“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy).” Hebrews 11:37-38a
These and other sufferings (vv.35-38) were the excruciating fates of some of our forefathers in the faith. Great opposition and persecution are sometimes the lot of God’s faithful people. And among the most shocking forms of persecution listed in Hebrews 11 (or anywhere else, for that matter) is the torment of being “sawn in two”. Read it again, soberly: “Sawn in two”. That’s not a grisly scene from a fictional horror movie. It actually happened, says the author of Hebrews. Indeed, there is a tradition that states that it happened to that great and eloquent prophet of God, Isaiah. And all these other great pains and trials actually happened, too – to real people! And some of them still do! The people of God didn’t just suffer in biblical times, but they have suffered greatly at various points since (read, for instance, about the Covenanters or the Huguenots); and they are suffering still (see The Voice of the Martyrs). And thinking about the severe suffering of our fathers and brothers in the faith (and perhaps our own severe trials, still to come) should come with at least four upshots, it seems to me:
1. Let us not murmur about our current, light sufferings. Do we sometimes experience opposition or discrimination for our faith? Yes. Have we been stoned or sawn in two? No. And so, while we rightly recognize, and pray about, and groan under whatever pushback we may receive for our faith … let us not make it out as though we are some great martyrs. And certainly, let us not murmur (Philippians 2:14).
2. Let us pray and act on behalf of the sufferers. “Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body” (Hebrews 13:3). Don’t forget the people who are suffering, even today, after the manner of Hebrews 11:35-38! Remember them in your prayers, and in your generosity, too. The Voice of the Martyrs is a good organization to help you do both.
3. Let us be serious about our faith. If our forefathers (and many of our contemporaries, too) have been committed enough to the Lord to have ended up stoned, sawn in two, and persecuted in many other ways … then this Christianity thing is serious business! And if the devil is so opposed to Christ that he incites people to carry out such torture of Christ’s followers, then this Christianity thing is serious business! Let us be sure we treat it that way in every area of our lives … whether it results in us being respected, rejected, or rent in two. “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us [in Hebrews ch.11, that is], let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2a).
4. Let us hope in eternity. “Here we do not have a lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14). And, indeed, sometimes we have, in this life, a hostile city, or nation, or culture. Perhaps we are just on the cusp, in this culture, of finding that out, first-hand. But this life is not all there is; this city is not the lasting one! And “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). And so, while I do not say that we should not groan under our trials, yet we must not fixate on our trials … but on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2), and on “the glory that is to be revealed to us” when all these difficulties will be ended forever. Let us fix our minds on “the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14), where “they will hammer their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4) … and their saws, too! “Here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.”