The Perfecter Of Faith
We tend to be inspired by the presence of spectators. It’s not that we altogether slack off when we are alone; it’s just that the presence of spectators often elevates our concentration and performance to a higher level.
Back in the days when I used to go jogging in the neighbourhood, I used to say to Allie that the toughest run was when there were lots of people outside going for walks and bike rides. I wouldn’t want anyone to see me running bent over and gasping for breath and so, if I noticed that someone’s eye was on me, I would straighten up, speed up to a near sprint, and act as if I had been keeping this torrid pace all along.
Golfers know what I am talking about. When you are teeing-off in the presence of spectators, you get a ‘rush’ of adrenaline that does not come when it’s just your buddy standing next to you. We tend to become more focused on what we are doing; we become especially inspired when others are watching us. Deep down, we want to hear the gallery yell, ‘Great drive! Way to go!’
The author of Hebrews begins chapter 12 by reminding his readers that spectators of a different kind are watching them. As we live out our lives in this world, we are told that we have a “great cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (12:1)—from Abel to Noah; from Abraham to Moses; from Rahab to Samuel—we are not alone here (see chapter 11).
More than that, the author explains later in this chapter that the entire “general assembly” of the heavenly church is present when we gather for worship here on earth (12:22-24). That’s why we have hymns like “For All The Saints”.
I am often asked if I still get nervous before I preach. If I consider that my preaching and my prayers are heard by two hundred and twenty people, the answer would be ‘No’—that does not make me particularly nervous. However, when I consider that my ascent to this pulpit involves preaching and praying in the presence of heavenly angels and the heroes of our faith now in glory, my knees knock, and I am sufficiently overwhelmed.
The author of Hebrews wants us to know, and he wants us to be inspired by the fact that we are not alone on this earth. God is not some notion that we have invented; God is real. God is present with us now and He has brought His friends along with Him. The myriads of angels are here; the first-born of those who are enrolled in heaven—that’s right, our loved ones who have died in the Lord are here (12:22-24).
O blest communion! Fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Let that sink in for a minute. The presence of these heavenly spectators should not only arrest our attention, but it should inspire our efforts as Christians seeking to represent the church in this world. On in infinitely higher level than my being inspired to run faster when others are watching, we should be inspired to live more for Christ when we consider who is watching us.
“Since therefore, we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1).
Here, the Christian life is set forth metaphorically as a race. The spiritual athletes of the past—the Hall of Faith members—are present as spectators to inspire us in the race. But within the race, are two obstacles: the first obstacle, literally translated, is “the weight that hinders” and secondly, “the sin which entangles”.
Notice that there is an obstacle that is not categorized as sin. So often, we imagine that if we only eliminated the bad things; if only we succeeded in uprooting the sins in our life, we would be marvelous Christians.
Not necessarily, says the author of Hebrews. Not only is there “sin which entangles”, but there is also “the weight that hinders”. R. Kent Hughes, commenting on this verse, writes, “A hindrance is something, otherwise good, that weighs you down spiritually. It could be a friendship, an association, an event, a place, a habit, a pleasure, an entertainment, an honour.” Hughes goes on, “if this otherwise good thing drags you down (spiritually), you must strip it away.”
How are we going to win this race set before us? The spectators inspire us, but their influence is limited—they can’t remove the weight that hinders, nor can they remove the sin that entangles.
What then, are we to do? First, we must correctly identify the weights and the sins in our life. The latter is likely easier to identify than the former. Sins usually stand out. Sins are more obvious, and they more quickly trigger our consciences. But, are there also good things in our life that interfere with our participation in the Christian race?
Are there people in our life, whom we regard as precious, who are contributing to our lackadaisical pace in our race toward kingdom goals? I don’t recommend removing them—I’m not prescribing that you abandon people; but I do recommend, based on what I read in Hebrews 12, that you remove their influence, which is countering your Christian devotion.
How do we do this? The author of Hebrews exhorts us, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of (our) faith” (12:1,2).
The Greek suggests turning away from other distracting things in order to concentrate on Jesus, implying that we cannot properly run the race while looking in more directions than one.
If you have ever watched elite athletes run the 100-metre dash, you understand what the author of Hebrews is talking about. The best way to run a race is to fix your sight on the finish line. Likewise, the best way to approach the Christian life is fix your eyes on Jesus.
Admittedly, fixing our attention on Jesus is much easier when the road of life is smooth. Removing weights that hinder and sins that entangle can be more easily accomplished during times of ease. But how are we to forge ahead in the midst of great adversity? What can sufficiently motivate us to run this Christian race with endurance? When trials come, what will keep us from ‘throwing in the towel’?
The author of Hebrews points to two things: 1) the example of Jesus, and 2) the purpose of discipline.
Jesus knew adversity and “for the joy set before Him (He) endured the cross” for our sakes (12:2). Though the original readers of Hebrews had faced some adversity, the author gently reminds them, “you have not resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin” (12:4). Consider the example of Jesus “so that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (12:3).
The second thing that the author of Hebrews points us to in order to help us endure hardship is the purpose of discipline.
I want to be very careful when using the word discipline. The Greek word literally means “to instruct” or “to correct”. As the word is used here, we need to understand that discipline is NOT the same thing as punishment.
As a pastor, I have often heard people in the midst of adversity say, ‘I think God is punishing me’.
I want to share some good news with you: God’s people can never be punished for their sins.
God has punished all of our sins in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As our substitute, Christ has paid the full ransom for all of our wrongs. As a result, no child of God can be charged with guilt, because that guilt was long ago transferred to the shoulders of Christ (Spurgeon).
But yet, while we are exempt from punishment and immune from condemnation, we can still be disciplined. And while we shall never be arraigned like a criminal before a judge, we can expect to be corrected as a loving parent corrects their beloved child.
Describing the discipline of God our Father, Spurgeon writes, “Even though his brow may be ruffled, there is no anger in His breast; even though His eye may have closed upon thee, He hates thee not, He loves thee still.”
Or, as the author of Hebrews puts it, when God disciplines us He “treats (us) as (His) children” (12:7) and that “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness” (12:10).
Friends, do not look at adversity as punishment from God—God does not punish His children. And while all discipline for the moment seems painful (12:11), it is designed to make us like Christ.
Adversity should not surprise us. If the road to our eternal salvation required Christ to die for us, why would we ever imagine that the road to Christ-likeness would be an easy one?
You and I were saved to be like Christ. And, to this end, Christ will do whatever it takes to make us holy. Whatever it takes.
Friends, the heavenly spectators are watching. The angels and the first-born of those enrolled in heaven have gathered around.
Let us run the race set before us with endurance as we fix our eyes on Jesus—the author and perfecter of our faith. Amen.