Sermon on Hebrews 11:1-12:3. Text below:
Let me say a phrase for you and gauge your reaction: School sports day – cross country running.
Happy memories anyone?
Not for me. Every year at my school in Australia they made us run what seemed like a double marathon in the sports carnival. I’m sure it was only three miles but to me, for whom brushing my teeth is about as aerobic as I get, this was a major drag. One year the gun fired for the race and this new kid who’d just come from China called Bob Chen, burst away from the pack and shot ahead of us at lightning speed. And we all thought, ‘Oh my goodness, where’s this guy come from? They breed them tough in China.’ He tore up one side of the school oval and our whole year group was jogging sedately behind him thinking we’ve seen the new school champion. And then Bob Chen veered slightly off the route and headed straight for some trees, where we saw him stop, bend double and as we all jogged past, Bob Chen threw up all over his nice new trainers.
Bob Chen was famous for that at our school, not least because the next year he did exactly the same thing. Tore off as soon as the gun went. Sprinted around the oval where all the spectators were, got to that first tree, and again threw up violently.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from Bob Chen it’s that you need to know what kind of race you’re in, and run accordingly.
Well chapter 12, verses 1-3 tells us we are in a race. Everyone in chapter 11 has run the race before. In chapter 12 verse 2 we learn that Jesus Himself ran the race and sat down. And now, 12:1
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.
We’re in a race. The Christian life is not a cup of tea and a nice sit down, it’s not kickabout with mates or an aimless ramble or a gentle stroll or even a jog in the park. It’s a race. And unless we want to make Bob Chen’s mistake we need to ask ourselves, what kind of race?
Well v1 says run with perseverance. Verse 2 says that when Jesus ran it, it was all about endurance. Verse 3 says the same thing, running this race is about endurance. The Christian is in a LONG distance, seemingly unending marathon. And the great danger is, chapter 12:3, that we grow weary and lose heart.
That was the danger for the Hebrews. Look back to the end of chapter 10.
32 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.
When the Hebrew Christians first came to Jesus they were on fire for the Lord. They shot out of the blocks at a hundred miles an hour and it was wonderful to behold. So the writer reminds them of their commendable zeal. But then he says, You have need of endurance. You were great sprinters, but let me remind you – this is a marathon.
And so in these closing chapters of Hebrews the writer is seeking to inspire perseverance in these Christians.
Are you flagging in your zeal? In danger of losing heart and growing weary? These chapters are for you.
And what the writer does in chapter 11 is to show how the believers of old ran the race. You’re not the first to run this race – many before you have run it. And how did they run it? By faith.
That’s the phrase repeated 24 times in chapter 11 – by faith Abel, by faith Enoch, by faith Noah, by faith Abraham, by faith every other hero of the OT you could care to mention – they all ran the race by faith. By trusting the Lord.
The Christian life is not the race for great performers, for great doers, for great workers. The Christian life is a race for the trusters, the believers, the people of faith.
And that’s the way it’s got to be if we remember our summary of Hebrews. Do we remember how we’ve been summarizing Hebrews? “God has said everything that needs to be said and done everything that needs to be done, through His Son, to bring us to glory.” God has done it through Jesus. He has DONE it.
So Jesus doesn’t say “It’s up to you. You do it.” He says “I’ve done it all. Trust me.” Jesus has been the perfect sacrifice for sins, the perfect priest representing us before God – He’s done everything to bring us to God and sat down on the throne of heaven, job done. So He’s not looking for our work. He’s done it all. He’s simply looking for our trust.
Look at Hebrews 10:14: By one sacrifice He has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.
Christ has DONE it. On that cross, that ONE sacrifice for sins has made us perfect forever. What could we add to His work? We can’t. And this is the exact opposite of every other religion. All other religions say, “Do and then maybe”. The secular world says “Do and then maybe”. The bible says Christ has done it, definitely. Trust Him.
God does not seek our works but our trust.
And so when we read through Hebrews 11 what do we see, the Heroes of morality? No. Heroes of faith. And there are all sorts in this list.
There are the famously good – v5 has Enoch, who walked with God and never faced death. Godly Enoch. But there’s also the famously bad, v31 – Rahab the prostiture. And Enoch’s a hero not because he was famously good and Rahab’s a hero in spite of the fact she was famously bad. They’re both only considered heroes because “by faith” – because they trusted the Lord. And in between the very good and the very bad, there’s a real mixed bag in this list of OT fore-runners.
From v8 we read about Abraham, who did some good stuff, he also sold his wife into a foreign king’s harem. Twice. As did his son Isaac (v20). Jacob, his son was a slime-ball deceiver, but he makes the list – v21, by FAITH Jacob. Moses (v23) was a murderer as was David (v32) who is listed there among an assortment of fools, cowards and bullies.
The race is run by faith. Now this faith does inspire some incredible action in these guys. And faith if it’s genuine faith, always does translate into action. But the emphasis here is faith because God does not look for our works (Christ has given Him all the works He needs). He looks for our trust.
What does this faith look like? What does it mean to live by it?
V1 – certainty
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
Faith is never presented as a leap in the dark in the bible. It’s stepping into the light. It’s about being sure and certain. You see Jesus in the Scriptures and you KNOW that He is the ultimate Sacrifice and the ultimate Priest and so you trust Him. Verse 3 carries on this theme, “By faith we understand…” Faith is not opposed to understanding at all.
V6 – draws near joyfully
6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
Faith is not simply believing THAT God exists, you believe He is a Giver, a Rewarder, Someone it’s GREAT to be around.
Faith is not meant to be this disinterested belief THAT there is a God. It’s a joyful drawing near to God because you know being in His presence is BRILLIANT.
V8-10 – looks forward
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
When God said, “Inherit a strip of land at the end of the Mediterranean” Abraham knew that this wasn’t the real inheritance. He knew it was a token of the whole new creation. And so he and his sons and grandsons lived in tents, waiting for the true city. They sat very loose to their contemporary surroundings, because faith looks ahead and so sits loose to now.
V11 – trusts the Promiser
You’ll see a footnote halfway through v11. Let me read out what the footnote says because Sarah is actually the star of this verse, not Abraham:
“By faith, even Sarah, who was past age, was enabled to bear children because she considered Him faithful who had made the promise.”
That’s so important about faith. We don’t so much trust promises. We trust the Promiser. So to have faith you need to look to the Promiser.
If Emma wants to trust me, there’s not a lot she can do to make herself trust me more. But there’s plenty I can do – I can try to show myself faithful. Well Jesus is the ultimate Husband who has done everything to show Himself faithful. The way we get faith is simply to look to the Promiser. That’ll be important for later.
V13 – does not possess yet (v25, 39)
(v13) All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.
(v39) These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Abraham was looking for the city – the city of Revelation 21. And that’s not going to be established until we’ve all finished our races. But faith does not possess things now, it looks forward.
V26 – sides with Christ in suffering
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.
Think of all the privileges Moses had and could have kept if he’d remained with the Egyptians. He might have become Pharaoh himself – the most powerful man on earth. But no, Moses trusted in Christ, He trusted in the LORD Messiah. But in every age trusting in Christ means siding with the Suffering Servant and being rejected by the world.
Finally faith experiences triumph and tragedy in this life:
Read with me verses 32-39 and watch out for the triumphs and then the tragedies:
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawn in two [tradition has it that’s how Isaiah died]; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated– 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith
In triumph they were commended for their faith, in tragedy they were commended for their faith. That’s the thing about living by faith – there are no guarantees in this life. If God wanted our works then at some point we would have given Him enough and we’d be like tax-payers. We could say, God I’ve done my bit and I’ve earned a bit of time off from the race. I’ve earned a few triumphs here. But no, in the race of faith there are triumphs that we don’t deserve and there are tragedies that we don’t deserve. And it’s not because we’ve DONE anything wrong. It’s just the nature of the race, and the Lord throughout says TRUST ME. Even in tragedy the OT believers finished the race. It’s long distance, there’s all sorts of hardship and all sorts of endurance required. But there is a finishing line and it can be run.
And now as we come into chapter 12 the writer says “It’s our turn.”
[SLIDE – Let us run]
We’re following in the footsteps of Noah and Abraham and Moses and David. And he calls these guys a cloud of witnesses. We’re not running alone. The greats of the faith surround us.
Now he doesn’t say that they are spectators of our race. They’re not cheerleaders. We’re not meant to get the idea of Moses and Noah in heaven with pom-poms singing “Glen, Glen, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, no-one can. Yay Glen.” They are witnesses. And they witness because they demonstrate to us that the race is runable. We look to them, not by looking up into heaven to see their placards and messages of encouragement. We look to them by reading the Scriptures and calling to mind how they ran and how they endured.
So as we run our race today, we might face losing out financially, or as these Hebrews had happen, our property is confiscated for following Jesus. And we ask, how can I run the race when I lose out in possessions? – Abraham knows. He shows me how to run in those circumstances. Or we ask, how can I run the race when I get frozen out from friends and family? – Moses knows. He can show me. Or how can I run the race when it means trouble from the authorities? Daniel and his friends know – they were cast into the flames and the lion’s den. And all these heroes of faith witness to us – And they say “the race is runable”.
And so the writer says, 12:1, let US run. They’ve run with endurance. Let’s run this race ourselves. Now is our turn. This isn’t King David’s time any more. It’s our time. This is our turn. Let’s run.
And if we’re going to run, v1, for goodness sakes, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.
Every year in the London marathon there are those who wear fancy dress. Some are less encumbered by it and some are more…
And the writer says there’s stuff that’s tangling us up. Some of it is out-and-out sinful. Some of it is just a hindrance, not necessarily sinful but it’s a weight that doesn’t help you run the race.
What’s hindering you? What sins are entangling? Now if the Christian life were a fancy dress party, wear fancy dress. But if it’s a race – that stuff’s not doing you any good. Let’s throw it off.
And this is not about limiting you. Sin limits you. Weights and encumberances limit you. Throwing them off is liberation. Sin always promises freedom but it enslaves. Let’s throw it off and run.
As v1 continues, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Not your own thing. You could busy yourself with all sorts of activity. But you’re called to trust Jesus and endure in His race. You might want to run off course and follow money and popularity and sex and power. You might want to stop meeting with other Christians and just drift for a while. No there’s a race marked out for you ahead and whatever distractions are tempting you to go off course, look straight ahead. Because, v2, there you’ll see Jesus.
2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Here’s the incredible thing about our race. The One who Authored the race – entered the race.
[SLIDE – Jesus ran the race]
Today is Trinity Sunday, it’s the day in the church’s calendar where we particularly remember that our God has always been Father, Son and Holy Spirit united together in love. That’s who there was from the very beginning. But what this verse says is that the Eternal Son of God because a single cell in Mary’s womb, grew into a Jewish man living 2000 years ago who went by the name of Jesus. And the One who Authored the race, entered the race.
But here’s a wonderful Trinitarian truth. Do you know how Jesus ran His race? He ran by faith.
God the Son ran the race by trusting God the Father by the power of God the Holy Spirit.
God the Son ran the race by faith. Because do you see in v2 how He ran? For the joy set before Him He endured the cross.
Jesus believed something and it got Him through.
[SLIDE – by faith stuff]
He was certain about a joy that was coming in the future and so He trusted His Father even though He didn’t possess that future yet but instead He had to suffer and go through tragedy before the triumph. Do you see? Jesus had faith. And it was a particular faith – the faith that joy wins in the end.
[SLIDE – by faith on its own]
Jesus was certain that in the end there is a joy so great it was worth the cross. By faith, Jesus made a calculation: Cross and joy or no cross and no joy. And He went for the cross. He went for Godforsaken HELL. The JOY makes even HIS cross worth it.
What’s your cross? What does ‘staying the course’ mean for you? There is a joy at the finishing line that made even the hell of Christ’s cross worth it – it will make your cross worth it too.
What is that joy? Well the joy set before Jesus was that through ENDURING THE CROSS He would save and cleanse and perfect you and me and One day He would enjoy our company with Him and His Father – face-to-face forever. And He will sing over His blood-bought bride and proudly boast of them before the Father Almighty. That was the joy set before Him. His cross was worth it. Your cross is definitely worth it. Because one day you will be IN on this joy. One day Jesus will say
`Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.’ (Matt 25:34) ‘Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your Lord.’ (Matt :25:21)
That’s the joy set before you. There is nothing that this joy won’t make up for. Tortured? This resurrection hope is worth it. Sawn in two? This joy is worth it? Suffering hell on the cross – this joy is worth it. There is nothing this joy won’t make up for. And so the writer says “Fix your eyes on Jesus.”
[SLIDE – Let us run]
Now it’s your turn to be a person of faith. Fix your eyes on Jesus, that’s what faith is.
It’s hard not to think of Peter walking on water. Jesus has called him into this situation and Peter’s doing ok until looks away from Jesus and looks at the waves and starts to sink. Jesus catches him and says “You of little faith.” See, true faith is looking away from the storm and fixing your eyes on Jesus. That’s what will get you through.
It’s a long race. It’s a hard race. It’s an uncertain race. But we look back to the saints of old and we say “It’s runable.” We look around at the sins and hindrances and we cut them away and we look up to Jesus. And He says to us “I know the temptations – to run off course, to get tangled up in a hundred other things. I know those temptations. I know the opposition of sinful men, I know how oppressive that can be. And I know how weary you are. I know how tempted you are to lose heart. But I also know the joy that you’re desperately seeking. I know in the midst of the race how you long for joy and reward and rest. And I know how to get it.” Jesus says to us “The way to the joy is not in those sins that just trip you up. The way to the joy is not in running off track. The joy comes in staying the course. Look to me, trust me, draw near to me, I am the reward, I am the joy that you’re seeking. I made you my joy and endured my race for you. Now make me your joy and endure your race for me.
Let’s say verses 1-3 together as a prayer as we close:
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. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.