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“Faith's Victories”

Hebrews 11:20-39
Bob DeGray
March 17, 2002

Key Sentence

Faith takes us on unexpected paths because it’s goal is not our success but God’s glory.


I. Faith Blesses God’s People (Hebrews 11:20-22)
II. Faith Follows God’s plan (Hebrews 11:23-31)
III. Faith Gains God’s Victory (Hebrews 11:32-40)


        Have you ever seen one of those car commercials that almost makes you seasick? You know, one of those ‘closed course / professional driver’ things that winds among the hills and along steep sea-side cliffs in weather that changes from sun to snow to dark to rain and back again in fractions of a second. The spotless gleaming car weaves and twists, clutching the road like a flea on a fleeing gazelle. You can get dizzy just talking about it, let alone watching it, let alone doing it.

        The journey of faith that we learn about in Hebrews 11 feels the same at times. Living in faith often involves us in unexpected twists and turns and reverses. If I went around the room this morning and asked each of you to share one thing that has blind-sided you in the last year, the stories would go on for hours. But a study of Hebrews 11 can show us why this is true, and help us to gain strength for the journey of faith. The last half of Hebrews 11, from verses 20 to 40, shows us that faith takes us on unexpected paths because it’s goal is not our success but God’s glory.

I. Faith Blesses God’s People (Hebrews 11:20-22)

        Let’s begin very quickly by looking at the fact that faith blesses God’s people. Hebrews 11, verses 20 to 22: By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. 21By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph's sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. 22By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.

        Three generations of Abraham’s children looked forward to the end of their lives to God’s fulfillment of his promises. They had a ‘dying faith’ - not a faith that was faltering but one strong enough to sustain them on the deathbed. Last week we called this ‘finishing well’. Isaac, Jacob and Joseph finished well because they were living by faith when they died. Their faith became a blessing to God’s people who followed.

        Isaac, Abraham’s child of promise, had two sons, Esau and Jacob, but Jacob tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Esau, when he found out, begged Isaac for a blessing as well, and received one, though not the same as Jacob’s. But by giving these blessings as he approached death, Isaac showed that he continued to believe the promises God had given his father would come true for his heirs. Many years later, when Jacob neared death, he blessed each of his sons, and also blessed the sons of his son Joseph, who had become prime minister of Egypt. These two grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, gave their names to two tribes of Israel, because their aged grandfather Jacob blessed them. The point is that faith blesses the next generation. Even if the faithful person doesn’t actually pronounce a blessing on his heirs, by being faithful they bless those who will come. Their faithful integrity provides a tremendous example for those who follow.

        So Joseph, though in this text he doesn’t pronounce a blessing, is a blessing to generations of faithful Jews who lived as slaves in Egypt. Before his death he gave instructions that when the people of Israel left Egypt, they were to take his bones back to the promised land. And those instruction were remembered. 400 years later “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and you must carry my bones up with you from this place.’” During the years of slavery, it could have been tempting to blame Joseph for getting them into this mess. Instead his faith, as evidenced in his dying words helped to sustain them in great suffering. The faith of God’s people blesses God’s people.

II. Faith Follows God’s plan (Hebrews 11:23-31)

        But that’s only the beginning of the story. As we consider the life of Moses, we also see that faith follows God’s plan. Hebrews 11, 23 to 31: By faith Moses' parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. 24By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. 25He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. 26He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. 29By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days. 31By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

        The Exodus is one of the great Biblical examples of faith fulfilled, one of the most intense times of divine intervention the world has ever seen. Yet for the faithful, Moses included, God’s rescue was a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, twists and turns, victories and set-backs that was nothing short of bewildering. There is a saying, called a Chinese curse that goes “may you live in interesting times”. Surely Moses and his contemporaries felt both the blessing and burden of their interesting times, so that it required real faith to follow the unexpected path of God’s plan.

        This faith began with Moses’ parents, who hid him for three months because Pharaoh had mandated the death of all Hebrew boy babies. They saw he was no ordinary child and were not afraid of the king’s edict. The text says they saw he was a beautiful child, which is the ordinary feeling of parents. My children have all been beautiful children. So have yours, I’m sure. But there must have been something more to Moses. Possibly, as Josephus has it, God revealed that he had a special plan for their son. In any event, they had faith, first to hide him, and then to place him in a basket that floated down-river to Pharaoh’s daughter so that God could preserve and educate him in Pharaoh’s own palace. What a typical twisty turn in God’s plan.

        Moses, when he grew up, had his own share of this faith. The author says that it was by faith that he refused to be ‘The Prince of Egypt’ and chose to be mistreated along with the people of God. He so sympathized with them in their hard labor that he finally cast aside restraint and killed one of their Egyptian oppressors. Though Exodus would lead us to think that Moses fled Egypt in fear, Hebrews tells us that it was his growing awareness of his people’s invisible God that drove him onward.

        Remember, faith is the certainty of what we hope for, the conviction of what is unseen. Moses saw the unseen God with the eyes of faith. Later, of course, in the burning bush, and on Mt. Sinai and in the tent of meeting, Moses would see very visible manifestations of God. But when he left Egypt, all he had was his faith, handed down from his ancestors, and a trust in God’s promises to His people. He didn’t know how those promises would be fulfilled. He certainly didn’t picture himself as the instrument of that fulfillment. But he did sense God’s majesty and power and looked forward to God keeping his promises. When we cultivate the eye of faith, we too will see his majesty and power and cling to his promises.

        We can also take a lesson from Moses’ resolve to be mistreated along with his brothers and sisters, rather than enjoy sin’s pleasures for a short time. He “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking to his reward.” You and I may not be given the riches of a kingdom, or be tempted to extremes of self-destructive pleasure. But what we do have and do pursue can still so wrap itself around our hearts that we are immobilized. Sports, education, job, influence, security, order; all these are secondary goals compared to the surpassing value of knowing and serving Christ. Moses knew that.

        So the unexpected path of faith took Moses from a basket in the Nile river, to honor in Pharaoh’s house, to obscurity as a shepherd in Midian, to the burning bush and then back to Egypt as God’s chosen instrument to rescue his people. The author doesn’t give us the details of how Moses went back and persuaded his own people that God was really planning a rescue, or how by faith he called down the plagues that God used to break the will of the Egyptians. Hebrews skips directly to the Passover, the tenth plague, in which all the firstborn males of the Egyptians were killed, but the Hebrews escaped destruction by sprinkling the blood of a lamb on their doorframes.

        By faith Moses instituted this first Passover celebration trusting not only that God would spare his people, but that they would be free the next day. In fact, the faith of Moses was so strong that he even told the people that this ceremony, with the unleavened bread, the sacrifice of a lamb, the use of blood, would be a lasting ordinance, year after year. Moses believed the people would be delivered. He had nothing to go on but God’s word, and that was all he needed.

        In verse 29 the thought shifts to the corporate faith of the Hebrew people, which was inspired and sustained by Moses’ faith. When the people were against trapped at the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army was coming, they froze in fear. But Moses had faith in God’s plan: he struck the sea with his staff so God would part it. Then the people bought in to Moses’ faith and followed him between the walls of water. They watched as the army of Pharaoh entered the same pathway and was swept away.

        That should have been a real faith builder, to see God at work. One of the reasons I praise God for this whole building thing is that we knocked on doors only God could open, and when he did, people like Rich Boyd and Ed and others had the faith to step through and see where that door led. All of us were able to join in that faith as we unanimously and generously followed God’s lead. It has been a real faith builder, to see God at work. But we need to watch ourselves that having seen God work in giving us this building, we don’t, like the Israelites in the desert, retreat from our faith concerning the work he intends to do through us there.

        There are two more examples in this section of the indirect paths God uses to fulfill his plans for his glory. First, verse 30, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days.” The miracle at Jericho shows that Joshua, at least, and to a some extent the people as well, had acquired the same faith Moses had shown through so many years. Circling those walls required a high degree of corporate faith because it appears so utterly ridiculous, as we saw in that little clip from Veggie Tales. Sometimes what God asks us to do does appear ridiculous to the world. But since the outcome of God’s plans is always God’s glory and not ours, we should be careful to follow his plans and not ours.

        The last example gives a similar sense of how faith follows God’s surprising plan. What could be more shocking than to see a pagan who is also a woman who is also a prostitute in this faith hall of fame? The fact that saving faith was found by such a person is evidence of its universal scope: anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord in faith will be saved. This is the distinction between Rahab and the other inhabitants of Jericho, ‘the disobedient’. They’d heard the same reports Rahab had, of God’s dealings with other nations, of his power and of his care for his people. But they did not combine what they heard with faith. Through skepticism, bravado or just plain rebellion, they refused to believe. Only Rahab heard these things with faith. Therefore she gave friendly welcome to the spies.

III. Faith Gains God’s Victory (Hebrews 11:32-40)

        So we’ve seen that God blesses future generations through our faith, just as we’ve been blessed by the faith of preceding generations. We’ve seen that a journey of faith will often take us in unexpected directions as God works out his plan. The final nine verses show us how all this leads to God’s victories. Faithful people gain God’s victories, even when they don’t look like success to us.

        Verses 32 to 40: And 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.

God is often glorified in the triumphs of faith, but he also gets great glory when by faith people persevere in difficult or impossible circumstances. I love this part of the passage because it has the same awe of those who apparently failed as it does of those who conquered by faith. Both are known for their perseverance against impossible odds, but for some God chose to be held in awe because of the victories he gave, while for others God was seen in the strength he gave to carry on. You and I would always like to be part of the triumphs, but the truth is that in one circumstance we may stand with those who see great victories, while in another we may be the ones who are strengthened for severe trials and difficulties.

        The author starts with six names of people who by faith did great deeds, often following unexpected paths. At God’s direction Gideon reduced his troops from 42,000 to 10,000 to 300. Then the 300, armed with trumpets and torches, routed the Midianites whose “camels could no more be counted than sand on the seashore”. Gideon’s feat was a stupendous act of faith. Likewise Barak, obeying God’s words through Deborah, sallied forth with his untrained 10,000 to meet the army of Sisera with its 900 chariots and myriads of troops, But his token army was victorious.

        Normally we don’t think of Samson as a man of faith, but rather a great dunce whose moral brain waves had gone flat. But there was a hidden core of faith in Samson. To the very end of his life he believed God would give him the power to deliver his people from the Philistines. Nor do we imagine Jephthah as a man of faith because of his famous foolish vow to sacrifice his own daughter. Nevertheless this outcast Hebrew Robin Hood was called to save Israel – which he did through faith in God. King David, on the other hand, is well-known for acts of faith, not the least of which was his challenge to Goliath, “it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hands”. It wasn’t David’s skill that saved the day, but the Lord’s faithfulness.

        In the same way the prophet Samuel lived a life of faith from childhood. Through faith he fearlessly delivered God’s word to anyone, anywhere, at anytime – even the sinning king Saul. This faithful proclamation was the hallmark of all true prophets.

        This dynamic half-dozen have remarkable similarities. Each lived at a time when faith was scarce. From Gideon to David, each battled tremendous odds. And yet each also had flawed faith. John Calvin remarked “there was none whose faith did not falter. Gideon was slower than he need have been to take up arms, and only with difficulty committed himself to God. Barak hesitated at the beginning so that he almost had to be compelled by the reproaches of Deborah. Sampson was the victim of the enticement of his mistress and thoughtlessly betrayed himself and his people. Jephthah rushed headlong into a foolish vow and was obstinate in performing it.”

        To this we could add that David fell into sensual sin, and Samuel was negligent toward his own family. So Calvin concludes: “in every believer there is to be found something reprehensible. Nevertheless although faith may be imperfect and incomplete it does not cease to be approved by God. There is no reason, therefore, why the fault under which we labor should break us or discourage us provided we go on by faith in the race of our calling.” Isn’t that good? God’s goal in this is his glory and victory. Therefore, like these heros, we have this treasure in jars of clay, human vessels, to show that the all_surpassing power is from God and not from us.

        The next two verses show some of the achievements of faith, times God clearly acted to bring glory to himself by giving success to the faithful. The first of three groups of three includes the conquering of kingdoms, the establishment of justice, and the inheritance of spiritual promises. All of these, especially the conquests, are seen in David’s time but can also be seen at other times in Israel’s history. Sometimes, not as often as God would have wanted, the rulers of Israel do enforce justice: they made justice the working principal of their reign. And at all times the people of Israel continued to receive the benefits of promises originally given to Abraham.

        The second triplet is concerned with deliverance. Stopping the mouths of lions alludes to Daniel’s exploits in the lion’s den, and perhaps also to those of Sampson and David. In Daniel’s case God who handled the lions, but Daniel’s faith is very evident. The next statement, ‘they quenched raging fire’, brings to mind the ordeal of the three young men in Daniel 3. Again, what God did in the fiery furnace is attributed to the faith of the people rescued. Another hazard from which deliverance came is ‘the edge of the sword’. God rescued his people from sure death countless times.

        The third group focuses on great victories. God almost always gives these by giving his strength for our weakness. He allows his people to descend into weakness so that they might know that their strength comes from him rather than from within. The Psalms often tell us how David saw this truth at work in his own life.

        And strength in weakness led to mightiness in war. Many of the judges and several later kings who trusted God, like Jehoshaphat, displayed God-given might, so that foreign armies were put to flight. Over and over again Israel was faced with insurmountable odds and overcame because of the strength and strategy of God.

        So these are some of the victories that God gave in response to the faith of his people. And often he received great glory and praise as a result. In the case of Jehoshaphat, you remember, the victory was preceded by prayer and praise, accompanied by praise, and followed by tremendous praise. In the same way the last example given in these verses always results in great glory for God. Verse 35 says “women received back their dead, raised to life again.” Two instances are recorded in the Old Testament: Elijah raised the widow’s son, and Elisha raised the Shunnamite’s son. In both these cases the faith of the prophet in the power of God brought great praise to God.

        But then, abruptly, in the middle verse 35 a tremendous change occurs in this list. Instead of victorious achievements, it becomes a list of defeats which the faithful endured. This is critical for us to see as believers. Nothing is more devastating to faith than the lie that faith always brings success. Quite the contrary: faith is often best and most persuasively displayed when the faithful endure difficulty without wavering. So this is a list of people whose experiences you don’t want to duplicate, but whose faith is a tremendous example when you are in difficulty. Some, the author says were tortured and refused to be released so they might gain a better resurrection. This may refer to a well known event in the time between the Old and New Testaments. Seven brothers were tortured and killed for refusing to give up their faith. They wouldn’t renounce their principles or give up their hope of resurrection. This faith-unto-death has been seen in believers countless times through the ages.

        Verses 36 and 37 give many more examples of how faith perseveres in hardship: some faced jeers and mocking; others were chained and put in prison. Jeremiah is a great example of these things, which were also the standard stuff of persecution for the early church, in the time of the reformation, in the communist dictatorships, and in modern-day Africa and India and China. Believers suffer these things, and God allows it because it shows the power of his love. Justin Martyr said that the blood of the martyrs is seed for the church, and where that seed has been sown, God’s name has ended up honored. Thus in the history of persecution some have been stoned to death, like the martyr Stephen, some have been sawn in two, as tradition says of Isaiah, and many have died by the sword, as Paul probably did.

        On top of all this, faith often leads to poverty. Elijah the prophet went about in sheepskins and was destitute, as was John the Baptist. Christians throughout the centuries have been driven from jobs and livelihoods. Others have voluntarily chosen poverty in order to share Christ with the poor. Why? Because this unexpected turn of faith, this opposite of name-it-claim-it prosperity brings tremendous honor to God.

        So believers often suffer for their faith. Chuck Colson describes this kind of suffering in Sudan, where persecution has raged for nearly twenty years between the Muslim north and the Christian south. “In Sudan, the cost of faith is freedom. Among the tactics the North employs is kidnapping Christians and selling them into slavery. The cost of faith is family. Two years ago, government planes bombed a church_run grade school in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. More than a dozen children __ who were just beginning their English lessons __ were killed, along with their teacher. The cost of faith is hunger: Crops are destroyed by the government and international famine relief never reaches southern Sudan. The cost of faith is health: Children weak from hunger succumb to disease, and no medicines are made available. The cost of faith is also the loss of home: Christians are being driven off their lands by a government greedy to gets its hands on the oil that lies beneath. And the cost of faith is often life itself: Two million Sudanese Christians have already been killed __ starved or slaughtered for refusing to convert to Islam.”

        Our author concludes by saying the world was not worthy of these people. They had a faith and integrity that can only be described as supernatural, yet they were treated like dirt by the people around them. They deserved more recognition and praise by far than they received. But God has better things in mind than human recognition for the faithful. Verse 39 says “these were all commended for their faith.” Those who won great victories were commended. Those who endured great hardships were commended. Those who triumphed and those who persevered were all commended because they did it in faith, being sure of what they hoped for and certain of what they did not see. So, like the patriarchs they were still living by faith when they died. None of them received all that had been promised.

        All believers, Old and New Testament, persecuted or triumphant, are still looking forward to something when they die, to the city without foundations whose architect and builder is God. But we have an advantage over those Old Testament believers, because they were still looking forward to Christ, whose sacrifice has meant the redemption of every believer in every age. They could only see by faith that God would rescue from sin. We can see with clear knowledge that he has come and died for our sins and that in him we find forgiveness and righteousness and new life. So in a sense God has planned something better for us than they had. Our walk by faith is strengthened by the Holy Spirit who lives in us and by the work of Jesus whose sacrifice cleanses us and who in the temple of heaven intercedes for us.

        We’ve received, in Christ, what they were only promised. Not that we don’t have things to look forward to. We do. We look forward to the day when Christ comes again, when the dead in Christ rise, when all believers are made perfectly righteous, in practice as well as in God’s sight, and when we live with God in complete intimacy and love. We too, if we die before Christ comes, will die without having fully received the promises.

        The key is living everyday in faithful dependance on Jesus. If we are going to follow the twists and turns and unexpected paths that fulfill God’s plan and bring him glory, we’re going to have to do it in faith, because his plan cannot be predicted by mere human intellect. Sometimes he’ll bring triumph: healing, provision, intervention, open doors, easy paths. But often he will bring hardship, persecution, lack of material goods, sickness, death, difficult relationships, hard decisions, rough roads. These unexpected paths won’t necessarily lead to our success, but they will lead to his glory, as the way we live by faith brings honor to his name. Faith is everything. Success is nothing, human victory is nothing, but clinging to our hope by faith is everything. It’s what the ancients were commended for and what we will be as well.