Exodus 19:16-20, Hebrews 12:1-2, 12-24
July 8, 2012
The letter to the Hebrews has been described as containing “the longest sustained argument of any book in the Bible.” In other words, the author is “making a case” in a systematic way. He’s writing to a group of Jewish Christians who were on the verge of giving up their new faith in Christ and going back to their old Jewish faith. And so the whole book is a carefully constructed and well organized attempt to convince them of the validity and truth of their new faith in Jesus Christ.
So, I think this is a perfect follow up to what I was saying last week about Jesus. Because, the largest part of the argument here is that of his “the importance and preeminence.” That’s what these Jewish Christians needed to hear. Hebrews states what I was saying, (only better!) that Jesus and his resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith. And that’s good for us to hear that from time to time as we think about what it is we believe.
The other thing about Hebrews is that it’s a great book to read as a book. Remember that a lot of the “books” in the New Testament are actually letters, and were read as such. One of the hardest things about those letters is that reading them is like listening to somebody talk on the phone. You only get one side of the conversation. You can’t here the person on the other end of the line. You have to figure out what that person is saying by listening to the answers and comments of the person you can hear. That’s what’s happening in a lot of the New Testament books. From what Paul or Peter or James is saying, we have to figure out what was going on with the people to whom they were writing.
Not so in Hebrews. Even though it is presented as “the Letter to the Hebrews” this book is written from start to finish as a sustained argument, with no personal greetings at the beginning, and only a minimal amount at the end. And, considering it’s intended readers, it is chock full of Jewish doctrine, and references to Jewish history, which is always great for us to read, since we as Christians also have that as our history.
So Hebrews is a great book! And I hope I’ve inspired you to go home and read it on your own. I know, last week I shamed you into going home and reading John chapter 6. (Did it work?) Well this week I’ve tried inspiring you. I want you to want to read Hebrews! And I hope you will! And in doing so, I want you to keep in mind how we’ve been focusing on Jesus, and how important his is. Hebrews helps us in with focus, confirming his importance in some amazing words!
I’ve started our reading today with the opening verses of chapter 12. And I hope this is a familiar passage. I like these words and I know I’ve read them often. This is the passage about “running with perseverance the race set before us.” Of course, that’s a great passage for a runner! We run the race of life “with perseverance.” And in doing so we “look to Jesus the Pioneer and Perfector of our faith.” Some versions say “the Author and Finisher” of our faith.
There are two principles I want you to remember from that. First of all, running the race. Never in the New Testament is the Christian faith about just a head knowledge or even a heart belief in something. It’s never just a matter of “I’m a Christian because I have Christ as Savior.” It is always about that belief being played out in our lives! “I’m a Christian because I follow Jesus Christ!”
If you think about it, some people get frustrated in their faith because they focus only on the belief. They think if they just “believe the right things,” they’re “golden.” Then all will be well, their lives will be fulfilled, and they’ll have the peace and joy that we’re supposed to have in knowing God. But they forget the “running the race” part. Instead, they stand on the sidelines and forget they’re in the game. Those are great sports metaphors, but I think you understand them. Because it’s living the life that makes the difference, not just talking about it. As Christians we are called to be “doers of the word, not just hearers only.”
But let me ask you. Do we always feel like doing that? Do we always feel like “living the life?” Do we always feel inspired? Are circumstanced always conducive to living the life? Of course not! That’s where the word “perseverance” comes in. We’re being “exhorted” to have perseverance – which means to “stick-to-itiveness.” That means we run the race, even though sometimes we don’t feel like it. And how do we do that? Just like we’re told here, we do so by “looking to Jesus.”
I wish I could convey to you what it’s like to finish a Marathon for the first time. If you’re not familiar, that’s a race of 26 miles, 385 yards. (That’s the little “26.2” sticker on the back of my car.) My first was New York City, 1994. And it was, of course, grueling. There were times my feet hurt, my legs hurt, etc, etc… And perseverance was the name of the game! Well, at each mile there was a banner on the side of the road, marking the mile number. And they were very compelling. I kept looking to them, and I kept going. And they kept me looking ahead to the next one, and the next one, and the next one… If I looked down, if I focused on the pain, the urge to stop running was great. So I kept looking ahead. And finally I passed banner number 26, and 385 yards ahead I saw the finish line with the big overhead banners. And there is no way to describe the feeling at that moment. At that moment there was no pain, I don’t think my feet touched the ground for 385 yards, and as I ran under the big banner, tears were streaming down my cheeks.
That’s what I think about when I read these words “run the race looking to Jesus.” He’s the banner, he’s the focus, he’s what we look to as we run the race. If we forget that, if we look down, if we focus on the pain and hurt we may be experiencing at any given time, the urge to stop running will threaten to overwhelm us. But, with our heads up, with our eyes on Jesus, we run with perseverance and inspiration the race set before us!
That’s the first part of this. For the next part I skipped ahead to verse 12. And here we find some more inspiration and instruction. And this is good stuff! “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.” That sounds like more “running the race” stuff. The writer is trying to help his readers in their perseverance. He wants them to keep moving forward. Because sometimes we do feel weak. Sometimes our hands do droop. Sometimes we feel like we can’t go on another day. Sometimes we feel like we can’t go another step.
He continues. “Strive for peace with all men, and for holiness…” In that statement, and the next, we see the need to encourage and strengthen each other. We’re not alone in this race. We keep each other going! Then he gets more specific. He says, “See to it that no ‘root of bitterness’ spring up and cause trouble, and by it many become defiled.” That’s so important! Bitterness can spring up in any organization. And if it happens, it can easily cause many to become defiled. Do you know what I mean? Just think what happens when Church controversies happen! They can discourage everybody! Hebrews says, don’t let that happen!
Then I ended this reading with these wonderful references to one of the greatest scenes in Jewish history. “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and a voice whose words made the hearers ask for no more.” That refers to the scene from Exodus 19 which we read earlier, the scene in which God met the people on the mountain in the giving of the law.
The writer sets up that reference, which was powerful in the readers’ minds, and then he completes that picture. “But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born, who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,” Then, this is where he puts Jesus into the perspective of the whole of their history. “You have come to all that, “he says, “and you have come to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.”
Those were powerful words taken from their most dramatic and powerful story. And they speak of that most important of all Jewish ideals, the ideal of their covenant with God. And I hope from this, we too can get some perspective about this Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfector of our faith. I hope we can see that this Jesus is truly the one we look to as we run with perseverance the race that is set before us!
I hope we are inspired to do so. And I hope we will encourage each other. The road will not always be easy. There will be days we just don’t feel like continuing. But this is always a great chapter to read and to think about when we need that encouragement, when we need to keep running with perseverance the race set before us. And I hope that, together, may we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith!
Eternal God, we ask for your strength and your inspiration as we live this life of faith. Help us to see clearly the example you set for us when you came to live among us. Lift our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees. Empower us to follow Jesus, to love as he loved, to encourage and uphold one another, and to look to his glory in this world and the next. For we pray in his name, Amen.