STUDIES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Women received their dead raised to life again. And 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. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.
With these words, the inspired writer brings to a close a long list of Old Testament believers who lived by faith. While the preceding verses make special mention of the names of exemplary believers, whom we seek to emulate, here specific names are not given. What stands out quite prominently is the type of extreme persecutions they endured for the faith and by faith.
Instead of renouncing the faith and forsaking the ways of God, these heroic believers were willing to suffer the verbal abuse of mockery and the physical cruelty of whipping. Giving up their personal freedom, they were put in chains and in prison. Suffering the loss of their homes and personal possessions, they fled for their lives and wandered about in deserts and mountains, living in caves and dens, and being clothed in sheepskins and goatskins. Forfeiting their lives for Christ’s sake, they were tortured to the point of dying, stoned to death, cut in two, and slain by a sword.
If this hadn’t been quoted from Holy Scripture, we might have thought this reporting was from current times. We have heard of some of the same kinds of severe persecutions inflicted on Christians in other parts of the world, such as in Africa, the Middle East, eastern Europe, the Far East, and Southeast Asia. While in Bible times believers were persecuted at the hands of unbelieving Jews and godless governments, in our time the perpetrators are radical Muslims and Hindus, as well as ruthless dictators and communist governments.
When we hear of such spiritual heroics, the natural questions that arise are why and how. Why have believers been willing to suffer these kinds of severe persecutions, and how are they able to stand firm in the faith when faced with such fearsome opposition? The answer to these two questions resounds again and again throughout Hebrews 11. It is due to the faith that the Lord works in their hearts.
Christians willingly endure mockery and ridicule, for they believe that, on account of the Lord’s redemption, they will be exalted on high in the world to come and will live and reign with God in heaven. Believers have been ready to undergo torture even to the point of death, because they know by faith that they will be resurrected with glorified bodies on the last day and never again suffer any kind of pain or death. Children of God do not consider it to be a great loss to give up their homes, temporal possessions, and earthly comforts for the sake of the kingdom of God; for in the heavenly mansions in the sky they will forever possess priceless riches and treasures.
The strength and courage of heart to withstand any and every fierce and deadly opposition is not to be found within, but comes rather from outside of us. Every persecuted believer looks by faith to our almighty and faithful God, relying on Him to uphold him and carry him safely through the various trials and tribulations of life.
Old Testament believers looked forward in faith to the redemptive work of the promised Christ which was still to be fulfilled. We, however, look back in faith to the fulfilled accomplishment of that work by Jesus.
What is truly amazing is that both the believers of the Old and New Testaments receive by faith all that Jesus worked out for us so that together we can enjoy the everlasting bliss of heaven!
Thanks and praise to God who gives us the victory through faith in our Savior Jesus Christ!
Mark Gullerud is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Bowdle, South Dakota, and Zion Lutheran Church in Ipswich, South Dakota.