What does success look like to you? Perhaps you think of a great career, one that pays well and has a lot of room for improvement. Maybe you think of a confident, self-assured person who carries himself well and can speak eloquently in front of crowds. Perhaps you think of someone popular, like a famous athlete or movie actor. Maybe you think of a person who earns enough to buy a lake home and a boat, who wears name brand clothes and can afford the latest technology. Most of us, whether we like to admit it or not, associate “success” with wealth. After all, we’ve been programmed to believe that “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” So let me pose another scenario: Would you consider someone a success who goes about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated, wandering in deserts and mountains, in caves and in holes in the ground? Does that sound like any definition of success? Honestly, no. That sure doesn’t sound like something I’d aspire to in order to be “successful.” But the answer may surprise you.
The theoretical “person” I spoke of above actually comes from the end of Hebrews 11, the great “Heroes of Faith” chapter. I’ve read that chapter numerous times, but for some reason the end of it has never really stuck out at me until now. All the named heroes of Hebrews 11 are Old Testament characters, but the writer runs out of room to keep naming them and has to be content to summarize the rest of them. Some of these were indeed victorious on this earth—these saints “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again” (Hebrews 11:33-35a). Now that sounds like success there, doesn’t it? Powerful in battle, routing foreign armies, receiving back their dead, and so much more. We can see Daniel in there shutting the mouths of lions, and his three friends in the fiery furnace quenching the fury of the flames. Hey, sign me up for that kind of life! If that’s what it means to live by faith, I’m in!
But that’s only half of the story. The writer continues, “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated… They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:35b-38). Okay, hold on here. Maybe I don’t want to sign on to this faith thing after all. That doesn’t sound at all appealing. Jeremiah the prophet was flogged, Zechariah was stoned to death, and tradition holds that Isaiah was sawed in two. This is the thanks they get for their service as the Lord’s prophets? Maybe I’ll pass after all.
Ah, but that’s still not the end of the story. See those three little dots in my quotation of Hebrews 11:35-38? I skipped a short little side note there. It says, “The world was not worthy of them.” That brings tears to my eyes. These prophets, who to human reason, looked like complete failures in the world, were in fact the exact opposite. The world wasn’t even worthy of them. Their measure of success wasn’t in how popular they were or how much money they had. Their only measure of success was that they remained faithful to God and the message He gave them to proclaim. And in return look what they received—“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).
Both the victorious and the suffering saints spoken of in this chapter were commended for their faith. No matter what end they met on this earth, all received eternity with the Lord. When it says that “none of them received what had been promised,” that means that none of them saw the fulfillment of the prophecies about the coming Messiah. Jesus was yet to come, but they believed in Him nonetheless. And when it says that “God had planned something better for us,” that isn’t inferring that we somehow get a better reward in heaven. No, it means that their faith was based on so much less than ours. They only believed the promises of the Messiah, we have seen those promises fulfilled in Jesus. We know the end of the story. We know about Jesus’ perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection. But without those Old Testament saints to point to Jesus, we wouldn’t completely understand the purpose of His coming either. We need both the witness of Old Testament and New Testament saints for our faith to “be made perfect.”
So what about you? I don’t know in which category you will find yourself. Will you be like Daniel in the lions den, showing mighty examples of God’s power to save? Or will you be more like the prophets who suffered for their faith? Maybe you’ll be somewhere in the middle of those extremes. But no matter what your earthly outcome, remember this—you are a success in God’s eyes, not because you’ve earned His favor, but because He has already made you a success through Jesus’ victory over sin and death. His success is yours, and you will reap the benefits eternally.