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Worthies


Hebrews 11:35-38


Faith can be expected to be responded AGAINST.


“35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawn in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:35-38).


We have already seen references to some of the men and women of faith who, though they remain nameless in the Biblical record, are recorded in the heavenly record.


In the story of Elijah alone, we met the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24) whose son Elijah raised from the dead. We heard about the one hundred prophets of Jehovah who were hidden in caves during the evil years that Ahab and Jezebel ruled Israel (1 Kings 18:4).


There are lesser known examples of people of faith who were persecuted because they took a stand against evil despite the consequences to themselves.


Biblical Examples of Persecuted Faith


Micaiah

Speaking the truth is an act of faith, particularly when lying might result in an easier outcome.

1 Kings 22:1-28 recounts the story of one prophet who put his life on the line to tell the truth. The nation that God had brought out of Egypt under Moses was divided: Israel to the north and Judah to the south. The Biblical storyline tells us that, for the most part, Israel was ruled by kings who did not walk with God. Ahab, whom we met in Elijah’s story, was one of those kings. In the southern kingdom of Judah, those who ruled most often had leanings toward following Yahweh.

Israel and Judah seldom had dealings with each other but the story in 1 Kings 22 details one event where the two kings and kingdoms came together.


For three years there was no war between Aram and Israel. But in the third year Jehoshaphat king of Judah went down to see the king of Israel. The king of Israel had said to his officials, ‘Don’t you know that Ramoth Gilead belongs to us and yet we are doing nothing to retake it from the king of Aram?’ So he asked Jehoshaphat, ‘Will you go with me to fight against Ramoth Gilead?’


Despite their differences, Israel and Judah would have shared common enemies, so the king of Judah agrees to help Ahab—with one condition.


First seek the counsel of the Lord.


We know from the story of Elijah that Ahab is no friend of any messenger of the Lord.

Jehoshaphat, on the other hand, was a godly king. He was not willing to go to battle with an okay from God. Such a move would be disastrous. As a side note, the king of Judah is exercising his faith, believing that unless God accompanies them on this mission, they are doomed to failure. Any enterprise launched by those who follow God can only expect blessing when sanctioned by God.


Ahab calls four hundred prophets together for the consultation. But they were not God’s prophets.


The “brownnosers” of Ahab’s court gave him the message that he wanted to hear—go and you’ll be victorious against your enemy. And they all colluded together to give him the same answer—unity for the sake of not rocking the boat. This is a common problem on many levels in our society, including in the modern church where sometimes right is sacrificed on unity’s altar.

But Jehoshaphat was not convinced for some reason, recognizing that these “prophets” were likely prophets of Baal. He asks for a prophet of the Lord.


Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can enquire of?


Ahab’s reply is interesting.

There is still one man through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.

So often the role of a prophet was to rebuke, correct, or bring word of judgment—prophets were never popular. And considering Ahab and his wife had flown in the face of all that God had ordained and had tried their best to exterminate all of God’s prophets, Ahab had every reason to think that he wouldn’t get a favourable answer from this man.


Interesting that Ahab refers to this prophet as “one”—one he knew about and one he hadn’t managed to exterminate. Obadiah had hidden many of the prophets and Elijah doesn’t seem to be on scene at the moment, but this one seems to have be available and a thorn in Ahab’s flesh.

A messenger is sent to find God’s prophet. The messenger tells Micaiah what the other prophets have been telling the kings and “encourages” him to deliver the same message. To this, God’s prophet replies: “As surely as the Lord lives, I can tell him only what the Lord tells me.


There is huge risk here. To present himself before Ahab is to court death if he doesn’t deliver the same message as the false prophets have delivered. And when Micaiah arrives it appears that he has decided to save his own neck. When he gets into the presence of the two kings he is asked by one of the kings whether or not they should go into battle. Oddly enough, Micaiah delivers the same message as the other prophets had delivered—and Ahab does not believe him!


The king said to him, ‘How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?’ Then Micaiah answered, ‘I saw Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no master. Let everyone go home in peace.’


The warning was given—though neither king took serious heed to it.


Micaiah goes so far as to describe to both kings how God (and this Is worthy of special note) prepared the circumstances by which Ahab would meet his end. A lying spirit was sent to entice the false prophets to deliver a message that would result in Ahab’s death. The prophet shared this vision the Lord had given him despite what he might have imagined the response to be on the part of the false prophets. He stood his ground. The result for him was to be put into prison for telling the truth. The deal was that imprisonment was to last until Ahab safely returned—he never did—and Micaiah knew it.


Elisha

This prophet of the Lord had many unusual and incredible experiences. One event, recorded in 2 Kings 6:8-23 tells us a lot about the connection that faith cemented between God and His messenger.


In this episode, the king of Aram is at war with Israel. Several times, Elisha, advised by God, sends warning to the king of Israel about traps being sent for him and his men by the invading forces. This didn’t go over well with the king of Aram. He became obsessed with getting rid of Elisha. His discovers that the prophet is in Dothan and sends forces to capture him.

Surrounded by his enemies, Elisha is pictured in this story as a perfect example of calm under pressure. But his faith is so strong, his connection with the will of the Lord for his life that he is absolutely sure that the army of Lord is in place to protect him. Elisha has a servant with him who doesn’t have this assurance.


When the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. ‘Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?’ the servant asked. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’” Elisha sees with eyes of faith what cannot be seen. But the servant, because fear has replaced faith, sees nothing. So the Lord favours him with a glimpse of the heavenly host surrounding Elisha and the city of Dothan.


“‘O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire around Elisha.” God blinds the eyes of the enemy and Elisha sends them back to where they came from. May our eyes be also opened to the heavenly hosts that do God’s bidding in our lives.


Jeremiah

Jeremiah and Lamentations are two of the most fascinating books in Scripture. The prophet served at a time when God’s people were either going into exile or were already there. Emotions ran high and so did tempers. Resistance to God’s message also was strong. Hebrews 11 reminds us that faith doesn’t always result in pleasant outcomes. Daniel has his den of lions, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego have their fiery furnace, and Jeremiah has his pit. This is described in Jeremiah 20:1, 2; 37:11-16. The prophet was not appreciated for the negative message he delivered in God’s name, and was thrown into a pit and basically left to die.


His story becomes a good example of the importance of keeping our eyes fixed on what is beyond the experiences of every day in order to endure, to keep faith with the Lord when the going gets rough.


Examples of Persecuted Faith from the Apocrypha

The Biblical apocrypha (from the Greek ἀπόκρυφος, apókruphos, meaning "hidden") denotes the collection of ancient books found, in some editions of the Bible, in a separate section between the Old and New Testaments or as an appendix after the New Testament. Although the term apocrypha had been in use since the 5th century, it was in Luther's Bible of 1534 that the Apocrypha was first published as a separate intertestamental section. To this date, the Apocrypha is "included in the lectionaries of Anglican and Lutheran Churches." Moreover, the Revised Common Lectionary, in use by most mainline Protestants including Methodists and Moravians, lists readings from the Apocrypha in the liturgical kalendar, although alternate Old Testament scripture lessons are provided.


In the preface to the books of the Apocrypha in the Geneva Bible, it is said to contain "books proceeding from godly men" and therefore recommended reading. Later, during the English Civil War, the Westminster Confession of 1647 excluded the Apocrypha from the canon and made no recommendation of the Apocrypha above "other human writings", and this attitude towards the Apocrypha is represented by the decision of the British and Foreign Bible Society in the early 19th century not to print it (see below). Today, "English Bibles with the Apocrypha are becoming more popular again" and they are often printed as intertestamental books.


Most of the books of the Protestant Apocrypha are called deuterocanonical by Catholics per the Council of Trent and all of them are called anagignoskomena by the Eastern Orthodox per the Synod of Jerusalem. The Anglican Communion accepts "the Apocrypha for instruction in life and manners, but not for the establishment of doctrine (Article VI in the Thirty-Nine Articles)", and many "lectionary readings in The Book of Common Prayer are taken from the Apocrypha", with these lessons being "read in the same ways as those from the Old Testament". The Protestant Apocrypha contains three books (3 Esdras, 4 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh) that are accepted by many Eastern Orthodox Churches and Oriental Orthodox Churches as canonical, but are regarded as non-canonical by the Catholic Church and are therefore not included in modern Catholic Bibles. (Source: Wikipedia)


The quarrels over the authority of the Apocrypha are now largely matters of the past. A generation that has witnessed the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls will probably agree with the statement of Professor Frank C. Porter, in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible (1901), that ‘modern historical interest, on the other hand, is putting the Apocrypha in their true place as significant documents of the most important era in religious history.’” (Preface, The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha)


The Apocrypha refers to fourteen or fifteen books, or parts of books, written during the last two centuries before Christ and the first century of the Christian era. There are several stories in the Apocrypha of which the writer to the Hebrews would have been aware of and to which he may have been referring in these last verses of Hebrews 11 when he describes what was suffered by some for the faith and in faith. There are included here as examples, though not intended to be considered on the same level as inspired Scripture.


Eleazar (2 Maccabees 6:18-31)

“18 Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh. 19 But he, welcoming death with honour rather than life with pollution, went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the flesh, 20 as men ought to go who have the courage to refuse things that it is not right to taste, even for the natural love of life. 21 Those who were in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring meat of his own providing, proper for him to use, and pretend that he was eating the flesh of the sacrificial meal which had been commanded by the king, 22 so that by doing this he might be saved from death, and be treated kindly on account of his old friendship with them. 23 But making a high resolve, worthy of his years and the dignity of his old age and the gray hairs which he had reached with distinction and his excellent life even from childhood, and moreover according to the hold God-given law, he declared himself quickly…24 ‘Such prettiness is not worthy of our time of life,’ he said, ‘Lest many of the young should suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth years has gone over to an alien religion, 25 and through any prettiness, for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they should be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age. 26 For even if for the present I should avoid the punishment of men, yet whether I live or die I shall not escape the hands of the Almighty…I will show myself worthy of my old age 28 and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.’ When he had said this, he went at once to the rack…30 When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned aloud and said, ‘It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him.’ 31 So in this way he died, leaving in his death an example of nobility and a memorial of courage, not only to the young but to the great body of his nation.”


This story reminds us of Daniel and his friends in Daniel 1:1-21. These young men were taken from their homes in Judah and sent to Babylon. Here they were to be trained to serve the court of Nebuchadnezzar. They were treated well but made a commitment not to indulge in the excesses of overly-rich food offered to them so requested a simpler diet. The man in charge of their care was concerned that they would not develop as well on that regimen—his head would roll if he failed in the task he had been assigned. “I am afraid of my lord the king…” which suggests that there could have been dire consequences all around to disobeying the king’s order.

But Daniel and his friends feared offending God more than they feared offending the king and suffering the consequences. At the same time, they were certain that in obeying God, the Lord would honour them with the right results. Yet even in that, as subsequent events tell us, they were often faced with tests of faith, some of which called on them to be willing to die for what they believed was right. Daniel’s friends were commanded to worship an idol but refused. The consequence was death by fire. But even as they were threatened with such a horrible end, they declared that even if God didn’t rescue them and they burned to death, they would not bow to the king’s image.


I would rather die than…” is the phrase that comes to mind when reading Eleazar’s story. The question we need to ask ourselves is how we would finish that sentence in a similar situation.


I would rather die that leave behind a bad example.


I would finish well than live with regret.


The idea of not leaving behind a bad example, of not justifying compromise when under pressure, is not easy. In the extra-Biblical example Eleazar did not want the generation to follow him to imitate a bad example of faith caving into pressure, even at the cost of his life.

He also obviously had an eye on the beyond, knowing that he was going to have to give an account of his actions to the Lord and he did not want to be ashamed because of having given in to those who were persecuting him or to those who were tempting him to “pretend” in order to save his life.


Faith is strong when its eye is on what is beyond.


Seven Brothers and their mother (2 Maccabees 7)

This is an exceptionally brutal story that seems to take place at the same time and under the same circumstances as that of Eleazar.


It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. 2 One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, ‘What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.’ 3 The king fell into a rage and gave orders that pan and caldrons be heated. 4 These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and their mother looked on…5 but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, 6‘The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, ‘And he will have compassion on his servants.’…7 After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forth the second for their sport…9And when he was at his last breath, he said, ‘You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws. 10 After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, 11 and said nobly, ‘I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I distain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.’ 12 As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing…20 The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honourable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. 21She encouraged each of them…Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, 22 ‘I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. 23 Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws’…41 Last of all, the mother died, after her sons.”


Both this example and that of Eleazar demonstrate what is described in the last few verses of Hebrews 11. Peter wrote the book of 1 Peter to “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia…[1] to encourage a persecuted and scattered church to persevere in spite of all that they were being called upon to suffer for the sake of Christ.


1 Peter 4:12-19 says:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.


We are not to be surprised.


We are to understand that God is purifying His bride.


We are to remember the outcome, both for us and for the unsaved.


We should endure.


We should never let go of the truth that God is faithful. There will be a good outcome even to a bad process.


What lessons are there for us here? What do we need to pray for? How do we need to live in what could easily become “perilous times” for Christians?


In many parts of the world believers live in constant peril simply because they are believers. Though we say that the day may come when it will be our turn to face persecution on a grand scale, I am not sure that we really believe that it will actually happen. But when it does—and it will—how many of us will be able to finish Eleazer’s sentence: “I would rather die than…” when asked to conform or else?


We need to pray for those who are suffering persecution. We need to prepare for the eventuality that our turn will come by being students of the Word, a Word which might be taken from us physically but which must be in our hearts and minds as a shield against that day.

We need to live holy lives, to be those who spiritually stand in the gap for Christ, to practice today when things are relatively easy in preparation for times when to take that stand might cost us everything, even our lives.


CONVERSATIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS


1. “I would rather die than…” It is easier to finish this phrase when we are not under extreme pressure to conform or else. We consider this extreme pressure to be some kind of physical threat as described in the lives of the people of faith we have looked at. But society around us invites us to compromise is areas that seem harmless. Can you identify some of those?


2. On a scale of one to ten (ten representing “very important” and one being “not important) where would you put yourself when faced with the possibility of compromise in the areas you have identified in question 1?


3. Visit one of the websites listed and covenant to pray for at least one of the situations mentioned.


4. What impact, if any, do the examples given in these brief stories of the worthies who demonstrated faith, have on your life?


5. Report on how you are doing in strengthening your relationship with God as a vital part of your faith journey.


[1] 1 Peter 1:1

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