” (Bible Dictionary, “Fasts”; see also Leviticus 16:22).
The ordinances performed by ancient Levitical priests foreshadowed the Atonement made by the Son of God (see Hebrews 10:1). Ancient priests offered up goats or lambs from Israel’s flocks; the Lamb of God voluntarily offered up Himself (see Hebrews 9:12–14). The high priest offered sacrifices in this manner every year on the Day of Atonement; Christ offered His sacrifice “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10; see also 9:25–28). As the ancient high priest entered into the Holy of Holies on earth and sprinkled the goat’s blood upon the mercy seat for the sins of Israel, so Jesus Christ our Mediator entered the sanctuary of heaven itself, there to intercede by virtue of His own spilt blood before the Father in behalf of those who would repent (see Hebrews 9:15, 23–25).
Thus, Jesus was not only the High Priest for us in making the offering; He was also the very offering Himself. Jesus came “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26; see also Joseph Smith Translation, Hebrews 8:4 [in Hebrews 8:4, footnote a]).
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles drew upon Paul’s description of Jesus as the “high priest of good things to come” (Hebrews 9:11) in order to provide encouragement to those struggling in despair:
“Every one of us has times when we need to know things will get better. Moroni spoke of it in the Book of Mormon as ‘hope for a better world’ [Ether 12:4]. For emotional health and spiritual stamina, everyone needs to be able to look forward to some respite, to something pleasant and renewing and hopeful, whether that blessing be near at hand or still some distance ahead. It is enough just to know we can get there, that however measured or far away, there is the promise of ‘good things to come.’
“My declaration is that this is precisely what the gospel of Jesus Christ offers us, especially in times of need. There is help. There is happiness. There really is light at the end of the tunnel. It is the Light of the World, the Bright and Morning Star, the ‘light that is endless, that can never be darkened’ [Mosiah 16:9; see also John 8:12; Revelation 22:16]. … To any who may be struggling to see that light and find that hope, I say: Hold on. Keep trying. God loves you. Things will improve. Christ comes to you in His ‘more excellent ministry’ with a future of ‘better promises.’ He is your ‘high priest of good things to come’ [Hebrews 8:6; 9:11]” (“An High Priest of Good Things to Come,” Ensign, Nov. 1999, 36; see also the commentary for Romans 4:18–22).
Paul wrote that “where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator” (Hebrews 9:16). Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained the meaning of Paul’s language:
“In legal usage, a testator is one who leaves a valid will or testament at his death. The will or testament is the written document wherein the testator provides for the disposition of his property. As used in the gospel sense, a testament is a covenant. Jesus is the Mediator of the new covenant or testament, that is of the gospel which came to replace the law of Moses. …
“Paul mixed these legal and gospel definitions to teach a basic doctrine. … Christ had to die to bring salvation. The testament or covenant of salvation came in force because of the atonement worked out in connection with that death. Christ is the Testator. His gift, as would be true of any testator, cannot be inherited until his death. Christ died that salvation might come” (Mormon Doctrine, 784–85).
It should be noted that the Joseph Smith Translation uses covenant in place of testament in every instance in Hebrews 9:15–20.
As Paul taught that both the old covenant and the new covenant required the blood of a sacrifice, he observed that “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22). Blood is symbolic of life. Sin offerings under the law of Moses required the shedding of an animal’s blood. In setting forth the laws respecting sacrificial ordinances in ancient Israel, the Lord explained: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11). The blood of animals ratified the old covenant, foreshadowing the shedding of Jesus Christ’s blood that ratified the new covenant and made the remission of sins possible (see Hebrews 10:4; Mosiah 3:14–15).
The blood of goats had been shed for centuries to ritually cleanse and sanctify the people (see Hebrews 9:13). Paul, however, taught that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). The Savior “was once offered to bear the sins of many,” and this was the only true sacrifice (Hebrews 9:28; see also the commentary for Matthew 27:15–21).
Paul used certain words to show how the sacrifices and practices of the law of Moses served as types or similitudes of things to come: “patterns” (Hebrews 9:23), “figures” (Hebrews 9:24), “shadow” and “image” (Hebrews 10:1), and “remembrance” (Hebrews 10:3). The Old Testament priestly duties and temple sacrifices pointed to Jesus Christ’s great atoning sacrifice.
The Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly emphasizes the difference between sacrifices under the law of Moses, which had to be offered over and over again, and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which was made “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10; see also 7:26–27; 9:25–28; 10:10–12). Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained how the Savior’s one-time offering was infinite in its scope: “[Jesus Christ’s] Atonement is infinite—without an end. It was also infinite in that all humankind would be saved from never-ending death. It was infinite in terms of His immense suffering. It was infinite in time, putting an end to the preceding prototype of animal sacrifice. It was infinite in scope—it was to be done once for all” (“The Atonement,” Ensign, Nov. 1996, 35).
Having established the image of Jesus Christ as High Priest entering into the Holy of Holies, or the presence of God, to intercede for us through His blood, Paul then exhorted his readers to follow Christ into God’s presence “by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” (Hebrews 10:20). Just as the veil of the ancient tabernacle or temple provided access to the Holy of Holies, in Paul’s metaphor, the flesh of Jesus Christ, offered as a sacrifice for sin and raised to resurrected glory, enables us to enter into God’s presence (see John 6:51; Hebrews 10:10). In each case, this was the only means provided to enter (see Acts 4:10–12; Mosiah 3:17; Alma 38:9). For more information on “the veil,” see the commentary for Matthew 27:51.
It should be remembered that Hebrews was written to Church members who were wondering whether it would be better to return to the Jewish faith. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland spoke of the challenges faced by the Hebrew Saints and likened the message of Hebrews to us:
“Paul says to those who thought a new testimony, a personal conversion, a spiritual baptismal experience would put them beyond trouble—to these he says, ‘Call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions.’ Then this tremendous counsel, which is at the heart of my counsel to you: ‘Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward …’ [Hebrews 10:32, 35; italics added].
“That is the way it has always been, Paul says, but don’t draw back. Don’t panic and retreat. Don’t lose your confidence. Don’t forget how you once felt. Don’t distrust the experience you had. …
“This opposition turns up almost any place something good has happened. It can happen when you are trying to get an education. It can hit you after your first month in your new mission field. It certainly happens in matters of love and marriage. It can occur in situations related to your family, Church callings, or career.
“With any major decision there are cautions and considerations to make, but once there has been illumination, beware the temptation to retreat from a good thing. If it was right when you prayed about it and trusted it and lived for it, it is right now. Don’t give up when the pressure mounts. Certainly don’t give in to that being who is bent on the destruction of your happiness. Face your doubts. Master your fears. ‘Cast not away therefore your confidence.’ Stay the course and see the beauty of life unfold for you” (“Cast Not Away Therefore Your Confidence,” Ensign, Mar. 2000, 8–9).
Paul taught that those who “sin willfully,” knowing their actions are wrong, will experience “much sorer punishment” because they disrespect the sacrifice of the Son of God (Hebrews 10:26). In the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth, we read: “Some people knowingly break God’s commandments, planning to repent later, such as before they go to the temple or serve a mission. Such deliberate sin mocks the Savior’s Atonement” (For the Strength of Youth [booklet, 2011], 29).
Knowing the struggles the Hebrew Saints were facing (see the section “To whom was Hebrews written and why?” in chapter 48), Paul exhorted his readers to be patient. The word patience in Hebrews 10 and 12 is translated from a Greek word meaning endurance or perseverance.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles discussed patience and the part it plays in enduring to the end: “Paul wrote of how, even after faithful disciples had ‘done the will of God,’ they ‘[had] need of patience.’ (Heb. 10:36.) How many times have good individuals done the right thing initially only to break under subsequent stress? Sustaining correct conduct for a difficult moment under extraordinary stress is very commendable, but so is coping with sustained stress subtly present in seeming routineness. Either way, however, we are to ‘run with patience the race that is set before us’ (Heb. 12:1), and it is a marathon, not a dash” (“Endure It Well,” Ensign, May 1990, 34).
Hebrews 11 recalls examples of faithful individuals in the past and the righteous deeds they performed through their faith in order to give readers assurance and confidence to endure in faith and to obtain promised blessings. Joseph Smith Translation, Hebrews 11:1 replaces the word evidence with assurance (in Hebrews 11:1, footnote b). Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles drew upon these images to explain that faith leads us to remember past assurances, face the future, and take action in the present:
“The Apostle Paul defined faith as ‘the substance of things hoped for, [and] the evidence of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11:1). Alma declared that faith is not a perfect knowledge; rather, if we have faith, we ‘hope for things which are not seen, [but] are true’ (Alma 32:21). Additionally, we learn in the Lectures on Faith that faith is ‘the first principle in revealed religion, and the foundation of all righteousness’ and that it is also ‘the principle of action in all intelligent beings’ [Lectures on Faith (1985), 1].
“These teachings of Paul and of Alma and from the Lectures on Faith highlight three basic elements of faith: (1) faith as the assurance of things hoped for which are true, (2) faith as the evidence of things not seen, and (3) faith as the principle of action in all intelligent beings. I describe these three components of faith in the Savior as simultaneously facing the future, looking to the past, and initiating action in the present.
“Faith as the assurance of things hoped for looks to the future. …
“Faith in Christ is inextricably tied to and results in hope in Christ for our redemption and exaltation. And assurance and hope make it possible for us to walk to the edge of the light and take a few steps into the darkness—expecting and trusting the light to move and illuminate the way (see Boyd K. Packer, “The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, Jan. 1983, 54). The combination of assurance and hope initiates action in the present.
“Faith as the evidence of things not seen looks to the past and confirms our trust in God and our confidence in the truthfulness of things not seen. We stepped into the darkness with assurance and hope, and we received evidence and confirmation as the light in fact moved and provided the illumination we needed. The witness we obtained after the trial of our faith (see Ether 12:6) is evidence that enlarges and strengthens our assurance.
As Paul began to recount scriptural examples of great works done through faith, he started with the Creation of the world itself: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3). The Lectures on Faith discuss how the worlds were framed by faith:
“The principle of power which existed in the bosom of God, by which the worlds were framed, was faith; and that it is by reason of this principle of power existing in the Deity, that all created things exist; so that all things in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, exist by reason of faith as it existed in Him.
“Had it not been for the principle of faith the worlds would never have been framed, neither would man have been formed of the dust. It is the principle by which Jehovah works, and through which he exercises power over all temporal as well as eternal things” (Lectures on Faith , 3).
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin (1917–2008) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that faith is a principle of power:
“Truly understood and properly practiced, faith is one of the grand and glorious powers of eternity. It is a force powerful beyond our comprehension. ‘Through faith … the worlds were framed by the word of God’ [Hebrews 11:3]. Through faith, waters are parted, the sick healed, the wicked silenced, and salvation made possible.
“Our faith is the foundation upon which all our spiritual lives rest. It should be the most important resource of our lives” (“Shall He Find Faith on the Earth?” Ensign, Nov. 2002, 84).
The Prophet Joseph Smith explained why Abel’s offering was acceptable to God and Cain’s offering was not: “By faith in this atonement or plan of redemption, Abel offered to God a sacrifice that was accepted, which was the firstlings of the flock. Cain offered of the fruit of the ground, and was not accepted, because he could not do it in faith; he could have no faith, or could not exercise faith contrary to the plan of heaven. It must be shedding the blood of the Only Begotten to atone for man, for this was the plan of redemption, and without the shedding of blood was no remission. And as the sacrifice was instituted for a type by which man was to discern the great Sacrifice which God had prepared, to offer a sacrifice contrary to that, no faith could be exercised, because redemption was not purchased in that way, nor the power of atonement instituted after that order; consequently Cain could have no faith” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , 48).
Paul taught that if we are to come to God, we must “believe that he is” (Hebrews 11:6). In the Lectures on Faith, we read that “three things are necessary in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation. First, the idea that he actually exists. Secondly, a correct idea of his character, perfections, and attributes. Thirdly, an actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing is according to his will” (Lectures on Faith , 38).
Many of the righteous accomplishments recorded in Hebrews 11 may be regarded as miracles. President Thomas S. Monson taught that tests of faith come before miracles happen: “Faith precedes the miracle. It has ever been so and shall ever be. It was not raining when Noah was commanded to build an ark. There was no visible ram in the thicket when Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Two heavenly personages were not yet seen when Joseph knelt and prayed. First came the test of faith—and then the miracle” (“The Call to Serve,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 48–49).
Paul wrote that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Sarah died with faith in the Lord’s promises to them of innumerable posterity and a land of promise, even though these promises were not fulfilled in their lifetimes. Abraham had left his homeland in the land of Ur with faith, not knowing where the Lord was taking him and his family. He, his son, and his grandson had lived out their lives in a “strange country.” But Abraham knew that he was ultimately seeking to join a city “whose builder and maker is God”—the celestial city of Zion, also called the city of Enoch or the city of God. The prophet Melchizedek had also gone to this city with his people. (See Hebrews 11:8–9, 13, 16; Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 14:34 [in the Bible appendix]; D&C 45:11–14.)
Many of the Lord’s choicest blessings must wait until after physical death to be received, as Elder Spencer J. Condie explained, while serving as a member of the Seventy: “Important components of faith are patience, long-suffering, and enduring to the end. The Apostle Paul recounts the faith of … Abraham, and Sara, concluding that ‘these all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (see Hebrews 11:4–13). These faithful Saints knew that this earth life was a journey, not their final destination” (“Claim the Exceeding Great and Precious Promises,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2007, 17).
The supreme example Paul gave of Abraham’s faith was his willingness to obey the Lord’s command to sacrifice Isaac, the birthright son through whom the Lord had covenanted to give Abraham an innumerable posterity. Even though obeying the Lord’s command would seem to make this promise impossible, Abraham had faith that the Lord would yet fulfill all His words. Paul’s description of Isaac as Abraham’s “only begotten son” helps us understand that when Abraham offered up his son Isaac, it was “a similitude” of the Father and the Son. The Book of Mormon records, “It was accounted unto Abraham in the wilderness to be obedient unto the commands of God in offering up his son Isaac, which is a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son” (Jacob 4:5; italics added; see also Genesis 22:2).
Elder Bruce R. McConkie discussed Abraham’s test of faith and suggested why it serves as an example of faith to all of us:
“Who can conceive of a more severe test of faith than the heaven-sent order to sacrifice the heir of promise, the heir whom God must then raise from the dead that his promises concerning Isaac might be fulfilled. (Gen. 21:12.) Is it any wonder that in all succeeding generations the seed of Abraham have looked back with awe and reverence upon a scene which tested mortal man almost beyond mortal power to obey?
“Why did Deity devise such a test? Certainly it was for Abraham’s blessing and benefit. There can be no question that the harder the test, the higher the reward for passing it. And here Abraham laid his all on the altar, thus proving himself worthy of that exaltation which he has now received. (D. & C. 132:29.) And immediately following his conformity to the divine will, he received a heavenly manifestation of the glory and honor reserved for him and his seed. (Gen. 22:15–18.)
“Certainly, also, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was intended to be an example forever of that perfect obedience which the Lord expects of all the heirs of promise” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [1965–73], 3:206–7).
Though raised in Pharaoh’s royal household, Moses chose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt” (Hebrews 11:25–26). Elder Dallin H. Oaks spoke of how serving God, not transitory pleasure or wealth, leads to true peace and happiness:
“Those who yield to the enticing of Satan may, as the scripture says, ‘enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season’ (Heb. 11:25), but that kind of pleasure can never lead to lasting happiness or eternal joy. …
“Brothers and sisters, old and young, I plead with each of you to remember that wickedness never was happiness and that sin leads to misery [see Alma 41:10]. Young people, do not seek happiness in the glittering but shallow things of the world. We cannot achieve lasting happiness by pursuing the wrong things” (“Joy and Mercy,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 75).
Hebrews 11:33–39 describes various persons throughout scriptural history, including Daniel (see Hebrews 11:33; Daniel 6:16–22); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (see Hebrews 11:34; Daniel 3:21–27); Enoch (see Hebrews 11:34; Moses 7:13–15); the widow of Zarephath (see Hebrews 11:35; 1 Kings 17:17–23); and Isaiah (see Hebrews 11:37; the traditional belief is that Isaiah was “sawn asunder”).
In Hebrews 11 Paul provided a list of men and women who, through their sufferings and faith in the Lord, accomplished many great things and moved toward perfection. Joseph Smith Translation, Hebrews 11:40 clarifies the role of their sufferings: “God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect” (in Hebrews 11:40, footnote a). With these examples as a backdrop, Paul exhorted his readers to greater faithfulness: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Paul referred to these men and women of the previous chapter as a “cloud of witnesses.” They can be looked to as witnesses because their lives bear witness to the power of faith in enabling us to perform righteous works. Paul may have also intended the phrase “cloud of witnesses” to introduce the metaphor of running a race, in which the faithful Saints of old are figuratively seen as the crowd of onlookers cheering on the runners. Both meanings convey that the powerful examples of the ancient Saints can give us strength and confidence to “run … the race that is set before us.”
The phrase “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) can also be rendered as “the Leader and Perfecter of our faith” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:222). President Thomas S. Monson spoke of how the exhortation to endure by “looking unto Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2) applies to us:
“Remember that we do not run alone in this great race of life; we are entitled to the help of the Lord. To the Hebrews the Apostle Paul urged:
“Lay aside … sin … , and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
Crucifixion was intended in the Greco-Roman world to publicly shame, humiliate, and torture its victim (see the commentary for 1 Corinthians 1:17–2:13). Paul recorded that the Savior “endured the cross” and despised “the shame” of it (Hebrews 12:2). He looked past the pain and public shame of His Crucifixion and endured it, knowing that it would eventually bring joy for Him and for His followers. Although nonbelievers saw crucifixion as an ignominious way to die, the early Saints saw obedience, humility, love, and power in the Lord’s Crucifixion.
Scripture attests to numerous purposes for the Lord’s chastening. In Hebrews 12:10, Paul taught that the Lord corrects us “for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.” His correction “yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:11). The Lord’s correction can take many forms, and it always helps to teach individuals as well as provide necessary correction. Chastening helps people remember the Lord, repent, receive forgiveness and deliverance, learn obedience, and become refined as gold (see Helaman 12:3; D&C 1:27; 95:1; 105:6; Job 23:10).
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said of the Lord’s chastening: “Correction is vital if we would conform our lives ‘unto a perfect man, [that is,] unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:13). Paul said of divine correction or chastening, ‘For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth’ (Hebrews 12:6). Though it is often difficult to endure, truly we ought to rejoice that God considers us worth the time and trouble to correct” (“As Many as I Love, I Rebuke and Chasten,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2011, 97–98).
Elder Orson F. Whitney (1855–1931) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught: “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable” (in Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle , 98).
In Hebrews 12:9, Paul affirmed the doctrine that all people are spirit children of God the Father. Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught regarding the importance of understanding this doctrine: “Consider the power of the idea taught in our beloved song ‘I Am a Child of God’ (Hymns, 1985, no. 301). … Here is the answer to one of life’s great questions, ‘Who am I?’ I am a child of God with a spirit lineage to heavenly parents. That parentage defines our eternal potential. That powerful idea is a potent antidepressant. It can strengthen each of us to make righteous choices and to seek the best that is within us. Establish in the mind of a young person the powerful idea that he or she is a child of God and you have given self-respect and motivation to move against the problems of life” (“Powerful Ideas,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 25).
Paul included a strongly worded characterization of Esau to teach that the Saints should not be immoral or profane (see Hebrews 12:16–17). A profane person is one who treats holy things with carelessness or contempt, as when Esau sold his birthright to Isaac for a little food (see Genesis 25:28–34). The word “it” in the final line of verse 17 refers to the “blessing,” or birthright, that Esau sought after trading it away (see Genesis 27:34–38).
Paul’s teaching that redeemed Saints join the “church of the firstborn” (Hebrews 12:23) is the only biblical occurrence of this phrase. In latter-day revelations, the Prophet Joseph Smith learned that the Church of the Firstborn refers to Christ’s heavenly Church, which comprises faithful, exalted Saints in the celestial kingdom (see D&C 76:54; 88:4–5). “Jesus was the firstborn of the spirit children of our Heavenly Father, the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh, and the first to rise from the dead in the resurrection (Col. 1:13–18). Faithful Saints become members of the Church of the Firstborn in eternity (D&C 93:21–22)” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Firstborn”; scriptures.lds.org).
The Prophet Joseph Smith commented on the imagery of God being a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29): “God Almighty Himself dwells in eternal fire; flesh and blood cannot go there, for all corruption is devoured by the fire. ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’ When our flesh is quickened by the Spirit, there will be no blood in this tabernacle. Some dwell in higher glory than others” (in History of the Church, 6:366).
To read about Jesus Christ suffering outside the walls of Jerusalem, see the commentary for Matthew 27:33.