32And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—38the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:32-40, NIV)
In these few verses from Hebrews we see five very important points about faith:
1. Through our faith God can and does work miracles and acts of providence to bring practical earthly help and deliverance to his people.
The preceding verses in Hebrews 11 tell is some of the miracles that were accomplished by faith: dividing of the Red Sea (vs 29), the fall of the walls of Jericho (vs 30), shutting of the mouths of lions when Daniel was in the lions' den (vs 33), and the quenching of fire by Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego when they walked through Nebuchadnezzar's furnace (vs 34). All these are what we usually call miracles. God breaks into the normal way things work and, in an extraordinary way, makes them work differently. And in every case here the people of God were helped or rescued from danger or death.
The first point is that God can and does work through faith to do miracles and acts of providence to bring practical, earthly help and deliverance to his people. Here's the second point.
2. God does not always work miracles and acts of providence for our deliverance from suffering; sometimes by faith God sustains his people through sufferings.
Another way to put it would be to say that having true faith in God is no guarantee of comfort and security in this life. Now it is absolutely crucial for you to see that the miseries God's people sustained in verses 35-38 come by faith, not because of unbelief. We see this in two ways. First, in verse 33, notice that the list begins with ". . . who by faith conquered kingdoms . . . etc.," and without a break continues into all the miseries of verses 35-38. Other people, still living by faith "were tortured . . . and others experienced mockings and scourgings, etc." All this misery is received and endured by faith.
In other words the suffering and misery and destitution and torture of God's people in verses 35-38 are not owing to God's disapproval. Rather God's approval is resting on them because of their faith. The miseries and sufferings were endured, not diminished, by faith. From the first two points the third follows.
3. Having faith is not the ultimate determining factor in whether you suffer or escape, God is—God's sovereign will and wisdom and love.
To me this is immensely comforting. It is a great relief to know that there is a higher explanation for my pain or my pleasure than whether I have enough faith. Would it not be horrible to have to believe that on top of all your suffering you had to add this: it must be because I lack faith.
And so we do not look into the face of the dying and say, or imply: "If you had faith, you would live." We will say, rather, "Trust in God, because whether you live by faith or die by faith God will take care of those who trust in him. To live is Christ, and to die is gain."
And ultimately, it is God, and not we, who decides when and how we die. He has his purposes. They are hidden from us. And having faith means we trust in God anyway and know he is good. Which leads to point four.
4. The common feature of the faith that escapes suffering and the faith that endures suffering is this: both of them involve believing that God himself is better than what life can give to you now, and better than what death can take from you later.
In other words, faith is utterly in love with all that God will be for us beyond the grave. Faith loves God more than life. Faith loves God more than family. Faith loves God more than job or retirement plans or ministry or writing books or building the dream house or making the first million. Faith says, "Whether God handles me tenderly or gives me over to suffering, I love him. He is my reward (11:6), the builder of the city I long for (11:10), the treasure beyond the riches of Egypt (11:26), and the possession that surpasses all others and abides for ever (10:34)." This leads to one final point.
5. Those who love God more than life and suffer willingly—awaiting something better than what this earth can offer—are God's great gifts to the world.
Look at verse 37 and 38, ". . . they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute [no promise of shopping sprees or cool clothes], afflicted, ill-treated—men [people] of whom the world was not worthy—wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground." What does it mean that the world was not worthy of these obscure, destitute, unsightly, seemingly-cursed people? What does that mean - the world was not worthy of them? It means they were a gift to the world (just as God gave his Son Jesus to the world) and the world does not deserve it.
Many things in this life are utterly opposite from the way they seem. And here is one of them. When the precious children of God are permitted to suffer and be rejected and mistreated and go destitute, afflicted and ill-treated, God is giving a gift to the world. He is gracing the world. He is shedding his love abroad in the world. Because in those who suffer and die in the unshakable assurance of hope in God, the world is given a message and a picture: "The Lord himself is better than life. Turn, therefore, and believe."