Monthly Archives: February 2013

In the long run

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 So let’s throw off all sorts of irrelevant practices and outdated ceremonial or religious observances, with unworthy projects or occupations.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!

That list of gallants

In chapter 11, the author of The Letter to the Hebrews reminds his readers of the faith of their fathers and to follow their examples in the difficulties they face daily. He cites the faith of Noah, who knew the Almighty and heard and believed God’s warnings, resulting in him undertaking such a huge shipbuilding project, which without faith, seemed to others like the height of madness.

Then Abraham obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. Abraham’s faith journey is a brilliant ‘type’ or pattern for that of each believer in God. We do not know precisely where we are going—so much is unchartered waters for us. We too are like strangers in a foreign country. We together also look forward to the city with foundations whose architect and builder is God.  We can only very poorly imagine what it will be like. However we can see all around us the altogether superb creation in the good Earth and the heavens. His design work, though spoilt by human greed, ignorance, carelessness and exploitation, enough beauty and grace remain for us to enjoy and give thanks for, to lift our sights to the day that is coming, the day of renewed heavens and a renewed earth. Fantastic architecture. Unmatched design. Can hardly wait.

Let this sink in. For Sarah, God’s promises seemed just as impossible for them as it was for Noah. Yet they were delivered as promised and we are reading this because those words from God were trustworthy. She is singled out as considering God faithful. Result? All around us, right through history, countless descendants of Abraham and Sarah.

And all these people were still living by faith when they died. So, they did not receive all the promised things, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.

Right to the very end, they lived by faith, and so must we! Many of God’s promises may not be literally delivered before we pass on. Yet we can welcome them from a distance. God is not watching from a distance but keeps constant watch on our walk of faith—and boy, does that please him! Continuously.

Our author has highlighted Abraham’s traumatic and dramatic test of faith believing that God could raise his son Isaac from death, so sure was he of God’s trustworthiness to make a people of countless number. Imagine the trial of his faith! The agony the struggle against doubt!

And note the marvellous parallel here with God’s one and only Son and his steady, determined stride towards a dreadful and shameful death in Jerusalem and then, a raising to life, in a transformed and glorious body.

Our author then reminds us of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, patriarchs who believed God, often in the most dramatic circumstances, and changed the course of history.

In verses 24 to 29, Moses’ personal faith journey is then described in terms rather reminiscent of the calling of Jesus’ followers. And he could not leave out the Exodus story as a supreme example: a whole people group marching forward in faith through the sea. Moses could see and hear the invisible God and so he persevered. Nothing can beat perseverance. Press on!

He ends this long catalogue of men and women of faith, who all had a kind of knowing based on the character of their LORD God who speaks to his people, by reminding his readers, and us, that although these people were commended for their faith, yet many of the greatest promises were not received in their lifetime!

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets,  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. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.  These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Heb 11:32-40)

What a list of gallant, believing, persevering humans, continuing to the end in faith, despite the suffering, the opposition!

So also for us as well, much that God has promised remains as yet un-received by us. We wait in faith for his return, with suffering, and for the final consummation of his reign of his people on a re-newed earth, this wonderful world renewed in unimaginable delight and splendour for a renewed people who desire above all else that “your will be done!”

They, this great crowd of witnesses coming before us, will with us all experience sure completion in accordance with God’s perfect planning and design. We wait, as they did, living by faith.  God has not forgotten his Ancient people.

God’s planning, His timing : better for them and better for us.

How to give God pleasure

We are making our way through Hebrews and now looking at chapter 11. Here our author looks to history to encourage his readers to stick in there with active faith despite the difficulties they face.

The author and his contemporaries, the apostles, actually believed in the truth of all these heroes of the Old Testament story—they were not just made-up stories to them. They happened in space and in time. None of these examples are drawn from sources other than the Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures. Some of these stories go back thousands of years, but they held that the stories were true history. Stories are not more true because they are recent! Ancient stories like these have survived millennia.

To be able to pray according to the will of God our askings must be based on truth. Without truth we can have no legitimate faith, no real hope and no authentic love. Those ancient scriptures are important, holy to Christians also. So we read at Heb 10:4

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

Why was Abel’s a ‘better offering’? Why was he commended as righteous?

God had shown man that a better offering involved the death of an innocent. Recall the animal skins God provided to cover the ‘nakedness’ of Adam and Eve in the Garden story. Abel had obeyed God and brought an offering which involved the death of an innocent animal. His faith and obedience determined his righteous standing with God. The Letter to the Hebrews in every chapter has exploded with the truth that Jesus’ offering for us is the only offering that is acceptable to God and by which we may be counted ‘righteous’. Enoch was such a person …

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Heb 11:5-6

What an extraordinary statement! Enoch ‘pleased God’—he had faith, he believed. His reward? No experience of death! Instant Paradise.

He pleased God before his departure!

The only way to ‘please God’, to be on friendly terms with God, is to believe God. God is the speaking God. And when he speaks he must be heard and heard with all seriousness, not taken for granted, not ignored. So he makes promises to his beloved people and it is incumbent on them to believe and to order their lives accordingly. It is both as simple as that and as profound as that.

We too must please God before our departure!

Certainly we must believe that he exists! But more is required—we must earnestly seek him. Are you seriously seeking your Creator? It is self-evident that such generosity, such amazing design, such love, such provision, be met with appropriate responses from God’s beneficiaries. Who, (with Louis Armstrong and David Attenborough) does not sing or think “I say to myself, what a wonderful world”? But saying it is not enough. The LORD God Almighty must be sought after, and seriously, with determination and persistence.

Let’s do it! Seek Him, seriously, determinedly, patiently, persistently.

Today. before it is too late.