“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.” Hebrews 11:35b -40
We like to tell the stories about the great men and women of faith who in the last-minute were delivered by God from their fiery ordeal. It makes for good copy and good sermons. But what shall we say about “the others.” We don’t like to hear the rest of the story when it comes to the men and women who died before receiving their promise. These others cause us to cringe and wonder if we could remain so faithful in the midst of the same hardships and difficulties. The transition that we see here is important, not all men and women of faith experience miraculous deliverances. The scriptures are faithful to remind us of this point.
What distinguishes the people in the first half of Hebrews 11 from the people in the last half of the text? In some cases, nothing. In some cases, the same people are listed in both halves of the text. They saw wonderful victories and at other times they endured seeming defeat. These “others” had faith, but God did not see fit to deal with them in the same way he dealt with those who had experienced victories.
Let me make this point again…these unknown men and women of faith were not delivered from difficult circumstances, yet God honors their faith. In fact, it takes more faith to endure than it does to accept an escape.
These believers are like the three Hebrew young men of Daniel 3 who, when threatened with death by fire, exclaimed in verses 16-18, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.”
Verse 37 reminds us that one of the hardships of faith is knowing some “were slain with the sword.” Although Elijah escaped the vengeance of Jezebel, other prophets of the same period were slain (1 Kings 19:10). Jeremiah’s life was delivered from Jehoiakim the king, but his fellow prophet Uriah was slain by the sword and his body cast into a common grave (Jer. 26:33).
This truth is emphasized in the New Testament as well. In the time of the Apostles, Herod Agrippa killed James with the sword but Peter escaped (Acts 12:1-11).
It is better for the believer to believe and prepare for both deliverance and hardship. In fact, it is better to plan for hardship and receive deliverance than to plan for deliverance and receive hardship. This seems to be the approach of the great men and women of faith.
In spite of the fact that the world held these men and women of faith in low esteem, this was not the estimation of God. God said of them, “of whom the world was not worthy” (v.38).
It is said they did not accept deliverance that “they might obtain a better resurrection.” (v.35). How can the death of a martyr be a “better resurrection?” Better than what?
The resurrection that martyrs aspired to was a resurrection to eternal life. This “better resurrection” is the hope of all who die in Christ (1 Thess. 4:16).
John Piper says,
“The common feature of the faith that escapes suffering and the faith that endures suffering is this, both of them involve believing that God himself is better than what life can give you now, and is better than what death can take from you later. When you have it all, faith says that God is better, and when you lose it all, faith says that God is better. What does faith believe in the moment of torture? That if God loved me, he would get out this? No. Faith believes that there is a kind of resurrection for believer’s which is better than the miracle of escape. It’s better than the kind of resurrection experienced by the widow’s son, who returned to life to die again later.”
A modern example of one who had this kind of faith was a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He left his prestigious position as a professor at the University of Berlin to join the ranks of those who stood against Hitler and the Nazis within the German church. The professor of systematic theology said that Bonhoeffer was foolish saying, “It is a great pity that our best hope in the faculty is being wasted on the church struggle.” God chose for Bonhoeffer the same route as that of the saints in the second half of Hebrews 11. He was arrested and imprisoned. He was eventually hung in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp. His body was tossed aside into a pile of corpses and burned. His death came only two days before the Americans liberated the Flossenburg Camp. As he faced the fury of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer said, “The ultimate responsible question is not how can I heroically make the best of a bad situation, but rather how the coming generation can be enabled to live.”
When I review the great men and women of faith, I am reminded that service to God is a privilege and honor. It is not that you “have to serve” the Lord, but you are “given the privilege and opportunity” to stand with the men and women of faith who faithfully serve the Lord in both good and bad circumstances. The only question is will you choose to stand with “the others” and count it as a priviledge and honor to serve the Lord it all circumstances?