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If you’re looking for a cogent definition of faith, and of how faith manifests itself among the Jewish people in the scriptures, you need look no further than the eleventh chapter of the letter to the Hebrews.
The opening verse captures the essense of the meaning of faith beautifully: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
And then the author gives examples of faith in the lives of the descendants of Adam, of the faith of Abraham, and of the faith of Moses.
Indeed, very existence of the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is predicated on the faith of Abraham:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.’
But this morning I want to focus on the latter part of the chapter. The writer has moved to the Exodus.
“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.”
Well, it’s true that they did pass through the Red Sea, but the faith lay mostly with Moses. The people at this point were complaining, “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
But they did pay attention to Moses, and they did make it across the Red Sea. After God closed the sea, drowning the Egyptians, “Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
“By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.”
Actually, the walls were more than encircled. In the sixth chapter of Joshua, God gives these instructions: “You shall march around the city, all the warriors circling the city once. “Thus you shall do for six days, with seven priests bearing seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, the priests blowing the trumpets.
“When they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, as soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and all the people shall charge straight ahead.”
And so, Joshua and the people followed God’s instructions, probably wondering how making a racket would cause a wall to collapse, but nevertheless having enough faith to follow through on the plan. And it worked.
“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”
Joshua had sent spies to Jericho. And when it was discovered that there were strangers in town, Rahab hid them, and saved their lives. So an arrangement was worked out.
If Rahab told no one about the spies, and placed a crimson cord in her window, she and her family would be spared when the city fell. So, after the wall collapses, the city is overrun, and all the other inhabitants are being killed, Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house, and bring the woman out of it and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.”
Then the writer of the letter to the Hebrews asks, “And what more should I say?
“For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets--who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”
In other words, the writer is saying, “I couldn’t possibly tell you about all the powerful examples of the work of faith.” But there is an attempt at a kind of summation. And it is likely that the writer is trying to identify names with whom the readers would be familiar.
The stories of Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah can all be found in the book of Judges. The stories of David and Samuel can be found in the books of Samuel. What we have here are four judges, a king, and a prophet, and we don’t know why they were chosen. It may have been that the writer considered them to be popular heroes of faith among the readers.
But then after identifying these six heroes, the writer further points out nine things that they have done.
First, the conquering of kingdoms, the administration of justice, and the obtaining of promises can probably be linked to all six of these heroes of faith.
All four judges engaged in warfare and conquered kingdoms, and it is said that David administered justice to all the people. All six persons obtained promises, but David enlarged Israel’s territory, brought peace to the land, and received God’s promise of a house forever.
Next, the writer is dealing with divine rescues gained through faith in shutting the mouths of lions, quenching raging fires, and escaping the edge of the sword.
Samuel, David, and Daniel all shut the mouths of lions, but most likely Daniel is the one the author has in mind. And through faith, three of Daniel’s friends survived a fiery furnace. Those who escaped the sword were many, including David, Elijah, and Jeremiah.
Finally, winning strength out of weakness, becoming mighty in war, and putting foreign armies to flight are all oriented toward military victories, although we aren’t sure about strength out of weakness.
That could refer to David’s victory over Goliath, or Gideon’s victory with a small army, or the victories of Deborah and Judith, who defeated stronger forces.
But the point of all these accomplishments by all of these people is the triumphant, successful outcome of faith.
And then the writer shifts gears.
“Women received their dead by resurrection.”
And this would seem to be a reference to the miracle of Elijah reviving the son of the widow of Zarephath in First Kings and the miracle of Elisha reviving the son of the Shunammite woman in Second Kings.
“Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.”
This may be referring to the mother and her seven sons, who, during the Maccabean period, refused to deny their faith in the hope of “a better resurrection,” as reported in Second Maccabees in the Apocrypha. In the fourteenth verse of the seventh chapter, one of the sons expressed this hope at his death: “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him.”
“Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.”
Faith that refused to give in brought verbal abuse, the pain and disgrace and humiliation of public flogging, and the countless indignities of prison.
The early readers of this letter could probably provide a long list of such who suffered, and no doubt many counted themselves among them.
The apostle Paul, in a single verse, the twenty-sixth of the eleventh chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians, reported that he was “on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters.”
And Paul was not reluctant to provide the specifics of his suffering. In the previous verse, he reported that “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked.”
Isn’t this fun? Don’t go away, it gets worse.
Returning to the letter to the Hebrews, “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented--of whom the world was not worthy.
“They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
It is as if we are providing a catalog of martyrs. We know that the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death.
And Saul of Tarsus looked on while it happened. Supposedly, Isaiah was sawn in two. Whenever there was a military revolt in the history of Israel there were warriors who hid in the deserts and the mountain caves, surviving almost like animals.
Harsh campaigns had been carried out against such rebels by the Greeks and the Romans. But note especially the words of the writer in characterizing these faithful few: “of whom the world was not worthy.” They lived by values and a hope beyond the understanding of others. And in their faithfulness, they were more than the world deserved.
This chapter offers two pictures of the life of faith. One is filled with triumph and victory over all enemies, with dramatic escapes from threats and dangers, even death.
But the other is marked by torture, public mocking, imprisonment, beatings, stonings, homelessness, destitution, hiding in caves, and violent death. And yet both pictures are descriptions of the life of trust in God.
But wasn’t Jesus life of faith also ambivalent? There were many stories of his miraculous healings, which was why he could draw thousands to come to see and hear him.
But there was also the story of his crucifixion, which caused almost all his followers to leave him. But was this not the same faithful Jesus?
The writer to the Hebrews goes on to say, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
Now, to understand this we need to back up to an earlier part of the chapter, in a discussion of the faith of Abraham and those who went before him.
We read, in the thirteenth verse, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”
When we speak of “what was promised,” we are definitely NOT speaking of near-term gain, but rather of God’s unfolding eternal purpose.
Too often we lose faith when God’s promises do not run on our schedules. We lose faith when the fulfillment of God’s promises don’t look like we expect them to look. We live in a culture of immediacy.
We believe that if we don’t have results now, or very soon, then something is very wrong. But that is the very point of faith. If all of our hopes and dreams arrived according to our schedules, there would be no NEED for faith.
But WE are not in charge. God is. And that necessitates our trust in God.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews has told us success stories; and we can cheer and say isn’t faith wonderful! But he has also told us stories of failure, stories of suffering, stories of those who died without reaping the immediate rewards. And we might, in those instances, be led to think, “so what’s the point of having faith?”
And the point is in the opening two verses of the twelfth chapter:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
How do we deal with the present and all its negatives and its frustrations? We disregard its shame. And why are we doing this? Because of the joy that is set before us. Because we believe, in faith, that there is an ultimate promise before us beyond anything we can comprehend.
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