Faith to Be Strong and Faith to Be Weak
From Gospel Translations
By faith they passed through the Red Sea as though they were passing through dry land; and the Egyptians, when they attempted it, were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace. 32 And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection; [note shift] and others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; 36 and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated 38 (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.
Blowing Away the Fog About What Faith Is
Christians and non-Christians can have defective views of what the Christian life really is. Preaching the word of God aims to bring our views of God and his ways more and more into line with the truth. We do this for unbelievers so that you can embrace Christianity on the basis of a true picture of it, rather than a distorted one; and we do it for believers so that you can live your lives on the basis of true views of God and his ways, rather than distorted and deluding and discouraging views.
This passage is tremendously important for blowing the fog of confusion away from what faith is and what kind of life it guarantees. There are many who teach today that the life of faith will bring health, wealth and prosperity, and where those things are lacking it's because faith is lacking. That never seemed to square with what I saw in the teachings of Jesus or his apostles, and I can recall the first time this chapter walloped me with its incredible impact on this question. I hope it has the same effect for good on you this morning.
I will try to make five brief points on the basis of these verses.
1. Through our faith God can and does work miracles and acts of providence to bring practical earthly help and deliverance to his people.
That is the point of verses 29-35a. What I mean by "miracles" is works of God that involve some extraordinary interruption in the natural cause-effect way that nature works. The writer refers, for example, to the dividing of the Red Sea (verse 29) and the falling down of the walls of Jericho (verse 30) and the shutting of the mouths of lions when Daniel was in the lions' den (verse 33), and the quenching of fire by Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego, when they walked through Nebuchadnezzar's furnace (verse 34), and the resurrection of the son of the widow of Zarephath (verse 35a). All these are what we usually call miracles. God breaks into the normal way things work and in an extraordinary way makes them work differently. And in every case here the people of God were helped or rescued from danger or death.
That's one way God works through our faith - namely, by miracles. But I also mentioned "acts of providence." Through our faith God helps us by acts of providence. What I mean by "acts of providence" is works of God that control situations but in a less extraordinary way. Looking on, you would not necessarily say that a miracle happened, but by the eye of faith you see the "invisible hand of God" - as R. C. Sproul calls it.
For example, the writer refers to Rahab not perishing because she had heard of the power of the God of Israel (Joshua 2:9-11) and cared for the Jewish spies (verse 31); and to David conquering kingdoms and establishing righteousness (verse 33); and to Elijah escaping the sword of Jezebel (verse 34); and to Gideon being strengthened in weakness (verse 34); and to others putting foreign armies to flight (verse 34); etc. In all these cases God is the one who is working behind the scenes, but no miracles are obvious. This is what we may call the more ordinary working of God's providence.
And the point of the writer here in verses 29-35a is that all these wonderful acts of God - both extraordinary miracles and more ordinary acts of providence - come about "by faith." You see that:
(verse 29) By faith they passed through the red sea . . . (verse 30) by faith the walls of Jericho feel down . . . (verse 31) by faith Rahab . . . did not perish . . . (verse 33) by faith [they] conquered kingdoms . . .
The point is that God works through faith to do miracles and acts of providence to bring practical, earthly help and deliverance to his people. That's the first point. Here's the second point.
2. God does not always work miracles and acts of providence for our deliverance from suffering; sometimes by faith God sustains his people through sufferings.
That's the point of verses 35b-38. Or another way to put it would be to say that having true faith in God is no guarantee of comfort and security in this life. Now it is absolutely crucial for you to see that the miseries God's people sustained in verses 35-38 come by faith, not because of unbelief. See this in two ways. First, in verse 33, notice that the list begins with ". . . who by faith conquered kingdoms . . . etc.," and without a break continues into all the miseries of verses 35-38. It is by faith that "others were tortured . . . and others experienced mockings and scourgings, etc." All this misery is received and endured by faith.
The other way to see this is in verse 39 which looks back on all the sufferings of verses 35-38 and says, "And all these [that is, all suffering people], having gained approval through their faith, did not receive [yet in this life] what was promised." In other words the suffering and misery and destitution and torture of God's people in verses 35-38 are not owing to God's disapproval. Rather God's approval is resting on them because of their faith. The miseries and sufferings were endured, not diminished, by faith.
Let's be specific, so we get the full impact of what this is saying. Verse 35b: "Others were tortured." God does not always turn the hearts of torturers away from their torture of his people, though he could. Someone might say, "Well, the torturers have free will and God cannot intervene. He has limited himself." That is simply not what the Bible teaches. The Bible frequently portrays God restraining and channeling the evil of men's hearts. For example, in Genesis 20:6 King Abimelech almost committed adultery with Abraham's wife, but didn't. Why? God says to Abimelech, "I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her." God restrained the evil intent of Abimelech's will. If God can do that to Abimelech, he can do it to the police chief who is about to torture a Christian in the back room of a Mozambique jail. But he doesn't always do it. That is what verse 35b says. And when he doesn't, it does not mean that the suffering Christian does not have faith. Nor that God doesn't love him, as we will see in chapter 12.
Another example: God does not always lessen the agony of his children, but permits them to experience not just suffering, but horrific suffering. Verse 37: "They were stoned, they were sawn in two." Now this is almost too horrible to think about. It is the way tradition says that Isaiah died. Imagine how forsaken you might feel if death lies in front of you, and a person devises a way for your death to be as horrible as possible. That has happened and it has happened to people of whom the world was not worthy (as verse 38 says). God could stop that - without nullifying any human responsibility. That is the point of verse 29-35a - God can and does do miracles and acts of providence to relieve his people and deliver them, but not always.
This is perhaps clearest by contrasting a phrase in verse 34 and one in verse 37. In verse 34 the second clause says, "escaped the edge of the sword." So some by faith "escaped the edge of the sword." Then in verse 37 the fourth clause says, "They were put to death with the sword." So in one instance by faith they escaped the edge of the sword, and in another instance by faith they died by the sword. Acts 12:1-2 says, "About that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword." But the next verses tell the story of how he arrested Peter for the same purpose, but God intervened and miraculously delivered Peter. One died by faith. The other escaped by faith.
So the second point is: God does not always work miracles and acts of providence to deliver his people by faith, but sometimes by faith God sustains his people through horrendous sufferings. From the first two points the third follows.
3. Having faith is not the ultimate determining factor in whether you suffer or escape, God is - God's sovereign will and wisdom and love.
To me this is immensely comforting. It is a great relief to know that there is a higher explanation for my pain or my pleasure than whether I have enough faith. Would it not be horrible to have to believe that on top of all your suffering you had to add this: it must be because I lack faith.
We will not do assume that in this church. We will not look into the face of the dying and say, or imply: "If you had faith, you would live." We will say, rather, "Trust in God, because whether you live by faith or die by faith God will take care of those who trust in him. To live is Christ, and to die is gain."
And ultimately, it is God, and not we, who decides when and how we die. He has his purposes. They are hidden from us. And faith means, we believe they are good.
Which leads to point four.
4. The common feature of the faith that escapes suffering and the faith that endures suffering is this: both of them involve believing that God himself is better than what life can give to you now, and better than what death can take from you later.
When you can have it all, faith says that God is better; and when you lose it all, faith says God is better. The clearest illustration of this in today's text is verse 35: "[by faith] women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection." What does faith believe in the moment of torture? That if God loved me, he would get me out of this? No. Faith believes that there is a resurrection for believers which is better than the miracle of escape. It's better than the kind of resurrection experience by the widow's son, who returned to life only to die again later.
In other words, faith is utterly in love with all that God will be for us beyond the grave. Faith loves God more than life. Faith loves God more than family. Faith loves God more than job or retirement plans or ministry or writing books or building the dream house or making the first million. Faith says, "Whether God handles me tenderly or gives me over to torture, I love him. He is my reward (11:6), the builder of the city I long for (11:10), the treasure beyond the riches of Egypt (11:26), and the possession that surpasses all others and abides for ever (10:34)."
The great challenge of the book of Hebrews, and the mission of our church, is to cultivate and to spread a death-defying passion for God. The preaching, the Sunday School, the small group ministry, the relationships of love, the soccer camps, the prayer gatherings, and the untold ministries inside and outside aim at this: to cultivate and to spread such a deep and satisfying relationship with God that we rest in him whether living or dying, whether comfortable or miserable. Our aim is to cultivate and spread the unshakable confidence that God is better than what life can give us and what death can take from us.
This leads to one final point.
5. Those who love God more than life and suffer willingly awaiting something better than what this earth can offer, are God's great gifts to the world.
Look with me at verse 37b and 38, ". . . they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute [no promise of preppy blouses or cool slacks], afflicted, ill-treated (men [people] of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground." What does it mean that the world was not worthy of these obscure, destitute, unsightly, seemingly-cursed people? What does that mean - the world was not worthy of them? It means they were a gift to the world and the world does not deserve it.
Many things in this life are utterly opposite from the way they seem. And here is one of them. When the precious children of God are permitted to suffer and be rejected and mistreated and go destitute, afflicted and ill-treated, God is giving a gift to the world. He is gracing the world. He is shedding his love abroad in the world. Because in those who suffer and die in the unshakable assurance of hope in God, the world is given a message and a picture: "The Lord himself is better than life. Turn, O turn and believe."
Who would have thought it - that the suffering are a gift to the world?
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)