In Hebrews 11:35b-38 we read,
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.
It is easy to talk about faith in ways that betray a profound misunderstanding of the biblical concept. One often gets the impression that people of faith will enjoy a safe, healthy and trouble free existence. We are led to believe that if we have sufficient faith, we will never be sick or suffer deprivation. Some would have us believe that God wants us to have our best life now, and if we have sufficient faith to visualize it, we can make it happen. This is contrary to the biblical teaching about faith, and these verses are evidence of this fact.
In the verse that follows these words (v. 39), the writer tells us “ALL THESE” were commended for their faith. Included in “all these” are not only those whom God used to accomplish valiant victories and those he delivered from death and suffering but those who were tortured and killed. Those who have lived in kings’ palaces were no greater men and women of faith than those who were destitute, afflicted, deprived, and mistreated.
Faith is not a matter of believing God will always deliver us from sickness and suffering and give us everything we can visualize or request. Faith is trusting God to be faithful to fulfill his promises even though it seems from all the sensory evidence available to us that he has turned against us.
We must never forget that many of God’s most favored people were, nevertheless, suffering people. Some were tortured and refused to accept release because they knew that to do so would have required their infidelity to God. They understood that genuine faith is an overcoming faith. They knew that to cling to this life by acting in unbelief and infidelity to God would involve forfeiting a better life to come.
Others were mocked and subjected to brutality, flogged and imprisoned. Some were stoned to death. Stoning was a typically a Jewish form of execution. Jesus referred to official Jerusalem as those who stoned those messengers that God had sent to it (Matt. 23:37). This was likely the manner in which Jeremiah was executed. Others were sawn in two. Tradition tells us that Isaiah was put to death in this manner. Others suffered death at the point of a sword. The writer’s intent was to show that men and women of faith are not exempt from suffering and death at the hands of wicked men. We must never be led to think that men and women of faith will have their best life now or that suffering, sickness and trials indicate our lack of faith. We should consider faithful pastor of a small and struggling rural church no less a man of faith than those who minister the Word to thousands. We must regard those who are perpetually plagued with illness as no less people of faith than those who are never ill.
We must always remember that those men and women of faith who were little known and soon forgotten were no less men and women of faith than those whose noble exploits were celebrated in this grand roster of the faithful. The writer tells us the world that took little note of them was not worthy of them. These were not the wealthy and powerful who are so often lauded as examples of success, but heaven acknowledged them as men and women of faith. Though not adorned with fine clothing or housed in mansions and though destitute, despised and forsaken by the world, they appear here as those whose faithfulness is acknowledged in heaven.
The sentiments of the faithful are well expressed in the words of Henry F. Lyte who wrote,
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow thee;
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be:
Perish every fond ambition,
All I sought, or hoped, or known:
Yet how rich is my condition;
God and heav’n are still my own.
Man may trouble and distress me,
’Twill but drive me to thy breast;
Life with trials hard may press me,
Heav’n will bring me sweeter rest:
O ’tis not in grief to harm me
While thy love is left to me;
O ’twere not in joy to charm me,
Were that joy unmixed with thee.