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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
We begin chapter 12 with an amazing shift in tone, yet it is a small section that is actually in the position of summing up the previous chapter. Remember that chapter 11 has been all about active faith, and here in summing that up the author, sounding very much like the Apostle Paul, uses a sports metaphor. We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” referring to all of those great people of faith who were named in chapter 11, and here they are the spectators at a great race; the stage is set…
The author now urges us to throw off everything that hinders as an athlete would remove all hindering clothing in preparation for a race. Then, he applies this to our reality when he says “and the sin that so easily entangles.” If we were athletes in a locker room before a great race, we would change out of our “street clothes” and into the garb of a runner; minimal clothing that allows full freedom of movement, with no extra weight, and nothing to limit our ability to run the race. Likewise, as servants of Jesus who are running the “race” of life, we must get rid of anything that would limit our ability to run our “race.” Sin, distractions and the like must be left behind, lest they should inhibit our efforts.
Then, we run our race that has been “marked out for us” with our eyes fixed on Jesus. When you run a race, you don’t just make up the course as you go along; it has been fixed by the racing officials. Likewise, the race that is our lives has been marked out by God, so that we run a certain course. We usually call this our “calling.” Each of us has been “called” to His service in a certain way, and the author is trying to encourage the people to fix their eyes on Jesus, and run the race we have been called to effectively and without distraction or restraint.
Jesus, who is the author (pioneer) and perfecter of our faith is our model for the race. Notice that He is author; He is the One who has written this tale and marked out our race. He has perfected our faith by His work on the cross. As you read further, we see that Jesus is our model, for in His earthly ministry, He has done exactly what we are to do now in our own rights. He threw off sin and distraction, fixed His eyes upon the will of the Father, and ran His race to win. We are to throw off all distraction and sin and fix our eyes upon Jesus and run our race to win just as those great people of faith in chapter 11 did.
Finally, Jesus sat down at the right hand of the throne on high; He reached the finish line. For just as He reached the finish line and as He sat down on high, so shall we, when we finish the course before us. I’m struck at this moment that the whole concept of this is so simple. It’s really easier to comprehend than it is to describe, which is the mark of a great metaphor. Will we get ready and run that race?
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
Our author moves from the high ground of the first 3 verses into an area that isn’t quite as warm and fuzzy… or is it? Remember who he is writing to, Jewish Christians in Rome during the time of Nero’s persecution. These brothers are enduring very difficult times, times most of us can hardly imagine. This whole letter has served to encourage them to persevere, to hold on to their faith in Christ, and to recognize that whatever the current crisis may be, it is never worth throwing away our future hope to avoid it. Now, the author takes a different approach: Discipline.
Notice that right off, he paints discipline as a positive. To receive the discipline of the heavenly Father is to have our sonship confirmed! Have you ever thought of it that way? I hadn’t until about the third or fourth time I studied this.
As we struggle with sin… and yes, we all have that struggle in one form or another… we have not resisted (sin) to the point of shedding our blood (being killed). Even for the original recipients, this statement must have been obvious. Then the word of encouragement, that we receive discipline because we are God’s children… Take a minute to reflect on this quote from Proverbs 3. Early on in this letter, we rejoiced at the thought that through Christ, we have been made His sons and daughters, remember? We are co-heirs with Christ! As sons and daughters normally do, we come under the authority and discipline of Father. Are we still rejoicing?
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.
I have three children, all grown now, and when they were growing up, they were subject to my discipline. There were times when they were punished. There were times when I lectured them, times when I scolded them and times when I pleaded with them. As they grew, some of my methods changed because their understanding changed. There were times with all of them when I had to step aside and let them get hurt so they could learn the hard way a lesson they were slow to learn by other means; this was the worst for me. Oh, how much it hurt to step back and let them do something stupid; how hard it was to force myself not to say “I told you that would happen!” (I sometimes failed at this point, by the way) Of course, there were times when they blamed me for not stopping them when they set out to do something they knew better than to do. Maybe this sounds familiar to you parents out there… maybe this sounds familiar to all of us in our relationships with God also.
Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Our human fathers did their best with us in most cases, as I did my best with my kids. But neither I nor any other human father was always right, no human father did as good a job for their children as our heavenly Father does with us. The sad truth is that for many, the concept of a loving and merciful father is hard to comprehend because of the imperfections of their human father, yet the truth remains that our heavenly Father is love itself. He is able, willing and more than capable of guiding us along through this great adventure that is our lives… this “race” we are in. Yet, from time-to-time we are much like any stubborn teenager, slow to learn.
Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
A word of encouragement! Yes, may we learn, may we come to see the way that we should go. May we be like the young person who is willing to be taught, rather than like the one who is certain that they know everything already! May we accept our Father’s lessons and discipline and learn and grow from it quickly, and run our race straight to the finish line.
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.
This is a particularly interesting little paragraph; look at it carefully, and let’s see what riches are in store for us…
First, the author exhorts us to live in peace with everyone, and to strive to be holy, set apart, for without that, no one will see God. Living at peace with everyone seems to be referring to a lifestyle that is not engaging in controversy and discord; things that the New Testament teaches in many places, as we have seen. Living holy lives is also a common theme in the New Testament, and keeping in mind that holy means “set apart” it isn’t too difficult to follow what that means. We are to be set apart from the world we live in, set apart for God and not partakers in every crazy thing that comes along. We are to be willing to undergo God’s discipline and to stand for the Truth of His Word; these things would be very consistent with the 11 chapters of Hebrews that we have been through so far, and would make sense considering the historical context that we have seen so many times.
We’ve been told before in this letter to help and encourage one another to hold on to our faith, and so to be told here not to let anyone “fall short of the grace of God” and to allow no “bitter root” in our midst to defile others would also seem to make sense. That sexual immorality is mentioned right after this is interesting… but the most interesting little piece of the entire paragraph comes right after that. “Godless like Esau” is a very interesting thing; the author goes on to remind his readers that Esau sold his birthright for a dinner, and could not get it back.
His birthright, or inheritance is a covenant reference, for he was to inherit his right as a patriarch of old, as a direct descendant of Abraham. Remember that Esau didn’t really take that inheritance as seriously as he should have, and traded it to his younger brother Jacob for a bowl of stew, and thus Jacob inherited upon Isaac’s death. So, what will we take away from this?
What has Hebrews been all about so far? It was written to the Jewish Christians in Rome in a time of severe persecution, to urge them not to give up their faith under severe trial. The message has been that in the New Covenant relationship with Christ, we have a superior high priest who brought a superior sacrifice to establish a superior covenant based upon superior promises. We have just been warned not to be like Esau who lost his place in Abraham’s covenant when he valued a bowl of stew more that his birthright. Once again, in a slightly different way than before, the author is telling his readers, including you and me, to place our highest priority on our New Covenant birthright as co-heirs with Christ to everything, lest we should lose everything.
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
We’re in the home stretch now on our tour of Hebrews, and it begins with two mountaintops. In these verses, we see Mount Sinai in quotes from both Exodus and Deuteronomy. Notice that the author is speaking in the negative: “You have not come to a mountain that…” See it? He is about to describe a place we have moved away from…
Read the passage slowly, try to picture the terror the people felt when they came to Mount Sinai. Fire, darkness, gloom; everything about the place was intimidating and terrifying; they were in the presence of God, and that was not a place you wanted to be. Poor Moses had to climb up there and receive the Law from a God who was unapproachable. Yes, He was a God of love, but He was dealing with a people who were in rebellion against Him, yet He had taken the initiative to build a relationship with them. These were the descendants of Abraham, now grown to the size of a small nation. This was not a negotiation; it was a truce being offered by the stronger side: Take it or leave it. If they took it, God was willing to be their God, as long as they kept His Law. If they left it, well, let’s not think about what might happen. What is really important for us to understand is that God, the party in the stronger position, was offering the truce, and this was an act of mercy.
Oh, yes… and it wasn’t the end of the story; it was just the beginning!
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Now, the second mountaintop, and what a contrast; this is the mountain we have come to, Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. This is the reality that was only pictured in the old earthly city. Joyous angels, the spirits of the righteous, the presence of God… without the fear and the dread, for now we are made perfect in His sight by the blood of Jesus. No longer are we at war. This is not just a truce, this is a Treaty of Alliance, of Fellowship: We are now members of the Family!
Here’s a little bonus for you: notice the terms that are used here as one: Mount Zion, city of the living God, Heavenly Jerusalem, church of the firstborn. These are combined with the descriptive comments; thousands of angels, spirits of the righteous, the presence of God and Jesus the mediator of a better covenant. You see, they all refer to what we would call the heavenly church or heaven. Remember this when you read the prophets and the Psalms and you will find them easier to understand.
Finally, that sprinkled blood, the blood that was brought by the mediator of the New Covenant, His own blood. It speaks a better word than the blood of Abel, for it speaks not of senseless hatred and violence, it does not cry out for vengeance, it speaks of redemption and life; what an awesome picture this is.
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
This, is a powerful passage, one of amazing awe and wonder to ponder. The author begins it with an imperative, “See to it…” Who is speaking, the one we aren’t supposed to refuse? The answer is in the next sentence: Who warned the people from earth, and warns us from heaven? God would be my answer.
Go back to verses 18-21, and you can get an idea of what the author is referring to here. He recounted Mount Sinai, the fire, the darkness the smoke and shaking… Yes, there was warning for the people in all of that: They were to take the Law that was given to Moses seriously. Did they? Well, some of the time. Did those people get into the promised land?
No, they didn’t.
We have the reality that was to come, and yet we are being told not to turn away from Him. Yes, that warning was for the Jewish Christians of Nero’s Rome, and it is for those who followed them as well. The author continues his thought in the rest of this passage by making a comparison between God’s warnings on Sinai, and the judgment that is to come. When that day arrives, all of creation will be stripped away, and only that which is entirely of God will remain, and the very strong implication is that those who are left standing will be the ones who remained faithful to God.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Here the chapter draws to a close. Look carefully and you see that it ends on an optimistic note. Preachers over the centuries have often quoted verse 29 “for our God is a consuming fire.” to strike fear into the hearts of their congregations, and that is a pity. They often left out verse 28 entirely, and verse 28 gives verse 29 its rich significance, for it reminds the readers of this letter that we have a great inheritance, that we are a heavenly kingdom and that we shall indeed stand on that day. Yes, we will stand for we will never turn away from Him. No! We will worship Him properly, with reverence and awe in loving and faithful trust.
To wrap up the chapter, I just want to mention one final thought about judgment day. What we have just read is not a literal description of the day. It is told here in figure, as an illustration of the reality that is to come; sound familiar? It probably won’t be a great earthquake that shatters everything except God’s people, but of course it will accomplish the same thing. For us today, it is simply important to understand that no matter what the future may hold, we simply need to remain faithful to our Lord, to love Him, to trust Him and to share His love with one another… and not worry about the details of the great day. We’ll come out just fine if we do that, and that is the point of the chapter.