Hebrews 11:1-40 is the Bible’s famous “hall of faith” passage. It cites example after example of Old Testament characters who “by faith” did extraordinary things and received extraordinary blessings and deliverances. And the list of victories is certainly impressive. By faith:
- Enoch did not see death.
- Noah built an ark and saved his family.
- Abraham left his home in Ur and journeyed to his promised land of Canaan.
- Sarah gave birth to a child when she was past age.
- Abraham offered up Isaac and received him back alive.
- Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau.
- Jacob blessed Joseph.
- Joseph gave instructions that his bones should one day be buried in Canaan.
- Moses’ parents hid him as a child.
- Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.
- Moses forsook Egypt and led the Israelites through the Red Sea on dry land.
- The walls of Jericho fell.
- Rahab’s life was spared.
- Israel’s Judges, Kings, and Prophets won great victories over their enemies.
- Kingdoms were subdued.
- Righteousness was worked.
- Promises were obtained.
- The mouths of lions were stopped.
- The fires of violence were quenched.
- God’s people escaped the edge of the sword
- Weak people were made strong.
- Cowards became valiant in battle.
- Enemy armies were turned to flight.
- Women saw their dead resurrected (see 1 Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 4:8-37).
For the Christian, this is all wildly encouraging stuff. It makes you want to take on the world for God, right all the wrongs, and claim every victory in Him. You think, “If I fight for God and He fights for me, how can I possibly come out on the losing end?”
Unfortunately, however, there is more to the passage than all these “feel good” stories. For one thing, the list of Old Testament characters actually begins by talking about how Abel (by faith) offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, only to have Cain kill him out of jealousy (Hebrews 11:4). For another, about halfway through verse 35, the passage takes an abrupt turn down a much darker path. That change begins with a single word: “Others.” Read carefully what follows that word (with me adding some emphasis to a couple of parts):
…Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise… (Hebrews 11:35-39, N.K.J.V.)
Now, let’s be honest, these “others” don’t fit so easily into our idea of God fighting for those who show faith by doing His bidding. Oh, we love to read the story of Daniel in the lions’ den as the example of how the mouths of lions were stopped. But what do we do with those faithful servants who “were sawn in two”? (For the record, Jewish tradition holds that Israel’s wicked king Manasseh had the prophet Isaiah placed in the hollow trunk of a tree and then commanded the tree be sawn down.)
You see, this section of the “hall of faith” deals with a completely different category of faith. It deals with the faith it takes to be an earthly “loser” and yet still retain your faith in the Lord. It’s one thing to remain strong in your faith as you are walking through the Red Sea on dry land or watching the walls of Jericho fall, but it’s quite another to retain it as you are being stoned to death (as Zechariah was: 2 Chronicles 24:20-22) or killed with a sword (as Urijah was: Jeremiah 26:20-23).
So, how is it possible to keep one’s faith during times of persecution and even martyrdom? The answer is found in the hope of afterlife rewards. According to the passage, there is such a thing as “a better resurrection” that can be earned. Jesus was on this same subject when He said:
“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12, N.K.J.V.)
Blessed are the reviled servants of God? Blessed are the persecuted servants of God? Blessed are the slandered servants of God? You got it. While earthly victories and deliverances are rousing and inspiring, they are just that, earthly ones. And while these victories do merit a certain degree of reward in eternity as the believer’s faith is rewarded there as well, it’s the earthly losses and martyrdoms that carry the most eternal weight, assuming they were accomplished by faith in the Lord’s service. This is the great promise these “others” can claim, and it’s the one you can claim, Christian, concerning those times when you did God’s will and the enemy still walked all over you.