Although verses 30-31 belong to a different paragraph from 32-40, since the former deal with specific instances of faith in Joshua and Rahab, whereas the latter are a summary of the acts of faith from the history of God’s people in the Old Testament era, we will consider them together. One way to look at these verses is to think of 30-35a as showing us what faith can do, and verses 35b-40 showing us what faith can endure. To put it another way, verses 30-35a show us that there is no earthly obstacle that is worth giving up to, verses 35b-40 show us that there is no earthly opposition that is worth giving in to.
In verses 30-35, we see what faith can do. It brings city walls down and delivers from death. It subdues kingdoms and works righteousness and obtains promises (King David) and stops the mouth of lions (Daniel). It quenches the violence of fire (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), escapes the edge of the sword (e.g. the prophet Jeremiah), out of weakness is made strong (Samson), waxes valiant in fight and turns to flight foreign armies (many examples of this in the OT narrative). It receives the dead back to life (one thinks of instances in the lives of the prophets Elijah and Elisha).
On the other hand, in verses 35-38, we see what faith can endure. Faith endures torture, cruel mocking and scourging, imprisonment, stoning, and being sawn in two (Jewish tradition says that this is the way the prophet Isaiah was killed). It endures a multitude of temptations, the sword, exile into the wilderness and the mountains and dens and caves, “destitute, afflicted, tormented.” Many of these things happened to the faithful during the terrible persecutions in the reign of the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes. Whereas the folks in verses 30-35a achieved earthly victory, the folks in verses 35b-38 did not. And yet they did not give in to the opposition. They did not believe that it was worth it, even though in many cases the trials they were called to endure were brutally severe.
But the reality is that in both lists (if you divide them up in this way) you have people whose faith faced tremendous trial and difficulty. Yes, it is true that by faith Daniel stopped the mouths of lions, but there is no indication that he knew this going in. It is truth that his three friends quenched the violence of faith, but again, there is no indication that they knew that would happen either.
In other words, what you have in this Faith Hall of Fame are men and women whose thought that the kingdom of God was worth whatever difficulty or suffering or hardship they were called to endure. Their examples preach to us that the kingdom of God is not only worth living for, but also worth suffering for and even worth dying for.
And that’s what I want to consider with you this morning. How do we see the cause of God and truth in this way so that instead of becoming bitter for having to endure hardship, we become like those in verse 35 who “were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection”?
We all intuitively understand to some extent that it is a great honor to make a great sacrifice for a great cause. I think you see this illustrated especially in times of war. Those who sacrifice their lives for their country are universally honored. We recognize the value of valor; there is a certain charisma to courage. On the other hand, we despise the cowardly and the soft. The ancients in fact thought that courage was the noblest and highest of all the virtues because courage secured the rest of the virtues. But the thing is that you cannot have courage where there is not at least the possibility of suffering and loss and difficulty. Courage cannot be put on display on soft couches. Courage is on display on battlefields and hospital rooms and in a thousand other hard places.
We don’t sing songs about people who live in castles as much as we sing about those who storm castles. We don’t erect monuments to people who go through life on beds of ease; we do so for those who overcame tremendous difficulty to do something great.
This is the reason why Churchill was able to say, at one of the most difficult hours of the Second World War – in fact, as France was falling to Germany, and Britain was standing alone in the world against the Nazi regime – “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”1 Why would he call that the “finest hour” of the British nation? He did so because it was precisely at that point that the British people were being called upon to make the greatest sacrifices for a great cause and against a great evil, in order to prevent what Churchill called “the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
It was during this very difficult period that the Prime Minister’s old school, Harrow, decided to write a verse about his exploits. They would do this for former members of the school who had gone on to achieve greatness. The school kids would then sing about them and hopefully be stirred to greatness themselves. But one of the lines of the verse to Churchill talked about the times in which they lived as “these dark times.” Churchill wrote back and told them not to say “dark times” but – I can’t remember the exact word he substituted for “dark” – but something along the lines of great or tremendous times.
I was talking to someone about this the other day, and they had a hard time understanding that: why would Churchill say those were great times? Isn’t that glorying in war? No, not necessarily. Few knew better than Churchill how awful war could be – he had fought in the trenches in the First World War, after all. They were great times because they were times that presented a unique and unparalleled opportunity to make a courageous stand for good against evil.
But even if we can’t understand why times of war can be occasions for greatness, why can’t we see that this is the case for the Christian faith? Why can’t we see that it is the greatest honor to make the greatest sacrifices for the greatest cause in the universe, namely, the cause of God and truth? Or to put it in the language of Scripture, why are we not willing to rejoice to be counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of Christ (Acts 5:41)? Why should we think that God is being unjust or unkind by giving us the opportunity to be courageous for him in difficult and hard times? Why should we think that the call to sacrifice and endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 2:3) is a bad thing? Why do we recoil at the notion that God is calling us to suffer for the sake of his kingdom, or to do without for him, or even perhaps to die for him? Why do we equate God’s blessing with success and ease and comfort and earthly peace and pleasure? Why do we not want to take our cross to follow the Lord?
The folks in Hebrews 11 clearly thought the prize was worth the price they had to pay. And here’s where verses 39-40 come in. They read, “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” I think sometimes people read this and think that the author of Hebrews is telling his audience that the OT believer didn’t receive the promise at all, and, in particular, wasn’t saved. That’s of course not what he was saying: I can think of nothing more depressing and defeating than that! Rather, what he is saying is that the promises of God were not fulfilled during their lifetime, and they would not be fulfilled until Christ came. That is one of the major points of this epistle. But Christ having come, he will give salvation to all who trust in him no matter when they lived – before or after his earthly ministry. Another way to put verse 40 is that the OT saints will be made perfect with us in the age to come as a direct result of what Christ has done for us in his redemptive work.
But here’s the point of these two verses. It is this: the fact that the OT saints were able to achieve all that they achieved and to endure all that they endured without having seen the fulfillment of God’s promises in the person and work of Jesus Christ is a great rebuke to us if we are unwilling to do and to die for God’s kingdom, we who live on the other side of the cross and resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Son of God. We have so much more reason to endure and to be faithful. The OT saints are there to remind us that they did it without the fulness of the revelation that we have in Christ. So what excuse do we have for faithlessness? None!
So, coming back to our question, how do we become like this? How do we so value the kingdom of God that we are willing to endure hardship without becoming bitter and losing our faith? How do we become courageous for Christ? That’s what I want to be like, and that’s what I want you to be like, too. Well, I think this wonderful parenthetical phrase in verse 38 helps us out. I don’t wonder that it is where it is. He didn’t put this phrase up there in describing the earthly victories of the OT believers but right here in the middle of those which describe the earthly sorrows of the OT believers: “of whom the world was not worthy.”
What is it that made these believers too good for this world? It is important for us to see that, for when we see it, we will understand why it is that the opportunity to show courage for Christ in the face of opposition is a privilege rather than a punishment. To see this, I would argue that world was not worthy of these precious believers for four reasons – in comparison to those who belong to this world, these believers had a greater Captain, a greater Cause, a greater Kingdom, and a greater Conquest. Let us consider these things in turn.
A Greater Captain
These folks weren’t serving the kings of this world. If they had, their lives would have been very different. Daniel would have stopped praying when the king told him to and avoided the lions. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would have bowed down to the image of Nebuchadnezzar and avoided the flames. But they weren’t worthy of this world because they weren’t ultimately serving earthly masters. Their ultimate allegiance was to the God of the Bible. And you see this in the fact that he is the one, not the world, who gives them this appellation in verse 38. The world didn’t think that – the world thought these people were menaces and obstacles to good order. It was God who said that the world was not worthy to have such people. It was God who gave them their good report (39). They served God, and in doing so they were serving Christ. Christ was their Captain.
Think about all the leaders in the history of the world that have inspired people to follow them. Some have been good and noble, like George Washington. Some have been great military leaders, like Napoleon Bonaparte. Some have been evil and wicked, like Adolph Hitler. It is amazing who people will follow, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. Of all the Germans who followed Hitler in WW2, I can’t imagine many of them thinking it was a good thing by May of 1945. But the reality is that no matter what man or woman we choose to follow, they all have feet of clay. They all have faults and character flaws. None of them are worthy of your uncritical or unreserved commitment.
Unless you are talking about Jesus Christ. It is amazing to me how Napoleon was able to get so many soldiers to die for him. But though Jesus calls upon his disciples to take the cross, it is only because he has taken it first, and the cross he carried bore all our sins upon it – infinitely more weighty and awful than any cross we will ever be called upon to bear. And though Jesus calls upon us to go into the world as sheep among wolves, he is only calling us to do what he has already done. The call for Christian discipleship is to follow Christ. I think one of the most moving things I have ever seen was a video of an infantry officer under fire in Afghanistan who needed to get his men to a better position, but the way he did this was not by just telling them where to go but by shouting, “Follow me!” and then jumping up and leading the way as bullets were spraying all around. You can be sure that whatever your Lord calls upon you to do, he has done something far more difficult.
Our Lord told his disciples, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also” (John 15:18-20). You see that? He is not calling us to endure anything he has not already endured.
He is always the example. How are we to love one another? The way Christ loves us “and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God, for a sweet-smelling savour” (Eph. 5:2). When we are told to put others before our own interests, again Jesus is the great example: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). How is the saint to endure suffering? Like Jesus: “...but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow in his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet. 2:20-23). We could go on enumerating such examples.
He is also a great Captain – the greatest Captain – in that he takes care of his own. I love the way this is described in the book of Ephesians: our Lord “gave himself for it [the church]; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:25-26). We are told that “in the ages to come” God will show “the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). He is always in the thickest part of the fight and when the victory is won, I cannot help but see him there, washing the feet of his disciples and tending to their wounds. And in the age to come he will wipe all tears from their eyes and give them ever-increasing and never-ending joy in his presence forever.
My friend, why serve anyone else? There is no Lord and Savior like the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Why not enlist under his banner? Why not take his name upon yourself and follow him with all your heart?
A Greater Cause
I think another reason why the faithful in Hebrews 11 did not give up, even in the face of all the hardships they were called to embrace, is because they recognized that the cause they represented was worth all the indignities and the sufferings they had to endure. For they were not simply seeking to advance their own cause and advantage, but they were standing in the army of the Lord and fighting for the cause of God and truth against true evil. One of the things soldiers have to struggle with is the morality of their cause. Are they on the right side? Who is waging the just war? Is the spilling of blood worth it? In many conflicts, this can be hard to discern. One of the things about World War 2 is that once the Allied soldiers discovered the Nazi extermination camps, they had no doubt that they were fighting a just war.
But the Christian need not wonder about the morality or the justice or the necessity of their cause. We are not just fighting evil; we are fighting against the blackest and darkest and most malevolent evil this world has ever known or ever will know. For we are fighting against Satan: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). As Paul will put it to the Corinthians, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
Since the beginning of human history (Jn. 8:44), humanity has been involved in this conflict between ultimate good and evil. It is not a conflict between nations and tribes, but a conflict between the followers of Christ and the servants of the devil. As Paul will write the Romans, “And the God of peace will bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:20).
Here’s what this means. When you live out the Christian life, the life of faith, you are engaged in this most important of all conflicts. You are part of an army, and you are fighting in a war. You don’t do this by fighting with guns and bombs but with the weapons of righteousness, by being salt and light in this world, by living out and speaking the gospel to those around you. There will be pushback; there will be persecution. The enemy will fight back. And the question is, will you throw your weapons down? Will you withdraw from the fight? Or will you be so convinced of the justice of this cause that you will be willing to lay everything down for it?
I have always been moved when I've gone to the Alamo and seen the list of the names of the men who died there. They made a conscious decision to do so; they knew they were going to die. They believed in the cause of Texas independence enough that they were willing to give “the last full measure of devotion” for it. Will we be convinced of the goodness and the righteousness and the justice and the value of the cause of Christ that you will endure to the end for it? My friend, there is no greater cause for which to give your life. A life lived for Christ and a life given for Christ is never wasted. Let us be able to say with the apostle Paul, when we get to the end of the way, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
A Greater Kingdom
Not only is our cause greater, but the kingdom for which we live is greater than any earthly kingdom. The kingdom to which the Christian belongs is not an earthly kingdom. As our Lord told Pilate at his trial, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36).
One of the ways in which the kingdom of Christ differs from all earthly kingdoms is in its durability. All earthly kingdoms will eventually perish. The Roman Empire lasted over a thousand years, but now we can read Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Hitler proclaimed a thousand-year Reich, but it only
lasted about twelve years. Not so the kingdom of Christ. We read in Psalm 145:13, “Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.” In the book of Daniel, there is this prophesy of Christ, in which we find, “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14). And in Peter’s second epistle we are told, “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:10-11). And then, in the book of Revelation we see this: “And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
Another way the kingdom of Christ is better than the kingdoms of this world in that its character and nature is infinitely better than any earthly kingdom. When God showed Daniel the dream of Nebuchadnezzar and its interpretation, the kingdoms of men where likened to this statue of varying constituent parts, from the head of gold all the way down to the feet of clay. No kingdom of man is perfect. This is true of the US, and it is true of any country. Some may be better than others, but none is perfect – they are all defined in some respect by the fallenness of their inhabitants. There will never be a utopia this side of the Final Judgment. On the other hand, God’s kingdom is holy and good: as the apostle will tell the Roman Christians, “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” (Rom. 14:17). Another way to see this is that the kingdom of God is the kingdom of heaven. All the goodness and joy of heaven is the goodness and joy of the kingdom of our Lord.
This motivated these OT saints. Why were they willing to be exiled into the deserts and caves and mountains? Why were they willing to even endure torture, not accepting deliverance? It was because they recognized that they belonged to a kingdom which cannot be moved (Heb. 12:28). And this should motivate us to “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.”
A Greater Conquest
Though now the saints have to endure hardship, it will not always be the case. Those who were tortured rose to a better resurrection. The apostle Paul fought a good fight, but that was not the end of the story: “henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). There is a “better thing” that God has provided for them and for us (Heb. 11:40). The kingdom of God has not yet come in its fulness, but when it does, death will be done away and the people of God will rise to newness of life. They will enter into an “inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4).
One of the things that can be disheartening for any cause is the lack of hope that ultimate victory will be won. But here’s the thing: for the Christian ultimate victory is guaranteed. The unstoppable decree of God guarantees it. The finished work of Christ on the cross guarantees it. The powerful work of the Holy Spirit guarantees it. We are not fighting a resurgent enemy; we are fighting a defeated enemy. I love the way the apostle Paul described what happened on the cross to the Colossians: our Lord blotted out “the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:14-15).
How does it end? Well, it ends like this: “And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 22:1-5).
Now we must not think that our sufferings are only valuable insofar as they are the direct result of persecution. Remember who our enemy is: Satan. And he is too cunning to reserve all his energies in seeking to overthrow your faith for outright persecution. He attacks believers in a multitude of ways – not only through sinful men but also through sickness and illness, like Job. He not only attacks the body, but he attacks the mind. Anything that he can use to discourage you and to draw you away from a willing and joyful discipleship is an enemy to your faith and is part of the battle. In those moments or hours or years of discouragement, remember the believers of Hebrews 11. Remember why they endured and let that be an encouragement to you. We serve the very best Captain, we live for the most just of causes, are citizens of an heavenly kingdom, and will one day enjoy the fruits of eternal conquest in Jesus Christ our Lord.