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A Faith That Survives Fire

A Faith That Endures

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | September 1, 2013

Selected highlights from this sermon

In the Old Testament, many men lived and died by faith. Some saw God do wonders, some did not. Yet those who lived and died in terrible circumstances did not judge God by their circumstances. Instead, they looked forward to the ultimate victory. 

True faith involves accepting God’s decisions, even when we’re in the midst of difficult trials. 

I remember attending a conference where there was a young pastor in a wheelchair dying of terminal cancer. The whole conference prayed for him. I learned that the church of which he was the pastor had had a prayer chain and they prayed all night. And then they decided that they would bring the prayer request to an even wider community and hundreds of people prayed for him sometimes day after day. But then finally the time came when his last words were these. “I hoped that I could go in a blaze of glory, but this is the best that I can do,” and then 20 minutes later he died.

A woman who was part of the prayer chain said later on, “I’m never going to bother God with another request again. Why should I? I don’t want to be hurt. If He didn’t answer the prayer of all those people for this young pastor, why should I trouble the Almighty?”

I remember a woman in a Bible class saying, “Long ago I’ve given up on God and I have given up on prayer. I prayed for my daughter that she’d grow up and be a missionary.” Well she married an unsaved man and everything went downhill from there. She said, “I’m not going to trouble God. I don’t want to be hurt.”

Yesterday in the mail at our home came the wonderful publication that we get regularly, The Voice of the Martyrs. I picked it up and randomly opened it (and by the way, they check out all that they write in that magazine), and read the story of a young convert from Islam to Christianity who was shot as a result of his conversion. His sister also converted but then, because she was so severely beaten, she denied the faith under that kind of pressure.

My question today is simply this. Where is God when we really need Him, and how do we keep believing when He doesn’t seem to do what all rational people would think a God should with all of His power? How do we hang in?

Let’s take our Bibles and turn now to Hebrews 11, and I’m going to begin reading in verse 32 where it says these words. “And what more shall I say?” A pastor began reading that passage of Scripture and began with that question and someone in the back said, “Try Amen.”

“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions (evidently a reference to Daniel), quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.”
Let’s read just that far. It was probably a reference to the time of Elijah and Elisha where you had resurrections from the dead.

Today what I’d like to do is to give you four important facts regarding faith.

Fact number one is simply this and that is that sometimes faith changes our circumstances. Look at the list of victories that is referred to here. It includes such things as military victories. It includes, of course, healings and all kinds of miracles that God did. They crossed the Red Sea by faith. We don’t have time to list all of the miracles. In fact, Paul couldn’t. That’s why he said, “What more shall I say?” and then he began to summarize. Sometimes faith changes our circumstances and we have good evidence that it does.

Sometimes when we pray for people God answers prayer and there are people in this congregation today who would say that they were healed when the elders prayed for them. And then there are others for whom we prayed that were not healed. Sometimes God intervenes and faith and prayer change our circumstances. Sometimes He almost miraculously grants money to us when we are in financial need. He proves His faithfulness in multiple ways. Number one, sometimes faith changes our circumstances.

But there’s a second fact of faith I want you to remember, and that is that sometimes faith does not change our circumstances. Students, I throw this out to you. I hope that you memorize Scripture. When I was your age I could quote the entire book of Hebrews by memory and also the book of St. John, by the way, and a few others. It took me 45 minutes to quote the book of Hebrews once I learned it, but don’t ask me to do it today. All right? I can’t do it. And I memorized it all in the King James Version, and now we have different translations. But I remember quoting the book of Hebrews and not even thinking about what I was really quoting and I didn’t realize until later that there are two classes of people in the famous eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews. And the break comes there in the middle of verse 35.

You know, of course, that people put in the paragraphs, verses and chapter divisions in the Bible. They did not come inspired. That’s why sometimes you have the breaks in a bad place. If I had been there I would like to think that I would have begun a new verse in the middle of verse 35, but our text doesn’t. It says, “Some….” I memorized in the translation that said others. Now we have a break. “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release so that they might gain 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 sheepskins and in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, mistreated, of whom the world was not worthy, wandering about in the deserts and mountains and dens and caves in the earth,” and I want to say, “Well, where was God for them, thank you very much?” There was no deliverance.

Where is God for the young man who was shot because of his faith, and the young people who have to dig their own graves because they convert to Christianity? Where is God then?

We love to tell the story of Daniel in the lion’s den (and of course it’s a true story) of how God came and shut the mouths of lions in that den. But my wife and I have been to Rome and we’ve seen the Circus Maximus and we’ve been to the Coliseum. And we discovered there that Christians were thrown to the lions, and they cried up to God, but the lions came and ripped them apart. I might say parenthetically that some of the people who watched said that before they died they looked into heaven and it was as if they could already see the world to come, but there was no deliverance for them.

In Acts 12 the Scripture says very clearly there that Peter and James were in prison to be beheaded by Herod and Herod beheads James. And lo and behold Peter is sleeping there with the intention that he should be brought out the next day and beheaded as well. And he’s between two guards, and suddenly he is tapped on the shoulder by an angel, his chains fall off and the prison door opens. I think it was something like when you go into Dominick’s. You know it just opens. Today we accept that, but can you imagine in that day before the days of technology? And Peter lives.

Well what’s up? You deliver one and you let the other die. The older I get, the more I love God, but also the more mysterious His ways are. No wonder the Bible says that they are past finding out. You can probe them and think about them but there’s a certain unpredictability regarding the way in which God treats people and He certainly doesn’t treat everybody alike. And Hebrews 11 shows that sometimes faith changes our circumstances. Sometimes people of faith discover that their faith does not change their circumstances and they are tortured, and they are hunted, and they are killed, and they die at the hand of the sword, and there is no deliverance. But notice this. Both groups are heroes of faith.

Now there’s a third fact that I want you to remember about faith, and the third fact is this. Faith does not judge God by circumstances. You see that’s how come they made it into the catalog of the heroes of faith even though they didn’t see a miracle. What they said was, “Life is hard but I’m not going to blame God, and I’m not going to conclude He doesn’t love me just because things don’t turn out my way.”

Once again, let me ask you this question. If you were to look at the world with all of its natural disasters, with tsunamis and floods and windstorms and tornadoes that indeed wipe out whole towns, even here in the United States, would you conclude that God loved the world? I don’t think you’d make any conclusion like that if you looked at circumstances.

The reason that we know that God loves the world is not because this world looks like a loving place. We believe that God loves the world because His word tells us, “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should have everlasting life.” That’s how come we know God loves the world. If you want to know whether or not God loves the world, you look at the cross of Jesus Christ and that will be a reminder of the fact that God loves the world. And these people didn’t say, “Based on what we are going through, God doesn’t care about us. God doesn’t love us, despite our injustices that are done against us.” They didn’t say, “God doesn’t love us,” but rather they trusted God. Their faith endured no matter what because faith isn’t simply receiving what we want. Faith is the ability to accept whatever God gives us, and if we accept that, we also will be heroes of faith.

You know the Apostle Paul spoke about this in Romans 8, and it was William Cowper (actually I think it is to be pronounced Cooper – I think the English folks pronounce his name Cooper) who wrote regarding people. And this would certainly apply to atheists, wouldn’t it? He said, “They snatch from God’s hand the balance and the rod. They re-judge His justice and become the judge of God.” Blessed are those who allow judgment to be in God’s hands.

This is what Paul says realistically, and the Bible is such a realistic book. Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation do it? Will distress do it? Persecution? Now what about persecution? Will famine (That means hunger – seeing your kids starve.), nakedness (That means poverty.), danger, the sword (You are dying for the faith.) do it?” Paul says, “As it is written, ‘For your sakes we are being killed all the day long. We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’” That does not count against God’s love when we go through such trials.

And then he really wants to make the point even more clearly and so he says this. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us,” and then he lists things that people might think could separate us from God’s love. And on this list every one of these things is something that caused somebody to abandon their faith in God. Paul says, “Don’t do that.” He says, “For I am sure that neither death nor life can do it, angels can’t do it, rulers can’t do it, things present can’t do it, things to come can’t do it, powers can’t do it, height can’t do it, depth can’t do it, or anything else in all of God’s creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul says that we must go on believing whether we see the answers to prayer or not. And if we trust in the goodness of God, knowing that despite His unpredictability beyond what we can see, and that His intention toward us is good, we also will be heroes of faith. You don’t have to see the miracle. Though we may pray for a miracle and seek it, at the end of the day blessed are those who go on believing no matter what.

There’s a fourth fact about faith, and that is simply that faith always leads to ultimate victory. But before I give you that fact I was going to point out one other illustration, and it is in the Old Testament in the book of Daniel. You remember there’s the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Students refer to them as “my shack, your shack and a bungalow.” (laughter) And someday I’m going to preach on them. I am preparing a series of messages to lead up to them that I’ll explain at a future time.

But here they are, and do you know what they say? I love this. When they are asked to bow before the image (and if they don’t they are going to be thrown into the fiery furnace), they say, “Oh King, our God is able to deliver us, but if He doesn’t, let it be known unto you, oh King, that we will not bow down before the image.” They said, “Whether we see a miracle, and whether we are delivered or not delivered, our faith will not be affected by circumstances. We refuse to judge God’s care for us based on what we can see.” What heroes of faith they were!

Now that fourth observation is that faith always leads to ultimate victory, but before I tell you how it leads to ultimate victory I need to share with you that not everybody listening to this message will find that what I am going to say applies to him or her. These blessings that I am going to outline apply to those who personally know Jesus Christ as their Savior. You say, “Don’t I know Jesus as my Savior?” Well, I’m going to give you a test.

There is a woman in this congregation who sings in the choir who is not technologically connected. At least she wasn’t. Her husband loves to tell this story of how she was at work one day and a colleague said to her, “Do you have e-mail?” and she said, “If I had it would I know it?” She was a nurse. Maybe she thought e-mail was some kind of a disease. You know, if you have it do you know it? (laughter)

Well, the answer I think is yes. If you have it I think you know it. If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior you know that you know because you have a personal relationship with Him because you have received the gift of eternal life. And let me remind you that that gift is not dependent on what you can do. It is dependent on what God has done (applause) and you believe what God has done in Jesus Christ for you.

I urge you to accept Him as your Savior, as your Redeemer to rescue you from the eternal consequences of your sin. So this is now limited to those who believe. If you are a believer, faith will always lead to ultimate victory.

Let me give you a good example in this eleventh chapter and that is, of course, the story of Abraham. We won’t read it here because you can read it on your own, but Abraham died in faith. Now the text says here in verse 39, by the way, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

What the author is saying is that in the Old Testament they died in faith, believing that their salvation would at some point be completed. You see, they had only the blood of bulls and of goats and we have the blood of Jesus Christ. They had a high priest who died. We now have a High Priest who ever lives to make intercession for us. They were ones who needed a priesthood to get to God. For us the veil has been rent in two and now we go directly into the Holy of Holies through Jesus Christ our Lord. And they didn’t have those privileges but they looked forward to the time when people like us would have those privileges and they were saved on the basis of what Jesus Christ would eventually come to do. So that’s how the Old Testament saints were saved, but they looked forward. And what he’s saying is they couldn’t be complete either until Jesus came along. God spoke to them through prophets but in these last days God has spoken to us through the Lord Jesus Christ and has spoken with clarity and He has not stuttered.

Now, the point is simply this though. Abraham is a good example of somebody who dies in faith. God said to him one day, “Abraham, do you see the boundaries of the land? They go from here to there and there. All this land I have given you.” Yet Sarah, his wife, dies and what does Abraham have to do? Of all things he has to purchase a burial plot for her and pay for it in the very land that God gave him. That’s why some of us are convinced that there are still prophecies that God made to Abraham that haven’t been fulfilled, and they will be fulfilled some day. But he dies in faith, not having seen everything that was promised.

You know we have faith healers today who tell us that Jesus died for us body, soul and spirit, and as a result we can be healed at any time. Now they are right in this regard. Of course, Jesus died for us body, soul and spirit, but we don’t get the benefits of what Jesus did for us in this life. We get the benefits in the life to come. That’s when we inherit all things finally. That’s why faith healers themselves eventually get sick and then, wonder of wonders, they die.

Now the fact is cancer can destroy your body, but the Apostle Paul says that we have a new body, eternal in the heavens. Your new body has already been ordered and it looks so much better than the one that you brought to this sanctuary today. It really does. It’s going to look the same but wow – the way we’re going to look! We have a new body.

You know, some of us may experience extreme poverty. I just saw a picture the other day on the cover of a magazine. Nearly a billion people live in poverty and squalor. Now we should do all that we can to help them. I understand that. This is not a pie in the sky message, but on the other hand, for those who believe in Jesus Christ, they must have confidence that there is a mansion that Jesus is preparing for them on the other side because we know that we die in faith without having received all of the promises. That’s the way believers die.

Those of you who have experienced perhaps the rejection of your family, Paul speaks about the family that is in heaven and on earth. Someday you are going to be a part of a multitude that no man can number. What a day that is going to be when we inherit all things.

Some of you have experienced injustice. Injustice oftentimes rules in this world, but in the world to come we find that justice triumphs because God is God and He brings into focus all of the issues of life because eternity is coming. The bottom line is this. We believe in another world and that’s why we go on believing no matter what. No matter what we trust Almighty God.

Is it ever wrong to doubt? You students, you know you may say to yourselves, “I have doubts.” It’s not all bad as long as your doubts are honest doubts. Here’s a model for you. John the Baptist is put in prison. Now he’s the one who in the flesh was a cousin to Jesus. He baptized Jesus and there he is in prison, and he reads the Old Testament that says when the Messiah comes the prison doors are going to be opened. Well, there are no prison doors opened for him. As a matter of fact, he ends up actually getting his head cut off, as you know, but he begins to doubt whether Jesus is the Messiah. So he sends a delegation to Jesus, and I’m sure that he was very kind and very tactful, but he does say, “Are you the one that should come or should we be looking for somebody else, because we thought Messiah was going to do better than this? We thought that Messiah was going to bring about political deliverance. We thought that when Messiah comes somebody like me who is doing righteousness wouldn’t be sitting in prison.”

So these people go and talk to Jesus. Now put this in your mind and keep it. Jesus, says, “Hey, you know among those who are born of women, John the Baptist is the greatest.” Jesus said that while John was having doubts. All doubt isn’t wrong if it’s honest doubt. But then Jesus said, “Go tell him that many of the miracles in the Old Testament are already being fulfilled. I am opening the eyes of the blind, the dead are being raised, the deaf are hearing the Gospel,” and so forth, and then Jesus added this word. He said, “Blessed are those who are not offended because of me.”

I’m not a Bible translator but let me give you a Lutzerian paraphrase. Jesus is saying, “Blessed are those who are not upset with the way I run my business. Blessed are those who don’t say, ‘God, you never answered this prayer so I’m never going to bother you again with another request.’ Blessed are those who don’t become bitter at God because of the ambiguity of the way in which He runs the world. Blessed are those who see the miracles, but blessed are those who go on believing and trusting even when God doesn’t do all the things they think He should because faith isn’t merely receiving from God the things that we ask for, but the ability to accept whatever God gives us, and to believe that God is good and loving despite the circumstances of life.” (applause)

You live like that and you’ll also be a hero in the faith. Your name will be in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. You say, “Well, why should we pray if we are sure God is not going to answer?” It’s because God changes us and gives grace even as we sang “He giveth more grace when the burdens are greater.”

Didn’t we sing just moments ago? And I’ll try to quote it.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
I’ll strengthen, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.

I may have missed a line or two but you got the implication there that God is with us no matter what. Keep on believing. Don’t become angry with Him. He’s testing you and in the end, you’ll be a heroine and a hero of faith. (applause) And I can imagine that in eternity there are those who saw all the miracles and those who didn’t, but both equally rewarded. Maybe those who didn’t see the miracles will be rewarded a little more because they had no reason to believe except that God in His Word assured them, and they also are great, great heroes of faith.

Would you join me as we pray?

Our Father, we ask in Jesus’ name that You’ll invigorate us. We pray for those who perhaps are almost on the brink of losing their faith. I pray for those who have given up praying. They’ve prayed for years and years and years and the miracle hasn’t happened. Oh Father, help us to know that Your intention, Lord, is that our dross may be consumed and the gold of our faith refined because You walk with us through the fire. You are there when there is a sick bed and there is no healing. You are there when there is poverty, when there is injustice. You are there. Show us Your glory and Your presence. And Lord Jesus, help us to trust You. And for those who have never trusted Christ, may this be their opportunity to say, “Today I believe on Jesus as mine.” We honor You. In His name we pray, Amen.

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