There is a fascinating observation, made at the end of Hebrews 11, regarding the outcome of saving faith in the “here and now” of the life of believers. The writer, having gone through redemptive-history in order to present his readers with a great Hall of Faith, now brings this section of his letter to a conclusion by reminding his readers that faith sometimes triumphs and sometimes (often) suffers in this life:
The time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again.
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.
The most interesting aspect of these statements about the people of faith is that they come in a chapter that stresses the heavenward life of faith in believers. The men and women highlighted are those who “waited for a city which had foundations, whose builder and Maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). They “did not call to mind that country out of which they came” (v. 15). They “confessed that they were pilgrims and strangers on the earth” (v. 13), and therefore, “declared plainly that they seek a homeland” (v. 14). The point of highlighting the uncertainty of the outcome of faith in this life is that we might learn the following: If you lean toward a triumphalism you would learn from Hebrews 11:36-38 that the life of faith is often a life of suffering in the here and now; and, that if you lean toward a pessimism you would learn from Hebrews 11:33-35 that God sometimes gives his people great times of victory and triumph in the world around them. Here are three take away applications from the passage:
(1) We should never seek to manipulate or control our circumstances in order to secure triumph.
It would be easy to try to take the bull by the horns and make triumph the outcome of our circumstances in the here and now. This is not the teaching of Scripture. We look in faith to Christ, hope in the world to come and let the chips fall where they will. Some “conquered kingdoms” and some “were sawn in two.” God determines the outcome of faith in the life of His people here and now.
(2) We should rest in the fact that faith will ultimately lead to all of us triumphing in the world to come.
Eternally, all true believers will experience the triumph of faith. We will not only live in the New Heavens and the New Earth, we will rule with Christ in it. There will be “no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain” in that world (Rev. 21:4). This is why the writer of Hebrews constantly refers to “the world to come” and to the “city that had foundations.”
(3) We should temper our responses to both triumph and suffering since we know these things.
It is far too easy for us to get overly excited and comfortable with worldly accomplishment and “temporal blessing.” We must receive those things from the Lord’s hand with thanksgiving–yet with caution. It is not in those things that our hope is built. We must also temper of feeling of deserved suffering. It is actually possible to see an absence of deep suffering in our lives and to start feeling guilty that we are not experiencing more. I have known well-meaning Christians say things like, “I am praying that God would call me to be a martyr for Christ.” There is something deeply troubling about that sort of mindset. We should never want suffering for ourselves or others. In 3 John 2, the apostle tells believers to whom he was writing: “I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” If the sufferings come, we ought to see them as from the gracious hand of God, and if he causes us to prosper we should also see this as from His gracious hand. Again, we need to trust in Christ in the good times and the evil times. We need to keep our eyes fixed on Him in times of prosperity and want.
(4) We should look at suffering–and not simply triumph–as a gift from God.
David Gooding sums up the teaching of Hebrews 11:32-38 so well when he writes: “Faith is not always seen to be triumphant in this life. And it takes greater faith to suffer apparent disaster, unvindicated, and to go on believing still.”1 Suffering is the precious gift of God to His people. It is through suffering that He makes us “partakers of His righteousness” (Heb. 12:3-11). As the old adage goes, ‘When God wants to make man, He breaks a man.” The Puritans would often speak of “kissing the rod of correction.” Though all suffering is not a direct result of personal sin, it is surely less than what our sin deserves–and God uses it to conform us into the image of His Son. In addition, suffering prepares us for glory in that it makes us long for the New Heavens and New Earth. The apostle Peter captures this truth so well when he writes to a suffering people about the necessity of suffering:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials,7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ,