I was far from a blazing witness for Christ in my secular high school when growing up in New Jersey. Most classmates who knew me were aware that I valued my church and issues of faith, though it was not often much of a topic of conversation. And though there was a handful of youth group kids from my church who went to my high school, none were in my specific class. In fact, at the time, only one other of the 129 students in my graduating class was certainly known to me as a Christian. A few came to Christ later, but even today, most of my classmates are very far from my values system – many of them embracing naturalistic worldviews, along with quite a number who are oddly into Eastern mysticism. I really felt very, very isolated and outnumbered in those years.
This has been the feeling and experience of many of God’s people over the years. Some of Israel’s greatest leaders were not only isolated in the midst of a world of surrounding pagan religions, many of them had to stand often rather alone for God within the nation in times of spiritual declension and apathy.
In our increasingly post-everything world, we too may have a similar sense of isolation and loneliness in a sea of unbelief. It can be a challenge to live confidently in faith, but the reward for such is worth it … if we ENDURE.
After elaborating on the stories of a number of biblical characters of faith, the writer begins to list some other examples (indicating as well that there were more than time and space could allow). Verse 32 lists four men from the period of the Judges in Israel’s history, before speaking of the well-known characters of David and Samuel.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets,
Without rehearsing each story, note the common theme of standing against larger powers and numbers: Gideon and his 300 against 135,000, David vs. Goliath, Samson pulling down the pagan temple walls, etc. All of these characters were victorious in their high moments of life (most having some shameful low moments as well) by trusting God in the face of overwhelming opposition – impossible odds in which victory could only be accomplished by God’s divine strength and intervention. Going on about such biblical characters as these (and other unnamed) the writer says …
33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.
Many battles in Israel’s history could be in view here. And the “mouths of lions” makes us think of Daniel, while the “fury of the flames” reminds us of his three friends in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Again, impossible victories by God’s strength and through their faith.
35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
Again, there are backgrounds in biblical stories for almost all of these references of difficult situations – the prophets in particular being persecuted. There is no specific recorded instance biblically of anyone being sawn in two, though there is a tradition that this was the fate of Isaiah. Joseph was imprisoned for a number of years, Elijah was mocked and fled for his life, Obadiah hid 100 prophets in a cave from the wrath of Jezebel.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
All of these characters were worthy of commendation for their faith, though they did not receive the full benefits of it. Yes, they had mighty answers to prayer, but not a perfect ending. And how could they? The Messiah was yet to come and make the final sacrifice for sin.
Verse 39 talks about the Old Testament saints, whereas verse 40 is talking about us – those of the church age who have our faith in the finished work of Christ.
We have the greater advantage. We know historically and through our faith about the culmination of God’s redemptive plan in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So we are by God’s grace better off and better informed, yet we do not have the complete fulfillment either – not like we all shall have together at the consummation of time.
Whatever suffering or shame we endure, even if it is to be final, is not entirely unusual for those of God’s people at any time in human history. But the common denominator through all of time is the commendation and pleasure of God in those who trust him through everything. And the reward for that is “out of this world” and is worth it all. Nothing compares to it. Don’t cash in your faith for comfort or convenience. ENDURE.