Faith Works Mighty Deeds (vv. 32-34)
Six Men of Faith
The apostle did not have the time to relate faith’s full exploits! He has not been trying to give an Old Testament survey but encouragement to his fearful countrymen. By reminding them of these well-known heroes of faith, he tells them and us to see our present struggles against the world of ungodly men as adding to the diadems in our Savior’s crown. There is one story of grace that God has been writing from the beginning. The story concerns those who believe his word and move forward in obedience against all hope of success, if measured by our reason. He begins with the Angel of the Lord appearing to Gideon and telling this man of humble origin that he was God’s instrument to deliver his people from the Midianites and from Baal worship (Judges 6). Earlier in the hard times of the judges, through the prophetess Deborah God commanded Barak to deliver his people from Sisera (Judges 4).
Samson was set apart from birth to deliver God’s people from the Philistines, and the Spirit often came upon him. He recognized that his victories were not due to remarkable physical strength but to the power of God. Obedient to God’s word, Jephthah delivered Israel from the Ammonites (Judges 11). David’s triumphs are well known, and likely his meeting with Goliath is primarily intended here. He killed Goliath by faith, for he was led to act as he did by God’s promise and incredible zeal for the honor of God’s name and church (1 Sam. 17:36, 45-46). That Samuel and the prophets lived by faith in God’s word is self-evident. God’s word was often all they had, as with Elijah and Elisha, who lived for long stretches of their lives by daily miraculous provision. The prophets were God’s servants and called kings to account and often pronounced the most horrible judgments upon the wicked kings of Israel and Judah. Nothing but a mind and heart held in the grip of God’s glory and truth could have done what they did.
Faith Does the Otherwise Impossible
It is unlikely that a man like Gideon, who came from a poor family and required many verifications of God’s word, would be able to deliver Israel from such a strong enemy. And from Baal worship? The Midianites were fearsome enough, but his own people practically killed him for tearing down their pagan grove. Faith overcomes all obstacles. Barak would not move forward unless Deborah went him, which is probably an indication of how much he felt his need of God’s word and presence, more than any lack of courage. How could Samson kill hundreds with the jawbone of a donkey, pull down a massive structure and kill thousands, had he not believed God’s word? Humanly speaking, boys do not kill giants. David should not have been able to escape Saul’s sword. But he obtained the promised kingship. The three Hebrew children should not have lived through the fiery furnace, and Daniel should have been eaten by the lions. Closer to home, without these armies and more remarkable interventions, faith strengthens bands of believers in Jesus to hold fast to his gospel without wavering in the face of persecution. This is the history of faith. This is what faith accomplished. It looks past fire, sword, lions, and hordes of enemies, and sees God and his word – like Moses at the Red Sea urging Israel not to look at Pharaoh’s chariots but to stand and see the salvation of the Lord.
Weak Human Instruments
In the six heroes brought forward, there was evident weakness and much impurity in their faith. Jephthah made a rash vow that likely entailed human sacrifice. Samson’s womanizing was as epic as his strength, but God used his sins to bring him into contact with those whom he intended to destroy. The very mention of David recalls his later sins and his domestic fiascos, but what made him strong and a “man after God’s own heart” was how seriously he took God’s word and endeavored to obey it with all that was in him. Barak depended upon Deborah, which seems to us to be a role reversal! God reduced Gideon’s army to 300 men, which must have further assaulted Gideon’s already weak faith, which required many confirming signs before he would move forward. Samuel’s sons were so unfaithful and unlike their father that Israel rejected them as judges and demanded a king (1 Sam. 8:3-5).
Therefore, we should notice two dynamics of faith’s working. First, each of these believers took God at his word and acted upon it. We cannot say, “Well, I believe God’s word,” and then do nothing but look at the sky and wait for deliverance. At the Red Sea, the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the children of Israel to move forward” (Ex. 14:15). Clearly there is absolutely nothing wrong with crying to God, and each of us should become determined, joyful experts at it! But the time comes when obedience and zeal for God’s honor also requires that we move forward in obedience. And this is the second dynamic. Those who moved forward often did so with great trepidation, not knowing the result, with only God’s word to guide them. And this is exactly what made them strong, their exploits memorable, and their example compelling.
They had absolutely no strength in themselves. They often doubted and required confirming signs. They were sinful and often committed such atrocities that they seem to belong more in a rogue’s gallery than in this hall of faith. But is this not the exact point? Is this not, to take a broader cultural example, why the masses have become so infatuated with super heroes and escapist mythology? Men are looking for the great men to rescue them, but the truly great men are not great because they are so wise or strong but because they believe God’s truth and move forward in obedience. And their example is therefore accessible to us and presses upon us. We serve the same God as they did. We have the same promises and many more. We have the Christ for whom they looked. And the little light they had worked in them boldness, righteousness, and remitting zeal for God’s honor. He honored their faith. He always honors those that honor him, even when they are filled with many sins and failures. This is who God’s people are – always have been, always will be. The best of believers, as Calvin once said, barely crawl toward heaven! But God’s word carries us there. It can carry us through anything, topple any wall, overcome every obstacle, refute any heresy, and strengthen the weakest man or woman to become a valiant servant of the Most High. The question is: Will we hold fast to his word in this way?
Faith Enables Deepest Suffering (vv. 35-37)
By Feeding Resurrection Hope
Beginning in verse 35, faith’s power to enable deepest deprivation, suffering, and death comes to the forefront. Perhaps some might have said, “Fine, give me a kingdom to conquer, and I will take up faith’s banner and move forward! Give me a giant to slay! Give me a king to rebuke and a fiery furnace to quench! Give me some lions’ mouth to shut, and then I will pray all night!” Always we want to be in a different part of the battlefield than the one the Lord has ordained for us. What good is it to be killed for one’s faith? To be cruelly treated and oppressed by evil men? The Spirit brings forward God’s resurrection power. He tells them, first, to remember the widow of Zarepath and the Shunamite, who received their dead sons back to life in the days of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:22; 2 Kings 4:35). We must remember that faith overcomes death. It also overcomes the fear of death, as in the days of Maccabees, when old Eliezar (2 Macc. 7) refused to be spared from death by eating swine’s flesh and confessed his hope in the resurrection. What a blessing when patriotism and true faith are united in a common cause, as they were in those days! There is nothing like God’s promise to raise us from the dead to convince the fearful that any amount of suffering is preferable to denying the Lord who bought us. Death is never the end, for God will raise us from the dust.
By Releasing from Paralyzing Fear
The Lord makes us face our fears, but it is hard to endure cruel mocking or scoffing. Many crumble under it and find ways to remove the offense of the cross or change the Lord’s commandments in order to keep from having to suffer shame. Death to them is preferable than being made fun of for their faith in the Lord Jesus. Early we learn to be men-pleasers and do virtually anything to fit in with the crowd and avoid drawing negative attention to ourselves. But this spirit can be overcome by faith in God’s promises and zeal for his word. When we take them into our hearts, love the Lord, and confess with Peter that there is no one else to whom to turn, for he alone has the words of eternal life, we are able to overcome the jeering of Satan’s servants and the fears of our own heart. In the second century, the young servant girl, Blandina was horribly tortured, but she endured to the end, confessing Christ. True, the Lord gives suffering grace and strength for a suffering moment, but his word gives us power to contemplate these terrors without being so overcome by fear that we are defeated before the battle commences. Much of the battle with fear, whether of bodily torments or imprisonment, is fought beforehand – chiefly by a love for God’s word and zeal for his name that gives courage and readiness when the Lord brings us to the hottest parts of the battle. But be well assured, that nothing but God’s promises, the strengthening power of his word, will enable us to overcome fear of the world (1 John 5:4).
By Filling with Unconquerable Resolve
But what of the agonies of Stephen and others who were stoned? The pain was incredible. Can I really spill my lifeblood for Jesus Christ, leave behind wife and children, so that his words become literally true in me – that I do not love father or mother more than him? Only seeing the invisible God and trusting his promises can bring us to this sacred spot. Tradition says that evil Manasseh had Isaiah sawn in two. Other prophets were killed with the sword. God’s people have sometimes lived as vagabonds, in the caves of the earth. The horrors believers have faced around the world even in our age are well-documented. And often, they suffered from a position of such inconceivable weakness one wonders why in the world the Lord would allow it. Then the answer comes – to show again that it is not the strength of man that finds resolve to suffer for Christ. He does not need our strength to build his church or our resolve to make us endure to the end. He will do great things for us and in us as we believe his word and cast ourselves upon his power and faithfulness. His word alone enables suffering, fills us with resolve, enables us to stare death down, sing hymns while we are being brutally killed, release the care of our earthly lives into his safekeeping, and love our oppressors. Always, always, God’s word gains the victory. Will we internalize his word, be renewed by his word (Rom. 12:2), live by his promises (Matt. 4:4)?
Faith Unites and Perfects All Believers (vv. 38-40)
The Old Covenant Saints Looked Ahead to Christ
We must, for there is a holy argument being made here. The world was unworthy of these cave dwelling believers, made vagabonds because they chose Christ over the world. And yet, they did these mighty deeds and endured great suffering without having obtained the promise. They lived before Christ, his perfect sacrifice, his heavenly priesthood, his ever-present, invincible help. They saw these glories at a distance, the promised city of God, and only seeing it at a distance enabled them to attempt all, venture all, suffer all to obtain God’s promise. They are the old covenant saints, believers in Jesus Christ, the great cloud of witnesses (12:1). They call to us by their example to hold fast, endure to the end, suffer if necessary, obey regardless of cost or consequence, and always trust God, no matter what we feel or see.
God Has Brought Us to the Better Things in Christ
For we now have him, the “good things” (Heb. 9:14), the better things of Christ and the new covenant, his perfect sacrifice, justice satisfied, a heavenly intercessor, an outpoured, indwelling Spirit. Words fail to express how much the old covenant believers wanted to come to our day, would love to have lived in our day, wanted the full Scriptures we possess. Now, some say that these “better things” are our heavenly inheritance. In other words, the better things are future to us, but since this is not the main argument of the letter but holding fast to Christ is, this seems to obscure a very plain and glorious point – and a very pointed one for us. Look at what they did with such small privileges, comparatively. Consider the great works they undertook, the dangers they braved, the enemies they fought and defeated, and the kingdoms they defeated. And that was only with the small rays of light afforded by the sun rising in the distance. He has now risen upon us with full blaze. Two millennia have not blunted his brilliance and magnificence. If we have lost wonder and awe of him, if we know little of his power, it is not due to any failure in him, Oh no, but to our low and carnal aims, our failure to hold fast to him, our neglect of basic duties of piety and obedience. But this can all be remedied by holding fast to him and remembering that God does not expect our perfection before he will give us his help and fellowship. He asks only that we take him at his word and move forward in obedience.
Our Privileges Demand Perseverance…For All the Saints
Because we are one with those saints in Christ the Head, the full enjoyment of him, which certainly includes heavenly perfection, demands that we do our part. They did theirs, serving in the heat of the day. We have come in late in the day, so to speak, after the birthing pains of Christ and his kingdom have been accomplished. What shall we do for him? Love him? What enemies must we face? What works can we undertake for the glory of his name and also in adoring memory of the great saints who have gone before and blazed a trail? Trusting our great Savior, let us commit ourselves to him. Never let us be content to offer him what costs us nothing. Not how little we can get by with, how little can we suffer, but how much can we love him who has loved us and forgiven our sins and brings us near to God!