A cloud of witnesses, part 7: Conclusion
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
The total length of the recording is .
This talk is on Hebrews chapter 11, verses 32 to 40.
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning;[a] they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
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Over the past weeks, we have looked at what we think are some of the Old Testament heroes of faith. Enoch and Noah, who walked closely with God. Abraham, the man who God promised who would make him a great nation. Abraham, the man who messed up because he lied about his wife being his sister in order to curry favour with a pharaoh in Egypt.
We then meet Isaac, the miracle son of Abraham and Sarah whose son, Jacob, surreptitiously steals his older brothers blessing from Isaac and then his inheritance which meant that all the good stuff would come to him rather than his older brother, Esau. We have spent time looking at the life and faith of Joseph where he naturally trusts God through his experiences of kidnap and imprisonment for things he had not done.
Moses was next in line, the man who God calls to bring out his people from 400-plus years of slavery in Egypt and who is probably, perhaps , one of the most famous people in Jewish history for taking the people through the Red Sea, through the wilderness. Of course, Moses being the person who we know that God spoke to face-to-face, and yet we recall that Moses was afraid to speak for God coming up with a range of excuses.
Last week, Paul H, not me because I was away, talked about how it was that Rahab, the prostitute, had faith and that she trusted the men that she hid in her home. Today, we finally get to the end of Hebrews 11. This chapter on heroes of faith, we find out about some well-known figures of the Old Testament and some that we have never heard of. Just for a moment, let’s think of people we have never heard of. Let me give an example.
We know that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Yes, most of us know that, but who invented bubble wrap? It was a man called Alfred Fielding and his friend Marc Chavannes. Matches? Well, that was a chap called John Walker. Who invented the traffic lights, the gas masks, and hair straighteners? That was one Garrett Morgan, not Gareth Morgan. Frozen food? Clarence Birdseye. I know that everybody wants to know who invented the bendy straw. That was Joseph Friedman.
I wonder if anybody has heard of Maria Beasley. I don’t know if she was related to Bill and Audrey and I think it was a different spelling. Maria Beasley. Countless lives have been lost at sea as people have navigated the oceans over centuries, but thanks to Maria Beasley, voyages across the globe got a little safer because she is credited for inventing the life raft in 1882. Grace Hopper. Who’s heard of Grace Hopper? I’m looking particularly at Martin. Martin is nodding.
Martin and I perhaps might be the only two people who know what Grace Hopper is famous for. She designed Harvard’s Mark I computer, a five-ton, room-sized machine , in 1944. She invented the compiler that translated written language into computer code. Martin’s still nodding at me. This is good news. She coined the terms “bugs” and “debugging” when she had to remove moths from the device.
Now, just close your eyes and think about what the world would be like without this invention. All of these are inventors and people in this world that we may never have heard of who have made significant impacts on our lives and our world without knowing it. Here in Hebrews 11, we have a similar idea. There are many people in the Scriptures who we’ve rarely heard of. Here in the last verses of Hebrews 11, there’s just a glimpse of a few of them.
Many of the six that we’re looking at today come from the Book of Judges. The Book of Judges, it must be said, is one of the oddest collection of people and activities within the Bible. It’s the story. It’s the narrative, of the Israelites between the arrival in the Promised Land and the emergence of David as king. That’s a historical context. A number of times in Judges, we have the curious phrase, “Everyone did as they saw fit in their own eyes.”
In other words, many people ignored God’s wishes and did as they wanted. One theologian says that the first four judges acted when faith was at a premium. That’s to say it was an awful time to be faithful because there were very few faithful people around. If you read Judges, you will find a number of quite horrendous things taking place, much of which seems to go against the “love thy neighbour” attitude of Jesus.
It is perhaps with good thought that the writer of Hebrews doesn’t spend too much time on them. To quote one theologian, Raymond Brown, he says this, “Gideon was frightened, Barak was hesitant, Samson was flippant, Jephthah was rash, David was sensuous, and Samuel was careless.” The list here doesn’t sound that heroic. I wonder what on earth makes the writer of Hebrews include these six people specifically in the heroes of faith when they could have cited more faithful, miracle-working Old Testament figures.
It’s in Judges that we find this little-known chap, Barak. During these times, Deborah is the judge of Israel. She’s the leader. In Judges 4 to 6, Barak has a task to do, but he won’t do it until Deborah agrees to support him. I guess it’s a bit of a trade where Barak says, “If you go, I’ll go.” Deborah agrees, stating that if she helps, then the honor of killing the enemy would go to a woman, hardly something that would be culturally expected in those days . F or a woman, to get the glory?
Disgraceful behaviour, but that’s Judges for you. Very odd book. Barak trusts her. This is perhaps where his faith is, in Deborah the judge. The end of this particular story, quite gruesome, is that Jael, another lady, and Deborah get the glory for hammering a tent peg through the skull of Sisera, the enemy. Great, isn’t it, when tradition at the time goes that men should really have done the dirty work?
It’s in Judges that we find Gideon, the chap who does believe in God, but who just has to keep checking that his faith is okay. Before battle, he puts a fleece on the ground and asks God to make the fleece wet with dew but keep the ground around it dry, which is what happens. Just to be on the ever so careful side, Gideon asks again, but the reverse occurs so that the fleece is dry and the dew around is wet and dewy. God agrees.
To me, Gideon has a similar way of coming to God as our friend, Moses, a few weeks ago where he met him at the burning bush, “Pardon me, Mr. God. Can I just test you again?” With Gideon, God doesn’t get angry. He just does as Gideon asks. Gideon’s faith is in God. Perhaps it needs gentle encouragement or perhaps his faith is strengthened further in that once the dry fleece and the wet fleece has been confirmed, Gideon’s faith is also increased. Whichever, faith is there.
Perhaps some of us need to test God’s goodness or his promises to us. With Gideon, this seemed acceptable. It wasn’t just blind faith, rather testing the waters to check that the next steps were certainly what God wanted. It’s in Judges that we find the very odd story of Jephthah and I’m not surprised that Ruth doesn’t teach this particular story. Jephthah goes out to battle.
When he gets home, he makes an oath that whatever walks through his front door will get to be sacrificed as a thank you gift to God for winning the battle. There was no need to do this. Maybe Jephthah was just full of himself. Well, you can imagine his stupidity leads to the sacrifice of his one and only precious daughter, who he even blames for coming out of his own front door.
A needless death for a rash promise , and a very odd person to choose for writing about someone who by faith gained what was promised. The story gives much prominence to the grieving of the daughter and her friends for the life she would not have had. Perhaps there is faith that God is there even in the hardest of circumstances, but I don’t want to be glib or to gloss over the absolute evil of child sacrifice, which seems to be what this story is about and certainly not like the Jesus who came to save.
At the very least, I find it hard to find faith here. Let’s find a bit of context. Maybe Jephthah’s faith comes before his stupidity. RT Kendall says that Jephthah’s faith lay in his understanding of God’s purposes in Israelite history. The king of the Ammonites, Israel’s enemy, accused Israel of stealing their land 300 years before, but Jephthah refuted this claim by tracing back the Israelite steps from the time they left Egypt and he left God to settle the matter.
Maybe like Jephthah, we have become perhaps a little bit complacent or forgetful about what’s most important. There’s Samson. He is the one who had the strength almost of, I guess, the Holy Spirit in his hair, the strength of God in his hair. When Delilah cut it all off, he lost his strength and had his eyes poked out, yes that story can be found in Judges too. It seems to be the collection of the most oddest characters and oddest story in the Old Testament.
The story of Samson is that once he realized that his hair grows back, he is guided to this temple of Dagon. He is crushed to death whilst pushing over the pillars that held up the temple. Whilst doing so, a great number of the dreaded Philistines died with him too. Where’s the faith there? Perhaps he realizes his need to amend his wrongdoing and so uses his God-given power of strength for one last push.
Maybe for us here, the lesson is that God is the god of yet another chance. Another chance to do better. Another chance to do it right this time. Faith allows another go. We know a fair bit about David and Samuel, who are found in 1 and 2 Samuel in the Old Testament. David, the man who is famously known throughout history as the man after God’s own heart, he messes up.
The main thing we know or we perhaps remember him for apart from his wonderful poems in the Psalms is his adultery with Bathsheba. After which, King David puts her husband on the front line so that he never finds out about the illegitimate child. Perhaps we can see more than a glimmer of hope before that situation in the boy David before he is crowned king, when he overcomes the Philistines and Goliath with a mighty swing of his slingshots and shoots a well-aimed pebble at the giant who gets the stone right in his forehead.
After which, the Philistine army is quashed. Maybe that’s some of the faith that the writer of Hebrews is alluding to. Maybe faith means trying to see past the stories that we know and to some of the background stuff that encourages us. Finally, the writer mentions Samuel, the boy that grows up as a priest in the temple with Eli at Shiloh. He hears God. He gets to know God very, very well.
Yet at the end of his life, we see that he appoints rather than anoints his two sons , Joel and Abijah , to continue his work as a priestly prophet. We learn that both of them did not follow God’s ways and so were bad appointees for God to work through. These six are picked out for having faith. Yes. Thanks, writer to the Hebrews. That’s so helpful. Hebrews doesn’t mention every Old Testament prophet by name but might in a wider sense include all who have a relationship with God.
In verse 35, the writer uses the word “others,” which RT Kendall suggests brings even you and me into the equation, into the picture. Those of us, even if we are not mentioned by name in the Bible, can trust in a God who created us and loves us and sent his son to live and die and rise from death for us. Many faithful followers had particularly gruesome ends to their lives because they believed in the promise of the future of something better.
I’m unsure how people who are left behind, having witnessed such evils as mentioned in the last bits of our reading today, will have felt : torture, imprisonment, whipping, stoning, living like animals, destitute, being ill-treated, and more. We live in a world where this still happens , where people are in prison for what they believe , and not just Christians. I was shocked in these last couple of weeks to hear that in the UK, there is an estimated 136,000 people who are being trafficked. An unwilling part of modern slavery in our country today.
Worldwide, 180 million people have been trafficked into the sex trade or working hard and long hours with no pay, having been made promises of a better life. Only with those lies to have entrapped them in endless life of being somebody else’s slave. This is no life. This is nothing. This is not something better. People need to know that what we read at the end of Hebrews 11 is not as triumphant as we might have hoped.
As with much Scripture, our understanding of faith needs to drive us onto compassion, to do something about the injustice of our age. Perhaps that is the important thing about the whole of Hebrews 11. Yes, it’s about trusting God. We are told that people of God that we’ve studied didn’t receive their reward because they were hoping for something better. Maybe that something better is what Jesus spoke about and taught about and realised: the Kingdom of God. A definite improvement on what had taken place before.
The thing I know about the Kingdom of God is that it has arrived and it is still arriving and that its completion will continue to arrive. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was near. He said the Kingdom of God was amongst us. When Jesus taught, He didn’t just talk theoretically or theologically. His words were backed up with action. His words made the religious leaders wake up and hate him, but his actions made unbelievers follow him.
He was persecuted for standing up to be counted for what he believed in wholeheartedly, the Kingdom of God. You see, I think that we need to take our faith in Jesus seriously. What I mean is that our faith needs to be worked out in love and action. “Love one another,” said Jesus. “By all this love, people will know that you are my disciples.” How can we love? I would suggest that actions are always involved.
Today, our faith needs to act to show that the Kingdom of God is here and is being fulfilled. The Kingdom of God isn’t what we find at the end of Revelation with a city of emeralds and topaz and carnelian and such. I rather think that the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to preach and in Acts is very much more practical. It involves action to bind up the broken-hearted as Isaiah 61 says to proclaim freedom to prisoners.
It involves action to break the sin of modern slavery, to let the plastic revolution begin with me by taking my own bags to the shop and, if possible, to buy local. The Kingdom of God is about making that something better in the here and now. We’ve probably heard preachers preaching for many years about how the Kingdom of God is now and not yet. Preachers in the past have perhaps talked about the day of the Lord when things will be perfect again.
That’s what we often think about : the Kingdom of God in all its fullness and the return of Jesus will take place and what a wonderful day that will be, but that’s then. This is our faith. Is our faith then only about waiting patiently for that day to arrive? What happens in between? What happens now? I think the response is that we act, that we love, we respond to what our hearts ache for.
I was at Liverpool Cathedral last night with a guy called Tony Campolo, a good Christian writer who has been very influential in my life when I was a young person. He was speaking and the thing that I got from his talk last night was, “What’s your thing?>” What’s the thing that gets you up and motivates you for the day? Is it family? Is it life? Is it something specifically that spurs you on to action and to love? What’s your thing?
Our faith drives us on now to bring the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. If heaven is perfection already, then I want to see that in the here and now in Frodsham and wherever I go. Wherever I see injustice, my faith response is to rise to it. It has never been so easy to sign an online petition for something that you believe wholeheartedly about.
Speak to Andrew Bastion about his heart and how that has been moved to be part of the extinction rebellion marches. Talk to Moira and Dick about what moved them to begin KRDP in Uganda. If Christians are expecting for something better, I wonder whether they will be commended for taking part in an extinction rebellion or for improving the lives of a community in the middle of Africa or by donating a food pot into the food bank box.
Each action shows love to our world. It shows that our faith means business. It involves us in doing something no matter how small or large. That’s how the Kingdom of God comes. Each of the people in Hebrews 11 acted. They had something to give. Their faith made them get off their behinds and do something. Abel and Noah and Enoch walked with God. That’s an action. Abraham got up and left his city. There’s action there.
His children became the great nation that God promised him. A lot of action took place because of that. Joseph, Moses, Rahab, each of them and, vicariously, each of us cannot afford to, to coin a 1990s phrase, “just let go and let God.>” Faith is not about believing a set of rules set down in a crusty old text and it never was. Faith was always about taking God at his word and responding to it. The heroes of faith took the challenge. Sometimes at great cost. The heroes of faith found the going tough.
The heroes of faith didn’t even see the coming of Jesus, but we have. If you follow Jesus, you have seen Him and you know Him says the Book of John. The challenge now is to continue in His footsteps, to act. That’s what true faith is: seeing what God has done, noticing what God is doing, and joining in with what He wants you to do with you and through you. Not because He has to use us, but I think He thinks it’s much more exciting for us if we all join in together in this walk of faith.
In closing, let our community of faith not just think that faith merely gets us into heaven. There, we wait for the rest. Let’s look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Let us act now to make this little bit of earth a little bit more like heaven. Let us know that faith is the practical outworking of the command of Jesus, “to love one another as I have loved you.>” As a result, let us see how the Kingdom of God is brought to earth as we trust and as we follow Jesus.
In that sketch that Sarah and Edith did earlier. I found the little words that really encouraged me. “What, a piffling little bit of bread and fish?>” “It wasn’t piffling at all. That lad gave Jesus all he had. You imagine if the world adopted the same attitude,>” they go on. The problem isn’t that God doesn’t care or provide. It’s that we are too greedy to share. Let’s have a moment to reflect.
Father God, we sometimes find it very easy to have faith when the sun is shining down. We find it sometimes difficult to have faith when we really don’t see you and we don’t understand what on earth is happening in our lives. Father God, I thank you for the opportunity that we have had over these last few weeks to wrestle with and get to know some of the Old Testament heroes of faith.
I thank you that we have been able to look and consider in depth exactly what that meant for them. For so many of them, it didn’t end brilliantly. For so many of them, they didn’t see the end result, but yet they trusted. Father God, would you please help us to trust you when the going is soft and easy and good and when the going gets hard too. Would you help us to act in love to one another and to those that don’t know you ? In Jesus ’ name I pray, Amen.
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