“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.” Hebrews 12:1
Last week I read through Hebrews 11 and walked through it with you here, talking about all the encouragement that was coming in chapter twelve so I thought it would be unfair for me to leave you hanging there!
If you’ve never read through Hebrews 12, or if you have but it’s been a while, and even if you read it recently go ahead and read through it now. I want it to be fresh in your mind. And I’d rather you read the words of God than my words anyways. Go ahead, I’ll wait right here.
Read it? Ok, great!
I was right to tell you encouragement was coming, but it may be a little hard to see amidst all the talk about discipline. Actually, I want to argue that that discipline talk is encouraging. A good chunk of Hebrews 12 focuses on discipline and why it’s a good thing, which can be really challenging if your mind first goes to thoughts about punishment when you hear/see that word.
I think it’s fair for that to be your first reaction to this section on its own. There’s all this talk about God disciplining his children out of love, and it’s fairly natural to think of being disciplined by your parents for misbehaving. But in the context of chapter eleven, I’m not sure that’s the best take-away. That long list of people praised for their faith weren’t being punished for things. Rather, that list was to show the magnitude of their faith in God. “By faith,” is the refrain throughout chapter eleven, not “because of their sin.” The commentary in my Bible explains the Greek word used for 'witnesses' here is the same word from which "martyr" comes, which means these people are our examples, our inspiration for godly living. So if these faith-full people are our great cloud of witnesses (12:1) what can we learn from them?
The words 'endurance' and 'perseverance' automatically make me think about things that are long and hard, so for that to be in the first verse of this chapter signals to me that whatever we’re being encouraged about probably won’t be easy. And that is our "race," our lives lived for God. Our faith in God and his promise-keeping needs to be strong, or else enduring whatever we may experience in life will be difficult, if not improbable. That's what those saints modeled for us. And this is why discipline is needed.
It is discipline to punish. It is also discipline to practice. When you learn or perfect a sport, you are disciplining yourself. When you study in school, you are disciplining yourself. When you’re assigned homework or work projects, you are being disciplined. When your parents make you practice the piano, or your sport, or do your homework, you are being disciplined. Discipline does not necessarily denote punishment, but it does mean some level of pain and sacrifice (12:11). Of the two, the latter definition of discipline seems to fit and explain this section best.
I have a devotional called My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, a teacher and evangelist from the early twentieth century. The passage I read two days ago hit this nail on the head for me – “Faith must be tested, because it can be turned into a personal possession only through conflict.” This is the point of God’s discipline. He wants our faith to be true and strong, and it can only get that way through trial. Life will throw us curveballs and we will all suffer in some way. This passage of Hebrews teaches us that hardship and discipline can benefit us. When we struggle and suffer we are humbled and realize how inadequate we are to save ourselves, and sometimes even provide for ourselves. It is through trial and loss that we realize the things we often rely on in this world fade and break so easily. And it is through that realization that we long even more for a place where that does not happen.
My new favorite part of chapter twelve starts in verse eighteen. In this section the author compares two mountains. The first is Mount Sinai, where God descended in Exodus 19 and which displayed the great holiness of God, dangerous to those filled with sin (the Israelites). If even an animal touched that mountain it would have to die. The second is Mount Zion, the city of the living God, where there’s a huge party going on with thousands and thousands of angels and where Jesus is mediating for us. Amazingly, we are welcome at this second mountain! Here, all is made right. We get to dwell with the Lord again and party with those angels forever! It lights up my soul to read about those two mountains – the one the Israelites were terrified to approach and the one we are invited to enjoy! To dwell again with God is the hope of our gospel! It is for that reason that we have faith, and for that reason that our faith must be tested to ensure that it’s true.
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?” Hebrews 12:7
Easier said than done, for sure. But if anyone knows about endurance it’s the people of the early Church. Those people suffered like crazy – and their faith was strengthened all the more! When faced with hardship, think of it as discipline. Not the kind that comes as punishment – if you’re in Christ you are free from sin and judgment has already been passed on you, at the cross. Think of this discipline as a testing of your faith, something that will make it stronger. Something that will humble you and help you see your need for God all the more, and increase your hope and excitement for the day to come when we will be reunited with him!
Be encouraged, people! We are God’s children and that’s a really cool thing to be!
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