Monday, April 18, 2016
I heard a preacher once say something that stopped me dead in my tracks. In a message on a passage similar to the one we will be looking at today, he made the following comment, “I wonder how often when we pray we are asking for God to remove something that He, in fact, intended for our lives.” What made this idea even more shocking was when he continued by saying, “Sometimes, when we believe we are praying against Satan/evil, we may in fact be praying against what God has allowed for our own growth.” His point for us in that message was instead of praying for escape from a hardship, we might do well to pray for growth in the midst of a hardship. A similar sentiment will be reached as we look at Hebrews 12:4-13 and learn about God’s program of discipline in the lives of believers. So often, especially in our “feel-good culture” in which nearly everything exists to make us more comfortable and alleviate any and all pain imaginable, at the first sign of difficulty, adversity, or tribulation, we ring up God and say, “Get me out of here!” or “Remove this from me!” And yet, many times we fail to recognize that God has allowed that very situation in the first place for our benefit. If we are not careful, we can squander an opportunity for God to teach us something or make us more into His image by forfeiting from a situation rather than learning to endure it. In Hebrews 12:4-13, we learn how not to waste the discipline that God administers in the life of believers. To this end we will be looking at four groups of statements made in this very important passage.
Drawing from the truth represented in the last three verses, the preacher continues his encouragement to the congregation by calling the people to recollect what Jesus has done on its behalf. In 12:1-3, Jesus’ suffering was considered as a motivation to persevere for those who were enduring hardship in the world as believers. However, though parallels can be drawn between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of His followers, it is not at all congruent. As the preacher begins in verse 4, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin.” In other words, though this church was persecuted and was made to face all kinds of trials, nothing they faced up to this point was close to what Jesus faced as He sacrificed Himself for the world. Therefore, though they could gain strength from knowing that Jesus suffered like them and yet was able to endure, they could also be encouraged by reminding themselves that Jesus suffered far worse than they had.
With this perspective in mind, the preacher continues by referencing an ancient encouragement from Proverbs 3:11ff., “and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives’” (12:5-6). These words remind the mature believer that when hardship strikes, they should accept it as God’s method of training. Not only that, but these should look on such trials as a token of God’s parental love for them.
Because of my love for my children, I hold them to a high standard. This necessarily leads to discipline, sometimes of a painful sort. My intention in this discipline is for my children to know what to say and what not to say, where to go and not go, and what to do and not do. The special love that I have for my children is witnessed, though it may not feel like it at the time, In sharp remarks made and the slaps on the hand administered. I do not discipline other people’s kids in part because they do not belong to me and are therefore not objects of my special parental love.
If last we looked ahead for motivation to run the race of life, today we look around for motivation to live the life God has called us to live. There, we find that our pain, suffering, trials, and tribulations are not without purpose. Even in our struggles, God in His discipline is working to make us more into His image, ready to inherit what is coming our way. From this we learn that God provides both future hope and present sanctification as motivation to persevere.
This realization is exactly what the preacher reveals next in verses 7-8. In verse 7 the preacher continues by saying, “it is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?...”. In the ancient world a father would spend much care and patience on the upbringing of a trueborn son whom he hoped to make a worthy heir. The family name and the continuance of tradition played a much larger role in that day. Therefore, such a son might have to undergo much more irksome discipline than an illegitimate child for whom no future of honor and responsibility was envisaged.
“but if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (12:8). Undergoing discipline in the Christian life is one of the proofs of salvation. Without the presence of discipline, one might need to question one’s legitimacy in the family of God. Why? Because as this verse teaches, discipline is to the child of God as endurance is to the long-distance runner. The two go hand in hand.
When this is kept in mind, one is able to maintain a more hopeful and redemptive perspective on whatever life throws his or her way. If adversity is understood in the Christian life as God’s discipline, then when tragedy strikes or bad news comes, so too does an opportunity to learn something and grow more like Christ as a result. Such an opportunity in the midst of hardship is not awarded to those outside the family of God. Though the world as a whole is loved by God, only His children receive His special tough love that makes them more like Him.
Next, the preacher reminds his congregation of how trustworthy the discipline of the God is toward His children by setting up a simple argument from the lesser to the greater in verse 9, “furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?...”. In the ancient world, before a young man or woman came of age, he are she generally subjected themselves to the discipline of his or her father. These accepted such discipline knowing that it was the parent’s province to impose standards and their subsequent duty to respect it, follow it, learn from it, and adapt to it. If this is how the discipline of earthly parents was generally respected within the family unit of the first century, how much more, the preacher argues, should believers willingly subject themselves to the discipline of their heavenly father?
Continuing with this argument, the preacher goes on to say, “for they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness,…” (12:10). In other words, the discipline of one’s heavenly Father should be respected, even more than one’s earthly father was in the early years of life, for the following reasons. First, the heavenly Father’s discipline is eternally fruitful, not temporarily useful. While an earthly father disciplines for a short time before a child reaches adulthood, the heavenly Father’s discipline is life-long and eternally significant. Second, while the discipline of earthly fathers was conducted in ways that seemed “best to them,” the discipline of the heavenly Father is perfect. Third, while the discipline of earthly fathers may yield respectful members of society and proud members of a family line, the discipline of the heavenly Father yields holiness! For all of these reasons, the discipline of God should be respected, followed, and even embraced.
However, this is no easy charge, especially considering that “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful;…” (12:11).
When I slap my son’s hand after he tests me by touching something I’ve repeatedly told him not to touch, he does not smile and tell me “thank you.” When I scold my daughter for disobeying me, she does not embrace me in that moment exclaiming, “What a wonderful dad I have who loves me enough to yell at me when I’m not behaving! I’m so blessed!” NO! Instead, they whimper, cry, hide themselves, or, in many cases, run to mommy. Why? Because discipline hurts and it is human nature to react to pain with sorrow.
The same is true of spiritual discipline. No one gleefully anticipates hardship and smiles through grief and loss. However, “to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11). In other words, the spiritually mature are able to appreciate the lessons learned and spiritual maturation accomplished within the struggles that God allows in their lives. Such a mindset requires a more sophisticated kind of living that is only accomplished by those with the Holy Spirit. Those controlled by the Spirit (children of God) are those who can be trained by adversity, not overwhelmed by it.
As a result of such training, children of God witness the fruit of righteousness. The discipline of God is not wasted on His people; it generates Christ-likeness.
So then, what is the believer’s responsibility in lieu of God’s perfect discipline in his or her life? The preacher says, “therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight the paths for your feet” (12:12-13a). If discipline and the Christian life go hand and hand, one should prepare adequately for it so that it can have its desired affect—training in righteousness. To this end, the believer ought to do his or her part to strengthen his/herself and straighten up his or her act. In so doing, the believer partners with God in His program of sanctification and grows instead of caves under the pressure.
It does my heart good to see my children strengthen their resolve to obey me or straighten up their act following an episode of discipline that either I or their mother administer. When I no longer have to remind my kids to do or not do something or worry so much that they are going to get into this or that, I know that discipline is having its desired effect. The same is true in our relationship with God. Positive and corrective changes in our lives—i.e. when we strengthen our hands that are weak, knees that are feeble, and make straight the paths for our feet—is pleasing to the Lord.
However, there is another option that one could take. It is the option that the preacher is preaching against in this verse—“so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (12:13b). One can either respond to the discipline of God with strength and straightening or with painful sprains. The words used here are quite graphic, in fact. Those who do not prepare for the discipline of God run the risk of spraining a leg (spiritually speaking). This, to be sure, might be necessary at times for the victim to learn his or her own limitations and subsequently his or her dependency on God. However, it can be prevented if in the face of discipline, one strengthens his/her hands and knees and straightens the path of his/her feet.
The result of God’s discipline in the life of a believer can lead either to pain or to healing—that is spiritual healing toward righteousness. The former is the result of an undisciplined and unprepared life. The latter is the result of a mature life that welcomes and embraces the lessons God wants to teach.
One of the most encouraging verses in all of the Scriptures that reiterates many of the points made in this short passage is found in Romans 8:28. It says, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” This timeless principle extends to the discipline that God allows in the life of a believer. If, as Hebrews 12:4-13 teaches, God disciplines those He loves, then even the painful trials one faces that prove sorrowful for the moment, can be redeemed of God for good. Specifically, as it pertains to the Christian life, God’s discipline can bring about sanctification and the fruit of righteousness.
Therefore, believers would do well to take a mature and spiritual approach to the difficulties they face—understanding that God is at work even in the midst of heartache. With this mindset, believers ought to welcome even the tough love of God and, as a result, prepare accordingly by strengthening their weak hands and feeble knees and straightening the path of their feet. Then, and only then, will the discipline of God bring healing and not a painful sprain. We must not fail to appreciate and even welcome God’s program of discipline in our lives. When we do this, we waste the opportunity to be made more like Him in this life in preparation for the next.
Monday, April 11, 2016
Recently I watched a quirky documentary on Netflix called “The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young.” It describes an exclusive and secretive marathon set in the Tennessee mountains that was co-designed by Lazarus Lake and a man affectionately named “Raw Dog.” In its first 25 years, only 10 people completed this grueling 100 mile run that is divided into 5 20-mile loops. The loops take victims through some of the toughest terrain Tennessee has to offer, under a prison via a tunnel, up and down mountains, through streams, over cliffs, in both day and night. Experts say that by the time people complete this race, if they complete this race, they have scaled and descended enough altitude to climb and descend Mount Everest twice! Oh and you only have 60 hours to complete it! The trail is not marked out. Instead, one has to follow clues given by Lazarus Lake to find checkpoints and while there retrieve a page from books that correspond to one’s race number. The first two laps are conducted clockwise, the second two counterclockwise and the fifth is up to the runner. Good luck finding out how to enter this marathon race (if you are crazy enough to consider it in the first place) because the first rule about the Barkley’s is to never speak of it. There is not a website, phone number, etc. and yet hundreds of people somehow find out about it and apply to participate. Only 40 are chosen each year and those who are accepted are sent a letter of condolence saying, “we are sorry to inform you that you have been accepted to run the Barkley.” The cost is $1.60, a license plate from your home state/country, and whatever item that Lazarus Lake needs for his wardrobe for that year (white shirts, socks, flannels, etc.). Why someone would want to do this is beyond me, but people are excited to run this crazy impossible race.
Life can often feel like the Barkley Marathon—tiring, painful, frustrating, and near-impossible. Under the conditions that life often sets before us, people lose heart and decide to quit in any one particular area or as a whole. This is especially true for those living the Christian life of faith. Living as a Christian appears to be more difficult with every passing day. However, this is exactly what is asked of us. How are we supposed to live this life, run this race, persevere in this marathon? Hebrews 12:1-3 offers two statements that encourage runners in the faith that I pray we can keep in mind as we endure in this world.
The Calling-“RUN UNINHIBITED”-12:1-2
Having just given a tour of examples of steadfastness and perseverance in Chapter 11’s “Hall of Faith,” the preacher decides to use this historical survey and Who’s Who list to galvanize perseverance in the congregation to which he is writing. He calls upon what he has discussed in chapter eleven by saying, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us,…”(12:1). However, what exactly does this mean?
Many authors in Greek literature use the image of a “cloud” to describe a large group of people. Here, the preacher adds the qualifier “so great” to “cloud” in an effort to highlight the enormity of this group’s size (the multitude of people listed/alluded to in chapter 11) and uniqueness of its quality (faithful, accomplished, persevering). Some have suggested that this “cloud” of people are comparable to spectators at an epic track meet that surround the field in the stands and offer their cheers from a distance to those running the race of the Christian life down below. However, “witnesses” suggests something more intimate and active than a mere spectator. Witnesses do not just see something, they bear testimony to what they have seen. Therefore, these “witnesses” are not so much at a distance watching the Christian life, but their testimony is more comparable to trainers on the field who voice more specific and helpful advice to the runners as they pass by. This, the Old Testament saints in general and the inductees in the “Hall of Faith” in particular, do through their stories recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, providing assurances that godliness works, perseverance is worth it, and God is faithful to His promises. “In this way, the great cloud of faithful Christ-followers through history offer the community motivation in its current struggle to stay the course of commitment” (Guthrie, 397). “It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them—for encouragement” (Bruce, 333).
Since this cheering and encouraging cloud of witnesses remains around the believer, the preacher continues by compelling those listening to “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us,…”(12:1). Two things inhibit a runner’s stride according to this verse: excess baggage and sin. The former in the ancient world and in today’s wonderful world of sports involved baggy clothing and a surplus of body fat. Such things weigh the individual down and lead to inefficiency. Such things represent that which is unnecessary to the Christian life. This may or may not include even good things that in no way contribute to the goal God has set before the believer. Too much of a good things can be a heavy weight that slows the runner down.
Therefore, the preacher encourages the believer here to slim down, streamline, and become more efficient in the things that really matter—even if it means sacrificing the good for the great.
However, the second thing believers ought to “lay aside” is “sin which so easily entangle us” (12:1). If encumbrances involve baggy clothes and excess weight of our own that need dealing with to run the race of life well, sin includes the obstacles that are along the track. No one in their right mind would willfully place obstacles on the track before a race! Neither should the believer allow sin to pothole the path ahead of him/her.
After slimming down and avoiding sin that so easily entangles us, the charge from the preacher to the church is to “run with endurance the race set before us” (12:1). Such a “race” reveals that Christ-followers have a course to complete, a goal to achieve and, for their part, would do well to exert effort to that end. What is this course and goal? Faithfulness to God and His will. Notice too that the “race is set before us.” “set before” can also be translated “marked out,” meaning that runners know which way to go because a third party has marked out the path accordingly for them to take. As far as it concerns believers, the people of God DO NOT make the course themselves and have no autonomy over which direction to go. God is the third party mastermind behind every turn, every incline, every nuance of the trail that He gives each believer to take.
Not only that, but this “race” is more a marathon than it is a sprint as it requires “endurance” (12:1). Though some, like myself, would like for things to happen quickly and grow impatient for the finish line, the preacher makes it very clear that this is a long haul—not a hundred yard dash. Therefore, “endurance” is necessary in order to complete the race and finish well.
I’ve never quite understood the motivation behind all of these crazy runs and marathons. Why would someone subject themselves to the agony of something like the Barkley Marathon? Very little if any recognition is offered, only a few people will ever know about it, there is no cash prize awarded, and personal accomplishment is only so compelling. Though I’m not physically equipped to run something like that, I know that even if I was, it would take a pretty remarkable prize to even enter that race in the first place.
Thankfully, in an effort to motivate the believer along his journey, not only does he have a cloud of witnesses testifying on God’s behalf from the Scriptures, he also has the greatest prize awaiting him in the end—Jesus, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (12:2a). In fact, this phrase demonstrates the manner by which the race is to be run—by fixing one’s eyes on Jesus—not on the briars below, the people behind or beside, or the obstacles around.
Why is Jesus a proper point of focus for the runner of the Christian life? He is both the “author” and “perfecter” of faith (i.e. the name given to this marathon). The word “author” can mean “champion,” “leader,” “forerunner,” and “initiator” and, in some ways, each of these fits the athletic analogy employed here. Jesus is a reigning champion, He goes before the believer, and, as God, has also initiated the race in the first place. In addition to His being the “author” of the faith marathon, He is its “perfecter.” In other words, He has made this course possible. Here is what one commentator says about this verse,
“As perfecter of faith, he brings it to its intended goal, Thus, whether one talks about faith as a possibility or as the experience of fulfillment, all depends upon Jesus. For this reason, Christians must keep looking away from this world to him. He is not only the basis, means, and fulfillment of faith, but in his life, he also exemplifies the same principle of faith that we saw in the paragons of Chapter 11” (Hagner, 212).
Jesus authored and perfected this course of faith for the Christian life through His selfless sacrifice upon the cross, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2b). So much is contained in this important verse. First, Jesus endured the cross so that His joy and the believer’s joy may be secured. This joy involves eternal life in glory with God. Jesus died so that His joy might be realized and His joy is most nearly concerned about the joy of His children which can only be obtained in right relationship with Him. Second, Jesus’ life and sacrifice is the example given to believers for faithfulness to the end. If Jesus was willing to follow the course set before Him, so too should believers. Third, what Jesus did on the cross is total and complete “and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Both the perfect tense verb used here and the posture Jesus assumes at God’s right hand suggest that when Jesus said “it is finished!” on the cross, it really was. This renders what Jesus accomplished far greater than what was accomplished under the Old Testament system.
Hebrews 10:11-“Now every priest stands day after day ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this man, after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.”
Jesus’ sacrifice, and the authoring and perfecting of faith that resulted from it, render Christ the greatest object of motivation possible as the believer runs the race of his/her life. Ultimately, in verses 1-2 of Hebrews 12, the preacher says, “since we have the testimony of all who have come before us in God’s Word, demonstrating that this marathon can be completed, run the race God gives you to run, all the while looking to Jesus whose sacrifice made joy and salvation possible.”
The Consideration-“REMEMBER JESUS”-12:3
After calling the congregation to run the race of faithfulness with endurance, the preacher, gives this same congregation something to consider, “for consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself” (12:3a). To be sure, Jesus did suffer throughout His life and on the cross because of sinners like you and me. However, in spite of the pain and suffering He endured, He “endured.” He endured incompetence, impatience, temptations, conflict, danger, betrayal, lies, false accusations, blaspheme, and yet He finished strong the course that God had placed before Him. This is important to keep in mind when running a similar path.
“so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:3b).
In many cases, the best thing to remember when one is struggling to continue and is tempted to throw in the towel is that this race has been completed, it CAN be done. Jesus’ perseverance is the source of inspiration behind the believer’s perseverance as he/she lives the life God has given him/her to live. Because He has finished well, with Him as the church’s aim and focus, so too can the people of God. Because He lives now at the right hand of God, having completed the work God gave him to do, believers can face tomorrow no matter what God has called them to do.
The calling of this passage is simple, “Run the race God has called you to run of faithfulness.” The cloud of witnesses preserved in Scripture are your trainers helping you along the way and Christ is the proper object of one’s gaze. The consideration of these verses is inspiring—remember Jesus who has run well and allow His perseverance to engender perseverance in your life. No one is saying that the marathon God has handed you or me is easy, but what this passage teaches is that it can be endured. Such an encouragement would have no doubt inspired a persecuted church in the first century. It must inspire us today!
If this race God has called us to run IS so difficult, shouldn’t we do our part to render ourselves spiritually healthy enough to finish strong? What baggage are you holding onto that is keeping you from running well? What sin is tangling up your progress in your Christian walk? Perhaps today is a day to lay it down at the altar of God, and run out of here unencumbered and more efficient. What race are you running? Are you running one of your own design to your own ends and for your own glory? Perhaps today is a day for you to submit yourself to the race God has for you—the race leading to Christ-likeness and usefulness in His kingdom-building work. Because of what Jesus has accomplished, we are invited to follow Him in the marathon of faith, encouraged by those who have gone before us and inspired by what lies ahead! Its a race we all must enter.
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Today we are going to wrap up our tour in the Hall of Faith of Hebrews 11. However, before we do, let us remind ourselves of why this entire chapter is included in the preacher’s sermon in Hebrews. This sermon in Hebrews could very well have jumped from the exhortation in 10:39 (“but we are not those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the persevering of the soul”) to the second part of the first verse in chapter 12 (“therefore, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”). However, instead the preacher provides a compendium of examples, a list of illustrations, a “Hall of Faith,” in an effort to describe what God is looking for among His people who live on the earth. What is sought among God’s people both then and now is the kind of faith that was defined for us in Hebrews 11:1—“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…”. Such faith has been witnessed in the inductees that we have perused since Super Bowl Sunday: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and Rahab. This, however, does not complete the list. As the tour of this hall nears its completion, the preacher rattles off a list of honorable mentions and their accomplishments that serves as a capstone to this chapter. Let us complete this tour then by examining four elements found in Hebrews 11:32-40 as we endeavor to apply this compelling series to our own lives.
The List of Honorable Mentions-11:32
As we close the tour of the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11, the guide (the preacher of the Hebrews), perhaps recognizing that it is closing time soon, lumps many more examples of faithfulness into a quick survey. This quick summary is introduced in verse 32 when he says, “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…”. Each of these names and the stories they incorporate deserve at least a cursory look.
Gideon proved to be a valiant warrior who led a decisive brigade of 300 men to overwhelm a much larger enemy. The Bible says in Judges 7:19ff “so Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just posted the watch; and they blew the trumpets and smashed the pitchers that were in their hands. When the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the pitchers, they held the torches in their left hands and the trumpets in their right hands for blowing, and cried, ‘A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!’ Each stood in his place around the camp; and all the army ran, crying out as they fled. When they blew 300 trumpets, the Lord set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the edge of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath…”. However, Gideon was not born a leader. Earlier in Judges God found this “mighty man” hiding in a winepress. When called by God, Gideon made every excuse in the book to be passed over for someone else saying, “I’m the least in my tribe,” and “I’m the youngest in my house,” etc. This man doubted himself and God at nearly every turn, even to the point of making God prove Himself to him on multiple occasions (see Judges 6).
Barak led an army on the Lord’s behalf to pursue an enemy. However, he wasn’t going to go unless Deborah went with him along with 10,000 warriors (see Judges 4).
Samson landed a huge blow on the Philistines after finding his faith again in Judges 16:28ff-”Then Samson called to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.’ Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced himself against them, the one with his right hand and the other with his left. And Samson said, let me die with the Philistines!’ And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life…” However, this was only after he lived a life of debauchery and reneged on his Nazarite vow. Not only that, but he left himself vulnerable to being overtaken by his enemies, was outsmarted by his wife, and blinded by those who wanted him dead.
In spite of being born of a harlot and suffering a checkered past, Jephthah proved to be a valiant warrior and defender of God’s people. And yet, in a momentous lapse in judgment and foolishness, Jephthah made a vow to God that eventually required the life of his only daughter (see Judges 11).
Who can forget David? Though the youngest in his family, David upstaged his older brothers and was anointed by God to succeed Saul as king over Israel. A gifted musician, avenging shepherd, faithful friend, good-looking young man, and unmatched warrior, David was the renaissance king who solidified his place forever in Jewish folklore after he slew Goliath when everyone else was too scared. Even king Saul was intimidated by a young David before his death. You know you’ve pretty much wrapped everything up when the kingdom you will one day rule exclaims in one accord, "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands" (1 Samuel 18:7). Not to mention, elsewhere, David is even called a “man after God’s own heart” (see Acts 13:22). However, in a moment of vulnerability and weakness, David commits adultery and then proceeds to cover it up by having the cuckold killed in the front lines of battle (a mistake that would follow him the rest of his colorful life) (see 2 Samuel 11ff).
Samuel was a miraculously-born prophet used to anoint and guide the first two kings of Israel: Saul and David. His ministry was marked by righteousness and wisdom and yet, his words were not always heeded nor were they convincing (see 1 Samuel 10:19-22).
In addition to all of these judges, the preacher in Hebrews also draws attention to the prophets of the Old Testament. While these are legion, a few examples are worth noting. Jonah, for instance, shared a message of grace with a wicked city that ignited a revival. However, he was hesitant and didn’t even believe in what he was doing after the fact (see Jonah). Elijah for his part called down fire from heaven to show off God’s power before pagan priests (1 Kings 18). And yet, he feared for his life immediately after this mountaintop experience upon hearing an empty threat (1 Kings 19). Daniel, though a righteous example of faithfulness and dependency on God, was taken from his homeland, relentlessly tested, and even thrown in a lion’s den! (see Daniel 1-6).
In all of these examples imperfect people with their own share of weaknesses, failures, limitations, trials, and personal issues were used of God in extraordinary ways. This again reiterates what has resonated throughout Hebrews 11—God is the hero of His unfolding story and imperfect but faithful people are the tools used to accomplish His will.
The List of Accomplishments-11:33-34
When these imperfect people placed their faith in God, so much was accomplished for His glory. In verses 33 and 34b the preacher recalls the geopolitical victories that were won when he says, “who by faith conquered kingdoms….became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” Whether it was a bunch of wilderness refugees walking around Jericho as it was in Joshua’s day, 300 scared-stiff soldiers led by a reluctant warrior under Gideon, or a brand new nation fighting the iron-clad Philistines with farming equipment, God’s people won overwhelming victories over their enemies in the Promised Land and beyond. These were not taught in the ways of warfare nor were they led by well-trained emperors. However, these were led by the one true God who saw them through each and every confrontation when they were obedient in faith and followed Him.
However, not only were these victorious on the battlefield, these were also blessed on the moral front. The preacher continues to delineate the list of accomplishments by saying, “performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises” (11:33b). Examples of this include Samson who redeemed himself by sacrificing his life for the sake of his people in one last stand and David who redeemed a kingdom that lost its way under Saul, thereby obtaining a covenantal promise that from his line would come a forever king to rule over the world. God saw fit to bless the many acts of righteousness these faithful followers committed with promises that continued well into the future.
Not only that, but faith in God accomplished the miraculous in a myriad of the situations represented by this short list of Old Testament characters. According to the preacher, faith, “shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong,…” (11:33c-34a). Whether it was supernaturally protecting Daniel in the lion’s den from hungry cats, sending fire down from heaven following Elijah’s prayer on mount Carmel, sparing David’s life in the face of Goliath, or turning Gideon from a cowering mouse to a mighty leader of men, God is pleased to show off His power when the obedient call upon Him in faith.
When imperfect people obey the Lord in Faith, the sky's the limit as to what can be accomplished through God’s power. It is the preacher's hope that these inspiring accounts and impressive accomplishments encourage the congregation to which he is writing to call upon the Lord and expect His power to do great things as a result.
The Treatment they Suffered-11:35-38
However, although the road of faith may have victory as its destination, it also guarantees a bumpy ride along the way. Such was the case for those in the “Hall of Faith.” The preacher, after populating the list of honorable mentions and counting their accomplishments, next describes the treatment that these and others suffered—“…Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection, and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword,…” (11:35-38). These 3rd-party oppressions demonstrate how the road of faith is often a treacherous path of discomfort, displeasure, and disdain. Truly, all of those mentioned in Hebrews 11 felt pain on both a spiritual, physical, and relational level. However, these were willing to count the cost and fear God more than anything that could come against them—even death! A fearless congregation is what this preacher was hoping to inspire as he encourages them here in Hebrews 11.
In addition to the external conflict that often pot-holed the roads leading to victory in the lives of those mentioned in Hebrews 11, there were also personal sacrifices made by these individuals in an effort to follow God. The preacher describes how these honorable mentions, “went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground” (11:37b-38). In other words, adorning the simplest/cheapest of clothes and living in the humblest of abodes, those who followed God often gave up everything in order to follow the Lord. Such was the plight of those like the Israelites in the wilderness following the Exodus, David as he eluded Saul in desert caves, and the prophets who proclaimed the Word of God in the divided kingdom or in exile. If these imperfect people could give up comfort and prestige for the sake of the one true God, the preacher in Hebrews is hoping His congregation would be willing to do the same.
The End they Found-39-40
As it pertains to the treatment that these suffered, the preacher next describes the end that each found in their earthly lives. Negatively, “all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (11:39). For instance, David never got to see this forever king he was promised before his death, Daniel did not witness the earth’s destiny as he predicted in Daniel 9, all of the prophets did not witness the Messiah to which they pointed in their own time. The story God was writing and is continuing to write was and is far greater than these individual lives. Therefore, the faith that these demonstrated was not dependent on promises fulfilled, but on the God who guaranteed that they were as good as done. “Hall of Faith” faith does not have to see the end; it just has to know the One who controls the end.
Though those of old may not have realized the fruition of what was promised them, they were a part of a plan that includes “us”—yes, even us. This is what is meant in verse 40 when the preacher says, “because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.” In other words, the delay in the promises of God is good news for first century believers and today’s believers because we are included in the legacy of faith and can anticipate alongside those who came before us what is to be expected of God. Then, at the end of it all, we along with all who have come behind us—the first century saints to which this was written and the old testament inductees in the “Hall of Faith”—all will be made perfect.
The elements found in this passage have the potential of inspiring our faith today by reminding us of the following principles: God is pleased to use imperfect people to do extraordinary things; when such people obey the Lord in faith, the sky's the limit; though victory is assured for those who have faith—so too is a bumpy ride; faith trusts God’s story and plan without having to see the ending. These concepts have been introduced and repeated several times in our journey through Hebrews 11.
Are these principles evident in your life, in my life, in the life of this church? Are we trusting God to do the extraordinary or have we settled for the ordinary? Do we believe the sky's the limit or have we lowered expectations and, by proxy, our view of God? Do we cringe and complain when things get difficult or uncomfortable, betraying the fact that we fear something more than God? Are we bothered when we don’t see what we want to see on our terms and in our timing? In order for us and for this church to be the kind of place that God would be pleased to use in extraordinary ways, we must endorse faith—“Hall of Faith” kind of faith. Such faith cannot help but be blessed of God and infused with His saving power!