Hebrews 11 Saints: Faith - What is does and doesn't do

Bible Studies on Hebrews 11: Real Heroes of the Faith

Hebrews 11 Saints: Faith - What is does and doesn't do

by I Gordon

We are getting near the end of our series of the heroes of the faith as mentioned in Hebrews 11. So far we've talked about a wide range of characters from Abel to Rahab. We've seen some truly godly men like Joseph and Enoch who walked with God. There has been the odd trickster who had to be broken like Jacob. We've seen those that have preserved through long years of difficulty like Noah and Moses, as well as unlikely heroes such as Rahab, a gentile prostitute whose whole life was changed in just a few days because of faith in the true God. All these have been put through the school of God and persevered by faith.

Today's message comes from Hebrews 11:32-38 which will take us close to the end of the chapter. This passage speaks of different aspects of faith... it speaks of what some have done through faith and also what faith doesn't mean. Let's have a read of God's word.

What more shall I say? 

Heb 11:32 And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets...

The writer of Hebrews starts by saying 'what more shall I say?' Clearly he has run out of ideas. Ok... no. He hasn't run out of ideas but he has run out of time. There is really no limit to the amount of insight we can get from the countless stories and characters in the Bible. But there is a limit on the amount of space on this authors' parchment! Previously he has taken us through some of the events in Genesis, Exodus and a little in Joshua, but out of time he gives us a quick little wrap up of some others. From Judges he mentions Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah. From the books of Samuel he mentions David and Samuel himself. The prophets in general also get a wee reference. They are all different lives, each with failure as well as victory. They all had struggles and obstacles that they had to overcome. But... they have the common thread of exhibiting 'faith' that pleased God. So let's just start but briefly looking at these ones listed.

Gideon: Gideon is a very interesting case. He was full of fear and weakness initially. By his own testimony he was the least in his family. His family was least in their tribe. And his tribe was least in the nation of Israel. That makes Gideon the smallest of the small and pretty insignificant by worldly standards! Yet it also makes him a great candidate for someone God would choose! So Gideon had to overcome fear. He had to overcome feelings of insecurity and inferiority. But faith in God did that! By faith he came with only 300 men (after God had whittled the numbers right down!) against the might of the Midianites (whom the Bible says were numerous like locusts across the land) and God granted him a tremendous victory!

Barak: He was similar in some ways to Gideon. He was to lead the Israelites against the armies of Jabin, an oppressive Canaanite king. The Lord commanded him to go and lead a great victory, which, by faith, he did... eventually. But he was only willing to go if Deborah, the judge in Israel at that time, would go with him. And it took a bit of encouragement and prodding from Deborah to get Barak moving! Behind every great man is an even greater woman aye? I'm sure there will be a few wives and mothers here that can relate to the difficulty and prodding required in getting their men moving!

Samson: Samson, Samson, Samson. What a story that is as Fraser recently showed us. What a greater story it could have been if not for the subtleties of sin and temptation. Dedicated to God from birth, in faith he came against 1000 Philistine men holding simply a jawbone and was victorious. And yet, along with that incredible God-empowered physical strength lay the frailties of fallen human weakness. This is shown in his weakness for Philistine woman, his over-confidence and inability to keep the secret of his strength hidden and his eventual downfall at the hands of Delilah. But I do want to say this - he ended well. Gideon had a fearful start, a good middle, and a fall at the end. Samson was the opposite. He had a good start, a bad middle, but brought to the point of utter weakness and dependency upon God once again, he ended in faith. So end well people! Whatever your story is so far, whatever challenges you have had or have, end your race of faith well. You may be deprived of your physical strength. You may even lose some of your physical senses like Samson did. But end spiritually strong. End with your faith strong in the One you trust.

Jephthah: Jephthah may not be as famous as Gideon or Samson but had his own obstacles to overcome by faith. His issues stemmed from his upbringing and background. He was born to a harlot and his half-brothers (who had the same father but a different mother) hated him and drove him away. They didn't want anything to do with him. You can imagine the feelings of rejection Jephthah had with his own family abandoning him and driving him out. It is the same experience that many from broken families struggle with and have to overcome today. But through faith, a way was found and he went on to be a commander in Israel leading them to a tremendous victory over the Ammonites.

David and Samuel: We should know well the challenges and tremendous faith of both Samuel and David. What a picture of faith is seen in the David and Goliath story where a young Israelite boy, a teenager, comes against the strongest of giants with just a sling and an unshakeable faith 'in the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.' (1 Sam 17:45). A different type of faith was required when David had to run for his life and hide in caves in the wilderness before a spear throwing, semi-deranged, evil-spirit oppressed king Saul. And yet both had their failures as well. For David it was the well known complacency and unconscious spiritual decay that led to the whole Bathsheba tragedy. Samuel's difficulty came through his two sons who judged Israel and did not walk in the same footsteps as their father. The love of money led to them taking brides and perverting justice and would have caused a great deal of sadness for their godly father. (1 Sam 8:3)

Time to play name that faith hero!

Hebrews 11:33-35 ...who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, (34) quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (35) Women received back their dead by resurrection...

Now the author of Hebrews may have named a few heroes but he had a lot more in mind. Who comes to mind?

  • 'Who through faith conquered kingdoms' - Probably the most prominent would be Joshua and king David.
  • 'Performed acts of righteousness - We think of godly leaders like Jehoshaphat, Josiah and many of the prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah that implored the nation of Israel to return to God.
  • 'Obtained promises' - We think of children of Israel finally obtaining the Promised Land. Or Caleb who had to wait till his was 80 to receive the promise of Hebron as his inheritance. There were covenants and promises made with Abraham, Moses and David that were believed and received by faith. We have to do likewise.
  • 'Shut the mouth of lions' - Obviously Daniel is huge here. It says 'Then the king arose at dawn, at the break of day, and went in haste to the lions' den. When he had come near the den to Daniel, he cried out with a troubled voice. The king spoke and said to Daniel, "Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you constantly serve, been able to deliver you from the lions?" Then Daniel spoke to the king, "O king, live forever! "My God sent His angel and shut the lions' mouths and they have not harmed me, inasmuch as I was found innocent before Him...' (Daniel 6:19-22) David and Samson also overcame the lion.
  • 'Quenched the power of fire' - Obviously the amazing story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego!
  • 'Escaped the edge of the sword' - By faith Moses' parents helped their newborn son escape the sword of Pharaoh. David was able to escape the sword of Goliath, Saul and Absalom through faith in God. Elijah escaped the murderous threats and intent of Jezebel who wanted to kill him. Elisha likewise escaped from the armies of the king of Syria that came to take his life.
  • 'From weakness were made strong' - You could almost say them all because faith operates in the sphere of human weakness. And faith in God always strengthens. But we could think of some great examples like Sarah giving birth completely past the age of childbearing. Or Gideon that we have mentioned having his army reduced by God from 32,000 down to 300 in preparation of coming against a massive army!
  • 'Became mighty in war putting foreign armies to flight' - We think again of David, a boy going out against Goliath. Or his bunch of depressed, distressed and in debt followers who became David's mighty men during his time in exile! Other kings had great victories by faith like Asa (2 Chr 14) and Jehoshaphat (2 Chr 20).
  • 'Women received back their dead by resurrection' - Two examples in the ministries of Elijah and Elsiha.

Getting a little personal now... 

Now sometimes it is hard to relate perfectly to these stories for someone living in a country as blessed as ours. Many countries and countries today do have issues as dramatic as what we are reading in this passage. But in this country and at this time, we mostly live (though things are changing) free from persecution and warfare. We aren't being asked to conquer kingdoms today as they did in the days of King David. We aren't likely to be tossed in the fire or thrown into a pit of lions as they were in the days of Daniel. And we don't generally have enemies like Goliath standing out on the street calling us out of our homes so he can rip us apart and feed us to the birds. But we still have Goliaths in a metaphorical sense. We still have giants that we have to overcome. We still have that which we thought we could control that we find in time now controls us. We still hear the taunts and feel the fear from the giants that seek to enslave us just as the children of Israel did 3000 years ago. It is this thought that John Bunyan brings out so well in Pilgrims Progress. You will remember the story I'm sure. The path to the Celestial city becomes hard for Christian and Hopeful so they decide to take an easier path called Bypath Meadow. As night falls they become lost and fall asleep in the grounds of doubting castle. This castle was owned by Giant Despair who captures them and throws them in his dungeon and afflicts them. I'll read a little:

 'The next morning when Giant Despair arose, he went out and found a short, thick club made from a crab tree. Then he went down into the dungeon where Christian and Hopeful were imprisoned, and there he began berating them and ranting at them as if they were dogs. Christian and Hopeful did not say a word in their defence. Then Giant Despair pounced upon them and beat them mercilessly. The beating was so bad that when it was finally over, they were unable to help themselves or even to get up off the dungeon's cold stone floor. Feeling satisfied with the torment he had inflicted, Giant Despair withdrew, leaving the two prisoners to console each other in their misery and to mourn the rest of the day with the sighs and bitter lamentations of their distress.' 

This went on for several days with Giant Despair either threatening to take their lives or telling them to do it.

 'Around midnight Christian and Hopeful began to pray and continued till almost the break of day. Shortly before the sun came up, good Christian, as one half-amazed, broke out in this passionate speech: 'What a fool I am to lie in a stinking dungeon when I might instead walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom called Promise that I believe will open any lock in Doubting Castle!' Hopeful responded, 'That is good news, good brother. Take it out, and let's try it.' Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom and began trying to unlock the dungeon door. The door's bolts came loose, and the door flew open with ease. Christian and Hopeful both came out. Then Christian went to the outer door that leads into the castle-yard and with his key opened that door also. After that he went to the iron gate, for that also had to be opened. Though that lock was very hard, the key still opened it. Then they thrust open the gate to make a speedy escape, but that gate, as it opened, made a loud creaking noise that awakened Giant Despair. He rose hastily to pursue his prisoners but just then suffered another of his fits, which made his limbs fail and ended his pursuit. Then Christian and Hopeful pressed on eagerly and came to the King's Highway where they were safe because they were out of Giant Despair's jurisdiction. 

This is a timeless fantastic story so rich in meaning. In this example it is Giant Despair torturing them but there are other giants of lust, worry, greed, immorality, fear, control and insecurity, plus many more that afflict and take us captive. So who are you listening to? Sin is deceptive. Sometimes we don't even know that we have wandered from the true path onto the grounds where a giant lives. Sometimes it is all too real and clear that we are now held captive by a giant that shows no mercy. But if this passage in Hebrews and this example in Pilgrims Progress teach us anything, it is that faith in God can overcome the greatest giants. When Christian came to his senses he said '  What a fool I am to lie in a stinking dungeon when I might instead walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom called Promise that I believe will open any lock in Doubting Castle.'  So are you remembering to promises of God? You will remember the pastor who asked his congregation 'what do you do with the promises of God?' One elderly lady replied 'I underline them in yellow.' Good start but there is a little more to it. We need to renew our minds with them. We need to remind God of them and thank Him for them. And, when the time comes, we need to step out upon them. They are the keys that unlock the prisons of the enemy.

From weakness were made strong

I wanted also to focus in on one statement made that is common to all of the stories. 'From weakness they were made strong'. Faith starts with need. It starts from the place of weakness. Weakness leads to need. Need leads to dependency. Dependency leads to prayer. Prayer leads to the power of God. Speaking of Heaven, D.L Moody said  "Next to the wonder of seeing my Savior will be, I think, the wonder that I made so little use of the power of prayer."  Interesting comment and thought!

Let's just talk a little more about one story concerning weakness. We've mentioned already the example of Gideon and how he was the least in his family, who was the least in their tribe, which was the least in Israel. God chose the weakest of the weak to display His strength. It seemed God wanted to put this weak vessel in an even weaker situation because he reduced Gideon's army from 32,000 down to 300! Hopefully you remember the story. One author I read  [1]  said that scholars have spilt a lot of ink trying to determine why God eliminated all those in Gideon's army that kneeled down to drink from the brook. He said that most scholars subscribe to the 'alert man' theory. That is, God desired to use those that where alert and watchful for the enemy. As I read that I thought, 'yeah, that's what I believe'. The author went on to say '  I don't buy it... I prefer the 'old geezer' theory. Who would be the small number out of ten thousand men that would find it difficult even to kneel down beside a brook as their joints creak and their backs ache... As I enter my sixth decade of life this interpretation makes more and more sense  .'

In other words the 'old geezer' theory states that God was giving Gideon a very small army of old codgers who may have been able to kneel down by the water, but if they did they wouldn't be able to get back up again! 'We are ready to fight Gideon' they say as they fumble over their false teeth and trip on their walker frames! Welcome to the point of utter weakness Gideon. Now watch what God can do! The 'old geezer' theory does make some sense for God told Gideon He was reducing the numbers  "in order that Israel may not boast against Me that her own strength has saved her.'  So are you experiencing weakness? Is something out of your control? It shouldn't surprise us when we are made weak. Christianity is a strange business where going down is the way up.  [2]  You will remember that the Lord said to Paul 'My power is made perfect in weakness.' (2 Cor 12:9) There it is. It is a fact. So again it shouldn't surprise us when we see our weakness or are brought down into the place of weakness. It is the environment where faith thrives. But always remember that weakness comes with a promise (you know, those things you underline in yellow!) of God's enabling. He said 'My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.' The keyword there is 'is'. That is what we remind and thank God for. It is the 'is', the present tense. His grace IS sufficient. Not was, not will be, but IS. Right now. It means we can thank God more and plead for help, less.

The sharp turn south 

Hebrews 11:35b-38 '...and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; (36) and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. (37) They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (38) (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.'

Without a moment's pause, things take a notable sharp turn south round about here. And personally I'm glad it does! He doesn't mind going straight from people receiving back the dead to others being tortured and never getting out of prison. Both what seems like 'the good' to us and that which seems like 'the bad' are all examples of faith to the author of Hebrews. And it should be to us as well as we learn to see things like God does. Think about what it would be like if verses 35b-38 were left out of Hebrews 11? If all we had was the thought that true faith always leads to great victory and ease then where would that leave us? Where would it leave much of the persecuted church that is called to endure beatings and imprisonment? Where would it leave those whose bodies are slowly taken over by cancer and God doesn't heal them? Where would it leave those who are called to persevere through ill-health?  [3]  The fact is that the path and even the blessing of God often involve holding on and enduring in a trial that seemingly goes on for a long time whether circumstances change or not. This too is faith.

It is important to be balanced on this. At the far distant end of a long road called 'Christendom' lies the faith prosperity teachers who think that if we only had faith we would always be in health, wealth and prosperity. The tentacles of that hideous belief have spread throughout the world  [4]  . Right down the other end of this road called Christendom lies those that don't see a God who is active, answers the prayer offered in faith, strengthens the weak and desires to bring people out of their bondage. Sometimes we can be guilty of talking too much about God and not talking to Him. We can be guilty of trying to do much for Him without spending time with Him. We have to see Him as alive, well, and interested for that is who He is. That is the God that Hebrews 11 tells us about. And we need to believe that as we pray for one another He is a God who cares enough to answer! Jesus turned water into wine. He has always been in the transformation business and He cares deeply about transforming our lives. But sometimes the path of faith which that comes through is a longer road than many care to walk.

'...and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection...'

It is good to remember what our brethren in other parts of the world go through for their faith as well. I was watching a story on TV the other day that reminded me of this passage. It was talking about the rise of Christianity in China through the 1900's. One story was of a Chinese Christian man who was seen by the Chinese government as an illegal Pastor. He wasn't obeying their rules. After being arrested multiple times for preaching and leading an 'illegal' meeting of Christians they had enough and sentenced him to prison... for life! After 15 years in Prison they told him that if he repented he could go free. But he wouldn't repent of teaching others about Jesus. This went on for a while before finally the authorities forged his documents saying that he had repented. They led him out of prison while he complained bitterly that he hadn't repented and should be put back into prison! But they wouldn't listen so he built a little home right outside the prison gates so that he could fast and continue to protest that he had never repented! It meant that much to him and that is where he died... still wanting all to know that he hadn't repented or denied his Lord.  'They went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy)' 

Conclusion - What have we learnt about faith?

As we near the end here are seven quick statements that can be said about faith from our passage:

  • Faith in God can change our situation and always changes us
  • Faith in God has its foundation in weakness
  • Faith believes in and takes hold of the promises of God
  • Faith can conquer giants (in whatever form they come!)
  • Faith is motivated by and looks to the coming resurrection
  • Faith includes suffering as well as deliverance
  • Faith in God means 'and they lived happily ever after' is always true for the life to come but not always for this life.

Here is one 'last in order' but not 'last in importance' point! Faith ALWAYS has an object. It is not faith in faith. It is faith in Jesus. And He is the One who has done EVERYTHING written in our Hebrews 11 passage.

  • 'Who by faith conquered kingdoms' - Jesus' death and resurrection disarmed every ruler and power (Col 2:15) and His soon return will see all 'kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God' (Rev 11:15)
  • 'Performed acts of righteousness' - Jesus' every word, every act, were the righteousness of God made manifest - even in the midst of much opposition! And with His return His age of righteousness will spread through the whole earth.
  • 'Obtained promises' - He literally is the Promise of God who inherits all things. He fulfilled EVERYTHING, every promise spoken in the Prophets concerning His first coming and will fulfil the rest at His second.
  • 'Shut the mouths of lions' - The great roaring Lion, Satan, was defeated at the cross. His accusing mouth has been closed in the presence of God for those 'in Christ'. And his days are well and truly numbered!
  • 'Quenched the power of fire' - Jesus has taken the keys to death and Hell and the fires of judgement have been removed for those that bear His name!
  •  'Escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness was made strong'  - Jesus, in faith, obeyed the will of His Father and took the sword. He went into the place of absolute utter weakness where He literally couldn't take one more breath. He submitted to the ultimate weakness  'that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.'  But like it says, through weakness He was made strong! He rose and was given all authority in heaven and earth! (Matt 28:18)
  • 'Became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight'  - Oh will He what! On that day He will come with eyes like a flame of fire, a head with many crowns, a name that is 'King of kings and Lord of lords'... and in righteousness He judges and makes war! (Taken from Rev 19:11-16)

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses as Hebrews 12 tells us, and we can certainly learn a lot from their life of faith. But where we permanently fix our eyes is on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith!

[1] ↩  Unlikely Heroes by Daniel Lockwood

[2] ↩  Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, knew the secret of strength through weakness. Complimented once by a friend on the impact of the mission, Hudson answered,  'It seemed to me that God looked over the whole world to find a man who was weak enough to do His work, and when He at last found me, He said, 'He is weak enough - he'll do.' All God's giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them  .'

[3] ↩  I remember well being overseas in Europe and being really sick - I was really struggling. And the Lord spoke a word. I would have liked 'rise and be well, your faith has made you well'. Instead I got one from Proverbs -  'The spirit of a man can endure his sickness but a broken spirit who can bare?  '

[4] ↩  I remember going to Fiji as part of my Bible College course to preach. The first thing that surprised me was how poor they were. They had very little. The second thing that surprised me was that the main Pastor that I stayed with preached the health-wealth, name it and claim it, blab it and grab it, 'God wants you rich', so-called gospel. And his bookshelf had plenty of books from the 'Hagins' and 'Copelands' of this world. I'd only been a Christian for three years but it was heartbreaking to see that.