Your Race in 2017: Part 1
Passage: Hebrews 12:1
We are going to take a break from 1 Timothy the next two Sundays because I’d like to preach a two-part message from Hebrews 12, which I am going to call, “Your Race in 2017.” I wonder, have you sought the Lord in the past couple of weeks about what God desires for you this year and about where you need to grow and serve? I believe this kind of reflection is vital to our spiritual health because godliness never happens accidentally. The passage we are going to study says that pursuing godliness requires a disciplined focus. It also challenges us to consider, “Am I living with the kind of sacrificial commitment to Christ that he deserves?” I think we all understand that Christianity in America is not known for this kind of sacrifice. In fact sometimes we even joke about how wimpy American Christianity tends to be. Many of you enjoy reading articles on Babylon Bee. It’s a Christian website that runs fake, satirical news stories intended to make us laugh but also to point out the issues in Christianity. In October, they had a post entitled, “American Believer Suffers Brutal Persecution In Form Of Occasional Ribbing From Coworkers.” It read,
According to sources close to local believer James Beazer, the inside sales representative and father of two is suffering brutal persecution in the form of “two or three” lighthearted comments made about his faith each year.
At a recent summer picnic, the brave martyr is said to have told an intern from accounting that he goes to church on Sundays—reportedly earning him a withering verbal beating, as the intern was seen persecuting Beazer with harsh words like “Oh, so you’re one of those Bible thumpers?” and “Hope you’re not one of those holy rollers, Beaze!” followed by a friendly slap on the back.
While Beazer’s faith was put to the test, the salesman refused to waver, chuckling awkwardly and nodding before wandering away to see if there was any more punch. In another incident, sources confirmed that Beazer was called a “Jesus freak” by his boss, who clearly meant the comment as friendly banter rather than a true insult, and was gently chided for saying he couldn’t come to a Sunday morning NFL game this season as he’d be at church.
“Christians all around the world suffer persecution and even face death every day,” Beazer told reporters Thursday. “Who am I to think I’m any different? I count all suffering as joy and I endure it for the sake of Christ.”
At publishing time, Beazer confirmed that he had been approached by a literary agent, who hopes to record his trials in an inspirational book for distribution in countries like China, Iran, and Somalia, so Christians abroad can get a glimpse of what it’s like to truly suffer for Christ.
The post is humorous, but it is also sad because it is too true. Very often we have no idea what it means to suffer for Christ, and so today, I want to challenge us to run hard after Christ in 2017.
To really understand this passage, you need to recognize its structure. This passage is built around the command in v. 1 to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” This command compares the Christian life to an Olympic race, a race that requires endurance. The remainder of vv. 1–2 gives us three helps for running the race, and then vv. 3–4 wrap up the passage and transition to the next one by applying the command very specifically.
Therefore, I’d like to begin by discussing the command.
The Command: Run with Endurance (v. 1).
Again, this command describes the Christian life as a difficult race that we must run with endurance.
There are two significant truths about this race that I’d like to highlight.
This race requires endurance.
It’s clear that the author is not thinking of a sprint but of a long distance race. Of course, he says to run “with endurance,” and if you look through the passage, you can see that endurance is an important theme throughout. Both vv. 2 and 3 emphasize the fact that Christ endured during his earthly life, and v. 3 challenges us not to get weary, or tired as we run our race. As well, the command in v. 1 could literally be translated “let us be running the race that is being set before us.” It is describing a long and exhausting race.
And so this passage describes the Christian life as much more like a marathon than a 100 m dash. This is very significant because running the 100 m is not a test of endurance, unless you are in pretty poor shape. A sprinter can with 100% effort the entire race, and he never has to dig deep. But running a marathon is very different. Your muscles ache and cramp. You get thirsty, and your lungs feel like they will explode. It’s excruciating, and your body is constantly telling you to stop. But to complete the race, you have to fight through the pain and endure.
God says that the Christian life requires this kind of disciplined, consistent endurance. This really needs emphasis in our day because many Christians live the Christian life more like a sprinter than distance runner. They go from one spiritual buzz to the next. In some circles that spiritual buzz is “revival” a couple of times a year. A highly confrontation speaker comes in and gets everyone worked up in a way that isn’t sustainable. For others, the buzz is the emotional high that they seek on Sunday. The whole church service is built around feeling some intense emotional connection to God that again doesn’t translate to daily endurance. Others get a buzz from a couple of annual major acts of service or sacrifice, but then they don’t faithfully serve week to week. All of these groups live for a spiritual high. Their Christian life is a series of adrenaline rushes. But the rest of the time they are on a steady decline until the next high comes. Their zeal for God, service to God, and obedience to God really drop off when the buzz is gone. This tendency is apparent in the fact that one of the most popular devotional books of our time is called Radical. We get much more excited about a radical high than about ordinary daily endurance.
Now, it’s true that we need times of refreshment, and we need to be willing to do the big things for God, but our text is clear that the Christian life is not a series of short sprints; instead it is a slow and steady test of endurance.
This is very important for how we think about worship because many Christians define their experience at church by the high they feel. Again, worship ought to be refreshing, and it ought to move our affections, but the NT never says that the assembly is about getting a spiritual high. That expectation is the product of pop culture emotionalism, not the Bible. The Bible says we go to the church to be taught, to encourage and serve each other, and to receive spiritual accountability because those things will help you endure the week much better than feeling a “God buzz” for 30 minutes.
The same goes for our service and obedience. Helping at a soup kitchen occasionally can’t replace daily, disciplined obedience and love for the people that God has placed in your life.
Folks, if you are going to run well, you have to come to grips with the fact that you are in battle of endurance. Sometimes we don’t feel much when we read the Bible or worship. The answer is not to manufacture a high but to wait on God and endure. Sometimes loving your neighbor is just plain hard work. Accept that and just do right.
If you are discontent with your Christian experience and growth, it might not be that something is wrong; it might just be that you are expecting the Christian life to feel like the high of a sprint rather than the steady push of a marathon. Keep running, press through the fatigue, and stay disciplined.
Of course, this doesn’t sound all that exciting, and so we need to understand a second truth about this command.
The race is ordained by God.
Our text states that God has set our race before us. It’s interesting that we are not commanded to win the race, only to run it and finish it. This is because no one else is running the same race. God has a unique path for each of us that he has laid out according to his perfect wisdom and love. Maybe you are struggling to endure today because you don’t like the course God designed for you. It seems too hard or just too boring. Remember God’s wisdom and love. Trust that his will is good and that he will not give more than you can bear, and then keep running.
And so the command is to run with endurance. Verses 1–2 support this command with three helps for the difficult challenge of enduring.
First Help: Remember the example of past saints.
Verse 1 challenges us to obey the command because we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. These witnesses are the heroes of the faith listed in chapter 11, people like Abraham, Moses, and Noah. What does it mean that they are witnesses?
Some will say they are witnesses in the sense that they are like the crowd at an Olympic event and that they are watching us live our lives. But there are several problems with this idea. In particular it doesn’t fit well into the argument of chapter 11. As well the Greek term for witness naturally describes a witness who speaks or testifies, not one that merely watches. As well, the Bible never says dead saints are watching us, and frankly, I think they have a lot more interesting things to do in heaven than to watch what is going on here.
Rather, the idea is that they witness to us. Their testimonies help us endure.
There are two ways they encourage us.
They tell us how to endure. We must trust God’s promises.
The point of all of the examples in chapter 11 is not merely to catalog some great saints, but to teach us how to live by faith. In particular walking by faith means trusting the promises of God. Notice what is said in vv. 13–16. These saints did not live their lives for things they could obtain here; rather, they were focused on eternity and God’s eternal promises. Faith in God’s eternal reward, not the things they could see with the eyes, was the driving force of their lives.
And God is telling us in v. 1 that if we are going to run with endurance, we must have the same focus. If you live your life focused on what you can see, touch, and feel, you will fail. You must look past this life to eternity. And notice what this does for your perspective in vv. 9–10. Living in a tent was nothing for Abraham because he anticipated an eternal city.
This is the only way the Christian life makes sense. It’s a lot of really hard work. It requires significant sacrifice. Without an eternal perspective even a little ribbing like I described in my introduction seems bad, but an eternal perspective changes everything.
The same goes for spiritual disciplines. Getting up early to read your Bible or going to church after an exhausting week doesn’t always feel like it’s worth it. But from an eternal perspective, you wouldn’t want to do anything else.
If you are going to run with endurance, you must by faith keep an eternal perspective. How much do you think about the greatness of God and the eternal home that is awaiting you? Can you say that these kinds of thoughts shape the way you think, what you value, and how you live your life? Or would you have to say that eternity has little affect on your daily life? I’d encourage you to read chapter 11 this week and really take note of how the heroes endured sacrificially and took incredible steps of faith because they maintained an eternal perspective.
The second way the OT heroes encourage us is that…
They tell us that we can endure because they endured.
A major factor in the composition of Hebrews is that some of the readers were contemplating walking away from Christ. The Christian life was hard. They weren’t certain it was worth the cost or if they could actually make it.
In light of that notice what is said about the heroes in 11:38–40. Like the original readers and all Christians, living for God was hard for these heroes. But instead of being defeated by suffering, they were victorious. Verse 38 says the world was not worthy of them, and v. 39 says that they “obtained a good testimony.” In other words, they successfully finished the race God set before them.
Therefore, they are witnesses to us in the sense that if they could do it, we can do it. Sometimes, we have this idea that Abraham and Moses were different from us—that they didn’t battle fear, doubt, and other passions like we do. But that’s simply not true. They were sinners just like us who chose to trust God. In fact v. 40 says, and we will see this again in 12:2, that we actually have a greater ability than they did to walk by faith because we have the power of Christ.
And so God wants us to look at the testimony of Noah, and not just think that he was some freak of nature super saint. Instead, we ought to look at his faith and think, if Noah could trust God like that, I can too.
One of the biggest reasons we don’t run the race like we ought to is because we don’t think we can do it. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Christians say, “I can’t.” “I can’t forgive that person.” “I can’t overcome this habit.” “I am too shy to share the gospel.”
Folks, I understand it can be hard, but if you find yourself making these kinds of excuses, you need to understand that they are wicked and sinful. When you say, “I can’t” after Jesus said, “You can,” you are calling God a liar. You are saying that his power is not enough to sustain me. You need to stop making excuses, start trusting God, and then run the race because you can run with endurance.
The OT witnesses help us run the race by setting an example of faith and by showing us that it can be done. And so as you think about your race in 2017, commit to building an eternal perspective and then believe that you can run well this year. Be encouraged because if they could do it, you can do it.
The second help that our text gives…
Second Means: Set Aside Hindrances
This clause furthers the picture of a race. Maybe you watched some of the Olympic track events this summer. NBC would often show the runners coming out of the tunnel in sweat suits, and just before running the race they would take them off. Typically, there was little left on their bodies. In the Greek games, they would sometimes completely undress. We’ll take up the modesty discussion another day, but I think we all can relate to the illustration. When you run a race, you don’t want to carry any extra weight, and you don’t want to be wearing long flowing robes that hinder your flexibility and that could make you trip. You will never see an Olympic sprinter wearing a skirt. You want to remove every hindrance possible so that all of your energy can be devoted to the race.
And God says that running the Christian race also requires eliminating hindrances. Specifically he mentions “weights” and “sin which so easily ensnares us.”
We can easily see where sin can be a major drag in the race. Specifically, God describes it as snare or a trap. We could all give a host of personal illustrations of how sin has slowed us down from running the race. And sadly we all probably know at least one person whose faith endured devastating damage from a dominating sin.
Maybe you are weighed down today by a serious sin like pornography or drug abuse. It is threatening to ruin your faith. You need to realize the seriousness of the snare that is wrapping itself around you, and you need to cut if off.
Or maybe you are deceived by a respectable sin, and you don’t appreciate the hindrance it is. Maybe anger, anxiety, greed, or the fear of man is slowing you down more than you realize. God says that if you want to run well, you cannot tolerate any sin because all sin slows you down. As you look ahead to your race in 2017, ask yourself what sins are slowing me down and commit yourself to casting them off so that you can run faster.
But it’s not just sin that can slow you down because the verse also mentions “every weight.” This is a general term, and the point is that things that are not necessarily sinful can become a major drag on the Christian life. Maybe it’s a hobby that consumes your time and pulls you away from Christian disciplines and duties. Maybe you obsess over your health to an extent that you seek satisfaction in looking and feeling good rather than in God. Maybe it’s music, movies, and other media that fill your mind so much that there is little room left to meditate on God and to experience robust, godly affections.
Folks, oftentimes these kinds of things are Satan’s greatest tools. The innocent pursuits of this world begin to squeeze the life out of our faith, and we don’t see it because God never said this thing is bad. We don’t realize that we are trying to run with a 50 lb. weight around our ankle. One of the most important things you can do to help yourself run well this year is to do a full audit of your time and affections. Ask yourself very honestly, what is robbing God of the place he deserves in my heart? What is keeping me from running as hard as I should?
And then stop looking at that thing based on the temporal pleasure it gives you and instead see it as something that is hindering the most important pursuit of your life.
Folks this is an important change in perspective. You need to see your weights and sins not for how they make you feel but for the tremendous cost they have to your spiritual health. God has designed a race for you to run this year. It is good and wise, and it ends with his eternal reward. There is no weight in your life that is worth slowing you down. Look at your life by faith. Look at your weights with an eternal perspective, and then get rid of them. Get out of the muck and run the race.
As you look ahead to 2017, you can easily be overwhelmed with all of the stuff. You have a lot of pressures, some significant goals, some big fears, and then there’s also the unknown of what all is ahead. Today I want to urge you to step back from all of the details and to see a racecourse that God has designed for you. It’s not an easy course. It has some steep hills. There are places where you will have to run through standing water or wind and rain. It’s going to be hard, but there is an eternal reward at the finish line. 11:40 says God has “something better for us at the end. Stay focused on that prize and then get ready to endure. You are going to need endurance. Prepare for the hard times. As well you are going to need to be as light as possible, and so remove every hindrance. And then get started running because you can make it. The OT saints made it, and we’ll see next week that Jesus made it, and he made a way for us to make it too.
Before I close there may be someone here who isn’t even running the race because you aren’t a Christian. I haven’t exactly painted a rosy picture of the Christian life today, but it is an honest picture. Embarking on the Christian life would be the hardest thing you will ever do. But it would be the best thing you ever did also because Jesus is worth every sacrifice. Come to him today and begin the most significant race you could ever run.