In 1994, two different missionaries came to our church and asked us to pray for colleagues who had been taken hostage on the field. We began to pray for the release of Ray Rising with Wycliffe Translators and Mark Rich, Dave Mankins, and Rick Tennenoff with New Tribes Mission. After 810 days of captivity, Ray was set free and returned home to his family. On the other hand, we learned just this year that Mark, Dave, and Rick gave their lives for Christ in the jungle back in 1996. Why did things turn out so differently for these men when they were equally committed to serving Christ?
Our passage, the closing summary of the Hall of Faith chapter in Hebrews 11, helps us to answer that question. As the chapter closes, the writer is like a preacher who realizes that it's fifteen minutes to noon and he's only finished the first point of his sermon. Hebrews 11 reviews the great examples of faith from the Old Testament, but at the close of Hebrews 11:31, the author has only made it to the story of Joshua and the conquest. He has to hurry to finish the story, but in his hurry, the writer gives us an important perspective on faith. He reminds us that faith can have two very different outcomes in our lives.
He reminds us first of all that: Faith has enabled God's people to experience great victories (Hebrews 11:32-35).
Faith in God is what enables us to enjoy life's greatest victories. Faith has given God's people great victories by helping them to overcome overwhelming odds (Hebrews 11:32). Before the NCAA basketball tournament this spring, USA Today listed the odds of winning for every team in the tournament. The odds of the University of Hawaii winning were 5,000 to one; the University of Montana a billion to one; and poor Alcorn State, 10 trillion to one. The point here is that God's people have come out winners when the odds against them were of Alcorn State proportions.
Hebrews 11:32 gives us six names. Gideon, Barak, Jephthah, and Samson are representative of the judges, David the kings, and Samuel the prophets. One common denominator for these six is that they all overcame major odds at some point in their lives. Gideon destroyed the mighty Midianites with a fighting force of 300 men armed only with trumpets, torches, and clay pots. Samson pulled down the temple of Dagon when he was a has-been who had lost his strength. Jephthah became a leader in Israel even though his own family had disowned him. David defeated Goliath when he was a bigger underdog than Alcorn State. Faith overcomes overwhelming odds because God isn't limited by percentages and probabilities.
Faith has also given God's people victory by helping them to escape certain death (Hebrews 11:33-35). Faith "shut the mouths of lions" when there was no way out for Daniel (Hebrews 11:33). Faith "quenched the fury of the flames" when there was no way out for Daniel's friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Hebrews 11:34).
The rest of Hebrews 11:34 recalls heroes who escaped death by trusting God to fight their battles for them. There are multiplied Old Testament examples, but my personal favorite is in 2 Chronicles 20 where Jehoshaphat confidently declares, "The battle belongs to the Lord." Jehoshaphat went out to war and placed his musicians at the front of the line. "We're not going to fight; we're going to sing them to death." The army of Judah started singing and God came down and routed the enemy. 2 Chronicles 20:35 reminds us that faith reversed the finality of death itself when Elijah and Elisha gave two sons back to their grieving mothers.
We need to clarify something here. The writer credits the heroes of faith with these accomplishments, but what made the difference was not their faith; it was the God in whom they placed their faith. Hebrews 11 is not an "if you can believe it, you can achieve it" pep talk. John Goldingay has rightly observed that "the great thing about our hopes in God is that their fulfillment is not too dependent on the depth of our conviction. Their fulfillment is dependent on the depth of God's capacity to fulfill our hopes."1 It's not the size of our faith; it's the size of our God.
Now, I know that faith is believing what you can't see but I struggle with this text because I haven't seen God shut the mouths of lions or bring dead people back to life. But, Hebrews 11 isn't just a history lesson reciting God's great acts for others in the distant past; it is also an exhortation that stirs us to remember the victories that God has won for us in the recent past and to keep trusting him in the present (Hebrews 10:35-36). A student shared in one of our classes this week, "I want to praise God because we've been praying for my sister's drug problem and she called me yesterday to tell me that she had invited Christ into her life." Faith-won victories in the past give us confidence to keep trusting God in the present.
Marilyn Laslzo served as a single missionary in Papua New Guinea. She and some new converts from her village were returning home on the river with supplies when the outboard motor on their boat sputtered and died. They had forgotten the gasoline. Those new converts starting praying for God to start the motor, and Marilyn was praying for their faith not to be crushed when it didn't. They cranked the motor, it ran for 45 minutes, and they made it all the way back home. Faith is seeing the invisible, believing the improbable, asking for the unthinkable, and then celebrating when God turns the impossible into reality.
If the passage only talked about victories . . . But, it doesn't stop there. In the middle of Hebrews 11:35, the writer slams on the brakes, shifts gears, and throws it into reverse. There are times when you get to experience the thrill of victory and other times when you have to be ready to suffer the agony of defeat. The second outcome of faith is that: Faith has also enabled God's people to endure bitter defeats (Hebrews 11:35-40).
There are times when faith protects us from danger and other times when faith takes us through danger. Look at what these heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 had to endure. They were tortured, mistreated, and put to death. The end of Hebrews 11:35 may recall an event in the Book of Maccabbees where seven Jewish brothers and their mother are tortured for not renouncing their faith. They encourage each other in their torture to remember the resurrection and the promise of something better on the other side.
In this gallery of suffering, Hebrews 11:37 appears to recall the Jewish traditions that Jeremiah was stoned to death and Isaiah was placed inside a hollow log and sawed in half because they dared to deliver a message that a sinful nation refused to hear. There was no escape; there was no angelic intervention; there was no Daniel-like deliverance where God rescued from death. The original audience of Hebrews needed to hear their stories because they had already suffered hardships for their faith (Hebrews 10:32-34; Hebrews 12:4-7), and it was likely that their suffering was only going to become more severe.
There are two reasons why we have to be willing to accept the defeats along with the victories. Keeping our faith in the defeats is what makes our faith deep and strong. Someone has said, "American Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep." Our faith has shallow roots when we want the good things that God does for us but we walk away at the first sign of adversity. We need to steer clear of a rabbit's foot theology that treats God as a good-luck charm to keep us safe and warm.
Keeping our faith in our defeats is also how we experience our ultimate victories. That's the point in Hebrews 11:39-40. These "old covenant" heroes held on in their suffering because they were waiting for the "new covenant' blessings that we enjoy today. The curtain falls on Hebrews 11 with all of God's people still waiting for the ultimate victory.
If Christians never went through the defeat of death, they would never experience the ultimate victory of resurrection. When James Boice stood in front of his congregation at the Tenth Presbyterian Church to announce that he was suffering with incurable cancer, he told the church that he appreciated those who were praying for his healing but he wanted even more for the church to pray that he would face his illness with the courage and faith that would bring honor to his Savior.
Real faith is able to celebrate our ultimate victory even in our worst defeats!
Gary E. Yates is Assistant Professor of Bible at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio.
1 John Goldingay, Men Behaving Badly (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2000), 292.