Second Reformed Church

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Surrounded. Run for Joy" Sermon: Hebrews 12:1-2


“Surrounded.  Run for Joy”

[Hebrews 12:1-2]

January 19, 2014 Second Reformed Church

            We are surrounded.  And since we are, the author of the letter to the Hebrews says we ought to run for joy.

            Verses one and two of Hebrews 12 are arguably the second conclusion of the argument that the author has been making throughout the eleventh chapter of his book, so let us keep the whole of the eleventh chapter before us in our minds as we consider this second conclusion.

            We considered last week that the eleventh chapter is a response and encouragement to the first century Christians who were suffering at the hands of Rome and the non-believing Jews.  The author goes to great lengths to call them away from turning back to the Old Testament Sacrificial System and argues that since we have faith, since we have examples of faith from the believers enumerated in the Scripture, since we understand that a true faith can lead to earthly victory or misery, depending on the Will of God, since we have received the historical fulfillment of the Gospel in Jesus, and since God is bringing the whole Church to glory in the Kingdom – “therefore” –

            We can conclude this section with the following doctrines:

            First, we are surrounded by the faithful who have died.

            Second, we are in a spiritual race of endurance.

            Third, we are to patiently strive towards the Kingdom and God’s Righteousness.

            Fourth, we are to find our assurance for this race in Jesus.

            Fifth, we are to run for joy.

            Sixth, we are to submit to and recognize Jesus as our Sovereign King.

First, we are surrounded by the faithful who have died.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,”

As we read through the eleventh chapter of Hebrews and consider all these men and women of the faith and their examples of living a life of faith – looking to them as examples and encouragement to us and our faith, believing in the Savior Who was to come and now has – Jesus, we do well to remember that these witnesses – these martyrs – are not dead – they are alive.  Of course they have not been reunited with their physical bodies, but they are alive, in the presence of Jesus, our God and Savior.  As Jesus promised the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43b, ESV).  All those who have lived and died in the faith are with Jesus now – alive.

And, as our text tells us, they are surrounding us like a cloud.  We had a couple of foggy days recently, and if you drove through it, you were surrounded by a cloud.  That is the image we are to get – we are thickly surrounded by the faithful who have died.

What does that mean?  Is this room filled with those faithful who have died?  Certainly not in the Hollywood sense of a place being haunted.  But, in some way, we are truly surrounded by all of the saints who have come before us, and they see all of we who believe, throughout the world.  I won’t speculate here on how that is possible, but we ought to recognize that those believers who have gone on before us are here – surrounding us – and they see us.

Why?  What are they doing?  Again, get Hollywood out of your mind – we are not being haunted – they are not “after us” in any sense.  What they are doing is watching us live by faith, and they are rejoicing in our faith and belief and obedience, and they are applauding us in joy and thanksgiving to God, as we make our way through this life as followers of Jesus.

            Second, we are in a spiritual race of endurance.

“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,”

The author of Hebrews compares the life of faith with a race of endurance.

He begins by telling us that if you are going to run a race, you want to have as little extra weight on you as possible – we want to remove everything that would impede our being able to run – we don’t want to be slowed down by anything.

The implication of the language is that we want to be able to run the race as best as we can and we want to lay aside everything that could possibly hinder us.  As men and women of faith, we want to disengage ourselves from anything that will delay our spiritual progress.  In love for Christ, we are willing to set aside anything that will keep us from Him and from being obedient to Him.

The “weights” that we are to lay aside are anything in our life – even if it is not sinful in-and-of itself – that slows down our spiritual progress.  And these things may be different from person to person.

As we consider what God has said about being faithful and obedient – in pursuing holiness – we may find that we have to give up a boyfriend or girlfriend, we may have to remain single, or we may have to find a spouse.  We may have to give up a job, or pass up a promotion, or give away a large percentage of our money.  We may have to leave our parents’ home, or go to another country.  Even if something is not a sin in itself – like being married or single, or having any particular job or any particular salary – if, for you, it is a weight that keeps you from following God and running the race as well as possible – you must give it up.

We may remember Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler:

“And behold, a man came up to [Jesus] saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:16-22, ESV).

What weight did the young man need to lay aside?  His possessions.  Why?  We are not explicitly told.  He may have loved money and things – it may have been an issue of sin for him, but the fact of the matter is, his possessions were a weight which he needed to give away if he was to run the race of faith well.  Would we be willing to give up all of our stuff if we knew it would allow us to run the race of faith better?  Would we be willing to give up any thing if we knew it would allow us to run the race of faith better?

Besides whatever weight you or I might be carrying, the author of Hebrews tells us to lay aside our sin.  Even as Christians, our sin nature is not completely gone – we sin – and we have indwelling sins – sins that we particularly enjoy and frequent.  And our sin is the heaviest weight we can carry.

Paul writes, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (II Corinthians 7:1, ESV).

We are to remove sin from us – we are to engage in mortification – in putting our sins to death, by knowing our weakness and watching for when and where we tend to sin – doing everything we can to avoid those things which lead us into sin and holding fast to the Holy Spirit, looking for that way of escape that God has always made for us so we don’t have to ever sin and take that way of escape – by the Power of God, the Holy Spirit, resist temptation – flee from the devil.  We need to look at ourselves and identify our sins and do everything we can to subvert them – to keep ourselves from entering into them again.

And, no, it’s not easy – it will be a fight until the day we die.  But Jesus died for our sins – and if we believe that, we ought to understand that we are spitting in His face – just as the soldiers did – if we choose to sin.  If we love Jesus, we must do everything we can to lay aside sin and not do it – find a friend you can partner with, to pray with, and to receive encouragement from.

And take encouragement from all those men and women of faith that we have record of who are now around us, watching us, cheering us on as we run our race, looking forward to the day when the whole Church of God will be together in the presence of Jesus in the Kingdom.

And let us take time to prepare for the race – even as we run.  It would be foolish and disastrous for me to try to run a marathon this week – I not in shape for it – I have not prepared.  Similarly, we have to prepare if we are to endure the race.

Part of our preparation is identifying those weights and sins which we must deny ourselves that we might run well.  But we also need to train positively; we need to be reading the Word of God, being in worship with our brothers and sisters, being encouraged and being an encouragement in the faith.  We ought to be learning what God has said and how to be stronger and more prepared to race.  We ought to memorize God’s Word, or at least know it well enough to find it in time of need.  We ought to develop relationships with fellow Christians that we can rely on each other and run together and encourage one another and to lift each other up as we fall or experience pain.

I have never run a race – except in gym a long time ago – but, if you race or do any kind of exercise, you know it hurts.  There is pain as we train our bodies and work with them to become stronger and able to sustain more.  And if any one of us endures long enough, we will feel pain.

Pain tells us that something is going on – it could mean something is wrong, or it could be part of the process of becoming better.  When we exercise properly and our muscles hurt, it is because they are going through a process of becoming stronger.

Paul explains that the whole Creation is experiencing pain as we race to the finish-line:   “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23, ESV).

I have never given birth to a child, but I understand it is very painful.  Yet, mothers for thousands of years have endured the pain to get to the finish line of birth.  I would be surprised if, after Rebekah endures delivery, she says that little Zerubbabel was not worth it.  We endure, because the prize is worth the pain.  Especially in the realm of faith, no matter what we suffer for the sake of Christ, it is worthwhile because of the prize of Christ and His salvation.

That’s what the author of Hebrews is trying to impress upon the readers of his letter:  get rid of those things that weight you down, stop sinning, and understand that you will suffer as a Christian, but enduring through it is worth what we receive in the end.  Remember what Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:18-20, ESV).

And yet, Paul writes, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV).

The worst that we endure for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom will be nothing compared to the glory that we receive when we finish the race – when we are received into the fullness of the Kingdom.  The race, laying aside weights and sin, and enduring, are worth it all.

            Third, we are to patiently strive towards the Kingdom and God’s Righteousness.

            This leads us to conclude – if whatever we have to endure for the sake of Christ in living and maturing and racing this life of faith – we ought to do so patiently.  That is, we are to run the race – not passively, not lazily – but with the greatest striving after the Kingdom and God’s Righteousness.

After Jesus addresses the fact that we ought not to be anxious about the things that we need, He says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33, ESV).  Seek the reality of God’s Sovereign Rule over all of Creation and seek holiness in Him – this is to be our first and chief striving – not for food and clothes and homes.

And Paul explains, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (I Corinthians 9:24-27, ESV).

We are engaged in a competition to receive a prize.  Just as someone involved in a race or in a boxing match will fight and run to the best of his ability, pacing himself, getting back up, monitoring himself and using all that he has to the best and most efficient way that he might win, so we are to continue on – never giving up, looking at the saints, remembering they are around us, keeping the goal before us that God has set.

            Fourth, we are to find our assurance for this race in Jesus.

“looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,”

In reality, despite the greatness of the prize and the encouragement of the saints around us, we cannot find our assurance of enduring to the end in ourselves or in those around us, because we are all sinners.  We will all fall.  We will all stumble in the race.

However, we can be assured that all we who believe in Jesus Alone for salvation will endure to the end of the race, because Jesus is both the Founder and the Perfecter of our faith.  What does that mean?

It means two things: 

First, our faith is not ours; it is a gift from God.  As Paul explains: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV).  Anyone who has faith – the ability to receive the Word of God and believe it – has it because God gave it to him.  If you have faith, God gave you faith.  We do not naturally have faith – due to Original Sin.

But not only that, it means, second, that God will bring us all the way to the end of the race.  As Paul explains: “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (I Corinthians 3:11-15, ESV).  All those who have been given the gift of faith will endure until the end because our Foundation and Perfecter is Jesus.

So, we are to continually look at Jesus as we run the race of faith – we are to be in an ongoing act of faith and trust directed at Jesus, knowing that in looking at Him – in relying on Him, we will receive the aid and the assistance we need to make it to the end through the Holy Spirit Who God has sent to indwell all we who believe.

Since that is true:

            Fifth, we are to run for joy.

“who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame,”

Although we ought to expect to endure through suffering for the sake of Christ in this life, He suffered more greatly than we can comprehend as He endured the cross.  Jesus could have refused to go to the cross – God did not have to promise and make the Way for sinners to become right with God.  But God chose to love us and save us – to endure – literally – Hell for our sins on the cross – on top of it being the most horrific way to die that man has created.

And we might wonder why He did it?  Why did Jesus endure the cross?

The author of Hebrews gives us what seems to be a curious and mysterious answer:  “for the joy that was set before Him.”  Jesus endure the worst suffering imaginable, multiplied by the fact that He is the Holy God Who was despised by His Creation and His taking on the penalty for the sins of all we who would believe – for joy –

The joy that was set before Him was the glorious end of bringing the Gospel to its completion.  The joy that was set before Him was the glory of God in the salvation of the Church – the purpose and plan of the Godhead from before the Creation.

If God knows everything, why did He create us, knowing that we would sin and require that God come to earth as a human being as our Substitute that we would be right with Him?  Why would God plan for all this horror and pain – especially to His Holy Self? 

Because the joy He would receive in the end result of bringing a people to glory was greater than not doing it.  God created everything that is and endured suffering for we who believe because the end of it all would be greater joy for God than if He did not.

Then what does it mean to say that He “despised the shame”?

It is strangely worded in English – what we are being told is that Jesus did not collapse under the shame – He was not overwhelmed or undone by the shame of enduring the cross.

Instead, He has become an example for us, as our Elder Brother – that we are to endure whatever God sees fit to bring to us for the sake of Christ – for the joy that we will receive in His Presence in the Kingdom.

Paul writes, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16-17, ESV).

We are promised that we will suffer – in one way or another – for Christ.  Yet, we are promised that such suffering confirms that we are sons and daughters with Christ – heirs of the Kingdom of God.

However, as we have said before, that does not mean that we are to seek out suffering, but to understand it and endure it for the sake of Christ when it comes.  As James writes, “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11, ESV).

            Sixth, we are to submit to and recognize Jesus as our Sovereign King.

“and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

We are given this image of Christ as seated – that He has completed the work of the Gospel – and that He is seated at the Right Hand of God – that He is the Sovereign Authority over all of Creation.  Jesus is reigning – now.

Jesus is not inactive or asleep – He is reigning over the Creation.  He is with that great cloud of witnesses, and He – with them – is watching us run the race of faith.  But Jesus, as our God and Savior, is not merely watching and rejoicing in our trust and obedience as we receive the Word of God, but He is there at the finish line to give us aid and assistance on the way – and to hold before us Himself as the great and glorious reward toward which we are running.  Jesus is the judge of the race, and all we who believe in Him will endure to the end – we will complete the race, because Jesus is Sovereign and will not let one of His fall away. As Jesus prayed, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12, ESV).

The author of Hebrews sought to encourage suffering Christians to hold fast to their faith and not turn back to the Old Testament Sacrificial System.  In the eleventh chapter, and into the twelfth, we have seen him argue what faith is and what it means for we who believe in Jesus.

He explains that we are surrounded by the faithful who have died.

We are in a spiritual race of endurance.

We are to patiently strive towards the Kingdom and God’s Righteousness.

We are to find our assurance for this race in Jesus.

We are to run for joy.

And we are to submit to and recognize Jesus as our Sovereign King.

If we understand faith as he has explained it, and we believe that the saints are alive, cheering us on, with Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, we can run and endure and continue in faith and trust of Jesus Who is the Joy of the faithful’s life.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, Yours is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever.  We look to You for salvation and ask that we would remember these things about faith that You have taught us in the book of Hebrews.  Help us to keep before us the Joy of being part of the plan that You chose to bring about from before the foundation of the world.  In our life and in our death, in our praise and in our cries, may You be glorified, and may our faith strengthen.  In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

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