Entering the Arena (vs. 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.
Can you hear it? There are days when it gets a little faint and you have to concentrate to hear it, but it’s there. It’s always there; it never quits. It is the applause of heaven - that great cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on and keeping us going in our walk of faith.
Participants, not spectators
We walk in through the doors of this building, through the entrance into the auditorium, find a comfortable seat, and prepare to watch and listen. If we’re lucky, there will be a good performance this week. If not – well, as the little boy told his complaining family at Sunday dinner, “What do you expect for a dollar?”
The Hebrews writer throws off the veil of life to reveal that – we are not spectators to this great race of faith, but participants. In the midst of the race, in the heat of the battle – we are the ones who are involved in this life and death struggle between the hosts of heaven and the hosts of hell.
The Greek word for race is “agona” (from which our English word, “agony” derives). The Christian life isn’t the casual stroll through the park; it isn’t disinterested channel surfing by the spiritual couch potato. It is straining with all our might; it is fighting to the point of exhaustion. It takes everything we have to live the life Jesus leads us into.
Yet, so many of us coast along, thinking there’s nothing to this Christian thing. That suggests two possibilities: (I’m not sure either one is very flattering) – 1) We are on the wrong course. 2) We’re on the right course, but oblivious to the race.
A great cloud of witnesses
In the 11th chapter of Hebrews, our writer describes for us example after example of men and women of faith who have gone before us – confidently trusting in God – unfailing in their obedience – unflagging in their zeal.
Now in the 12th chapter, these examples of faith sit in this stadium, cheering us on, shouting encouragement, reminding us of the rewards that come to those of faith. They are “a great cloud of witnesses” who have run the race, received the prize and now cheer us on to the finish line.
Let’s not forget the original readers of this letter. They had been excluded, rejected, ostracized and persecuted so intensely that they felt like they couldn’t go on. They were ready to drop out of the race. The “agony” was too much. They needed the encouragement to go on; they needed to hear that it wasn’t all in vain.
Throwing off everything that hinders
I think of the athletes among us. What determination and training it takes to prepare. During the training, what sacrifices they make and what pain they will endure. During the training, they put on weights, they strain against the restraints – they intentionally make it more difficult to run. But on the day of the race, everything is cast off, the weights are thrown aside – there is a freedom and strength.
In our spiritual lives there are two kinds of weights that keep us from running our best. One of them can distract us, one of them can disqualify us from the race.
There is “the sin that so easily entangles” -- When there is sin in our lives – undealt with, unrepented of, unconfessed sin – we are walking to the starting line tangled up in our sweat suit, rope wrapped around our legs, arms caught up in a roll of tape. We can’t run effectively, we can’t glorify God with our lives – that’s not the way God wants us to live.
But there is another, more subtle weight that many of us carry – he calls it “everything that hinders.” We get so involved in good things we have no time for the best. We are so distracted by secondary pursuits that we can’t concentrate on things of first importance. I’m not talking about bad things, not sinful things, but things that take us away from serving God with all our heart. Things that infringe on my time with God, activities that take me away from worshiping him, pursuits that demand so much of my time and energy that, if I’m honest, have really become my first love.
Let us run with perseverance
The writer says, the race is on, it’s time to throw off all those weights and entanglements and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
It isn’t on the flat straight-aways that we see what an athlete is made of. The Christian life isn’t a sprint, but a marathon. And it isn’t in the beginning miles that the runner is put to the test. It is in the final miles of the marathon – when the “wall of pain” tries to break the spirit, or on the steep grade of “heartbreak hill” that we see the real heart of the athlete.
There is a possibility we might miss a significant little phrase here if we aren’t observant: “the race marked out for us.”
Jesus has been this way before – and he has made it. We are not fighting an impossible fight, or running an unwinnable race.
And it is here in verse 2 that the writer reveals what gives us the strength and courage to go on:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus… (vss. 2-3)
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 thrown of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
“The one who has gone before us” – the one who has crossed the finish line, hasn’t walked off the track and left the stadium. He isn’t in the stands shouting encouragement. He is there ahead of us, encouraging us on, still running ahead and showing us the way.
The writer calls him “the author and perfecter of our faith.” Earlier in chapter 2, he called him “the pioneer of our salvation.” Jesus shows us in concrete terms what faith means. Not only has he been there before, he is the one who forged the path ahead of us. He knows the dangers and the struggles and the pitfalls. It’s not just a page out of some “Dictionary of Theology”. Jesus puts flesh and bones on this call to faith. He not only defines it, but is himself the very definition.
When the writer says to “fix our eyes on Jesus,” he is describing the constant gaze, not the occasional nod, or the wavering glance. It is looking away from everything else to lock our focus on the one who is at the finish line, urging us toward the goal.
Enduring the cross
We’re tempted to say, “Yeah, but he’s Jesus – how can you miss when you’re the Son of God?” It is then that we must face the cross.
The whole life of Jesus was characterized by unbroken and unquestioning faith in his heavenly Father. At the beginning of the last week he prays, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” And never more so than at Gethsemane – he prays “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
Sheer faith carried him through the following day of humiliation and scourging and crucifixion – and the even more bitter agony of rejection, betrayal and desertion.
Our text says, “He endured the cross” – the crowds shouted, “Come down from the cross and we will believe!”
And he could have – with one word – but he stayed there “enduring the cross, scorning the shame.” We concentrate on the physical pain Jesus endured – the scourging, the nails, the crucifixion. But we also need to see the emotional violence he endured: the shame – no other death carries with it the disgrace that was associated with the cross – stripped naked, exposed, humiliated – this disgrace Jesus fully bore so that we wouldn’t have to bear the guilt and shame that should be ours.
Why? “For the joy set before him.” It is only in keeping our eyes on the goal and the reward that we can push through the pain and struggle of the race. The key is in our perspective. When we know who is in control and what the promised outcome is, we can bear anything.
Victor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz wrote in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and dying… He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
So, if we are tempted to give up, we need to take another look at Jesus. Our writer says, “Consider him.” He is both the example and motivation and the reward. Let him be the center and the focus of your thoughts. When you think you can’t take another step – think about Jesus.
“So that we do not grow weary and lose heart” The writer feels for the struggles his readers were going through – he knows how desperate their situation is. They have endured, but they are losing sight of the goal, they are taking their eyes off of Jesus.
There just aren’t any words more relevant for us today when we become weary and lose heart. This world crushes in around us. We see spiritual casualties every day falling by the side of the path. Satan threatens to undo us with temptations pressing at every weakness. We are inundated with bad news at every turn without relief in sight.
How do we possibly not grow weary and lose heart? The truth is, you can’t. Not if all you have to hope in is this world. But Jesus reminds us, “You are not of this world, any more than I am of this world.” Yes, the news in this world is bad and seems to be getting worse every day, but our eyes aren’t on the headlines in the newspaper – our eyes are fixed upon Jesus. I may go through trials and tribulations in this world, but Jesus tells me, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
There is a joy that is set before you that cannot be marred or taken away by this world. And you take hold of that joy and never let go. You keep your eyes on Jesus and never look away. You want to know how not to grow weary and lose heart? Walk with the one who has promised never to leave you or forsake you. And listen to the applause of the stadium full of saints who have gone before you and are cheering you on in the race.
Let me finish with a story from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. It was 7 pm on October 20, 1968. An hour and five minutes earlier, the winner of the 1968 Olympic Marathon had finished the race and the stadium was nearly empty by the time John Stephen Akhwari from Tanzania appeared at the entrance of the arena, hobbling on a dislocated knee and lacerations from a fall in the early miles of the race. He was the last contestant to finish, but the remaining crowd leaped to their feet and cheered as if he were the winner. Later, when asked why he didn’t give up and quit, Akhwari replied, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
Posted on Sun, January 27, 2019
by John Roberts