“The righteous will live by faith,” a fundamental principle of Christian faith to live out.
This proclamation of Habakkuk is the basic principle of the Christian life.
Paul quotes and explains it twice in the letter to the Romans 1.17 and in that to the Galatians 3.11.
“The righteous will live by faith” Hebrews 10.32-39
A challenge for Christians tempted by regression, backtracking, isolation.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews takes up the text of Habakkuk “The righteous will live by faith” with the inspiration of a New Testament writer.
Some details about the author
The identity of the author of the letter to the Hebrews is not established, either in the letter, or in the most ancient writings of the Church, after the New Testament. He was certainly part of Paul’s entourage because he quotes Timothy (13:23). But it is not Paul himself, because of a clear difference in the Greek language used.
Paul always indicates his identity at the beginning and often at the end of his letters. The author of the letter to the Hebrews remains anonymous, although he is known by the Church to which he writes (13:19)
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated.
You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.
For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”And, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.“
But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. Hebrews 10.32-39
Managing a crisis situation
Christians of Rome with Jewish background, persecuted, risking to abandon faith.
The author writes to Roman Christians of Jewish background, in a situation of persecution.
Faced with hostility, they are tempted to go back in the security zone of their original Judaism. Or they no longer have contact either with their Christian community or with non-Christians. In any case, they risk to abandon their faith.
A call to think, to remember
The author calls them to reflect, to remember the example they themselves gave in the past
• Remember. He first recalls the past faithfulness of the community (v. 32)
• Do not abandon. He then invites them to persevere (v. 35-39) –
To these Christians in crisis is promised the realization of the great promise of Habakkuk. “The righteous will live by faith”
Judaism, a temporary security zone.
Under the Roman empire, Judaism is a permissible religion
These persecuted Christians are converted Jews. They are socially assimilated to the Jewish colony living in Rome.
It was tempting for a Jewish Christian to withdraw into his original Judaism in the event of persecution.
During the first century of our era, the Roman Empire still made no difference between Jews and Christians. Roman law granted Jews a fairly favorable legal status. Judaism was a permissible religion.
But this situation is questioned, because of the unrest between Jews and Christians
The Jews are chased from Rome
Suetonius, a Latin author, testifies: “As the Jews constantly provoked disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus – probably a reference to Christ – the emperor Claude drove them out of Rome” in 49.
Aquilas and Priscilla, the collaborators of the Apostle Paul were of their number (Acts 18: 2)
Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews, both are the same for the Roman power. They are therefore all lumped together and driven out of Rome
There had undoubtedly been agitation and unrest between Jews who converted to the Christian faith and Jews who violently opposed these. This should not be surprising. Several passages from the book of Acts tell of attacks provoked by Jews against Paul and the new converts.
Courage in persecution
Restrictions and harassment begin: meetings are banned, Christians of Jewish origin continue nevertheless. They are thrown into prison, their property is confiscated.
Exposed publicly, offered in spectacle to insults, ill-treatment.
The pagans accuse them of vices and appalling practices. Like incest (that’s how they see fraternal fellowship) and anthropophagy (that’s how they understand the Lord’s Supper).
The other Jews also accuse them of being responsible for their expulsion from Rome.
Not only do these Christians hold fast, but they do bear witness to solidarity with those who are persecuted. They have compassion – certainly in practical form – for those who are thrown into jail.
Exhibited on the forum, the town square of Rome
They are deprived of their possessions: their houses are confiscated by the magistrates, or squatted or even vandalized after their imprisonment or their departure in exile. Their furniture and personal items are stolen, scattered on the street, destroyed … or sold on the public square, the forum.
But these Christians stripped of their possessions and their earthly goods (34b) know that they have better possessions (34c), more precious riches that always last, on the basis of their relationship with God through Christ
By dint of trial, discouragement and temptation to withdraw
Lassitude, discouragement eventually settle and wreak havoc.
• To return to Judaism to escape persecution? It is no longer so sure after the expulsion of the Jews ordered by the emperor?
• To keep a low profile, to isolate, to withdraw? Is this really a long-term solution?
Warnings and encouragement
The author of the letter warns and encourages them
Do not give up your insurance. A great reward belongs to it
This assurance, this boldness, the Christian develops them by trusting in the grace of God which helps him to live practically his salvation out. Beyond difficulties he can direct his thought, his hope towards the promised eternal rewards.
Living the Gospel out in a hostile or indifferent context
But it is not a matter of dreaming, of waiting for life in heaven while remaining passive on earth … No, it takes perseverance, endurance, the courage to continue despite everything, not to give everything up. It takes boldness to follow the example of Christ, to continue to proclaim the Word, to live the Gospel in a hostile or indifferent context.
Past and present persecutions
Circus of Rome at that time, dragonnades against the Huguenots in France in the 17th century, and today genocide, imprisonment, murder, persecution of Christians, terrorist attacks in the Middle East and in the West.
But there is also the atmosphere of the current Western world: all forms of spirituality are considered as equal, “you have your truth, I have mine.” “All religions are good, provided you practice them” … But, be careful, not too much and as discreetly as possible! : “religion belongs to the private sphere” …
Boldness and perseverance required
Why are boldness and perseverance demanded of the community awaiting the fulfillment of the divine promise?
The author will explain it. Like all the writers of the New Testament he quotes Habakkuk in its Greek version with some inspired modifications …
For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”And, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.“Hebrews 10: 37-38
“Just a little while” Isaiah 26:21, a pretext for retreat
The author of the letter to the Hebrews first recalls Isaiah 26: 20-21 who said:
Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by. See, the LORD is coming out of his dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed on it; the earth will conceal its slain no longer. Isaiah 26.20-21
This passage from Isaiah was read in the morning and evening prayers of the early Church. The persecuted Christians of Rome probably used it to justify withdrawal, isolation.
Call for faithfulness
The author of the letter to the Hebrews rejects this attitude of withdrawal. He quotes Habakkuk, who recommends faithfulness and warns against retreat, regression.
To wait with confidence and patience
Habakkuk 2.3-4 allows two complementary interpretations :
– to wait for the fulfillment of the vision
For still the vision awaits its time, it hastens to the end, it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not delay (Revised Standard Version).
– to wait for the Lord who will surely come, even if we have to wait
According to the Greek Version, ὑπόμεινον αὐτόν ὅτι ἐρχόμενος ἥξει καὶ οὐ μὴ χρονίσῃ (Habakkuk 2.3), we an also translate :
Wait for the one coming. He will come and will not tarry.
The one who will com is the Lord
The letter to the Hebrews clarifies the vision of Habakkuk
He who is to come will come and will not delay.
ἐ χόρχόμενος ἥξει “He who is to come will come” is a messianic title of Christ. This announces an absolutely certain event: the glorious return of the Lord at the parousia (the second coming)
Faithfulness, walking forward or backward?
Two attitudes contrasted: faithfulness, walking forward or defection, backtracking
Faithfulness: My righteous will live by faith
Faith begins with conversion. It continues in the long term. It demonstrates its faithfulness to Christ in the face of difficulties and sufferings. It stands fast, even when there is no deliverance, as did many of the heroes of faith at the end of chapter 11
Defection: But if he withdraws, (tracks back), I do not take pleasure in him
The one who withdraws is “the one who flings, who fails”
The deadly risk of withdrawing into oneself.
The author warns those who are tempted to escape suffering and disappointment by withdrawing into themselves, hiding, isolating themselves from the community. For him, This is the open way to treason, apostasy.
We are not of those who go back to get lost, but of those who have faith to be saved.
We: The author of the letter is solidarized with these Christians in difficulty. He wants them to demonstrate their faithfulness to Christ, thus guaranteeing the solidity of their faith.
There is no question here of the legal aspect of justification by faith (Galatians and Romans) but of its practical application.
Having faith to be saved
How can a Christian be sure of his final salvation, on what basis can he hope to attain this end?
Those who have faith to be saved
Here it is not a question of faith as expressed in conversion. It is the continual manifestation of faith according to the commitment made at conversion. It is faithfulness in tension in all the situations, easy or difficult, of the life.
The warning seems severe for Christians in a crisis situation … But the author proclaims his certainty that they will persevere nonetheless while keeping faith, persistent fidelity, until their meeting with the Lord.
A faithfulness in tension that takes risks
The risks of honesty that does not delude itself
Continuing to live one’s Christian life in constant faithfulness requires a well-conscious honesty that does not delude itself. One must realize the danger of loosening oneself and of letting everything go because of difficulties, of too much pressure, or simply because of certain circumstances in life. Thus, consecrated and promising Christians have disappeared from around us.
Faith manifests itself in faithfulness from day to day, in solidity, in endurance. It is accompanied by firm confidence in God’s promises despite adversity and disillusionment.
Risks in the face of the ambient mentality
And it also knows the risk to be taken when we do not let ourselves be carried away by the automatisms imposed by public opinion. But when we, instead, use our intelligence, our reflection to take a Christian position in front of the ambient mentality.
Faith and solidarity in a world in distress
How does the appeal to faith in Habakkuk taken up by Hebrews concern us today?
An unequal shock between two civilizations in the distant Antiquity, a conflict between the values of a Christian church and the pagan world of the first century? Dramas of history and conflicts of values continue for centuries. And still go on today …
These texts can speak to us personally: these tragic situations, the biblical authors not only described them, they also suffered with those who suffered them.
This world suffering in all the horror of its drama stuck to the skin of Habakkuk making him give cries of incomprehension, distress.
Who changed his behavior by listening to his prophecy, who chose faith, faithfulness to God? They thought they would get away without repentance or harm. He knew that the destruction was inevitable and he was going to suffer it too. He questionned God, but he never accused Him.
Cries of suffering, but above all, cries of faith and hope that resound in the face of all despair, cowardice and compromise, a cry that makes us vibrate: “The righteous will live by faith!”
Being a Christian does not guarantee the escape of the problems and misfortunes of life. The Christian in the world is also one of those who can suffer, who suffer economic crises, epidemics, wars, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks, even though some are sometimes protected in a providential way.
All these catastrophes, all these sufferings, are calls for help to which we have a duty to respond. No, Christian life is not a safe isolated island …
The Christian is not sitting in a train that rolls into the afterlife, ignoring the world in crisis that he is running through! He cannot dissociate himself from those who suffer; classifying them in the category “unconverted” or “refugees”; this would be scandalous. Let us be attentive to the needs of material, moral, solidarity support near and far. We can at least pray, say a word of encouragement, we can also engage in practical action. There are enough Christian and other charities where we can contribute.
Call for constructive repentance
It is also a call to repentance, but not the repentance of those who do not know God and need to turn to Him for salvation.
It is an appeal to our repentance, to repentance of each one of us, to my repentance also if I am not faithful in my hope, if I fail in my faith because God has not responded according to my ideas and my expectations.
A long-term look, a call, a pledge to rejoice in the Lord, to praise God rather than to complain.
The letter to the Hebrews, a narrow path between conformity and isolation
Returning to Judaism, to the religion (yet) officially acknowledged but less and less tolerated
What is left of the comfort zone? Yes, you may practice your religion but … And if you show too much of your convictions, your pagan neighbors will take charge of bringing you back to reason by looting your property or worse …
Conformism: diluting, drowning in the mass of “isms” … Put what you want before -ism. Change of -ism without change of life! … From paganism to the majority Christianity of Emperor Constantine and King Clovis. Everyone becomes a Christian or is forced to become one, without conversion to Christ … One is born in a -ism, one stays there and one dies there without even wondering why.
Compliance with the majority, pluralistic values of today’s world! Today there are much less people who say “I believe only in the progress of mankind.” But rather: “Take a pinch of Christian spirituality here, a little Hinduism there, add a little esotericism, dilute it in a small sauce of religious practice … ”
Isolation, the mentality of a besieged fortress?
No social relations with “worldly people “! as some say. As if a Christian lived on a planet apart and not in the world that Jesus loved unto death to save it. This isolation avoids being confronted with values that we disapprove, which are not our own. But then how can we share a personal faith with this undifferentiated mass of “worldly people”?
Let us not be fooled. Christian flyers in mailboxes, mixed with advertisements, have little impact, especially in Western countries. Christian calendars, people read them without going any further. The websites give the opportunity to get informed but leave free to remain in withdrawal.
So how do we truly witness with a besieged fortress mentality? Dealing out Biblical verses … to people you do not really want to know?
No evangelism without direct contact. Rather the testimony of a life
Evangelization without direct contact or follow-up with people is unlikely to succeed. Only a testimony of a Christian life that makes the effort to connect with people, that shows that it understands their interests, their worries, their anxieties, makes them want to know more.
Such a testimony of life is possible for everyone and for all, according to their capacities and availabilities.
Some sincere friendly relationships in the neighbourhood, the village or the city. Taking part in activities that promote contact with non-Christians, such as recreational or sports meetings or holidays …
Laying solidly for oneself the foundations of the Christian faith: incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, in the first place. Knowing why we chose to be a Christian.
And deepening … To be able to explain one’s faith in a clear and natural language. This helps to have a really active, inventive, committed testimony that respects the person. The idols of pluralism do not stand before the cross of Christ, but often long hours of patience and friendship are required to make others admit that. And years can pass without apparent change. A risk to take, a challenge to each of us, to me first.