From "Success" to Suffering: The Pinnacle of Faith (Hebrews Sermon 60 of 74)
March 11, 2012 | Andrew Davis
The Blood of the Martyrs is Seed for the Church
So toward the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus was thinking as he thought every day, but as he was nearing the end of his life, he thought more and more about his death on the cross, what he was about to do. And in John's gospel in John 12:24 he said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself a single seed, but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit." And in giving us this, he was speaking not only of his own death and all of the eternal fruit that would come from it, but also giving to his church, a lasting pattern of the advance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is by following the same principle, that the church has advanced for 2,000 years as individual brothers and sisters, did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death but were willing to deny themselves, and take up their crosses and follow Jesus and to bear much fruit, and in each of those fruits that are born are more seeds. And so the process just continues on and on of self-denial and death for life, just patterned after Jesus.
And as I come to this text today Hebrews 11:35B-38 as we try to understand this movement from success to suffering, my prayer for all of us has been to come face-to-face with this issue of persecution to try to understand it, to celebrate what was suffered for us, so that we would have the Gospel to believe, to understand; the scripture to read in our own language, to cherish the history, the chain of events, the chain of brothers and sisters that brought all these good things to us and thank God for their sacrifices and rejoice in them, but also that we would lay down our lives for the gospel too, that we would be willing to die when the time comes. Maybe physically though, the percentages are small but certainly spiritually that we would be willing to die to ourselves for the benefit of others. That's what my desire is here.
About three centuries after Jesus said that, about three centuries after Jesus was put to death by Pontius Pilate on a Roman cross, against all odds, if we could even use that language, the Roman Emperor declared himself to be a Christian. Constantine declared himself to be a Christian, and in the 300 plus years that intervened, there was a trail of blood of brothers and sisters that literally died for the faith, that suffered for the Gospel of Christ. Christian apologist Tertullian said, "The blood of martyrs is seed for the church. It's defending the Christian church." And that trail of blood continued through the centuries, as Satan persecuted the true church as he persecuted people who are standing up for Jesus and made them pay for their testimony with their blood.
I went through the time of the reformation, and the staff, we've been studying various biographies in the series, "Men of whom the world was not worthy," taken right from the text we're looking at today. Studying biographies of great servants of God and we studied William Tyndale, who was a Bible translator during the same time as Martin Luther lived. He lived during the era of Henry VIII. He was English and his one passion in life, his one desire... "he was a singer of one note," someone said. Every time you talk to him, all you got was that one note, "Oh God, give my people the Bible in their own language." Yearning to have the Bible in English so we could just simply read it. But there were violent forces against him including the King himself, King Henry VIII.
So he fled for his life, he was in Holland. In May 1531, a messenger was sent from the King saying that he was in a gracious and merciful frame of mind but that was Henry VIII, who knew it would continue the rest of that day, but he was willing to be merciful. And so, this messenger came. He was, Tyndale was hiding in Holland. The King was saying, "I'm willing to be merciful to you." Tyndale responded back in effect these words saying, "I will promise you, if you O king would consent to have the Bible published in English and spread throughout the realm without any explanatory notes, nothing. Just the text of the Bible in English. I will promise first, never to write another word." Henry didn't like his writings. "I promise I will never write another word. I promise that I will surrender myself immediately and within days I will throw myself at the feet of the King and I will gladly suffer any tortures and even death if you would just make that commitment. Get the Bible into the hands of the people in their own language." The king refused.
I'm not so interested in the king's refusal. I'm interested in Tyndale's willingness to die for this. His willingness to die so that we could read these words. And he did die for that. He died by strangulation right before he was burned at the stake. Right before he died, he said famously, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes." his dying prayer.
1563, John Foxe, wrote his famous acts and monuments of the Christian church commonly known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs goes back to the beginning of history and talks about the martyrs, those who are willing to shed their blood for Christ, tracing out that river of blood that's brought the gospel right up there. By the time he was writing, it was Queen Elizabeth's reign, the reign of Bloody Mary, was over, but Protestants had paid for their witness with their blood.
And it travels right up to this present day, many of us following the suffering of pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran. I received, I think, a faulty message that he had been hanged for his faith. This is a man who never embraced the Muslim faith. I spoke about him a number of weeks ago, from this pulpit, never was a Muslim, is a Christian. The logic of the Iranian court, is that he has because he is Iranian, and had Muslim parents, he has renounced the faith and is under the death penalty, not so he said "I'd never embraced Islam" but in their logic, it's impossible. Muslim parents must have Muslim children.
And so he's on trial, he's under the death sentence. And he's referred to at least his commitment is referred to in the text, others were tortured and refused to be released. My understanding of his case at least early on, was he would be released if all he would say is that Muhammad was a prophet of God, if he would just make that confession, they would have released him to his family. "That I cannot do" he said. No, he's a Christian, cannot make that confession. And so the text says, others were tortured and refused to be released so that they might gain a better resurrection, goes on right to this present day, cover story of World magazine showed one of our brothers from the country of Nigeria, having been blooded by some Muslim fanatic, bandaged up in a very rough way, right there in the cover of World magazine.
Talking about the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Nigeria, reading about an orphanage in Bangladesh. Nathan is in Bangladesh, we prayed for him, in January of this year, they surrounded this orphanage and were chanting and demonstrating against it because they assumed that this Christian orphanage were stealing Muslim babies and trafficking in babies and doing wicked things. These were children that no one was caring for before this ministry started, and one of the workers there was bashed in the head and nobody died, but there was this kind of hatred going on in Bangladesh. And so as we come to this text, today we come to somewhat of a, I don't know, a continental divide in the flow of the chapter, we've been following success stories for the most part.
I mean, Moses was willing to suffer, with God's people. But for the most part, it's just been one success after another and definitely right immediately before this verse, if you look at verses 32 through 35 as the author is trying to describe very plainly the life of faith, he's telling us what faith is, what faith does, how the life of faith works out in every day life, how it has in the Bible times and he's listing out these figures from the scripture. "Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, [we talked about them last week] who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, gained what was promised to shut the mouths of lions. Quenched the fury of the flames, escaped the edge of the sword, whose weakness was turned into strength. And who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again…" just a series of successes, right up until halfway through verse 35.
I. The “Continental Divide” of Hebrews 11
Then suddenly it turns like a continental divide, you know what that is? We're on a mountain ridge and all the water on one side flows to the Pacific and all the water on the other side flows to the Atlantic, that kind of thing, that's a divide. And so we just come right in the middle of verse 35, and you go from success to suffering and we're still in the faith chapter, so it's by faith they suffered. That's what the author is telling us, is because of their faith. And this is a vital message for us. Now to set the context in general, here in Hebrews, the author is writing this letter to first century Jewish people who had made an outward profession of faith in Christ. But who are under pressure from their neighbors, and family and religious authorities and governmental authorities to forsake Jesus and go back to Old Covenant Judaism, to turn their backs on Jesus. And so this whole epistle has been an epistle of warning and of exhortation, and encouragement to people facing persecution that they would not turn their backs on Jesus.
And so, in chapter 10, if you just go back a little bit to chapter 10 and verse 32, and following, just to set up the chapter. It's all about persecution. Remember those earlier days when after you'd received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering sometimes you were publicly exposed to insults and persecution, at other times, you stood side by side with those who were so treated. "You sympathize with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property. Because you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and a lasting one. So do not throw away your confidence, it will be richly rewarded, you need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised for in just a very little while he who is coming will come. And will not delay, but my righteous one will live by faith and if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him, but we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed but of those who believe and are saved."
Now, Hebrews 11:1, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Right on into that, do you see it? It's in the seedbed of persecution and suffering, the author is giving us this whole chapter. And now we come to this point in the middle of the verse 35. It's not always going to be success, dear friends.
Heroic Achievements of Faith vs. Heroic Suffering for the Faith
Sometimes it's going to be suffering. And so we have the movement here, the movement of sanctification, of helping us to grow up out of babyhood, helping us to grow up out of being little children in the faith, so that we can face, what really is happening, why Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with suffering, why Jesus faced constant opposition from sinful men, wicked men, why he faced constant opposition from the true power behind that throne and that's Satan. That we would grow up into that and be no longer babies, but be grown up and move from needing all the time, success and seeing how it all works and cause and effect and all that, that everything's going really great, to being willing to suffer for Jesus.
Now in verse 35, we do have the mention of these women who received back their dead raised to life again, story of... Clearly, I think Elijah and Elisha, great stories, very similar to one another. In both cases, a woman who had a son... In one of the cases, in Elisha's case, she didn't ask for a son, she wasn't looking for that, and God blessed her with a son and then some time later, he had a severe headache and died in her lap, tremendous suffering and a great deal of pain and the same thing with Elijah, in her case, both of them upbraided the prophet.
The widow of Zarephath saying "Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?" Now, my son has died and you remember how he prayed and stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, and God gave him life. This is the first recorded resurrection, in the Bible. I know that Isaac was figuratively resurrected and Abraham was ready for it, but it didn't need to happen, you know that.
So, here's the story of God's power over death. God can raise the dead, the same thing with Elisha, same kind of thing. And so Hebrews 11 gives us a faith that conquers death. I don't need to fear death, our God raised Jesus from the dead, what's there to be afraid of? Death is a portal, a doorway into eternity and that eternity is infinitely better than this. There's nothing to be afraid of. Jesus has destroyed him, who held the power of death, and freed us from fear of death, he said in Hebrews Chapter two. And so God calls his people into Christ's sufferings, to fellowship with Jesus in his suffering, to become like him in his death, in the language of Philippians. To share with his sufferings. Or to fill up what is still lacking, in regard to the afflictions of Christ, a mysterious expression in Colossians. It doesn't mean anything lacking for atonement, but just Jesus has more suffering to go through because he's connected to his people and we have to suffer, too.
So God calls faith-filled people. There's nothing wrong with them, there's no hidden sins, there's none of that, they're just serving God and he calls them to suffer greatly because of their faith. We have to grow up and face that and embrace it. And why does he do it? Well, we can think of many reasons, biblical reasons why God would do it.
To put the character and courage of the faith-filled hero or heroine on display. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl, they put it up on a stand and sometimes the stand is persecution and even martyrdom. And even more than that, to put the truth of the gospel on display, to give the Gospel a chance to shine with such a great setting that the gospel can shine in the mouth of the ones' suffering and the strength in the faith of weaker Christians, as weaker Christians watch the faith-filled brother and sister suffer, then others get stronger. Paul talks about that in Philippians 1, "Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged, to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. And because of this I rejoice." And to give evidence of the sufferings that Christ endured.
To remind us of the sufferings that Christ endured, more on that at the end of the sermon. Also to help the church understand the ultimate sufferings of hell that we must realize that there is no pain on earth that remotely compares to the pains of hell and all of this suffering is good suffering because it's delivering people from Hell as the Gospel advances. So those are various reasons why. And you may struggle with this. Some people theologically struggle with this. I'm thinking of the prosperity gospel people. People who think that the more faith you have, the better your life on earth will be. Your best life now, dear friends, I'm promising you, your best life now and your most favorite parking place in every crowded parking lot. What will happen is, as you pull in, that car will pull out and make way for you, if you have enough faith.
Really? How do you explain that to our brothers and sisters in the Muslim countries and in China and other places? It's all about getting the best parking place? Maybe you need a little more exercise. The best parking place for you is a mile away from the door. Maybe that's what you need. That is your best place now. Because you're going in there to go to the food court, that's why you're going.
And you need to walk it off, a little before you get there and afterwards. It's ridiculous. Do you see it? It's un-Christian. It's a false gospel, the prosperity gospel and I know that God makes lavish promises in Deuteronomy 28: 1-6. You'll be blessed when you sit and blessed when you rise, you'd be blessed when you go out and when you come in and the fruit of your womb will be blessed. You crops will be blessed. Everything would be blessed, all the time blessed, Deuteronomy 28:6, if you only, if you'll only fully obey the Lord and carefully follow all his commands.
Well, what about when that doesn't happen, what do you do if you're arrested for your faith, you're getting beaten, how does the prosperity gospel help you then? It doesn't, it kills you, it hurts you, makes you think you didn't have enough faith. It's a lie from Satan. It's not true. But the question does remain "Why isn't God blessing all of his people in this world with those kind of Deuteronomy 28 blessings??
II. The Pinnacle of Faith: Suffering Because of Christ
I think there are two reasons why God would do it, negatively he withholds blessings to discipline us from our sins, so sometimes it's because we have sinned, and so we are disciplined and so some blessings are withheld but the press of this sermon is another aspect, that God withholds blessing sometimes to put faith and the gospel on display, and to show other worldly people who are not living for this world but they're living for Heaven and they could just see it and they're living for it, and there's nothing you can give them here that remotely compares. They're kind of already there by faith. He wants to put that on display and so this is the pinnacle of faith, suffering because of Christ, it's the greatest trial that Satan can bring on you. We are wired for self-preservation. It's not a bad thing. We look both ways before we cross the street, when we're hungry, we eat, when we're in pain, we try to alleviate the pain that's normal, it's normal, normal, normal. It's normal life. The Satan uses that to push us to forsake Christ and that's what we're dealing with here, that's the nature of the press of persecution, that's what he's about.
He's trying to get people to denigrate Christ and to look on him as not sufficient and not glorious, and not attractive, he's not enough. I got to have my freedom, I've got to have enough to eat, a comfortable home, and some pleasures and if I don't have that, I'm going to turn my back on Jesus. And God is saying in effect over those martyrs, those suffering ones, "Have you considered my servant so and so, they're living for heaven, they're living for me, they're not living for the things that you would have me take from them." So, it's a terrible trial. Two good things pitted against each other, the health and comfort of your body and your faith in Jesus, two precious things and you're being forced to choose, and that's a tough trial. And again, with these afflictions I'm not talking about general sufferings that are common to all, I'm not. I'm not talking about the afflictions of medical sufferings, that's not what this sermon's about, there are other passages, I can talk about. That's not what we're talking about here.
Disease and pain and accidents, things like that. And I'm not talking about financial troubles, like layoffs and unemployment and bankruptcy and things like that. That's not the press here, not talking about natural disasters either earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and all of the damage and destruction that comes from that, that's suffering but that's not what I'm talking about today. I'm not talking about every day providential accidents and suffering that come upon us. Neither am I talking about Islamic martyrdom. People who'll strap bombs in their bodies because of their commitment to Allah and blow themselves up and other people on a bus to bits. I'm not talking about that either. I'm talking about suffering that comes specifically because of our faith in Jesus, at the hands of human persecutors. That's what we're talking about here. That's what's in view.
Faith’s Greatest Triumph
And this is faith's greatest triumph, it's not just Satan's greatest trial, it's the pinnacle of faith, as I've said, this is the greatest triumph of faith. This is how these people know that they're Christians. Remember in the parable, they're seeding the soils, the farmer goes out to sow his seed and as he scatters it falls on different types of soil. The path comes, the bird comes and eat up and then you have that rocky soil, you remember that? Shallow soil, springs up quickly, but when the sun comes up, remember the sun, withers them and they die because they have no root, then Jesus interprets this, the one that fell on the rocky soil, is the one who hears the word and not once receives it with joy. But since he has no root he last only a short time when trouble or persecution, that's the sun beating down on it, comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Alright, well, what happens then to turn it around is when you don't quickly fall away despite the fact the world is beating on you, there's a joy and a hope that comes in the middle of that.
I'm real, I'm genuine, I'm really a Christian, it's all true, and the Spirit of glory and of grace rests on those people and God pours resources into them and their faith, just get stronger and you get that beautiful cycle in Romans 5:3-4, "not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint."
So real hope, they're going to heaven. It's genuine. I'm a real Christian. I didn't give up when I got beaten on, when I got rejected, or insulted. I'm still here. I love Jesus and it's all real. I'm not a stony ground here. Praise God. And so faith is vindicated. And so, as I said, these faith-filled people in the midst of suffering, they're almost already gone. Like Stephen's the best example of this, you know, he finishes his "How To Win Friends and Influence People" speech. "You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears, you're just like your forefathers, you always resist the Holy Spirit. Was there ever a prophet your forefathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous one. And now you have betrayed and murdered him. You, who received the law that was put into effect by angels but have not obeyed it."
Well, they didn't like that. I wasn't their favorite sermon and they were extremely angry, but Stephen knew he was on his way out, and at that moment he had a theophany, a revelation of God and of Jesus Christ, heaven was open and the people were already coming at him. But he said, "Look. I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the God." And they couldn't hear that and they blocked their ears and they drag him out of the city and they stone him to death, and he's already gone. But he's still alive, because he's talking and he's saying things. "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." So Christ-like. And then again, Christ-like, "Lord, don't hold this sin against them."
But let me get specific. "Would you please forgive Saul of Tarsus for consenting to my death, would you forgive him?" "Yes, I'll forgive him, I'll take all of his sins away. Not just that one, all of them." It's an awesome thing. The blood of martyrs seed for the church. And so by this, the perspective of Hebrews 11 is most clearly put on display. Heaven... Earth is not my home Heaven is my home, I'm moving through here. This is a corridor, I'm not going to sit down cross-legged and just eat my dinner in a corridor in a hotel. It's weird, it's a passageway to the place I'm getting, it's all it is, it's a corridor, it's weird to sit cross-legged in a corridor and it's weird for us to settle down here. And so these people knew that, they were just by faith, they just were moving on, they just weren't there yet. The world was beating on them and causing them to bleed and they thought like this. This is how they reckoned, how they weighed things, how they considered things. "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." Romans 8:18. 2 Corinthians 4:17. "For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal glory beyond all comparison."
Just as I weigh the suffering and the beatings and the blood and all that, as I weigh that with heaven, it's just not even close. They don't even compare. And so, it's light and momentary. Spoken by the 2 Corinthians 12 guy who got beaten, or 11, beaten and shipwrecked and beaten with rods and flogged and all that. They have come to that conclusion. And my yearning is that we would too. I would like to live for Heaven more than I do. I would like to be bolder in my faith.
I would like you to be bolder in your faith. That's why I'm preaching today, that's my purpose.
III. Specific Sufferings Listed
And so, he lists these sufferings here. There are two categories, those who are killed for their faith, by various means, and then those who fleeing from death suffered deprivations in deserts and caves and all that. So you've got people who were killed and tortured and all that, and then those who fled from all of that so that they wouldn't have to go through it, but lost other things like security and homes and things like that. And so, tortured. What does torture mean? I think there is no more miserable, earthly circumstance than to be held by a wicked human who is thinking today how to hurt you, I think it's worse than cancer, AIDS, it's worse than... It's a horrible situation; to have some demonic twisted individual, think of ways to inflict pain on you that won't kill you, and you're dragged out of some cell and tortured, some more. These people are tortured and it says that they refused to be released.
They refused release, are they crazy? They insane, well the price tag was too high. They had to renounce Jesus. They had to turn their backs on Christ and they wouldn't do it. And so, pastor Youcef will not do that. He's not going to confess that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah, he's not going to say that, he's not going to confess Muhammad. So he refuses to be released. I don't know, if it's even an option for him at this point. I think about John Bunyan, he's a good example of this refusal. He wrote Pilgrim's Progress, he was a non-conformist preacher, which meant in his day, he was an illegal preacher, he did not have the certificate of preaching from the Anglican church, therefore he was not allowed to preach. And so he preached at illegal conventicles, they were called, gatherings, congregations.
He was basically a congregational or even Baptist pastor probably one of the most gifted preachers of all church history, just an astonishing gift with language, and a passion for Christ, and just an awesome thing. He was arrested and put in the Bedford jail and he was told... Because this is right toward the end of England's active persecution for religion. After this, they stopped entirely, they never did it again, but toward the end. So it's already tapering off. They said, "You can go free, all you have to do is promise never to preach again." So the whole time, I think it was 13 years, he was in the Bedford jail on and off, whole time, he had the key right there in his pocket to get out. Every day, every hour, morning, noon, night, just pledge "I will not preach again." What did he say instead, he said, "if you release me, today, I will preach tomorrow." You're not getting out with that confession. And he said "the separation from my wife and my blind daughter and my other children has been to me as the plucking of the flesh from my bones," but he refused to be released, it was a choice he made.
I was reading about another pastor, a communist... During the communist era in Romania, pastor Vasile. He had been in prison several times, every time he was there, he had a vibrant fruitful ministry to other believers. Strengthening them, sustaining them and evangelistic as well. At this point in the story, he was free, he and his wife prayed, every day, something like this, "Lord if You know some prisoner being held right now, who needs my help, please send me back to jail." And so God answered that prayer and he got arrested and sent back to jail and he would go continue his ministry there.
Another story from, again, from Romania. A man who consistently took the beatings of other prisoners. What would happen is they would just have weekly beatings, just to tell everyone "we beat people here in this prison" and keep everyone in line. And so, some infraction would happened on a Thursday, beating day was Monday, this guy would stand up and take that person's beating because the guards didn't know who it was, they didn't care, it was just to keep everyone in line anyway, so again and again, this Christian man took non-Christian people's beatings and then would lead them to Christ. And obviously his health was getting broken, he was bleeding, he was suffering, he was dying.
And another believer said, "Very soon, you'll be free from all this, and you'll go to heaven." he said "actually, if I could, I would rather stay here because in Heaven, though I have everything I could ever want, I could not, cannot suffer for anyone else and I'd rather stay here." They were mocked. They were flogged. Just imagine these things, they were chained, and in prison, they lost their freedom, they were stoned to death.
Sawed in two. Apparently that was Isaiah, the prophet put inside some hollow log. That's a slow way to die. It's horrible if you think about it, so maybe you shouldn't think about it or maybe you should, it's listed here, "put to death with the sword" Apostle Paul, apparently, decapitated." That's how they did it, because he was a Roman citizen, they wouldn't crucify him as they did Peter according to the tradition, so they just beheaded him with a sword. They wandered about, that phrase has been on my mind wandering around, toward the end it says they were in deserts, mountains, caves and holes in the ground. So, that's homelessness, they're fleeing from their homes, they're not able to go home, they're running for their lives, they don't know where they're going to sleep that night.
Like Jesus said, "Son of man has no place to lay his head" and so that's what they're like. Their life was like that, they were homeless. And they were in poverty, because it mentions that they were in sheep skins and goat skins, so, that's pointing toward poverty, they lost material benefits persecuted, destitute, persecuted, mistreated. And all of it because of their faith. By faith, these things happen, you say, "Well where is the power of God? Why won't God intervene? Can't God do something? Can't God stop it?" yes, he can stop it any time, by various means, he can just change their minds, he has that power.
He can keep people from thinking certain things. Genesis Chapter 20 verse 6, you remember the story about Abraham and Abimelech? You remember that? Abimelech thought, "Here's a good-looking woman" and all that, took Sarah, hadn't done anything to her yet. Planning to. And God came to Abimelech in a dream. Remember that? "You're a dead man" "What did I do? What did I do? I'm innocent. I didn't know." he said "Sister, I didn't what... What did I do." Listen to this. Genesis 20:6. "yes I know you did this with a clear conscience. And so, listen, I have kept you from sinning against me." Ponder that one dear friends. "I stopped you from sinning against me." Can God do that with a persecutor? Oh yes. This is coming from God, this is God doing it. Do you not see that? This is God not stopping the persecutor, when he can easily do so. He could cause the persecutor to drop dead mid-persecution.
Look what happened to King Herod, when he wouldn't give the glory to God, you remember? He was immediately struck down by an angel and eaten by worms and died. God could do that. The problem with that, you need to know is that some of those persecutors are elect, they just hadn't come to faith yet. Like Saul of Tarsus, right? But God could do that, he could strike them dead and not all... God knows the difference who, say, "Well just take out the non-elect ones", [chuckle] but God could do that.
Reading stories in Bangladesh, again, there was an assassin hired by the Muslims, to take out a fruitful evangelist, he hunted the guy down, found him, raised the gun but couldn't pull the trigger, physically couldn't do it, and the guy was frustrated and having trouble, finally he runs away. The evangelist later that day, gets a phone call from the assassin saying, "I have a problem." I'm putting this in every day language, but "I have a problem." But he identified himself. "Okay, what's your problem?" "I can't move my arm, I can't move it at all. And I want you to pray for me." he didn't just pray for him, he led him to Christ, God stopped the man from pulling the trigger. God doesn't always do that, you see. That's what I'm saying. He doesn't always do that, sometimes he allows the assassin to pull the trigger.
In Laos, there was a pastor who was arrested and they were beating on him, trying to get him to divulge other Christians names and all that, just torturing him, and suddenly tragedy struck the police. The officer who was conducting it, he had two sons, one of them had both their legs broken, in a serious accident and the other one fell seriously ill with a severe fever, on the same day. Also on that day, another officer that was directly doing the persecuting died in the middle of it, by a heart attack, they released the pastor later that day.
They connected the dots. And you look at that and you say, "Well God, why don't you do that?" And we pray, don't we? "God do that, kind of thing, set them free." Sometimes God hears the prayers and says "No, it's my will to cause them to suffer for a while, and then bring them home."
IV. Reason Given: Seeking the Better Resurrection (vs. 35)
The reason given here in this text is these people were seeking a better resurrection. What does that mean, that they were seeking a better resurrection? One of two possibilities, they were seeking the resurrection of the righteous, as a believer in Jesus or they were seeking greater rewards on Judgment Day. Hey, you pick and choose. Either one is okay with me. Both of them valid, both of them fine.
I'm going with the first because in the context here, he's saying, "We are not of those who shrink back to the destruction of our souls. We are those who finish the race to the salvation of our souls and we want the better resurrection." Better than what? Well, better than the resurrection of the wicked. What happens at the resurrection of the wicked? They go to hell. We want the better resurrection, going to Heaven. That's fine, or you could say better resurrection means better rewards. Blessed are you as Ashok read when people insult you, persecute you, mistreat you, rejoice and be glad because great is your award in heaven for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
V. Assessment: The World was Not Worthy of them (vs. 38)
The final assessment of these, the world was not worthy of them. World didn't deserve them. This wicked world. This persecuting world, this Christ-hating world didn't deserve these people. And if you read in the Book of Revelation, when God is pouring out wrath on the Earth, one of the things he consistently remembers as he speaks and the angels talk about is, is how they treated his people, and so when the angel is pouring out his bowl and all the water is turned to blood, the angel says, "You are right to do this, oh Lord because you have so judged, because they killed your people and they shed their blood and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve." The world wasn't worthy of them, didn't deserve them, instead they got Stephen falling to his knees and praying, "God don't count this sin against them. Lord, open the King of England's eyes." That's what the world got. World didn't deserve them.
Application. First Christ, aren't you glad that Christ refused to be released so that you could gain a better resurrection. In the garden he faced it, he embraced it, he said, "I'll drink it right to the bottom, I will not run away, I will drink their wrath." he's the real hero of Hebrews 11, all of 'em would say so. These people are just imitating Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world to save sinners like you and me, and by his blood, by the blood of Jesus shed on the cross we are saved, all you have to do is believe in him. You don't have to do anything. And let me tell you something, you don't have to be a hero in time of persecution either, you're not saved by how heroically you handle persecution. It's not, you have to go accumulate a certain amount of persecution, then they let you into heaven. We are justified by faith in Jesus, it's because Jesus suffered on the cross.
It's so important that you understand that. Because now I want to face this one question that's plagued me, it's been working on me. "Alright, God I see, I know the history, I love history, been reading it, been reading Extreme Devotion. Jesus Freaks and the devotions that come from it, all of those testimonies. I read Voice of the Martyrs, I read these things and I'm convicted by it. I'm encouraged but also convicted. I look at my life and say, "Lord I don't really suffer like that, I don't."
Some of us can feel guilty. It's like the survivor's guilt, to some degree or something, I don't know, but then there's some genuine conviction that could be mixed in there, "God, am I really living openly for you like I should. Maybe I would have more persecution in my life if I were just bolder in evangelism and bold in standing up for unpopular issues of justice in this age." So I faced it and I just want to ask, okay, these verbs don't seem to apply to us. Flogged, sawed in two, even imprisoned. I'm talking about us, here, the ones who are here, you guys, me. So you've got these verbs and we face it. What do I do with that? Alright, I came up with some answers. Bear with me, I just want to give them to you quickly.
First, understand every generation of Christians has been tempted to shrink back and not face the persecution. It's true of everyone, they're not super men and super women that we're talking about here. They faced it too. God helped them. He will help you. These Hebrew Christians faced the same things I do in shrinking back. They faced it. And the author is again and again... Hebrews 12:4, "In your struggle against sin, you've not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Don't get discouraged, keep running. Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us go out to him and bear the disgrace he bore. He's exhorting them to live and don't be afraid. So every generation has faced it. Second, some American Christians are persecuted for their faith very openly. Think about athletes or movie stars or other people who are Evangelical Christians and who speak up, boldly for their faith, and then just find out what the world thinks about them in the internet. Just read the comments, friends. Tim Tebow, Adrian Gonzalez. He got pounded for saying that it was God's will that the Red Sox not make the playoffs. He got pounded for it.
But what I don't understand about Adrian Gonzalez as he wrote Psalm 27:1, "The Lord is my light and my salvation" on his bat. Everything he does he does for Jesus and he said it openly. So there are some Christians being persecuted. World Magazine every year does a Daniel of the Year, Daniel in the lions' den, that kind of thing. And these are men and women who stand firm in very tough situations. This year's Daniel of the Year is Alan Chambers who does Exodus International Ministry to homosexuals, very unpopular, persecuted. 2009, Stephen C. Meyer, Director of Discovery Institute, Center for Science and Culture, asserting that DNA evidence in itself proves there's a creator. Not very popular in the academic world. Wanda Cone, pregnancy care center in 2007. She was the Daniel of the Year then, and again, pro-life, standing firm for the rights of the pre-born to life.
So that doesn't mean that I've been persecuted though. They have been persecuted. So persecution does happen here in America, it does happen. Thirdly, I think we should give thanks for religious freedom. We shouldn't feel guilty that we live in a country where other people suffered so greatly, whether soldiers or political scientists or Baptists or others that said, separation of church and state, make no law respecting religion, we're not going to have government forcing us to worship in a way, we don't want, as you have in a Muslim country. Definitely there. Okay? We're not going to have that here. Praise God for it, thank God, for it. We don't have to feel guilty, we should thank God for it and cherish it because it might not be around forever.
Because some people think Freedom for Religion means freedom from religion and as we Evangelicals keep preaching the Gospel, we're going to start getting persecuted. And they might even start making laws and so it may end up morphing on us.
Fourth, recognize smaller ways that normal Christians are persecuted. Jesus mentioned insults. Even in this list, there's mocking. Insults are not nothing. Family struggles because of Christ. Jesus said in Matthew 10 that he has come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man's enemies will be the members of his own household. All of you who have come to faith in Christ, and you don't have nothing but non-Christian parents and brothers and sisters, I'm sure you've been persecuted at some level. You've been shunned or excluded or spoken against by your own siblings and by your own parents, perhaps, or children. But let's be realistic about that. Our cost has been far less than these people's cost. Greater love has no one than this, that a man lays down his life for his friends, we haven't had to lay down our life for Jesus.
Fifth, be willing to evangelize more boldly, be willing to stand for unpopular causes more boldly. You will be persecuted. And you know it. And so face up to as Ashok was talking about, face up to ways that you have shrunk back from being a witness for Jesus and repent, and be willing to step up with brothers and sisters who have paid the price to share the gospel. You'll pay a less price here in the US at least, at this present time, and stand up for unpopular things, like the marriage protection amendment that's coming in this state, May 8th. I'll tell you what, if you get really, really active in that you will be persecuted, you will be persecuted. I'm wondering where all that's heading with the whole weird definitions of marriage. Will we be able to marry ourselves? I mean that's weird. Can we marry a pet? I mean, do we have any lasting definition of marriage? Yes, we do. It's in the Bible, one man one woman for life. "For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother, and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." There's a definition. If you get away from the Bible, you have no definition, and it just gets weird. So I think if you stand up for the marriage protection amendment, you will get persecuted. You should at least be involved at some level in that issue and find out more. Ask Andy when there's others that are getting involved in that. I'm seeing signs all around the street, another family against the Amendment, another family against the Amendment, it's interesting. It's not just interesting, it's a call to action for us.
Now, of course, desiring to be persecuted is not a good motive for evangelism, you know that, alright. I'm here to get my daily quotient of persecution. You're the top choice on my list. Okay. So I'm going to share with you until you finally do something mean to me. That's terrible. It's just a by-product of love because you love them and you love Jesus, they're going to hurt you.
Sixth, be aware of Christians around the world who are being persecuted, pray for them and do what you can to aid them. Read Persecution Project, read Voice of the Martyrs, pray for them, act as if you were in prison with them. We'll talk about that when we get to that text, just send money, just be aware and educate yourself, pray for them. Paul said, "join with me in my struggle by praying to God for me."
And then finally, prepare yourselves for the future. What's it going to look like in the US in 50 years? Is there going to be a religious freedom in this country? So get yourself, your children and your grandchildren ready for the coming antichrist. When the price of salvation will be martyrdom, beheading, shedding of blood, horrible, it's coming, read about it in Revelation 20:4, Revelation 12:11, "They overcame him by the blood of the lamb, by the word of their testimony, they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death." Learn, prepare, grow and may it be said of you, the world was not worthy of them. Close with me in prayer.