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Sermon preached on Hebrews 12:1-3 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/30/2018 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“For the Joy”
We have a race set before us! It’s the race of faith that ends in glory. On the other hand, to not finish the race means destruction. And so, today’s passage returns to directly make the exhortation that’s been at the heart of this letter to the Hebrews. It’s the call for perseverance. It’s the call to endure in the Christian faith. After that glorious chapter 11 with the faith exemplified by so many saints of old, he tells us what we should take from that. We should be encouraged in our own race of faith to not give up but keep running until the end.
So then, we begin today’s passage by observing that there are obstacles out there that would hinder our finishing the race. Verse 1 mentions two kinds of things we must lay aside if we are going to effectively run this race to the end. I’ll mention the second one first: sin. Sin is when we break God’s laws either by not doing what we are supposed to be doing or by doing what we are not supposed to be doing, i.e. sins of “omission” or “commission”. Hebrews describes such sin as ensnaring, or possibly entrapping. The Greek word has been a bit challenging for translators to be specific in their translation, but the general idea seems pretty clear. It’s the idea, when using the running analogy, that you are running along and, suddenly, your foot gets stuck in something or tripped up over it. Like you trip in a pothole or over some obstacle in the road, or fall into some pit or something along the way. The point is that the sin hinders you from moving forward in the race of faith. And not only that, notice that the translation says that it easily does this. The Greek word has a prefix on it that brings out this nuance. Sin doesn’t just ensnare us, it easily ensnares us!
I think this is an important reminder today. As much as we affirm salvation is by grace and not by works, this is nonetheless true. Similarly, as much as we affirm God’s sovereignty in our salvation, that he works in us to draw us to faith and preserve us in faith, this is nonetheless true. In other words, our sin can either slow us down or even stop us on this race of faith. This truth isn’t dealing with justification or the five points of Calvinism. Those doctrines are true in themselves. This is dealing with the simple reality of sin. Remember what James 1 says about sin. James starts first with temptation and desire, and how it can lead to sin, and that sin when it is full grown can lead to death. And so, the reality is that sin can become the path to the apostasy described in Hebrews. It’s like the parable of the sower when the seed falls in the thorny ground, that there are things that can choke out the growing seed so that it doesn’t bear fruit. The temptation for us as Protestants is to say that because we are saved by grace and not works that we can fall into the temptation of not taking sin serious enough in our life. But as the saying goes, if you play with fire you will get burned. And so, as Protestants we should look to flee from sin not to be justified but because we have been justified by the blood of Christ. Likewise, the temptation for us Calvinists is to think that God’s sovereignty means we can just sit back and let God keep us from sin, but that’s not Calvinism, that’s hyper-Calvinism. Instead, we should remember that God’s sovereignty is generally worked out through means and it will surely be you resisting sin and clinging to the faith that will demonstrate that you are in fact the elect of God. Let us then acknowledge the dangers of sin and look to put our various sins off each day and put on in their place the godly equivalents. This is part of running the race, just like if you run a marathon you have to be keeping your eyes open for obstacles and pitfalls.
And yet the verse mentions that in addition to sin, we also need to get rid of any extra weights that would hinder us in the race. As an analogy goes, I think of this with my ice hockey playing. I can definitely make a connection between my weight and my performance on the ice. If I’ve not been disciplined in my eating and put on some extra weight, it noticeably slows me down. I would imagine for runners that would be the case too. You don’t see people trying to win a race carry extra weights on them. But the point of the analogy here is that there are things that are not strictly sin that can affect your running of the race. There can be things that aren’t an explicit violation of one of God’s commands but can derail you from your walk with Christ. I remember that the parable of the sower mentions that some of thorns might simply be the cares of this world. What are those things that have been weighing you down in your Christian walk? Keep in mind, what weighs you down might not affect everyone the same way. For some people, they so invest themselves in their earthly jobs at the expense of doing other important things in their life, such as cultivating their faith. Getting a good night’s sleep is not a sinful thing, but if you always trade ten more minutes of sleep instead of starting your day in the Word and prayer then maybe too much sleep is weighing you down in your Christian walk. Social media is not inherently sinful but maybe for some people its just not good for their sanctification and they need to unplug. I trust you get the point and encourage you to spend some time reflecting on what might be weighing you down. If so, go on a spiritual diet to lighten the load and make sure you’re not hindering your race of faith with those things.
I’ll point you to briefly one last hindrance in the race before we turn to consider some helps for the race. It’s what we see mentioned in verse 3: the weariness and discouragement that comes in the face of Christian suffering. This will be a topic addressed more next time as we keep going in this chapter. But the point is also mentioned as well in the parable on the sower; that’s the situation when the seed falls on rocky ground. When suffering comes it can cause some people to give up on the faith. And yet as we see so much in Scripture, the Christian can’t avoid suffering. There is surely at least some Christian persecution along the route that this race follows. And yet this passage not only makes us aware of this difficulty. It is also at the heart of what these helps are trying to address that are presented to us in this passage.
So then, we turn now to see the helps described here for us Christians as we run this race of faith. The first help mentioned is to point us back to the last chapter. Verse 1 describes the great cloud of witnesses that surround us. It’s referring to all the saints we saw in chapter 11 that did so many great things by faith. To clarify, to call them witnesses is not saying that they are standing there watching us, looking to witness what we’ll do. Rather, it’s like how last chapter said that God witnessed of them and their faith and commended for their faith. They in turn stand as witnesses to us in the sense that they testify to the value of faith. It’s like being in a courtroom where one Old Testament saint after another takes the bench and gives eye witness testimony to the value of keeping faith in God and his promise, no matter what troubles and obstacles might come up.
If we stop and think about such testimony, we remember that different aspects of the life of faith could be emphasized. We can think of faith that expressed itself in obedience to God. We can also think of faith that found victories over enemies in this life. But we can also think of some of challenges they face. For example, we can especially think of how chapter 11 ended with so many saints who kept the faith even though they experienced much suffering and persecution. Things won’t always be easy for the believer, as verse 3 in today’s passage reminds us. We can also remember how these saints of old didn’t run the race of faith perfectly themselves either. We can think of some of the weights that they carried when they shouldn’t have and their sins that tripped them up too. But that certainly helps us relate to them when we see some our same struggles in them but find that they kept the faith and finished the race. And so, in both their successes and their struggles, their lives of faith speak to us today to help encourage us. It’s like how back in 10:25 Christians were told we need to keep meeting together to spur each other on and encourage one another to endure in the faith. Well, these Old Testament saints still speak to you today to encourage you in the same way.
Well, though these saints of old are a great help for our race, verses 2 and 3 calls our attention to a witness that stands above them all. We are pointed to none other than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Verse 2 calls us to look unto him. Verse 3 calls us to consider him. Well, he’s described in the grand and overarching terms of being the Author and Finisher of our faith. Let us then look at and consider this Author and Finisher of our faith and find help in our race of faith. I have three related aspects I want us to consider about Jesus being this author and finisher of our faith. The first aspect is to point you to him as the supreme example for our own race of faith. This is not saying enough of course, to just call him an example. But he is indeed an example, though more. Look at how that is described here. It points first in verse 2 about his enduring the shame of the cross. Verse 3 describes that as his enduring hostility from sinners. And so, these verses present you how Christ’s life first involved suffering and trial and tribulation. But then look at the end. Verse 2 notes that after such suffering, that he has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. In other words, Jesus’ own life on earth was one that involved suffering first then glory. Jesus in Luke 24 had to rebuke the disciples because they were surprised of the reports of his resurrection. Jesus said they should have expected that because that’s what the Bible repeatedly foretold of the Messiah, that he would have to suffer first and then he would enter into glory. And so, Jesus’ example is certainly the paradigm for our own. We should not think it strange if we find suffering in this life. In fact, Jesus said to expect such tribulation from the world in John 16:33. But he said to take heart because he has overcome the world. What he has already done is meant to show us what our future holds as well as we hold fast in faith. So, this is one aspect of him being the author and finisher of the faith: in that he was the first to really live out the Christian faith in the full from start to finish. In our union with Christ, our life of suffering then glory finds its root in Christ’s own life of suffering then glory.
The second aspect about Jesus being this author and finisher of the faith is that it refers to how Jesus has accomplished redemption. I believe in context this is really the most explicit point in view here. In other words, if I had to say just one thing about what Hebrews means here about Jesus being the author and finisher of our faith, this is what I would say. This describes how Jesus has secured our salvation from the start to the finish. The language used here is very similar in the Greek to several other places in Hebrews, where we see the point being made of Jesus accomplishing our redemption. For example, in Hebrews 2:10 it talks of Jesus being the author of our salvation and being perfected through his sufferings. Or, to bring out the similar language, you might translate that Jesus as the author of our salvation finished that salvation through his sufferings. Hebrews 2:10 there pairs nicely with our text for today because its context highlights his completing salvation through the cross followed by the ascension to God’s right hand. That’s obviously the same thing our passage today is highlighting: suffering then glory. Likewise, we the same sort of pairing back in Hebrews 1:4 where it spoke of Jesus making purification for our sins and then sitting down at God’s right hand. That was again a reference to Jesus’ accomplishing our redemption first through the cross and then ascending to God’s right hand in heaven. It’s at the cross where he suffers in the shedding of his blood to pay for our sins. It’s then in the heavenly tabernacle that he presents that offering of his sacrifice to God the father and then intercedes for us to make atonement for our sin. So, its in all this that our redemption has been accomplished. Of course, we can think of the final accomplishment of our redemption as it’s related to Jesus’ second coming. As we were told in Hebrews 9:28 he came the first time to deal with sin, but he will come the second time to bring us people of faith into the completion of our salvation. And so, Jesus authors and finishes the very substance of our faith. That’s what our faith is ground upon.
And so, this is offered here in our passage to again help us in running the race of faith. We need to keep our eyes on what this is all about. If our faith wasn’t rooted in Jesus’ accomplished redemption, then why bother running the race? There are many noble causes to put your energy into in this life, but none save the Christian faith are rooted in such. Why be willing to go “all in” to the Christian faith, even being willing to stand up under persecution and suffering? Because, in Christ I am saved from eternal damnation and have the sure hope of a great reward and a blessed eternal inheritance in the age to come. Whereas if I give up in the race of faith, and fall away from Christ, I would only have in store a certain fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation. So then, since Jesus has secured such a glorious redemption let us hold fast in faith to the one who has authored and finished that faith.
I point us to a final aspect about Jesus being this author and finisher of the faith in the sense that he applies this redemption to us (especially through his Word and Spirit). I would clarify that I don’t think this is the explicit point being made here. But in light of the context of all of Hebrews, I think we are right to see that in view here too. Think about what we have learned in Hebrews. Back in chapter 1, we were told of how God in these last days has spoken to us through his Son. Hebrews 3 goes on to talk about Jesus being the Apostle of our confession – our faith. So then, how do we begin to have faith? How is that faith first authored within us? It’s got to begin by God’s Word being revealed to us, and Hebrews says that happens chiefly to us through Jesus, the great Apostle of our faith. That’s one way that we can think of Jesus being the author of our faith in terms of how it is authored within us.
Well, how is it that our faith is finished or perfected within us? How is it that we’ll stand fast until the end? Ultimately, we will have to rely again on Jesus for that. Isn’t that what Hebrews has been telling us? Wasn’t that the point of him being our great high priest? That he having experienced all sorts of sufferings and temptations is able to aid us now as we go through temptations and sufferings ourselves (2:18)? So, we are called to draw near with confidence to the throne of grace and receive help from Jesus there on high at the right hand of God. So, in terms of finishing and perfecting our faith, we realize that we rely on Jesus for that as well.
And so, this doctrinal truth should encourage us in the race of the Christian faith. Jesus is the reason we believe and the reason we will keep believing until the end. That should tell us not to give us. If you’ve ever been running an actual, physical race you might start to grow fatigued as you are running along. You might literally wonder if you can make it to the end. Well, I can’t give you any hope that you’ll finish an earthly race. But as we are reminded again today that the sustaining of our faith is in Jesus, then you can be assured that you can finish the race of faith in Christ. In other words, this points us to find our strength to finish the race not in ourselves, but in Christ. Look to him for help and sustenance in this amazing race.
Well, brothers and sisters, I hope today you’ve been blessed by the Word in thinking both of the hindrances and the helps that are there for running the race of the Christian faith. In conclusion, I would like to point you to the motivation we see behind all of this. Look at verse 2. Why did Jesus do all that he did in securing our salvation? For the joy set before him. For the joy set before him. Yes, surely part of that joy set before him was the ascension to the father’s right hand. And yet, if that’s all that the joy was about, then Jesus never should have come to earth in the first place. He already sat with his father in ascended, heavenly glory before the incarnation. And so, the joy that was set before him had to include something more than that. It included us. For the joy of redeeming us unto himself. For the joy of purchasing and sanctifying a beautiful, holy bride for himself. For the joy of communing with us his treasured possession now and especially in the glory of the world to come. For the joy of saving us and us being his, he did all that he did.
May we then do what we do in this race of faith for the joy set before us. One day we will see our Lord and Savior face to face. One day we will be presented to him as a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing. One day we will feast with him in glory, in a place where there is no longer any pain or sorrow. Whatever trials and troubles come in this life, for this joy set before us, it is worth it. For we know that our relatively light afflictions, which are but for a moment, are working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Cor 4:17). For the joy set before us, may we continue to run the race of faith. For the joy set before us, may we cast of any excess weight and lean up as we need to, to finish the race. For the joy set before us, may we no longer entertain the temptations of sin that would easily ensnare us, but may we look to put on righteousness. For the joy set before us, may we remember the saints of old and their testimony to us. For the joy set before us, may we look to Jesus as our example, as our champion and deliverer, and as our help and strength. For the joy set before us let us spur each other on as well in this race, so that we can all rejoice together with Christ at the end. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.