The Triumph of Faith
October 21, 2001
We have grown accustomed in the past twenty or thirty years of a conception that faith equates to tangible success. "Health and wealth" preachers have built empires that proffer their ideas over the airwaves and in publications to the degree, that unless you are healthy and wealthy you wonder whether or not you have faith. Anything less than tangible success that leads to great comfort and prosperity in life is shamed as being a defective faith.
So what have we gained from all of this teaching on faith? God has been reduced in such thinking to a dispenser of creature comforts that can be manipulated by positive thinking. The Christian life has become synonymous with prosperity, so that any failures, illnesses, or tragedies are ruled to be outside the sovereignty of God, and beneath the dignity of the Christian. And faith has become the elusive secret for elitist Christians to further a Hollywood lifestyle.
But none of this modern teaching finds company in Hebrews 11-or the balance of Scripture for that matter. We err when teaching of faith only in terms of some tangible success or accomplishment. Faith is just as active, just as real, and just as powerful when all circumstances are unfavorable, when we face deep personal loss, when our enemies appear to conquer us, and when all hope of comfort and external peace are gone. Faith takes us through, for it is a conscious dependence upon the infinite character and resources of our Lord; faith understands our personal weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and inadequacies, and carries us through every possible situation with a dependence on the Lord. To the carnally minded observer, our case may be pathetic, hopeless, and a total loss and failure. But inwardly, faith mounts us up on eagles' wings, carrying us through great loss with the triumph of peace, joy, and hope in Christ.
We tend to measure so much by our level of comforts and enjoyment in life. If we can achieve a certain satisfaction of creature comforts, then we deem ourselves successful, and having accomplished our goals in life. But what our writer does is to challenge this kind of allurement that sets its satisfaction on the temporal and earthly. It is not that the believer never receives any of these things, for we have examples in our text of those who did. But it is the reality that none of these things is the end of life or the great goal of our existence. Faith enables us to set our minds on things above while living in endless numbers of circumstances here below (Col 3:1-4). Faith carries the believer through every stage and demand of life, and ultimately delivers him into the presence of Christ. That is the encouragement this first century congregation needed to seize in order to walk through the impending persecutions and temptations. And this is the same encouragement that will sustain and carry us through whatever befalls us. How does faith triumph? Consider both the diversity of faith's operation and unity of effect in our text.
I. The satisfying diversity of faith
Our writer set forth a cross-section of biblical characters to help us grasp the deeply satisfying work of faith. He asks, "And what more shall I say?" Need he add more characters to his discussion on faith in order to prove the necessity and effectiveness of faith? He admits that he does not have the space or time to do it, "for time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets." Literally, he asks if he can really offer any more narrations to prove the substance of faith. On our part, we might wish for a couple more chapters on faith! But he has made his point without delving into redundancy. Faith in the Lord satisfies believers through the ages, cultures, circumstances, and personalities represented in human history.
1. No cookie-cutter display of personalities
An important reality for us is to understand that people of faith are not all alike; there are no cookie-cutter believers. Each of us is dealt with personally by the Lord, and individually shaped in the image of Christ. Each experiences the providential working of God in his life, tailored to affect every detail to bring the whole of his existence into conformity with Christ and to the glory of God. And it all happens by faith.
"For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets." Four of these characters are identified in the book of Judges during a period when "every man did what was right in his own eyes," and faith appeared to be almost non-existent. David and Samuel appear in the book of First Samuel, with David following in many other portions of Scripture. Our writer picks these names somewhat randomly rather than chronologically, since they are paired out of order. His point was not to chronicle the movements of faith but to give us a broad display of personalities that exhibited faith; all for the purpose of helping us see the legitimacy of our own faith housed in the weakness of our personalities.
The men found in Judges had defects in their faith. Following John Calvin's insights, Leon Morris points out, "Gideon was slow to take up arms; Barak hesitated and went forward only when Deborah encouraged him; Samson was enticed by Delilah; and Jephthah made a foolish vow and stubbornly kept it." Gideon did tackle victoriously the massive Midianite army with his 300 men, but was slow to take action. Barak led the charge against the army of Sisera the Canaanite commander, but he refused to lead without Deborah the prophetess at his side. Samson did great exploits but lost his strength through his compromises with Delilah. But faith made a recovery in his flawed life so that he killed more Philistines in his death than in his life. Jephthah, the illegitimate son of Gilead, vowed to sacrifice whatever came to meet him from his home if the Lord would give him victory over the Ammonites-a foolish vow that he kept to his own sorrow as his daughter crossed the threshold when he returned victorious. Calvin makes this helpful comment, "In every saint there is always to be found something reprehensible. Nevertheless although faith may be imperfect and incomplete it does not cease to be approved by God" [Leon Morris, EBC, 130].
Do you find yourself bemoaning your failures and weaknesses, and using these as excuses for trusting the Lord? Then find fresh courage to believe the Lord! See that God approves faith even as it is displayed through the weakness of flawed personalities.
If you think that God only grants the grace of faith to those who are flawless, then pick up any honestly written biography of a Christian. Look at Luther or Calvin or Spurgeon or Carey or Lloyd-Jones. Indeed, they were great men; but if you get close you discover that they were flawed men as well-just like you and me. History tends to put these men, and women of like character, on a pedestal, idealizing their lives. That is why we must always find our greatest help through the pages of Scripture, where the heroes of the faith transparently display their weaknesses so that we grasp that faith to endure is not for the elite but for all who trust Christ, even with weak faith.
2. No limitations in face of impossibilities
What does faith do? Faith looks at impossibilities and smiles in light of the power of God! Our writer rehearses a litany of faith's accomplishments: "who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge [mouth] of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight." Joshua conquered Canaan and David conquered several kingdoms that stood opposed to Israel. Some "performed acts of righteousness," a phrase that implies integrity on either a national or personal level. By faith they exercised integrity. Think of how Joshua, David, Gideon "obtained promises," and were able to go forward in great difficulty because they were resting in the promises of God. As they obeyed they received what God promised.
God delivers his people personally from countless situations. Daniel is brought to mind by the phrase, "shut the mouths of lions." He believed the Lord, and his faith had a great impact on the Persian King Darius. The three Hebrew young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego "quenched the power of fire." David "escaped the edge of the sword" wielded by Saul and the Philistines. So too did Elijah escape Jezebel's rage and Elisha escaped the entire Syrian army, blinding them and returning them to their homeland.
The next trio operates from a point of weakness not strength. "From weakness were made strong" could apply to any that have been mentioned, and a host not mentioned in this text. Philip Hughes writes, "Faith is the response of all who are conscious of their own weakness and accordingly look to God for strength" [The Epistle to the Hebrews, 510]. Paul learned that in his weakness-the thorn in the flesh-he was actually made strong, "for power is perfected in weakness" (II Cor 12:9). Several of the psalms express how David and his men "became mighty in war," experiencing God's strength to do battle against their enemies (Psalms 17, 18, 59, etc.). Allied with that phrase is the next, "put foreign armies to flight." David did it on numerous occasions, so did the renowned Maccabeans during the 3rd century B.C. against Antiochus Epiphanes, the ruthless Syrian king.
Are there still triumphs in situations of impossibility? We pray for deliverance for the eight Western Christian workers jailed in Afghanistan. The very fact that reports on them has shown a remarkable resilience in depressing circumstances shows the triumph of faith in Christ. The British journalist captured and recently released by the Taliban spent time with the jailed ladies. She was overwhelmed by their peacefulness in the face of such odds. But there are many more. Bruce Olson not only survived a South American terrorist camp but also ended up evangelizing some of them! Steve Saint has been able to return to the very people that murdered his father in Ecuador, not for revenge but to bring them the truth of the gospel and to assist them with developing independence. We see thriving Christian churches, schools, and church planting efforts going on in dozens of countries that a few years ago we thought to be impossible. Faith does not look at impossibilities and cringe. It moves forward, trusting the Lord to work in his might, according to his purpose, and for his glory.
3. No failure in light of losses
"Faith is the victory," we sing. And our definition of victory often retreats to adequate creature comforts and problem-free lives. That's why it is vital that we see the rest of this explanation of faith. Even when there is great loss in the temporal realm, faith triumphs: "Women received back their dead by resurrection;" in order for that to happen someone had to die. During the Maccabean Revolt, seven brothers and their mother were arrested and tortured by Antiochus Epiphanes in order to constrain them to turn from their faith in the Lord. One by one they were tortured and put to death in front of their mother. When the last son was urged by give in, his mother whispered,
My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God's mercy I may get you back again with your brothers [Second Maccabees 7:27-29].
"Others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection" brings to mind yet another scene during the Maccabean Revolt. The word "tortured" is tumpanizo, from which we get the term tympani or a kettledrum with a tightly drawn skin covering it. The victim would be stretched on a rack or wheel until their skin was as tight as a drum, and then beaten until every bone was out of joint and he eventually died. "Not accepting their release" refers to the countless brethren that refused to renounce the Christian faith, accepting the punishment handed them. In Afghanistan and other Islamic countries, those arrested for being Christians are sometimes given three days to recant their faith and return to Islam. Afterward many of them are hanged or beheaded or left to rot in a prison because they did not accept release that required them to deny their Lord. But the reality of resurrection keeps them pressing on by faith. One of the seven brothers told Antiochus Epiphanes, "You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws" [Second Maccabees 7:9].
Our writer does not identify the men and women he refers to in verses 37-38, but they have been numbered in Heaven, and have their own pages in the history of the Church. "And others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they we put to death with the sword." Read Foxe's Book of Martyrs or Men of the Covenant or The Reformation in England or The Scots Worthies or By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century or biographies of William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, Jim Elliot, and Bill Wallace, and you will discover that throughout history countless brethren have faced great suffering capped by inhumane executions. There were no thoughts of "health, wealth, and prosperity" among them, they pressed on through their trials by faith. Faith did not deliver them from the experience of suffering and death, but faith carried them through triumphantly. And if need be, faith will do so for you.
"They went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground." The allurements of this world had nothing for these godly, and often penniless brethren. They lacked all the creature comforts of life but what people of faith! What knowledge of God they experienced in their temporal deprivations! The world was not worthy of them, though the world considered them unworthy. God judges by different standards than the world; loss, deprivation, and poverty are no failures in God's sight. The only real failure is a failure to exercise faith in Jesus Christ.
What do all of these brethren through the centuries have in common? John Piper offers a concise explanation: "When you can have it all, faith says that God is better; and when you lose it all, faith says God is better" [www.soundofgrace.com/piper97/8-10-97.htm].
II. The unifying link of faith
One truth our writer wants to sink into our minds is that faith unites the people of God through the ages. It is our common denominator. We have different cultures, come from different races, face different experiences, but faith in the Lord Jesus Christ sustains us throughout our days. Faith carries us through good times and bad, through abundant times and lean ones, through prosperity and poverty, through health and sickness, through peace and war.
1. Approval by faith
His point is firmly established: "and all these, having gained approval through their faith." The issue for these brethren recounted for us was not how many things they amassed in life or what good fortune they found or how many kingdoms they conquered or even how much righteousness they performed. The issue was that they found approval in the sight of God for their faith. "Without faith it is impossible to please God." That has been the major premise throughout this chapter, and he ends on that same note.
You might preach great sermons or give fortunes to Christian work or become a missionary to a closed country or build a hospital for the poor or write outstanding Christian books-all of which is fine-but without faith in Christ you will not find God's favor. The brethren before us lived by faith; the first century brethren are exhorted to live by faith; and the lesson for us is to live by faith. Only the faith-life pleases God.
2. Substance for the future
When you survey the whole landscape of Old Testament believers you realize that they believed God, often with very little light of revelation, and they "did not receive what was promised." They received many promises in temporal fashion, but the emphasis now brought to our attention is upon a promise, a solitary promise found only in Jesus Christ. Look at how they believed God prior to the full revelation of Jesus Christ! Philip Hughes comments, "But, having seen, with the penetrating eye of faith, and greeted the fulfillment from afar, they lived in faith and they died in faith" . What sustained these Old Testament saints was the promise of God concerning Jesus Christ, the Messiah. They were not living for the moment but living with a view to eternity with Christ. That is what sustained them. Faith was the substance that carried them to the future.
John Calvin is on target as he asks two pointed questions. "If those on whom the great light of grace had not yet shone showed such surpassing constancy in bearing their ills, what effect ought the full glory of the gospel to have on us?" A second question, "A tiny spark of light led them to heaven but now that the Sun of righteousness shines on us what excuse shall we offer if we still cling to the earth?" [Quoted by P. Hughes 516].
As we have noted so often through the study of Hebrews, this is why our writer constantly directs our attention to Jesus Christ. We can persevere in faith as Christians because of what our Lord has done for us-that's the backward glance to Christ dying for us on the cross as the author of our faith-and because of what he has promised us-that's the forward look to him as the perfecter of our faith in heaven (12:2).
3. Continuity in fulfillment
One last word of encouragement is offered in verse 40. Remember that he was trying to help these struggling first century Christians to persist in their faith in the face of imminent persecutions at the hands of the maniacal emperor Nero. So he links these believers-and all of us-with the faith of those who have gone before us. "Because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect." Here he links believers from Old and New Testaments together, showing that there is a continuity and unity in our faith. There are not "two faiths," one old and the other new. They looked to Christ in the shadows through a Levitical priesthood and animal sacrifices, we see Christ in all his fullness and sufficiency of his solitary death on the cross. They lived under the old covenant while looking for the fulfillment of the new covenant in Christ. Their faith looked forward. Our faith looks back. Both look in faith to Jesus Christ.
Leon Morris helps us in grasping the meaning of this text:
Salvation is social. It concerns the whole people of God. We can experience it only as part of the whole people of God. As long as the believers in OT times were without those who are in Christ, it was impossible for them to experience the fullness of salvation. Furthermore, it is what Christ has done that opens the way into the very presence of God for them as for us. Only the work of Christ brings those of OT times and those of the new and living way alike into the presence of God .
It may be through the fire; it may be through the water; it may be through lean and trying times, but faith in Christ will carry us through until we see Him face to face. We may be weak; our personalities may be more like Gideon or Jephthah than David or Samuel, but the same faith carries us through. You can endure anything God brings your way by faith in his goodness, mercy, and provision through Jesus Christ.
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