On Faith: In Victory and Defeat

Hebrews 11 sprints to a finish with a list of characters and accomplishments of faith.

First, the characters:

Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah were all judges in Israel together had a list of impressive military accomplishments. In each case, their victory came, not from military might, but from the strength of God. David, Samuel, and the prophets have their own impressive resume of faith.

Second, the accomplishments:

The list of accomplishments is impressive and each item refers back to a great story. Thematically, there are two kinds of “accomplishments” in faith. One list (33-35a) is obviously positive. The second list (33b-37) is not, at first glance, so great. The first list shows how faith leads to victory. The second shows how faith gives us strength, even in defeat.

The accomplishments of faith in 33-35a include military victories, preservation of life and limb (“escaped the edge of the sword”) and receiving back their dead. These are obviously feats of miraculous victory. Sometimes, God gives us victory against all odds when we are faithful to Him. Daniel, whose story is referenced in this list, is the perfect example. He boldly prayed, in view of everyone, despite the king’s command, but was ultimately saved from the mouths of the lions.

The accomplishments in 35b-37 start with this: “others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.” From there it moves to enduring flogging, jeering, imprisonment, destitution, and death by stoning and the sword. It’s worth noting that by faith some “escaped the edge of the sword” (34, first list) and by faith some “were put to death by the sword” (37, second list). The outcomes were different even though both were acting by faith. One was an obvious victory, the other what appeared, at least to those on the outside, as a defeat.

The accomplishment of faith in the second list is this: by faith the people of God remained faithful to God, even to the point of death, and for it received a better resurrection.

Looking for, and finding, a better home:

The passage concludes by saying “the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” This reaffirms what the writer said earlier about Abraham, that he lived in tents because, “he was looking for a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (10) and again, “people who says such things show that they are looking for a country of their own” (14). Those who were rejected by the world because of their obedience found their home with God.

In the world I live in, I do not face the threat of active persecution. I live in a remarkably free country by historical standards and for that I am extremely grateful. However, the world could turn, and already shows some signs of doing so. The offense of the cross is ever present. Even without the threat of persecution, we American Christians are still called to boldness. To that end, this passage teaches us two things.

First: Defeat for the sake of Christ is really victory.

Second: If you live by faith your reward will come. It might not come in this life, but it will come.

I will conclude with the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecute the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

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