The Many Witnesses, etc. — Continued
"By faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, and that beyond her time of life; because she counted him faithful who promised. Wherefore also there have been born of one, and that of one who had become dead, even as the stars of heaven in multitude, and as the sand which is by the seashore innumerable."
In these verses we see the faith which laid hold upon the God of resurrection, when everything was as good as dead. It is only in this chapter that we find mention of the faith of Sarah. You look in vain in the Old Testament narrative for any evidence of faith on her part. How good it is to remember that God's eye can detect what we cannot! When the heavenly visitants came to the door of Abraham's tent, Sarah was listening behind the door at the astounding promise which the Lord was giving to Abraham, that he should be the father of a son, and she should become a mother. She laughed; and when the Lord spoke to her, she denied it. So the two things which characterized her at that time were unbelief and untruthfulness. This seems most unpromising soil on which any plant of faith could grow; and yet God could see there the elements of a faith which in His sight was of great price. We will find a similar instance, to a certain extent, later on, in the untruthfulness of Rahab. God marks the faith, and has recorded it here.
Now this is not to put a premium upon unbelief, nor to encourage us to doubt God, but to stir the heart to lay hold upon Him. If the feeble faith of Sarah was rewarded, why not yours? If faith is so dim that you are scarce conscious of it, may this testimony as to Sarah encourage to lay hold more simply upon God, counting Him faithful that has promised; for surely He will fulfil His own blessed word. This faith, as a grain of mustard seed, is next shown in its results. There springs from one, and him as good as dead, as many as the stars of heaven, or as the sand upon the seashore for multitude. What encouragement we have here both to cheer the heart and to banish our unbelief!
"All these died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them from afar off, and hailed them, and confessed that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth; for they who say such things show clearly that they seek a country. And if they had had in mind that from whence they went out, they would have had opportunity to have returned; but now they seek a better, that is a heavenly. Wherefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God, for he hath prepared for them a city."
We are here reminded that even when Abraham reached Canaan he had not reached the object of faith. He was as much a pilgrim in the land as he was in journeying to it. His whole life was a pilgrimage. He never possessed what God had promised him. Through his whole life Abraham, with Isaac and Jacob also, was a pilgrim. "These all died in faith," or, as the word is, "died according to faith." They died according to that which faith had laid hold of. By faith they saw but did not receive the promises connected with the inheritance. Nature waxed feeble; its powers decayed, and they were laid away in death; but they died in faith, clinging to the promises yet afar off — convinced of them, so that there was no uncertainty.
It is sometimes said that the Old Testament saints had very hazy views of resurrection, or of any life beyond the present one. What was it, then, that sustained Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What was it that they were persuaded of and saluted while they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth? It was that which is to control our lives also, though we have not entered upon our inheritance. If this life only is our portion, we are "of all men most miserable;" but we have seen the promises afar off; we too have greeted them, saying, We shall soon possess and be where the promises are laid up for us, and we confess that we also are "strangers and pilgrims on the earth."
As we look about us and see the world accumulating its wealth, gaining power; as we see one and another occupying places of prominence and distinction, does there come a vague sort of unrest, and a longing to have something here? Ah, then, let us turn to the precious promise of God as to our inheritance, "incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away;" to those riches more enduring than gold, and a name better than any upon earth; then we shall be content to await our portion, and our heart be set free from anything that would drag us down.
When Abraham appealed to the sons of Heth for a place to bury his dead, they said, "Thou art a mighty prince among us: in the choice of our sepulchres bury thy dead." But Abraham refuses to be thus recognized: he says, "I am a stranger and a sojourner."
No man likes to be without a home. There is the longing in every one's heart for a resting-place. The young man looks forward with eager anticipation to the time when he can have what he calls his own home. It is an instinct of nature, as it is of birds to build a nest, and of the animals to seek a resting-place for themselves. But you will remember there was one blessed Stranger here who, as He looked upon the birds or the foxes, said, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head." He was the true Pilgrim and He says to those who would follow Him that His was not a path of ease, of wealth or power. They that followed His path, therefore, might have, so far as this world was concerned, less than the birds or the foxes. However we may have what we call a home, is it not true that as regards the real home for the soul we also are in association with Him who had not where to lay His head?
"They that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country." Notice that expression, "they declare it plainly." It is not that they always talked about it. The pilgrim-garb is our best witness — not the outward raiment, surely, but the whole pilgrim character. Did any one ever question that the Lord Jesus was a stranger here? that He was not seeking wealth or a place here? Who could question it, as they followed His footsteps from village to village, where He scattered blessing and ministered to the need of everyone? And as you hear those tender last words of His to His disciples about going to His Father's house, do you not see Him, as it were on the shore, bidding farewell to the dear ones He is leaving behind for a season, and at last going home? Oh, what thoughts were in the heart of our blessed Lord as He lingered here to minister comfort to His beloved disciples ere He went home! His whole life, His attitude toward the world, His whole separation of soul, declared unmistakably that His heart was elsewhere. So will it be with us if our hearts are with Him up there. People instinctively get an impression of a heavenly man when his character, his conversation, his whole life breathes an atmosphere that does not belong to earth. Is it not a practical question for us, dear friends? Is it unmistakable that we are seeking a heavenly country? Do our neighbors know us as those who are going towards heaven, who are pilgrims upon earth, and evidently not belonging to this world? This is not something that can be secured by imitation, but by association in spirit with Christ.
Had those saints of old been mindful of the country they had left, says the apostle, they might have returned. There was no constraint or necessity laid upon them. Abraham could have gone back to Mesopotamia, or to Haran, where he had tarried for a time. He could have even continued in the land of Egypt, where, in unbelief, he went for a season. But the faith that had caused him to hear the word of God made him continue looking for a better country.
So with ourselves, as the Lord said to His disciples when multitudes were turning away from Him, stumbled at the doctrine of the Cross: "Will ye also go away?" There was the opportunity. He was not holding them back. There may have been a wistfulness in the love which longed, at least for some who were loyal to Him, who had entered into His own thoughts as to these things. How it must have refreshed His soul to hear Peter say, "To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."
Yes, dear brethren, if you are mindful to turn back to the country from whence you came, you can do so. I speak as a man. If you are minded to give up Christ, if you will hereafter devote all your energies to earth, do so. No one says Nay, save the divine nay of love, which would hold you and keep you every day. And, thank God, our inmost soul cries out against the very thought of turning back to that country from whence we came out.
Look back at Egypt, with its flesh pots, and its fish, and melons, and leeks, and everything that pandered to the flesh, and tell me — do you want it? Look at this great city in which you live, surrounded by evidences of splendor and power and wealth — do you wish it? Would you barter your birthright yonder for all there is here? Suppose the prince of this world were to stand before us and hold up the whole bauble of it and say, I will give it all to you if you will only give up that vague hope of some better country; would we not cry out, Let us have here nothing but ashes, we would give up everything rather than for one moment lose our hope? I thank God that I can speak thus for you, beloved; that we all thus respond in reality of soul, for He has made us to desire a better country, a heavenly one.
Now notice the blessed consequences of this: "Wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God." They were not ashamed to own Him as their God, and He was not ashamed to own them as His. We read constantly in the Old Testament, "I am . . . the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." "He is not ashamed to be called their God." But you never hear Him called the God of Lot. Did Lot declare that he desired a better country? Look at him in Sodom, seeking to accumulate wealth in the valley of Siddim. See him settling down in the city — not the city God had prepared. Angels are sent to Lot in Sodom to draw him out of it, but it is the Lord Himself that speaks to Abraham. When it is to go to Sodom, the Lord does not go. He tarries with Abraham, listens to his intercession, and communes with him about the terrible judgment which should fall upon the doomed city. When they visit Lot, it is not even as men, as upon terms of familiarity, but as angels; and when he hospitably opens his house to them, they decline, and would remain out on the streets all night. It is only under pressure that they will yield to his entreaty. Was not that one of whom God was ashamed? Lot had compromised his profession; they said, He has come in here to sojourn with us, and now he is posing as a judge. His own family even mocked at his warnings when he told them of the impending judgment. What was the reason? It was because Lot had failed in his pilgrim character, and God was ashamed of him. His heart had indeed been quickened by divine life, but his interests and concerns were defiled by contact with what was contrary to God; neither could his name be mentioned here therefore, for the simple reason that God is ashamed to be called his God.
There are many of His own dear children, it is to be feared, of whose testimony here God is ashamed. Sad and solemn thought! Thank God, not one of His own will fail of communion in glory; but what of the responsibility and privilege as to our walk and testimony in the world?
We have seen faith looking for the city which hath the foundations, and God kept it for them. Abraham's faith was looking beyond Canaan for a city which God had prepared. Like the astronomer who fixes his telescope in a certain direction and says, There you will find a planet, though it is not visible to the naked eye: so faith, in all like Abraham, would say, By the Spirit of God, (though not with the naked eye, and though feeble faith sometimes falters) we can see the city.
"By faith, Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac; and he who had received for himself the promises offered up his only-begotten son, as to whom it had been said, In Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God was able to raise him even from among the dead; whence also he received him in a figure."
Isaac means "laughter." As Abraham looked upon Isaac he would be reminded of his and Sarah's laughter when God first made him promise of a son. When the child was born, Sarah says, as she names him Isaac, "God hath made me to laugh." It is no longer the laughter of unbelief, but that of joy "All they that hear it shall laugh with me."
We can imagine how all Abraham's expectations centered upon that child of promise. How his aged heart would throb as he thought of all the blessings centered in that son! Think of what it meant for him to hear God saying, "Take now thy son, thine only son." Why did God remind him that he had no other son? It was to bring him face to face with the fact that he was to give up everything in which his hope was centered, everything in which his faith had seen fruit up to this time. And then He wrenches his heart as He says, "whom thou lovest." Why should God have to remind him of his love? Did He not know it would make Abraham's obedience all the more difficult? Ah, yes; impossible to nature, but not to faith. God would show him the full cost of what he is going to do, in order that it may be a genuine, a marked act of faith.
"Get thee to the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt-offering." Give up the heir of promise? Give up the one whom God Himself had given to him? Yes. How is it with us today? We have enjoyed some little blessing; some experience of God's grace; some precious fruits of the knowledge we have had; and it seems as if God is going to bring a shadow upon it all. He asks us, Are you trusting in the things that I have given you, or trusting Me? are you willing to sacrifice all, and see what I will do with you? What a testing and searching thing for us!
But Abraham takes that son, without hesitancy and promptly, and goes to the appointed place. He goes through the whole terrible test; he lays the wood upon his child; they go up the mountain side together; and the boy's question comes to him, "My father: behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?" How it must have pierced that father's heart! but what faith shone through that answer, "My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt-offering." Did he mean to say that Isaac was not to be put to death? He knew that if he was to be put to death, God could raise him up. He counted upon the God of resurrection, and he received him thus, in a figure, as from the dead.
I need not enlarge upon what is so precious to us, how this is a type of God giving up His only begotten Son. God would not call upon Abraham to do what He, later on, had to do. Not only was the wood put upon Him, as Jesus bore the cross; not only was He bound to the altar, when our Lord was nailed to the cross; but when divine Justice lifted up the hand, there was no voice to stay. The Son was given up to death. That is where God's love transcends all other love — where He is infinitely beyond the type. He gave His only Son.
If we speak of the anguish that rent Abraham's bosom, what shall we say of the anguish of the Father that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all? Oh, what love in our God, the God of Abraham, the Object of Abraham's faith and ours as well!
Isaac is raised up in a figure; and so faith can let the sentence of death come upon the dearest objects we have. If God should visit us and claim that which is dearer to us than life itself, faith may count upon the God of resurrection, knowing that He who takes away will give again, in a better way than it could possibly have been retained, every blessing which He may remove for a season. There upon mount Moriah, with his only son upon the altar, what had Abraham left? The living God! You may have lost home, means, health, dear ones, the friendship of those you loved. But tell me, have you the living God? Then He will make good to you in resurrection everything that you may have been deprived of for His glory.
"By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.
"By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph; and worshiped upon the top of his staff.
"By faith Joseph, when coming to his end, made mention of the departing of the sons of Israel, and gave commandment concerning his bones."
In Isaac personal faith comes out but little, still we have it here, in his blessing of Jacob and Esau "concerning things to come." It is very suggestive that this was done in opposition to nature. Isaac's natural affection was toward Esau, the first-born. Thinking his end was near, he called upon Esau to go out and get him that which he craved for the gratification of his appetite, that his soul might bless him. Had he forgotten the word of God to Rebekah, "The elder shall serve the younger"? If that blessing had been given by him as one who had authority to do so, it would seem as if the promise of God were to be set aside. Jacob would have failed of the blessing, and Esau, who was a profane person, would have been the recipient and channel of everything that Isaac would have promised.
Is God going to be thwarted? Is He going to be hindered in His purposes? Never! Isaac himself, unconsciously at the time, but with the full sense of authority, bestows the fullest blessing upon Jacob, although he was under the impression that it was Esau. That was faith; not in his purpose, (for God ruled that,) but in bestowing the blessing, and realizing, after he had done it, that it would stand as the act of God, and he could not reverse it. It is a striking illustration of the power of Divine purpose. Here is one who, contrary to his own intention, bestows the blessing just where God would have it! I do not enter upon Jacob's machination, and Rebekah's. He paid dearly for it all. God had no need of his deception, for His purposes will be carried out in spite of nature on the one hand or the other.
We come to Jacob. He also was a man of faith. It did not look like it, in what we have been considering, when he clothed himself with his brother's raiment, and put on the hairy skin of a kid in order that his father might think it was Esau. Yet there was an element of faith in it, just as we have seen there was faith in Sarah even when she laughed so incredulously. We can see that Jacob prized the blessing, as he had prized the birthright. He had not faith enough to count upon God to make good the blessing to him apart from himself. For his artifice to secure the blessing which he prized he became a wanderer from home, spending the best of his life out of the land of Canaan. The same deception he himself had practised on his brother and father was practised upon him by Laban as to the wife he had bargained for; it was God's governmental retribution which Jacob could not fail to realize. He was deceived, too, by his own children as to their awful sin in the matter of Joseph.
In all the life of Jacob, where shall we glean an example of faith that we can follow? The vision of those opened heavens and God's promise to him at Bethel was pure mercy. His little schemes to get the wealth of Laban did not savor of faith surely, nor his contrivances to meet his brother Esau; nor his building in Shechem after his return to Canaan. But now we see him at last, his experiences over, an old man, a weary pilgrim, leaning upon the top of his staff. For how many of us does it take a lifetime to learn to lean! Why should not the brightness, the vigor of youth be accompanied with the simplicity of faith that absolutely leans upon the arm of God? But Jacob was not a worshiper at Bethel when he awoke, and said, "How dreadful is this place!" Nor at Jabbok, when he was struggling with the angel. But here at last he had learned to trust and to worship.
Now it is that he can declare God's blessing upon the two sons of Joseph as they are brought before him. Joseph would have had the eldest in the first-born's place; but Jacob blesses the two sons of Joseph according to the purpose of God. Ephraim (fruitfulness) is put before Manasseh (forgetting); that is, the positive side of divine things as more important than the negative side.
Then we have Joseph, whose faith, like his father's, is looking to the future — to the fulfilment of the promise. Joseph had been ruler over Egypt, with all its splendor at his feet. Raised to the second place in the kingdom, men had cried, "Bow the knee," before him. All that, now, is a thing of the past, and he has to die, as all the rest. Joseph had nothing but his bones left. What does he say? "Take them up into that inheritance which God has provided, where I shall be raised." He looks forward to the time of the inheritance. His faith is looking onward and upward — not thinking of his glory in Egypt, but of the future glory when Christ shall reign.
We have seen faith looking forward to the blessing to come. Now we see the trials through which it has to pass before it reaches its hope.
"By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months by his parents, because they saw the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king's commandment.
"By faith Moses, when he had become great, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to have the pleasure of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt, for he had respect unto the recompense."
Moses is taken here as the great example. Faith begins (and it is a great comfort to think it often begins) in the parents. The apostle speaks to Timothy of the unfeigned faith that dwelt in his grandmother first, then in his mother, "and I am persuaded in thee also." When everything was going to pieces, the Spirit of God loves to go back to the faith that dwelt in the bosom of a faithful woman, then in her daughter, and then in her child.
Faith in Moses' parents was shown in the fact that he was hid by them three months, "because they saw he was a proper child;" or, as Stephen says, "fair unto God." They believed he would be a fitting instrument for God to use, and so they hid him in spite of the commandment that every male should be cast into the river. And when his mother could no longer hide him, she takes the king literally at his word. She puts the child at the river's brink, but in the ark — typically, in Christ.
So with us now. As we look upon the children God has given us we say, Oh let them be beautiful for God throughout eternity! First, we throw every safeguard about them; we try to hide them from the evil in the world; and as they grow up and we can no longer keep them under our eye constantly, as we have to launch them out in this great world, — sent off to school or to some employment, — how faith, by God's grace, does as Moses' parents! They put the child of their care in the ark as it were, and say, If he must be launched out upon the river, we put him in this ark, and we will count upon God for him. So godly parents commit their dear ones to Christ, as they send them off — not in a careless way, but counting upon that precious Saviour who has saved us, to keep our dear ones and to bring them unspotted out of all that into which they will be thrown.
Let us not be afraid to have faith for our children, to lay hold upon God for them before they are able to lay hold upon Him for themselves. People say, A child must believe for himself. You cannot believe for him. Yes, you can in a very real way, as Moses' parents believed for him. Suppose they had not believed for him. Suppose they had said, If he were large enough, he might trust in God; but we must cast him into the river. That would have been the end of Moses as far as human power was concerned. But what a place they put him in! You know how he was taken from the river's brink by Pharaoh's daughter, adopted by her, and then put back under his mother's care until he was of sufficient age to go permanently back to the king's court. Every advantage was given to him; but God's tender care had given him also all the benefit of a mother's love and training in the fear of God and His ways. How diligently that dear mother must have made use of her time! How she must have instilled into his mind the promises of the God of their fathers! How she must have taught that young child that he was identified with those bondsmen who yet were the people of God! How she must have told him of the promises of God, that He would visit them and bring them up out of that land, and give them an inheritance! No doubt she made faithful and diligent use of her opportunities; and, as Pharaoh's daughter said to her (in a higher sense than Pharaoh's daughter meant, she heard another Voice saying,) "Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages." What wages has a faithful mother, if she has spent time and strength and prayers in bringing up her children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord!
Moses comes to years. His feet are upon the steps that lead up to the throne. He was "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds." He had every opportunity that a great civilization could give. What opportunities, what a chance to reform Egypt! — to make it a place where the children of Israel could have their inheritance, instead of some vague, intangible thing in Canaan that might never materialize!
Let us note here what the Spirit of God singles out in Moses for His approval. "When he was come to years he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter" — he gave up that which God Himself had put him into, as it were. Humanly speaking, there was no limit to his prospects. If a Joseph, who was brought out of the dungeon, was exalted to a place second only to the king, what might not a Moses hope to attain, who was adopted into the king's family? Was not the throne even a possibility?
Moses was not in the immaturity of his life, for he was forty years old. Then, taking in the whole field in his survey, seeing the possibilities connected with his position in Egypt, seeing the disgrace of his own kinsmen according to the flesh, calmly looking at both sides, what does faith do? It refuses all this greatness, its dignity, its expectations, and says, My place, my heritage is with those people who are groveling there in the brick-kilns, and crying out under the lash of the taskmasters! That was faith. He chose "rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season."
Ah, Egypt's greatness may be attractive, its pleasures may be manifold, its power unlimited, but written over all the greatness of Egypt was,"For a season;" and so it is with all this world has to offer. Faith says, Those things are temporary, and, thank God, the affliction is temporary too; I will take the affliction; I will identify myself with my people. With some consciousness that God would deliver them by his means, he undertook to do so, but they refused his help; human energy was there, but genuine faith was there too, which identified him with that suffering people rather than enjoy the pleasures of Egypt.
"The reproach of Christ!" Think how the Spirit of God describes it. Here were a people suffering and rejected; and God calls it the reproach of Christ. "In all their affliction He was afflicted," and faith sees in that the affliction of Christ Himself. As the Lord Jesus afterwards, in speaking to Saul of Tarsus, says, "Why persecutest thou Me?" It was the reproach of Christ, and not merely that of His suffering people.
Look at it for a moment. Is it possible? Here are the treasures of Egypt: put in that side of the balance all you can think of wealth and glory of this world. Here is the reproach of Christ: put in this side, all the suffering, the scorn, the self-denial, the poverty, the feebleness, the trials, which come upon us. Read the apostle Paul's description of some of the reproach of Christ. See what it means to endure affliction at the hands of persecutors on the one side, and at the hands of those who were God's own people on the other. And as you look at those two things, which in your estimation outweighs? Surely, if we judge according to sight, we would say the treasures of Egypt will outweigh all that suffering. But Moses, as he looks forward to the recompense of the reward, as he thinks of the outcome, says, I will cast in my lot with those who are suffering reproach and affliction, rather than have all this other!
"By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he celebrated the passover and the sprinkling of blood, that the destroyer of the first-born might not touch them.
"By faith they passed through the Red Sea as through dry land; of which the Egyptians making trial, were swallowed up."
In the burning bush God reveals Himself to Moses. He is brought face to face with the invisible God. God's power is put in his hands, and he is sent back to face the king of Egypt. The demand on God's part is that Israel be released from their burdens. He has seen the One who is invisible, and so he boldly stands before Pharaoh. Again and again he reiterates God's demands, and brings upon Pharaoh one judgment after another until God's will is accomplished, and he leads the people out. So the fear of God delivers him from any fear of an earthly potentate on the one side, while, on the other, the blood of the passover is their shelter from divine judgment. Thus Moses and Israel pass out of the land, "not fearing the wrath of the king."
Then, there is the Red Sea, through which faith also finds its way. An utterly impassable sea confronts them, the enemy is behind, the mountains on either hand. Unbelief cries aloud, but faith hearing the voice of God lifts its rod, and passes through the sea as on dry land, while the pursuers are engulfed in the waves.
"By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, when they had been compassed about for seven days. By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with those that believed not, when she had received the spies in peace."
From the Red Sea the apostle passes on to the walls of Jericho. Notice that the whole wilderness is passed over. Mercies from God in their behalf were many indeed, but not acts of faith. There were murmurs at the waters of Meribah refusal to enter into the land at Kadesh-Barnea complaints many and great there were along the way so the wilderness journey is wholly passed over.
But we come to the land, to the walled city Jericho, and the harlot Rahab in connection with it.
Here faith, with the mighty power of God, is manifested in the destruction of Jericho — type of this proud world, which shall one day crumble into nothingness before God type, too, of the powers of the world which shall one day be prostrated before the triumphant people of God, who, as the remnant, will be marching around all the haughtiness and might of the beast and antichrist but who, when the time comes, when the Jubilee trumpet sounds that announces the coming of the Son of man in power and great glory, shall see all the power of the enemy fall prostrate. There shall be no power which can stand before that feeble remnant who are associated with the Ark of the covenant and with the priests of the living God. That is the side of power that faith is associated with and on the other you have, in the midst of all the crumble and decay, faith standing out in one poor woman who had nothing absolutely to commend her but this one single thing — she laid hold upon God.
As we think of this crumbling world upon whose wall we are living, with faces looking outward for deliverance — not within, when it shall totter and fall, not a single one who has living faith in God but will be brought out and into association with His redeemed people. Thus faith will ever triumph.
"And what more do I say? for time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and Barak, and Sampson, and Jephthae, and David, and Samuel, and of the prophets: who by faith overcame kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness became strong, became mighty in war, turned to flight the armies of aliens. Women received their dead again by resurrection; and others were tortured, not having accepted deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others underwent trials of mockings and scourgings, yea also of bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, they died by slaughter of the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, evil treated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
"And these all, having obtained testimony through faith, received not the promise; God having provided some better thing for us, that not apart from us should they be made perfect."
And so the apostle, having traced throughout their familiar history many an example of genuine faith, finds his time too short to go more fully into these precious things.
He runs rapidly over these others, taken chiefly from the book of Judges. Each one in his place had a faith that counted upon the living God. Each of the enemies by which these men were confronted represented a certain kind of spiritual evil. It was in times of ruin that this faith was in exercise.
In previous examples given,we have seen the faith that had to do with the future then, the faith that was passing through the testing. Now we come to the faith that shines in the midst of the ashes of a failed testimony, a thing that ought to have appealed to the Hebrews in that day as they realized that they were living in the last times, and which surely should appeal to us who are living in the days of the ruin and decay of so much that was bright for God. But even if many have fallen by the way; if the corporate testimony has decayed until it is only one here and there, only a little flickering lamp where there should have been a general illumination, still faith shines forth in the midst of the ruin which is the reaping of the very thing which God's people themselves have sown. Faith lays hold upon God in it.
There are seven names given here, including "the prophets;" which seems to speak of perfection and perfect victory in the midst of abounding evil.
We have kingdoms subdued, as Gideon subdued the Midianites and others, who judged Israel and subdued their oppressors.
"Obtained promises." Examples upon examples were given in their history of promises obtained from God when everything on man's side was hopeless.
"Stopped the mouths of lions." There we are, down in the den of lions with Daniel. He realizes that his God, whom he serves continually, can keep him as safe among the lions as though he was upon the throne of the king.
"Quenched the violence of fire." There we see the Hebrew young men in the flaming fiery furnace into which they had been thrown by the idolatrous king, Nebuchadnezzar, and where they found, instead of destruction, their bonds loosened and companionship with One whom the king himself declares to be "like the Son of God."
"Out of weakness were made strong," as Gideon, who felt himself powerless, and would have excused himself from leading a band of 300 against a great host, and, after the great victory over the Midianites, still following up the fleeing army, in order that victory might be complete. You remember the words are, "faint, yet pursuing."
"Waxed valiant in fight," as when David's mighty men fought until God gave them the victory, even when all nature's force was exhausted, as in the case of that brave old hero whose sword clave to his weary arm till he knew not which was arm and which was sword — complete identification with the instrument that he used.
"Women received their dead raised to life again." We remember the Shunamite woman, who reproduces in her history, in a minor way, that of Abraham and Sarah, the child of promise being given to one without natural hope, and then taken away in death, only to be raised again. Something similar is seen in the history of Elijah.
"Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection." These did not get salvation out of death. Their faith counted upon the better resurrection. All martyrs were not rescued from the impending death. Some had to drink deep of the bitter waters, and, so far as this world was concerned, bid farewell to all. They would not accept deliverance, however, at the price of loyalty to Him who had called them to that better resurrection on which the eyes of their faith were intently fixed.
"And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover, of bonds and imprisonment." They had trial of that which may be harder to bear than physical suffering — the scorn of those who do not know our Lord. How keenly sensitive natures feel the slights put upon them! The neglect, the coldness, the sarcastic, supercilious smile of pity, are scourgings which bite more deeply than the lash laid across the shoulders; but faith endures, and triumphs over it all.
"Yea, moreover, of bonds and imprisonment." How the whole army of martyrs passes in array as these expressions come before us!
"They were stoned," and Stephen's blood cries out from the earth while he looks up into heaven and sees the face of Jesus, the Son of God, upon the throne.
"They were sawn asunder," referring perhaps to the time between Malachi and the New Testament, when such persecutions were inflicted.
"Were tempted." The character of the temptation is not mentioned. Doubtless some inducement to escape suffering by giving up Christ, as was so frequently tried in the case of martyrs for the name of Jesus, during the heathen persecutions of the early Christians, and the no less heathenish auto-da-fes of Spain, where promise of deliverance was offered even after the victim was in the flames, if he would only deny the truth which had emancipated his soul. How keen such temptations were, we can well conceive when dear ones, wives, little children, all appealed to the father to remain with them, rather than seal with his blood the faith which he had confessed!
"Were slain with the sword." Here we are reminded of James, (Acts 12:2) who in the first great success of the gospel had to seal with his blood the truth which he had preached, and who thus found our Lord's word verified, that he was to be baptized with the same baptism as Jesus Himself. Do you think that James would have coveted an earthly throne in preference to the martyr's crown?
What an army! — no gold lace or uniform upon them; no great glory and honor. You see them yonder in the caves and dens of the earth, clad in sheepskins and goatskins. Is your place with them? Is that reproach of more value in your eyes than "the treasures of Egypt?" Ah, faith will ever identify us with that company "of whom the world was not worthy" — whom Christ is not ashamed to call "brethren!"
"They wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens, and caves of the earth." How the apostle lets it all accumulate before the eyes of these whom he was addressing! It is as though he were saying to them, Your affliction, is it worse than that of those who have gone before you, heirs of the like precious faith with yourselves? You are talking about what you have been enduring. I have set before you the whole array of faith from Abel down. You see what the portion of faith is, — nothing here, everything in the living God, everything in the future. You cannot get your portion here, you must wait for it too.
"And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect." The "better thing for us" is Christianity with its fuller blessing, — blessing which the Old Testament saints could not have conceived — "that they without us should not be made perfect."
Thank God, everything looks on to perfection. The time is coming when all these worthies who found but caves, and dens, and persecution and martyrs' sufferings, will be introduced into the full glory that awaits all the people of God. We shall share it with them. We, in this present dispensation, as members of the bride, the body of Christ, have a place of higher glory even than theirs. These witnesses of old are patiently waiting with God. They have not yet entered upon their full glory of inheritance. Will you bear a little persecution? Would you dare give up the peerless, glorious name of Jesus and all that that means to you? And oh, what an appeal it would be to the truehearted among them. How they would rise as one man and say: Oh, forgive us that we ever for one moment doubted the full sufficiency of Christ our Lord forgive us that we ever for one moment allowed the mind to turn back to the attractions of anything that would shut Christ out from view.