November 18, 2020—A look in the neighborhood of Hebrews 12:12
Let’s look at Hebrews 11:39–12:17. It begins with:
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
You’ll remember the “Hall of Faith” earlier in chapter 11. Here the author is beginning to make it clear why he wrote that list. First he wanted his audience to remember that although the Old Testament saints did well through their faith they still did not receive what was promised.
Notice that it wasn’t because those Old Testament saints did anything wrong that God delayed. Instead it was because God had a good purpose in mind.
God’s purposes for delaying in the Old Testament included His desire to unite Christians in the author’s day with the Old Testament saints through faith Hebrews 4:2. And God continued that purpose through the audience’s day 2 Peter 3:9.
God always has a purpose in delaying His good promises.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, 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, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
We need to get clear in what way the surrounding great cloud of people were witnesses. Were they witnessing the author’s audience, like people gathered in the stands cheering on the athletes below them? Or were they bearing witness to some fact?
I think it’s the latter.
First, it’s too large a job for non-omniscient and non-omnipresent people to witness the affairs of every saint on earth to much degree. Sure, mere humans are able to provide oversight to even very large groups of people—this is what police and the government do every day. But it’s quite easy to escape their notice. So it just doesn’t mean very much to say “you’re being watched by the saints of old”.
Second, there’s the logistical problem to consider. Sure, the Lord could have watched the audience of Hebrews in detail, since He is omniscient and omnipresent, and then could have given a summary report to the saints in heaven, highlighting the significant things. But then it would have been the Lord watching, not the saints in heaven. And again that report given to the saints in heaven would necessarily be missing some information (because it would be for finite people). Why would you presume that all the actions of anyone’s life in particular would consume that limited space?
Third, why would anyone desire to watch every minute of other people’s lives when they are in the presence of the Most Glorious One? Do we really think mere mortals command so much more attention than the Lord?
No, the Old Testament saints were figuratively standing as witnesses to the facts that God is faithful, that it is possible to endure faithfully to the end of your life, that faith really is sufficient for enduring to the end, and things like that.
Okay, with that out of the way…
God had set a race before the audience of Hebrews. This was the same race set before the Old Testament saints. The Old Testament saints ran it well by enduring through faith, and now it’s the audience’s turn to run it well by enduring through faith.
Notice how Jesus was the prime motivation for running the race. They took motivation by looking to Him. I can’t help being reminded of 2 Corinthians 3:17–18. It was by looking to Jesus that the New Testament Christian was both encouraged and transformed. The end of the race was glory (“Jesus is seated at the right hand of the throne of God”), and by running this race they were transformed into the glorious image of Jesus.
Also notice how Jesus was the prime example of a runner in this race. He (quite successfully) endured the cross and is now seated in glory. He successfully completed the race. And He endured the main instance of suffering in his race “for the joy that was set before him”. In other words He saw past the suffering and anticipated (with joy) where the race was taking him. He saw with the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. In other words He saw with eyes of faith. He ran His race through faith, just like the audience of Hebrews was being asked to do.
They had sufficient means and cause to run the race with endurance.
Notice how the target of that faith was not arbitrary. The Old Testament saints were given specific promises by God and they knew God was trustworthy and would keep His promises, and so they were assured in their hope and held strong convictions. Jesus was given a command by the Father (John 10:18) whom He knew to be faithful, and so it was no arbitrary hope that Jesus had. It’s even strange to call it “hope” because the outcome wasn’t at all in doubt. How could it be any other way than that God keeps His promises? The same for the audience of Hebrews. They were being asked to run a specific race toward a specific goal, and the author was taking pains to show them how worthy a goal it is and how faith targeting that goal is so well placed.
In other words, it’s a different race entirely that aims for more money, power, comfort, pleasure, influence, and peace with the world. From the rest of scripture we know where that kind of race ends: it ends in hell. And the faith involved in that race is a deceitful faith giving false assurance. Luke 12:19–21
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
The author seems to be making two points.
First, the suffering that came during the race was not new or unusual. It was to be expected. It was so normal that the founder and perfecter of their faith encountered it. It was experienced by their entire brotherhood throughout the world 1 Peter 5:9.
Second, the audience of Hebrews had not suffered to any unusual degree. In fact their suffering was light in comparison to Jesus. They (obviously) hadn’t yet died because of their faith, so they were actually faring pretty well.
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
The author gives a few more reasons for the audience to endure.
First, the author reminded them that they are sons of God, and God disciplines all his children. They would not be legitimate children of God if they were left without the discipline that God gives to all his children.
Second, their Father loves them and is changing them. Recall that, for the New Testament Christian, suffering produced character, character produced hope, and hope did not put them to shame because God had decidedly set His love on them Romans 5:3–5. God was disciplining them for their good, so that they would share His holiness.
Third, the audience in general had experienced the discipline of their own earthly fathers. Yet they continued to respect their earthly fathers instead of grumbling and despising them. So why would they object to God’s discipline? Is God a worse father?
Fourth, they needed to keep some perspective. In the moment it might really hurt, but consider the effect in the long run. Even if they died they would get to be with the Lord which was far better Philippians 1:21–23. And if they continued to live then they would get to enjoy the peaceful fruit of righteousness. There is a lot of peace that comes from no longer being tempted by particular things.
They needed to take the long view.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
Here the author drives home some points of application. He seems to put them into two groups.
First, he told them to lift their drooping hands. This means take encouragement, renew the vigor of their race-running, strengthen their weak knees.
Second, he told them to make straight paths for their feet. This means walk in righteousness. The goal is “so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed”. Temptations to sin are aggravated by walking crooked paths.
There is some interplay between these two groups. Walking in crooked paths hampers spiritual growth, weakens the spiritual hands, discourages the Christian, and leads to division and destruction. And drooping hands and weak knees are more prone to following crooked paths.
Everything above applies to Christians both then and now.
If you are trusting in Jesus for God to pass over you on that day when He judges the secrets of men (Romans 2:16) then everything above applies to you. Christian, lift your drooping hands!
If you aren’t trusting in Jesus then I’m sure you can tell how the above doesn’t apply to you. The author of Hebrews was writing to Christians and explaining how things related to them, not to you. In that case I recommend putting your hope and confidence in Jesus so that you can start running the correct race. If you do then you will not be disappointed Isaiah 28:16.