I have been preaching a long series on Sunday mornings on the Holy Spirit and am currently going through 1 Corinthians 12. As a part of my Sunday message on verses 4-6, I ended up in Hebrews 11, don’t ask me how. I took my people through a favorite section of the “Hall of Faith” and showed them one of those passages of Scripture I call, “Verses We Don’t Really Believe.” We believe the whole Bible, of course, but we don’t REALLY believe those verses about loving our enemies, returning good for evil, giving thanks for everything, and a host of others – you get me? In Hebrews 11, we read about the heroes of faith who accomplished great things by walking in obedient faith. Then, in verses 32-35a we read the author’s triumphant, victorious, glorious summary of the life of faith.
And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets,33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength in weakness, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead, raised to life again.
Amen, hallelujah. Even a few of us Baptists may have raised our hands there. By faith, these great servants of God conquered their enemies, administered justice (sorry – that must be a scribal error), escaped trouble, gained strength, were mighty in battle and put armies to flight. Women received their dead who had been raised back to life. Faith can move mountains. Prayers are answered and the power of God is displayed among his people. Never underestimate the power of God.
Our tendency, though, is to stop halfway through verse 35.
Other people were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. 38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
Servants of God were mocked and scourged, stoned and sawed in two (traditionally, a reference to the death of Isaiah). These men experience poverty, wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. They lived in deserts and on mountains, hid in caves and in holes in the ground.
Clearly, these were men who lacked the faith of those in the first group, right? They didn’t have the leadership ability the first group had. If they’d just gone to seminary, or prayed more, or studied that new curriculum that is going around that guarantees success, or if they’d listened to the guys at the conference who told them to do what they did so their church could see exponential growth too. These men were failures. They were lousy leaders who probably were walking in sin and didn’t have good skills and just needed more faith, more training, more charisma, more creativity and innovation. They blew it!
Or did they?
Here’s what Apollos/Luke/Paul/Unnamed author said about both sets of people in verse 40.
All these were approved through their faith
Those who conquered kingdoms by faith were approved and those who by faith were tortured and hid in caves were also APPROVED through their faith. Those who escaped the sword and those who perished at the sword were both approved by God because of their faith. Two men, both walking in faith, could experience different outcomes. One could end up in the ministry penthouse and another could wind up in life’s outhouse – and God would say WELL DONE to both.
We do not believe that. Sorry, we just don’t. We think that God’s favor is demonstrated numerically. We look at people in small churches and think they are defective, that their leadership skills are flawed, and that they must be failures. If you are a good leader with the proper skills your church will grow big. In today’s SBC, value is determined by church size and growth.
The story of Isaiah’s call to ministry in Isaiah 6 has always been one of my favorites. He sees the vision of God and worships him, then is cleansed and says, “Here am I, Lord, send me.” What we seldom remember is the job God gave him, in Isaiah 6:9-10.
Go! Say to these people:
Keep listening, but do not understand;
keep looking, but do not perceive.
Make the minds of these people dull;
deafen their ears and blind their eyes;
otherwise they might see with their eyes
and hear with their ears,
understand with their minds,
turn back, and be healed.
“Isaiah, go preach to people who will not listen to you or understand anything you say, and will reject you utterly.” Thanks, Lord! Isaiah was promised a ministry of failure from the moment God called him. Success in ministry could have only come from preaching a message that would have dishonored God.
If you are thinking, that’s all Old Testament, Dave, I’d remind you of 2 Timothy 4 where Paul warns Timothy of those who will only want their ears scratched with pleasant musings and will reject the truth of God.
Is a failing church sometimes the pastor’s fault? Absolutamente. I long for a DeLorean with a flux capacitor and an open stretch of road – I’d go back in time and remake three or four decisions over my 14 years in this church. I’ve seen some pastors make brutally awful decisions that ruined their churches. But I’ve also seen faithful pastors (in my estimation) fail. Is it possible that God judges differently than we do? We have a scorecard that measures size and growth, but maybe the Divine measurement system is a bit different? Maybe he looks at faithfulness and diligence and service and sacrifice and holiness and a host of biblical values that cannot be measured numerically.
1. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen a program, a strategy, or some new curriculum someone is trying to sell me that guarantees results. If God doesn’t guarantee results, how can these people? If they are guaranteeing me what God doesn’t, where does their guarantee come from? If such a promise is not given from God, is it safe to say these programs rely on the power of human flesh?
2. If the Bible says that many will turn and will gather around teachers who scratch their itching ears, should we assume that church growth is always a sign of God’s blessing?
This is the quandary we live with. A New Testament church ought to never be satisfied with a dry baptistery, with plateaued or declining numbers. We ought to be aggressively seeking to reach our cities, states, and our world for Christ. Anything less than that is disobedience. On the other hand, the Scripture makes it clear that our gospel can be rejected. We can never discount the gospel to make a sale. It is possible to be a faithful witness for Christ and to be rejected. It is possible to be a faithful pastor and have a church turn on you. It is possible to walk by faith and fail by every numerical measurement we have.
Fidelity cannot be defined numerically.
It is possible to walk in faith and be obedient to the Scriptures and fail miserably.
Consider this as I close. Jesus once had a crowd of thousands following him. He began to preach unpopular things and people (John 6:66) began to turn away. In just a year or two, that crowd of thousands became a small band of 120 or so. He gathered a group of misfits around him that no pastor would want as his leadership team. By every too we use to measure success, Jesus was a failure.
Does that make you wonder if our tools are wrong?