I’m sure everyone is familiar with Hebrews 12:1-2, but look at it with me yet again. Continue reading . . .
I’m sure everyone is familiar with Hebrews 12:1-2, but look at it with me yet again:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).
There is a lot of truth about the Christian life wrapped up in the imagery of running. It tells us that following Christ is both vigorous and rigorous. I’m not saying that you should never engage in quiet reflection or prayerful rest or undistracted meditation on God’s Word. Of course we should. But even these exercises are disciplines designed to refine us and make us more like Jesus. We reflect quietly on the grace and greatness of God so that we will be strengthened to say no to ungodly lusts. We are prayerfully attentive to God so that we will be energized to resist Satan and all his beguiling ways. And meditating on God’s Word is like filling up the tank of your car with combustible gasoline. It’s designed to ignite your spirit and give focus to your affections and fill you with the spiritual fuel you need to get back on the road, running at full speed.
I fear that the spiritual “running” of many professing Christians is more like what happens on a treadmill than what happens on an open road. A lot of energy and sweat are expended but you don’t make any progress, you don’t get anywhere. And if you do actually find yourself engaged in an actual race, too many yield to the temptation to take a short cut.
Do you remember the name of Rosie Ruiz? Rosie was a Cuban-American who was declared the winner in the female category for the 84th Boston Marathon in 1980. People were stunned by her victory, as her recorded time was the fastest ever run by a woman in Boston Marathon history. But eight days later she was stripped of her title when it was discovered that early in the race she had dropped out, hopped on a subway, only to re-emerge about a mile from the finish line where she joined the other runners and staged her stagger across the finish line in dramatic fashion.
What Rosie did makes for a good laugh, but there are no short-cuts in the marathon of the Christian life. The progressive transformation of our character into the image of Jesus himself calls for a sustained, life-long commitment. We are told in Hebrews 12:1 that “endurance” or “perseverance” is required. The good news is that the Holy Spirit is always present to empower us and to provide us with whatever strength and incentive we need to succeed.
So, how should we run? There are three answers given in our text.
First, we must “lay aside every weight” or as some translations render it, “encumbrance” (v. 1b). What in the world does he mean by this?
Think of those who compete in the Olympic Games. They strip down to the bear minimum to reduce friction and to free up their legs and arms to perform more effectively. My guess is that many of you have worn ankle weights when you’ve gone jogging or heavy wristbands to strengthen your arms. But if you were to compete in an actual race, you would take them off. Or consider a batter in baseball. He will stand in the on-deck circle swinging his bat with what is called a “doughnut” on the bat. It’s a weighted ring that, when removed, is designed to make the bat feel lighter. But no one ever comes to home plate and tries to get a hit with that weighted ring or doughnut on his bat. The player has thus “laid aside” the “weight” that might encumber his performance.
Likewise, we are being told that if we hope to live a maximally fruitful Christian life we need to shed everything that might weigh us down or hold us back or distract us from being entirely focused on what God has called us to do. These aren’t necessarily sinful things. These are things that very likely are never mentioned, far less condemned, in Scripture. And they probably differ from person to person. What may be an encumbrance or weight to you isn’t to me, and vice versa. For some it may be TV or the Internet or Facebook or certain movies or a style of music or video games or hidden candy or romance novels or daytime soap operas or alcohol or a favorite sports team. He’s talking about anything that has the tendency to dull your spiritual senses or to slow you down in your running after holiness.
I want to share with you one of the most helpful things I ever heard John Piper say. It has to do with how we justify certain activities in our lives. Whenever any activity or hobby or event or endeavor comes your way, you have to make a decision: Should I go there? Should I do that? Should I hang out with him/her? Should I watch or participate or eat or drink? And often we answer by asking in return: “What’s wrong with it?”
If that is the only question you ask and the only criterion you employ, the answer will often be: “Nothing. There’s nothing inherently sinful or wicked about this activity. And the Bible nowhere explicitly forbids it. So why shouldn’t I enjoy myself?” But, says Piper, instead of asking, “What’s wrong with it?” we should ask, “Does it help me run?” Carefully assess everything in your life, even the things that are permissible, and ask: Does this strengthen my faith or weaken it? Does this intensify my love or leave me cold-hearted? Does this make holiness more appealing and accessible or stand in the way? Does this encourage me to serve others sacrificially or to live selfishly? Does looking at this or listening to that intensify purity in my heart or corrupt it? The answer to that sort of question may well change your decision and perhaps even the direction of your life entirely!
Second, we are to run by laying aside the “sin which clings so closely” (v. 1c). He doesn’t appear to have any particular sin in mind. It is sin in general: anything in word, thought, or action that hinders you or slows you down in your efforts to run. You know what these sins are. I know what they are in my experience. And all of us need to aggressively wage war against these obstacles to running the Christian life.
So let’s connect this with something that’s been much in the news of late: the release of the film, 50 Shades of Grey. Is the book on which the movie is based, as well as the film, merely a possible “weight” or “encumbrance” that may or may not hinder your Christian life, or does it qualify as a “sin” that we must lay aside? In other words, what does this passage say about whether or not you should go to this sort of movie? I have never read a word of the book and I have no intention of attending the film. And my strong feeling is that neither should any of you. You don’t need to read filth or watch sexual perversion in order to be relevant or culturally sophisticated or to keep up with the times or to be able to communicate with non-Christians.
Let me simply say that the question you should be asking about this movie isn’t, “What’s wrong with it?” (and by the way, the answer, in my opinion, is: a whole lot!), but “Will it help me run?” Well, will it? I’ll leave it to you and your conscience to provide the answer.
(I said there are three ways in which we are told to “run”. We’ve looked at the first two. Now the third.)
Third, we are to run “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (v. 2).
This word “looking” doesn’t quite capture the force of the original text. It means something along the lines of riveting one’s attention; fixing one’s focus; staring intently without allowing the slightest distraction. Be single-minded in your pursuit of Jesus! Keep the eyes of your faith and the meditation of your heart and the focus of your affections on Jesus only! Failure to do so will almost inevitably lead you to veer off course.
So, study Jesus. Spend time in prayer with Jesus. Make Jesus your model. Be sensitive to his example. Be open to his leading. Worship him. Adore him. Prize him. Treasure him. We must run with the eyes of our heart and the focus of our faith fixed on Jesus! The reason is two-fold.
First, Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (v. 2a). He is the “founder” or “pioneer” of our faith in that he has provided us with the perfect example of how we are to run: by drawing upon the power of the Holy Spirit and trusting the truth that there is great reward in godliness. Not only that, but he is the origin and source and giver of all faith. This is what we see in Hebrews 13:21 where we are told that God equips us with everything good to do his will “through Jesus Christ.”
So we must never, ever think that whatever success we experience in running, the glory or praise or credit goes to us. All glory goes to Christ who both set the pattern and supplies the power for us to do anything at all.
Second, Jesus is our model for how to run the race insofar as we see the goal that undergirded and empowered him. How in the world, we ask, could someone disregard the shame and pain of being crucified, of being nailed to a tree and dying such an unimaginably horrific death?
The answer is that he had set his sights on the “joy” that awaited him on the other side of the cross, following the resurrection. It was the joy of restored fellowship and intimacy with the Father. Jesus spoke in John 17 of how his Father would restore to him the “glory” that he had in the fellowship of the Trinity before the foundation of the world. It was the joy of being “seated at the right hand of the throne of God” as stated right here at the close of Hebrews 12:2. It was the joy of leading many sons and daughters to glory (Heb. 2:10) and spending eternity in fellowship with those sinners whose lives he was able to redeem and save by his sufferings. In other words, what sustained Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and through the flogging he endured by the Roman soldiers and eventually being nailed to a cross, was the hope of joy beyond the cross, joy in relationship with the Father and joy in eternal fellowship with you and me!
Some people protest and say that it is mercenary to run the race in order that we might attain to a joy that is superior to anything this life or its sinful ways might afford. But that is what Jesus did. And so should we. The joy of seeing Christ and feeling his delight and bringing him honor and entering into the fullness of life in the new heavens and new earth is what should stir us to run, run, run.
Was this not the incentive that moved King David of old? Did he not say that it is “in God’s presence” that one finds “fullness of joy” and at God’s right hand that we experience “pleasures evermore” (Ps. 16:11)? It was in order to secure that “joy” and “pleasure” that David made difficult and often sacrificial choices. If that “joy” and “pleasure” promised by God is not enough to ignite obedience in your heart and sustain you through hard and tempting times, nothing else will.
There is a joy inexpressible and full of glory that is set before us. Invest your hope in it. Run to lay hold of it!