In the past number of weeks/months we have examined the faith of a cloud of witnesses. This began at the outset of history with Abel, Enoch, and Noah. It continued through the patriarchs, Abraham, his wife Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. We examined the faith of Moses and his servant Joshua and the conquest of Canaan. We have even examined the faith of a woman grafted into the line of the covenant: Rahab. Hebrews 11, in the verses we study today, now includes a host of Old Testament saints who also lived and died in faith. We read of them in verses 32-38 of this chapter. “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephtha; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”
I know this is a large chunk of Scripture we consider today. The writer to the Hebrews even admits that time would fail him to tell of all the heroic deeds the Old Testament saints performed in faith. The same is true of us as we consider their faith. These saints are meant to be a witness to us. They are given us as examples to follow in our lives. In Hebrews 12:1 we are given the admonition: “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily besets us and run with patience the race set before us.” God’s people today, just like these saints, are to live by faith.
So we apply the Word of God before us to our lives again today. The aspect of faith that stands out in these verses we consider is that of endurance. Faith is the power to endure. That is the word used in Hebrews 12:1: “let us run with patience.” That means, run with endurance. Faith endures, that is, it remains firm under suffering. It does not give in, it does not yield to suffering, either in body or soul, no matter how painful. We bear that in mind today.
I. The Examples of Faith
We cannot consider this Word of God before us without going through the list of examples given us. This does not mean we need to spend time examining each one closely to figure out who might have had this happen to him or what exactly happened. Through faith these saints obtained a good report of God. They were seen to be faithful, enthusiastic, and fruitful citizens of God’s kingdom.
At first glance it may seem as if all the verses we study today refer only to the men mentioned in verse 32, that is Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephtha, Samuel, and David. This list consists of men who were Judges in Israel, with the exception of the first God-fearing king of Israel: David. These men through faith subdued kingdoms, we are told. We think of the battles fought by each of these Judges and also by David. By means of those battles heathen kingdoms were subdued. These men also in their rule wrought righteousness, that is to say, their rules were just, standing in accord with God’s commandments. These men obtained the promises of the covenant—how, we will discover in a little while. We are reminded of Samson in that last phrase of verse 33—how he by means of the strength God gave him was able to stop the mouth of a lion. We are told that these men “quenched the violence of fire.” To whom this refers is not clear but we are reminded of Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace. By the next phrase we are reminded of David escaping the edge of the sword of Goliath or of Saul.
In the last three of these examples given us in verses 33 and 34 we find a little shift in viewpoint. These three build on each other to explain somewhat how these men were able to do this. Out of weakness God made these men strong, so strong that they became brave (waxed valiant) in fight, so brave that they were able to turn to flight the armies of aliens, the pagan nations who sought to rob them of their inheritance.
You know, our tendency is to look at these men here in Hebrews 11 as being the epitome of bravery and strength. They were heroes of faith. They stand on a plain so much higher than we do. We could never achieve what they did! But our text points out that they were not by nature strong and brave! When the Lord appeared to Gideon to fight the Midianites, Gideon’s response was, “wherewith shall I save Israel? Behold, my family is poor, and I am the least in my father’s house.” Later, Gideon needed the sign of the fleece to reassure him that he would win the battle. He was weak in himself. He was a common, ordinary man to whom God appeared and gave him the strength to go and fight. Listen to Barak when Deborah came to him and told him to lead Israel against the Canaanite army: “if you will go with me, I will go, but if you do not go with me, I will not go.” Not such brave words, were they? Out of weakness God made strong and out of a timid nature God made brave. God did this by working in these saints faith!
That ends the first sentence of our text and the first set of examples. These first nine examples refer to the men mentioned in verse 32. But the second set of nine examples now goes beyond the era of the Judges. They apply to many different saints of God who lived throughout Old Testament history. These are extreme, even horrifying, examples of endurance. They refer to those who were persecuted for the sake of Christ. “Women,” we are told in verse 35, “received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.” It may be true that in a few instances those who were put to death for Christ’s sake were raised again. But this was not the norm. Women saw their husbands and children put to death before their very eyes for the cause of God and His Anointed. Young women themselves were beaten, raped, and then hung on crosses naked for every one to gawk at. They did not look to be raised miraculously to life again. They did not accept death, thinking that somehow they would be raised from the dead and back into this life. They died in order that they might obtain a better resurrection, that is, the resurrection unto eternal life that will take place at the end of time. They died in hope of that resurrection.
Still others, according to verse 36, had trials or tests of cruel mockings and scourgings. Men and women were brought before magistrates and mocked and whipped simply because they believed the promises of God to them. They were put in chains and thrown in prison never to see the light of day again—because they belonged to the kingdom of God in this world. Now the persecutions recorded in our text become even more violent and cruel. We read in verse 37 that they were stoned to death by their fellow countrymen. They were sawn asunder, beheaded. They were tempted, that is, tried by fire. They were burned at the stake. They were slain with the sword, reference to the impulsive behavior of an angry soldier. In his taste for blood he would without mercy stick his sword into the belly of one he had captured. All this happened because these saints believed in God and in the coming Messiah. They clung to the promises.
Then finally the conclusion to the list: there were those who were stripped of all their belongings and cast out. These wandered about, not in the nice fancy clothes of class and culture, but in sheepskins and goatskins. They were destitute, that is, in constant lack of food and drink. They were afflicted, or hard-pressed. They were tormented, or treated as scum and filth. Why? Because they believed. They wandered in deserts and in mountains living in dens and caves! They were forced to live like animals. If one looked at them, he could not help but pity them. But then, they need not be pitied, because the world was not worthy of such saints! These outcasts, these scum in men’s eyes, were the great and the noble of the earth in the eyes of God! The world of men was not worthy of such people!
These saints endured the worst of circumstances in life because they believed. The wicked world hated them for the God whom they served. The world would be rid of them because they belonged to God’s kingdom in this world. But this did not deter these saints from remaining firm in their convictions. They did not give in to their foes no matter how harsh the circumstances. Can we say that they were heroes of faith? I think in a real sense we can say that of them, so long as the credit goes to God and not to them. Through faith they did valiantly! They are witnesses to us of what it means to believe. But in it all we must remember that such endurance does not come naturally. God works faith in the hearts of His people, but God also upholds them in that faith. What they do is done by the grace of God alone. But let us consider that faith of God’s people.
II. The Endurance of Faith
We have noticed repeatedly in our series on Hebrews 11, that the writer defines faith from a certain perspective: faith is an activity God works in a man or woman. And it is! Faith is the substance of things hoped for, or, literally, it is the firm confidence in those things we hope for. Faith is also evidence, or, better, the conviction regarding things not seen. Faith is confidence and conviction. These are the activities of a man’s heart and soul. But this activity of a believing heart is not an innate ability that belongs to fallen man. Fallen man is totally depraved and has no faith. Scripture clearly teaches us that faith is a gift God imparts only to His elect people through the Spirit of Christ. We read in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” In Philippians 1:29 the apostle teaches, “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ to believe on him.” We are given to believe in Christ. God implants the power or ability unto faith into our hearts.
But God’s work of faith in us activates, empowers our hearts and minds. It works in us a certain knowledge by which we hold as true everything contained in God’s Word. It works in us a confidence, a conviction, that God is our God and we are His children whom He loves and saves from sin. Faith is the confidence in things hoped for. It is not an emotion. Faith is not that emotional high that people strive for in revival meetings. Faith is not this warm, fuzzy feeling that I can experience at times in my life. I am not saying, of course, that faith cannot affect our feelings or emotions. But faith itself is not a feeling. It is much more stable than feelings. Faith is knowledge. God explains to His people in Jeremiah 9:24, “let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me.” So faith is objective knowledge. But faith is not merely a cold, intellectual acceptance of the truths of the Bible. There is many a person that has died with a head full of knowledge but with no conviction. Faith, however, is a conviction that those truths we know are, in fact, the gospel of salvation!
“Faith is the conviction of things not seen!” There are truths seen only with the eye of faith that we are convinced are reality. What do we see only with the eyes of faith? First of all, we are convinced in our hearts that God stands above all things in His majesty and rules the nations by His might. Secondly, we in hope look for that city to come whose builder and maker is God. In that conviction we live as pilgrims and strangers in this world of darkness and sin. We are the citizens of God’s kingdom in this world. We know and are persuaded in our hearts that one day Christ will come again and we will receive our place in heaven.
In the third place, we believe that this God we have come to know has entered into covenant with us, His people. He has told us, “I am your God, and you are my son or daughter!” God has bound believers together with Him in love. He shares with us His blessings. He smiles upon us in His favor. In that covenant He has established promises. Such promises are also the object of our faith. Some of the promises, our text informs us, God’s saints of the Old Testament obtained. They received the land of Canaan for an inheritance as God promised Abraham. God promised them victory over their enemies. They obtained these promises. But the central promise of the covenant—the coming of their Messiah—they never lived to see. Yet, it is exactly faith in that promise that motivated God’s people in the Old Testament to do what they did just as it does God’s people today.
Now, this faith results in endurance. To endure means the ability to bear under something. I am reminded of a small sapling that finds root in an open field. As it grows, its roots dig deep into the soil. When the winds blow across that open field, at times fiercely, that little sapling bends beneath the force of the wind without breaking. Neither is it uprooted! So also the believer. When we are saved in Christ, the Spirit causes our roots of faith to dig deep into Jesus Christ. When the winds of life blow on us, when hardships confront us, our roots of faith dig the deeper into Jesus Christ and we bend and endure the storms of life. It is not that our faith itself keeps us rooted in Jesus Christ. Our faith draws its very life out of Christ. The strength of our risen Lord dwells in us. The Spirit of Christ roots us into Christ and preserves us in the faith. But the Spirit does so by causing the believer, when blown about by the storms of this world, to look to Christ and trust all the more firmly in Him.
Look at what the saints of old endured! Look what they were willing to live and die for to obtain a better resurrection? It is not that they would rather have given in but God somehow forced them to hold on in these hard times. They believed! By faith they endured! As painful as persecution was, they by God’s grace suffered the pain without breaking, without giving in. These saints endured hurricane force winds. They bore under those burdens of life—and they were sore burdens—and there persevered by faith. So also are we called unto quiet, brave endurance in the various circumstances of life.
III. The Admonition of Faith
In this connection we receive admonition as believers who are called today to live in this world of darkness and sin. Here it is again in Hebrews 12:1, “let us run with patience [endurance] the race that is set before us.” The Word of God we receive in these verses is given us first of all to admonish us that we should walk in the faith of these saints. The men and women we examined today were ordinary, simple folk as we are. No different at all. Just men, women, and children who had a life just like we do before being cast into cruel trials and temptations. These bold examples of faith serve to make our lack of faith so glaring! We who live in this age of prosperity are so weak. While these saints wandered about in sheepskins and lived in caves and dens of the earth, we dress in our fancy clothing and live in our comfortable homes. While they fought the great battles of faith with real and ferocious enemies, we are not yet threatened by the wicked world around us but live in relative peace with the world. While they were sawn in pieces and burned at the stake and stoned, we concern ourselves with bank accounts, vacations, and the many extras in life.
What spiritually insignificant lives we live in comparison to those of whom we read here! Even the afflictions we bear—and there can be hard afflictions, I realize—pale in comparison to the lives of these saints. We have not resisted unto blood striving against sin! Christ did! He suffered the cruel torture of rejection and the hatred of the church and world. He was beaten and spit on. He was hanged on a tree and His blood shed. He suffered under the eternal wrath of God to deliver you and me from our sins! So, we are admonished.
Yet, this witness of Old Testament saints ought also to encourage us. These people were not someone extraordinary—someone different from you and me. They were God’s people who were called by God to live through hard times. We are God’s people who are called at times to live through difficulties too. We are encouraged to run the race God sets before us. The battle of faith, though different, still must be waged. We still must run a race where sin so easily besets us, keeping our eyes on the promise of eternal life. Now, we go forth in faith convicted of God’s covenant and its promises. When God places obstacles in our lives—afflictions, and perhaps someday persecution—we endure, standing firm on the promises of God. God will give strength when and where it is necessary. We believe that. God is our refuge and strength.