In picking our way through The Letter to the Hebrews, we have just read of the people of God of old who lived trusting God and as a result changed history. We also noted the striking continuity, the solidarity, between these and those following Messiah Jesus, these Hebrew believers and ourselves. And so on that basis the author brings us another vivid, stirring exhortation …
12:1-3. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
All these witnesses surround our minds and hearts like an immense, encouraging, glorious cloud, the LORD’s great workings in the affairs of his ancient historic people. It is like a stadium scene with those who have gone before watching us all, cheering us on as we run a marathon. We are to throw off any excess clothing—any useless baggage, anything that would weigh us down, anything that may entangle us in our running.
Remember the recent Para-Olympic Games? Any handicap we have that is in our power to discard, must be thrown off like an athlete’s track suit and left behind. Those amazing athletes would hardly ADD to their handicaps! Though the race marked out for us is hardly a level playing field, it is not a fun day, an entertaining three-legged race or an hilarious sack race. So let’s throw off all sorts of irrelevant practices and outdated ceremonial or religious observances, with unworthy projects or occupations. This is a race with a finish line to reach! Redeem the time! Persevere! Stay the course!
We are especially encouraged to throw off sin, any revolt against our Lord, which puts a stumbling block (instead of a starting block) in our way that would send us sprawling to the dismay of the great heavenly crowd who watch our progress. The race, already marked out for us, must be run with perseverance, with the dedication of an Olympian and not get off on side-tracks that lead us away from the finish and be disqualified. Aussie athletes have been criticised for letting pranks and social media interfere with their focus and their team building. Result: poorer performances.
The most important factor in running the race is undoubtedly fixing our eyes on Jesus because he is the pioneer—the one who ran this very race before us—and the perfecter, the finisher, not just of the race he has already run, but of ours as well! Jesus the man, is our model runner, the model human, who ran his race, ignoring, even despising the shame and humiliation which the present, yet temporary arrangement of a fallen world rained down upon him, culminating in the horrors of the cross for the joy that was set before him. That joy included seeing by faith that you and I who believe him should be joined to him forever in a wondrous community of life.
Jesus! Who else?
We fix our sight on him because not only has he the experience, and also he is the example for us, but also because he intercedes for us constantly—we have help and grace from our coach and mentor. And he awaits our arrival, our completion at the end, the finish line. So we need to be disciplined and trained and determined to run and to finish and keep calling to mind the joy that awaits us. We need to be in a position to encourage many others to run, without any handicaps or deviations, the marked out course and to show by example the lasting and deep joy that we expect at our triumphal finish.
On the way, running the race, we too will face opposition from people, often religious people, but we will need to constantly consider Jesus to keep running and not lose heart. And we will prove that his grace will be more than sufficient for us. This, brothers and sisters, is our calling. So what can hinder us in our race? The author goes on with a series of exhortations in the next passage that will give us some answers to this question.
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? [NIV You have forgotten] It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” Hebrews 12:4-6.
It is clear from this passage that our author here (and probably only here) uses the word sin to mean abandoning faith in Messiah Jesus under pressure through persecution—apostasy! To fall away, which he has warned about so many times already in the letter, is to quit running altogether. They have suffered severe testings and resisted, but they have not, as yet, been in danger of losing their lives.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Hebrews 12:7-13.
They are encouraged to see their hardships as a token of the love of the Father who is training them for future circumstances, instead of just giving up. Life teaches this. What a challenge this is to us, who live in such security far away from the hardships endured by brothers and sisters in a hundred nations around the world—their suffering out of sight and so often out of mind let alone our prayers. Here’s something very challenging to cry to the Lord for them—and also for ourselves: true sons and daughters can expect discipline from a loving Father, for our own good, for our holiness. Jesus said similar things to his disciples. So did Paul to his readers. So did Peter and James: every true follower undergoes discipline.
For us in post-modern Australia, challenges of a different kind abound. The trials are much more subtle but just as persistent and require just as much perseverance and stickability to run the race.
Looking ahead to Jesus who has run and completed the race before us!