As the author made his way through “Faith’s Hall of Fame” in chapter 11, he made a noted change in emphasis regarding those who live by faith.
He began with two examples of “simple” faithful living in Abel and Enoch. He then moved to Noah, Abraham and Sarah, who obeyed God when nothing God said to them made any sense in human reasoning. From there he moved to the accounts of great deeds done by faith, notably Moses and the Exodus, the destruction of Jericho and other miraculous events (cf vv 33-35).
Finally, there are those who were willing to suffer, “not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.” They were mocked and scourged, imprisoned, stoned, tortured (here “tempted”, see “examine” in Acts 22:25-29), and killed with the sword.
All of these things done and endured by those who had not been the recipients of the promise that lie before these brethren. These are the “great cloud of witnesses” to which the author refers. They are witnesses, not because they are looking down on the Christians at hand, but because their lives are a witness to faithfulness in every circumstance.
With this in mind, the author invokes the suffering of Jesus, who endured unspeakable pain and loss on their behalf. Immediately following, he warns, “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (12:4). What is the implication? “But you will.”
The remainder of chapter 12 is set within this context. All the problems, persecutions, or pains that lie ahead are the proving ground of faithfulness. God will ultimately deliver you, but not necessarily on this side of eternity (cf Rev 6:9-12). Therefore, endure chastening to prove yourselves worthy of your Father.
Finally, the author returns to the imagery of the giving of the now antiquated Law, noting the terrifying events as Israel passed by Sinai. Invoking the language found earlier in Hebrews 2:1-4, the author closes with this thought, “For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, how much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven?”
Persecution is coming. American Christians should prepare accordingly.