Hebrews 12:1 - 13
We get to start chapter 12 with a therefore. As we all know, a therefore in the text is an excuse for me to go back over anything in the text that precedes our current passage. What is the therefore there for?
It is there for two reasons. First, we need to remember that there are saints who have gone before us that have done and said things that should inspire a response of faith from us. Since we are surrounded, let us lay aside... Second, it is there because the writer has mentioned these saints (the witnesses) for an over-arching purpose. Let’s look more closely at these two reasons.
First, the things that should inspire faith in us. The main impression should be of perseverance. Waiting patiently for God to accomplish his purposes. Acting in response to the directives of God, even if we cannot see the end result. These witnesses were tortured and killed, knowing that God was going to be faithful. Seeing their faith should inspire us to be faithful as well. Look at verse 1 - 2 again. As we think of the response of faith to this example, it is obvious that the writer thought it would result in perseverance in his readers. It should in us, too.
What keeps us from persevering? He mentions weights and sins. The word for weight is only used here in 12:1. Given the race metaphor, the idea is clear: set aside everything that will keep you from imitating faithful saints and persevere in the task that God has laid out for you. The weights are not necessarily sins: there are things that slow you down even though you did not sin in doing them. These are acceptable activities, thoughts or possessions that keep us from performing to our full potential. And of course, weights are used in training for a race. When it is time to run the race, you do not want the training weights on your arms or legs. We can think of this as being the preparations that we are making to live holy lives. We want to understand scripture and Christian living very well so that when the time of testing, or the race, comes we are ready to run without having to stop and look up a scripture to find out what to do.
Sins are, well, sinful. It should be obvious that as you sink in sin you cannot be running a race. Also, if you have not completed and set aside your weights (preparations) you may not recognize the sin which will easily entangle you.
The prime example, as always, is Jesus Christ. In his faith, he saw the prize after the trial and was willing to endure the cross. We should be encouraged by the fact that he endured hatred from the world and conquered it. Notice that the writer says “You have not yet resisted...” I think this means a couple of things. The struggle is always against sin. Sometimes other’s sins, sometimes our own. Jesus suffered for other’s sins. In resisting sin there may come a time when we will become martyrs. That is what the hall of faith is telling us; it is what Jesus showed us as well. Persevere through the persecution.
Verses 5 - 11 tell us of another function of the persecution. We do not often connect persecution with the chastening of God. It is easy to see it as one brave, solitary soul facing insurmountable odds and making the ultimate sacrifice. But to think of it as God correcting character flaws in us is quite another thing. I think the problem with our thinking on this matter stems from having an Enlightenment idea of perfection. Whatever we think of perfection has to include Hebrews 5:8 - 9. This is why I say an Enlightenment idea, perhaps a chemical idea would express it better. Sodium Chloride is perfect salt. Period. If you add anything else you don’t have salt. That pretty much informs our opinion of perfection. Jesus shatters that. God is raising sons, not chemical formulae. Read verses 7 - 11 again. Fathers discipline their sons. The quote in verses 5 & 6 is from Proverbs: Solomon says that sons should be beaten. This is not the picture of God (switch in hand!) we want to have. However, it is accurate. The writer says that this is what God is doing in persecution. Making our character complete. Our earthly fathers did what that they thought was best, but our heavenly father does what is actually the best.
Like so many things, God has designs that far surpass our ability to understand. It is not unlike Joseph and his brothers, they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. God is going to build a Christ-like character in us. He is content to use any means to do so. Christ became perfect in suffering. That does not mean he became more sinless. He was all the way sinless to begin with. He became a more perfect son, and learned submission. It is his example we should be following.
We are to be encouraged by this thought, as we plainly read in verses 12 and 13. How often do we have a child’s perspective on discipline? We feel the pain and do not see the long term gain that is going to come from it. The difficult times of our lives are plainly not fun, but we should have confidence that in every situation, God is perfectly working everything out for our good. God’s discipline does not go awry; it does not fail to do what he has determined we need. We truly have not been asked to resist sin to the point of shedding blood. But some of us have faced some difficult situations. I hope you see that this passage is saying that not only that those difficult situations came to us with God’s permission, but that he was actively involved in bringing them to you. He was in that difficult time building your character. Because we have for so long accepted a dualistic view of the universe, where God and Satan are basically equally powerful opposites, we tend to have a warped view of persecution. When that is coupled with a defeatist view of eschatology, we can get way off base. We end up thinking about a powerfully wicked Satan launching terrifying attacks that God can barely repulse. Nonsense. Jesus told us that not a sparrow falls from the sky without our father’s knowledge. Nothing can happen to us that he has not ordained, and ordained for our good and his glory. Let us learn the submission that Jesus Christ learned so that we can experience the joy he has found when we become perfect as he is.