"By Faith" some Escape from the Sword and others are Executed by it1
In a previous article we looked briefly at Hebrews 11:35b-38 and the fact that it was precisely by means of their faith that many of God’s most honored OT saints suffered horribly. It wasn’t because they lacked faith or because what little faith they possessed was somehow defective. It was in and through their faith that they were upheld and encouraged to declare that God is better than whatever blessings escape from their struggles might otherwise have been theirs. Continue reading . . .
In a previous article we looked briefly at Hebrews 11:35b-38 and the fact that it was precisely by means of their faith that many of God’s most honored OT saints suffered horribly. It wasn’t because they lacked faith or because what little faith they possessed was somehow defective. It was in and through their faith that they were upheld and encouraged to declare that God is better than whatever blessings escape from their struggles might otherwise have been theirs.
Although Hebrews 11:35b-38 describes great men and women of God who “by faith” suffered horribly, Hebrews 11:29-35a speaks of those who were used by God to accomplish great miracles. Let’s take note of them.
As we do, let me remind you of what Paul said in Galatians 3:5. He asks this question of the Christians in Galatia: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” The obvious answer is: God works miracles when we hear the truth of who he is and what he can do and what he has done and our faith is strengthened. Through that kind of faith God is pleased to bless us with the miraculous.
We see several examples of this in vv. 29-35.
First, there was the miraculous parting of the waters of the Red Sea and the deliverance God granted to the people of Israel, at the same time the Egyptians were swallowed up and drowned (v. 29). These people had to have been utterly terrified as they stood at the edge of the waters and looked back to see the on-coming armies of Pharaoh. It was, as our author says, “by faith” that they crossed over on dry land. God had promised them deliverance and a safe journey into the promised land. It remained for them to say, “Yes, all external circumstances and obstacles to the contrary, we are going to believe that God meant what he said and will come through on his promise to us.”
What caused the parting of the waters? At the most basic level it was the power of God. But the biblical text also says it was the east wind. Yet here we are told it was the “faith” of the people of Israel. Let’s put these together: God caused it by employing the east wind as the means to accomplish his purpose; but if the Israelites hadn’t stepped out in faith nothing would have occurred. The Egyptians went through the same physical motions as the Israelites but they were drowned. The reason is obvious: they lacked faith.
Second, it was by faith that the walls of Jericho fell down (v. 30). On the face of it, nothing seemed more absurd or foolish than for grown men to march around a strong fortress for seven days, led by seven priests blowing rams horns. What a silly way to conduct a military campaign! Try to imagine the ridicule they endured. How embarrassing this must have been. Once again we see three factors converging: the ultimate cause was God, the instrumental cause was their marching around the walls and the blasting of rams horns, but the key that unlocked and released the power that brought down those walls was their faith that God would be true to his word and would act on their behalf in defeating their enemies.
I once heard someone make the distinction between four kinds of faith. There is, first, faith that receives (as in our experience of salvation). Second, there is the faith that reckons (when we count on God to do something for us, as we saw in Hebrews 11:19 – “considered” = “reckoned”). Third, there is the faith that rests (that is, it waits with confidence in God). And then there is faith that risks (the faith that impels us to step out in defiance of all odds and trust God to do what we know he can do). What Joshua and the people of Israel gave expression to at Jericho is the faith that risks.
Third, although not overtly miraculous in nature, the faith of Rahab was remarkable for several reasons. (1) She was a woman! In the ancient world women were not highly regarded in terms of either physical or social influence. Yet when it comes to faith, there is neither male nor female! (2) She was a prostitute! Even someone as lowly and defiled as a harlot, when she turns to God in faith, can be the instrument of great accomplishments. (3) She was a foreigner, a non-Israelite. But what mattered to God wasn’t the blood in her veins but the faith and confidence in her heart. Let’s never forget that Rahab was the great, great, grandmother of King David! Jesus descended according to his flesh or his human nature from Rahab!
At this stage our author realizes that he can’t simply continue listing all the people who displayed robust and triumphant faith, so he breaks off in v. 32 to mention six individuals whose exploits of faith spanned the period from the settlement in Canaan to the early monarchy. These names are but a random sampling of the many who could have been cited.
Fourth, this is an interesting collection of individuals (v. 32). Gideon delivered Israel from the tyranny of the Midianites when he led a meager 300 into battle against multiple thousands. It obviously wasn’t military prowess that won the battle but his faith in what God could do when his people step out in faith. Barak was a military leader that God used to deliver Israel from the Canaanites and their general, Sisera (see Judges 4-5). We all know of Samson who defeated the Philistines (Judges 16:23-31). Jephthah delivered Israel from the Amorites. David and Samuel and the prophets are lumped together (the latter may include Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah).
And what did they do by faith? The list of their achievements is given in vv. 33-35a.
They “conquered kingdoms” (v. 33a; this would be true of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, and David).
They “enforced justice” (v. 33b; i.e., they established just and righteous governments; see 1 Sam. 12:3-5; 2 Sam. 8:15; 1 Kings 10:9; 1 Chron. 18:14).
They “obtained promises” (v. 33c; this likely refers to God having made promises to men such as Gideon and David and their faith and confidence that he would come through on his word).
They “stopped the mouths of lions” (v. 33d; a clear reference to Daniel and his experience in the lion’s den; see Daniel 6:22).
They “quenched the power of fire” (v. 34a; a reference no doubt to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to bow down before Nebuchadnezzar’s statue; it required considerable faith for them to step into the fiery furnace; after all, they made it clear that they didn’t know if God would spare their lives or not; it ultimately didn’t matter: what mattered was the loyalty and devotion of their hearts to Yahweh).
They “escaped the edge of the sword” (v. 34b; this could refer either to certain victories in battle or escape from execution).
They “were made strong out of weakness” (v. 34c; this could easily apply to all those noted above, as faith is, by definition, the confession of weakness and one’s reliance on the God who has power; it might even be a veiled reference to David’s slaying of Goliath).
They “became mighty in war” and “put foreign armies to flight” (v. 34d; this was true throughout Israel’s history and may also include the Maccabean resistance to Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd century b.c.).
Fifth, there is in v. 35a one final miraculous event that is traced to the faith of God’s people: “women received back their dead by resurrection.” You will recall the widow of Zarephath whose son was raised from the dead by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17ff.), as well as the son of the Shunammite woman who was raised by Elisha (2 Kings 4:18-36).
Now, those are the stories we really like to hear! We want to have the sort of faith that God responds to with supernatural power and deliverance and healing and resurrection!
But people of equal faith also suffered greatly, as vv. 35b-38 indicate. Let’s look at just two examples of this.
First, we read in v. 37b that some “were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword” (v. 37b). Whoa! Wait a minute! This simply can’t be. Back in v. 34 we read of men and women who “by faith” “escaped the edge of the sword.” How in the world are we now to believe that others had the same kind and quality of “faith” and yet were “sawn in two”? Some may be tempted to say to those who died: “If you had only exercised the same quality of faith, the same kind and strength of faith that we saw in Daniel, you wouldn’t have been sawn in two. Daniel believed God and was preserved alive. You obviously failed to believe God and that is why you died.” No! No! Forever and again, No!
Most believe that this is a reference to Isaiah and how he died (described in the extra-biblical book, Ascension of Isaiah 5:11-14). So in some cases the faithful were delivered from death and others among the faithful were delivered over into death. Some “by faith” escape the edge of the sword while others “by faith” are executed by the edge of the sword. So sometimes God delivers his people through their faith and at other times God sustains them through faith as they suffer horrific deaths at the hands of their enemies.
Second, there were some who “went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated, . . . wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (vv. 37c-38). This was the experience of so many in Israel’s history and in the history of the early church that it would be fruitless to try to list them all.
“But Sam, I’ve been taught that if you only have enough faith you will enjoy material and social prosperity. So, clearly, these people failed to have faith and thus suffered what they deserved. If they had only banished all doubt from their minds and exerted their faith and confessed it aloud they could have enjoyed the blessings of an entire closet full of cashmere sweaters and elegant tailor-made suits instead of languishing in the ‘skins of sheep and goats.’ Rather than being ‘destitute’ they could have enjoyed the benefits of a multi-million-dollar 401-K.” No! No! Forever and again, No!
That isn’t to say there is anything wrong with cashmere sweaters, tailor-made suits, and a substantial 401-K. We ought to thank God for such material luxuries! What is wrong is drawing a cause and effect correlation between the two, as if your faith is the reason why you have been blessed with an expensive wardrobe and expansive investment portfolio. People of great faith may live at subsistence level and suffer greatly at the hands of the world while those with no faith may flourish financially.
If you doubt what I’m saying, look closely at God’s assessment of those who are described here in vv. 35-38. It’s found in that parenthetical statement in v. 38a – these were men and women “of whom the world was not worthy” (v. 38a). If that doesn’t turn your value system inside out, nothing will! This is one of those instances when something is the utter opposite of what it seems. They were treated as outlaws and outcasts who, supposedly, were unfit for civilized society. The truth is that so-called civilized and sophisticated society was not fit for them! God, in fact, was providing the unbelieving world with a glorious gift and expression of love: he displayed for them in the faithful suffering of these people an example of the truth that God is himself better than life, better than clothing, better than health and wealth and all this fallen world can offer.