The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Yesterday I tried to build a bridge from our talk about covetousness into the book of Hebrews. And let me cross that bridge backward, and then walk over it again with you so that you see the connection. Then we’ll move into a passage in Hebrews 11.
Nothing Can Separate
We were in Philippians 4, remember? And we were talking about Philippians 4:19: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches and glory in Christ Jesus. To him be glory forever and ever.” And therefore, you don’t need to be covetous about things because God will supply all your needs. You can trust in him.
And I also used Hebrews 13:5–6.
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”
We also linked in there Romans 8, because that little phrase, “The Lord is my helper. . . .What can man do to me?” reminds us of Romans 8:31–32 where Paul asked the rhetorical question:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
Now you recall from Philippians 4:11–13 that the “all things” that will be provided to us according to verse 19, and the all things that are promised to us according to Romans 8:32 include the ability to starve and go naked. What we didn’t do as clearly is keep reading in Romans 8. So let’s just keep going there after verse 32.
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
We are being killed all day long. We are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. So, that’s real. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” “We are being counted as sheep to be slaughtered. We are being killed all day long.” You’ve got to put verse 32 together with verses 35–36. And then, comes the answer: “No, no, no, no, don’t misunderstand,” Paul says.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37–39)
The hope that we have as Christians is not to escape the sword. It is not to escape famine. It is not to escape hunger. It is not to escape persecution. It is that “in all these things we are more than conquerors,” and that in them, nothing can separate us from the love of God and the love of Christ.
All by Faith
Now, we may be ready for one of the most amazing texts on faith in all the bible. So, I hope you will open your Bibles with me to Hebrews 11:29–38. Let’s read this. And while I read it, I’m going to alert you to be watching for something. I remember years ago when this text first clobbered me because of the amazing transition in the middle of verse. Watch for the massive shift in this text in the kind of thing that God brings to you by faith.
By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.
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 — who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 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. Women received back their dead by resurrection.
We’re all excited at this point because faith is doing what it’s supposed to do. And the rest of this text is under the prepositional phrase “by faith.” Nothing is changing here. He did not insert in the middle of verse 35, “Now by unbelief here’s what happens.”
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 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 — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
That’s as far as I’ll read. This is a great text for blowing away the fog of what it means to live by faith. I hate the gospel of health, wealth, and prosperity. I hate it because it is so damaging to people, so dishonoring to God, so obscuring of the glory of the grace of God in the lives of suffering people, and so contrary to Scripture. This text walloped to me big time years ago and I want it to wallop you with five points.
1. God works through miracles and providence to deliver his people.
So, here’s number one: Through our faith God can, and does, work miracles and acts of providence to bring practical earthly help and deliverance to his people. By faith, God does work miracles. Miracles happen. God works miracles for his people, and acts of providence. Let me define those two terms: miracles and acts of providence.
A miracle is something where God intrudes into the ordinary cause-and-effect structure of things, in a way that something really striking and unusual and out of the ordinary happens. And there are a bunch of them in this text. For example,
the dividing of the Red Sea;
or the falling down of the walls of Jericho because trumpets are blowing;
or the shutting of the mouths of lions, who no doubt have been kept hungry so that Daniel would be eaten;
or the quenching of fire for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they’re thrown into the fire;
or the resurrection of the son of the widow of Zarephath.
These are things we call miracles: they don’t happen unless God intrudes and breaks the ordinary chain of cause and effect so that it’s visibly strange. So I say miracles happen by faith, from God’s people, to give them practical help and deliverance. Yes, that happens, and we ought to ask for it on the mission field and everywhere else.
What I mean by acts of providence, when I say God does acts of providence to give that kind of practical help, is that God (like R.C. Sproul says in his book The Invisible Hand), behind the ordinary course of cause and effect in the world is the governor over those things, such that they turn out for the good of his people. And there are examples of that in this text as well. Let’s look at a few of them. For example,
Rahab did not perish because she had heard of the power of God in Israel (Joshua 2:9–11). So through ordinary conversation and gospel witness, the message got from the Red Sea up to Jericho long before the Jewish army ever arrived. And she had heard the news, and she believed it. And by believing it, she received these spies and got delivered.
Or David conquers kingdoms. How? Wielding a sword with a good army. And yet, over and over again, you read in the book of Kings, and Samuel, and Chronicles, that God gave them the victory. They did the fighting, they swung the sword, they shot the arrow, they drove the chariots. It looked like an ordinary victory to everybody else. But the Bible says God gave them the victory. God’s invisible hand was behind every arrow and every sword slash so that it landed where it was supposed to land to get the victory for the people of God.
Another example here is Gideon strengthened out of weakness.
Or another one would be putting foreign armies to flight.
Elijah escapes the edge of the sword. What does he do to escape? He runs. He runs away from Jezebel. That’s pretty ordinary. No big miracle happening there. But it says God enabled him to escape, if he’s the one being referred to there.
So, here’s the first point. This is point number one: by faith God does miracles for his people to give them deliverance and practical help, and by faith, God does more ordinary acts of providence by which he uses the things that are happening in the world to bring to pass things that cause your visa to show up just in time, or some door to open that you don’t know how in the world it opened, that you were begging God to open for you.
By faith, by faith, they passed through the Sea. By faith, the Walls of Jericho fell down. But also, by faith, Rahab did not perish and by faith, they conquered kingdoms and so on. That’s point number one: yes, let’s ask God for them and look for them, hope for them.
2. True faith does not guarantee comfort or safety.
However, point number two: God does not always work miracles and acts of providence for the deliverance of his people from suffering. But sometimes, by faith, God sustains his people through sufferings, horrendous sufferings. That’s the point of verses 35–38. Here’s another way to put it: true faith in God is no guarantee of comfort and safety in this life. I think that’s absolutely crucial to teach in our churches and to see for missionaries especially, and for the rest of us. The miseries in our lives are no sure sign of unbelief. The miseries in our lives are no clear or sure sign of unbelief.
Now, you can see this in two ways in this text in verses 35–38. You can see it in two ways.
Mocked — By Faith
In verse 33, notice that it begins, “who through faith conquered kingdoms . . .” And then, without any grammatical break in the list or sequence, it continues right on through verses 35–38, so that “by faith” can be shown grammatically to be governing the negative as well as the positive in this text.
We need to make that plain: By faith they were tortured. By faith they experienced mockings and scourgings. Because grammatically, the “by faith” that began in verse 33 is continuing on through the text. There’s no stop, and there’s no replacing it with “by unbelief.” It is by faith that all these painful tragedies are happening. All this misery is received and endured by faith. You can see that grammatically. You don’t have to guess at it. You don’t have to speculate. It’s there in the text.
Believe the Whole Bible
There’s another way to see it. This one’s even clearer. Look at verse 39. After the list is given, and after these people experience them, and walk in sheep skins, and are destitute, and live in holes and caves, it says, “All these, though commended through their faith . . .” (Hebrews 11:39). Don’t let anybody ever say, “Oh, they must be under the disapproval of God.” This text says exactly the opposite. These people were “commended through their faith,” and yet, these are the people who are being tortured. These are the people who don’t have any clothes anymore. These are the people who’ve lost their homes, who are living in caves. These are the people of whom the world is not worthy.
And they have approval. How do they have approval? They have approval through their faith. They’re being well spoken of by God and others who see through their faith. They did not yet receive what was promised. So you can see in two ways, textually, that all these negative experiences come to the saints of God through faith — not through unbelief. They come through faith. It’s not owing to God’s disapproval, but to his approval.
Now we’ve got to make this point strong, so let’s get specific here. Let’s look at some specifics in this paragraph. In verse 35 in particular, it says “some were tortured,” from which we may infer that God does not always restrain the hand of the torturer toward his people. Now, you may, at that point, say, “Well, torturers have free will. And so, God may want to restrain it, and he can’t restrain it. So don’t call this a providential gift of suffering.” What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with that? That’s a bad objection. And the thing that’s wrong with it is it contradicts Scripture, lots of Scripture.
For example, in Genesis 20, do you remember the situation with Abraham and his wife? Abraham doesn’t always love Sarah the way he should. And he goes down there to the territory of Abimelech, who’s not a not a believer, he’s not a God-fearer. And he says, “Now Sarah, you say you’re my sister because, if you say you’re my wife, you’re so pretty that he’s going to want you in his harem, and the only way he can get you in his harem is to kill me. So tell him you’re my sister, and then if they take you, they won’t kill me.” Well, that’s exactly what happens. And she goes into the harem, and the first thing you do on the first night of a new wife in your harem is to have sex with her because that’s why you got her in the first place. She’s pretty and you add women to your Harem because you like spice. Variety is the spice of life.
But he didn’t have sex with her that night. Why? I’ll read it to you: God comes to Abimelech and he says, “It was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Genesis 20:6). Don’t ever tell me or each other that God cannot restrain the heart of a pagan king and keep him from sinning. And if he can do that to Abimelech, he can do it to a jailer who’s about to beat up a Christian in a Mozambique jail. So that free-will stuff about, “Oh, poor God! He would like to restrain them, but they have free will, and he can’t do it” is sheer nonsense. There are so many stories in the Bible where I could show you how God does restrain.
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)
The heart of man plans his way,
but the Lord establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:33)
Come on now. Sure, people are responsible for their decisions. Sure, we have to live with some mystery and confusion in our theology. But let’s not cancel out clear texts because of philosophical presuppositions about the will of man. Let’s let text stand. Let the will text stand. Let the sovereignty text stand. Let’s hold them. If you can’t put them together, live with them. They’re in the Bible. Don’t cancel out texts. If God wants to restrain a torturer, God can restrain a torturer without compromising the accountability of his will toward Almighty God. That’s just there in the Bible; it’s there. Embrace it, Southern Baptists. You don’t have to be called any particular theological name to embrace it; just be called biblicists. Take whatever name people want to slap on you when you say, “I believe the Bible. I believe the whole Bible. I believe the hard texts. I believe the easy texts.”
Here’s another example from the text besides the one about torture. Verse 37: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two.” This is almost too horrible to think about. Tradition says that Isaiah died that way, being sawn in two. Don’t know whether that tradition is true, but that’s what the old traditions say. And here’s the reason I point to that one: faith, at this moment, is going to be so challenged that only by a miracle of dying grace will you be able to hold on to it, because not only at this point do you see death just around the corner, but you see that it’s going to be administered to you in the most horrible way anybody can think of.
So you don’t have the glory of a nice romantic bullet in the head, or your head being chopped off real quick — nothing romantic. I mean, that’s not romantic. When John and Betty Stam died, and he had to kneel over first and she had to watch while they hacked his head off. And then, she had to bend over and get her head hacked off in China. There’s nothing romantic about that. Nothing beautiful about that. It’s just horrible. They were in their underwear. And she had to watch it and know that was coming to her.
So where do you look? What do you do? It’s not beautiful. I remember Helen Roseveare came to our living room one time to speak to about a hundred kids on missions. She was a missionary during the war in the Congo, and she was raped. And she’s written many books. And she told us that while she was sitting there, having been taken captive and beaten up so that her eyes were so swollen shut, that they taunted them by describing the kinds of torture they were going to have the next morning. And she said, “The worst thing about this was not the reality, but the threat.” And what they said they were going to do was to take sharp knives and cut off parts of their flesh. Cook them, eat them, before they killed them. That’s what they threatened them with the night before. And they all thought, “Well, they mean this.” It did not happen to her. Lots of horrible things did, but that didn’t happen.
So the point I’m making here is when it says “sawn in two,” it means that Christians are going to face kinds of dying that are so horrible that they will tend to cry out, “My God! My God, where are you? Yes, we will all die, but to be tortured like this? Are you my Father, or are you not my Father?”
I just want to get you ready. Jesus endured it, and some of you will endure it. Some of you are enduring it because it doesn’t have to be a saw. It might be cancer. And you need to learn to trust him. I mean, my whole concept of living by faith and future grace is to get you to be so satisfied in God that you can say with Psalm 63:3, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.”
Here’s the clearest example of how faith delivers and faith sustains. Look at verse 34: “escaped the edge of the sword.” They escaped the edge of the sword by faith. Verse 37: “They were killed with the sword.” So by faith, they escaped the edge of the sword. And verse 37: by faith, they were put to death with the edge of the sword. That’s exactly like the story we have in Acts 12, right?
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (Acts 12:1–3)
But God intervened for Peter, and he got a miraculous escape. So James is beheaded, but for Peter, the jail doors fling wide open. And both of them by faith. So, my second point is having faith is not the final determining factor in whether you suffer or whether you escape something; God is the final determining factor in whether you do.
Now, to me, this is immensely comforting because, if in my suffering, you had to come to me and add to that burden, the burden: “John, you wouldn’t be suffering if you had faith” — if you add that burden to me — I think I would be crushed. So, it’s very good news to know that you can’t come to me and say that with any surety. And in my church, I have said to my people many times, I will not come and say to you in the hospital bed, “You wouldn’t be here if you trusted God.” I’ll never say that to my people. And it’s not because I’m afraid to say hard things. It’s because I don’t find it in the Bible.
He Gives and Takes
So whether you believe or whether you don’t believe is not the deciding factor in whether you suffer or whether you don’t. God decides whether you suffer or whether you don’t. And by faith we escape the sword, and by faith we die by the sword. And God decides whether we live or whether we die.
I quoted a couple of days ago a couple of text on that issue, especially Job. His ten children are killed. Have you ever lost a child? Many of you have lost children. What do you do? Shake your fist in God’s face and say, “You’ve got no right”? No, you didn’t do that, I hope. You said, “The Lord gave.” Well, first of all, you put ashes on your head, you tore your clothing, you fell on the ground. And so did Job. And it says he worshiped. Ashes, torn clothes, writhing in pain, tears flowing down his face. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” While you cry, you believe.
Or I gave you also James 4:13–15:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
So you may say today, “I’m going to go to lunch at 12:00.” You don’t know that! It’s an arrogant thing to say, James says. Unless tacit in your mind is, if the Lord wills I will live until 12:00, and go to eat lunch with my friends. To presume that you live and have a right to live until 12:00 is arrogance, James says. You don’t have a right to live until 12:00. Why are you here this morning? By the grace of God, I’m here this morning. Why you going to get to lunch by 12:00? By the grace of God, you’ll get to lunch by 12:00 — not because you deserve to get to lunch by 12:00. So the point is your faith is not the deciding factor ultimately when you get to lunch by 12:00; God decides.
3. Faith believes that God is better than life.
The common feature that unites the faith that escapes and the faith that endures is that both of them believe God is better than life and what you get now, and better than death and what you lose later. God is better. Faith says, “If I have everything in life now, God is better.” And faith says, “If I lose everything this world has to offer in death, God is better.” That’s the way faith talks. That’s what I’ve been trying to say all these days and hours together. Faith is being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus, and he is so much more satisfying than if you have it all now — he’s better. And if you lose it all now, he’s better. That’s what faith says. That’s the way faith talks.
Therefore, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21). Where do I get that from the text? Hebrews 11:35: “Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection” (NASB). Now, I’m not totally sure of this interpretation, but here’s my guess at what “better resurrection” means here. I think it means: better than the resurrection of the widow of Zarephath’s son. Some widows obtained their dead back by resurrection. So, the little boy dies, Elisha comes and lies on him, and he’s raised from the dead. That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. And here are some people who didn’t accept escape so that they might obtain a better resurrection — meaning, one that you don’t have to die again after.
Lazarus had to die again. That poor little boy had to die again. It’s a good resurrection, but it’s not the best resurrection. The best resurrection is the one where you don’t have to die again. So, they were willing to take on death for that one. I think that’s what it means. There may be another meaning there. I’ve heard Joseph Sung give another interpretation here, and he may be right. But I give you that for your consideration.
God is so good that to die is gain. To be with him in the intervening time before the resurrection of our bodies is far better, Paul says in Philippians 1. And when we have our resurrection bodies back, that’s a better resurrection than anything we could experience here, and it will be glorious. So, the great challenge for pastors, missionary pastors preaching overseas, those who are trying to plant churches — the great challenge we have — is to breed a people who love God more than they love family, more than they love life, more than they love retirement, more than they love computer games, more than they love vacations, more than they love health.
They love God so much, they’re so satisfied in God, so ravished with his fellowship that when they have it all in this world, he’s better. And when they lose it all in this world through death, he’s better. And they are rocks in our churches. They are rocks. I’ve got some people like that in my church. I’ve watched a few of them die. I watched Patty die. She was thirty-eight years old, had four kids, and she died of breast cancer. And it was a horrible death. She seemed to die and then come alive, die and come alive. And she cried for death, but she never cursed God. She never cursed God. They asked me, “What are you going to say about faith here at her funeral? What did faith look like?” And I said that the triumph of faith in Patty’s life was she didn’t curse God. That’s what it looked like. You can’t laugh while you’re vomiting in your own dying gasps. But you can not curse. And she didn’t.
4. Suffering saints are a gift to the world.
Those who love God more than life and suffer willingly, awaiting something better than what earth can offer, are a gift to the world. Those who suffer willingly, and, by faith, accept what God has to give, and count him better, are a gift to the world. Where do I get that? What do I mean by that?
They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:37–38)
What does it mean when it says that these were people “of whom the world was not worthy”? Why does he insert that little phrase there? It means that the world didn’t deserve them, right? Another way to say “not worthy of” is to say “didn’t deserve.” The world did not deserve them. But if you say the world did not deserve them, you mean they were given to the world as a gift, and the world didn’t deserve that gift. And that’s exactly right.
So now the question is: How are suffering, destitute, unclothed, cave-dwelling saints a gift to the world? How are you suffering saints out there, who right now are walking through hell in this life, a gift to the world? You’re a gift to the world, or they are gifts to the world, because God has ordained and designed (and I could point you to many texts here, like 2 Thessalonians 1:9) the suffering of his children to be an occasion where they express so much superior satisfaction in God, even though what has been taken away from them is precious, that the world sees the worth of God in the joy that they still have in the midst of their suffering. That’s how they’re a gift to the world: they are a living placard of the surpassing glory and worth and treasure of God above health, above wealth, above prosperity, above family, above successful ministry, above retirement, above vacations.
Whether in the Southern Baptist Church or the Baptist General Conference or the evangelical movement worldwide or Christianity, if we are going to be living displays of the worth of God above the world, how in the world will we do it when we look to the world like we value exactly what they value? Same houses, same cars, same retirement plans, same safety procedures, same escapes to the suburbs, same everything — how in the world will they see God?
Therefore, when it says the world is not worthy of these cave-dwelling, tattered-clothed, beat-up Christians, it means God has given them to the world to see something precious, and they don’t deserve to see it. And God loves the world. God loves the world so much he’ll strip his people bare. He’ll put them in caves. He’ll let them be lashed so that, in that moment, as they say, “To die is gain,” the world will have its mouth shut! Our posh lifestyles don’t shut anybody’s mouth. They don’t impress anybody.
When was the last time anybody ever asked you what’s the reason for the hope that is in you? Because you look like you hope in money. Just like they do. Why would they ask you? Until something happens in your life, so that your hope is beyond this life in God, why would they ask you? That’s pretty radical isn’t it? Almost sounds suicidal. It isn’t. I’m not asking you to jump off a temple here. But there are choices to love that you can make in your life that will cost you — across the street, across the office, writing a letter, making a hard phone call. Just the little choices to love hard people that will look like you must have your hope somewhere else than in the ordinary give and take of worldly benefits. And I’d like to hear more about that.