Think for a moment about the more memorable stories from the Bible; don’t they usually involve men and women who rose to the occasion and showed courage in the face of danger? Those are the stories that make it into children’s Bibles, and into a lot of sermons, precisely because they inspire faith. This morning, as we consider seven acts of courage, I want you also to consider how differently history would have played out if these people had made personal safety their priority.
I. Courage to defy wicked edicts
Shifrah and Puah defy Pharaoh
A new Pharaoh came to power who had no regard for the fact that Joseph, one of the Hebrews, had saved the lives of everyone in Egypt. But for Joseph’s wisdom, all of Egypt would have perished in that 7-year famine. Instead of appreciation, this new Pharaoh was consumed by fear of the growing Hebrew population, and abruptly turned on us and enslaved our people. He thought it would diminish our numbers, but exactly the opposite happened; our people increased.
Pharaoh then issued an evil decree that all Israeli newborn boys be put to death. We read about it, and about the courageous women who defied him.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
Pharaoh gave direct orders to the midwives to kill any baby boys. Bear in mind that the birthing process in the ancient world was done from a squatting position. Thus, the woman giving birth couldn’t see what the midwife was doing below her. The midwives could actually have gotten away with strangling the baby boys and telling the mothers that the babies had been stillborn.
But Scripture tells us the midwives feared God. And because they feared God, they deliberately defied Pharaoh’s order, even lying to the king’s face about it. Now when you lie to cover up your own mistakes, that’s sin. But these courageous women lied in order to save lives – others’ lives. And God blessed them for it – not only were they given families of their own, but Shifrah and Puah are forever remembered with honor in the Scriptures!
The examples of the Hebrew midwives and a few others gave rise to the Jewish doctrine known as Pikuach Nefesh (‘saving a life’); namely, that rescuing the life of a human being transcends and supersedes every other commandment, because human life is uniquely created in the image of God.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego defy Nebuchadnezzar
Jewish people know full well how exile in foreign lands is fraught with danger. During biblical times, there were numerous occasions when allegiance to the One true God put us in conflict with our host nations. This was certainly the case in Babylon. Every Sunday School kid knows this story of courage – the courage of three young men to remain steadfast and faithful despite a wicked edict.
Daniel 3:1, 4-9, 12-13, 16-18
King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon…
Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever… there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego– who pay no attention to you, O king. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up.” Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king… (they) replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
That didn’t go over well with Nebuchadnezzar. You know ‘the rest of the story’. He had our three heroes tied up with ropes and thrown into a furnace which, in his fury, he ordered to be superheated just for them. But, miraculously, the flames had no effect whatsoever on them, even though the soldiers that threw them in were killed by the ferocity of the flames. Nebuchadnezzar looked and saw the three of them, calmly talking together, and a fourth Person in the midst of the flames with them, whom he described as looking like “a son of the gods”. I believe it was THE Son of God, Messiah Yeshua, in the furnace with them.
When they walked out, completely unharmed, King Nebuchadnezzar was in awe, and, in a complete policy reversal, elevated these three men to high office, praised ‘the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego’ for His power to deliver them, and decreed that blasphemy against the God of Israel be punishable by death!
The courage of these three (and one has to wonder – were they the only Jews in Babylon who didn’t bow down to the idol?), changed the course of history. They didn’t die after all, but they were willing to die, rather than be disloyal to God. Where are your boundary lines? How resolute are you to defend them?
And, of course, we know the story of Daniel defying a wicked edict prohibiting prayers to anyone but King Darius, and when discovered praying to Adonai, spent a night in a lions’ den, but emerged unharmed. But again, there was no promise of deliverance. As far as he knew, Daniel was prepared to die rather than capitulate.
Peter and the Apostles defy the Sanhedrin
Once the Holy Spirit descended upon the early believers, immediately they had the boldness to publicly preach about Messiah Yeshua, and also miracles were taking place at their hand. In the minds of First-Century Israelis, miracles validated the message being proclaimed. Thousands were coming to faith in Yeshua. But all the attention put the disciples in the cross-hairs of the Jewish religious leaders, who felt they were in danger of losing their authority and influence.
When Peter and John healed a man who had been crippled from birth, it stirred up all of Jerusalem. The religious leaders quickly had Peter and John arrested, and the next morning, interrogated them. Peter responded with a lot of chutzpah, holding them responsible for the death of Yeshua, and saying that they were the ‘builders’ who had rejected the God-sent Cornerstone – Messiah, thus fulfilling Psalm 118.
The members of the Sanhedrin had Peter and John removed from the chamber, and conferred with one another. They couldn’t deny that a bona fide miracle had taken place, but they wanted to put the kibosh on the Messianic Movement. Here’s how it went down when they brought them back in:
And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Yeshua. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” When they had threatened them further, they let them go (finding no basis on which to punish them) on account of the people, because they were all glorifying God for what had happened.
Interestingly, the very same thing happens in the very next chapter. We’re told in chapter 5, verses 12-14: At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people… And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women were constantly added to their number.
The apostles were performing miracles, the Jewish religious leaders were jealous and felt threatened, and had them arrested, and again interrogated them. Peter’s response to them was exactly the same:
“We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Yeshua, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the One whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
History has given us other examples of otherwise ordinary men and women, who rose to the occasion, and, filled with the Spirit, summoned the courage to defy the authorities in order to save lives, do what was right, preach the soul-saving truth of the Good News.
Shifrah, Pual, Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego, Peter and John and others are recorded in Scripture as having the courage to defy wicked edicts. Rahab is also named in God’s Word, having lied to the king of Jericho in order to rescue the lives of the two Israeli spies.
During WWII, a handful of courageous Christians, defying German law, and lying to the faces of Nazi officers, risked their own lives by hiding Jewish people in their homes, and later helping them flee Europe.
II. Courage to speak up and to act
Nehemiah risked his life before King Artaxerxes
At a time in history when even just ruining a king’s mood could cost you your life, Nehemiah allowed his deep sadness to be seen in the presence of Artaxerxes, King of Persia. Having learned of the disastrous conditions in Jerusalem, he couldn’t help himself. But God gave him favor, and the king responded agreeably when Nehemiah requested leave to go and to rebuild the city of his fathers, and even granted him letters of conscription for materials for the project. Because of Nehemiah’s courage to speak up and to act, Jerusalem and its walls were rebuilt!
Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea risked their reputation in the Sanhedrin
At an extremely tense time, during which it was risky to be identified as one of Yeshua’s followers or even sympathizers, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea took various actions which could easily have jeopardized their good standing in the Sanhedrin, and their reputation in general. In John chapter 7 Nicodemus spoke up in the Council, challenging what was a kangaroo court that was ready to condemn Yeshua without having even afforded Him a hearing. And in chapter 19, it was Joseph of Arimathea who approached Pontius Pilate, requesting permission for Yeshua’s body for the sake of giving Him a proper burial, and Nicodemus was with him in this. How easy would it have been for word to get back to the Jewish religious leaders that these two were Yeshua sympathizers? Granted, they were not publicly preaching the Good News like the disciples. But, before you stand in judgment, how often have YOU gone out into the public arena to preach? Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea showed courage when courage was needed.
Barnabas risked himself to welcome Paul, the one-time enemy of believers
Shortly after his dramatic conversion to Messiah Yeshua, but before that news was widely known, Saul of Tarsus came to Jerusalem, and in Acts chapter 9 it says that he tried to connect with the Jewish believers, but they were afraid of him and didn’t believe his claim that he was now a disciple. What they were certain of, was his track record of savage persecution of the believers.
In the midst of that potentially dangerous situation, a man named Joseph from Cyprus, who we now know as Barnabas, took the risk of going to Saul, and revealing that he was a Messianic Jew. It could have meant instant arrest and imprisonment if the report wasn’t true. Barnabas then brought Saul to the other believers and introduced him around, and helped him get established in the community as a true brother in Yeshua. Barnabas’ courage helped pave the way for the dramatic advance of the Good News through Saul, who became Paul.
III. Courage borne of reckless faith
The woman with the blood flow (Mark 5:24-34)
In Mark chapter 5, Yeshua has just arrived back on the western shore of the Galilee after teaching in The Decapolis. As He is teaching the enormous crowd, suddenly a synagogue official named Jairus (Ya’ir) comes to Yeshua, imploring Him to come heal his dying daughter. As Yeshua is on the way with him we read about a truly remarkable encounter. We’ll be reading Mark 5:24-34.
So Yeshua went with him. A large crowd followed and pressed around Him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Yeshua, she came up behind Him in the crowd and touched His cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch His clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Yeshua realized that power had gone out from Him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched My clothes?” “You see the people crowding against You,” His disciples answered, “and yet You can ask, ‘Who touched Me?’’” But Yeshua kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at His feet and, trembling with fear, told Him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
This last example of courage is of a different nature. This woman, whose name isn’t given, didn’t risk danger. She risked public humiliation. She pretty much broke with every custom and tradition you can think of. First of all, unlike today, in ancient Israel women absolutely did not come up to men (other than their husbands) and touch them in public. Even for married couples, physical contact was reserved for the privacy of the home.
Secondly, this poor woman’s illness was of a type that made her unclean – perpetually unclean, both ceremonially and socially. She had an issue of blood… for twelve years non-stop! According to the Torah, she would have had to live in isolation. She was both ceremonially and socially unclean. Anyone she touched would have immediately been rendered unclean themselves. So, for twelve long years, she was an outcast; cut off from family, from community, from the synagogue.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, in Luke’s account of this we are told that she had blown through every bit of money she ever had going to doctors for help. Now, while the medical profession is a noble profession, this was a sickness that no doctor in the ancient world could cure. And God, for His purposes, had allowed it.
But she had heard about this miracle-working rabbi named Yeshua, and she was desperate enough to throw caution (and social convention) to the wind. So she blended in with the enormous crowd that was following Yeshua everywhere He went, and when she saw her opportunity, she took it. She reached out and touched the hem (the ‘wings’) of His robe, convinced in her heart that He alone had the power to heal her. Had this been anyone else, her touching their garment would have made them unclean like her. But when Messiah touched unclean people, He didn’t become unclean – they became clean!
It brings to mind the words of Malachi 4: But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.
Messiah realized immediately that power had gone forth from Him, and spoke up about it. The woman had received marvelous divine healing, but she would not be allowed anonymity about it. So when Yeshua pressed for that person to come forward, she did so, trembling with fear because of who she was and what she had done, and how it cut across all social norms of Israeli society.
But she needn’t have feared. Yeshua has no intention of berating her. Instead, he calls her “Daughter” and commends her for her faith, and sends her off with a blessing of shalom and the assurance that she has been made well. What a great turn of events for this woman who had suffered so much. Her courage, borne of reckless faith, earned her a place in Scripture, and a Divine turnaround.
We’ve looked at quite a litany of courageous people last Shabbat and again this morning. But as I said at the outset, imagine how differently things would have gone, had they not shown courage!
Shifrah, Puah, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, Daniel, Peter and the Apostles had the courage to defy wicked edicts at pivotal times in history. Nehemiah, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had the courage to speak up and to act at pivotal times in history. This otherwise unnamed woman with a desperate problem had courage born of reckless faith, and was rewarded for it.
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.