Having faith is no guarantee you will escape trouble in your life. On the contrary, faith sometimes brings more suffering. But it also can give you the power to face it and triumph over it.
We are coming now to the last lessons about faith in Hebrews 11. Our time in this chapter has begun to run out. It is as though our tour guide through Faith’s Hall of Fame has just looked at his watch and discovered that it is five minutes to closing time, and he’s still got most of the exhibits to go. He has used up three quarters of the chapter and he has only gotten as far as Moses in the Old Testament. So he begins to hurry, racing through the rest of the Hebrew Bible to bring us up to the time of Jesus.
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.
Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
(Heb. 11:32-12:1, niv)
The last lessons of faith are taught from the lives of a remarkable variety of people. In his rush to bring his readers up to his own time, the writer of Hebrews compresses a lot of history into a little space. He can’t do much more than rattle off the names of some of the judges, kings and prophets. And finally, he does not even have time for that. He closes his account by pointing to the nameless multitude of the faithful, those who have suffered and died rather than renounce the God of the Bible, people of whom “the world was not worthy” (v. 38) in his memorable phrase. What lessons about faith can we learn from their lives? Let me point out three.
LESSON ONE: FAITH GIVES YOU GREATNESS
This section of Hebrews 11 begins by listing several of the early rulers of Israel, leading up to the great King David. These were people “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised . . . who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (vv. 33,34). This all refers to the days when Israel conquered the land of Canaan, slowly extending its authority over more and more of the native peoples until Israelite power reached a high point in the days of King David.
These names of judges and kings serve as a reminder to us that sometimes people of faith do achieve great success in the world. The New Testament says that God has not called many of those who are wealthy or wise or powerful according to the world’s standards to faith in Christ, but he has called some. There are enough Christians who are in some way preeminent to reassure you that putting your faith in Jesus Christ is not the equivalent of committing intellectual suicide or throwing your career away. The problem is not that you can’t be a believer and also be successful in life. The problem is that so many who are successful become too proud to admit their need of God.
But when you pause over these names, something very striking emerges. These great men aren’t all that great. They may have been famous rulers in their time, but each of them leaves something to be desired in character or behavior.
There’s Gideon, for example, the reluctant leader, a hero of faith who had trouble believing God no matter how much proof God gave him of his reality and power. Barak was a cowardly Israelite general who refused to attack the enemy unless Deborah the judge – a woman who was twice the “man” Barak was! – accompanied him into battle.
Think of Samson, whose physical strength was exceeded only by his moral weakness. And then there’s King David himself, a man after God’s own heart – except when he saw a woman he wanted who happened to be his neighbor’s wife.
“There was none of them whose faith did not falter,” comments the great theologian John Calvin. “In every saint there is always to be found something reprehensible . . . but even though faith is imperfect, it does not cease to be approved by God.” Whatever good these imperfect heroes did, they did by faith; or to put it differently, God did through them as they trusted in him.
So here is the first great lesson about faith: Faith gives you greatness. True greatness is not derived from fame or fortune, nor is it the product of natural ability. What makes you great isn’t what you accomplish in life or how successful you become – it is how faithful you are, because accomplishments without faith add up to nothing in the end. And with faith, even a humble, anonymous life has eternal significance. Faith makes you great, even when it isn’t great faith, even when you stumble and fall.
One of my spiritual mentors likes to say, “We are all just crooked sticks in God’s hand.” What is important is not the straightness or strength of the stick, but the degree to which it is placed in the hand of God. Believing in God, knowing God, loving God, serving God, trusting God – however weakly or imperfectly – that is what leads to true greatness.
LESSON TWO: FAITH GIVES YOU COURAGE
Another group of people mentioned at the end of Hebrews 11 is the prophets, who (among other things) “through faith . . . shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword” (vv. 33,34).
That makes us think of the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. When Daniel’s jealous enemies sought to destroy him, they chose his faithfulness as the point of attack. Having persuaded the king to issue an edict banning any worship save that of the state, Daniel’s rivals had only to watch and wait for his customary time of prayer. Knowing that if he continued his daily practice of worshiping the Lord he would be thrown into the lion’s den, Daniel nevertheless calmly proceeded to do it.
The heroic faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Daniel’s three young friends, “quenched the fury of the flames,” as Hebrews puts it. They refused to worship the king’s golden statue, even though the punishment for that was to be thrown alive into a fiery furnace. When the music sounded and all in the crowd fell on their faces before the idol, the three young Hebrew men stood firm. And when they were threatened with death, they replied with these memorable words:
If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not . . . we will not serve your gods.
So here is a second great lesson of faith: Faith gives you courage. Faith enables you to do things you never would have thought yourself capable of. By faith ordinary people can become extraordinary heroes, because biblical faith is a conviction about God’s absolute power, coupled with a trust in God’s absolute wisdom.
“Our God is able to deliver us.” Faith believes that God has the power, if he chooses, to quench the flames, to stop the bullet, to open the prison doors, to reverse the illness, to rescue from death. We have courage because we believe that God is absolutely sovereign, always and everywhere. God rules over all things, including the human powers which threaten us.
“But if not . . .” the three young men in Daniel added, “Our God is able to deliver us, but if he chooses not to, we will still trust and serve him alone.” Faith is as much convinced of the wisdom of God as it is of the power of God. Faith believes that God has the ability to rescue us from any situation, but it also believes that God alone has the perfect wisdom to know what is best. So we trust him to choose what is best for us, whether that is to deliver us from death or through death.
That’s the kind of faith that will give you the courage to face anything. This sort of courageous faith is built up by daily exercise. Great victories of faith are won by those whose lives have witnessed a series of small victories. Heroic examples of faith standing firm in a crisis come as a result of trusting and obeying God in the little things.
Do you wonder whether you would remain faithful to the Lord if it would cost your life? The answer is found in whether you stand up for your faith when it costs you your time, or your convenience, or even just your embarrassment.
LESSON NUMBER THREE: FAITH GIVES YOU STRENGTH
Our chapter closes with a reminder of all the host of God’s people down through the centuries who have suffered for him.
Some were tortured . . . others suffered mocking and scourging, and . . . chains . . . . they were stoned . . . sawn in two . . . killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated . . . wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves. . . .
As St. Theresa of Avila once drily remarked, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, I do not wonder that you have so few of them.”
Why does this happen? Why do the faithful suffer so? There are two parts to the answer.
The first is that the world hates those who truly live for God. Biblical faith arouses fury and violence like nothing else because it makes us different. The righteousness of believers is a standing rebuke to the unrighteousness of the world, and that causes the worldly powers to lash out in any way they can.
The other reason is that persecution happens because God allows it to, and God allows it for his greater glory. You see, nothing is more glorifying to God than the steadfastness of his faithful people under fire.
So we learn a third lesson about faith: Faith gives you strength. Faith enables otherwise weak men and women to endure suffering, even terrible suffering, for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Most of us know little or nothing about the ancient history to which our writer refers, just as few details of the widespread persecution of Christians today make the newspaper. The heroes of faith are mostly anonymous. But we may be certain their names are known to God, and that every one of them will be remembered by him.
The world continues to persecute those who embrace the gospel. The words of Hebrews describe our own era as accurately as they do Old Testament days.
Researcher David Barrett estimates that there have been over 40 million Christian martyrs in history, with a fourth of them dying since 1950, just in the last 45 years! This year alone it is thought that as many as 157,000 men, women and children will lay down their lives for their faith in Jesus Christ, and that number continues to grow. These too are those “of whom the world is not worthy.” But, you know, friend, there is another world where such people do belong, and a God who will crown their sufferings with glory.