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 THE STAND-ALONE PIECES OF INFORMATION
- Therefore – this is what we need to do in order to live lives worthy of the faith commitment of the former generations of God’s people.
- Theirs is a testimony of people who looked beyond present circumstances to the fulfilment of God’s promised intention.
- We should get rid of everything that has the power to hinder the work of God.
- We should get rid of everything that can cause us to fall.
- We need to live as if we are running in a race – training, effort, focus, energy, objectives.
- We should live the life that God has called us to, not one we have selected.
- The race we should run should be the one that focuses on following, serving, worshipping, becoming like Jesus and the one that he began and left for us to complete.
- Jesus is the pioneer of our faith – he is the one who showed us what a life of faith looks like.
- Jesus is the only one who can provide us with the end game for faith – what it will look like when the purpose has been completed.
- Here is an example of this faith:
- Jesus “ran his race” by seeing what was beyond the current circumstances and by thinking of the joy that would come from what he accomplished.
- Jesus resolved to endure the suffering involved in fulfilling his task rather than becoming focused on it or resenting its injustice.
- When called to do things that met with the disapproval or shame of those around him he treated that shame with disdain because it arose from compromised traditional or religious value systems rather than an awareness of redemptive love.
- When his work on earth was completed, Jesus was restored to a place of honour beside his Father.
- In our own experience of serving God by exercising faith, we need to take encouragement from the modelling provided by Jesus.
- We should not be surprised that serving the purposes of God will be opposed – we are following the example and experience of Jesus.
- When we realise that these things are part of normal expectation for a servant of God, we will be less inclined to lose heart when we get worn out because of the battle.
THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,
Here is yet another example of the need to get the context in order to discover the meaning. In recent years I have become much more sensitised to the idea of keeping all the parts of a story together in order to make sense of individual parts. The information we are going to be reading in this chapter (remember, there wasn’t a chapter division when it was first written) depends entirely upon what we learn in Chapter 11. Many of the people who comment on this verse liken the sixteen-plus heroes of faith to spectators sitting in the grandstand watching a game and egging the team on to victory. The idea of them being “witnesses” suggests they are witnessing what is going on NOW. I don’t happen to agree. The life experiences of these heroes of faith are ones that testify to what it looks like when you commit to trusting what God wants you to do NOW, that makes sense of what will happen ultimately. We are called to live the present in the light of a future that yet to be revealed.
The heroes of faith were prepared to act with certainty about what was going to happen even if it seemed impossible, unlikely or even foolish. Noah built an ark, Abraham and Sarah kept trying for a baby, Moses led people to the edge of the sea – and so on. Regardless of their various challenges, they were plugging into a story that had started before their time and would be completed long after they were gone. That story was their story. Their lives bore testimony to the present being shaped by the future.
I love discovering history, especially Christian history. There are so many people whose faith was so courageous and strong. They started when there was nothing but ended up seeing amazing change – and a legacy that continues to this day. I would gladly spend my life for such a reward. But the other story from the pages of history tells us that God’s people have been stubborn, compromised, protective of power, wealth and status. They have “freeze framed” little epochs of experience and then built buildings, institutions and attitudes to protect and defend them. We end up with tribalized religious relics, buildings and systems that are lifeless.
The author of Hebrews is not quoting the big names to develop a fan club for old heroes. He wants his readers to live out their own chapter of the story fully. The heroes were looking forward to the fulfilment. That fulfilment had begun with the coming of Jesus. They trusted God for it, rejoiced in it and suffered for it. They spent their lives serving it – and IT was happening as the author of Hebrews was writing. The beginning of this fulfilment phase was marked by signs, wonders and miracles. It had also involved disappointment, suffering and hardship. The only thing for us to do is to make sure their faithfulness was not in vain. Listen to the profound statement underlying the testimonies of the faith-heroes:
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. (Hebrews 11:39,40) The last phrase is the key: “only together with us.” If we now fully live according to the revelation that came in Jesus Christ, their faith and faithfulness will be justified and realised. We must ensure their sacrifice was not in vain. We won’t do that simply by religiously memorialising their exploits. Let me illustrate.
One of the sheds at my grandparent’s farm houses an old “A” model Ford (1927-1932). My pop had driven it in the 1930’s and then kept it in working order after he purchased a later model. It was a great old car, and he used to take us for a ride in it and mostly let us have a go at driving. It was rough, cold and very lumpy to drive but to young teenage boys, it may as well have been a “Porsche”. We had so much fun. Now, in 2018, I drive a different car. It is comfortable, smooth and a million times more sophisticated. But the car I drive is a descendant of the Model A. You could think of the Model A Ford as an auto-version “hero of the faith.” As much as the Model A Ford was a stand-out and as much as we might like to go to a museum and have a look, it is now nothing more than a valued piece of history. No one wants to drive one to work today for a good reason. As it happens, my wife and I arrived home tonight from a 1700 km. trip. We wouldn’t be sitting in the warmth of our home in Canberra right now if we had chosen to drive the Model A. We would have had a week of bumping and grinding along at 60-70 kph., freezing or boiling, and suffering spinal damage from the rough suspension. We would have had breakdowns and flat tyres to fix. I don’t suggest that my present vehicle is the fulfilment of Henry Ford’s marque. I am saying that Henry’s ingenuity and enterprise paved the way. What he accomplished foreshadowed what we have just experienced. I am grateful for what he did but even more thankful for what some Korean team of designers and engineers have produced. The point I am making is that the writer here is asking us to honour what the previous generations of faith-filled people accomplished. If they had a hundred reasons to do what they did, then we have a thousand. If they died looking forward to what we have in Christ, then we should be all the more eager to make sure that they didn’t do what they did in vain. They saw the shadow. We know the reality. We get to drive the ultimate model. There are no more models to come. Jesus and the kingdom represent the fullness.
All of the faith-heroes lived for a single underlying purpose – to bear testimony to what would happen when Jesus came. Their faith looks forward to him (see Luke 24). Their faithfulness is fulfilled through him. We who live on the other side of the empty cross and empty tomb need to embrace our faith journey with even greater assurance and confidence. We must face the challenges and hardship with even greater determination. We get the chance to see the end of a chapter in the great story of God’s purpose. We should pay tribute to its profound significance. We should undergird every aspiration that comes from trusting Jesus and sharpen the focus of every promise God has made. There are no grandstands in the work of the kingdom of God – as much as we have tried to invent them and allow people to sit in them. There is only a playing field. And the generations of people have an opportunity to BE a part of God’s great story: his intention to create a new heaven and a new earth through the agency of transformed Jesus-followers. The contemporaries need to take careful note from their forebears – choosing to live in the light of the long view back as well as the long view forward.
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.
I was never a promising athlete in my teenage years, but my best performances were always in the longer races – mile, two-mile and cross-country. When my modest talents were recognised, the school athletic coach took me under his wing, and a training program began. He told me that I was a heart-runner. I just took off from the start and ran as hard as I could for as long as I needed. More often than not I was run down by other competitors in the last few hundred yards. My natural way was to only think about the moment. He began to teach me what I had to do to apply myself to the moment by viewing it from the finish line. There was a lot more thinking to do, more tactics to learn and a whole lot more discipline.
The culture of my society puts a lot of emphasis at the moment. It can persuade us to do things in a moment of time that will destroy everything good in the future. It will magnify the emotions and present circumstances to the point where they are the only things that are important. Our jails are full of the victims of this reality. Our homes and lifestyles are impoverished by foolish financial decisions made as if there is no future to be concerned about. We think we are smart enough to do things in the present and avoid their inevitable consequences. We convince ourselves that there is a “morning after” pill for every form of wanton self-indulgence.
Here is the alternative. Live the ‘moments’ of your life with the end game in mind. Look through the present and see if it lines up with the future. Allow the past to warn or encourage the present but allow only the future to shape it. We do this as people created in the image of God, designed to fulfil his loving purpose. The more we become aware of this the more we see the things that are around us that hinder and cause trouble. They are easier to identify when viewed from this posture. Just imagine a runner picking up a large rock intending to carry it while he/she ran a race. Everyone will see that it is going to hinder them from getting to the line in the quickest time. They should notice that other runners are not picking up rocks. Everything about the race environment screams at them to drop the rock. Their clothing, their precise preparation for the start and the track ahead of them all say – get rid of everything that hinders. Their daily schedule for months or years, their diet and their thoughts are all shaped by one aim – getting to the finish line faster. The rock in their hands is a glaring inconsistency. Or, what if they were to wear long flowing robes that hang loosely on the ground. They will similarly shout out the probability that they will trip and fall. Regardless of personal preference, they choose clothing that will help them accomplish their purpose: light, close fitting and minimal.
It is essential to understand “weights” and “sin” in this light. My earliest Christian experience was in a church that loved Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” If you haven’t read it, you should Google it and see how much of it you can get through without giving up. The idea of sin presumed there was common in previous times: God hated sin and it seemed to most of us that he didn’t much like sinners. The people he loved were those who didn’t smoke, drink alcohol or swear. The motivation for getting rid of sin was to avoid God’s anger. We were told that even if we were mostly good, we were still bad in God’s eyes. This legalistic idea of holiness was severe and pervasive. It portrayed a God whose normal attitude was one of anger but would turn off that anger if we kept mentioning the name of Jesus.
The metaphor of athletics is almost the exact opposite. If we were “born to run” and God is the coach, then his advice to let go of the rock is not an expression of anger but loving wisdom. The Coach provides insights and motivation that enable us to fulfil our divine vocation to run the best race.
The call to follow Jesus is not a metaphor. Jesus is the quintessential child of God. His life and legacy provide us with the motivation, and the modelling of a life fully lived as a faithful son or daughter of a heavenly Father. His work and therefore ours models the challenges and responsibilities involved in the “family business.” There would be immense value in reading through one or more of the gospels to notice the way Jesus challenged the demonically compromised religious system of his day, as well as the equally demonic Roman system of governance. He demonstrated how it is possible to test their legitimacy without needing their permission or favour. The key to understanding this is to see how his commitment to making the kingdom of God known happened in any of the recorded incidents. He didn’t favour a particular theological or political view. He just lived and proclaimed the kingdom of God. He did that on the first day and was still doing it on the last. As such he is both the pioneer of a new order and what he started he will finish as we become the tangible implementers of that same kingdom. Sadly, so many who begin by following Jesus’ example soon find that the journey is too steep and difficult. They end up compromising the values and ways of the kingdom of God in favour of this world’s kingdom – as we are warned in the parable Jesus told about the sower and the soils (Matthew 13). As a long time pastor and Christian counsellor, I am always surprised at people’s willingness to see God’s wisdom as arbitrary and undesirable – while they are often willing to see this world’s wisdom as more reasonable and preferable? Why? The Creator has lovingly made known to us the principles by which we were designed to live. The fact is that our stubborn independence has so marred us that we are capable of regarding holiness as undesirable – and sin as preferable. We keep picking up rocks to carry down the track.
Here is my simple suggestion: as you live your live week by week and find yourself needing answers to questions about attitude and behaviour, write your question on a card, place it in front of you and read at least one of the gospels looking for wisdom from the example offered there by Jesus. No matter how difficult it may seem, seek to implement the answer because it is the alternative that most aligns with the example set by Jesus.
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.
The author of Hebrews now gives one example of the following-Jesus principle. He takes it from the most challenging part of Jesus’ work: the cross. We know that even though Jesus was wholly committed to being in Jerusalem and facing the horror of carrying sin to the cross, it was also abhorrent to him. Paul tells us that Jesus, “became sin who knew no sin.” (2 Corinthians 5). No one will ever know how great a cost that involved for him. What we do get to know is the WAY he did it – and that should be sufficient.
- He saw the reality BEYOND the current circumstances. What he saw was the opportunity for billions of people created in the image of God being reconciled to a relationship with their Father in heaven. He saw them being transformed with a new heart and a new spirit. Then he saw them picking up the trail of their God-ordained vocation – what they were created to become and to do. This filled him with joy, no matter what the nature of current hardships and challenges. There was indeed no joy in the cross, but there was great joy in what it would accomplish.
- He resolved to ENDURE hardships to bring the work to completion. Enduring means that you don’t stop until it is finished. Enduring assumes that, as there will be a beginning of the work and a series of phases to go through, there will be an end. The end is not created from preference or comfort. It is discovered by doing the things that will see the work completed. If you do that, a day will come when the work IS completed. Until then, the issue is not to enjoy, not to feel comfortable, but to endure.
- He resolved to DESPISE the shame. This is a big number. Completion of his work involved quite a few things that brought degrees of shame. There was no shame from his Father, as we well know. The scandal happened because he was challenging the compromised ideas and values of the religious and civil status quo – i.e. the rule of the kingdoms of this world. He broke with religious traditions and expectations. His own family thought he was mentally ill. The religious leaders thought he was demonic. His disciples didn’t understand, and his popularity threatened the Romans. All of this came together at the cross where he was treated as the worst of dangerous criminals. Beaten and mocked, he was made to drag the cross through the streets in sight of everyone and, with seeming impotence he submitted to its death. At every point where shame was ready to point its finger straight at him, he resisted its power by meeting it with scorn. Think of something you utterly despise. One of the things I hate is the sexual abuse of children. I detest it. It violates everything good in favour of what is totally evil. So think about having that same attitude to falsely based shame. Jesus didn’t just reject it; he actively despised it. It had no power to persuade him, intimidate him or influence him. He totally despised it. Go and read the chapters of the gospel that tell the stories of the events leading up to and including the cross and think of all the reasons why he might have succumbed to the shame. And start to think of what that would look like if you were to experience shame because of something you do to serve Jesus.
- He rightfully accepted his place of honour. I don’t think the “right hand of God” is about comparative status. I know a lot of people will only see it that way. It is better understood as the place of accomplishment. If I ever became so creative that I could paint the most beautiful painting, or write the most beautiful song or the most impressive piece of poetry, it would not be to achieve fame or status and certainly not wealth. Such effort would position me in a place of satisfaction – just to be able to bring joy and beauty to the lives of people who would listen, look or read and receive some huge blessing. It would be a vantage point where one could see the benefits to others and share the joy. That’s what the “right hand of God” is about. It’s not about everyone coming and bowing and scraping and telling me how right I am or even how wonderful I am. The satisfaction of doing something beautiful is never going to be found in accolades or popularity. It is the fact that you have made a contribution that is going to go on forever making people feel good, be encouraged, etc. I guarantee that is what Jesus treasures from the vantage point of the “right hand of God.”
So the long-range perspective, the commitment to endure to completion, the ability to despise the disapproval and the satisfaction of lives being touched were at the heart of Jesus every day of his life on the earth. This was the way he embraced hardship, and it was the reason why the enemy couldn’t sway him from the path. Same for him and the same for us. These are the attitudes and perspectives we need to be filled with and the ones in which we must become accomplished. In order to be successful, great pianists must become skilled in performing things like Hanon exercises. Even though they seem dull and boring they make a huge difference. In the same way, we must become accomplished in each of these four skill areas: taking the long view, endurance to the end, despising false shame and aiming to complete tasks that leave a valuable legacy to the others. They may seem hard, unjust and painful at the time, but they will enable us to accomplish purposes that will bring honour to God. They will qualify us to take our own part in the great story of God’s unfailing plans and purposes.
 Charles-Louis Hanon wrote a series of exercises to help piano technique. They are dull and boring to play, but essential for developing speed and finger independence; first published in 1873