Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. —Hebrews 11:35-38 ESV
God does not always work miracles and acts of providence for our deliverance from suffering; sometimes by faith God sustains his people through sufferings.
That’s the point of verses 35b-38. Or another way to put it would be to say that having true faith in God is no guarantee of comfort and security in this life. Now it is absolutely crucial for you to see that the miseries God’s people sustained in verses 35-38 come by faith, not because of unbelief. See this in two ways. First, in verse 33, notice that the list begins with “. . . who by faith conquered kingdoms . . . etc.,” and without a break continues into all the miseries of verses 35-38. It is by faith that “others were tortured . . . and others experienced mockings and scourgings, etc.” All this misery is received and endured by faith.
The other way to see this is in verse 39 which looks back on all the sufferings of verses 35-38 and says, “And all these [that is, all suffering people], having gained approval through their faith, did not receive [yet in this life] what was promised.” In other words the suffering and misery and destitution and torture of God’s people in verses 35-38 are not owing to God’s disapproval. Rather God’s approval is resting on them because of their faith. The miseries and sufferings were endured, not diminished, by faith.
Let’s be specific, so we get the full impact of what this is saying. Verse 35b: “Others were tortured.” God does not always turn the hearts of torturers away from their torture of his people, though he could. Someone might say, “Well, the torturers have free will and God cannot intervene. He has limited himself.” That is simply not what the Bible teaches. The Bible frequently portrays God restraining and channeling the evil of men’s hearts. For example, in Genesis 20:6 King Abimelech almost committed adultery with Abraham’s wife, but didn’t. Why? God says to Abimelech, “I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her.” God restrained the evil intent of Abimelech’s will. If God can do that to Abimelech, he can do it to the police chief who is about to torture a Christian in the back room of a Mozambique jail. But he doesn’t always do it. That is what verse 35b says. And when he doesn’t, it does not mean that the suffering Christian does not have faith. Nor that God doesn’t love him, as we will see in chapter 12.
Another example: God does not always lessen the agony of his children, but permits them to experience not just suffering, but horrific suffering. Verse 37: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two.” Now this is almost too horrible to think about. It is the way tradition says that Isaiah died. Imagine how forsaken you might feel if death lies in front of you, and a person devises a way for your death to be as horrible as possible. That has happened and it has happened to people of whom the world was not worthy (as verse 38 says). God could stop that – without nullifying any human responsibility. That is the point of verse 29-35a – God can and does do miracles and acts of providence to relieve his people and deliver them, but not always.
This is perhaps clearest by contrasting a phrase in verse 34 and one in verse 37. In verse 34 the second clause says, “escaped the edge of the sword.” So some by faith “escaped the edge of the sword.” Then in verse 37 the fourth clause says, “They were put to death with the sword.” So in one instance by faith they escaped the edge of the sword, and in another instance by faith they died by the sword. Acts 12:1-2 says, “About that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church, in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.” But the next verses tell the story of how he arrested Peter for the same purpose, but God intervened and miraculously delivered Peter. One died by faith. The other escaped by faith.
So the second point is: God does not always work miracles and acts of providence to deliver his people by faith, but sometimes by faith God sustains his people through horrendous sufferings.