Like when I hear a good sermon (even though Hebrews is a letter, not a sermon), when I read this section of Hebrews, I sense that we are coming to the peak, the climax, the mountaintop of the letter. Here is where everything is leading, the encouraging and exhorting, the theological arguments for the superiority of Jesus as high priest and sacrifice. Here we can sense so much the letter-writer's desire that the people not give up, not turn away from their faith, even though (it seems) the times are tough and they are not seeing much evidence for the truth of the faith.
By faith. What is faith? Generations of Christians have used this definition: "The substance of things hoped for." We believe in things that we do not yet see, but we believe that they are coming, and we live differently because of it. But there are things that we do know and have seen and heard about, and they give substance to our faith and our lives.
The author of Hebrews recites a whole litany of people who lived by faith, starting with Abel, and ending with Jesus. In between s/he lists so many people, well-known and anonymous, men and women, who lived by faith, not receiving the end of their hoping, but holding firm to the Promise of God. Abraham. Sarah. Gideon. David. Jephthah (yes, even the judge Jephthah is mentioned). And in sort of terrifying detail, the author goes through some of the hardships and persecutions people before them had to endure.
In the end is Jesus, one of the crowd of witnesses, but also different somehow. While we are running our raise, and being cheered on by the whole company of those who lived "by faith" we are looking to him, for he alone has crossed the finish line "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith."
After this great climx, this great exhortation, this great finish of the one who went outside the city gates for us, there's not much left to say, except for some reminders of how to live (in purity, showing hospitality to strangers, visiting those in prison), and a wonderful benediction:
May the God of peace, who brought back the great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus,
from the dead by the blood of the eternal covenant,
equip you with every good thing to do his will,
by developing in us what pleases him through Jesus Christ.
To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.