I have been thinking a lot about endurance these days. This is partly because of the experience we all have had these past years of the pandemic. It certainly gives us a reason and context for endurance. Also, we have seen many wonderful examples of people serving under very stressful conditions and displaying endurance that is worthy of recognition and reward. Likewise, we know that many people are trying to endure as they struggle with the serious impacts that the virus and quarantine restrictions have impacted our world.
The words “endure” or “endurance” are probably not our favorite words, but endurance is an essential part of life, and the Christian life specifically. The amazing twelfth chapter in the Epistle to the Hebrews provides us with encouragement, challenge, instruction and warning to faithfully endure in this life of faith. Whatever hardships we may be facing, there is the need for endurance. God can change circumstances as He chooses and as we pray, but God always uses difficult circumstances in our lives. So, if you are feeling weary or weak right now (see the wording of Hebrews 12:12), I want to share a few thoughts with you.
I hope these words will encourage you to endure whatever you are facing.
1. Consider God’s Son (Hebrews 12:1-3)**
To run with endurance, we need to fix our eyes on Jesus and “consider Him” (12:3). Yes, knowing that many by faith have endured in the past (12:1a), and seeking to lay aside encumbrances and entangling sin, we are called to “run” (12:1). It is not an option for the Christian, it is the life we are called to live. This involves struggle and endurance, indeed the wording is “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1 NASV). Jesus, God’s Son, is the one who strengthens our faith as we look to Him. Notice what Jesus had to endure. Two aspects of His endurance are stated in the next two verses. The first mentions that He “endured the cross.” Praise His Name! What a Savior! Yes, He had to endure the cross, and the Epistle to the Hebrews celebrates the obedient sacrifice of Jesus for our sin and our salvation. The emphasis here, though, in these verses is the example of Jesus as He set His eyes on the “joy set before Him.” He persevered “through it all” considering the shame as nothing compared to the glory ahead (12:2). He suffered victoriously and is seated in glory. Hallelujah!
The second reference to endurance is related to “….hostility by sinners” (12:3). Jesus experienced in ultimate measure the type of hostility that the people receiving this Epistle may have been experiencing. There is much said about the sufferings of the Savior in Hebrews and why they were necessary. And we know that we have a faithful “High Priest” that is able to sympathize and to respond to our needs in the light of His own sufferings. Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith, and He is our example and our strength as we face the sufferings of this life, and especially direct persecution. So, in “Considering God’s Son,” we need to consider His sufficiency as our Apostle, High Priest, Mediator, and Savior, but we must also consider what He went through victoriously for us to anticipate our own sufferings in this life and also to find joy in the reward to follow.
You may be right “there,” right now, suffering in some specific hardship. Consider God’s Son. The very Son of God learned “obedience from the things which He suffered….” (5:8). How about you and me! We must look to Him, knowing that He is so much more than an example, He is “able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him….” (7:25). Our eyes must stay on Him.
2. Consider God’s Love (Hebrews 12:4-9)
The next section of verses deals with God’s discipline of His children. As we mentioned already, God uses circumstances and especially trials and suffering to discipline us. Due to the difficulties that the original readers were experiencing, the writer in emphasizing painful discipline. The time of discipline is not characterized as a “joyful” time. Indeed, it is “sorrowful” 12:11). That certainly was the case when I was disciplined as a child! But, what helps us to endure disciplinary trials is the knowledge of the relationship that we have with the one who disciplines us. And tucked away in an Old Testament quotation is the key to it all, “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines” (12:6). To fully expound this whole section would take too long. I think it is adequate here to emphasize that it is easy to forget that discipline comes from the One who loves us. He is The Father, and He is a “Good, Good Father.” He deals with us as “sons,” which means that the discipline is a part of a close loving covenant relationship. He disciplines us so that we can be trained and learn what we need to learn (12:11).
Maybe you know someone who has been tempted to question God’s love when facing harsh suffering and direct opposition. It does not take long to forget the way God works; His ways are above and beyond us. He loves us. He loves us. His word teaches us that He uses disciplinary trials to discipline us in love. So, we need to keep this in mind as we face those things, those people, and those experiences that harm and hurt.
3. Consider God’s Purpose (12:4, 10-14)
The writer to the Hebrews spends more time explaining God’s purpose in discipline than talking about God’s love. I think that is because God’s purpose in discipline fits in with the writer’s concern in this whole Epistle and especially this chapter. We get a sense of that priority purpose right from verse four. As the writer begins this section on discipline it is clear that he is concerned for the true spiritual “wellness” of his readers. He states it in strong terms, “you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood, in your striving against sin.” What this says to me (in the present tense) is that although we may be facing hostility or hardship from the outside, the critical issue is the battle with sin on the inside. The writer is concerned for the faithfulness and holiness of the people. Remember he started this chapter by telling us to lay aside “every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles.” God’s discipline helps us to do that!
This is spelled out specifically in verse ten. God’s discipline is for our good, and specifically that we “may share in His holiness.” He goes on further to speak of the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11). God is using circumstances, and especially sufferings, “for our good.” Do we really believe that?? It is easier to believe that when we really believe that God loves us and that he is working out His purpose in our lives. And that purpose is to be more like Him, and holiness and righteousness are emphasized here.
To share in His holiness will mean “striving against sin.” You may be thinking, I thought the battle was won and the striving is over. Yes and No! We have rest in the finished work of Christ. We have a hope that is secure. We have strength for living in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1). We serve an awesome sovereign God who is for us (Romans 8:31-32). But, we are still in a race, a contest, a struggle. To put it differently, follow my sports illustration. We have joined “Jesus’ Running Team” by faith, and the outcome of the race is not in question, He is the victorious One and we are united to Him. But, we are called to run the race and we are in it! We have to run the race to the end. And no one said that it would be easy. And the biggest challenge is keeping our focus on Jesus and eliminating those things that hinder us from running well or winning the daily contests.
Conclusion: So what are we to do? (Hebrews 12:12-17)
Well, the basis or foundation of our response needs to be what we have already “considered.” We have the example of God’s Victorious Son. We have the assurance of God’s Paternal Love. We have the Motivation of God’s Good Purpose. So, let me now summarize what the writer to the Hebrews says next in terms of our response to these truths. And note that he phrases things in such a way that this prescription is for those who are feeling weak or are already injured:
“….strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (12:12-13). The writer draws on metaphorical wording from the Old Testament (Isaiah 35:3, Proverbs 4:26). One practical implication of the metaphor in these two verses is that healing does not take place by abandoning the contest or race. That is not an option. Actually, the directive seems to say that you can be strengthened as you move forward faithfully in the right way. Healing is found in faithful continuance and determination to go straight ahead, and not get “sidetracked” by sin or unfaithfulness.
This does not mean the end of rest, recuperate or other means of help when in need. The Lord knows our “frame.” He understands the need for wisdom and self-understanding when it comes to the weights we carry and the burdens we feel. Personal healing and recuperation are real needs, and there is nothing wrong with prayerful “retreat” or constructive counseling. Also, the genuine experience of Christian community through “one anothering” and wise counsel are very important. The “race” doesn’t need to be equated with busyness or dishonesty about our weakness or pain. Indeed, the writer is using this metaphor of the race or contest to make sure we know that struggle is expected and endurance will be needed. Ultimately, the goal is to be faithful, keeping our eyes on the Lord. For the original readers, the writer expresses a few specific directives to help them stay strong or be strengthened spiritually in the midst of their hardships. I will state them as application for us today.
We have a Continuing Pursuit: “peace with all men” and “sanctification.” These goals obviously were especially relevant to the situation of the original readers. But, they are just as important for us and need to be priorities. The present Pandemic has given a great opportunity to see both peace and strife at work in this country. When times are difficult it is easy to see relationships suffer, and not to seek peace or be at peace with others. This is the case when facing direct persecution as well. Jesus’ people are to pursue peace and to be “peace-makers.” This is a real responsibility on the horizontal level. Pursuing peace is an act of love, loving our neighbor and our enemy. There can be sins in this arena of life that we do not take as seriously as in our vertical relationship with God. And in hostile situations the goal is to be peaceful in word and conduct rather than antagonistic and reactionary. We need to be representatives of the “God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord…..” (13:20).
But, alongside of pursuing peace is the call to pursue sanctification or personal holiness. We know that there are three tenses to sanctification: it is gifted in salvation, lived out in dependence on the Holy Spirit, and completed in glory when we see Him face to face. It would make sense that the emphasis here is in keeping with the chapter’s call to endurance and accepting discipline. Holiness in life right now is a pursuit and a necessary pursuit. It is central to the race. It is a struggle or contest due to the world in which we live (the world, the flesh, the devil). So, by God’s grace and the enabling of our Lord Jesus, we are to pursue holiness. This takes us back to where we started in the chapter. Things need to be laid aside. And when we sense that God is disciplining us, we need to ask:
What needs to change for my good, for the pursuit of holiness, and for His glory?
What do I need to lay aside, get rid of, eliminate that is hindering my Christian life?
What do I need to start doing that I have not been doing?
What do I need to stop doing that I have been doing?
How can I be more like Jesus and share more in the very holiness of God?
These are the types of questions to ask as individuals and in community. To do this for the for the church community just change the word “I” to “we” or “my” to “our.” These are good questions to ask during these days of the worldwide COVID-19 Pandemic.
As is often the case in Hebrews, a warning or caution is given in the following verses. I only want to touch on verses fifteen through seventeen. We have viewed the positive directive and that We have a Continuing Pursuit. The negative or the protective directive is that we exercise vigilance: We must be Continually Vigilant. It is easy to find bitterness in our own hearts, and bitterness within a community. The writer sees this “root of bitterness” as having the potential for great harm, acting like a virus (so to speak). The sad example of Esau is given. This is a difficult text to grasp fully, but what is certain is that his carelessness caused him, as they say, “a lot of hurt.” He is an example of an “immoral or godless person” who lost passion for something of great importance, due to a preoccupation with a temporary physical need. He sacrificed the “long run” blessing for the short-term pleasure. And what He lost he was not able to retrieve. How sad and what a warning to us! The sting of this example needs to have its impact, while we place our confidence and our hope in the Lord Himself. As Jude writes the Lord is able to keeps us from stumbling and “to make [us] stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” (24).
Back in Hebrews 12:15, the writer, and God through him, is emphasizing in no uncertain terms that vigilance and carefulness are absolutely necessary as we seek to endure. (This is reinforced in the closing section of the chapter). We are in this race “for the long run.” It is easy for something to happen that causes great damage to our individual spiritual lives and to a community of believers. The way forward is clear. Our eyes need to be on the Lord Jesus, the very Son of God. Knowing God’s love and purpose we can continually commit ourselves to the pursuit of peace and holiness.
May God use this time in our lives to bring spiritual healing, spiritual health and spiritual strength for the “race” that calls for endurance. This is true for individual believers as well as churches. This is a time to be encouraging one another and praying for one another. God may use these days to do a great work by His grace in our lives individually, and corporately in churches. Indeed, let’s look to God to do a reviving work that prepares us for the days ahead. Then, as we pursue peace and holiness, may our witness to our faith in the Lord Jesus be authentic and powerful even in the face of opposition, suffering, and persecution. So help us Lord! Amen!
Sincerely and in Him,
David L. Olford – Fellow Runner
** All Scriptures quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1971)