Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 35. Faith goes to the end
Heb 11:35 Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.
The writer to the Hebrews has led us from the original Patriarchs through a list of great men of Judaism right through from the Exodus to the Exile and in a sense we have exulted in their lives but the further on he goes, the more serious it seems the writing becomes and the less glorious it seems. It is glorious what these men achieved but not glorious in the romantic sense that we might want to emulate them. Yes, faith started out stirring faith for it seemed such a wonderful gift from God to be able to do such wonderful things and achieve such heroic acts but the more he moves on the more we are faced with the unpleasant reality that faith so often has operated and still, in many parts of the world, operates in an environment of persecution. Even yesterday we came to a dividing line where honesty has to say ‘we cannot walk here except by the amazing grace of God’.
When we read, “Women received back their dead, raised to life again,” this was not something we can say is a normal part of Christian living (except perhaps in some spiritual sense) that we can emulate, because it seems there are few who have the faith to truly believe their loved ones can be resurrected. And now here in verse 35 we read, “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.” Indeed let’s face the full brunt of the horror that some have faced: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.” (v.36,37) There is nothing romantic about this. Indeed this is the dark side of the world that impinges so often on the Christian Faith.
Reality forces us to face the horrors that sometimes appear on this Fallen World, horrors carried out by conquering armies, and for so much of the time in our warm and safe Christian enclaves in the West we shelter from these things – but they happen and have happened. A little while ago, aware that my knowledge of history was lacking I read Max Hastings’ book, “All Hell let Loose” about the Second World war and then later his book, “Catastrophe” about the opening months of the First World War. Both titles were apt. I also came across a book simply titled “Jerusalem” which opens in the Prologue with a description of the fall of Jerusalem in AD70, according to the records of the Jewish historian Josephus. None of these books are comfortable reading but they give us a healthy dose of realism to make us face the evil of which sinful mankind is capable – not just a few nasty people, but even ordinary people in violent circumstances of war where blood lust strips away the shreds of civilized behaviour to cause actions too terrible to recount here.
But this is the reality of this sinful world in which at times, it seems, it is almost incapable of coping with without the immense grace of God. When it comes to faith standing before a hostile world, that has sometimes meant being tortured to make you recant and deny your faith. This is not an easy area to even consider. Indeed in the early centuries of the Christian Church, in the face of terrible waves of persecution, there became sometimes two groups of the church, those who indeed did back down in the face of threats and who were thus considered non-Christians by the others who did hold firm. It is a foolish person who has never had to stand in such circumstances who would condemn his brothers or sisters who took the path of the apostle Peter and denied their Lord. Those who do stand in such circumstances and survive, understandably find it difficult to accept their brothers, but perhaps God’s grace is even greater than that which they received to enable them to cope. But we will never know unless it is something we are called to face. No, there is nothing romantic about being stoned, or being sawn in two or being put to death by the sword, but it is a reality sometimes in this fallen world.
While we hold a romantic view of such things we can imagine ourselves facing these things and going through them full of faith as some of the saints of old – and indeed in modern times – have done. Yet as you read the reality of these things honesty settles in and we have to acknowledge without the grace of God we could not handle such times – yet the grace of God is there, even though we cannot imagine how it works in such situations – but it does. In Acts, in Philippi, it was grace than enabled Paul and Silas to be praying and singing hymns in the middle of the night (Acts 16:25)
It was grace that enabled the apostle Paul to testify, “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” (2 Cor 11;23-27) The selfish good news is that I have lived for many years and have never been called to suffer any of those things, for which I am very grateful. Yet even in my lifetime I am aware that there are those in places like China, some Middle Eastern countries, and Burma and so on, who have not had my life of ease, who have in fact suffered many of the things these passages talk about. Praying for them seems very inadequate.
Jesus once said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26:11) as a statement of reality and it seems also true to suggest that at some time or other there will always be acts of persecution against the Christian Church somewhere around the world. Indeed there are those who suggest there is more going on around the world than even in the days of the great persecutions against the early church. If it is not something you or I have been called to endure, let us be grateful. If it is something yet to come, let us realise that God’s grace WILL be there. You’ve probably heard the story: Corrie Ten Boom, when she was a child, asked a particularly difficult question of an uncle, I think it was, about how grace comes to face trials and he put the answer in the form of one day having to go on a long train journey. Only then would she need a ticket but if it was necessary the ticket would be adequate, but in the meanwhile she should simply trust. Enough. God’s grace was there for these heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, and they remained those who acted in faith as they leant on that grace and came through, ending up as either survivors here, on in heaven.