Commentary of St. John Chrysostom on the Epistle of the Sunday of All Saints, Part II (Hebrews 11:37-12:2)
“They wandered about in sheep-skins, and goat-skins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented (of whom this world was not worthy); wandering in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens, and caves of the earth.”
[1.] At all times indeed, but especially then when I reflect upon the achievements of the saints, it comes over me to feel despondency concerning my own condition, because we have not even in dreams experienced the things among which those men spent their whole lives, not paying the penalty of sins, but always doing rightly and yet always afflicted.
For consider, I beseech you, Elijah, to whom our discourse has come round to-day, for he speaks of him in this passage, and in him his examples end: which [example] was appropriate to their case. And having spoken of what befell the Apostles, that “they were slain with the sword, were stoned,” he goes back again to Elijah, who suffered the same things with them. (See 2 Kings i. 8.) For since it was probable that they would not as yet hold the Apostles in so great estimation, he brings his exhortation and consolation from him who had been taken up [into Heaven] and who was held in special admiration.
For “they wandered about” (he says) “in sheep-skins, and goat-skins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, of whom this world was not worthy.”
They had not even raiment, he says, through the excess of affliction, no city, no house, no lodging-place; the same which Christ said, “but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head.” ( Matt. viii. 20.) Why do I say “no lodging-place”? No standing-place: for not even when they had gained the wilderness, were they at rest. For he said not, They sat down in the wilderness, but even when they were there, they fled, and were driven thence, not out of the inhabited world only, but even out of that which was uninhabitable. And he reminds them of the places where they were set, and of things which there befell [them].
Then next, he says, they bring accusations against you for Christ’s sake. What accusation had they against Elijah, when they drove him out, and persecuted him, and compelled him to struggle with famine? Which these [Hebrews] were then suffering. At least, the brethren, it is said, decided to send [relief] to those of the disciples who were afflicted. “Every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren that dwelt in Judea” ( Acts xi. 29 ), which was [the case] of these also.
“Tormented” [or “ill-treated”], he says; that is, suffering distress, in journeyings, in dangers.
But “They wandered about,” what is this? “Wandering,” he says, “in deserts and in mountains and in dens and caves of the earth,” like exiles and outcasts, as persons taken in the basest [of crimes], as those not worthy to see the sun, they found no refuge from the wilderness, but must always be flying, must be seeking hiding-places, must bury themselves alive in the earth, always be in terror.
[2.] What then is the reward of so great a change? What is the recompense?
They have not yet received it, but are still waiting; and after thus dying in so great tribulation, they have not yet received it. They gained their victory so many ages ago, and have not yet received [their reward]. And you who are yet in the conflict, are you vexed?
Do you also consider what a thing it is, and how great, that Abraham should be sitting, and the Apostle Paul, waiting till thou hast been perfected, that then they may be able to receive their reward. For the Saviour has told them before that unless we also are present, He will not give it them. As an affectionate father might say to sons who were well approved, and had accomplished their work, that he would not give them to eat, unless their brethren came. And art thou vexed, that thou hast not yet received the reward? What then shall Abel do, who was victor before all, and is sitting uncrowned? And what Noah? And what, they who lived in those [early] times: seeing that they wait for thee and those after thee?
Dost thou see that we have the advantage of them? For “God” (he says) “has provided some better thing for us.” In order that they might not seem to have the advantage of us from being crowned before us, He appointed one time of crowning for all; and he that gained the victory so many years before, receives his crown with thee. Seest thou His tender carefulness?
And he did not say, “that they without us might not be crowned,” but “that they without us might not be made perfect”; so that at that time they appear perfect also. They were before us as regards the conflicts, but are not before us as regards the crowns. He wronged not them, but He honored us. For they also wait for the brethren. For if we are “all one body,” the pleasure becomes greater to this body, when it is crowned altogether, and not part by part. For the righteous are also worthy of admiration in this, that they rejoice in the welfare of their brethren, as in their own. So that for themselves also, this is according to their wish, to be crowned along with their own members. To be glorified all together, is a great delight.
[3.] ( C. xii. 1 ) “Wherefore” (he says) “we also being compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.” In many places the Scripture derives its consolation in evils from corresponding things. As when the prophet says, “From burning heat, and from storm, and rain.” ( Isa. iv. 6.) This at least he says here also, that the memory of those holy men, reestablishes and recovers the soul which had been weighed down by woes, as a cloud does him who is burnt by the too hot rays [of the sun.]
And he did not say, “lifted on high above us,” but, “compassing us about,” which was more than the other; so that we are in greater security.
What sort of “cloud”? “A load of witnesses.” With good reason he calls not those in the New [Testament] only, but those in the Old also, “witnesses” [or “martyrs”]. For they also were witnesses to the greatness of God, as for instance, the Three Children, those with Elijah, all the prophets.
“Laying aside all things.” “All”: what? That is, slumber, indifference, mean reasonings, all human things.
“And the sin which doth [so] easily beset us”; [εὐπερίστατον], that is either, “which easily circumvents us,” or “what can easily be circumvented,” but rather this latter. For it is easy, if we will, to overcome sin.
“Let us run with patience” (he says) “the race that is set before us.” He did not say, Let us contend as boxers, nor, Let us wrestle, nor, Let us do battle: but, what was lightest of all, the [contest] of the foot-race, this has he brought forward. Nor yet did he say, Let us add to the length of the course; but, Let us continue patiently in this, let us not faint. “Let us run” (he says) “the race that is set before us.”
[4.] In the next place as the sum and substance of his exhortation, which he puts both first and last, even Christ. ( Ver. 2 ) “Looking” (he says) “unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of our Faith”; The very thing which Christ Himself also continually said to His disciples, “If they have called the Master of the house
493 Beelzebub, how much more them of His household?” ( Matt. x. 25.) And again, “The disciple is not above his Master, nor the servant above his Lord.” ( Matt. x. 24.)
“Looking” (he says), that is, that we may learn to run. For as in all arts and games, we impress the art upon our mind by looking to our masters, receiving certain rules through our sight, so here also, if we wish to run, and to learn to run well, let us look to Christ, even to Jesus “the author and finisher of our faith.” What is this? He has put the Faith within us. For He said to His disciples, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you” ( John xv. 16 ); and Paul too says, “But then shall I know, even as also I have been known.” ( 1 Cor. xiii. 12.) He put the Beginning into us, He will also put on the End.
(Hosted on non-Orthodox site: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf114.v.xxxii.html)