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Occasional Letters: The Fortunes of Faith

D Newell, Glasgow

The American prosperity preacher Joel Osteen asserts, "My Heavenly Father gives me power to get wealth". Does external prosperity therefore prove inner piety? Conversely, does suffering testify to personal failure? The equations are neat and popular, but misleading. If the book of Job is the great Old Testament answer to this insidious error, Hebrews 11 is the New Testament equivalent. Most of us are familiar with the heroes of faith listed there. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses – their amazing achievements are at our fingertips. But towards the end of the chapter there's a brief section dealing with a vast array of anonymous believers which seriously challenges any oversimplified notions of faith's instant trail of triumph. Hebrews 11 and 12 are, of course, closely connected chapters. The argument breaks down into three major components: The Principle of Faith (11.1-3) offers a basic description of faith; The People of Faith (11.4-40) records the lives of selected Old Testament exemplars of genuine belief; and finally The Pattern of Faith (12.1-3) turns our attention away from this great "cloud of witnesses" so that we end up "looking stedfastly on Jesus the leader and completer of faith" (12.2, JND). Christ Himself is faith's founder because He accomplished the historical events which form the body of doctrine we believe, in His earthly life He exemplified impeccable faith as the perfect man, and He personally remains the eternal object of His people's confidence.

The key structural shift in the file of faith occurs in 11.32 when it seems that the writer, like a preacher looking at the clock, suddenly becomes aware that he has far too much material and therefore has to switch into summary mode: "And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets". It is at this point that he creates his list of unnamed believers. First of all we meet the victors, those whose faith brought them outstanding success and safety in this world: "Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again" (11.33-35a). The catalogue of blessings is, to say the least, impressive, and includes prominence on the stage of world politics, dramatic rescue from wild beasts, immunity to fire, escape from violence, unexpected physical energy, military conquest, and miraculous resurrection. It's a good exercise to try and find specific examples of each marvel in the historical books of the Old Testament. Who would not wish to be a man or woman of faith if that were the guaranteed pathway of life? Wouldn't it compel the admiration of the unsaved?

But midway through v.35 the tone alters as the writer turns from the victors to a register of victims:

"…and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: 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" (11.35b-38).

The language audibly changes gear from the triumphant to the tragic, the writer pulling out all the lexical stops to underline the grim reality of affliction: "tortured, mockings, scourgings, bonds, imprisonment, stoned, sawn asunder, slain with the sword, destitute, afflicted, tormented". Most of us have been told that there are two distinct words in the Greek language for "other". The first word means another of the same kind; the second means another of a different kind. Within one sentence the Hebrew writer uses both words, so that the passage goes like this: "and others of the same kind were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others of a different kind had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings". The crucial shift from success to suffering falls midway through v.35, yet the word clearly signalling difference in kind is not employed until the start of v.36. Why? I think the writer is seeking to avoid a common blunder. We all tend to judge on the basis of externals for, let's face it, "man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Sam 16.7). That's why Christians so often fall into the trap of assessing people spiritually by their clothing, by the size of their Bibles, by the local assembly with which they are in fellowship. Now, some of the readers of the letter might well have taken a similar view of the people mentioned in vv.35b-38. Having read the exhilarating achievements of vv.33-35a they may have reached the conclusion that believers are automatically preserved from disasters, and therefore reasoned that the second group, who came in for such a tough time on earth, must have had an inferior quality of faith, or perhaps no faith at all. In order to quash this serious doctrinal error, the notion (perpetuated today in the heresy of prosperity theology) that outward calamity proves spiritual failure, the writer carefully places the word signifying "others of the same kind" – that is to say, people who also possessed the same genuine faith in God – before he commences his list of the sufferings borne by some of God's saints. It is as if he says, "Look, I want you to grasp the fact that these folk who endured such misery were just as much men and women of faith as the ones I wrote about earlier, even though they were so strikingly different in their earthly experience". The point is plain: believers may be identical in the quality and object of their faith and yet be very different in their outward fate in this world.

New Testament history agrees. Acts 12 contrasts the different destinies of two apostles: James was ignominiously put to death while Peter was supernaturally delivered from prison. The ICR's Days of Praise daily reading recently asked the question, "What would have happened had the believers prayed for James as they did for Peter?". But nothing in the Biblical text suggests that James' execution was a result of faithlessness either on the part of James or the Jerusalem saints. Nor, as a matter of interest, is there anything in Scripture to indicate exactly what the saints prayed for Peter. They may, wisely, have been asking that he would be given grace to accept God's will for him. All of which brings us to the conclusion that our earthly circumstances, whether good or ill, are ordained of God's sovereign wisdom for the glory of His name. And just to drive home the point that outward success is ultimately of no consequence, the Hebrew writer slips a startling little parenthesis in the middle of his list of distresses. Blink, and you might miss it: "Of whom the world was not worthy". What does it mean? These afflicted people of God were in reality infinitely superior to the world that despised and ejected them as unworthy of its notice, because "they [desired] a better country, that is, an heavenly" (11.16). In this they faintly typified the Lord Jesus, who "for the joy that was set before him endured the cross" (12.2). Those whose sights are set on the heavenly are by no means guaranteed outward riches in this age, but the time will come when God's spiritual aristocracy will be acknowledged by a wondering world, for "when [Christ] shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" (1 Jn 3.2). Whatever the believer's circumstances now, he is heading for glory.

To be continued.


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