Today is the Australian National Rugby League (Football) grand final. Some of the games in the finals have been exciting with teams winning by just one point. The aim of the game is to take the ball to the try line. The player with the ball keeps running towards the try line. This isn’t easy, because of obstacles in the form of being tackled by the opposition players. The players try their hardest until the end, because some teams that were behind during the game can turn the score around and finish up the winner. Although they may be tempted to give up when they are weary, they persevere to the end of the game.
What if the player with the ball stopped and refused to run even though they weren’t injured? What if they turned around and ran in the opposite direction?! This would be easier for the player because there would be no opposition, but a huge disappointment to the team, the coach and the supporters. They would think he had a mental breakdown or was a traitor.
In this article we are looking at Hebrews chapters 10-12, where the writer says that following Jesus is like running in a marathon where perseverance is required (which was familiar for his original readers). We will see that, because of the benefits of Jesus’ death and His promised coming again, we can keep following Him even when we feel like giving up.
Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13; 13:3). Because of their hardship and suffering, they were tired and weak (Heb. 12:3, 12-13). This also impacted their spiritual lives. They were being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish customs. They were spiritually weak.
As Hebrews was probably written to a church in about AD 67-70, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then.
Hebrews tells them what they needed to know and to do. In the first 10 chapters we saw that Jesus is greater than all the Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses and Joshua, and the priests. He is also greater than all our heroes, whoever they may be, including scientists, those promoting spiritual experiences, the leaders of nations and religions. Hebrews 1-10 finishes with showing how Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices and any good works we might think help us get to heaven.
Halfway through chapter 10 there is a change from doctrine to practice. Hebrews 10:19 onwards tells us what to do in view of the fact that Jesus is greater than all our heroes and that His sacrifice is greater than any of ours.
This passage begins with the word “therefore” and says they should persevere in the Christian faith (10:19, 34, 36, 38). Then in chapter 11 many examples are given of those who lived by faith in OT times. This is followed in chapter 12 by the word “therefore” once again and the key passage:
“Therefore, 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. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He 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 sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (12:1-3NIV)
Running with perseverance
Have you started the race? Have you ever decided to follow Jesus? There are several warnings about this in the book of Hebrews that we will cover in the next article of this series. Today, we are looking at those who have started but are being tempted to give up.
The main message here is to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us”. This metaphor says that our life as a Christian is like a running race. We are to be like an athlete who perseveres and doesn’t quit. The writer uses similar Greek words in:
• “you endured in a great conflict full of suffering” (10:32).
• “you need to persevere” to be rewarded at the end of the race (10:36).
• Jesus “endured the cross” (12:2)
• Jesus endured opposition from sinners (12:3).
• “Endure hardship” (12:7).
So endurance and perseverance is a major theme of these chapters.
The opposite of persevering in a race is to “grow weary and lose heart” and stop running (12:3). Paul said “my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). His goal was to encourage others to follow Jesus.
As we are to run with perseverance and endurance, it is not an easy jog. We must be ready to continue, persist, and keep going.
Eric Moussambani (the eel) from Equatorial Guinea struggled to swim 100m at the Sydney Olympics. The other two swimmers in his heat were disqualified so he swam it alone. He was very slow, but he finished the race. He persisted even though he wasn’t a good swimmer.
Do we give up following Jesus? Do we give up reading the Bible, praying, going to church? Or have we decided there will be “no turning back”, like it says in the song “Christ is enough”:
I have decided to follow Jesus; No turning back, no turning back
Hebrews gives three ways to keep following Jesus.
How to keep on running
By focusing on God & Jesus
Those who were to run with perseverance were to focus on Jesus – “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (12:2a). We don’t run in our own strength because Jesus creates and completes our faith. God works in us what is pleasing in His sight through Jesus (13:21). “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).
Jesus was sustained by the joy of the triumph at the end: “For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame” (12:2b). A runner is sustained by the reward at the end of the race. Our reward is to see God and be free from sin.
The pattern continues, “Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:3). Life was difficult for the Lord. As He said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20), so we will also face hardships. But when we realise that our hardships are small compared to His and He will help us endure, our attitude should be to never give up.
Chapter 10 says “since we have” a great sacrifice in Jesus and “since we have” a great High Priest on Jesus, “let us draw near to God” (10:19-22). There is a similar thought in “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (4:16).We can walk right up to God and get near to Him with confidence because Jesus has cleared the way. That’s how we can obtain all the help we need.
After all, Jesus came to earth to make a way for us to come to God – “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Pt. 3:18). That’s the good news in the Bible.
We know that God is always with us (Ps. 23:4; 13:5-6), but how can we “draw near” to Him? When we meditate on God’s word the Bible and pray to Him, we realize He is with us and cares for us. Hebrews says we come to Him with sincerity and assurance because we are clean and pure through salvation and holiness (10:19-22). We are urged to be holy because practical holiness is evidence of our positional holiness (12:14).
Then it says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (10:23). We trust in God’s promises given in the Bible. For example, Jesus promised to return to take us to be with Him eternally in heaven.
Next we see how this hope is to be expressed in our daily lives.
By encouraging one another
“Let us spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (10:24). We are urged to think about what we can do to stimulate others to love and good deeds. In what we say and do, we should encourage each other to put others above ourselves. This kind of love is expressed by good deeds and not giving up meeting together. It seems that some were deserting and abandoning Christianity and reverting to Judaism. Instead they were to encourage one another when they met together. This is mutual encouragement like in a small group. So the verse is saying to us, “not giving up meeting in small groups, as some are in the habit of doing” (10:25). What is your habit with regard to small groups? Do you attend regularly, intermittently or not at all?
Also, we are to live in peace with each other (12:14). We can’t encourage each other when there is conflict, strife and turmoil.
By removing obstacles
Chapter 12 says “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (12:1). This means throwing off not just sin that entangles us, but “everything that hinders”. How do we spend our time? How do certain people influence us? Ask: does it help me run the race; does it help me follow Jesus; do they help me run the race? Many things can hinder us following Jesus. We can throw them off by establishing boundaries and practicing discipline. Doing this encourages the “lame” who struggle in the Christian faith (12:13). We can be a living example for them.
Bethany Hamilton lost her arm in a shark attack and then leant to ride a surfboard again and competed in surfing competitions. She persevered in her hardship and God used her to encourage others in the Christian faith.
Do we use some of these ways to keep following Jesus when we are tempted to give up? Do we study and meditate on the Scriptures? How often do we pray? Do we trust God’s promises? Are we inspired by how Jesus faced opposition? Do we think about how to stimulate others to love and good deeds? Are we encouraging each other when we meet together? Are we in a small group? Do we know what hinders us following Jesus? Can we do something about it?
Hebrews also gives five reasons to keep following Jesus.
Why keep on running?
Because Jesus is the greatest example
The first 10 chapters showed that Jesus is greater than all our heroes. He is the only way to a relationship with God and has paid the price for access to heaven. He is the greatest example for us to follow (12:2-3). He empowers us (Phil. 4:13).
Because of other Biblical examples
Hebrews 11 gives many other examples of people who lived by faith in Old Testament times: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Samuel, David and the judges and prophets. They believed God’s promises and acted on them because “without faith it’s impossible to please God” (11: 6). “All these people were living by faith when they died” (11:13, 20-22). They finished the race. Their example is showing we can do it too. They persevered in hardship, persecution and suffering and looked forward to the Messiah and His kingdom. They had a passion for God, believing that He is better than what life can give us and what death can take from us.
The New Testament also has many examples of people who lived by faith like Stephen, Peter, John, Paul, and Timothy and those who taught the word of God in churches (13:7). Near the end of his life Paul said “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). He persevered to the end and didn’t give up.
Because of our past experience
They were told, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property” (10:32-34a).
Here they are reminded that they had endured persecution and suffering in the past. It’s an example of how they encouraged one another – by visiting their brothers and sisters who were in prison for their Christian faith. Because they had endured in the past, they could endure now. They needed to keep on living by faith. Previous experience can help us.
Because of God’s promises
How could they do this? It says they “joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (10:34b). Their spiritual blessings were more valuable than their physical possessions. They were encouraged to persevere because they will receive God’s promised reward (10:35-37). They were like Enoch who pleased God and not like those who displeased Him (10:37; 11:5-6).
Another promise to look forward to is the coming resurrection. This reason is given before the “therefore” at the beginning of chapter 12. None of the Old Testament heroes of the faith “received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (11:39-40). God plans to resurrect us together; the believers of the Old Testament and the New Testament periods. We will have new bodies in a glorious new age where sin and its effects are banished. That’s what we can look forward to!
Because adversity develops our character
Like Jesus, they were suffering persecution. It was “opposition from sinners” that threatened to make them “weary and lose heart” (12:3). It was painful, although none had lost their lives yet (12:4, 11). But they were discouraged.
They are told that the suffering is God’s discipline. “Do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as His son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as His children … God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in His holiness … it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (12: 5-7, 10, 11).
So God moulds our character in times of adversity. It’s because He loves us like a parent loves a child. It helps us, because it’s for our good, our holiness, our peace and our righteousness. It purifies us, refines us, and strengthens our faith (2 Cor. 1:8-9). He promises to bring good from all our hardship and pain. He is teaching us and correcting us and transforming us like a parent trains a child. It trains us like an athlete trains for a race. As a result we become more godly and Christ-like. But we need to persevere and not give up.
Then it says, “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed” (12:12-13). The explanation of suffering being God’s discipline is to help us keep on running the race. So we don’t give up or detour to an easier path. How we run affects weaker believers (“the lame”). Stronger faith smooths the path for them and helps them recover. To give up roughens their path so they trip and fall and become weaker and more disabled.
In 2002, Steven Bradbury won Australia’s first winter Olympic gold medal. In the 1,000m speed skating final he was the slowest skater. But he persisted and won after the other four skaters crashed. Bradbury’s strategy was to cruise behind his opponents and hope that some of them crashed, as he realised he was slower and could not match their pace.
Do we use some of these reasons to motivate us to keep following Jesus when we are tempted to give up? Are we inspired by the heroes in the Bible who followed God until they died? Are we inspired by Jesus who is the greatest of them all? Can we look back to previous times when we persevered in difficult circumstances? What is our attitude to hardship and suffering? Are we aware that God uses these to mould our character?
We have seen that following Jesus is like running in a marathon or in a rugby league game. Athletes and football players keep running through adversity.
We can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus, encouraging one another, and removing the obstacles that hinder us. The reasons we can keep following Jesus through adversity include: the examples of the heroes of the Bible, particularly Jesus; our past experience; God’s promises; and the fact that adversity develops our character.
So because of the benefits of Jesus’ death and His promised coming again, we can keep following Him even when we are tempted to give up.
Written, October 2014
Jesus is greater than – Heb. 1-10