Old Testament Believers (2): Triumphant in Suffering

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Hebrews 11:35-38

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called “Growing in Faith,” and for most of the series we have been looking at the various ways that you demonstrate your faith in action.

But starting last week and again this week we are looking at a different but related theme. In these verses the focus is not so much on what you do when you exercise faith. Rather the focus is on what faith does when you exercise true biblical faith in your life.

So, what does faith do or accomplish? As we said last week, faith conquers; faith overcomes; faith prevails; faith triumphs. Faith is the key to victory in life. With faith you can never lose. Without faith you can never win. 1 John 5:4 says: “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” (1 John 5:4) It is your faith that overcomes the world.

Last week we saw how faith makes you triumphant in victory. But that is only part of the story. This week we also want to see how faith makes you triumphant in suffering. (Read Hebrews 11:35-38 and pray)


We all love victory. For example, when it comes to sports, I always enjoy playing whether I win or lose, but I never enjoy losing, and I always enjoy winning.

As you exercise your faith in God you will know many exciting, thrilling victories as God acts on your behalf. But what about the times when the victory is just not there? What about the times when you believe God for something and it doesn’t happen? What then? Why do some people pray for healing and get healed, while others pray for healing and don’t get healed? Why does God rescue some people from danger while others suffer calamity?

These are not easy questions. Some people try to chalk it all up to faith or lack of faith. They attribute anything good that happens in your life to faith, and anything bad that happens to a lack of faith. This is sometimes called prosperity theology. Prosperity theology teaches that God wants all of us to be healthy and wealthy all the time, that any sickness or financial difficulty is always due to a lack of faith. But that doesn’t square with scripture, and it certainly doesn’t square with the scripture right in front of us.

Yes, Hebrews 11 lists all these persons who through faith were triumphant in victory, but when you get to verse 35, in the same verse, in the same breath, without any qualifying statements, it goes right on to talk about those who through faith were triumphant in suffering as well. Both groups of people are listed as heroes of faith, and yet one group experienced victory, while the other group experienced suffering.
II. Faith makes you triumphant in suffering (35b-38)

The truth of the matter is that Scripture teaches us there are two ways to be triumphant through faith. One way is by obtaining victory through faith in God. We like that one! The other way is to persevere in suffering through faith in God. That one we have a little harder time with.

But the same faith that makes you triumphant in victory also makes you triumphant in suffering. And so, verses 35-38 finish off this section by giving us three additional sets of examples of faith, all three which emphasize being triumphant through suffering: 1) Faith overcomes physical persecution; 2) Faith overcomes execution and death, and 3) Faith overcomes hardships of all kinds.

   A. Faith overcomes physical persecution (35-36)
      – 1 Kings 22:24-28; Jeremiah 37:14-21; Hebrews 10:32-34

Let’s look at the first set of examples: faith overcomes physical persecution. Look at verse 35 with me now. Verse 35 begins: “Women received back their dead, raised to life again,” but then continues: “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.” (Hebrews 11:35)

Did you see that? Some received back their dead raised to life again, while others were tortured and refused to be released. One group was triumphant in victory through faith, while the other group was triumphant in suffering through faith.

The word “tortured” in verse 35 comes from the Greek word “tympanon” which means a drum. We get our word “tympani” from it. A common form of torture in those days was to be stretched tight on a rack like the skin on a drum, and that’s how we get this word for torture here.

Verse 35 says that some “were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.” (Hebrews 11:35) That’s an interesting phrase. What does that mean – “to gain a better resurrection?” Some people interpret it as receiving a better reward when they are resurrected to eternal life. Others think it refers to the resurrection of the righteous as compared to the resurrection of the unrighteous.

But I think the best explanation is when you compare it to the resurrection already stated at the beginning of verse 35. Some women received back their dead, raised to life again. That was a resurrection back to this life with all its sorrows and pains, and it was not permanent. Each of those brought back to life would die again. The “better resurrection” is the resurrection to eternal life, which is permanent and frees us from all pain and suffering forever.

The phrase “refused to be released” literally means “not having accepted the redemption.” It’s a phrase which implies freedom by payment of a ransom. In other words, they were offered freedom for a price, but because that price included denying God and his word, they refused. These verses may be referring to the Maccabean Jews in the 2nd century B.C. The historical book of 2 Maccabees describes in gory detail seven Jewish brothers who underwent gruesome torture and death rather than break the law of God. They were given opportunity for release, but they refused in hope of the resurrection to eternal life. (2 Maccabees 7)

But the point is this: only faith will ultimately help you to persevere through the suffering of physical persecution. Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see. You cannot see the “better resurrection,” but you are sure of what you hope for and that gives you the strength to go on.

There are many Christians around the world today who suffer physical persecution. You cannot possibly say that their suffering is due to a lack of faith. The whole reason they are suffering is because of their faith. And the reason they are able to persevere is also because of their faith. Through faith they know that there is more to this life than just this life. They look forward to a better resurrection.

Verse 36 gives us four additional examples of physical persecution. Verse 36 says: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.” (Hebrews 11:36) So, we have jeers, flogging, chains and prison. The Greek word for “jeers” in verse 36 can mean mocking, but it can also refer to brutality. Remember the seven Jewish brothers? This same word is used in 2 Maccabees to describe the treatment of the second brother who had the skin and the hair of his head torn off. (2 Maccabees 7:7) And so, these four words in verse 36 taken together refer to all sorts of harsh treatment.

Examples of Old Testament believers who experienced persecution include the prophet Micaiah in the Old Testament. Micaiah was slapped in the face, insulted and sent to prison for telling the truth (1 Kings 22:24-28). The prophet Jeremiah was also beaten and put in prison (Jeremiah 37:14-21).

In the New Testament Paul and the apostles suffered these forms of mistreatment. Even the recipients of this letter to the Hebrews were no strangers to persecution. Listen to these words from Hebrews 10: “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Hebrews 10:32-34)

What if Hebrews 11 had not included these examples of suffering in faith? The readers may have wrongly concluded that they lacked faith, that only victory meant you had faith, and not suffering as well.

   B. Faith overcomes execution and death (37)
      – 2 Chron 24:20-22; Jer 26:20-23; Matt 14:10, 23:37; Luke 11:50-51

Faith not only overcomes physical persecution. Faith also overcomes execution and death. Look at the beginning of verse 37 now: “They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.” (Hebrews 11:37) Stoning was a common Jewish form of execution. The Bible records that Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada the priest, was stoned to death. (2 Chronicles 24:20-22; Luke 11:50-51) According to Jewish tradition the prophet Jeremiah was also killed by stoning while living in Egypt. Jesus implied that the stoning of God’s prophets was a common offense in Israel. Jesus cried out in the gospel of Matthew: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.” (Matthew 23:37)

And then we have “being sawed in two.” This was a highly unusual way to be killed. We find no examples in the Bible of this method of execution. However, according to both Jewish tradition (The Martyrdom of Isaiah 5:1ff) and early Christian sources (Justin Martyr, Dial., 120; Tertullian, Of Patience, 14), the prophet Isaiah was cut in half with a wooden saw during the reign of King Manasseh.

And then there are those who were put to death by the sword. King Jehoiakim killed the prophet Uriah with the sword during the days of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 26:20-23). In the New Testament John the Baptist was beheaded (Matthew 14:10).

Now, last week we looked at verse 34 which speaks of those who escaped the sword through faith. Elijah escaped the sword along with a remnant of other prophets, but many of God’s prophets did not escape. They were put to death by the sword. Did they have any less faith than Elijah or the others who escaped? No. But God had a different purpose for them. Through faith we may be triumphant either in victory or in suffering.

Martyrdom for the Christian faith continues today around the world. It is not just a relic of ancient history. It is a current reality. More Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than in the first nineteen centuries of Christendom combined. Every single day Christians around the world lose their lives because of their faith in Christ. We who are blessed with freedom here in the United States need to pray for them and their families.

   C. Faith overcomes hardships of all kinds (37-38)
      – Zechariah 13:4; Matthew 8:20

And so, we’ve seen that 1) faith overcomes physical persecution, 2) faith overcomes execution and death, and then finally, 3) faith overcomes hardships of all kinds. Look at the rest of verse 37 with me now and into verse 38: “They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Hebrews 11:37-38)

These verses describe the hardships many believers experience because of their faith. Sheepskins and goatskins refer to rough and simple clothing, nothing fancy or elaborate. This was the typical clothing of a prophet. Zechariah 13:4 speaks of “a prophet’s garment of hair.” John the Baptist wore clothing made of camel’s hair. Verse 37 goes on to describe them as destitute, poverty-stricken, having little to no earthly resources. They are also described as “persecuted and mistreated,” which tells us that they did nothing wrong to deserve this treatment. They were not being punished for doing wrong. No, these heroes of faith were ill-treated for doing right.

Verse 38 says “the world was not worthy of them.” The word translated “worthy” here is a word that means “having the weight of something of like value,” in other words, weighing the same in the scales. The world considered them worthless, of little or no value, but the truth is – the world was not worthy of them. When weighed in the scales of God’s pleasure, these precious heroes who suffered for their faith outweighed the whole world.

God is looking for people of faith who will dare to be triumphant in suffering. There is no shortage of volunteers to sign up for the victory part of faith. But the real test comes when you encounter suffering.

Verse 38 finishes: “They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Hebrews 11:38) This part of the verse refers to various forms of homelessness. Biblical examples include David who hid from Saul in caves, Obadiah who hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets in caves, Elijah who hid from Ahab in the desert, and John the Baptist who made his home in the wilderness. Even our own Lord Jesus when he was here on earth experienced homelessness. He said in Matthew 8:20: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)

Poverty and homelessness is another problem of persecution that Christians around the world face today. Many Christians lose their jobs, income or possessions because of their faith. Others are removed or displaced from their homes or villages. Once again, they are not suffering because of a lack of faith. No, they are suffering because they refuse to let go of their faith in Christ. The world is not worthy of them.

CONCLUSION: I hope you have captured the main thrust of last week’s message and today’s message together. True Biblical faith is triumphant both in victory and in suffering.

Of course, the ultimate example of all this is our Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered and died on the cross for our sins and rose victorious over sin and death forever so that you and I could be forgiven. True biblical faith is triumphant both in victory and in suffering.

Now here’s the thing. We do not get to choose in which of these two ways we will experience being triumphant through faith. That’s up to God, not us.

We should seek to have the same attitude that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego displayed when they were threatened with the fiery furnace. They boldly answered the king: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

They left it up to God, and they were determined to be triumphant through faith either way – whether God let them experience victory over the flames or suffering in the flames. Faith is triumphant both in victory and in suffering. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world.

© Ray Fowler

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