(1st part of my script from Sunday night at Rachel's church)
Well I love the book of Hebrews. It’s probably my favourite New Testament letter and it’s been a real treat to be preparing for tonight over the past week. We obviously don’t know who the author is, but he strikes me as a jealous man. Jealous in a good way, jealous in the best way. Jealous that those he loves love Jesus, jealous that the Hebrew Christians he writes to keep pressing on into Jesus, that they keep running after him.
That they do not waste their lives.
I think that last reason is why it resonates with me so much. If there are four words that sum up the last three years of my life it would be those ones. Don’t waste your life. The wasted life, is, of course, the non Christian life, the life lived without reference to the glory of God in the face of Christ. But I think it’s just as easy to waste your life as a Christian, and that revelation, that knowledge is what scares me, what drives me forward in life. I guess the wasted life for us is the life that spends more time, energy and effort on worldly treasure, worldly pleasure and worldly leisure than on Heavenly treasure, pleasure and leisure. A life lived without a singular passion for Jesus. A life lived without Him as the fire in your heart and the obsession of your mind. That’s really hard.
These were issues in the first century AD as well. Here, the Hebrew Christians are being tempted to return to their old life of Judaism, tempted to renounce their faith in Christ, tempted to give in to the hardship and sin that harassed them on every side. For them, like us, being a Christian was difficult. And the author knew that. So what advice does he offer his readers here on how to stay faithful to Christ? Number 1: listen to the stories of old, number 2: look at the champion.
So lets look at verse one together: ‘wherefore seeing that we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.’ The first word of chapter 12 is a joining word, it brings us back to what has gone before, it links what the author is about to say to what the author has just said. What’s he about to say? ‘Seeing that we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.’ Who are these witnesses? This is what links chapter 11 to chapter 12, this is the reason chapter 12 starts with wherefore.
The cloud of witnesses are the heroes of the faith that the author has been talking about in chapter 11. The picture that of a stadium full of spectators watching a race, and the men and women mentioned in chapter 11 are the crowd. Perhaps it’s like the last lap of the marathon where the competitors come into the stadium before crossing the finish line. And what stories these men have. Look for a moment at the story of Abraham in verse 8-10: By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance obeyed, and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise as in a strange country dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.’ Abraham is in the crowd. Abraham, who, by faith considered what he could see less important and less worthy that what he couldn’t see. Abraham who left all he had, all he had worked to build up, and all he knew, to follow God. That’s an incredible, faith building story, and an example of what we need to listen to.
Look at Moses in verse 26: esteeming the reproach of Christ greater than the riches of Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward. Moses knew what the reward of the race would be if he followed Christ. And he knew they’d be better than if he didn’t. He knew that reproach, even reproach for the name of Christ was better than the treasure, leisure and pleasure of Egypt.
These verses are a divine mandate to read Christian biography, and, much more importantly, to get to know the Old Testament. Both full of heroes from the past. Men like Abraham, Moses, Joseph and Isaac, women like Sarah and Rahab. They are all here in the stadium cheering us on, encouraging us with their wounds and their joy. Saying to us ‘come on, you can do this, yes it’s hard, yes you might get hurt, you might lose everything, you might have to give everything away…but you can do it.’ We can see this thought worked out best in Hebrews 11:4 which talks of Abel who being dead yet speaketh.
This cloud of witnesses will encourage us to run, as we see in the rest of verse 1: let us lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. I love how the Christian life is set before us here… we’re told to run! This would have been a timely message to the original readers. They were tempted, buffeted on every side to give up their faith, to return to Judaism, their hands were shaking and their knees were weak. They weren’t athletes in any sort of competitive shape. The easiest thing the Hebrew Christians could do would be to blend into their surroundings and just meander along in their Christian faith. That would have been the easy thing. So often that seems to be the case for us today. The easiest thing for us to do is blend into the background at school or at work. To ignore the cloud of witnesses, but that’s not what the author wants us to do here. He tells us to run.
As we listen to the stories of old and are encouraged by their faith and their support we must lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us. An athlete in training will strictly regiment his diet and activity in the days before a big race. He wants to be ready, and fit, and able to run. That’s the picture of the Christian life that’s painted for us here. We are challenged to work put what weights and sins easily beset us, and cut them out of life, work out what it is that holds us back, and lay them aside. I think the race analogy is very helpful for me in discerning what is helpful and what is not.
It makes me think that instead of thinking ‘is this sinful’ or ‘is that sinful’ but ‘is this helpful, does it help me run faster does it make me want to run faster?’ my questions about how I live my life shouldn’t be ‘whats wrong with this, what can I get away with, how far can I go’, but ‘what can I do to help myself run’ what can I do to listen to the stories of old, and fix my eyes on Jesus? Running in lead shoes may not be against the rules in a marathon, but it won’t be very helpful to the athlete. When I refuse to run, I find running harder to do. The less I exercise, the harder it becomes to exercise. It’s the same with our faith. The less I pray, the harder it becomes to pray, the less I read my Bible, the less inclined I am to pick it up and read it.
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