February 10, 2019
We’ve all heard them – pithy Christian sayings or “truths” that aren’t actually in the Bible. I remember when I was in Bible college – we went to a large church. The pastor told about a phone call he’d received that week where the caller asked, “Where does it say in the Bible that a woman ain’t got no soul?” We’ve all heard them, haven’t we?
How about this one, “God helps those who help themselves”? Is that in the Bible? Is that even true?
How about, “When God closes a door, He opens a window.” What does that even mean?
How about, “Well, we’re not supposed to judge.” Really?
Or, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Or, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”
I want to talk about this last one – we’ve all heard it: God will not give you more than you can handle.
It’s a well-intentioned piece of Christian wisdom. We usually share its profound encouragement at times of greatest suffering and loss – perhaps when we don’t know what else to say. It’s sounds so spiritual, even though, it often doesn’t match our experience. And those we seek to encourage with such weighty insight, if they are at all spiritual, nod in ready agreement. Put on a brave, knowing and happy smile.
But on the inside, they wonder. Because it sure seems like they’re facing something beyond their personal abilities and resources. On the inside, they’re crushed, and if truth were told, beyond the expected mature response, they’re crumbling. Do they dare share their fears and doubts, their struggles – and if they do, will they condescendingly be seen as less than trusting, less than faithful?
Where do we get the saying? Is it biblical? Is it true? Or as one asks, is it conventional Christian wisdom masquerading as biblical truth? I suppose it comes from Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” But this is talking about temptation to sin – and with each temptation, God will provide a way to escape the temptation – to endure, to not give in. Yes, of course. But can this verse be applied to suffering in the Christian life? Are there times you face challenges and struggles and trials when the only place you can look is not inward, but upward? When the only response is to cry out, how long, O Lord?
Perhaps the best we can say to people who are suffering is, I can’t imagine the pain, the sorrow, the struggle, the loss. It must be more than you can bear, but I will seek to bear it with you; I will weep with you who weep; I will pray when you find it difficult to do so; I will believe when your faith is weak; I will stand when with you when you cannot. Cast your care, your burden on Christ, for He cares for you.
We are studying the book of Hebrews. It’s written by an anonymous pastoral heart to Jewish believers who were facing severe persecution and opposition. And it seems like it may be getting worse. Interestingly, the author does not say, God will never give you more than you can handle. Nor does he promise a lessening of the trial – buck up, this too will pass. But rather that the end, that which is promised, is worth it. Even if that end brings greater suffering, even death.
We’ve been in Hebrews 11 for some time – the great Hall of Faith. He’s seeking to encourage us – look to the many examples of others who have lived by faith – in the midst of adversity, even though they didn’t receive everything promised. So, we’ve spent several weeks looking at lots of OT examples. Now, the author apparently glances at his watch, and like any good pastor, realizes he’s about out of time. And he sums up his encouragement with a quick burst. It’s our text today – read it with me – Hebrews 11:32-40.
All of a sudden, that conventional Christian wisdom seems to falter. Whatever happened to God won’t give you more than you can handle? Whatever happened to the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will? Have you ever heard that one? Maybe, just maybe, there is a potential cost to the Christian faith. (Ex.) So what’s the encouragement? The last verse – God has provided something better for us. You see, we’ve seen the ultimate fulfillment of the promise, in Christ – so hold on.
Again, the author realizes if he kept going, it could take some time to list all the examples of faith that come to mind. So he summarizes quickly, but not perhaps in ways we would expect. If he’s trying to encourage people persevere, would he encourage them with these words? (when God closes a door, He opens a window.) Let’s follow this outline:
- The “Unnamed” Examples (32)
- The Triumphs of Faith (33-35a)
- The Sufferings of Faith (35b-38)
- The Approval of Faith (39-40)
He starts with a list of 6 names – men of OT renown who could be listed as examples of faith, if only he had the time. They aren’t listed in order, but appear to be three pairs, with each pair listed in reverse chronological order:
- Gideon and Barak
- Samson and Jephthah
- David and Samuel
Now, five of the six are judges, and David, of course, is the great king of Israel. Perhaps Samuel is listed last as a prophet to go with the other unnamed prophets at the end of the verse. Look briefly at the exploits of these six – I’ll follow the author’s example and assume we’re out of time, mentioning them only briefly:
Gideon was the judge who delivered the Israelites from the Midianites. It’s a great story in Judges 6 and 7. The angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon while he was secretly threshing wheat to keep it from the oppressors. The angel says to Gideon, who is hiding, “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.” I can see Gideon glancing around. Long story short, Gideon gathers an army of 32,000 to effect a deliverance. God says, that’s too many. So he whittles it to 10,000 – still too many. By the time God is done, Gideon goes against a countless army with three hundred soldiers armed with trumpets and clay pitchers and lamps. The Midianite army is thrown into confusion and Gideon wins the battle. That took great faith.
Next is Barak, who actually comes before Gideon in Judges 4 and 5. He goes to battle against King Jabin and Commander Sisera and the Canaanites with their 900 iron chariots. This is a formidable force – the odds seemed stacked against them. But he goes to battle with ten thousand Israelite soldiers, and we read the Lord routed Sisera before them – all the enemy soldiers fell to the sword that day. It was a resounding victory – accomplished by faith.
The next two are a bit odd to find listed – we have to look hard to see their acts of faith which found them in this great chapter. The first is Samson in Judges 13ff. What comes to mind when you think of Samson, besides womanizer. Well, he was a Nazarite from before his birth, which means he didn’t drink, or actually partake of anything from grapes, he didn’t shave or cut his hair, and he didn’t touch dead bodies. He was set apart to the Lord from his birth, and God used him to bring deliverance from the dreaded Philistines, who I call the Klingons of the OT. In fact, Samson, in an act of great faith, killed more Klingons in his death than all those in his lifetime.
Then there’s judge Jephthah. His story is found before Samson’s – in Judges 11 and 12. While the son of a harlot, driven from his father’s family, God used him to bring about yet another great deliverance for Israel – this time, from the Ammonites. In fact, we read the Lord was with Jephthah and gave the enemy into his hand with a great slaughter.
Which brings us to the next name as we move quickly through the list. And it’s a good thing the author barely mentions David, because we could spend a long time on him. Surely, he was a man of great faith who God used to finally bring peace to Israel from all her enemies – all around. He, too, fought the Philistines and won great victories. But that battle of greatest faith which perhaps comes to mind is that of David and Goliath.
Most of you know the story. The Israelites had gone to war – once again with the Philistines. As they drew up battle lines, this time, the Philistine giant Goliath – over nine feet tall – stepped forward and challenged the Israelites to a one-on-one duel. Whoever wins, wins the war, and the loser becomes servant to the winner. The Israelites are quaking in their collective sandals. But one day little shepherd boy David – himself not a soldier – visits his brothers at the front lines. He hears the taunts of this giant, goes to Saul and says he will fight the giant. You know the story, he runs out with five stones and his sling – Goliath runs out in full battle array with sword and spear.
Goliath, when he sees this little teenager, yells, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And he cursed David by his gods. He continued, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field.” And David responded, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. This day the LORD will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. And I will give the dead bodies of the army of the Philistines this day to the birds of the sky and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not deliver by sword or by spear; for the battle is the LORD’s and He will give you into our hands.”
That is a boast of great faith. They ran toward each other, David used his sling to bury a stone into Goliath’s forehead, and the rest is history. It’s really greater than childhood Sunday School fame. It’s amazing faith.
Bringing us to Samuel. Samuel is considered the first of the prophets and the last of the judges. His entire life was characterized by faith. Even his birth was the result of Hannah’s faith. From his childhood, God used him in great ways to bring about much needed change and deliverance in the nation of Israel.
But now, let’s look at that list for just a quick moment longer. Because all of them, at least five of them, demonstrated significant personal weakness – great lapses of faith. Consider:
Gideon was hiding when God found him and called him. The whole fleece thing – where Gideon put out a fleece to have God prove Himself to him – make the fleece wet and the ground dry; make the ground dry and the fleece wet – it was a lack of faith that Gideon demonstrated.
What about Barak? Through Deborah, God called Barak to go deliver the Israelites from the Canaanites. Barak’s response? I won’t go, Deborah, unless you go with me. This was before women in combat. This was a lack of faith. And Deborah says fine, but God will give ultimate victory over Sisera to a woman. And we remember that great story. Sisera is fleeing, goes to the tent of Jael for rest and food. Please give me some water, he asks. Oh, no problem, she says. Here, lay down and let me tuck you in and get you some warm milk and cookies. Then when he falls fast asleep, she took a tent peg and hammer and nailed his sorry head to the ground. It’s a great story, and a lapse of faith on Barak’s part.
What about Samson? Most of us know about Samson’s significant weakness with foreign women. Most of what he did in his deliverance of Israel against the Philistines were acts of petty jealousy as a result of his weakness with women.
What about Jephthah? What do I do with that story? Jephthah is about to go to war with the Ammonites and makes a foolish vow. God, if you’ll give me victory, I’ll sacrifice whatever first comes out of my house upon my return. God gave him victory, and what was the first thing out of his house to welcome him back? His only daughter. Now, there’s some question as to whether Jephthah sacrificed his daughter or committed her to perpetual virginity – but the point is, his vow was altogether foolish and lacked faith. He was buying God off.
Then there’s David. Do I need to review his significant lapses – his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah? But there was also the time he demanded that Joab take a census – against Joab’s advice that resulted in God’s displeasure and the deaths of 70,000 Israelites. It was a lack of faith – he wanted to know how many people he had – rather than trusting God.
What about Samuel? There’s not much to say about him, other than his own sons turned from following the Lord. His failure was family. Why do I bring up all these failures? Because everyone points them out – and they seem to be intentional in this list – a list of men of faith, yes – but all with significant challenges. And if we looked closely enough, we could find failures with everyone in the chapter. You see, the Bible never presents its heroes as perfect people. They were flawed people of faith – just like you, just like me. And the encouragement to us is to remain people of faith, despite our failures and lack of faith. God accepts our faith, weak as it is. You never come to the point where you say, I’ve been too much of a failure. Exercise faith.
Very quickly then, let’s look at the triumphs of faith in verses 33-35a – and there are several. Now certainly, some of these triumphs point to the men just listed, but others refer to well-known events beyond these men. Most point out the following list of nine things are in three groups of three:
First, these men by faith conquered kingdoms – certainly the judges did as they led Israel against their oppressors, and David did the same – accomplishing something the Israelites had never known – peace. Second, by faith they performed acts of righteousness, third, by faith they obtained promises – namely, control of and peace in the land.
Which brings us to the next group of three. By faith, they shut the mouths of lions. David and Samson did that. But who typically comes to mind is Daniel, who prayed to God in violation of the king’s decree, and was thrown into the lions’ den. We know the story – the next morning, Daniel was found unharmed. God shut the mouths of the hungry lions.
Next, by faith they quenched the power of fire. Having drawn our attention to Daniel, we now think of Daniel’s three friends – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They refused to bow at the 90-foot image Nebuchadnezzar had set up. They were brought before the king, who gave them another chance, demanding they bow to his divine image. You remember their response of faith in Daniel 3?
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter.
17 “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king.
18 “But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Nebuchadnezzar was filled with rage, and ordered the furnace be heated 7 times hotter than normal – and commanded these three Hebrews be thrown in. But when they were, not only were they not consumed, but the Son of God Himself walked with them in the fire. This is all going just like it’s supposed to. Obey by faith, and see great triumphs of faith. Next, they escaped the edge of the sword, right? The judges, David, others.
Leading us to the next three triumphs. Hallelujah – this is great news. By faith, from weakness they were made strong. Gideon was. Samson was. Jephthah was. David was. By faith, they became mighty in war – read the stories of the judges and the godly kings who prevailed in battle. By faith they put foreign armies to flight – we saw that in the stories of all those judges.
Why, verse 35, women received back their dead by resurrection. What is that talking about? Elijah and Elisha, who both brought young boys back from the dead and returned them to their mothers – from Elijah to the poor widow of Zarephath, from Elisha to the wealthy Shummanite woman. This is all happening just like it’s supposed to. Live victoriously by faith.
But then we get to the next point, verses 35-38. And all of a sudden, the tide turns:
Others were tortured, not accepting their release. The word tortured is specific which speaks of being tied to a rack and beaten to death. The word is used of a well-known event in the second century BC during the period of the Maccabees. The story appears in 2 Maccabees. Now, that’s a book that was written between Malachi and Matthew, so it’s not part of the Bible. But it and other books written during this time contained much Israelite history – again, well known. In this story, a 90-year-old scribe named Eleazar refused to eat pork as demanded by Antiochus Epiphanes, and was tortured to death in the way referenced here. So also, another well known story, seven brothers were viciously tortured who refused to recant their faith. They became known as the Maccabean martyrs.
Why? Very interesting – they could have done so and accepted release. But instead, they looked for a better resurrection. Better than whose? The two boys just mentioned. You see, they were raised and returned to their mothers, only to die again. But these, the author says, will be raised to eternal life, never to die again. In the story, the seven brothers proclaimed, one after the other, you can take our lives, but we will be raised because of our faith. So is persecution, opposition worth it? If we believe the end for which we are destined – future, eternal resurrection.
The text goes on. Others experienced mockings or jeering and scourging, even chains and imprisonment. This was experienced by Jeremiah, Hanani, Micaiah, the Macabbean martyrs. Name after name, they simply blur together. They were stoned, which refers at least to Zechariah, the son Jehoiada the priest, who was stoned by the order of Joash, a wicked king. Tradition says Jeremiah met the same fate in Egypt after fleeing and denouncing the idolatrous practices of Jews there. We read others were sawn in two – that likely refers to the traditional story of Isaiah being sawn in half while having fled and hiding in a cedar tree under the reign of wicked Manasseh.
They were tempted – likely referring to the temptation to deny their faith in God. We read earlier, some had escaped the edge the sword, but clearly not all. Others were put to death with the sword. Elijah escaped Jezebel – others didn’t. While Jeremiah earlier escaped the sword of Jehoiakim, his contemporary Uriah who had foretold the doom of Jerusalem and Judah, fled to Egypt like Jeremiah was captured, returned to Jehoiakim, and struck down with the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins – referring to the clothing of the prophets who declared God’s truth, and paid for it. They were destitute, afflicted, ill-treated, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. This refers to the large number of the faithful who sought refuge in remote places rather than compromise their convictions – indeed truth.
And all of a sudden, the best place to be is in the center of God’s will may not be true. All of a sudden God will not give you more than you can handle may not be true. But of these men, the author says the world was not worthy. Put all the world’s heroes – all their mighty men, all their exploits, all their victories, all their accolades, all their treasures, all they live for and pine for – put them against these people who gave it all because of their faith in God – and these people of faith tip the scale. The world is not worthy of them.
Bringing us to our last point. How do we face this kind of opposition, this kind of suffering by faith? Verses 39 and 40. All these, having gained approval through their faith – stop right there. That’s what he said back in verse 2. This forms bookends to the chapter. By faith, through their actions, in their victories, and in their sufferings, all these received approval. From whom? From God. Even though they did not receive the fullness of what was promised. Why not?
Verse 40. Incredibly, because God had promised something better. We’ve seen that word before. It’s a favorite of this author. They had been promised a better city, a better country. But they would not receive the fullness of the promise until Christ finished His work – until we – New Covenant believers had come. You see, apart from Christ and the New Covenant, apart from us, they would not be perfected. But now, Christ has come. And they, and we, can be perfected by His work.
So what do we do with this today? We stop listening to the world’s wisdom, even so-called Christian wisdom, and we speak truth – biblical truth to ourselves. We believe, even though it costs us – knowing He intends something better for us. The best has come in Christ – and the best is yet to come. So hold on.