Many who have followed the way of the Lord have suffered for their faithfulness to God. Their example encourages us to stay faithful no matter what.
On 28 July 1480, a force of 18,000 Ottoman Turks attacked the Italian city of Otranto. Defenders put up a strong resistance, but on 11 August, the city fell. As many as 12,000 died defending the city, and 5,000 went into slavery. Because the city had refused to surrender in exchange for leniency, the Turks decided to make an example of some of the defenders. They told 800 men to convert to Islam or be slain. They refused, so on this date they were executed. They are known as the Martyrs of Otranto.Hebrews 11 is sometimes called ‘the Bible Hall of Fame.’ It contains the names of many who performed mighty deeds by faith, suffered, and sometimes even died as a result of their faith. By the time the writer of the book of Hebrews reached vs. 31, he had barely enough room to mention them in groups and their deeds only in passing.
“What else can I say?” He wrote. “There isn’t enough time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. They all had faith, and that faith helped them conquer kingdoms and do other great things. They were also weak, however, and the good they did was because the Lord gave them the strength to do it.”
“Some women received their loved ones back from death.” That might refer to the women who sheltered Elisha and Elijah. “Many of these people were tortured, but refused to be released, confident of a better reward when the dead are raised to life. Others were mocked and beaten with whips, and some were chained in jail. Still others were stoned to death or sawed in two or killed with swords. Some had nothing but animal skins to wear. They were poor, mistreated, and tortured, wandering in deserts and on mountains, living in caves and holes in the ground.” These statements could describe many of the prophets, of whom the world was not worthy.
Many people follow the way of the Lord with more or less normal lives, but others have paid a price for their faithfulness to God. God was pleased with them because of their faith, yet they died without being given what had been promised. God had something better in store for us, and did not want them to reach the goal of their faith without us.
These people were not perfect. Gideon was fearful. Barak was too timid to lead an attack on the enemy, Samson was strong, but couldn’t control his own lusts. Jephthah lost his daughter in a misguided act of devotion. David had too much blood on his hands to build the new temple. Samuel told other people how to live, but his kids didn’t turn out so good. No, none of them were perfect.
Yet, taken together, their lives witness to us about having faith and doing good. We might think that we could never serve the Lord as they did, but the lives of the saints aren’t meant to discourage us. In fact, they encourage to get rid of everything that slows us down. If we are too attached to the things of this life, we won’t pay attention to the things that have real importance. This is especially true with bad habits and wrong attitudes. We need to lay these things down and run the race before us.
The important thing is to keep our eyes on Jesus. It is He Who leads us and makes our faith complete. He endured the shame of being nailed to a cross, because he knew that later on he would be glad he did. Now he is seated at the right side of God’s throne!
I used to teach in a religious school, and religious schools are good at drawing lines. Do this. Don’t do that. Those statements teach that behavior up to a certain point is acceptable, but don’t go beyond that point. You know kids, though. They’ll stand on the line, and soon they’ll step over the line. Should we punish them or redraw the line? We don’t want to do either, so we say, “Look at the line! Can’t you see the line?”
Here in Hebrews, though, the Bible doesn’t tell us to look at the line. It says, “look at Jesus.” He’s with us at the start, and he’ll be there at the finish. We must look at Jesus. I used to tell my students, “If you look at the line, you’ll mess up, but if you look at the Lord, the line’ll take care of itself.”
I’m not saying that we ought not to have standards of right and wrong, but we dare not think that these standards will save us. Christ, and Christ alone, can save us. If we focus on our standards alone, we will defeat ourselves, and we will disappoint all those who are around us. If we focus on the Lord, however, by faith we will come out right at the end of the race.
546 years ago, the Martyrs of Otranto, Italy, gave their lives for the Lord. Though we hope it never happens to us, we admire their example. I recently read this post on FaceBook: Find something in your life worth dying for, and then live for it. One comment read, “I’d die for the Lord.” That’s good, now live for the Lord. Another was, “My family.” That’s good, now live for your family. Another said, “My country.” That’s good, now live for your country. It isn’t easy to die for what one believes in. We hope we would be brave enough, but right now, let’s live for the Lord.
We pray. We look to you, Lord, as the author and finisher of our faith. On our own we are too weak, too prone to go the wrong way. Our attitudes and our actions betray our desire to serve you. Forgive us for our weaknesses, and help us to keep our eyes fixed on You. Enable us to bring the gospel of peace to people everywhere, Amen.