A call to submission - Hebrews 12:1-13
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There is a story of a plane flight involving three passengers- a bishop, a student and a bank manager. It was a small plane on which they were travelling and everyone seemed to be getting along just fine when suddenly the pilot made the chilling announcement: ‘We have just developed a severe technical fault. I am going to have to ask you to bail out. The problem is that we only have two parachutes.’ Well this put the three travellers into something of a quandary: two parachutes for three people. The bank manager, a nervous flyer anyhow had been nursing his chute from take off and so he quickly put it on, said ‘goodbye’ and leapt out of the plane, leaving the Bishop and the poor student behind. The student, also a nervous flyer had been clutching away at a piece of khaki coloured canvas when suddenly, the Bishop lost control and in a fit of blind panic, pulled it away from the student, strapped it on his back and out he went. This left the student somewhat puzzled, wondering why on earth the bishop had jumped out of the plane with his haversack containing his sandwiches.
Well, it is easy to panic and jump ship when things get tough only to find ourselves in deeper trouble than had we stayed and seen the journey through. And it is the temptation to jump the Christian ship which this group of Jewish Christians is struggling with and which our writer is seeking to counter. It would appear, however, that these folk are not undergoing massive persecution; look at 12:4, ‘In your struggle against sin (that is the sin of giving up and turning one’s back on the faith), you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.’ They had suffered that way in the past when they had first started out as Christians according to chapter 10: 32, ‘Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution.’ The implication is clear, they are not suffering like that now. And it is this fact which makes the writer somewhat bewildered as to why some are deciding to throw in the towel and drift back into the old Jewish faith, abandoning the reality in order to go back to the shadowlands. If they took a firm stand when all the flak was flying, why on earth are they now buckling under when things aren’t so bad? That doesn’t mean that they did not have to pay some price for their faith. As with some Jewish friends today who become Christians, they can be ostracised- Jewish families actually holding funeral services for their children who have become Christian believers. That is certainly hard to take, but at least you are still free to walk around, you have your health. And so our writer seeks to inject a bit of backbone into these believers. And he does this by pointing out that Christianity is tough and exacting and to illustrate this he draws on two areas if life which would have been very familiar to these Greek-speaking Jewish Christians- the realm of sport and the realm of family. And both pictures are meant to help all Christians, as he says in v3 ‘not to grow weary or lose heart.’ So let’s take a look at these illustrations under two headings: Going the distance and going with discipline.
First, going the distance, vv 1-3. Here the writer is likening the Christian life to an athletic race. And there are three aspects to this race which provide us with a profound insight as to how we can keep on going; there is the course, the crowd and the captain.
There is the course-v2: ‘Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out before us.’ It is obvious that he is not describing a casual early morning jog. This is a serious long distance race- notice that- run with perseverance the race. This requires stamina and determination and is concerned with the long haul rather than the quick sprint. And neither is there to be any cheating, looking for short cuts, it is a race ‘marked out before us.’ The course is set. Yes, there will be flat lands, but also hills and valleys and a few rocky places as well. There is to be no wondering off to take the occasional nap, taking time out from the Christian faith, having a sabbatical from church, the place where as God’s people we get God’s provision to keep on with the race through his Word and Sacrament. But that is what some Christians do as some are doing here, and then they wonder why God feels so far away and their faith is not as vibrant as it once was and seems so unreal. Well, God hasn’t moved, they have, they have wondered from the course which has been laid out for them.
But also notice another vital requirement if we are going to go the distance- throwing off any encumbrances- ‘everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.’ What does he mean? Well, by speaking of everything that hinders he might have in mind the picture of a toga, a long dress which could cause the person to trip up. Greek runners ran more or less naked. Or it could be excess body weight; you have to be ‘lean’ if not particularly ‘mean’ to run this race.
What sort of things would these encumbrances be? Well, it may be the love of luxury. Earlier on in the letter he mentions that some had suffered the confiscation of property and so some perhaps not wishing to run the risk of that happening to them have decided to tone down their commitment to Christ and play up their commitment to Moses, spending more time in the synagogue than in the church. The love of luxury is certainly a great snare today, time spent away from God’s house so that we can spend more time decorating or extending our own house. The result? Spiritually we become undernourished and our children hardly begin the faith for they have been denied it by parents. We have to watch out for that. Or there is the pressure of relationships. Again that would have been keenly felt here with folk being severed from kith and kin because of their commitment to Christ. My son Michael was telling me only the last week that in the church in which he ministers, a church leader, one who had been regularly preaching, had decided to turn his back on the Christian faith, repudiating it altogether because he has become infatuated with a non-Christian woman at work. Can you imagine what effect that has had on the fellowship? We all have our own weaknesses- ‘throw them off’, says the writer.
But he also speaks of ‘the sin that so easily entangles.’ I don’t think that he has in mind, sin in general, although of course we have to be ruthless with that, but he uses the definite article ‘the’ sin. And so I would suggest he is talking about this particular sin, the sin of v4, the sin of abandoning the faith under pressure or by simple neglect. The fact that he says it so easily entangles indicates it is an ever constant temptation for us all. To drift back into paganism or semi-paganism whereby the Christian faith is treated more as an occasional hobby rather than a radical way of life is never far from lurking at our door. Be aware of it and get rid of it, otherwise you are simply going to trip up and will not make it to the end. That is what the writer is saying. When you think about it, it is amazing isn’t it? how much people will put themselves through to get what they think is important. They will go on the Atkins diet, workouts with Rosemary Conley or pay a fortune to become a member of a health club so that they will have that lovely body. Why should we as Christians think that keeping in good spiritual shape should cost us any less? Here are some challenging words from the Christian writer, Leon Morris: ‘True worship is at a cost. This is something that still needs to be learned on a day when men and women take churchgoing lightly, when they will go to church only if it is easy, if the church is near, if the choir is good, if the preacher is approved, if the weather isn't bad, if friends haven’t dropped in for a visit, and if a 101 other things haven't stopped them. If worship means a real effort, then men and women today are often disinclined to make it.’ Friends, that should not be- run the race with perseverance. Indeed, the word for race here is ‘agon’ from which we get our word ‘agony’- so lets tone up those spiritual muscles and stop whingeing.
However, this is not a resigned ‘grit- your –teeth- stoicism’ the writer is talking about for we have the encouragement of the crowd- v1 ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.’ This follows on from what he has been speaking about in chapter 11 that great hall of fame of people who have run this race before us and have arrived home. They are now, as it were in the stands, cheering us on. ‘Look’ says Abraham and Moses and Isaiah and a millions and one others- a great cloud of witnesses- ‘we were people just like you. We had our moments, our failures, our doubts, but God proved faithful, he says what he means and means what he says, you can trust him. Look at us, we have got there in the end and you can too, just keep on going it and you will find it is more than worth it.’ Aren’t you always moved when you are watching a race, maybe a school race, and there is someone who is no great athlete and is way behind all the others huffing and puffing, and the crowd of parents and grandparents just egg them on- applauding and cheering and so the smile appears on little Johnny’s face, especially when he sees his own parents in the crowd and he picks himself up to do that final lap. Even if he is last, it doesn’t matter, he has made it and you are so proud of him. Friends, there is the most massive crowd of believers in glory cheering you on, so use not so much the ‘eye of faith’ but the ‘ear of faith’ and listen to the roar of the crowd.
But there is one other person we are to think of long and hard if we are going to go the distance- the captain-v2-3 ‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him 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 sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’ You see, we follow One who has run this same course that we are running, blazed the trail and he thought it all worth while and his name is Jesus. The word used here for ‘author’ is ‘archegos’ which could be rendered ‘champion.’ Yes, we may listen to the crowd of witnesses but we look to the champion, the captain, we fix our eyes on him who gently encourages us along every step however faltering and broken they may be. And this is not to be some mystical imagining of Jesus for verse 3 says, ‘Consider him who endured opposition from sinful men’, a word meaning a ‘giving over of your mind to think about something’. And that is why it is so important to read the Gospels, it is here we find the material to chew on and consider as we read about his life. Do you feel misunderstood by those you love? So did he. Do you feel drawn to find a more comfortable and manageable form of religion which does not involve a cross? So did he. Have you been abandoned by those you trusted the most? So was he. Do you often feel tired and simply worn out, life has taken its toll on you and you just want to rest? So did he. And yet, he did not give up. Why? Well, because of the ‘joy set before him’. What joy? The joy of heaven, of being reunited with his heavenly Father? Most certainly- he sits down at the right hand of God. But surely there is more to it than that? Is there not the joy of seeing those for whom he died being there with him? We saw something of that more than hinted at back in chapter 2 when it is written of the ascended Jesus coming before his heavenly Father with those he has rescued saying, ‘Here I am, and the children God has given me.’ Jesus wants to see you in heaven, that is why he is beckoning you on, extending his arms out to you like a father with his toddler who has just learned to walk as we stagger our way towards him. There is nothing wrong in thinking about the reward of heaven and going to be with the Saviour when things are tough, in fact it is the most sensible thing to do. It is a disaster for an athlete to turn his head when running a race; he keeps them firmly fixed on the finishing line. But for us it is not a something like a tape we look to, but a someone – the wonderful Lord Jesus Christ waiting for us.
Still keeping with the same theme the writer switches pictures to show why we suffer as Christians- hence going with discipline vv 4-13. Here the scene has from the taxing rigours of a race to the loving discipline of a father- v7 ‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live?’ Having said that, there may still be a sporting connection which links the two, for as you have many Dad’s today who are keen on ensuring their children are involved in sport, in the Greek speaking world some fathers did act as coaches to their sons which may explain verse 12: ‘Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees’- this is God’s gymnasium. This is so important. You know, some sensitive souls immediately suspect that if trouble comes their way as Christians- a child become ill, they lose their job, a relationship breaks down- then God is punishing them. That is not what our writer says. Whilst it is true to say that if we willingly indulge in sin as Christians God may well let us suffer the consequences, he does not engage in retributive punishment on Christians for the simple reason that that has already been carried out in Jesus in their place on the cross, a point made often made in this letter. However, God does engage in corrective discipline. He wants to knock off some of the rough edges of our character, replacing pride with humility, harshness with kindness, brashness with patience -v10 ‘Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good.’ That is why Christians suffer set backs, why things don’t always work out as we had hoped, why Christians fall ill and are given a rough time at school or work. This is not a sign of God’s condemnation but his commendation –v 7 ‘God is treating you as sons’ it is a hallmark of our spiritual adoption, whereas if we were not being subject to loving discipline we should question our spiritual pedigree according to verse 8, whether we are Christians at all.
Of course, whether or not we will benefit from such training all depends upon our response to it-v 11, it ‘produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’ The implication being that it is possible not to be trained by it. And we know this to be so don’t we? Think of the athlete or footballer who rails against the rules of the trainer regarding their diet or the demand for early nights before a fixture. There have been those who have simply resented it and decided to ignore it and so they are disciplined, they are left out of the team and fined-so what do they do? Well, some continue to pout and go from bad to worse, but some see sense and change and are all the better for it. So it is in the spiritual realm. When God sends difficulty our way to train us we can either shout at him or submit to him, rant or respond. And I have seen the characters of those who have done the latter and, to be frank, they are a pure delight to be with. The other week I visited a terrific young Christian who has been suffering for three years with chronic fatigue syndrome-ME, leaving them with hardly any energy at all and the life of a housebound. Three years of pain and exhaustion and with little sign of any improvement in the near future. And yet as we talked this person said to me that as they spoke to others on the phone who just seemed to be complaining about their predicaments, they had found that the Lord had given them a tremendous inner joy which was so precious. That doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t want to get well and does not pray that the Lord would lift the affliction, but rather the person is submitting to him in the affliction. And I can assure you that you can see that harvest of righteousness and peace right before you as you look at this person. Friends, the world does not know that and cannot know that, but we can.
What is God’s will for your life- and mine? To be happy? Not according to this book. It is to be holy- v10 that ‘we might share in his holiness.’ And as we have been reminded over and over again in this letter we follow one who has been tested in every way as we are, yet who did not sin- who did not shrink back- so he does know and understand and cares. But he cares about us enough not to remove us from circumstances which toughen our character, but to be with us in the circumstances to form our character. How true it is that such discipline is not pleasant at the time-v 11, it does hurt and will sometimes yield tears, but it is not wasteful, for the loving purpose is there- to make us more like Jesus, ‘who for the joy set before him endured the cross.’
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