An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Pinnacle of Faith
(Hebrews 11:37, 38)
There has been no greater instance of the degeneracy of human nature and its likeness to the Devil than in the fearful fact that so many who have occupied prominent positions—magistrates, ecclesiastical dignitaries, kings and emperors—were not content to take the bare lives of true worshippers of God by the sword, but invented the most fiendish methods of torture to destroy them. That educated men and women in high places, that those professing the name of Christ, should conduct themselves like savages, that their rage against the "excellent of the earth" should express itself in such villainy and inhumanity, is a most dreadful demonstration of human depravity when the hand of God is withdrawn. With what infinite patience does the Most High bear with the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction!
But why should God allow many of His dear children to encounter such terrible experiences? Among other answers, the following may be suggested. First, for the more thorough trial of His champions, that their faith, courage, patience, and other graces, might be more manifest. Second, to seal or ratify more plainly the Truth which they profess. Third, to encourage and strengthen the faith of their weaker brethren. Fourth, to give them more sensible evidence of what Christ endured for them. Fifth, to cause them to perceive the better the torments of Hell: if those whom God loves are permitted to endure such grievous and painful trials, what must we understand of those torments which the wrath of God inflicts upon those whom He hates!
The teaching of Scripture upon the various reasons why God calls upon His children to suffer at the hands of the openly wicked, or, as is more often the case, from those professing to be His people, is full of valuable instruction, and calls for prayerful pondering. One of the advantages gained from such an exercise is the plainer perception of the very real and radical difference there is between that spiritual and supernatural faith which is possessed by God’s elect, and that notional and natural faith which is all that millions of empty professors have. Should it please God to remove His restraining hand and permit open and fierce persecution to once more break forth upon the true followers of the Lamb, the difference just mentioned would be made apparent, for "When tribulation ariseth because of the Word," the stony-ground hearer is soon "offended" (Matthew 13:21), or, as Luke 8:13 expresses it "fall away." But different far is it with the good-ground hearer.
"The trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:7). That faith which is "the gift of God" endures to the end. The testing of that faith, the fiery trial thereof serves the better to make manifest the Divine origin of it: only that faith which has come from God is able to endure the testing of God. Just as it is in the furnace that genuine gold is most quickly distinguished from tinsel, so it is under sore trials that the difference between spiritual and natural faith becomes the more apparent. Like much of the imitation jewelry of the day, the creatures-faith of empty professors, may look more glittering, be more bulky, and have more attraction for the outward eye, and be better calculated to adorn its possessor, than does the genuine faith of God’s elect, which is often small in size, dull in appearance and lacking in attractiveness to the human beholder.
Yes, dear reader, it is the fiery trial which puts to the proof the kind of faith we really possess. Let the two faiths—that natural faith which man originates, and exercises by an act of his own will, and that spiritual faith which is the gift of God and which man can no more exercise of himself than he can create a world—be placed side by side in the crucible; let the burning flame try which is the genuine metal; let the hot fire play around them both, and the false faith (like imitation gold) will soon melt away into a shapeless mass of base metal; but the true faith will come forth uninjured by the fire, having lost nothing but what it could well spare—the dross with which it has been mixed. See that fact strikingly and solemnly adumbrated in Daniel 3: the furnace of Babylon harmed not the three Hebrews who were cast into it—it merely destroyed their bonds; but it consumed the Babylonians (verses 22)!
Let it be duly noted that in 1 Peter 1:7 the apostle, when comparing faith with gold, accredits to the former a higher value: it is "much more precious than of gold that perisheth." Gold, though its genuineness may be proved by enduring the test of fire, is yet a perishing thing—a thing of the earth, a thing of time. That gold for which men toil so laboriously and sell their souls to acquire, is of no avail on a deathbed, still less will it stand any in good stead in the Day of Judgment! At death it has to be left behind, for none can take it with him into the next life. Then how much more precious is that faith which, instead of, like gold, leaving its possessor under the wrath of God, will be "found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ!"
But the point to which we would now direct special attention is that it is not so much the faith itself as "the trial of faith" which is more precious than of gold which perisheth. This is clear to the spiritual mind: trials and temptations are the means which God employs to make manifest to the soul the reality and strength of that faith which He bestows, for there is in every trial and temptation an opposition made to the faith which is in the heart, and trial and temptation, so to speak, threatens the life of faith. How so? Because under the trial, God, for the most part, hides Himself: the light of His countenance is no longer visible, His smile is overcast by a dark providence. Nevertheless, He puts forth a secret power which upholds the soul, otherwise it would sink into utter despair, be swallowed up by the power of unbelief. Here, then, is the conflict: the trial fighting against faith, and that faith against the trial.
Now then in this trial, under this sharp conflict, in this hot furnace, the spiritual and supernatural faith is not burned or destroyed, but instead, grips firmly the promise, and the faithfulness of Him who has given it. And thus trial of faith becomes exceedingly precious. It is "precious" to its possessor when its genuineness is made the more manifest to him. It is "precious" in the sight of God’s people, who discern it, and derive strength and comfort from what they witness in the experience of a fellow-saint who is thus tried and blessed. It is "precious" in the sight of God Himself, who crowns it with His own manifest approbation and puts upon it the seal of His approving smile. But above all things it will be found "precious" at the final appearing of the Lord Jesus in glory, for then He "will be admired in all them that believe" (2 Thess. 1:10).
To suffer the hardest things as well as to do the greatest, is all one to faith. It is equally ready for both when God shall require; and it is equally effectual in both, as God shall strengthen. The performing of spectacular exploits and the enduring of terrible affliction, differ almost as much to the flesh as do Heaven and Hell, but they are one to faith when duty calls. This is very evident from the section of Hebrews 11 which is now before us (verses 33-38), the closing portion of which is about to engage our attention. At the beginning of this section we are furnished with a list of the marvels which were wrought by a God-given faith: at the close thereof we are given a list of fearful sufferings and privations which were patiently and courageously borne by a God-sustained faith. The latter, as much as the former, demonstrates the supernatural character of that faith which is in view throughout our chapter; yea, forms a most glorious climax thereto.
We say that the fearful sufferings experienced by God’s people form a blessed climax in the Spirit’s unfolding of the Life of Faith: those sufferings mark, in fact, the pinnacle of its attainments. Why so? Because they make manifest a heart that is completely subject to God, that bows submissively to whatever He is pleased to send, which has been so completely won to Him that torture and death are deliberately chosen and gladly preferred to apostasy from Him. A "Meek and quiet spirit" is of "great price" in the sight of God (1 Pet. 3:4), and nothing more plainly evidences the meekness of the Christian—his lying passive as clay in the hands of the Potter—as faith’s willing acceptance of whatever lot our Father sees fit to appoint us. To be faithful unto death, to have unshakable confidence in the Lord, though He suffers us to be slain, to trust Him when to sight and sense it seems He has deserted us, is the highest exercise of all of faith.
Ere closing these introductory paragraphs, let us seek to point out the various actings of faith in times of danger, trial, and persecution.
First, faith recognizes that "the Lord God omnipotent reign-eth" (Rev. 19:6), that He is on the throne of the universe, and "doeth according to His will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand" (Dan. 4:35). Yes, dear reader, a spiritual faith perceives that things do not happen by chance, but that everything is regulated by the Lord God. Second, faith recognizes that everything which enters our lives is ordered by Him who is our Father, and that our enemies can do nothing whatever against us without His direct permission—the Devil could not touch Job nor sift Peter until he first obtained leave from the Lord! Oh what a sure resting-place is there here for the troubled and trembling heart. Third, faith recognizes that, no matter how fiercely Satan may be permitted to rage against us, or how sorely men persecute, their malicious efforts will be made to work together for our good (Rom. 8:28).
Fourth, by mixing itself with God’s promises, faith obtains present help, strength and consolation from God. It derives peace and comfort from that sure word, "When thou passeth through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee" (Isa. 43:2). It counts upon the assurance "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it" (1 Cor. 10:13). Finally, faith looks away from the present conflict, and views the promised rest. It anticipates the future reward, and as it does so, is assured that "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18). Such are some of the workings of faith when God’s children are called upon to pass through the furnace.
"They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; Of whom the world was not worthy: they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth" (verses 37, 38). These verses continue the list of sufferings begun in verse 35. They enumerate the various kinds of persecution to which many of the O. T. saints were subjected. They are of two types: first, such as fell under the utmost rage of their enemies, enduring a martyr’s death; second, such as to escape death, exposed themselves to great miseries which were undergone in this life.
It may be helpful at this point for us to raise the question, How are such dreadful sufferings to be harmonized with the Divine promises of temporal blessings on those whose ways please the Lord? Dispensationalists are very fond of emphasizing the temporal character of the O.T. promises, imagining that the promises of the N.T. are of a greatly superior character. In this they err seriously. On the one hand, the verses which are now under consideration describe the temporal experiences of some of the most eminent of the O.T. saints; on the other hand, the New T. expressly affirms godliness has "promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come" (1 Tim. 4:8). The answer to our opening query is very simple: such promises as those in Deuteronomy 28:1-6 (which still hold good to faith!) are to be understood with two exceptions: unless our sins call down Divine chastisements, or unless God is pleased to make trial of our graces by afflictions.
"They were stoned." This form of death was appointed by God Himself to be inflicted upon notorious malefactors: Leviticus 20:2, Joshua 7:24, 25. But our text has reference to the Satanic perversion of this Divine institution, for here it is the enemies of God inflicting this punishment upon His beloved and faithful people. "The devil is never more a devil nor more outrageous, than when he gets a pretense of God’s weapons into his own hands" (Owen). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, suffered death in this form. It is touching to remember that the one who first penned our text, himself "consented" to the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1): later he himself was stoned at Lystra.
"They were sawn asunder." This was a barbarous method of execution which the later Jews seemed to have learned from the heathen. There is no record in Scripture of anyone being put to death in this way, though tradition says Isaiah ended his earthly career in this manner. That some of the heroes of faith perished in this way is clear from our text, evidencing the malice of the Devil and the brutal rage of persecution. Their endurance of such torture demonstrates the reality and power of the Spirit’s support, enabling them to remain true to God, and in the midst of their agonies sweetly commit their spirits into His hands, to the astonishment of their murderers. How this should stir us up to bear patiently the far smaller trials we may be called upon to encounter.
"Were tempted." This may be considered two ways, as pointing to an aggravation of their sufferings, or as referring to a separate trial of faith; we will take it in both respects. First, as signifying an intensification of their other trials, the reference would be to their persecutors setting before them the promise of relief upon their repudiation of the Truth—liberty at the price of perfidy. The baits of immunity and advancement were offered to them on the condition that they would abandon their strictness and join the ranks of the loose livers of that day. We believe that our text also includes the temptings of Satan, seeking to fill their minds with doubts as to God’s goodness and power, urging them to recede from the stand they have taken. Because they remained resolute, refusing to yield to the insidious demands of their persecutors, they were cruelly butchered.
"Were tempted" may in the second place, be contemplated as referring to that life of ease and pleasure which worldly advancement and riches might provide. History solemnly records that numbers of those who courageously endured long and cruel imprisonment (and other sore trials) for the Truth’s sake during the reign of the papist and bloody queen Mary of England, yet upon the accession of Queen Elizabeth were freed, elevated to high places, and obtaining much wealth and power, denied the power of godliness and made shipwreck of faith and a good conscience. But those in our text were possessed of a faith like unto that of Moses (Heb. 11:24-26), and therefore were enabled to withstand the powerful temptations of the world. Poverty, dear reader, is often sent by God upon His people as a merciful means of delivering them from the dangerous snares which wealth entails.
"Were slain with the sword": there is probably a double reference here. First, to the sword of violence, when persecutors in their fury fell upon the servants and people of God, butchering them for their fidelity: see 1 Samuel 22:18, 21, 1 Kings 19:10. Second, the sword of justice, or rather injustice, the law being enforced against the saints. Probably this form of death is mentioned last to signify the multitude of martyrs who by their blood sealed up the Truth: literally rendered our text reads, "they died in the slaughter of the sword," which denotes the insatiable thirst of the persecutors and the large number which they felled. Papists have exceeded pagans herein: witness their cruel massacres in France and other places: well may the Holy Spirit represent the whore Babylon as being "drunk with the blood of the saints" (Rev. 17:6).
"They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins," which means they were hounded out of their homes, and forced to go forth and exist as they might, without any settled habitation. "They were driven out to share the lot of wild animals, and were reduced to wear their skins, instead of clothes woven by man. This form of suffering is mentioned here, to show, on the one hand, the cruelty of religious persecution; and, on the other hand, the mighty sustaining power of faith. What power indeed is this! It was not merely the compulsion such as that which enforced the wandering of society’s outlaws. It was rather the deliberate choice like that of Moses (verses 24-26). Any day, any one of these wanderers could have rejoined their fellowmen, enjoyed their society, and shared their comforts; but they preferred this lot to apostasy" (E.W.B.)
"Being destitute, afflicted, tormented." These terms set forth the variety and intensity of the sufferings experienced by the homeless saints. "Destitute" means they were deprived of the ordinary necessities of life, and further signifies they were denied the kind assistance of relatives and friends: they were driven forth without the means of subsistence and were beyond the reach of succor from all who cared for them. "Afflicted" probably has reference to their state of mind: they were not emotionless stoics, but felt acutely their sad condition. No doubt the Enemy took full advantage of their state and injected many unbelieving and harassing thoughts into their minds. "Tormented" is rather too strong a word here: we understand the reference to be unto the ill-treatment they met with from the unfriendly strangers encountered in their wanderings, who regarded them without any pity and evilly treated them.
"Of whom the world was not worthy." This parenthetic clause is brought in here for the purpose of removing an objection: many might suppose that these despised wanderers were only receiving their just due, as not being fit to live in decent society. To remove this scandal the apostle put the blame where it rightly belonged, affirming that it was society which was unworthy of having the saints of God in their midst. In its wider aspect, the "world" here takes in the whole company of the ungodly; but in its narrower sense (that of the context), it has reference to the apostate "world"—all history, sacred and secular—is harmonious on this point: the most merciless, conscienceless, cruel, and inveterate persecutors of God’s elect have been religious people!
"Of whom the world was not worthy." Here we see the difference between God’s estimate and that of unregenerate religionists concerning the Children of Faith. God regards them as "the excellent" of the earth in whom is His "delight" (Ps. 16:3). "A true believer by reason of his union with Christ, and of the abode of the Spirit of sanctification in him, is worth more than a million of worlds; as a rich and precious jewel is more worth than many loads of filthy mud" (W. Gouge). The excellency of saints appears also in the benefit and blessings which they bring to the places where they reside: they are the "salt of the earth," though the corrupt multitude around them realizes it not. Their presence stays the hand of Divine judgment (Gen. 19:22), brings down blessing (Gen. 30:27), and their prayers secure Divine healing (Gen. 20:17). How little does the world realize how much it owes to those whom they hate so bitterly!
"They wandered in deserts, and in mountains, in dens and caves of the earth." Not only were they without a settled habitation, but they were compelled to resort to desolate places and the dens of wild beasts, in order to escape the fury of their foes. The word for "wandering" here is different from the one used in the previous verse: there it signifies to go up and down from house to house, or town to town, in hope of finding succor; but in which they were disappointed. Here the term denotes a wandering in unknown territory, going (like a blind man) they knew not whither: it is the term used of Abraham in verse 8, and of Hagar in Genesis 21:14, and of wandering sheep in Matthew 18:12. What a commentary upon fallen human nature: these saints of God were safer among the beasts of the field than in the religious world inflamed by the Devil! While these lines are being read, there are probably some of God’s children in foreign lands suffering these very experiences.
Seeing that faith in the living God will alone support the soul under manifold trials, how necessary it is that we labor in the fear of the Lord to get our hearts rooted and grounded in the Truth, so that when afflictions or persecutions come we may be enabled to show forth the power and fruits of this spiritual grace. Faith has to overcome the fear of man as well as the love of the world! Whatever sufferings God may appoint in the path of duty, they are to be patiently borne as seeing Him who is invisible. Their enemies clothed in death in the most hideous and horrible forms that hatred could devise, yet the faith of those saints boldly met and endured it. How thankful we should be that God’s restraining hand is still upon the reprobate, for human nature has not improved any.