Time did not permit the writer of Hebrews to tell of his final examples of faith, but for you and me today—even concerning those as famous as the names listed in Hebrews’ Hall of Faith—taking time to remember is fruitful.
And what more should I say?
For time would fail me to tell of . . . the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.Hebrews 11:32-34 (NRSV)
In each of these examples, faith brought about a kind of victory—
I think of Elisha, who bolstered the faith of his trembling servant, and through his faith-filled prayers gave Samaria ascendancy over the armies of the Arameans.
When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?”
He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw;
the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.2 Kings 6:15-17 (NRSV)
Or how about the prophet Nathan, through whom David was stricken with conviction over how he had wronged Uriah and Bathsheba—but most of all God.
Every prophet became the mouthpiece of God, administering God’s indictment and justice.
God literally shut the mouths of lions on the prophet Daniel’s behalf, to the consternation of his enemies, and the shocked delight of his friends.
God also neutralized the flames of the fiery furnace on behalf of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and effectively quenched raging fire.
By God’s power some escaped the sword—
Nob, the city of the priests, he [King Saul through his henchman Doeg the Edomite] put to the sword; men and women, children and infants, oxen, donkeys, and sheep, he put to the sword.
But one of the sons of Ahimelech son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David.1 Samuel 22:19-20 (NRSV)
And there are numerous stories throughout the scriptures of God strengthening prophets as well as the people to be victorious when the odds were against them.
But this is not the whole story of faith.
Women received their dead by resurrection.
Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.Hebrews 11:35-38 (NRSV)
It is heart-wrenching to read.
Many had faith, but suffered greatly, even died, often in horrific ways.
What about them?
So often, from our point of view, suffering and death are the worst that could ever happen. But these martyrs had a better view, they kept their eyes, and their hearts, locked on the Lord, and God’s promises. They knew that things of earth are just temporary, but the Holy City is forever. They were not going to recant their faith for something temporary. They were going to endure temporary suffering for something eternal.
Paul, himself no stranger to suffering, said much the same thing.
- Whipped with forty lashes (minus one) five times
- Beaten with rods three times
- Stoned and left for dead
- Shipwrecked three times, and once left adrift at sea for a night and a day.
- In constant and frequent danger during his travels, from crossing hazardous rivers, highway bandits, persecution from fellow countrymen but also from others.
- Paul was not safe in the city or the countryside; he faced physical danger but also treachery.
- He faced many a sleepless night, often went hungry and thirsty, and found himself cold and naked.
- And though he held fast to the Lord in faith, praying always, he still labored under the daily pressure of his anxiety for all the churches.
And yet, even in all this, Paul wrote,
We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
—We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
—perplexed, but not driven to despair;
—persecuted, but not forsaken;
—struck down, but not destroyed;
—always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart.
Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,
because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.2 Corinthians 4:12-18 (NRSV)
This is the faith claim of every believer since the days of Cain and Abel, who through his faith still speaks.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.Hebrews 11:39-40 (NRSV)
When you and I endure suffering by faith, when we experience earthly losses through faith, God receives us and gives us God’s self through Jesus. One day, our faith will also be commended by God.
God has always had something so much better in store than any earthly victory for these faithful within the Hebrew scriptures, and they knew it. They, just as we, look forward to the day of resurrection, when all is made new, and made right, reconciled to God through Christ.
Whatever your and my futures have in store, whether mighty triumphs of faith, or miraculous endurance through faith, may it be that we also keep our eyes and our hearts locked on the Lord and God’s promises. They knew that things of earth are just temporary, but the Holy City in the new heavens and earth is forever.