NOTES on Hebrews
12:1-13 (click here for study)
The author of Hebrews took us, in chapter 11, through a condensed history of Israel. He began with the first human family, walked us through the formative years of the nation of Israel to the establishment of David's throne, and ended with examples of people who stood fast for their faith during the inter-testamental period. He now ties his history lesson to his exhortation which follows in chapter 12.
"Therefore," he says, "since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles"
The word "therefore" tells us that what he is about to say is directly related to what he has just said. "Considering of all these people I told you about who never gave up their faith," he might have said, "let us get rid of all our excuses and live our lives for Jesus."
These people of faith whom the author has just reviewed are not spectators passively watching us. They were active witnesses of the faith they had in the God they knew. We are not suddenly thrust into the world as independent Christ-followers. We come from a heritage of people of faith who lived before us and who are now in eternity where we will join them eventually. We can draw encouragement from their stories. We have their examples to give us courage as we steadfastly hold onto our faith in God.
Running the Race
Not only in this passage in Hebrews but also in many of his other epistles Paul refers to his life as a Christ-follower as "running the race". This metaphor or running a race and keeping on the course illustrates the idea of growing spiritually. Once a person has accepted Jesus, his experience is of limited value if he doesn't grow and deepen in the Lord. The metaphor of running is one of continuous progress. Paul only hints at stopping when he is facing the end of his life.
"the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith," he said. (2 Timothy 4:6-7) Only at his death did Paul stop running the race. As long as he was alive, he lived for Christ. His work, his running, was the continual presentation of the gospel. His admonitions to the Christians to whom he ministered were to stay on course and not to run the race in vain. He warned them not to let false teachings sneak up on them and get them off the track. (Galatians 5:6-8) He admonished them to be blameless and pure as they ran their race. (Philippians 2:14-16)
A Christ-follower realizes that there is only one way he or she can successfully run this race. It is impossible to stay on track unless one keeps his eyes and focus on Jesus. As soon as a person focuses on the task at hand or on the duties or obstacles one faces, he or she gets off course. As counter-intuitive as it seems, the only way to keep running the race and to finish it well is by not focusing on the race. The race is what flows out of us when our focus in on Jesus. He inspires us, brings us our work, and strengthens us with His authority and perseverance and wisdom.
A Christ-follower runs the race by living by the Spirit. When we give up to God our "right" to control our lives, we begin to perceive the Holy Spirit's communication with us. He gives us the awareness of things we need to do and things we need to change. He gives us the desire to forsake pockets of darkness in our lives so they will not conflict with God's light in us. He gives us a desire to be accountable to him, the One who loves us, instead of to an external standard of laws and behaviors. He makes us aware of our character flaws and plants in us a desire to become whole.
Keeping our eyes on Jesus means submitting our dreams and fears and plans to him. It means opening our hearts to receive his insight and wisdom. It means beginning to live by God's direction and in obedience to God's timetable instead of pushing our own agendas.
Running the race without swerving off course is possible only when we allow the Holy Spirit to help us grow from the inside out. Successfully staying on track means we don't shrink from the discipline and growth God brings to us. Finishing successfully means we allow the Holy Spirit to give us a new birth and to mature us in Him as long as we live.
Author and Perfecter
We keep our eyes on Jesus because he is both the Author and the Finisher, or Perfecter, of our faith. Jesus is the source of our faith. He is the one who took onto himself the entire responsibility for our sin and salvation, and as part of that whole miracle, he makes our own faith possible. Even the faith we express in Jesus is a gift from him. Our fallen humanity would not naturally have faith in God because we are separated from him. As part of his restoring us to himself, however, Jesus puts faith in our hearts.
When Peter healed a crippled beggar, throwing the people into shocked astonishment, the apostle deflected their attention to Jesus. "It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see," he said to them. (Acts 3:16)
It is our faith "that comes through him" that enables us to trust Jesus and to realize eternal life.
Not only is Jesus the Source of our faith, he is also the Perfecter of our faith. He is the one who brings about our transformation and the one who helps our hearts grow in faith in him. He is the one who calls us to a relationship with him, and he loves and nurtures us into increasing intimacy with him.
Jesus went to the cross "for the joy set before him." (v. 2) For Jesus, joy was restoring us to intimacy with him. He made possible our eternal security and our glorification, and these things were joy to him. It is joy to Jesus to be continuously interceding for us with his Father. (Romans 8:34)
Jesus sits at his Father's right hand. He sits because his work is complete. Our salvation is accomplished; Satan's power has been broken. (Col. 2:15) "Angels, authorities, and powers [are] in submission to him." (1 Peter 3:22)
Our salvation is not in any way dependent upon us. We cannot "buy into the plan". Salvation is the gift of God. Our security is counter-intuitive. Jesus did all the work; we receive the rewards. We have to let go of our arrogance which keeps us from wanting anyone to do anything for us. We have to submit our hearts and allow his love to save us.
Sons of God
The author exhorts us not to "grow weary" or to "lose heart". (v. 3) It is only by keeping our attention focused on Jesus that we can run the race and not grow weary.
"Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart," the Hebrews writer says. (v.3)
If we keep our focus on Jesus, we will have supernatural strength. "The Lord will not grow wearyHe gives strength to those who hope in him." (see Isaiah 40:28-31)
If we turn from honoring the law, the external code of conduct, and instead open our hearts and feelings to Jesus, he will transform us. (see 2 Corinthians 3:15-4:1) The normal human weariness that usually impedes people fades as Jesus' strength and authority give us exactly what we need for the work he gives us to do. He not only gives us our work, he gives us the gifts of his Spirit to do the work he places before us.
The Hebrew Christians were suffering for their faith. This writer reminds them, however, that they haven't suffered to the point of death. They had been publicly insulted and persecuted for their belief in Jesus, and they had supported others through the same kinds of suffering. They had supported those who had been imprisoned, and they had lost their property because of their faith.
In short, Christ-followers can expect suffering and misunderstanding for the sake of the gospel. But we are to see these hardships as proof of our status as God's sons and daughters. Fathers do not discipline children that are not theirs for two reasons. First, they have no authority over those children. If an adult who had no relationship with a child tried to discipline that child, the child would feel no responsibility to respond. In fact, such impersonal discipline would feel like abuse instead of correction. Second, an adult without a relationship with a child does not feel responsible for him or her. Only a sense of responsibility and a sense of relationship give an adult the desire and the love to discipline a child.
We can know that the hardships in our lives are their to help us understand reality more completely and to grow in grace and faith. Even when things come to us with malicious intent, God transforms them into episodes of grace and revelations of his love when we are his children.
Our earthly fathers are the fathers of our bodies. When we accept Jesus, however, God becomes "the Father of our spirits." When God places his Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers, they literally become new creations. They have a new understanding of reality. Eternity begins to make more sense. The mind of Christ begins to unfold in them. Their identity changes. No longer are they defined by their heritage, talents, or accomplishments. Instead, they are defined by Jesus as sons of God.
When the Holy Spirit enters us, our spirits, which were separated from God from before our birth, become reconnected to him, and we become alive in Christ. We become one with God. We become awake to the spiritual reality of God's power, of Jesus' transforming love and grace, of the Holy Spirit's inspiration. We become not just physically alive but spiritually alive. Our new birth is mediated by our Father, God. He is the one who generates our new life. He is the Father of our Spirits.
Ministry of Restoration
When we experience God's discipline and accept it instead of fighting it, we become transformed. If we experience hardships as situations to be avoided or rationalized, the places in us that need healing will remain broken. The only way we can grow from God's discipline is to walk through, not around, the problem. If we take Jesus through it with us, his love redeems the situation and causes it to become a source of life and health instead of oppression and bitterness.
When we embrace the love of Jesus in our sufferings and learn to trust him, our suffering becomes transformed into a source of comfort we can give to others. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5) When we submit to God's discipline, we discover he gives us life in our spirits. (Isaiah 38:15-17) We also discover he fills us with peace and quietness forever. (Is. 32:17) We experience a new birth into living hope and find an "inheritance that cannot spoil." We also discover that through faith we are shielded by God's peace. (1 Peter 1:3-4) Further, when we trust him in his discipline of us, we discover that we have everything we need for life and godliness, and we begin to participate in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:3-4) We receive wisdom from above that is pure and peace-loving, and we begin to reap "a harvest of righteousness." (James 3:17-18)
When we learn to receive hardships as God's discipline, we no longer think of ourselves as victims. Instead, we can be strong and confident, living with victory and sensitivity to others' sufferings instead of becoming paralyzed by our trauma.
"Therefore," says Hebrews 12:12, "strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 'Make level paths for your feet,' so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed."
The refining we experience through God's love during the struggles in our lives gives us maturity and insight qualifying us to minister to our brothers who are suffering. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we have the mind of Christ which enables us to judge all things. (1 Corinthians 15-16) We also have the responsibility to help our brothers who are being tempted or persuaded by sin. We are to show our brother his fault and win him over, Jesus said. (Matthew 18:15) We are also to extend mercy and "restore gently" a brother who has been caught in sin and disciplined. (Galatians 6:1) Further, having experienced first-hand the redemptive discipline of God, we are to forgive and comfort those around us who are going through similar circumstances. (2 Corinthians 2:5-7)
God wants to meet us in our trials. The sufferings of life are too big for us to handle on our own. The pain and brokenness we experience is powerful enough to destroy us. It has the power to twist our souls into fountains of anger, bitterness, and depression. Our sufferings have the potential to destroy us physically and spiritually. Unless we experience God as the Father of our spirits, our pain will leave us crippled.
Only a new birth into our true heritage as sons and daughters of God will redeem our sufferings and bring us peace and wisdom instead of defeat and bitterness. The promised Holy Spirit will change our panic into perseverance and our depression into hope.
Jesus is asking you to stop turning away from the difficulties in your life. He wants you to stop rationalizing them and face the truth about your circumstances. He wants you to acknowledge how devastating your problems may be. He wants you to admit how threatened you are by things that are out of your control. He wants you to understand your own denial and self-protection that help to keep your problems from being resolved.
Whatever you are experiencing, God wants to help you to face it truthfully. He wants you to trust him to hold you up with his love as you acknowledge your own sinful reactions to your suffering. He wants you to see how you are trying to avoid pain by avoiding your problem or the truth about it. He wants you to persevere, walking fully and confidently into the pain and embracing the reality of your circumstances. He wants you to trust him to love you and to surprise you with his peace and his redemption as you embrace the truth of your life.
Jesus is asking you not to hold anything back from him. He is asking you to submit before him, opening your heart to the feelings you fear. Jesus is asking you to trust him when you cannot see any possible solution. He is asking you to stop managing details to avoid the hugeness of your suffering. He is asking you to experience your fear and brokenness and to let him into it. He is asking you to give up everything, including your own righteous image of your own motives. He is asking you to open your tight grip on the things you fear losing, letting go of them and trusting them to His love.
Only when you let go of the things you love can Jesus' love fill your emptiness. The things you clutch cannot fill your void. Only Jesus can do that. Only when you let go of everything and let Jesus be enough will you be able to receive back from him the things he wants you to have in your life. When you allow Jesus to be the center of your attention, no matter what circumstances you face, he will bring to you relationships that he has blessed. He will bring healing to your soul and even to your body, and he will give you knowledge of the truth about your life that will no longer overwhelm you. When you give up your grasp on your memories and your fears, Jesus can enter them and transform them. When you allow yourself to know the truth about your life, Jesus will redeem it and bring you peace. When you no longer run from your suffering, Jesus can heal you.
Let the peace of God dwell in you richly. Let the victory of Jesus bring life to your dying heart. Let the ministry of the Holy Spirit transform your suffering into joy.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised November 1, 2001.