The World Was Not Worthy of These: Hebrews 11:32–40
Every year new members are elected to the various sports’ Halls of Fame. Many good players, however, never receive this public honor. Buried in the past rosters of hundreds of teams are thousands of excellent athletes who will never make it to their respective Hall of Fame. A good case could be made that many of them are more than deserving to receive this honor. For most of them, however, this election will always remain elusive. They will continue to be known only by their few faithful fans.
At the end of God’s Hall of Fame of Faith in Hebrews 11, some great worthies are mentioned by name, but little else is said about them. The author mentioned Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets and briefly alluded to their triumphs of faith: “Who, through faith, subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens” (11:33–34). Then he mentioned some women who “received their dead raised to life again” (11:35). These two women were the Zarephath widow (1 Ki. 17:8–24) and the Shunammite woman (2 Ki. 4:8–37), whose sons were restored to life by Elijah and Elisha, respectively. The last Faith Heroes mentioned in the chapter are simply known as the “others” (vv. 35b–36). The names of these members of God’s Hall of Fame are known only to Him. They will never be honored by name—at least not in this life. Yet their faith was so great that it is said of them, “Of whom the world was not worthy” (11:38a). Let us read their testimony: “others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover, of bonds and imprisonment; They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tested, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented (Of whom the world was not worthy); they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (11:35b–38).
Up to and including verse 35a, the victorious successes of faith have been celebrated. Beginning with verse 11:35b, however, the victorious sufferings of faith are described. While the blessings that result from faith are the theme in the beginning of the chapter, the hardships that result from faith come into focus in the latter verses.
Although these verses do not mention anyone by name, it is possible to identify a few Old Testament saints who suffered some of these indignities. For example, verse 36 refers to “mockings … scourgings … and imprisonment.” The prophet Micaiah was struck in the face because of his faithful testimony (1 Ki. 22:24). For his prophesying, the prophet Jeremiah was treated as a common prisoner (Jer. 20:2; 37:15). After suffering imprisonment at least twice, he was taken out and thrown into a muddy cistern (Jer. 38:6ff).
Hebrews 11:37 mentions stoning. This is perhaps the most obvious way of causing death in a country so full of stones as Israel. Stoning was a lawful punishment for certain crimes in the Old Testament theocracy. For example, blasphemy (Lev. 20:2) and idolatry (Dt. 13:10) were to be punished by stoning. What the author of Hebrews had in mind, however, was the unjust stoning, not of criminals, but of God’s prophets. The most famous, or infamous, Old Testament example is the one mentioned by Jesus, the priest-prophet Zechariah, who was stoned to death in the very house of the Lord (2 Chr. 24:21; cp. Mt. 23:35). Jesus declared that stoning was the common fate of many of God’s prophets (Mt. 23:37). We should also remember the New Testament tragedy of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:52, 58).
In the portion of the chapter emphasizing the victories of faith, it was mentioned that some “escaped the edge of the sword” (v. 34). Verse 37, however, states that one of the hardships of faith was that some “were slain with the sword.” Although Elijah escaped Jezebel’s vengeance, other prophets of the Lord were slain at the same time (1 Ki. 19:10). Jeremiah’s life was delivered from Jehoiakim, but his fellow prophet, Uriah, was not so fortunate. Jehoiakim “slew him with the sword, and cast his dead body into the burial place of the common people” (Jer. 26:23). By faith one lived, and by faith the other died. In the apostolic age, Herod Agrippa killed James with the sword, but Peter escaped his hand (Acts 12:1–11). The theme is clear: Faith can bring both victory and hardship.
Hebrews 11:35–38 mentioned others who triumphantly suffered for their faith but who cannot be specifically identified in the Old Testament writings. Consider, for example, verse 35b: “and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.” The Greek word for torture literally means to be stretched on the rack and beaten to death. The Old Testament contains no account of a person being tortured and refusing deliverance. This was, however, precisely the experience of Eleazar, one of the noble martyrs of Maccabean days, who willingly accepted death rather than deny his loyalty to the Lord God. In 2 Maccabees the story of his martyrdom is followed by the record of a mother and her seven sons who endured various forms of torture rather than transgress the laws of God (2 Maccabees 7). One son after another refused deliverance from death through denying their God, remaining faithful to the bitter end. Each of them, encouraged by his mother, affirmed his faith in a future resurrection of the same body that was being mutilated and destroyed. Our text affirms that they did this “that they might obtain a better resurrection.”
How can the death of a martyr be a “better resurrection”? Better than what? The answer appears to be in the previous context. The boys of Zarephath and Shunam, mentioned in verse 35, were restored to mortal life by Elijah and Elisha, but in due course they died. The resurrection for which the martyrs hoped is a resurrection to endless life. This “better resurrection” is the hope of all who have died in Christ (1 Th. 4:16).
It is interesting to note that the early church fathers referred to those who suffered in the Maccabean days (approximately 168–165 BC) as the “greatest martyrs before the martyrs.” During the times of persecution in the early church, these martyrs provided inspiration for those who were faithful unto death. Although some objected that it was improper for the church to enroll Jewish confessors in its army of martyrs, Augustine strongly defended the practice. He wrote, “They could not confess Christ openly, for the name of Christ was not yet revealed; yet they died for the name of Christ veiled in the Law: for what is the Old Testament but the New Testament veiled; what is the New Testament but the Old Testament revealed?” Early 17th-century editions of John Foxes’ Book of Martyrs always included those Maccabeans in the first chapter.
Verse 37 also states that some “were sawn asunder.” A uniform Jewish and Christian tradition exists that such was the end of Isaiah’s faithful testimony (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 103b, and Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho). According to this tradition, also recorded in the Ascension of Isaiah, he left Jerusalem under King Manasseh for the hill country. There he was seized and sawn in two with a wooden saw.
Verses 37 and 38 further describe the wanderings of these faithful saints in “sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented.” Sometimes they had to live “in dens and caves of the earth.” While Elijah generally fits this description, this passage reminds us again of those godly Jews who fled from the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes around 168 B.C. Daniel had prophesied of them earlier: “And they that understand among the people shall instruct many; yet they shall fall by the sword, and by flame, by captivity, and by spoil, many days” (Dan. 11:33). First Maccabees 2:29–38 describes the death of a thousand people besieged in their caves when they refused to break the Sabbath by offering resistance.
All of these noble martyrs were men and women “Of whom the world was not worthy” (v. 38a). F.F. Bruce has aptly characterized them: “They were outlawed as people who were unfit for civilized society; the truth was that civilized society was unfit for them!”
Faith in God carries no guarantee of comfort in this world. The hymn writer, Isaac Watts, asks us,
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas? …
Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord;
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy word.
While faith brings outward victory for some, it brings untold hardship for others. For all the saints, however, the final glorious consummation awaits: “God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (v. 40). No segment of God’s people will gain the prize independently. Someday we shall all be “with the Lord” (1 Th. 4:17).