Power and Perseverance (Hebrews 11:32-40)
Passage: Hebrews 11:32–11:40
I. Destitute, Afflicted, Mistreated
Let me begin this morning with a troubling description of a very troubled marriage. This is recounted by Pastor Dave Harvey in his book "When Sinners Say I Do".
"Gordon and Emma met at a church function. She was an admirable young woman, and he was a fairly new pastor. Their wedding day seemed to be the launch of a godly couple into the promise of fruitful ministry in the decades ahead. But just a few days into their honeymoon, all of Emma's dreams for her life were crushed. Gordon made it clear that he didn't love Emma, and that he had married her simply because there were more opportunities for married pastors than single ones.
For forty years, through the birth of six children, and all the while functioning as a pastor, Gordon made no meaningful attempt to kindle love for his wife. Freely admitting to an adulterous affair that began after the birth of their fourth child, Gordon insisted he must remain married—divorce would derail his pastoral career. Marriage for Emma became a life of secret shame. She was relegated to sharing a room with their two daughters, while her husband stayed in a separate room, and their four sons in another. This is part of the true story of a couple, now deceased, one of whom I knew personally."
To borrow words from our passage this morning, I think it's fair to describe Emma as a woman who was "destitute, afflicted, [and] mistreated". What would you do you if you found yourself in her situation?
Turn with me this morning, if you have not done so already, turn with me to the book of Hebrews. I have the distinct honor and privilege this morning of concluding the summer-long study that all of you have been enjoying through Hebrews 11, a passage that is often referred to as "The Hall of Faith".
II. The Setting: "You Have Need of Endurance" (10:32-39)
Before we dive into the closing verses of chapter 11, let me just remind of the circumstances that prompted this writer to write, as he describes it in 13:22, "a word of exhortation". Look at what we learn at the end of chapter 10...starting in verse 32:
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.
36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37 For, "Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; 38 but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him." 39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
Another passage that tells us little bit more about the original readers is found in chapter 6. You don't have to turn there, but listen to what the writer of Hebrews tells us about his readers (this is from the last half of v. 9):
...yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Did you notice what the writer was emphasizing in those passages? He was, number one, reminding them of how, in "the former days" (10:32), (Let me say that again) They had compassion on those in prison. They showed love to the saints. They were earnest. But on top of that, they did those things in the face of opposition, rejection, and persecution.
What else did the writer emphasize in those passages? Number two, in both of those passages (10:32-39; 6:9-12), the central thrust of the writer's words is a very strong encouragement, an exhortation, to not grow weary and give up, but through faith in God and His promises, to persevere in spite of opposition.
So for these Christians who had come out of Judaism, these Hebrew believers, for these disciples who were probably being persecuted by fellow Jews and religious leaders, for these saints who were probably being beaten down with warning after warning of their dangerous condition apart from the Law, apart from the Temple sacrifices, apart from the traditions of the Jewish elders, for these first readers, the writer offers powerful words containing both instruction and encouragement.
III. The Passage: "Of Whom the World Was Not Worthy" (11:32-40)
And this is precisely why we have chapter 11. When the writer stated in 10:39, that "we are not of those who shrink back, but of those who have faith", who exactly is included in that group? When he writes in 6:12 that God does not want them to be "sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises", who exactly should we imitate?
His answer to those questions begins in chapter 11. The kind of faith that this author is attempting to strengthen in his readers is not something new. Maybe that was one of the criticisms coming from the Jewish leadership against these Nazarenes, these Christians.
No, this faith was not something new. In fact, the Old Testament was filled with examples of powerful and persevering faith; of obedient and enduring faith.
Now, when you first read over chapter 11 and come to the end, when you come to our main verses, 32-40, you feel like you might getting the leftovers. I mean, come on, just look at chapter 11: Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses!
When you're talking about dudes like Barak and Jephthah, you feel like your dealing with the "B" team. It's like that old fashion peanut butter that you always have to stir. When you get to the end, what do you find at the bottom? Yeah, just gritty chunks of peanut butter paste, right?
But listen, it's not like that at all. Coming to the end of this chapter, to the end of this meal, we discover these aren't the leftovers; this is the dessert. Verses 32-40 are the climax of this incredible chapter. Just listen to how the momentum quickens in these verses. This is the "pound the pulpit" part of the sermon in Hebrews 11. If you don't believe me just listen to these words: 11:32-38...
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
Isn't that incredible! I love the way he begins verse 32: "And what more shall I say? For time would fail me..." Do you see what he is saying? He's not only saying, "Do I really have to keep going here...isn't it obvious by now that faith has always been what it's all about"; he's not only saying that. He's also saying, "there would not be enough time for me to give you every example of faith from the word of God...the Law and the Prophets and the Writings are filled with people like this."
Let's do this. Let's break this passage into three sections so we can think a little more carefully about the sweetness of this dessert, about the details of what we find here.
A. Faith-Fueled Power (32-35a)
First of all, look back at verses 32-35a. After having left off, in verses 30 and 31, in the time of Joshua, the writer moves chronologically into the period of the Judges. Here the writer lists the big four judges from the book of Judges; the ones to whom the most ink is devoted. He then moves forward in history to David and Samuel, and finally to the prophets, which would not only include guys like Elijah and Elisha, but also the writing prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve minor prophets.
Now, let's be clear about these examples. Most of the names given here are not examples of consistent, steady, enduring faith.
These guys all had their major character flaws (some more explicitly than others). But nevertheless, they are examples of the power of faith. That's why the writer goes on to give example after example of how faith powerfully worked through these men.
They conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions [probably a reference to Daniel], 34 quenched the power of fire [probably a reference to Daniel's three friends], escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection [obviously a reference to the ministries of Elijah and Elisha in I and II Kings].
Now remember the first verse of this chapter: "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen". None of the things listed in verses 32-35 happened because of human strength or wisdom. This is faith-fueled power at work.
And faith only has this kind of power because faith is nothing more than a conduit for the power of God.
Faith is conquering with the assurance that God will give the victory. Faith is sleeping with hungry lions with the conviction that God's unseen hand is around their mouths. Faith is stepping into the furnace with the assurance that God will quench the flames.
B. Faith-Fueled Perseverance (35b-38)
But look at how the list continues from the second half of verse 35 down to verse 38.
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
Here we find more examples of the power of faith. But the power that's on display here is specifically the power to endure, the power to not give-up. This is faith-fueled perseverance. Just think about some of the righteous sufferers of the Old Testament: Joseph, David, Elijah, Jeremiah. These were men who were, at some point, "destitute, afflicted, [and] mistreated".
Some were even killed for their faithful commitment to God's will. In II Chronicles 24, a prophet named Zechariah was stoned to death in the Temple courtyard by order of King Joash. Jewish traditions outside the Bible talked about Jeremiah being stoned to death as well, and the prophet Isaiah being sawn in half. The book of Kings tells us about those prophets that the wicked queen Jezebel murdered with the sword.
Listen, in contrast to what a lot of TV preachers declare, faith is not always about the power to prosper and succeed. Oftentimes, faith is about the power to persevere in the midst of rejection and ridicule; the power to endure in times of defeat; sometimes faith brings us the power to simply hang on for one more day.
C. How Much More (39, 40)
But look with me at the final two verses of this chapter, 39 and 40: And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
Look at what the writer is doing here. He's bringing it back around to the readers. He's bringing it back around to the reason he launched this OT review session in the first place. Remember what we said earlier about the original readers of this letter: From chapters 6 and 10 we saw how they had demonstrated both the power to do God's will and the perseverance to stand firm in spite of sinful resistance.
But, based on how the author's argument in Hebrews, based on his exhortations, that power and perseverance is under attack. But here at he end of chapter 11, doesn't the writer encourage them precisly on those two points? Hasn't this list of people and accomplishments in verses 32-38, hasn't it persuasively pointed out the precedent for the power and perseverance of faith?
How can they be tempted to go back under a fading covenant and man-made traditions, when in fact, the whole Old Testament is declaring on almost every page that faith...faith is what commends us to God? And true faith not only produces the power to do God's will, it also produces perseverance to stand firm in spite of sinful resistance.
But notice the argument presented in 39 and 40. Of the examples of faith given in chapter 11, not one of them ever received what was promised in terms of the "better"; in terms of the "complete"; in terms of what they were looking forward to. They didn't have that "better hope" (7:19); they didn't know that "better covenant" (7:22); that didn't have "better promises" (8:6) made possible by "better sacrifices" (9:23); they couldn't hold on to a "better possession...an abiding one" (10:34). And yet...they were marked by power and perseverance.
But as the author makes clear in v. 40, they did not receive these things because the time was not yet fulfilled. But...and here's the force of the exhortation...the time is now at hand. The writer is telling them, "My readers, please understand this: you are living in the "better"...you have experienced the beginning of the "better"...so how much more, how much more should the power and perseverance of faith be at work in your life?"
IV. The Key, the Vault, and the Priceless Jewel
Brothers and sisters, friends, this morning you may not be feeling pressured to blend back into Judaism. But...like the first readers of Hebrews, all of us, every day, are being pressured to blend back into a life of human merit ("Have I been good enough today?" "Does God still accept me?").
All of us, every day, are being pressured to blend back into a life of human wisdom ("Well, I can't love others until I first love myself."; "I just need to listen to my heart." "Oh, the kids will be better off if we're not together."). All of us, every day, are being pressured to blend back into a life of human passions ("I'll tell him what I really think. She'll be sorry. Just one more purchase. Just one more look. Just one more deal. Just one more...what?")
If a biblical writer like the author of Hebrews knew you, and sat down to write you a "word of exhortation", what would it say? What would it reveal?
I have absolutely no doubt that there are many people in here this morning who are just trying to hang on. Do you feel that way this morning? Are you worn out because of struggles with your spouse? Are you worn out because of struggles with your finances? Are you worn out because of struggles with lust or worry or guilt or grief or expectations or failures? Are you worn out because you just feel like you've fallen into a spiritual rut and there seems to be no way out? And every attempt you've made in such struggles has simply met sinful resistance?
If that's you, then I have great news for you this morning. For all those struggling with the poverty of sin, the poverty of doubt, there is a key...that opens a vault...that contains a priceless jewel that is yours if you'll receive it. (x2)
What am I talking about? I'm talking about the rest of Hebrews 11. I'm talking about the verses we missed. Why don't we just call them 11:41 and 11:42. In your Bible there probably labelled something like 12:1 and 12:2. Here's what they say:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [the Greek word here is the word martyr, that is, "one who testifies to the truth"...since we are surrounded by so great a clould of OT examples who are testifying to the truth...], let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking [not ultimately to those who have died...but to one who lives...looking..] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
This morning, I want you to raise your hand, if you desperately need both the power to do God's will and the perseverance to stand firm in spite of sinful resistance.
Well, if your like me, and you often feel that painful poverty of spiritual power and perseverance, than there is a key called faith...and it opens a vault called the promises of God...and that vault contains a priceless jewel who is Jesus Christ. He is yours if you'll receive Him. This day. Every day.
Listen to what the French pastor and theologian Calvin said about true faith and Jesus:
It was the apostle's intention to explain what is the nature of true faith, and in what it consists; that is, when the Son of God is known. To the Son of God alone faith ought to look; on him it relies; in him it rests and terminates. If it proceed farther, it will disappear, and will no longer be faith, but a delusion. Let us remember, that true faith confines its view so entirely to Christ, that it neither knows, nor desires to know, anything else. (John Calvin, Commentary on Ephesians)
And if you feel in your faith this morning, listen to what the Puritan writer Thomas Watson said: "We must distinguish between weakness of faith and no faith. A weak faith is true and may receive a strong Christ." Watson also said this: Faith believes the promise; but that which faith rests upon in the promise is the person of Christ...The promise is but the dish: Christ is the food in it that faith feeds on."
In all of our struggles, at all of those times when we feel like we are just barely hanging on, we are called to set the eyes of our faith on that priceless jewel that guarantees us that we are never and never will be spiritually lacking in any way.
It was the power and perseverance of Christ that made him the founder and perfecter of our faith. At the cross of Jesus Christ, on that lonely hill, on that bloody stake, we see the most glorious, the most instructive, the most perfect example of power to do God's will and of perseverance to stand firm in spite of sinful resistance. That's why the writer goes on in Hebrews 12:3 to say this:
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.
Listen to just one more example, a more recent example of power and perseverance:
"Gordon's disregard for Emma permeated almost every facet of their marriage...But Emma loved the Savior who was merciful to her and clung to Him through the trials and years. Bereft of human love from the man she had wed, she threw herself on the mercy of God...Emma understood the mercy and forgiveness of God for her sin, and accepted the Father's call to extend mercy toward her husband. Emma never allowed bitterness to take root in her heart. Instead she learned how to stand with dignity by entrusting her welfare to Christ...The marriage ended sadly and painfully after forty years...In the years following their divorce, Emma sent Gordon birthday cards and periodic letters, calling the lonely and rebellious man to God...Somewhere in that time, the mercy of God broke in on Gordon and he responded to the gospel call in saving faith. The children, now adult Christians, lovingly confronted him on his past sins, and for the first time Gordon took responsibility for the destruction of his family."
Now after writing a letter of confession to Emma, listen to how she responded to this man who had sinned against her so grievously for so long. She wrote this:
"It is with mixed emotions that I read your letter. Sad, as I was reminded of many difficult years, but also glad for the work the Spirit of God is doing in your life. Glad to hear you share your failures so frankly and ask for my forgiveness. And glad to hear you shared them with your children. Gordon, I forgive you. I forgive you for not loving me as Christ loved the church and for your disregard of our marriage vows...God uses confession and forgiveness to bring healing. I'm trusting God that will be true for both of us."
Only faith in the One who forgives us can produce in us power to forgive like this. Only faith in the One who endured so much for us can produce in us persevrance like Emma's.
It's not enough to know the facts of God's promises. It's not enough to have photos of that priceless jewel, the photos of intellectual knowledge or family tradition or a long ago spiritual experience. Without faith, the vault is sealed. Without a fervent trust, without a vibrant assurance that Jesus is who is He said He is, that Jesus did what He said He would do, that Jesus is a living Lord who will bring His victory to a perfect resolution for our good and God's glory, without that kind of faith, we are cut off from true wealth.
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 10:39)
And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:11, 12)
Where are you looking this morning for the power and perseverance to keep going? Look to Jesus. Look to Jesus.
If you raised your hand this morning a few minutes ago, I want to pray for you. I want to pray for myself as well in light of God's word for us this morning. Let's pray.