The story of faith

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 11:32-40

God's story

Hebrews 11 is really God's story, written through a human author. God's story features individual human stories. The writer of Hebrews has been giving us the story in chapters, so to speak. Up to this point, it has been a stirring story, but as with most stories, the best chapter is saved for last. In Hebrews 11:32-40, we come to the final chapter of God's story, which in fact remains to be written. But the writer of Hebrews gives us a sneak preview, and we can see that it's a good read - a thrilling read. In this passage, we see that God's story of faith features earthly victories, earthly defeats and a surprise ending.

The writer of Hebrews in the 11th chapter has been providing us with examples of faith from among God's people in history. He has selectively put forth different individuals and their faith-based actions in chronological order, beginning with Abel, the son born to Adam and Eve. In verses 32 through 40, he focuses on the periods of the judges, kings, prophets and beyond.
The passage is bracketed by the words "by faith" in verse 33 and "through their faith" in verse 39. Different words are used throughout to convey the concept of "obtaining" ("obtained" in verse 33; "received," "accepting" and "obtain" in verse 35; "experienced" in verse 36; and "receive" in verse 39). By using these words, the writer gets us to think about what faith gets us. The end of Hebrews 11 unit is marked by the word translated "gained approval" (verse 39), which also began the unit (verse 2).

Stories of victory (11:32-35a)

Hebrews 11:32-35a:

(32) And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, (33) who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, (34) quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (35) Women received back their dead by resurrection; ...

Although the writer up to this point has been highlighting only a few select examples of faith, by the time he arrives at the period of the judges, he's pressed for time. He can't even continue giving the highlights in the same vein, because time would fail him. In Hebrews 11, he's just scratching the surface. The story of faith is so long and powerful that it cannot be contained in a single account.

It's easy for us to look around and be overwhelmed by those who don't believe. Their sheer number seemingly makes an imposing case for non-belief. But God's story of faith is populated by people whose number is greater than the stars of the heavens and the sand on the seashore (Genesis 22:17), and their witness is an overpowering one. The sheer weight of the witnesses cited in Hebrews 11 is enough to tilt the scales of evidence in favor of faith.

The writer cites Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel and the other prophets as representative examples of faith. Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah were judges who led the Israelites to victory in the conquest of the land of Canaan. The period of judges gave way to the period of kings, and David, the most important king, is cited from this period. Samuel was the first significant prophet, and as the strength of the monarchy faded, the prophetic office became more prominent.

These individuals and others of their contemporaries are responsible for the list of accomplishments that follows in verses 33 and 34. The writer doesn't connect individuals to specific actions, but a little knowledge of Israel's history allows us to make the connections that would have been made by his readers.

The judges and kings conquered kingdoms, enabling the conquest and settlement of the promised land. David was the one who performed acts of righteousness, a reference to his establishing and administering justice in the kingdom (2 Samuel 8:15). Gideon (Judges 6:12-16), Barak (Judges 4:6-7, 14), Samson (Judges 13:5) all received the blessings God promised to them, but the primary connection to be made probably concerns David, who obtained promises concerning the future kingdom of God (2 Samuel 7:11). Samson (Judges 14:5-6) and David (1 Samuel 17:34-35) each defeated lions, but the primary connection probably concerns Daniel, who averted execution when the lions didn't devour him (Daniel 6:22). Daniel's friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, also averted execution when the flames of the furnace didn't affect them and they "quenched the power of fire" (Daniel 3:19-28). David escaped the edge of the sword when he fled from Saul (1 Samuel 18:11). The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah both noted their weakness when they were called by God (Isaiah 6:5, Jeremiah 1:6), but a more definitive connection with being made strong from weakness can be made with Gideon, the reluctant general (Judges 6:11-12). Gideon, Barak, Samson (Judges 16:17-21, 4:4-6, 6:11-12) and others became mighty in war, and all of the judges cited, in addition to David, put foreign armies to flight (1 Samuel 17:51). The women who received back their dead by resurrection were the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24) and the Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4:18-37), whose sons were raised by Elijah and Elisha, respectively.

The accomplishments sound like the stuff of childhood fantasies - slaying dragons, vanquishing evil, beating the odds, rescuing the damsel, laughing at death, escaping in the nick of time, smelling like a rose and making it look easy. Perhaps you had similar childhood fantasies, or maybe your dreams had you hitting game-winning home runs or dancing the lead in "Swan Lake," scoring "10" in an Olympic floor routine or sinking buzzer-beating jump shots, hitting all the notes before a packed house or walking away with the Pulitzer. Then you woke up - or grew up. Such dreams, you found out, were only lived by other people, and you resigned yourself to less adventure at the most or boredom at the least.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the other prophets, the widow of Zarephath, the Shunamite woman - they are the stuff that dreams are made of. When we look at our stuff, we know why our dreams fizzle. We're not great stuff. Then again, look at their stuff. Gideon and Barak were chicken generals, Samson was deeply flawed, Jephthah was the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, David was the runt of the litter, the prophet Jeremiah resisted God at first and railed against him later, and the women were foreigners with no apparent right to expect anything from the God of Israel. No one ticketed them for greatness. The only one who had it pretty good start to finish was Samuel, but even he tried to hand over the kingdom to his sons, who turned out to be scoundrels (1 Samuel 8:1-3). These people weren't great stuff, either.

What's their secret then? It's faith. They did these things "by faith" - by believing in God and his promises. It is the same faith that we can exercise. It is the same faith that can call us to a grand and poetic adventure. It probably won't look like any of the childhood fantasies, but from an eternal perspective, it will look better. Most of the acts cited in verses 33-35a involve opposition from some kind of enemy and the overcoming of that enemy. The New Testament tells us that believers in Christ have enemies as well, but not human enemies. Ephesians 6:12: "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." We are in a war with spiritual beings, Satan and his forces, who oppose the work of God's kingdom. Yet, God's kingdom can't be defeated (Matthew 16:18). When we put our faith in Christ, we join the kingdom of God.

We have joined what can't be defeated, and God invites us, we of the Not Great Stuff Club, to now join the battle. To start praying. To start acting. To start serving. To start loving. To start giving. To join the greatest adventure of them all. You're in Game 7; get up to the plate! You're in Carnegie Hall; start singing! You're in the dream; start living it! All it takes is faith - believing in God and hoping in him and longing to be with him forever. This kind of faith motivates this kind of adventure. Love for this kind of God, who has given so much and promised so much, motivates this kind of boldness on his behalf.

We, too, can conquer wicked kingdoms, strongholds of the evil one (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We too can perform acts of righteousness, establishing a just environment for people. We too can obtain promises; in fact, we have already obtained all the promises we need (Ephesians 1:3-14). We too can shut the mouth of a lion, for Satan is like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). We too can quench the power of fire that burns in hell as we give the gospel to people headed for the flames (Jude 23). We too can escape the edge of the sword, fleeing immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18). We too can be made strong from weakness and become mighty in war, turning to the power of Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). We too can put foreign armies to flight, as we resist the devil and he flees from us (James 4:7). We too by resurrection can receive back our dead, those we love who have chosen to follow Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Sometimes, we get the lion. But sometimes, the lion gets us.

Stories of defeat (11:35b-38)

Hebrews 11:35b-38:

... and others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; (36) and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. (37) They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (38) (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.

The description of accomplishments through faith assumes a decidedly different tone beginning with the words "and others." If verses 33-35a sound like a dream, verses 35b-38 sound like a nightmare. The earlier verses are characterized by stunning victory, the latter verses by staggering defeat. If the writer is trying to promote faith, it looks as if he was cruising along nicely but then blew it big-time. If faith can get you tortured, mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned and sawn in two, in addition to other infelicities, who wants it? That, in fact, was the question before the readers of Hebrews, who were thinking of discarding faith in Christ because of such possibilities. So the writer presents to his readers - and to us - a history of others who have suffered for their faith but considered such suffering worth it.

Many Jews in the Maccabaean period in the 2nd Century B.C. were tortured to death for their faith. The fact that they didn't accept their release shows that release was offered. Instead of accepting freedom, they chose torture. For them, the price of freedom was too high. It would have involved a renunciation of faith in the Lord, and that they could not do. They could not renounce their God, who had promised them "a better resurrection." This resurrection is contrasted with the resurrection of the sons of the women noted earlier in the verse. The sons who were resurrected died again. The resurrection that those who were tortured have secured and will receive is one into God's new world, the new heavens and the new earth.

Others, such as Jeremiah experienced mockings, scourgings, chains and imprisonment (Jeremiah 20:2, 7-8; 37:15-16, 18-20; 38:6-13). Zechariah was stoned for accusing Israel of forsaking its God (2 Chronicles 24:20-21), as were others sent by God to Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37).

Tradition has it that Isaiah was sawn in two by Manasseh for his prophecies regarding the destruction of the temple. Uriah, who spoke against Israel, and other prophets were put to death by sword (Jeremiah 26:20-23, 1 Kings 19:10). Prophets such as Elijah and Elisha wore animal skins, symbolizing their impoverished condition (1 Kings 19:13, 19; 2 Kings 1:8; 2:8, 13; Zechariah 13:4). Many were destitute, afflicted and ill-treated for their faith. Many also, such as Elijah and Elisha were homeless, wandering the earth because of persecution. Escape to the desert or the hills was a usual response to persecution, Elijah being an example (1 Kings 19:1-3). Obadiah hid 100 prophets in caves to protect them from Jezebel (1 Kings 18:4, 13). On the run, those who were persecuted rested in anything they could find, even holes in the ground.

What distinguishes the people in verses 33-35a from those in 35b-38? In some cases, nothing! In some cases, they are the same people. David conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness and obtained promises, but he also lived in caves on occasion (1 Samuel 22:1, 24:3; 2 Samuel 23:13). Jeremiah was made strong from weakness, but he was also mocked, scourged, chained and imprisoned. The people in both parts of the description are characterized by faith, for the writer says in verse 39 that "all these" had faith. It seems that faith can lead you into victory or plunge you into defeat, that it can allow you to escape the sword (verse 34) or die by the sword (verse 37), that it can enable you to live a dream or suffer a nightmare, and there's no telling which it is going to be and when it is going to happen. Once again, if faith is this capricious, who wants it? Or, to put the question another way, why would one want it?

The answer is in verse 35. People of faith care most about this "better resurrection." The earthly results of faith are unpredictable, but the heavenly results are certain. What faith wants most is not the earthly victories but the heavenly home, the hope for which sustains someone even if his faith leads him into earthly suffering.

The resurrections that the women received mark the climax of the list of accomplishments in verses 33-35a. God clearly acted in a supernatural way. For a mother to have her dead child returned to her is about the best thing anyone could ever hope for on this earth. Yet, the writer considers that something "better" happened to those who were tortured; they obtained a better resurrection. Faith, therefore, as it confronts harrowing circumstances, does not believe that God will deliver one from those circumstances but that a better kind of deliverance lies ahead.

Pastor and author John Piper, commenting on these verses, says, "The common feature of the faith that escapes suffering and the faith that endures suffering is this: Both of them involve believing that God himself is better than what life can give to you now, and better than what death can take from you later. When you can have it all, faith says that God is better; and when lose it all, faith says that God is better. ... What does faith believe in the moment of torture? That if God loved me, he would get me out of this? No. Faith believes that there is a kind of resurrection for believers which is better than the miracle of escape. It's better than the kind of resurrection experienced by the widow's son, who returned to life only to die again later."

Many of us may feel that we're living the nightmare rather than the dream. We don't seem to be conquering any kingdoms; rather, evil seems to have its way with us. The lions are devouring us; the fires are consuming us; the swords are cutting us to pieces. What does Hebrews 11 have to say to those living the nightmare? It says that the dream is still alive! It says the nightmare can't kill the dream. It says the heavenly dream is worth the earthly nightmare. It says the heavenly dream is better than the earthly dream. It says, for all these reasons, "Hang on to Jesus."

In addition to the hope offered in this otherwise depressing section by the "better resurrection," there is an uplifting remark in verse 38. The writer calls those who endured such suffering people "of whom the world was not worthy." There is another world - one that believers will be resurrected into - that is worthy. But until then, we who have faith in Jesus and suffer in this world and wait for his coming are a message to this world that another, better world is coming.
All these people, in victory and defeat, had faith, what Piper calls "death-defying passion for God." A modern example of one with such faith is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in 1933 left his prestigious position as a professor at the University of Berlin to join the struggle against the Nazification of the church in Germany. The professor of systematic theology at the university deemed it foolish, saying, "It is a great pity that our best hope in the faculty is being wasted on the church struggle." God chose for Bonhoeffer the route taken by those in Hebrews 11:35b-38. He was arrested and hanged naked in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp. His body was tossed aside into a pile of corpses and burned. His death came only two days before the Americans liberated Flossenburg. Some quench the power of fire; some don't. As he faced the fury of the Third Reich, here's what Bonhoeffer said: "The ultimate responsible question is not how can I heroically make the best of a bad situation but rather how the coming generation can be enabled to live." That's faith. That's death-defying passion for God.

Why did God allow Bonhoffer to die and others to live?

The final chapter (11:39-40)

Hebrews 11:39-40:

(39) And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, (40) because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

"All these" gained approval through their faith. All the people in this passage, and in Hebrews 11, had faith. It wasn't a lack of faith that brought on the suffering. That means that having faith or achieving a high enough level of faith, if faith could ever be measured, does not protect one from suffering. Neither does lack of faith cause one to suffer. All those in Chapter 11 had faith, but some won, some lost and some both won and lost.

What, then, determines whether one escapes the sword or dies by the sword? The answer is not a "what" but a "who." God determines it. But that leads us to a "why." God can and does deliver, but not always. Why does God allow some to live and some to die? Well, he's not telling why. But in the midst of the deliverance and the suffering, there is something he wants. The people of Hebrews 11, literally, were "witnessed" through their faith. They were witnessed by God (10:15, 11:4) that they were righteous (11:4, 7) and pleasing to him (11:5). The fact that God shares his witness of these people with us in the scriptures (7:8, 17; 10:15), specifically in Hebrews 11, shows that he wants the world to know about the value of faith. People of faith, then, become God's witness to the world regarding the validity of faith. For some, their witness will come in triumph. For others, their witness will come in defeat. For still others, their witness will come in both. Why God chooses some for one kind of witness and others for another kind of witness is a mystery. He must know what will make a good witness in a certain person's life. The disposition of God, though, is not a mystery. He is good, and faith believes that he is good even in the face of mystery.

Despite the fact that the people of Hebrews 11 were pleasing to God because of their faith, they "did not receive what was promised." God has promised a new and better country for people of faith (11:13-16), but these people did not see the fulfillment of that promise. The reason that they didn't is given in verse 40, and that reason, believe it or not, is "us."

God, literally, "foresaw" something better for us. The "something better" is to be connected with the better resurrection, which is equivalent to being "made perfect." In this bodily resurrection to come, we will be made perfect for this new world that God will bring about. Our new bodies and hearts will be perfectly suited to this new world, unlike our present bodies and hearts, which aren't even that well suited for this world, because of sin.

Inasmuch as God foresaw this arrangement "for us," he planned it long ago. He planned it for us. God has not yet fulfilled his promise, because he's waiting for us. Second Peter 2:9: "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance."

Do you see what the writer of Hebrews is saying? He's saying that this story - God's great story of faith - is not complete without you! We are the final chapter of God's story of faith. Long ago God foresaw our lives as the final chapter, the climax of his book of faith. We too are witnessed by God for our faith, and it will be shown to all creation that we who have followed Jesus are pleasing to God. God is waiting to add the story of our lives, our faith, our triumphs and our sufferings to the book. Romans 8:19: "For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God." God, and all these people of faith, is waiting for us. We are God's surprise ending.

Hebrews 11 unabridged

In verse 32, the writer of Hebrews said that time would fail him if he told of Gideon, Barak, Samson and others. Because of time, he can only give a cursory account of God's story of faith. But in the new world, time will not be a problem. Is it not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that in that place a story like the one in Hebrews 11 will be much fuller - that it will be complete? After all, those living there will have been written into the "book of life" (Revelation 21:27). If this is the case, then our names and stories will be written into the unabridged version of Hebrews 11. It will feature our earthly victories and earthly defeats, being introduced with the words, "By faith ... "

- SCG, 8-30-98