Sawed in Two
“They were sawed in two...” (Hebrews 11:37)
Many Christians love Hebrews 11. This is the well-known “by faith” chapter, a memorial to the Old Testament people through whom God accomplished great things.
As the writer guides us through the history of salvation, it’s as if he realizes the task is too big. There are just too many saints – too many testimonies to God’s power! In verse 32 he writes, “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson…” Having reached the time of the Judges, he picks up the pace. Yet he still wants to point out how the marvelous pattern was continued, century by century. Even if he won’t name names, he’ll show what God accomplished through his people when they lived by faith in his great name.
Some of these unnamed believers are alluded to in verse 37: “They were stoned, they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.” This summary statement makes us think back: Who was stoned to death? Zechariah, son of Jehoiada the priest, comes to mind (2 Chron 24:20-21). Who was killed with a sword? The prophet Uriah is a possibility (Jer 26:20-23).
But who was sawed in two? Here the Bible doesn’t provide any names. You might say that there is an “unknown soldier” inscribed on this memorial.
Yet we could try to look further afield. Some ancient writings that are not included in the Scriptures give supplementary histories of God’s people. One such work is “The Lives of the Prophets,” from the first century after Christ.
According to this old record, the prophet Isaiah was killed by Manasseh, king of Judah. It is said that Manasseh was furious with Isaiah for prophesying Jerusalem’s destruction and he ordered his arrest. When he heard of this order, Isaiah fled to the countryside, and he hid himself in the hollow trunk of a cedar tree. There he was discovered, and Manasseh ruthlessly ordered the tree to be cut down with Isaiah still inside. Thus, he was “sawed in two.”
It’s an interesting possibility. The old account of the prophet’s demise seems to agree with the short phrase found in Hebrews 11:37. Yet we cannot be certain that it is Isaiah, because the writer doesn’t tell us whom he is thinking of.
And actually, it doesn’t really matter who it was. The exact identity of the person who is “sawed in two” isn’t as important as the central theme of Hebrews 11. The key theme isn’t so much the boldness of human faith, but the strength of God’s faithfulness. Even to those who suffered for their faith, to those who went to death for their testimony, God was faithful. It was God who gave his people the ability to hold on to the good confession. God gave his servants bravery when facing death. And God ensured that their lives were not wasted, even if they ended in a gruesome way.
This was good for the readers of this letter to the Hebrews to know. They were Jews who’d grown up with the Old Testament, but who’d come to the Christian faith. They’d left the familiar comforts of Judaism, and joyfully committed to faith in Jesus and his gospel. Yet there are hints of trouble in this letter. Listen to what the Spirit says to them in 2:1, “We must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.” After earnestly believing the gospel, the Hebrews were losing their zeal for God’s service and their trust in his name.
A big part of the problem was the hardships they were facing, and particularly the persecution. These Christians had been thrown out of some public places—not welcome anymore. Some had been imprisoned and seen their possessions taken away. While none in the congregation had been killed yet, it might happen soon.
And if you have a hardship that keeps going, and then gets worse, a deep sense of fatigue can begin to set in. You can almost understand how some of them were turning back. Was it really worth it, to follow Christ? Was this the future they had?
In a fearful and uncertain time, the believers needed to know that they weren’t alone in this suffering, and they certainly weren’t the first to go through pain for God’s sake. They’re encouraged to keep following the examples of the saints, past and present: “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Heb 6:12). Right after chapter 11, the Holy Spirit calls them to consider “the great cloud of witnesses” (12:1), to imitate the many believers who suffered for God, who remained steadfast, and who received his gracious reward.
We hear the same call. Though we aren’t in danger of being sawed in two for our faith, we must not fall asleep or drift with the culture. Rather, we need to realize that suffering for the faith is sure to come, just as it came in the past. We have it on God’s own authority: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).
In an age that is hostile to God’s total truth, let us pray for strength to speak God’s Word, even if that Word offends. Through God’s Spirit let us build spiritual fortitude for standing fast, even if we’re mocked or vilified or made to suffer.
And we ought to consider the example of the many witnesses who have gone before us. As our countless—even nameless—brothers and sisters did in the past, by God’s power we can endure suffering for the sake of Christ our Saviour.
By faith in him, we can live; and by faith in him, we can die.