We’ve finally come to the end of our study of Hebrews 11. But I trust that this is only the beginning of our application of its many lessons.
We have learned so far that faith is rooted in God’s Word (vv. 1–3), and therefore faith worships (v. 4), walks (vv. 5–6), works (v. 7) and waits (vv. 8ff).
We have spent considerable time on this last section, and for good reason: Faith is deeply connected to waiting. We always get what God promised, but not according to our schedule. It’s somewhat like load shedding, but far better managed by God!
Since we walk by faith, and not by sight, it is clear that we are awaiting fulfilment of what God has promised. This was true of these Old Testament saints, it was true for the New Testament saints addressed in this epistle, and it remains true for all Christians ever since the writer laid down his pen. Yes, faith waits for the fulfilment of all that God has promised. That is why it waits, and that is why it is called faith!
You will recall that the writer was burdened that his readers were being tempted to turn back from Christ. The pressures were mounting (as per the Lord’s prophetic word in Matthew 24) and many had seemingly chosen the broad rather than the narrow way. The writer, however, was convinced of the genuineness of the faith of these people, for he wrote in 10:39, “But we [he includes himself among them] are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.” It is because of this confidence that he has exhorted them to “not cast away your confidence, which has great reward” (v. 35). Such faith will be rewarded, for faith pleases God, who is greatly pleased to reward those who trust him (v. 6).
Such saving faith is not a once for all experience but is rather an abiding characteristic of the believer in Jesus Christ, from new birth to death (which, of course, is followed by everlasting, unending sight). And that is why we can say that saving faith is marching faith; it marches on from day to day both individually and corporately; the people of God march in step as they trust God. We see this clearly in this closing passage.
The author has given several historical accounts of faithful Old Testament individuals. Chronologically, though not exhaustively, the writer has traced the march of faith from Abel through Abraham through Moses though Joshua and Rahab. He tells us that, as much as he would like to continue in this vein, his time has run out. The congregation had perhaps become restless and it was time to move to the next chapter! So, in these final verses, he groups together several named and unnamed believers who lived before Christ and yet they believed on Christ. They held onto their faith in the face of peril and pressures; they marched on with the result that, in fact, the covenant promise marched on. We will study this faith marching under several headings.
The March is Continuous
The writer would love to go on, and on, and on, but he knows that he must bring the plane in for a landing. It seems that he is very caught up in this theme; he is no mere disinterested lecturer, but rather is very much caught up in the glory of this matter of saving faith. As much as he would like to say more, he contents himself to give some summary examples in v. 32, grouped together to stir his readers to the same kind of persevering faith.
I don’t think that there is a neat way to categorise these final examples, but suffice it to say that he deals with those who had faith following the conquest (Gideon to Jephthah), followed by David and the prophets up through the Maccabean era, just prior to the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. But the clear objective of the writer is to highlight that the march of the faithful continues throughout history. Regardless of the historical circumstances, the world has always been blessed to have a people who believed the promises of God, with special reference to God’s promised gospel (Romans 1:1–5). But let us not lose sight of the greatest reality: The reason that this gospel-centred faith continuously marches on is because God is continually faithful.
The story of Gideon is recorded in Judges 6–8. Gideon was called to lead an Israelite army against the oppressive Midianites. He mustered a force of 32,000, but God whittled that down to three hundred and used that far smaller force to deliver Israel as Gideon believed and obeyed God’s Word. It was clear that God had delivered His people.
Barak’s story is found in Judges 4–5. Barak was used by God to deliver Israel from Canaanite oppression. Though initially seemingly reluctant, he ultimately believed God’s Word as prophesied by Deborah. And apparently he was not concerned about who got the credit. The result was the defeat of a powerful enemy led by Sisera.
The account of Samson can be read in Judges 13–16. On many occasions, he demonstrated his confidence that his power was granted by the Spirit of the Lord. And though he often behaved like a sensuous fool, nevertheless he did demonstrate faith in God—perhaps most notably in his death.
Jephthah’s story is recorded in Judges 11–12. Despite his famously rash vow (which, in fact, may also point to his faith), he was seen as a person of faith, who fought and defeated the Ammonites. His beginnings in life were inauspicious, but he believed God and God honoured his faith.
Moving on from the Judges, the writer turn his attention to David, whose story begins in 1 Samuel 15 and concludes in 1d Kings 2. Many episodes in his life demonstrate his faith in God, beginning as early as 1 Samuel 17 with his defeat, empowered by faith, of Goliath. The author could well have taken up a great deal of space detailing David’s faith-filled exploits, but he chooses not to do so.
Instead, he mentions Samuel (1 Samuel 1–25). Samuel’s birth was notably connected to faith as the Lord answered his mother Hannah’s prayer for a child. His life was marked by great faithfulness, though, not unlike the previous examples, he sometimes was guilty of unfaithful folly. Among other notable demonstrations of faith, Samuel anointed David to be king. Perhaps, however, the greatest demonstration of faith was his confronting powerful King Saul with God’s Word of judgement.
The prophets are mentioned next. There are numerous examples here (perhaps taking their faithful cue from Samuel) of those who fearlessly because faithfully spoke God’s Word of warning and promise.
In each case, these people of faith held on to the conviction that God’s Word was true. They were confident in His character. They understood, to varying degrees, the covenant promise of the gospel and the kingdom. So they faced difficulties believing that God would deliver on His promises, some way, and somehow.
We should be encouraged that, regardless of where we are in history, the faith marches on and therefore our faith can keep in step. The circumstances of history do not alter the truth and neither do they alter the character of God. It is for this reason that we can march on, clinging to God’s Word, trusting Him every step of the way.
Today, the gospel comes under attack in a multitude of ways. There are attacks on the reliability of Scripture, assaults on biblical values (with the promotion of homosexual marriage, abortion “rights,” etc.), the embrace of religious pluralism and the growing threat of radical Islam. But, by faith, we can be sure that God’s kingdom will march forth.
The March Conquers
In vv. 33–35a, we read of the conquering nature of marching faith. These were people of faith
who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again.
These demonstrations of faith, it would seem, are with reference to those just mentioned, and most probably with specific reference to the prophets. Regardless, the point is quite clear that, by faith, major conquests were experienced through faith.
Of course, God was the one who did these amazing deeds, but He did so in accordance with the faith of those involved. It is true that God is sovereign, but it is equally true that He has sovereignly determined that He will work through means. And faith is a prescribed means towards His ends.
Let’s note some of the specific conquests that occurred by faith, and make some relevant applications.
These people of faith “subdued kingdoms.” The word translated “subdued” literally means “to conquer” or “to overcome.” The root, agonizomai, speaks of engaging in a struggle or fight. In the case of those mentioned in v. 32, this is precisely what they faced, and yet the Lord brought down the kingdoms because He was establishing His kingdom. We should take heart that He is still extending His kingdom and no earthly kingdom is a match for Him. We should expect such great things and then, like Gideon of old, go forth in faith, expecting the nations to bow the knee to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
These people of faith also “worked righteousness.” This speaks, most probably, of “righteous judgements.” The judges just mentioned, along with David and Samuel, by faith behaved justly. They rendered just verdicts, and though they were not perfect, when by faith they responded to situations, they did so justly.
In a world in which injustice is the order of the day, it is no small feat to love mercy and to do justice. But when we obey God’s Word, and do what is right because we trust the Judge of all of the earth, then we can overcome the evil ethos surrounding us. To do so is to conquer the threat of injustice in at least that one spot. And that is more significant than we might realise.
As the salt of the earth and as the light of the world, we make a difference, one grain and one particle at a time. But we do make a difference!
These people of faith “obtained promises.” What these promises were specifically, we cannot say, but clearly when God makes a promise, our faith embraces what we expect will eventually be our experience. This was true of these people of faith. The prophets heard promises from God, some positive and some negative, and believed Him. And those promises came to pass.
What promises can you find in the Bible concerning your life? By faith, obtain them.
These people also “stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire.” One thinks here of Daniel and his three friends. Of course, they did not stop the lions’ mouths or extinguish the flames, but by faith they knew that their God could do so, if He chose to do so—and obviously He did so chose!
When you read the record in Daniel’s book, it is clear that none of them knew for sure what God would do (see 3:16–18). Nevertheless, their defiance of an evil edict exhibited their faith, their confidence, and their ultimate allegiance to God.
As we will see again later, the Bible does not promise miraculous deliverance from the pressures and perils of this life in return for fidelity to the Lord. Nevertheless, the Christian lives with the knowledge that God can do so if He chooses. And so we do what is right, trusting God with the outcome. And when we are faithful, we are often rewarded with wonderful outcomes.
These people of faith “escaped the edge of the sword.” One thinks of Elijah, who escaped the sword of Jezebel, and many other prophets, such as Jeremiah. I would add to this list Rahab.
“Out of weakness,” these saints “were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.” It would seem that Gideon was a prime example of this. I love the record of him hiding from the Midianites near a threshing floor when the angel of the Lord greeted him as a “mighty man of valour.” I wonder if the angel was smiling, tongue in cheek? Perhaps, and yet the Lord transformed Gideon into a mighty man of faith, who experienced a great conquest over God’s and His people’s enemy. As the angels look into our lives (1 Peter 1:12), they will observe people of faith, amazing not only the angels but others as well!
Be encouraged that, as Oswald Sanders once said, it doesn’t take much of a man to be a man of God; but it does take all of him. So give God your all and trust Him with your all, for He is your all.
Additionally, “women received their dead raised to life again.” We know of two such instances in the Old Testament record: Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17); and Elisha and the Shunammite mother (2 Kings 4). What a marvellous display of the power of God to conquer the enemy of death! Imagine the joy in those homes as these beloved children were brought back to life. This was no hoax, as in some recent best-selling books, but was rather a gracious act of God in response to the faithful actions of these two prophets.
The point of application that we can draw from these accounts is that, in the face of insurmountable difficulties, faith marches on from generation to generation because the Lord does not change (Malachi 3:6). Just as the people under the old covenant were conquerors by faith, so those under the new covenant are more than conquerors as we believe the same God. The past faithfulness of God to reward responses of faith should encourage us that He can and will do the same today.
The March is Confident
The second half of v. 35 speaks of the confidence of marching faith: “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.”
Here we have the description of intense persecution resulting in death. The word “tortured” can be literally translated, “beaten to death.” It refers to the rack, a torture device in which a person was stretched so tight that their abdomen became as tight as a drum and was then beaten upon. This usually resulted in death.
This verse gives us insight both into the nature of faith and perhaps into a period of time that is not recorded in Scripture: the time of the Maccabees.
During this intertestamental period (between the days following the prophets and the incarnation) there was a remnant of faithful Jews who continued the march of faith. When the voice of the Lord fell silent, God was nevertheless very active in rewarding the faith of those who trusted in Him.
Daniel had prophesied of the coming persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes (see Daniel 11). The two apocryphal books of the Maccabees are uninspired, yet historically faithful, accounts of this time.
From 75 to 164 BC, this evil Syrian king opposed all those who refused to be Hellenised. He destroyed Jerusalem in response to Jewish refusal to apostatise. In a move calculated to show the highest contempt upon Jews, he sacrificed a pig on the altar in the temple and tried to force the priests to eat its flesh. Several withstood him, including a mother and her seven sons. They died after being severely tortured for their faith. Perhaps it was this account that the writer had in mind. And it would have been very apropos, for some of the recipients of this letter would face similar pressures and persecutions as the Romans entered Jerusalem.
But note that they were tortured “not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.” We might ask, how can one resurrection be better than another? There are two ways in which we might understand this.
First, in the context, we have the account of “women receiv[ing] their dead raised to life once again.” But these beloved ones would die again one day and be buried. They were raised from the dead to die again. But those who died trusting God for their eternal salvation knew, like Job, that they would rise from the dead one day never to die again (Job 19:25). The account in 2 Maccabees highlights such faith as one of the martyred sons declares before his death, in his refusal to recant his faith, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again. But for you there will be no [resurrection to life]!” (2 Maccabees 7:14).
But there is another way in which this phrase “better resurrection” might be interpreted. As Morris points out, “a ‘better’ resurrection perhaps implies that all will be raised but that the prospects for apostates are grim.”1
Everyone will one day be resurrected (John 5:24–30): multitudes to eternal joy in the presence of God and the rest to damnation separated forever from God in the lake of fire. Therefore, there is a resurrection that is better and should be preferred and pursued. What kind will you have?
The point I wish to highlight is that the reason people have chosen martyrdom over deliverance is because of a deep confidence in the character of God. This empowered them to march, even to march to martyrdom. They had full confidence in what God had promised, and therefore they remained committed to Him in the face of peril. They refused to compromise because they looked to the reward and ultimately to the one who rewards. They could not fight, but they could be faithful. As MacArthur has noted, “It often takes more courage to hold on than to fight on, and where there is need for more courage there is need for more faith.”2
The gospel, with its associated promise of the resurrection to life, empowers the Christian to face difficulties with confidence. It empowers us to face even threats of death (see Philippians 3:10–14).
So, how does one develop such confidence? By growing in our knowledge of God. Daniel said, “the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits” (Daniel 11:32). Interestingly, Daniel said this in the middle of a chapter prophesying the very times referred to here in v. 35. Obviously, those who marched by faith knew their God.
Read, study and meditate on the Scripture. Love and get to know God, and as you know God you will love God and will desire to please God, regardless of the cost. Our confidence in Him will grow to the degree that our communion with Him develops.
The March is Confusing
In vv. 36–38 we learn that the march of faith can be confusing.
Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
Perhaps I should say that faith marching can be confusing. Let me explain.
In these closing words, the writer informs us of those who, like those in v. 35, suffered for their faith apparently without experiencing any reprieve.
He tells us that some “had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and of imprisonments.” One thinks of Jeremiah, who was imprisoned for proclaiming God’s Word. Further, he speaks of some who “were stoned” (see 2 Chronicles 24:20–21) and others who were “sawn in two.” Tradition records that Isaiah was placed in the hollowed out trunk of a cypress tree and then sawn in two. Others faced various pressures (“tempted”) and still others the peril of being “slain with the sword” (see 1 Kings 19:2ff). This is the record of faithful people, faithful servants of the living and the loving God, who suffered the ultimate price for their faith. Such suffering on the part of faithful saints can be confusing to a watching church. It can be downright disconcerting. But our author is not finished. The confusion grows.
The writer tells us many of those who faithfully marched did so without a place to call home. They were so “destitute” that they lived in “dens” and in “caves.” We see a hint of the lonely existence they were forced into, being shut out by their fellow man. Guthrie notes, “The denial of fellowship with others can often be a hardship difficult to bear.”3 But further, they were so impoverished that they were clothed in the raw hides of sheep and goats. “Rough coats” would be a good description. Nevertheless, these impoverished people were of great value in the eyes of God, so much so that the writer says that “the world was not worthy” of them. Morris writes, “They were worth more than the whole world, though they lacked everything.”4
These great gifts to the world were mistreated as they were “afflicted” and “tormented.” Think about this. Those on earth who were the most beneficial to the world, who were most valued by God in this world, who loved and were loyal to God, suffered by the will of God in this world. That can be very confusing—unless you are properly instructed from God’s Word.
The ideas of destitute and devoted just don’t seem to gel in our culture. They are clearly antonyms amongst the purveyors of today’s often wildly popular prosperity gospel. Yet here it is in black and white. I would think that Joel Osteen’s bestseller, Your Best Life Now, would not have been on the bookshelf in the caves of the skin-clothed hungry believers referred to here.
But the fact remains that Scripture does not promise a rose garden to the Christian—not yet, that is. One day, the roses will bloom unendingly and the fragrance will delight our senses uninterruptedly. But in the meanwhile we may have our nostrils filled with the smell of poverty and affliction and loneliness and even torment.
One thinks of Saeed Abedini, a pastor imprisoned in Iran for his faith, who recently wrote to Barack Obama to thank him for his efforts to intervene and secure his release. This man is undergoing great persecution, yet in the midst of it assured President Obama of his prayers. That is, indeed, a man of whom this world is not worthy, who is yet undergoing suffering for his faith.
Faith and fortune are not necessarily conjoined. In fact, as many would testify, faith and hardship have more in common. We should not be confused by this. Jesus Himself experienced so much of what we have read in these closing verses. The forerunner and founder of our faith experienced all kinds of deprivations and we are called to follow in His steps (Philippians 1:29; 1 Peter 4:19).
The only reason there is confusion about this is because of really bad teaching, false expectations and shallow evaluations. You see, if we expect this broken world to be the home of our happiness, we will be disappointed. Such delusion is bound to be met with existential discouragement.
Further, if we do not properly evaluate all we have in Christ, we will seek happiness in the things of the world, and when the world does not deliver then despairing confusion may take over. However, if we look to the promised future of perfect glory, we will be able to joyfully sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through” while at the same time rejoicing, “This is my Father’s world.” Therefore, all will one day be well.
I recently ran a race and, while sitting at the finished line, was brought to tears as I saw a man, probably in his sixties, funning toward the finish line pushing his wife in a wheelchair. He had just completed a half-marathon pushing his ailing wife. As I watched it, I was thankful for a man who understands marriage vows—in sickness and in health, till death do us part—and for a couple who, literally, had their eyes to head together to the finish line.
These Old Testament believers seemed to get this. As v. 13 says, they looked for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. In other words, their kingdom perspective kept them from getting too comfortable in this world, and this guarded them from confusion when their commitment to the Lord resulted in a whole lot of unpleasantness. We need the same perspective. We are not a marching band; rather we are a marching army.
The March is Corporate
The closing verses (vv. 39–40) show us that the march of faith is corporate: “And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.”
These verses must be taken together for they summarise the specific train of thought from v. 8 onward. But they also pull together the author’s thought from 10:35.
The writer has sought to encourage these New Testament believers to keep on believing. He has exhorted them to faith by these Old Testament examples of faith. Just as they did not “cast away their confidence” in the face of difficulties, so neither should the readers. They must not! And now he gives a final encouragement to them. In these closing verses the writer tells them that the reason that God did not bring to pass all that He had promised in Messiah (“the promise”) under the old covenant was because to do so would have been to leave these contemporary believers out. It is an interesting thought.
He speaks of “God having provided something better for us.” The writer has told us all along what this “better something” is: a better hope (7:19); a better covenant (7:22; 8:6); better promises (8:6); a better sacrifice (9:23); and a far better country (11:16).
In other words, one reason why these Old Testament believers did not receive all of the Messianic promises in space-time history was so that it would be better for us—at least in God’s estimation. We see this in the words “God having provided something better.” This phrase means “to look out beforehand” and carries the idea of seeing beforehand and planning accordingly. The New English Bible translates it, “With us in mind, God had made a better plan.” What he is saying, among other things, is that God foreordained to save people under the new covenant and to make one people out of the two covenant people. In fact, the old covenant people were only saved because of God’s new covenant work of and through His Son. This is why he says that “they should not be made perfect apart from us.” The word “perfect” describes the fulfilment of God’s gospel promise in His Son. The fact, that apart from His new covenant work through His sacrificial death and His victorious resurrection, there could and would be no salvation for any of these who have been mentioned. His point it twofold.
First, those living under the new covenant have no excuse for not believing what the old covenant believers trusted before them. If they believed then we must believe too!
Second, saving faith marches from generation to generation and so, at the end of the day, there is only one people of God. Dods is spot on when he comments, “The writer has in view the history of the Church, the relation of the people of God in former times to the same people in Messianic times.”5
Regardless of when one lived (or lives), salvation has always and only been by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God designed this in order that there would be one people living to the glory of God. There is continuity with the people of God throughout the ages. This has immense doctrinal implications and practical applications.
For one thing, we should stop with the dichotomy between the “church” and “Israel.” All who trust Christ are one in Him and make up one body. We need to stop wrongly dividing the people of God.
Morris helps us to understand the practical implications of this verse when he writes,
We are who Christ’s have our place in God’s plan. And that plan provides that the heroes of the faith throughout the ages should not “be made perfect” apart from Christians. Salvation is social. It concerns the whole people of God. We can experience it only as part of the whole people of God…. Only the work of Christ brings those of OT times and those of the new and living way alike into the presence of God.6
So, on a practical level, since the church of all ages is actually one body—past, present, and future—we should be willing to pay a price in this generation for the welfare of the church in the next generation.
We should not be out spending our children’s inheritance but rather we should be willing to pay a price now for the benefit of the church to follow us. This seems to be what God is saying in this chapter: These all lived and died by faith in order that, in accordance with His plan, you would believe as well. Let us pay the price to make a difference both now and in the future.
The March is Christian
As we conclude, I want to highlight something that is unspoken in this passage, yet is clearly evident. Verse 32 speaks of those who “through faith” accomplished great things. Yet when you consider men such as Barak (who seemed rather cowardly at one point), Jephthah (who was rough and rash), Samson (who was often characterised by the flesh), of David (who broke the Ten Commandments with seeming abandon in the Bathsheba incident), and Samuel (who failed horribly as a father), you might scratch your head and wonder how they made the list? But thank God they did!
You see, these believers resemble the likes of us: sinful believers. John Calvin put it this way:
There was none of them whose faith did not falter…. 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. There is no reason therefore why the fault from which we labour should break us or discourage us provided we go on by faith in the race of our calling.7
At the end of the day, the issue is not the quality of our faith or the quantity of our faith but rather the object of our faith. And that is great news. The passage clearly commends these people for their faith (vv. 2, 39). Yet, at the end of the day, all the credit and glory goes to the one who makes faith possible: our God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. With such a God to trust, faith marching becomes a no brainer.
So, will you believe God in Christ and receive the reward of salvation? Or will you cast away your confidence and insult the Spirit of grace (10:29)? It is a fearful to fall into the hands of the living God. But it is an eternally blessed thing to cast your confidence on His Son and experience deliverance from the wrath to come. What a blessed, because gracious, privilege to join the people of God through all the centuries in faith marching.
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:131. ↩
- John F. MacArthur Jr., Hebrews: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1983), 367. ↩
- Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 248. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:131. ↩
- Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:265. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:132–33. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 221. ↩