An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Pinnacle of Faith
(Hebrews 11:35, 36)
In His lengthy but most blessed description of the Life of Faith the Spirit of God has, in Hebrews 11, passed from one phase of it to another, exhibiting to our view its many-sidedness. But there was one other aspect thereof which required to be delineated in order to give completeness to the whole, and that we have designated the "pinnacle" of faith, for to suffer for God, to meekly endure whatever affliction He is pleased to put upon us, to lay down our lives for the sake of His Truth if called upon to do so, is the highest point which faith can reach. Therefore, in the text which is now to engage our attention, He moved the apostle to pass on to an entirely different sort of the fruits of faith from those mentioned in the preceding verses, and shows us the power of faith to support the soul under sufferings, even the acutest afflictions to which the human mind and body can be subjected.
"For hearing of these great and glorious things, they might be apt to think that they were not so immediately concerned in them. For their condition was poor, persecuted, exposed to all evils, and death itself, for the profession of the Gospel. Their interest, therefore, was to inquire, what help in, what relief from faith they might expect in that condition? What will faith do where men are to be oppressed, persecuted and slain? Wherefore, the apostle, applying himself directly unto their condition, with what they suffered, and further feared on the account of their profession of the Gospel; he produceth a multitude of examples, as so many testimonies unto the power of faith in safe-guarding and preserving the souls of believers under the greatest sufferings that human nature can be exposed unto" (John Owen).
Not only were these instances of the sufferings of the O. T. saints pertinent to the circumstances the Hebrew Christians of Paul’s time were in, but we too need to be informed of what faith in God and fidelity to His Truth, may entail. At the outset of the Christian life, we are bidden to first sit down and "count the cost" (Luke 14:28), which means that we are required to contemplate those sufferings which the following of Christ is likely to involve, and it is well that we should frequently remind ourselves that "we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). It is criminal silence on the part of any servant of God to conceal from his hearers that a true profession of the name of Christ will necessarily bring down upon us not only the scorn and opposition of the outside world, but also the hatred and persecution of the false religious world. "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you" (1 Pet. 4:12).
The Lord Jesus Christ dealt openly in this matter, and plainly made known what was likely to befall those whom He called to follow Him, and expressly affirmed that He would admit none into the ranks of His disciples save those who denied themselves, took up their cross, and engaged to undergo all sorts of sufferings for His sake and the Gospel’s. He deceived none with fair promises of a smooth and easy passage through this world. So too does His faithful apostle, in the verses which are to be before us, after setting before the Hebrews some of the grand and glorious achievements which the faith of their predecessors had wrought, now remind them of others who were called upon to exercise their faith in the greatest miseries that could be undergone. Great trials and sore afflictions are to be expected in the path of faith. The Savior Himself encountered them, and sufficient for the disciple to be as his Master.
"All the evils here enumerated, did befall the persons intended, on the account of their faith, and the profession thereof. The apostle does not present unto the Hebrews a company of miserable, distressed creatures, that fell into that state through their own default, or merely on the account of a common providence, disposing their lot in this world into such a state of misery, as it is with many; but all the things mentioned, they underwent merely and solely on the account of their faith in God, and the profession of true religion. So as that their case differed in nothing from that which they might be called unto" (John Owen).
But not only were these sufferings encountered in the path of fidelity to God, but it was the exercise of faith which enabled those O.T. worthies to patiently and spiritually endure them. Faith is a grace which draws down from Heaven whatever blessing of God is most needful to the saint, and therefore does it stand him in as good stead in the night of adversity as in the day of prosperity. Faith is a new-creation principle in the soul, which not only energizes its possessor to perform exploits, but it also enables him to hold his head above the dark waters when floods threaten to drown him. Faith suffices the Christian to face danger calmly, to continue steadfast in duty when menaced by the most foreboding outlook, to stand his ground when threatened with sorest sufferings. Faith imparts a steadfastness of purpose, a noble courage, a tranquility of mind, which no human education or fleshly efforts can supply. Faith makes the righteous as bold as a lion, refusing to recant though horrible tortures and a martyr’s death be the only alternative.
Faith gives its possessor patience under adversities, for by faith he sees them in a scriptural light and bears them by the enabling strength of Christ. How good and profitable is a sanctified affliction, but then only is it sanctified to us when faith is "mixed with" it. When faith is not in exercise, the heart is occupied with the things which are seen and temporal: only the creature’s hand or the creature’s treachery is viewed, and peevishness and resentment prevail; or worse still, we are tempted to entertain hard thoughts against God, and to say "the Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me." But when the Spirit renews us in the inner man, and faith becomes active again, how differently do things then appear! Then we take ourselves to task and say, "Why art thou cast down O my soul, hope thou in God."
It belongs entirely unto the sovereign pleasure of God to order and dispose the outward conditions through which His Church passes upon earth; seasons of prosperity and times of adversity are regulated by Him as He deems best. Eras of peace and security and eras of persecution and peril are interchangeable, like day and night, summer and winter. Yet God does not act arbitrarily. It was not until after Abraham left Bethel and its altar, and journeyed southward (Egypt-wards) that there arose a famine in the land (Gen. 12:8-10). It was only when Israel "forsook the Lord God of their father... and followed other gods," that His anger was kindled against them, and "He delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and He sold them into the hands of their enemies round about" (Judg. 2:11-14). It was only when men "slept" that He suffered the Enemy to sow "tares" among the wheat (Matthew 13:25). It was after Ephesus left her "first love" that the Smyrnean era of persecution was experienced (Rev. 2:4 and 9, 10). And it is because so many of the professing servants of God repudiated His law during the previous generation, that we are now plagued with a reign of lawlessness in the church, home, and state.
God will not be mocked, and in His righteous government He visits the iniquities of the fathers upon their children, and hence it is that seasons of prosperity are followed by seasons of adversity. Yet during these seasons of adversity, whether they take the form of spiritual dearth or of physical peril, the godly remnant who sigh and cry because of the abominations which are found in what are termed the public "places of worship," or who meekly endure the persecutions of hypocritical professors or of the openly ungodly world, are no less acceptable with God, and are as precious in His sight as those whose lot was previously cast in times of the greatest earthly felicity.
The darker the night, the more evident the few stars twinkling between the clouds. The more awful be the state of professing Christendom as a whole, the more suitable is the background for the children of God to display their colors. The fiercer be the opposition made against a spiritual faith, the grander the opportunity for bringing forth its choicest fruit. There is no higher aspect of faith than that which brings the heart to patiently submit unto whatever God sends us, to meekly acquiesce unto His sovereign will, to say "the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:11). Oftentimes the faith which suffers is greater than the faith that can boast an open triumph. "Love beareth all things" (1 Cor. 13:7), and faith when it reaches the pinnacle of attainment declares, "though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him."
"There is as much glory unto a spiritual eye, in the catalogue of the effects of faith that follow, as in that which went before. The church is no less beautiful and glorious when encompassed, and seemingly overwhelmed with all the evils and dreadful miseries here recounted, than when it is in the greatest peace and prosperity. To look, indeed, only on the outside of them, gives a terrible undesirable prospect. But to see faith and love to God, working effectually under them all, to see comforts retained, yea, consolations abounding, holiness prompted, God glorified, the world condemned, the souls of men profited, and at length triumphant over all; this is beautiful and glorious . . .
"It may also be observed that the apostle takes most of these instances, if not all of them, from the time of the persecution of the church under Antiochus, the king of Syria, in the days of the Maccabees. And we may consider concerning this reason: 1. That it was after the closing of the canon of the Scripture, or putting of the last hand unto writings by Divine inspiration under the O. T. Wherefore, as the apostle represented these things from the notoriety of fact then fresh in memory, and it may be, some books then written of those things, like the books of the Maccabees, yet remaining: yet as they are delivered out unto the church by him, they proceeded from Divine inspiration. 2. That in those days wherein these things fell out, there was no extraordinary prophet in the church. Prophecy, as the Jews confess, ceased under the second temple. And this makes it evident that the rule of the Word, and the ordinary ministry of the church, is sufficient to maintain believers in their duty against all oppositions whatever. 3. That this last persecution of the church under the O.T. by Antiochus, was typical of the last persecution of the Christian church under antichrist; as is evident to all that compare Daniel 8:10-14, 23-25; 11:36-39 with that of the Revelation in sundry places. And indeed the martyrologies of those who have suffered under the Roman antichrist, are a better exposition of this context than any that can be given in words" (John Owen).
"Women received their dead raised to life again" (verse 35). Some have complained because this clause is not placed at the end of verse34, urging that it belongs there much more appropriately than it does at the beginning of verse 35, being a fitting climax to the miraculous achievements of faith enumerated in verses 33, 34. While it be true that the particular item here before us belongs to the same class of miracles found in the preceding verse, yet personally we regard it as suitable for placing at the head of what follows in verses 35-38, for it forms a suitable transition from the one to the other. And in this respect: those women passed through the sufferings of a sore bereavement before they had their beloved children restored to them—a reward for their kindness unto God’s servants.
"Women received their dead raised to life again." The historical reference is to what is recorded in 1 Kings 17:22-24 and 2 Kings 4:35-37. How those remarkable cases show us once more that there is nothing too hard or difficult for faith to effect when it works according to the revealed will of God! But what is the spiritual application of this unto us today? Is it not faith’s seeking the Spirit’s renewal of languishing graces? the practical heeding of that word "Strengthen the things that remain, that are ready to die" (Rev. 3:2)! Or, to take a more extreme case, is it not a word of hope to the backslidden Christian, who has to all appearances lapsed back into a state of unregeneracy? Is it not faith’s response to that word (addressed to Christians) "Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light" (Eph. 5:14)!
"And others were tortured, not accepting deliverance" (verse 35). It is very touching to remember that the hand which first penned those words had taken a prominent part in inflicting torture upon the saints of God (Acts 8:3, 9:1), but, by grace, he was now a sharer of them (2 Cor. 11:24-27). The word "torture" here signifies "were racked": those O.T. saints were fastened to a device and then a wrench was turned which caused their joints to be pulled out of their sockets—a method of torture frequently resorted to by fiendish Romanists when seeking to force Protestants to recant. By this fearful form of suffering the graces of God’s people were tested and tried.
"Not accepting deliverance." It was offered to them, but at the price of apostasy. Two alternatives were set before them: disloyalty to the Lord, or enduring the most excruciating suffering; surrender of the Truth, or being tortured by devils in human form. Freedom from this torture was offered to them in return for forsaking their profession. This is expressly affirmed of Eliezer and his seven brethren in 2 Maccabees. Yea, they were not only offered freedom from tortures and death, but promised great rewards and promotions, which they steadfastly refused. The principal design of Satan in setting torture before God’s saints is not to slay their bodies, but is to destroy their souls. Space has always been given to the victim for consideration and recantation: entreaties have been mingled with threats to induce a renouncing of their profession.
Thus, the real test presented was, which did these saints of God esteem more highly: the present comfort of their bodies or the eternal interests of their souls? Let it be remembered that they were men and women of like passion with us: their bodies were made of the same tender and sensitive flesh as ours are, but such was the care they had for their souls, so genuine was their faith and hope in a better resurrection, that they listened not to the appeals and whinings of the outward man. The same issue is drawn, though in another form, today: alas, what countless millions of people lose their souls eternally for the temporary gratification of their vile bodies. Reader, which do you esteem the more highly: your body or your soul? Your actions supply the answer: which receives the more thought, care and attention; which is "denied," and which is catered unto?
"Not accepting deliverance." The word for "deliverance" here is commonly translated "redemption" in the N. T.: its usage in this verse helps to a clearer understanding of that important term, and emphasizes the difference between it and "ransom." "Ransom" is the paying of the price which justice requires, but "redemption" is the actual emancipation of the one for whom the price was paid. These saints refused to accept a temporal "redemption" or "deliverance," because to have done so on the terms it was proffered to them would have meant the renunciation of their profession, apostasy from God. It was "through faith" they made this noble decision; it was love for the truth, which caused them to hold fast that which was infinitely dearer to them than an escape from bodily suffering. They had "bought the Truth," at the price of turning their backs on the world and their former religious friends, and bringing down upon themselves the scorn and hatred of them. And now they refused to "sell the Truth" (Prov. 23:23) out of a mere regard to bodily ease.
"Not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection": that last clause shows the ground of their steadfastness. The primary force of the expression here is a figurative one, as the verse as a whole clearly shows: they were offered a "resurrection" on the condition of their recantation, namely a "resurrection" from reproach to honor, from poverty to riches, from pain to ease and pleasure—it was a "resurrection" from the physical torture which threatened them: compare Hebrews 11:19. But their hearts were occupied with something far, far better than being raised up to earthly comforts and honors; their faith anticipated that morning without clouds, when their bodies would be raised in glory, made like Christ’s, and taken to be with Him forever. It was the hope of that which supported their souls in the face of extreme peril and sustained them under acutest sufferings.
"That they might obtain a better resurrection." In passing, let it be noted that God had set before the Old Testament saints the hope of resurrection—they were not nearly so ignorant as the dispensationalists make them out to be, in fact were far wiser than most of our moderns. Resurrection has always been the top-stone in the building of faith (Job 19:25, 26), that which promised eternal reward, and that which gave life unto their obedience. A further proof of this fact is found in Acts 24:14-16: the faith of the "fathers" embraced "a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and of the unjust." That glorious resurrection will more than compensate for any bodily denials or bodily sufferings which the Christian makes or experiences for Christ’s sake.
"And others had trial of mockings, and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonments" (verse 36). This verse supplies further details of what some of the O.T. saints were called upon to suffer for their fidelity to the Truth, sufferings which have been frequently duplicated during this Christian era. We are here informed of the various methods which the enemies of God employed in the afflicting of His people; no stone was left unturned in their persevering and merciless efforts to produce a denial of the Faith. While these things are harrowing to our feelings, yet they also serve to make manifest the sufficiency of Divine grace to support its recipients under most painful trials, and should evoke thanksgiving and praise unto Him that is able to make the weak stand up under the fiercest assaults of the Enemy.
"And others had trial of mockings." Let us, when we are reproached for Christ’s sake and ridiculed because of our adherence to God’s truth, call to mind that this was the mildest form of suffering which many who went before us on the pilgrim path were called upon to endure! The sneers and unkind words of our foes are not worthy of a pang in comparison with the far sorer pains which other believers have had to bear. It has ever been the portion of God’s servants and people to be derided, reproached, and insulted: see Galatians 4:29, 2 Chronicles 36:16, Jeremiah 20:7, Lamentations 3:14; and my reader, if we are not being "mocked"—sneered at, scoffed at—it is because we are too lax in our ways and too worldly in our walk. Human nature has not changed; Satan has not changed; the world has not changed; and the more Christlike is our life the more shall we drink—in our measure—of the cup He drank from.
"And scourgings." The reference is to the lashings of their backs with whipcords of wire, which were most painful to experience, for they lacerated the flesh, drew blood, and macerated the body. It was not only a painful form of suffering, but a most humiliating one as well, for "scourgings" were reserved for the basest and most degenerate of men. The Lord Jesus was subjected to this form of ignominy and suffering from His enemies (Matthew 27:26), and so also were His apostles (Acts 5:40, 16:23). It is true that we are now (for the immediate present) spared these corporeal "scourgings," but there is such a thing as being lashed by the tongue and harrowed in our minds; nevertheless, happy are we (Matthew 5:10-12) if we are so honored as to experience a little fellowship with the sufferings of Christ. But let us see welt to it that we do not retaliate: ponder carefully and turn into earnest prayer Psalm 38:12-14; 1 Peter 2:21-23.
"Yea, moreover of bonds." The reference is to cords, chains, manacles and fetters, binding them fast, so that they could not run away. In this item we see how "the excellent" of the earth (Ps. 16:3) were basely dealt with as though they had been the vilest of malefactors. Does your heart go out in pity to them, dear reader? Ah, what if you are "bound" even now with something far, far worse than outer and material ropes and chains! Multitudes are held fast by habits they cannot break; their souls are fettered by iniquities from which they cannot free themselves. Sin has taken them captive, and has full dominion over them. Has it over you? Or, has Christ set you free—not from the hateful presence of indwelling sin, but from its reigning power. Daily ought we to pray and strive against everything which limits us spiritually.
"And imprisonments," which was the lot commonly apportioned to robbers and murderers. Here again we see the saints of God treated as the off-scouring of the earth, and let it be remembered that the prisons of those days were of a far different order from the comfortable buildings in which criminals are now incarcerated. One has only to read the experience of Jeremiah 38:11-13 to get some idea of the meaning of this word in our text: God’s children were thrown into dark and damp dungeons, far below the level of the earth, unheated, unpaved, un-illuminated. One cannot read this clause in our text without thinking of dear Bunyan. Ah, my reader, nothing but a real faith in the living God could have enabled those believers to have remained faithful unto death. The whole of the verses which have been before us, exhibit the efficacy and sufficiency of a spiritual faith to endure the worst that men and devils could inflict upon its favored possessors. Is yours only an easy-chair "faith"?