BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 23
Copyright 1991, Biblical Horizons
John Brown called this one of the most difficult passages in the entire epistle to the Hebrews, and Hebrews is no easy book. Several questions confront us as we read and meditate on these verses. First, in what sense did the Old Testament saints described in verses 4-38 not receive what was promised? What was it that they did not receive? And when, if ever, did they receive it? Second, what is the "something better" that God has provided for us? Do we already enjoy this something better, or is it something that we, like the Old Testament saints, are still embracing at a distance? Finally, and most critically, in what sense is it said that both Old and New Covenant believers are perfected together?
The first two questions can be dealt with simultaneously, for the answer to the first is precisely the "something better" that God has provided for us. What the Old Testament believers looked for but did not receive was that which God has provided now for us. What, then, is the something better? Invariably in the book of Hebrews, the adjective "better" is used to modify some provision of the New Covenant. We have a better priest, a better hope, better promises, a better covenant, because the heavenly things have been cleansed by a better sacrifice (7:7, 19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16). In 11:40, therefore, the general phrase, "something better" (kreitton ti), refers to the fulfillment of the Old Covenant promises and types in Jesus Christ. The "something better" is the New Covenant and all its benefits.
Verse 39, therefore, seems to be saying nothing more than 11:13, namely, that the Old Testament believers died before the fulfillment of the promises in Christ. God withheld the fulfillment of the promises from Old Covenant believers. But, on closer inspection, we realize that, unlike v. 13, verses 39-40 do not say that the patriarchs died without receiving the promises, but that they did not receive the promise until the something better had been provided to "us," the first generation of New Covenant believers. They were not perfected until "we" were perfected. That is, they did not receive the promise even after they had died.
What does it mean to say that the Old Covenant believers are not "made perfect" apart from us? The verb teleioo in the book of Hebrews follows in large measure the usage of the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. As the article on teleioo in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament points out, the LXX sometimes uses teleioo not in reference to moral perfection, but in reference to qualification for or consecration to the office of priest (English trans., 8:80-84). In the LXX translation of Leviticus, the noun "priest" is modified by the adjectives christos ( "anointed") and the perfect participle of teleioo (cf. Lev. 4:5; cf. 21:10). The ordination formula "fill the hands" is translated in the LXX as teleioo cheiras (cf. 8:33; 16:32). The participle of teleioo as a modifier of "priest" carries the connotation of ordained, consecrated, or qualified: The "perfected" priest is consecrated to draw near to God in His tabernacle.
In the book of Hebrews, the verb is also used in this sense. Hebrews 7:19 tells us that the law made nothing perfect, but that with the coming of the Messiah, we have a "better hope," by which we draw near to God. The implication is that, though the Old Covenant types and shadows did not perfect, the New Covenant reality does perfect, with the result that we are qualified to draw near to God. The connection between the perfection wrought by Christ and our qualification for drawing near to God is even clearer in 10:1: "For the Law . . . can never . . . make perfect those who draw near," with the obvious implication that the New Covenant can make those who wish to draw near perfect. Hebrews 10:14 draws a close connection between perfecting and sanctification, which has to do with access to the presence of the Holy God: By offering Himself once-for-all, Jesus "has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified."
Turning back to 11:40, we are led to conclude that God withheld the fulfillment of the promise from the Old Covenant saints, with a view to fully qualifying both Old and New Covenant saints for entrance into God’s presence in Christ. This seems to imply that the Old Covenant saints never enjoyed full access to God, even after they had died. They continued in their fellowship with God after they had died, but it was the "better thing" that perfected them forever, and gave them full access to God’s presence. Before Christ ascended, the patriarchs were, as it were, in the "outer courts" of the heavenly sanctuary; in Christ, they draw near beyond the veil.
As surprising as this conclusion might seem, on reflection it can be seen to be completely in accord with the teaching of the epistle as a whole. The blood of bulls and goats was unable to cleanse the conscience, and thus was incapable of qualifying men to draw near to God. This was true of Old Covenant saints while they sojourned on earth (they did not have access to the tabernacle), and it was equally true of Old Covenant saints after they had died (they did not have access to the heavenly tabernacle). How could they have had such access, when there was not yet an ascended God-Man, not yet a Perfect High Priest? Surely, they could not gain access to God by virtue of their deaths; they had to await the death of the Son. It was not their blood that qualified them to enter the sanctuary, but Christ’s. Thus, Christ’s death not only opened a new and living way for those who were living on earth, but opened a new and living way for those who had already died in faith.
This conclusion may shed some light on some obscure New Testament passages. Though it hardly solves all the problems, it may illuminate Peter’s cryptic comments about Jesus preaching deliverance to those in chains (1 Pet. 3:18-22). It might also shed some light on Paul’s teaching that Jesus led captive a host of captives (Eph. 4:10). The Old Testament saints seem to be in view in Hebrews 12:23; they are the just men made perfect, not by their own deaths but by the death of the promised Seed. There is even a possibility that this understanding of Hebrews 11:40 may shed some light on the various passages that speak of martyrs in the book of Revelation, including perhaps 20:4. In addition, this might help to illumine the Old Testament passages that speak about the saints going down into Sheol (cf. Gen. 37:35).