Hebrews 11:4

‘he, being dead, still speaks’
(Hebrews 11:4)

The dead man still speaking here is Abel, one of scripture’s earliest characters, and his message is about living ‘“by faith”’(Hebrews 10:38). He’s the first in a long list of faith-filled Old Testament ‘witnesses’(Hebrews 12:1) presented here in this New Testament letter to the Hebrews. The author starts with: ‘By faith, Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain [his brother]’(Hebrews 11:4). In the original story, both brothers ‘brought an offering’(Genesis 4:3ff.) to God, but Abel’s was marked out as being ‘firstborn… and… fat’(Genesis 4:4) – i.e. he prioritised God, with his best. This evidenced Abel’s faith-full heart, Cain conversely perhaps having just gone through the motions? Such faith resulted in Abel being declared ‘righteous’(Hebrews 11:4, Matthew 23:35 & 1 John 3:12), reminiscent of James’ comment, ‘faith apart from works is dead’(James 2:20), i.e., his actions demonstrated a living reality within.

Abel’s lesson about faith echoes across millennia, from the dawn of human history, through this letter to the Hebrews, right down into our ears today. Moreover, the phrase ‘he, being dead, still speaks’ obviously applies to the whole list of faith-full witnesses here that follows.

One thing that dead people always call to our attention is the importance of an eternal perspective in life. It’s eternity where God ‘is a rewarder of those who seek Him’(Hebrews 11:6) primarily, and life is short. Faithful witnesses grasp this certain-hope, glimpsing even the ‘things not seen’(Hebrews 11:1ff.). So they live as ‘strangers and pilgrims on the earth’(Hebrews 11:13), looking to somewhere ‘better… heavenly’(Hebrews 11:16), ultimately to God’s ‘holy city, New Jerusalem…’(Revelation 21:2ff.).

We can heed and be inspired by their faith, or kick against it. Cain was the first to face this choice, whether to respond ‘“well”’(Genesis 4:7), or otherwise. He chose the latter, even murdering his brother. So Abel became the first of many martyrs, of much ‘“righteous blood shed on the earth”’(Matthew 23:35), alongside others more generally ‘afflicted, ill-treated’(Hebrews 11:37) etc. by the ‘world’(1 John 3:13, cf. v12). Although Abel has no recorded descendants, it’s fitting that he’s listed here, in a sense as the primordial father of the faithful.

We’re told that Abel’s blood cried ‘“from the ground”’(Genesis 4:10), no doubt joining the voices of all ‘those… killed for the Word of God’(Revelation 6:9) throughout history, who cry ‘with a loud voice… “How long”’(Revelation 6:10), receiving the reply that ‘they should rest yet for a while, until their fellow servants and their brothers… complete their course’(Revelation 6:11).

However, Jesus, ‘the author and perfecter of faith’(Hebrews 12:2) crowns the list here as our ultimate trumpet of faith, ‘who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’(Hebrews 12:2) alive! Moreover, His ‘blood… speaks better than that of Abel’(Hebrews 12:24) and all the others, since it announces the good news of the ‘new covenant’(Hebrews 12:24). It’s the ‘blood of Jesus’(Hebrews 10:19) that paves our way into the ‘city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’(Hebrews 12:22) ‘itself’(Hebrews 9:24), for all ‘those who have been called’(Hebrews 9:15, cf. 11:40) throughout history, including Abel.

So further heralds of faith arose, the New Testament/covenant apostles, like Paul, who though dead still speak as well. Their lives and message, recorded in scripture, speak to us of Jesus ‘Christ’(1 Corinthians 11:1&2:2). Paul sent Timothy to the Corinthians to remind them of his ‘ways which are in Christ, even as I teach’(1 Corinthians 4:17) – there’s a demonstration (like Abel), expressed as ‘a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God’(Romans 12:1), and an explanation (spoken/written words). Similarly, Paul reminded the Thessalonians that they had become ‘imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word’(1 Thessalonians 1:6), the ‘us’ including ‘Paul… and Timothy’(1 Thessalonians 1:1). So others’ lives can speak this message too, as in fact Paul wrote to Timothy: ‘be an example to those who believe, in word, in your way of life… in faith’(1 Timothy 4:12). This can include any ‘who walk this way’(Philippians 3:17), ‘in Christ’, with lives focused on ‘our citizenship… in heaven’(Philippians 3:20). In this letter the readers are urged to remember the ‘men who spoke to you the word of God, and… their conduct, imitate their faith’(Hebrews 13:7), apparently referring to some since departed leaders whose lives could still speak to its first recipients.

Many throughout history have lived similar lives, which spoke of Christ, some enough to be remembered, although most ‘no more’(Psalm 103:16). Each no doubt was flawed, just like us ‘all’(Romans 3:23), but we can usefully learn from the faithful messages they left, perhaps even becoming helpful posthumous voices ourselves…

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