December 14, 2007

Running to Win

Preacher: Bryce Morgan Series: Victory! Scripture: Hebrews 12:1–12:3


Running to Win
Hebrews 12:1-3
October 14th, 2007
Way of Grace Church

I. Designed to Run

Did you know that in many ways, the human body was designed for running; and not just any kind of running, but long distance running? Now, if you're like me, you might say, "I don't feel designed for running, especially long distance running."

But scientists have notice how, in contrast to so many animals who are great sprinters, we seem to be built for running long distances. The 300,000 to 400,000 Americans who run in marathons each year might agree.

For example, the peroneus brevis tendon is one of many elongated tendons in the human body that works like a spring as a person runs.

Or consider the gluteus maximus -- the large muscle in our rear. When you run, this muscle plays an important role in keeping you from falling -as one researcher put it, "it stabilizes your trunk."

Additionally, the arches in our feet, which give spring to our step, and the broad surface areas of our joints, which help distribute the shock of the impact when we run, our wide shoulders and lighter forearms provide balance, and finally our ability to sweat is unmatched in creation. With an estimated 3 million sweat glands, we are much more efficient at staying cool.

So why does this matter? Why the physiology lesson? Because this morning we need to think more about long-distance running; no, not the kind that involves the soles of our feet, but the kind that involves our souls.

This morning, we are continuing to talk about "Victory!" We are surrounded by talk of victory, aren't we? Typically, we hear this word used in reference to sports. But what we've begun to see is that, in many instances, when the Bible talks about victory, it also talks about athletics, but it does so in order to tell us something about victory in life.

Would you turn with me this morning to Hebrews 12:1-3 (page 1008).

This morning I want us to listen to what God has to tell us about running to win.

II. The Passage: Run with Endurance (12:1-3)

Hebrews 12:1-3. Now, the writer here is addressing Jewish Christians who were struggling with the pressures of following Christ in the face of opposition from their Jewish communities. He's just spent the previous chapter, chapter 11, working through a list of men and women from the Old Testament who exemplified the kind of faith he hopes his readers will have. In light of this, listen to what he writes:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

Now, the athletic imagery that this writer is using is obvious, isn't it. He is using the image of a foot race in order to call his readers to action.

The analogy of life as a race was actually a very common device in both Greek and Jewish writings from this time period. Running competitions always held the place of honor in the different Greek games.

But I want you to notice that, unlike last week, there is no mention here of victory or of a prize. The main point here, the central theme in these verses is the idea of endurance. As he puts it in verse 1, "run with endurance".

If you think about it, almost everyone can run, but not everyone is a runner. What distinguishes runners from those who have the ability to run is one of two things: it is either 1) speed, or 2) endurance.

In this instance and in the several passages where Paul uses the image of the runner, the emphasis is never on speed. The Christian life is not about a quick burst of energy to get to a not-so distant finish line. No, these passages are always about the endurance aspect of running. That's what we see here. " with endurance the race that is set before us" Long-distance running.

So I think we can say that running to win is running with endurance.

But what is this "race that is set before us"? Well, in the context here, just coming out of chapter 11, we could say that the race is the living a life of faith through Jesus Christ. Faith was the emphasis of the last chapter, and everything that came before that has been focused on presenting the greatness of Jesus Christ.

So because God has issued a "heavenly calling" (3:1) to us, he has set before us a race; he has set before us this life of faith, that we would love him and listen to him because of Jesus Christ.

This is actually a great point at which to look back to the message last week from Philippians 3, where the Apostle Paul described for us the prize he was pursuing which was knowing Jesus Christ in the everyday.

Is that the prize you're pursuing? Is that what you want more and more everyday? If it is, then you are in the race this writer is talking about. That is the "race that is set before us".

But, as this writer makes clear, the issue is not simply getting in the race. The real issue is staying in the race. No one is given a medal for simply signing up and launching off the starting blocks. The real issue is endurance.

But what does it mean to have "endurance" as a follower of Jesus Christ?

Think about a runner's endurance. Why does a runner need endurance to go the distance? One word: fatigue. The human body can only expend so much energy before it starts to stop. Good runner's learn how push beyond that fatigue. They condition themselves to get the most out of their bodies and run beyond that weariness.

The writer of Hebrews describes this same idea of fatigue in verse 3. In verse 3, he uses the phrase, "grow weary or fainthearted".

The reality of spiritual weariness or faintheartedness confirms our need for spiritual endurance.

Can you relate to these things? Have you ever experienced the kind of spiritual weariness that the author here is trying to address?

For the readers of this letter, their "spiritual fatigue" was described in a variety of ways or described in terms of its consequences. The author talks about it in terms of "becoming dull of hearing" (5:11), being "sluggish" (6:12), "wavering" (10:23), "shrinking back" (10:39).

So spiritual weariness is not the feeling you might have after a long day at church or the feeling that many of us had after our recent basketball camp outreach. No, that's physical and/or mental weariness because of ministry.

Spiritual weariness is a sluggishness in doing what God calls you to do. It is fatigue in terms of faith. It is weariness in regard to worship. It is exhaustion in the realm of obedience. It is apathy when it comes to knowing Jesus Christ in the everyday. Ever feel that way?

Remember, their spiritual weariness was being fueled, in large part, by the persecution they were suffering as Jews who had received Jesus Christ as the Messiah. This certainly wasn't a welcome change in tight-knit Jewish communities. In the face of these pressures, the temptation was to stop running; to drop out of the race.

Listen to how the author encouraged these Christians two chapters earlier about their need for endurance:

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. (10:32-36)

These believers knew something about endurance. Running the race, they were familiar with those times of spiritual weariness, but in the past, they had pressed on. And yet now, they were feeling even more burdened and hopeless as this persecution apparently intensified.

You might not be facing public "reproach" or the "plundering of your property", but all of us have to deal, day in and day out, with so many things that can lead to spiritual weariness:

o The continuing reality of sin in our lives.

o The continued spiritual stubbornness of a friend or relative.

o The difficulty of saying what God wants us to say.

o A sense of failure in the face of other's expectations.

o The reality of a culture that is becoming entrenched in worldly wisdom and corruption.

o The pressure of pleasing others or being accepted by others.

o The difficulty of living according to God's timetable and not ours.

o Feelings of lovelessness, hopelessness, purposelessness, worthlessness.

All of these things can so easily lead each of us to "grow weary and fainthearted"; and thus all of us need to run with endurance.

The Greek word that the writer uses here, that we translate as "endurance", is a word that might also be translated as perseverance, steadfastness, or in some cases, even patience.

Are you feeling "spiritually weary or fainthearted"?

Remember the kinds of things that can happen in a race. Runners might simply slow down and lose their pace, or they might stumble all together. In either case, endurance is what keeps them going.

In the same way, you might be thinking about endurance in terms of giving up all together. That's for people who say, "I'm not going to pray, I'm not going to meditate on God's word, I'm not going to church."

But those kinds of decisions are the result of small seeds planted earlier in our heart, what might seem like minor decisions. "Oh, I can pray tomorrow. Yeah, I know that, I've heard it before. Well, just this once won't hurt."

You might be slowing down in your passion for knowing Jesus Christ in the everyday, or, maybe you've stumbled all together, and are not getting up. Wherever you are, God knows your heart, and he is calling all of us to "run with endurance the race that is set before us".

As it said in 10:34, there is at the end of our race "a better possession and an abiding one"; and in 10:35 "a great reward". Can you see the prize.

III. Recommendations for the Race

But what we also find in this chapter are some incredible recommendations for this race. The writer here does not simply say, "run with endurance". No, he talks about how and why we should run with endurance.

Look at what he tells us in the opening words of this passage.

A. Be Inspired By the Crowd

Look at verse 1 again: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses..."

Now what in the world does this mean? Who are these witnesses? At first glance, in a passage filled with athletic imagery, it seems that the author is painting for us a picture of a stadium filled with spectators who are witnessing this "race that is set before us".

But whether or not that is the image the writer was hoping to evoke in the minds of his readers, the real issue here concerns the identity of these witnesses. The Greek word that the author uses here, that is translated as "witnesses" in our Bibles is the word martus. It's the word from which we've been given the English word martyr.

A martyr is someone who has, like a witness in a courtroom, testified of their faith in Jesus Christ and proven that testimony by laying down their life for Him.

Now, in this context, even though the idea of martyrdom is not necessarily emphasized, the idea of witnessing to one's faith is very clear. How do I know? Well, the context reveals that this cloud of witnesses has to be all of the people mentioned in the previous chapter, those men and women described in the Old Testament who were, according to this author, incredible examples of enduring faith.

The word "cloud" was often used to refer to a large mob of people; a crowd.

Listen to what we learn about this cloud/crowd in the closing verses of chapter 11:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated- 38 of whom the world was not worthy-wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

In light of the author's intention in chapter 11, in light of what he wanted to do there, whether or not the stadium idea is valid, the opening sentence of chapter 12 is simply an affirmation that because we are surrounded by such incredible examples of faith, we should endure all the more.

Do you read God's word with this in mind? Do you look for and draw inspiration from the enduring faith of God's people? How does Abraham's step of faith into the unknown inspire you? How does Moses' commitment to God's people encourage you? Are you challenged when you read how David waited patiently for God's will to be worked out?

Remember what Paul told us about the Old Testament: For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance [same word in Greek] and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)

Feeling fatigued? Open up God's word and be inspired by these incredible pictures of enduring faith.

B. Lay Aside Every Hindrance

But immediately after the writer's mention of these witnesses, he gives us another recommendation for the race. Look at what he writes in verse 1:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

The writer of Hebrews actually begins the athletic imagery here as he figuratively describes the preparation of runners for the race. In Greek culture, the runners would actually lay aside all of their clothes and run naked. In other cultures, they would strip down to the bare minimum in terms of what was culturally appropriate. In either case, the idea is to be as unhindered as possible for the competition.

In verse 1, we are called to lay aside every weight, especially the weight of sin, that is, we are to remove from our lives anything that will hinder us from pressing on in faith.

I've known many believers who have, with frustration, struggled forward in the race because they were unwilling to let go of, to remove, this or that burden or sin.

What's slowing you down, this morning? Is it something from your past that you can't seem to let go of? Is it an inability to accept that God loves you perfectly, all the time? Is it a sense of self-importance that defines your worth? Is it a habit that you secretly delight in, even though you know it's wrong? Is it unforgiveness? Is it regret? Is it disappointment? Is it a fear of abandonment? Is it a controlling spirit?

Whatever is it, God is calling each of us this morning to lay... it... aside! And we lay it aside in order to run.

C. Fix Your Eyes on the Goal

But look at where the writer goes in verse 2. Last week, in Philippians 3, Paul employed this race imagery and talked about pressing on according to the goal or "goal-marker". That was the post that stood next to the track marking the finish line. It was visual cue for the runner's who would look there in order to determine how far it was to victory.

But here, the visual marker is none other than Jesus himself.

let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

If we are to endure in faith, we must look to Jesus. Implicit in this word for "looking" is the idea of looking away from other things and fixing your eyes on something else. It means focusing on Jesus in the midst of everything else.

And notice the reason we are to look to Jesus. He is the founder and perfecter of our faith. There is the sense in these words of beginning and end. He is the initiator and finisher of our faith. He is the creator and completer of our faith. He is the leader and standard of our faith. He makes our faith possible and brings it to full expression.

Even though the enduring faith of those in the Old Testament is encouraging and exemplary, they cannot compare to the faith of Jesus who endured the cross, in spite of its shame. And now, He is seated in the highest place of honor; he is at the right hand of God.

You may recall that Jesus was described back in 6:20 as a forerunner. We are looking to Jesus because He has already finished the race. He endured the cross. He has been exalted to God's right hand.

And now listen to how the author here describes Jesus at the finish line:

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (4:14-16)

Who are you looking to each day? Where is your focus? Is it on Jesus, and knowing Him in the everyday?

He is the only reason any of us will ever endure? He is the only prize, the only goal, that can keep our hearts from growing weary in this race. If you are not looking to Him, you will be distracted and slowed down. You may even veer off course.

Think of him each day. Know that He is with you. Be strengthened by His love. Be comforted by His grace. Be challenged by His example.

IV. Conclusion

Brothers and sisters, if you have placed your trust in Jesus as your only hope, then you are in a race. Not just any race, but a race that has been set before us according to the perfect wisdom and incomparable power of God.

Don't measure your Christian life in terms of getting in the race or in terms of this or that experience of fatigue or a second-wind. Measure it in terms of faithfulness to going the distance. True victory means running with endurance.

Don't you want to be able to say along with the Apostle Paul, because of your love for Jesus Christ...

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (II Timothy 4:6, 7)

Let's pray.

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