Looking Back to Witnesses, Up to Jesus, and Forward to Joy
From Gospel Translations
And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. 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 perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer 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.
Some Christians come to the end of their lives so suddenly that they don't have a single moment to say anything. No final words. No memorable sayings. All they leave is a lifetime of deeds and words. And we have to put the pieces together and interpret what their life meant. That's the way it was with Rollin last Tuesday morning. Death came so suddenly, there was not time for one word of parting testimony.
But it was different with the apostle Paul. As he approached the end of his life, he saw it coming. And he had time to tell us what he thought of his life. Here's what he said: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7).
The Christian Life as a Race and a Fight
So at the end of his life Paul said, "All my life has been like a fight and like a race. Keeping faith has been a struggle. Trusting God's promises (Romans 4:20) and walking by faith in the Son of God (Galatians 2:20), resting in the easy yoke of Jesus (Matthew 11:28), being anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6) has been like a war all my life. Nothing has been easier (Matthew 11:30) and nothing has been harder (Matthew 7:14) than to stay satisfied with God and with all that he is for me in Jesus (John 6:35). Day and night, by every means graciously given to me (1 Corinthians 15:10), I have fought the good fight and run the race of perseverance."
And before he died Paul made clear that this view of his own life was his view of the Christian life everybody is called to live. In 1 Timothy 6:12 he says, "Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called." And to explain, he said in verse 11, "Flee [the love of money]—flee all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, gentleness." Note the two words: "flee" and "pursue"—flee the love of money and all the evils that grow out of it, and pursue faith and love and perseverance. These are the words of war: Flee! Pursue!
Paul knows nothing of coasting Christianity. Paul simply does not recognize a Christianity that is not running a race and fighting a fight.
Nor does the author of the letter to the Hebrews. That's why the main point in this morning's text is the imperative of Hebrews 12:1, "Let us run the race set before us."
Battling the Tendency to Coast
The situation seems to be that the Hebrew Christians had gotten tired. A lot of time had passed since they were first fired-up for Jesus. Hebrews 10:32–33 says, "Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle . . . and you had compassion on the prisoners . . . " In 5:12 it says, "Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again." They have begun to coast and, as 2:3 says, "neglect so great a salvation." The situation is very serious and the writer suggests that some are showing that their faith is phony and they have "tasted the powers of the age to come" in vain (6:5).
Bethlehem turned 120 years old last week. We have been around a long time. And O how easy it is in an old church to get tired and begin to coast. Or to get diverted with mere maintenance ministries. Or to get careless in spiritual vigilance. Or to quench the Holy Spirit with passionless, dead, dutiful religious exercises. I don't think that has happened to us. But O how real is the danger! And the book of Hebrews was written to keep it from happening.
And so the writer says (in 3:12), "Take care, brethren, [that is, fight the fight! run the race!] lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief leading you to fall away from the living God." And in 12:12–14 he says, "Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Pursue peace with all men, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord"—there it is: Run the race! Fight the fight! Pursue peace! Pursue holiness!
Hebrews 12:1 is a trumpet call (or the warning gun that the last laps are starting) to see our life as a race to be run with passion and zeal and energy and discipline. When he says, "lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely [or so easily distracts]," he meant "get serious about the race!"
Test yourself. Are you running or are you coasting? You can get back in the race this morning. How? Verse 1 says by "throwing off weights and sins." That means getting things out of your life that make you more worldly-minded and putting things in your life that make you more heavenly-minded. It means praying without ceasing, hiding God's Word in your heart and meditating on it day and night, exhorting one another every day, taking up your cross daily, reckoning yourself dead to sin, putting to death the deeds of the body, plucking out the eye of lust, fleeing fornication, cutting off the hand of covetousness, yielding your members as instruments of righteousness, presenting your bodies as living sacrifices, putting on the armor of God, resisting the devil, and taking every thought captive to obey Christ.
The great danger of every aging church and every aging denomination, and every aging person (namely, all of us) is that we might begin to coast instead of run and fiddle around instead of fight. To this the writer of Hebrews, and I, and God say to you this morning, there is a better way to come to the end of life, namely, running the race and fighting the fight.
Three Motivations for the Race
So what I want to do is point you to three motivations for this race. God does not call us to meaningless, exhausting drills like laps around a field that get us nowhere. He calls us to a race that has a great goal and all kinds of powerful incentives along the way. The three motivations in this text are given in the title of today's message: Looking back to witnesses, up to Jesus, and forward to joy. Let's take them in that order.
1. Looking Back to Witnesses
The first motivation to run the race of faith and fight the fight for holiness and love is found in verse 1: "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . . " As we run the race, there is a big, dense crowd of saints pressing in on the track. These saints are the people described in chapter 11 and all the other Christians since then that have finished the race before us. They finish the race, circle around, and press into the crowd cloud along the route where we are running.
Now how is this supposed to motivate us? Two ways.
"It Can Be Done. It Can Be Done."
First, the point of calling all these saints from chapter 11 "witnesses" is not so much to say that they are watching us (they may well be in some limited way), but to say that they are near enough for us to watch them while we run. We are running the race and we look out into the crowd and realize that every one of them finished the race, and we feel, "It can be done. It can be done."
We look and we see examples of faith and perseverance under every imaginable circumstance: there's David who committed adultery and murder, and he finished; there's John the Baptist who had a weird personality, and he finished; there's John Mark the quitter, and he finished; and Mary the prostitute, and she finished; and William Carey, plodder, and he finished; and Jonathan Edwards who got kicked out of his church, and he finished; and Job who suffered so much, and he finished; and Stephen who was hated and stoned, and he finished; and Mary Slessor and Amy Carmichael and St. Paul who served as single people all their lives, and they finished; and there's Wyman and Jerry and Rollin, and they all finished.
Well, by the power and faith that got them through I'm going to finish too! That's the first way these witnesses motivate us.
The second way is found 11:39–40. The "therefore" at the beginning of 12:1 points us back to this motivation in 11:39–40. "And all these [the people mentioned in chapter 11], though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us." This is the motivation—the "something better" that comes to us because the saints of old did NOT receive what was promised. And what is this "something better"? What is better for us because they did not get what was promised? The answer is the last phrase of verse 40: "That apart from us they should not be made perfect."
In other words, the final perfected salvation all of the saints who have gone before—the resurrection of the body, the reign of Jesus on the new earth, the restoration of all things—will not happen without all the runners finishing the race. They finish the race, get a ribbon, but not the gold cup, then circle around and crowd in on the sidelines of the marathon route to wait for us. Because God says: no one gets the glory of final perfection until all have finished the race. They will not be made perfect without us.
So run the race—fight to persevere in faith and love and obedience; labor to finish the Great Commission and reach all the unreached peoples—knowing that the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before will not be perfected until the church on earth finishes its appointed course. When all the runners are across the line, then the joy of everyone will be even more because we will be glorified not one at a time but all together in one great consummation of the kingdom.
That's the first motivation: look back to the witnesses who have gone before: 1) they finished their course by faith, so you can too; 2) and all the saints wait with longing and excitement for you to finish the race. What lies ahead (you see it in all their faces) is an indescribable divine act of resurrection and restoration and glorification of all the saints when the last one crosses the finish line. So lay aside the weights and sins and RUN!
The second motivation to run is . . .
2. Looking Up to Jesus
It might be very easy to hear the command, "Run the race! Fight the fight!" and conclude that obeying that command and finishing the race and making it to glory depends decisively on us. But that would be a great mistake. We are responsible to obey. But the writer wants to encourage us to look to Jesus. Verse 2: "Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith."
I see Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith in three ways.
- First, he has given a foundation of our faith from start to finish. He pioneered by enduring the cross and despising the shame; and he perfected by sitting down triumphantly at the right hand of the throne of God (v. 2; cf. 2:10). Our redemption, the foundation of our faith, is complete.
- Second, he has given a perfect model for faith from start to finish. He trusted his Father from beginning to end in his earthly race.
- Third, he is the giver and sustainer of our faith from start to finish. Hebrews 13:21, "May God equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ." And "without faith it is impossible to please God" (11:6). So the God who began a good work in us is going to complete it—through Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.
So don't even begin to think that finishing this race will redound to your glory because it depended on your strength. We run in the strength that God supplies that in everything God may get the glory through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 4:11). So look to Jesus, take heart, trust him, and run.
The final motivation here is . . .
3. Looking Forward to Joy
When we look to Jesus, one of the things we see (according to verse 2) is that his pioneering and perfecting work of redemption was sustained by the joy that was set before him. Verse 2: "Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross."
What God wants us to do when we look to Jesus and see this is to be like him. He endured the cross for the joy set before him; we should endure the hardships of our marathon of faith for the joy set before us.
An Illustration of How This Works
I close with one simple illustration of how this works, from Hebrews 10:34–36, "You had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully [note the word!] accepted the plundering of your property [this is like Jesus' enduring the cross, and like a long uphill mile in 95 degree heat in your marathon], since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one"—that is, for the joy set before you. So the key to laying aside weights, like love for possessions, and running through the tough experiences of life—the key to a 120-year-old church pressing on with strength and courage and hope is to have our eyes fixed on the indescribable, unending joy at the end of the race.
The joy of all the saints raised and glorified with us in one great consummation of the kingdom; the joy of faith and holiness perfected by the work of Jesus; the joy of being with Jesus, the greatest person in the universe.
So let us run the race, and fight the fight of faith, for God is faithful. He will finish his saving work in our lives.