Sermon preached on Hebrews 11:32-40 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/16/2018 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Of Whom the World Was Not Worthy”
As we finish up this hall of faith chapter, we’ve seen different aspects of faith being highlighted as our attention is drawn to various saints of old. In today’s passage, the attention concerning faith is turned from various people to various actions. Starting in verse 33, there is a fast rattling off of various actions of the saints of old. Some of these actions immediately ring to mind the names of certain individuals. Other actions bring to mind several people who experienced such things. Yet, in all these actions, the activity is again being highlighted as one accomplished through faith. And what is also interesting about this list is that it is divided up into two main categories that are very different. The first being about what we might call victories through faith, though that might be misleading because ultimately these are all victories of faith. But the first category may have especially be seen outwardly as victories for God’s people. Whereas the second category describes the sufferings endured through faith. And while these saints were nonetheless victorious in such faith amidst suffering, to the world’s eyes they may not have seemed like victory. So then, we’ll have a chance to look at both such categories today.
Let’s begin then first by looking at these victories achieved through faith. These start in verse 33, though I’m going to begin in the list by skipping the first three – we discussed those already last week. So, we begin with those who by faith stopped the mouths of lions. Though we could mention people like Samson and David who are recorded as defeating lions, surely this especially has in mind Daniel. In Daniel 6, he was thrown into the lions’ den because he wouldn’t stop praying to God. God saved him by stopping up the mouths of those lions. The next verse immediately turns to mention those who quenched the power of fire. With the book of Daniel already on our minds, we should immediately remember Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar was requiring the people to bow to his golden statue. In obedience to God, these three would not engage in such idolatry. King Nebuchadnezzar threatened them with being thrown into the fiery furnace if they would not obey him. Daniel 3 records their affirmation of faith in God, and that God was able to deliver them from the fiery furnace. God did in fact miraculously deliver them – the fire didn’t harm them. But what I love about both these accounts from the book of Daniel is they didn’t seem to know for sure if God would deliver them from either the fire or the lions. But they were nonetheless going to trust in God no matter what. In faith, God delivered them.
Next, verse 34 speaks of saints through faith escaping the edge of the sword. We can think of how Elijah escaped the hand of Queen Jezebel in 1 Kings 19. Or how Elisha escaped the hand of King Jehoram in 2 Kings 6. Or how Jeremiah escaped the hand of King Jehoiakim in Jeremiah 36. Others could be mentioned. Sadly, in eac of those examples it wasn’t’ pagans persecuting God’s people; it was royalty in Israel and Judah persecuting God’s prophets. Though, the action by those kings and queens show that they didn’t know the Lord. Their efforts to persecute these prophets was not of faith. But by faith, God delivered many prophets from the edge of the sword.
The next accomplishment mentioned is that they were by faith made strong out of their weakness. Here, so many examples come to mind, depending on what sort of weakness is even thought of. You can think how David defeated Goliath. You can think of how Esther was used to bring salvation to God’s people. You can remember how humbled, blind, weakened Samson was given strength one last time by God to deliver a humongous defeat against the Philistines. Even the little examples, like God using Ruth in her faith to not only provide her the husband and child she sought in her impoverished estate, but through that to bring forth the line of King David and ultimately Jesus. The history of God’s people are full of examples where he uses the weak and the humble to do great things. That’s what at the heart of Jesus’ words that the last will be first. It ultimately shows that such saving works aren’t about the faith itself but about what the faith looks to. It’s about God and his strength giving aid, help, and deliverance for his needy people. It exalts the grace of God while humbling the pride of men.
Next it mentions those who became valiant in battle and turned to flight the armies of the aliens. This is one of the specific blessing God promised his people as they put their faith in him. For example, Joshua told the people during the conquest of the Promised Land that it would be the LORD God who would fight for them, so that no enemy would stand before them, and one Israelite would chase a thousand of their enemies. Joshua promised this in the context of calling the people to continue to hold fast in faith to God. It was such faith that saw such military victories like Jonathan and his armorbearer in 1 Samuel 14 have a huge victory over a whole garrison of Philistines. As Jonathan said there, “Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” That’s faith!
The last “victory” mentioned as being realized is in verse 35, that women received back their dead by resurrection. Two clear examples come to mind. The first is in 1 Kings 17 with Elijah and the Poor widow of Zarephath. That’s the widow that God made her flour and oil not run out during the famine, which served to provide for her and her child and also Elijah. Interestingly, she was even a foreigner, but God used Elijah to bless her, even by raising her child from the dead. Similarly, the second example is with Elisha and the notable Shunammite woman. She and her husband had provided for Elijah. God in in return blessed them by giving them a child when previously they had been childless. Yet, the child died; but God used Elisha to raise him from the dead.
Well, in this first point, we see this long list of various victories of faith. These are victories in the sense that they were positive things realized in this life and this world. Or to think about it from a different perspective; they are things that look to the final realization of God’s promises to his people. In the end, we know God’s people will be victorious over all God’s and our enemies. They will be put to death, we will be saved and live. In the end, we know God will give everlasting strength to all our weaknesses. In the end, no power will overcome us, but God will establish us in his glorious kingdom and righteousness. In the end, God’s people will know resurrection life. And yet, this passage speaks of how these saints began to miraculously experience foretastes of such things in this life.
So then, that brings us to our second main point for today. Because as much as we have this list of victories realized in this life, we see the opposite in the other half of this list. Beginning in verse 35, we see various sufferings that many of God’s people had to endure. The passage says that these too had faith. In fact, it was by faith that they did endure such things. Let us now look further at this surprising contrast to what we just looked at.
Starting in verse 35, we read that some were tortured to death, but refused to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. The way this is written likely has in mind a specific incident that happened between the Old and New Testaments as recorded in the apocryphal book of the Maccabees which is basically a Jewish history book covering that period. There, it records several Jews being given a choice by the oppressing Seleucids who were torturing them. If these Jews would recant their faith by eating pork and sacrificing to Greek gods, they would be released. Otherwise, they would be tortured to death. 2 Maccabees 6-7 describe how one after another of these Jews refused release on such terms, but instead spoke of how they knew they would rise to a better life after their death. Though Protestants don’t receive that book of 2 Maccabees as inspired Scripture, it is an ancient history book and generally considered reliable in terms of its historical accounts. In other words, it records these several examples of saints of old enduring torture unto death by faith. It was their faith that had them choose death over life given the circumstances. To the world their deaths looked like defeat; but in faith we recognize they were ultimately victories of faith unto resurrection life.
Verse 36 describes how others suffered mocking and flogging and even chains and imprisonment. The first recipients of this book of Hebrews may have themselves already known such persecution. But in terms of Old Testament characters, Jeremiah especially comes to mind. Jeremiah 20, 37, and 38, all describes various beatings, mockings, and imprisonments that he faced. In his record, the fact that he experienced multiple occurrences of such, really demonstrates the ongoing, persistence of his faith. If he hadn’t endured in faith, then after the first negative experiences came, he would have stopped preaching. But by faith he continued on his prophetic ministry, and again what looked like failures to the world was a victory of faith as God’s Word kept going forth through all these afflictions.
Likewise, verse 37 speaks of various kinds of deaths that saints of old endured through their faith. In terms of stoning, you have, for example, the record of Zechariah the priest stoned at the order of Joash, king of Judah. Similarly, tradition records that Jeremiah was stoned by the Jews in Egypt. In terms of being sawn in two, tradition records that this is how Isaiah died, under the wicked reign of King Manasseh. In terms of being killed with the sword, there are many, but I’ll give you just two examples that are especially fitting for a passage like this. I’ll give you examples where a saint of old dies by faith while at the same time another saint is spared by that same faith. So, for example, you have in 1 Kings 19 virtually all the prophets, except Elijah, are killed by the sword. Or in Jeremiah 26 we read of how Uriah the prophet is killed by the sword, while Jeremiah is able to escape death at that same time. All these who died by the sword and those saved from it did so by faith, being persecuted because of this ministry of faith unto God. To the world’s eyes, all these who did die, looked like they lost, but since it was their faith that stood them firm, we know it was really also a victory. In fact, their deaths still bear witness to God and truth long after their martyrdoms.
Lastly, verses 37 and 38 describe people who went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves. We can think of Elijah most specifically here, even being described as wearing a garment of hair in 2 Kings 1:8. But the picture painted is of various prophets who because of speaking God’s Word essentially had to live like an exile. Their words so often weren’t welcomed and so the world would not have them. So, they consequently ended up living destitute in the wilderness away from the cities and the people. The world would not have them, and in fact as it says here in Hebrews, the world was not worthy of them. And yet even such life might look like failure to the world, it shows in their faith that their faith was beyond this world. They were able by faith to live so apart from the world because, ultimately, they looked forward to the world to come.
In conclusion of today’s passage, and really the whole chapter, we see verse 39 say two things about these people of faith. First, it says that they received a good testimony through their faith. Remember, that we saw this same statement at the start of the chapter. These people of faith receive God’s testimony. God speaks of their commendable faith. Such a testimony would say that they are heirs of the promise of God for what he has held out for his people. Yet, the second thing verse 39 says is that they did not receive the promise. In their day, they didn’t receive the promise which their faith held onto. They were heirs of that promise as this testimony by God about their faith says. But they were not yet recipients of that promise. Yes, some of these saints experienced some promises of God fulfilled in their lives. Some experienced great victories that were visible to the world. Others, their victories could only be recognized by the eyes of faith, as we saw today in our second point. But all of these, did not receive the promise mentioned in verse 39.
I remind you of how we’ve seen that promised described in this book. In 9:15, it was described as the promise of an eternal inheritance. In Hebrews 4:1 it speaks of the promise as God’s rest for his people. Earlier in this chapter we saw that it is a heavenly city founded by God and upon God, better than anything in this current creation. Back in chapter 2:5 it described it as the “world to come”. Later in 12:28 it will be described as a kingdom which cannot be shaken. Yes, the saints received types of these things; things which gave shadowy representation of the good things to come. But they didn’t receive the substance of them. There’s was an earthly inheritance and an earthly city and an earthly kingdom, one that could be shaken. But as they lived and died in faith they showed that they were heirs of a promise that would yet to come. One that they would experience in the resurrection life that they, by faith, had attained.
Why didn’t any of them receive the promise in their days? Verse 40 marvelously answers, “God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” God’s plan of salvation, included saving us in these last days. And so, this present creation has continued, until all God’s elect would be gathered in. Yet, the language of verse 40 implies more than just waiting until the final end. In the context of this book, we should realize that it’s acknowledging something wonderful that had finally come in these last days. Though the promise has not yet been fully received by us, clearly the implication here is that in our generation and time, the promise has begun to be received. This is something we under the new covenant have began to receive that these saints of old did not.
This is related to the two comings of Christ. Think of how God’s promise has begun to be fulfilled in Jesus’ first coming. Hebrews told as back in chapter 1 that at his first coming he made purification of our sins by his blood. Then after his conquering of death he ascended up to the right hand of God and sits in the heavenly tabernacle as our Messiah King, as our Apostle, and as our Great High Priest. We then now, already, have access to God through Jesus. We already, now, in Christ, draw near to God and worship him in heaven by the Holy Spirit. Substantively, by the Spirit, we’ve begun to experience things of the world to come – already!. And so, this promise of God has been inaugurated; it is has arrived in part with the coming of Christ. At his second coming, then, we, along with all these saints of old will experience it together in its full; in the perfection of God’s plan of redemption. Praise God!
In the meantime, we too are called to live by faith. And yet the picture painted in today’s passage is an important reminder of what that may look like. It can be a mixed bag. Sometimes our faith finds various outward victories in this life. Often our faith finds many persecutions and afflictions and sufferings, instead. This passage shows us that these differing results are not a challenge to our faith. Actually, they are at the heart of it; they confirm our faith! Just look at the pinnacle of our faith: the work of Jesus in saving us.
Jesus’ ministry is about subduing the kingdoms of this world, and working righteousness, and delivering promises. Many miracles attended his earthly ministry when he came to proclaim his kingdom and his righteousness. When it was according to his will and timing, none of his enemies could stand against him. He turned weakness into strength, giving sight to the blind, making the leprous clean, and even raising people from the dead. And yet we remember all his sufferings culminating in the cross. He was despised and rejected by so many. Remember how they scourged him and mocked him and ultimately pierced him through on the cross. He could have with one word delivered himself from all that, in fact his mockers even mockingly encouraged him to do so. But he refused to be delivered from death. He refused so that not only would he be able to obtain a better resurrection, but so that he could obtain a better resurrection for us!
Indeed, the world was not worthy of Jesus. Still today the world is not worthy of him. We are not worthy of him either. But that is why he came. And so, for all of us who by grace have turned to him in faith, we belong to him. And we belong to the world to come of which we have been made worthy by its king.
So then, knowing that in this world we will have trouble, let us press on in faith, regardless of whether we experience earthly victories or sorrows. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. Let us hold such faith until the end. And let us likewise encourage each to this, until the end. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.