Suffering for Faith


Introduction

Every Christian, however feeble his faith may be, can take courage and inspiration from the writer’s words in Heb. 11: 32–35: “For the time would fail me telling of Gideon, and Barak, and Samson, and Jephthah, and David and Samuel, and of the prophets: who by faith overcame kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped lions’ mouths, quenched [the] power of fire, escaped [the] edge of the sword, became strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, made [the] armies of strangers give way. Women received their dead again by resurrection …”. Who could not be inspired by these heroes of the faith, both known and unknown, who faith so mightily conquered through God? Yet v35 does not stop there for it continues: “and others were tortured, not having accepted deliverance, that they might get a better resurrection” (my emphasis). A demarcation is thus made between those whose faith conquered and those who suffered for their faith, and between those who overcame in the power of God and those who were overcome and yet through that same power remained faithful. Faith conquering is something all of us would love to emulate; faith suffering is something that most would shrink from. And yet the great “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12: 1) presented to us encompasses both, and we are therefore to follow in the footsteps of “these all” (Heb. 11: 39, my emphasis), whether the road is one of conquest or one of suffering.

And Others

The passage about these “others” needs to be quoted in full: “and others were tortured, not having accepted deliverance, that they might get a better resurrection; and others underwent trial of mockings and scourgings, yea, and of bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, were sawn asunder, were tempted, died by the death of the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, evil treated, (of whom the world was not worthy,) wandering in deserts and mountains, and [in] dens and caverns of the earth” (vs 35–38). Now thousands have suffered because of their sins and wickedness as men among men—but as Peter asks, “what glory [is it] if sinning and being buffeted ye shall bear [it]?” (1 Pet. 2: 20). There is no glory in such suffering, only shame. Those described in Hebrews 11: 35–38, however, suffered on account of their faith—for men had no legitimate quarrel with them. The tortures and sufferings which they endured were wholly on account of man’s deep–rooted enmity against God and His Word. If the saints described from v32 to the first part of v35 overcame through believing what they had heard from God, the saints described from the latter part in v35 through to v38 were overcome on account of their faithfulness to God.

   Now the Bible tells us that such things “written before have been written for our instruction” (Rom. 15: 4)—they are preserved to us for a purpose. Indeed, it is a dangerous thing to read Scripture in a purely abstract way. The “word of God [is] living and operative, and sharper than any two–edged sword” (Heb. 4: 12, my emphasis). Thus, the list of saints in Hebrews 11, both named and unnamed, are a great “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12: 1), and they are witnesses to us. What they witnessed was not so much what they said, but what they did and what they were, as believing what God had said to them. This raises serious questions. In comparison, what sort of faith have we got, and will it stand in the day of adversity? This is no mere academic enquiry. There can be no doubt that the winds of change are blowing through society, and the suffering to which Christ has called us (see 1 Pet. 2: 21) may soon be a practical reality. Many seem to imagine that the generally benevolent attitude of the authorities will continue indefinitely, but this is a delusion, and is essentially placing faith in man rather than God. The testimony of Scripture is that “in [the] last days difficult times shall be there” (2 Tim. 3: 1). Many other similar Scriptures could be quoted. It is very apparent that in many countries the favour with which Christianity was formerly regarded is being rapidly replaced by outright contempt. Just as Jacob noted that the countenance of Laban was “not toward him as previously” (Gen. 31: 2), so Christians need to be alive to the change in atmosphere, and to ready themselves for what may be coming. We need to study the lives of those men and women of long ago, who though they were overcome, held fast Christ’s name, did not deny his faith, and were “faithful unto death” (Rev. 2: 10). They are not just historical curios but given to us as patterns—patterns that soon may have a deeply personal and practical relevance.

A Better Resurrection

The word tortured in Hebrews 11: 35 means beaten or cudgelled to death. The Greek word is tumpanizw which means to beat on a drum, and refers to a wooden frame resembling a drum on which the victim was stretched in order to be battered to death. The writer is not talking about ‘rough handling’ here—this is murderous. The reason for the torture is given: “others were tortured, not having accepted deliverance, that they might get a better resurrection” (Heb. 11: 35, my emphasis). Deliverance was a liberation offered on the condition of apostasizing—a release from torture procured by a denial of the faith. The contrast is with “a better resurrection” (my emphasis) and the parallel is with “women received their dead again by resurrection” (v35, my emphasis). Remarkably, however, those of whom the writer is speaking declined the opportunity of a ‘resurrection’ or restoration to life in this world in order instead that they might “get a better resurrection”. They preferred the resurrection to come to the promise of life proffered by their tormentors.

   This is very sobering. We live in days when the Gospel is being taken up in a light way, and where the line between the Christian and the world has become blurred. Many take the name of ‘saint’ who seem very anxious to ‘get on’ in this scene, to be comfortable and successful and to ‘enjoy life to the full’. Where will such be when the persecution comes? How, indeed, will they be able to resist deliverance from torture when it temptingly promises a return to the world and the manner of life which, in reality, they have never left? It is impossible to prefer the better resurrection if you are set on a better life here! We ought to feel the edge of the Lord’s words in in the parable of the sower when He spoke of those who “because of not having [any] depth of earth … when the sun rose they were burned up, and because of not having [any] root were dried up … and when tribulation or persecution” came about “on account of the word” they were “immediately offended” (Matt. 13: 5, 6, 21). Sadly, there seem many today who profess Christ who seem utterly lacking in fruit for God. Where will their profession be in the day of persecution?

Real Persecution

It is too easy to think of persecution in mild terms, in which we are inconvenienced by the authorities, or where opportunities in this life are closed off to us. Scripture never talks in this way. Thus, in the passage before us: “others underwent trial of mockings and scourgings, yea, and of bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, were sawn asunder, were tempted, died by the death of the sword” (Heb. 11: 36, 37). This is serious stuff and we should not devalue it by lumping it in with any trivial difficulties we may have on this earth.

   The “trial of mockings” referred to is essentially derision. Jeremiah said “I am become a derision the whole day: every one mocketh me” (Jer. 20: 7) and “I am become a derision to all my people; their song all the day” (Lam. 3: 14). This was no occasional thing, but relentless, day in, day out. If this seems alien to us then that is because we have forgotten our calling. The apostle Paul not only endured, but took pleasure in “insults” (2 Cor. 12: 10), and the abuse was often not merely verbal (see Acts 16: 22, 23, 37; 1 Thess. 2: 2). In this connection, we are also reminded of Samson and his humiliation, for although he brought a great deal of misery on his own head, he also suffered because of what he was as a judge in Israel: “And it came to pass when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison–house, and he played before them” (Judg. 16: 25, my emphasis).

   The Bible leaves us in no doubt as to what “scourgings” refers to because the process is described for us. The Lord Himself gave his “back to smiters” (Is. 50: 6) and Paul was “stretched” forward “with the thongs” (Acts 22: 25). It was an extreme form of punishment in which the sufferer was immobilised and the back shredded with a whip specifically designed to maximize damage. The apostle no doubt alluded to this when he told the Galatians that “I bear in my body the brands of the Lord Jesus” (Gal. 6: 17), for he was scourged on three occasions (2 Cor. 11: 25) as well as “in stripes to excess” (v23). He really knew what it was to “suffer evil along with the glad tidings” (2 Tim. 1: 8).

   Next, we have “bonds and imprisonment”. Here we might mention Hanani the seer put in a prison by Asa in his rage (see 2 Chron. 16: 10), and Jeremiah, who for his faithfulness, was put in a dungeon where he “sank in the mire” (Jer. 38: 6). More immediately, the Hebrew saints would have been aware of how Herod “had seized John, and had bound him and put him in prison on account of Herodias the wife of Philip his brother. For John said to him, It is not lawful for thee to have her” (Matt. 14: 3, 4). All these suffered on account of their faithfulness. Indeed, the Lord Himself had prophesied of His own that they would be delivered up to “synagogues and prisons” and brought “before kings and governors on account of my name” (Luke 21: 12). Later Paul asked that his bonds might be remembered (see Col. 4: 18), and the Hebrew saints themselves were exhorted to “remember prisoners, as bound with [them]” (Heb. 13: 3). Onesiphorus is a beautiful practical example of this expression of the body of Christ in action in that he was not being ashamed of Paul’s chain (see 2 Tim. 1: 16) and sought and found the apostle in his prison.

The Ultimate Cost

In Heb. 12: 3, 4 we are exhorted to “consider well him who endured so great contradiction from sinners against himself” for they had “not yet resisted unto blood”. There is thus an ultimate cost to discipleship, a price to faith that may take the life of the believer. This martyrdom may take horrific form. Thus, in the passage before us we read of those “were stoned” and “were sawn asunder” (Heb. 11: 37). Of the latter we have no individual case recorded for us in the Bible, but what is recorded of King Manasseh is sufficient to cover it: “and also [because of] the innocent blood that he had shed; for he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and Jehovah would not pardon” (2 Kings 24: 4). As for stoning, there are only two examples in the OT of men being stoned for their faith. Zechariah the son of Jehoiada protested against the people in their transgression of the commandments of Jehovah, and as a result of his witness “they conspired against him, and stoned him with stones at the command of the king in the court of the house of Jehovah” (2 Chron. 24: 21). He wasn’t prepared to keep quiet for the sake of peace and he paid for his faithfulness with his life. The other who suffered death by stoning was Naboth the Jizreelite. Some have tried to make out that Naboth reacted merely from personal considerations and selfish motives when he rejected Ahab’s suggestion that he hand over his vineyard in exchange for another. This is to do this servant of Jehovah a disservice. He would not give away his vineyard because it was his by inheritance and not purchase (see 1 Kings 21: 3), and to do was forbidden under the law of God (see Lev. 25: 23). For his fidelity to what God had commanded, he was falsely accused of blasphemy, taken out of the city and attacked “with stones, that he died” (1 Kings 21: 13). From 2 Kings 9: 26, it seems his family suffered a similar fate.

   This next section in Hebrews 11 speaks of those who were “were tempted, died by the death of the sword” (v37). “Tempted” might seem to be in a strange position, coming as it does between “sawn asunder” and “death by the sword” but this is to underestimate the horror and mental anguish that can come through such trials. Many a prisoner has, for example, stood firm in his faith while his wife and children have been tortured or abused in front of him.  When Paul recounts how he as a persecutor of Christians “compelled them to blaspheme” (Acts 26: 11) he does not tell us how he did it but we can be sure that he used all means possible. The sword we have met before in this great chapter of faith. In Heb. 11: 34 we read of those who “escaped [the] edge of the sword” while here we read of others who “died by the death of the sword” (v37, my emphasis). It was the same sword and the same faith in each case but how vast the difference! In the first of these two groups it was faith overcoming through God. In the second it was faith suffering for God. In v34, faith overcame through believing what God had promised. In v37, faith suffered in consequence of believing what God had said. For practical examples of the latter we have “the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets” (1 Kings 19: 10) and “in vain have I smitten your children: they received no correction. Your own sword hath devoured your prophets, like a destroying lion” (Jer. 2: 30). Nearer to home, we are not far into the Church’s history before we read that “Herod the king laid his hands on some of those of the assembly to do them hurt, and slew James, the brother of John, with the sword” (Acts 12: 1, 2).

   Men thought that such were not worthy of a part in their world, but the real truth was just the opposite for God says, “of whom the world was not worthy” (v38). There is only one valuation that is worth having and that is the Lord’s. Thus, His word to Smyrna: “I know thy tribulation and thy poverty; but thou art rich” (Rev. 2: 9). Men of the world could not understand such, then or now, and treated them as “offscouring” and “refuse” (1 Cor. 4: 13). Here were people who would go through any suffering and endure any hardship and privation rather than give up what they had heard from God. They preferred to go about “in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, evil treated … wandering in deserts and mountains, and [in] dens and caverns of the earth” (Heb. 11: 37, 38). If we ask why, the answer is really very simple. It is the answer of every true life of faith: they “had respect to the recompense” (Heb. 11: 26).

Conclusion

In the words of the apostle Peter, the Christian has been called to suffering (see 1 Pet. 2: 21), and the only way to stand in the day of persecution is “sanctify [the] Lord the Christ in your hearts” (1 Pet. 3: 15). If we view the Lord in that way in our affections (I am referring to the exalted titles that Peter uses of the Saviour), then we will not be “afraid of their fear” or “troubled” (v14). We may be overcome, but we will be overcomers (see Rev. 2: 11). Sadly, many seem to have more faith in laws of free–speech, democracy and in the enlightened spirit of the age, than they do in God. Such faith is misplaced. Others take refuge behind Rev. 3: 10 and the Lord’s promise to His own to keep them out of the hour of trial, but what has that got to do with being preserved from persecution? The Lord is speaking there about a particular hour and a particular trial, but the general pattern is given in 2 Tim. 3: 12: “And all indeed who desire to live piously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”. Let us therefore consider well those “others” (Heb. 11: 35) who did not falter in their faith, and let us determine, with God’s help, to stand firm should we have to “suffer [as] well–doers” if “the will of God should will it” (1 Pet. 3: 17).

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