Second Reformed Church

Sunday, January 05, 2014

"And, Part 2" Sermon: Hebrews 11:35-38


“And, Part 2”

[Hebrews 11:35-38]

January 5, 2014 Second Reformed Church

            When we last looked at the book of Hebrews, we considered the first half of the paragraph we are in, in which the author of Hebrews brings his examples to a close, first by stating the names of a number of other faithful persons in the Bible – indicating that there are many more to whom we may look to see examples of faith, and then by listing types of things they did and endured.

            In the first half of the paragraph, the author of Hebrews looks at cases where faith led to victory:  “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:32-34, ESV).

            Faith led these men and women to be victors – to conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, obtain promises, be safe among lions, escape death, be mighty in war, and see, as Paul relates his pleading with God, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (II Corinthians 12:9, ESV).

            The victories that these men and women achieved by faith were victories in God – in the Savior, Jesus Christ.  God’s Power is best seen through our weakness, and we ought to fight for God in the Power of the Holy Spirit, if we are to achieve God’s ends, and not in our own power, which will always fall short without God.

            The first half of verse 35 of this chapter is a transitional verse:  “Women received back their dead by resurrection.”  It is a transition from faith leading to victory to faith leading to misery.  We have both in this example:  women had people die – and, they received them back by resurrection.  Misery and victory in one.

            We think of the widow of Zarephath and her son, whom the prophet, Elijah, saved from famine by God’s Hand, only to have her son die.  Elijah pleaded with God, and God raised her son from the dead.  (cf.  I Kings 17).

            We also think of the Shunammite woman who had no son when the prophet, Elisha, visited her home.  Afterword, God blessed her by becoming with child and her son was born and grew.  When Elisha visited her some years later, she was a bitter woman because her son was sickly and about to die – and did die at the prophet’s arrival.  Yet, again, God raised her son.  (II Kings 4).

            Perhaps most famously, we think of the beloved friend of Jesus, Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha:  Jesus was notified that His friend, Lazarus, was very ill, and his sisters called Jesus to help him, but Jesus waited until Lazarus was dead before going to see him.  Upon arrival, Jesus asked Martha if she believed in the resurrection, and she said she believed her brother would be raised at the judgment – (Jews have always believed in a physical resurrection, just as we do).  But Jesus had something else in mind – that He is the Resurrection – and He raised His friend, Lazarus, that those in attendance would see the Glory of God.  (cf. John 11).

            These resurrections of those who died serve as a bridge from the victories of faith in the first half of the paragraph to the miseries of faith that we will now look at.  Let us understand that all these things are given to us to know and remember as encouragements to our faith, and a knowledge that faith may lead to victory or misery, depending on the Will of God.

            As we make this bridge, that is our first point this morning:  faith may lead to victory or misery.

            As we turn to look at the miseries of faith, we learn three more things this morning:

            Second, the devil can bring suffering upon us, but he cannot take our soul.

            Third, we are to stand by faith against anything the world, the flesh, and the devil bring.

            And fourth, misery may be for Christ’s Glory and our safety.

            Let us keep the rest of the passage before us as a whole as we consider these things:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”

This text was written near the end of the first century when the persecution of the Roman Caesar, Nero, was in full force.  Nero was crucifying Christians, using them as sport – to fight lions and bears and gladiators as entertainment, and wrapping them in tar and linen and using them as human torches in his gardens.  The Christians of this time understood how horrible persecution could be – the extent to which they might suffer for their faith.  Jesus was not just being poetic when He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24b, ESV).

Crucifixion is still considered to be one of the cruelest – most painful – ways to die.  Jesus says to all we who believe by faith – your faith may bring you to being physically crucified – just like Jesus was.

They knew that people in their congregations were being tortured, whipped with the flog, stoned to death, sawn in half, cut in half with swords; some were mocked for their faith and lost public standing, some lost their clothes, their homes, their families; some went into permanent hiding for believing the Gospel.

I’m reading a book right now called, The Global War on Christians, which documents the persecution – and specifically the murder – of Christians for their faith over the past twenty years.  The author states that 85% of the current religious persecution in the world is against Christians and for the past ten years, approximately 100,000 Christians a year are reported to have been murdered for their faith.   How many have not been reported?

In Europe and North America, we may find our being public about our faith marginalized or ridiculed – many once Christian churches and denominations are becoming pagan from the inside as the faith is denied in order to be more acceptable, more modern, more in line with the current views in society.  But we don’t – yet – hear about Christians being put to death for their faith to any great extent.

We need to be aware of the suffering of our brothers and sisters around that world that we can pray for them and be ready to assist them if we are called to.  You may have family or friends in another country – or have come from another country – and know about Christian suffering there.  You may read a magazine like “Voice of the Martyrs” – it’s in Freeman Hall.  You may hear about suffering on the news – the persecution of Christians in Egypt in recent months, for example.  You may have suffered as a Christian – or you may yet suffer for your faith.  You may be put to death one day for professing faith in Jesus.

Many of us will be familiar with the Mason murders – “Helter Skelter.”  One of the initiation techniques that Manson used with his “family,” as he called them, was to have each one put a gun to their head, and then Mason would ask the prospective new member, “Will you die for me?”  And if they answered, “yes,” he would have them pull the trigger.  One of his former followers, Charles Watson, writes about this in his book, Will You Die for Me?  Watson is a Christian pastor now and his allegiance – to death – is now with Jesus.  That’s what Jesus calls us to – is it not? – “Will you die for Jesus?” – if that is your call in life?

If we only looked at the first half of the paragraph in our text, we would have much of the TV preaching of today – “if you have faith in Jesus, you will conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, become mighty, avoid death – and be healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  The lie of many TV preachers is that that is – at best – only half the story.  God may lead us to victory through faith, but He may also lead us to misery through faith – and we need to be strong and ready for either one as the Lord wills.  God calls Christians to be Christians is every possible state of living – rich, poor, healthy, sick, powerful, enslaved, and so forth – for His Glory.  Our primary purpose in life is to glorify God – and we do that by faith in various ways, as God chooses to use us.

The Christians of the first century – and Christians around the world today – are being slaughtered for their faith.  They needed to know – and we need to know – that faith may lead to victory or to misery.  Suffering and death does not mean a person is a Christian or that he has been deserted by God any more that a person being healthy, wealthy, and wise does.  God leads us by faith to all different places that He – and His Gospel – would be seen all the more clearly through us.  And we need to be ready – we need to be encouraged by these words and the examples of our brothers and sisters who have gone before us.

So, let us understand, second, this morning, that the devil can bring suffering upon us, but he cannot take our soul.  God may allow us to suffer horrifically or die for His Sake, but if we have faith in Jesus Alone for salvation, we shall not be lost – we will be raised to be with Him in the Kingdom, forever.  

            Paul writes about his suffering and the suffering of his fellow missionaries:  “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV).

            And we may read this Scripture and think, “Well, Paul must not have really suffered to dismiss his suffering as nothing compared with the glory of the Kingdom.”  But that is not true:

Paul was arguing against a group who called themselves the “super apostles,” as he wrote, “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (II Corinthians 11:23-28, ESV).

            Paul knew what is was to suffer as a Christian – to suffer for his faith – and after suffering all that he did for Jesus – he told the Corinthians that it was nothing – not because he was so strong – so macho – but because the horror, the pain, and the stress of what he endured was – truly – nothing compared with what is coming in the Kingdom.  Paul had been through horrible suffering – and he wanted other Christians to know that the worst we can suffer on earth will seem so small – so insignificant – when our eyes are opened in the fullness of the Kingdom.

            Be encouraged, brothers and sisters – no matter what you suffer for Christ here – our reward in the Kingdom is exponentially greater through Him Who saves us.

            Even if our persecution should end in death – even horrifically in death – not to dismiss that, because no one wants to die a horrible death – I don’t – know that your soul is safe with Jesus.  As He said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:28-33, ESV).

            And, if we falter and sin as we suffer and die – even then, do not lose hope – because Christ will not lose one of His own.  If you belong to Jesus – if you have confessed faith in Him – no matter how badly you slip in that moment – if you truly believe in Him – having received Him by faith – nothing shall ever separate you from His Love:

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39, ESV).

Beloved, if we suffer for our faith – and even if we die – that is not a sign that God does not love us.  We who believe that God came to earth in the Person of Jesus, lived a perfect life under God’s Law, died for the sins of all those who will believe, and physically rose from the dead and ascend back to His throne will always be loved by God – by Christ – we will never be lost – and we always have hope in Christ, even if it should get so miserable that we wished we would just die.

If you’ve been there, you understand.  If you’re there now – hold on to Jesus – look to Him and know that the devil can never take you from our God and Savior.  See me or another Christian for help and support.  And if it hasn’t happened yet, prepare yourself in case it does.  The devil wants you to believe that suffering for the faith is not worth it, that Jesus does not love His brothers and sisters for whom He died, that He will cast us away into Hell in the end – but it will never be!  As bad as it can get, we who believe are in Jesus’ Hands – the scarred hands of the Savior Who has chosen us to be His forever and died and rose so we will always be His.

And if you’re telling yourself, “it could never happen here – it could never happen to me” – look at history – look at our brothers and sisters around the world, and remember the words of Peter:  “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’  Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (I Peter 4:12-19, ESV).

Third, we should stand by faith against anything the world, the flesh, and the devil bring.

That means that when the whispers come into our ears to sin, we say, “no.”  We all experience this every day – every day we choose to listen and walk into sin, or by the Grace of God, take the way of escape that He always provides for us.  And every day, we shamefully choose to sin.

Join with me, brothers and sisters, in repenting of our sin – and recommit day by day and moment by moment, calling out for help from our God that we would not sin.  Consider what Jesus suffered for us and stop acting as though it was nothing.  But do not despair, for we are forgiven in Christ, so let us live by faith and respond in obedience.

It also means, as our texts says in verse 35, we “refuse to accept release.”   We may have occasion to be let free from jail, from persecution, from torture, from threat of death, if we just deny Christ – that happens in Muslim families – you are cut off – at minimum – if you confess Christ, but if you deny Him, you will be welcomed back.  But how can we who have seen the salvation of our God deny Him?  We may in the moment, but pray God that you turn back again, as Thomas Cranmer did during the Reformation.

Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury when he came to the Reformed faith, but when Mary ascended to the throne and demanded that all Protestants recant and embrace the Roman Catholic Church or be put to death; Cranmer signed a recantation of his beliefs.  But he repented and embraced Christ again, to Mary’s rage.

“Cranmer was told that he would be able to make a final recantation but this time in public during a service at the University Church. He wrote and submitted the speech in advance and it was published after his death. At the pulpit on the day of his execution, he opened with a prayer and an exhortation to obey the king and queen, but he ended his sermon totally unexpectedly, deviating from the prepared script. He renounced the recantations that he had written or signed with his own hand since his degradation and as such he stated his hand would be punished by being burnt first. He then said, ‘And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ's enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.’ He was pulled from the pulpit and taken to where Latimer and Ridley had been burnt six months before. As the flames drew around him, he fulfilled his promise by placing his right hand into the heart of the fire while saying ‘that unworthy hand’ and his dying words were, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit... I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God’” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Cranmer).

Let us stand strong in the face of opposition to our faith, refusing sin, refusing those who would call us to deny Christ, and, should we slip in weakness, run back to Him boldly, knowing, as our text says in verse 35, “so that they might rise to a better life.”

We can understand this in at least two ways:  it is better for us to suffer and die for Christ than to be released from our suffering as a heretic, and, it is better for us to suffer and die for Christ than to be released and suffer Hell.  In either case, death is preferable to denying Christ.

From “every day” sin to recanting the faith under persecution to standing among our friends and family and co-workers and all we may come in contact with to say that Jesus Christ is truth and Him Alone, let us stand against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and all they bring against us.

Fourth, misery may be for Christ’s Glory and our safety.

Our text talks about those who have lost homes, family, clothing, jobs, and so forth.  Some have been denied the pleasures and necessities of life, and even when this happens, we must stand firm in the faith.

It may be that we suffer the loss of comforts and stability for Christ’s Glory.

We remember a certain man Jesus met:  “As [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (John 9:1-3, ESV).

Notice, it could be that our sin has made us ill or displaced us, but it could also be God’s way of showing His Glory, as it was in the case of this man born blind.  God planned for Him to be born blind that Jesus would heal him and receive glory for it.  It may be that we are ill or displaced that God could make things right with us to His Glory – or it may be that we suffer these things and will not be healed and whole in this life for His Glory:

As Paul wrote, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— “ (Romans 9:22-23, ESV).

Why are their people who fight against God and His Savior?  Why are there people who never believe and even persecute those who do?  Some Christians suffer at the hands of non-Christians to show the justice of God’s Wrath against those who never believe.

Others may lose their homes and clothing and be forced to live their lives in hiding or in exile or in refugee camps – as we see around the world.  This may be God’s way of protecting us from those who rage against Christians.

With the exception of the apostles, the Christians of the first century fled Jerusalem and settled throughout the world that they would be safe – and through such exile and diaspora – God spread the Gospel to the whole world.

How are we to respond to these things?  How are we to respond to the misery that faith may bring?

Remember that faith may lead to victory or misery according to the will of God.

The devil can bring suffering upon us, but he cannot take our soul.

We are to stand by faith against anything the world, the flesh, and the devil bring.

And misery may be for Christ’s Glory and our safety.

Let us prepare by knowing Him in Whom we believe.  Know Jesus.  Be sure you believe in the Gospel.

Pray for our brothers and sisters around the world as they suffer – and pray for each of us as we suffer and face whatever miseries might come our way for the sake of the faith.  Pray that we would all stand strong for the sake of Christ.

Pray that we would have the strength of faith to remove any minister who stands in this pulpit and speaks against the Gospel.

Pray that we would have the strength of faith to stand against our denomination – the Reformed Church in America – any time she calls us to speak against the Gospel.

And let us rest in comfort, knowing that Jesus will never leave us or forsake us; we are His forever, looking forward to that glorious and coming Kingdom.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, we thank You for all the blessings we have received – even for life in the United States.  We ask that You would strengthen us in the faith as we look to history and to our brothers and sisters as they suffer in great ways all across the earth.  Open our mouths, and hear us as we pray that all of Your sons and daughters would stand strong in the faith to Your Glory, no matter what is brought against any of us.  And, if it is Your Will, give us strength to proclaim that Jesus is our Lord and Savior as we are committed to death for Your Sake, for in You Alone is there eternal life.  And it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

 

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