The Christian life is not easy. Like a good pastor, the author of Hebrews has been shepherding his flock to stick with Jesus. First, he convinces them that Jesus is superior as the Son of God. Then he convinces them that Jesus is superior in his ministry as High Priest. Now, he is showing them how that helps Christians endure during hard times. If we have ears to hear, he’s shepherding us to the same green pastures.
One of the ways the Lord shepherds is by warning. The author transitions from Chapter 11’s “hall of faith” to give one of the sharpest warnings in all of the Bible in Chapter 12, about discipline and repentance. The author uses a combination of exhortation and motivation to move us to a place of openness before the Lord. He startles our soul to wake us up so that he can calm us with the gospel. Sometimes we just need to be disturbed and reoriented. Our hearts drift from God, and we need a sharp poke to get us back to him.
John Piper summarizes chapter 12 this way, “If you look at the whole chapter, there are what you might call four peaks and four valleys. The peaks are exhortation (or right-doing), and the valleys are motivation (or right-knowing) - reasons to act this way.”
What we need before entering this chapter is a humility that comes only from God. So, stop and pray now before continuing.
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, 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.
Imagine your life is a race held inside an arena. The gun cracked at your birth and the rest of your life, up until your death, consists of the race. You are not alone, but you cannot depend on anyone else to run your race for you. Obstacles litter the lane. You must jump over, go under, or slide around them. Some of them you have to face and conquer through force. You can’t stop running, and you can’t go back. You can’t see what’s up ahead, but onward you go, trusting that the prize awaits.
That’s the image the author of Hebrews is conjuring. The Christian life is a race toward God. What do we need to get there? We need two things. First, we need to lose the extra cargo. Second, we need to focus.
We all carry cargo that slows us down. The author gives us two examples: weights and sins. If you watch a runner before a race, you notice that he removes every unnecessary piece of clothing. He doesn’t want anything in his way. Clothes aren’t bad, but in a sprint, all they do is hinder. Weights are the extra cargo we’re carrying around that isn’t sinful but isn’t helpful.
Weights slow us down. Sins stop us cold. They push us backward, like dropping the baton. What the author is calling us to is a removal of all things that keep us from running the race the Lord has set out for us.
But simply removing things won’t keep our legs moving. We need motivation to keep going. The Christian life is not made up primarily of avoiding sin. It is made up primarily of running toward Jesus. We aren’t running away from something; we’re running toward someone.
Hebrews 11 gave us many examples of lives of faith. Those examples speak to us today. But the author has one more example above all the others: Jesus. His race was filled with obstacles. In the end, he faced unimaginable suffering at the cross. He faced separation from the Father he had known for eternity. He faced sin that ruined the world. But he did not fail, and he did not stop running. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross. And what was that joy? It was you and me. It was the saints that he has loved and saved.
Jesus’ successful race is the model the author calls us to follow. He’s the trailblazer paving the way. But Jesus isn’t merely an example for us to follow, he’s the entire point of the race. He always has been. That’s what Chapter 11 is about: people running toward Jesus. The cloud of witnesses fill the stands in the arena of our lives, cheering us on toward the goal of Jesus Christ. We are not the first to do this.
The author is not discounting the difficulty of life. But he knows that we will respond to the hardness of life depending on our focus. If we focus, then we will want to lay aside every weight and sin.
3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
We long to be in green pastures and beside still waters. We want our lives filled with peace and joy. But so much of life is just hanging on. So much of life feels like an exhausting race that will never end and will only increase in pain. So, how do we endure when our lives are falling apart before the Lord?
What we need in desperate times is to behold the love of God in Jesus Christ. We need to remember the exhortation that addresses us as sons. What do good fathers do? They discipline their children. They lead them out of foolishness and into maturity. Discipline is painful, and no one who has experienced it can deny that. So, when we are under God’s discipline, he is just being our Father. To make it through life without discipline reveals not God’s blessing but God’s absence. If you’ve never been disciplined by God, the question you should ask is not “how is my life so good?” but “does God even love me?” Every good father disciplines his son.
Jesus himself was disciplined, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). If Jesus, being perfect needed it, we need it as well. Discipline is God’s grace conforming us to Christ’s likeness. It helps us grow in obedience. We, like Jesus, learn obedience through what we suffer. In that suffering, God is not giving us up. He’s bringing us in. Even painful suffering inflicted upon Christians by outsiders cannot prevent God’s purposes of grace in sanctification. It only serves his purposes. “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Our lives are transformed as we see that God’s discipline is not done out of anger from God but out of love. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (12:6).
There’s a poem that I love. Unfortunately, we do not know the author’s name, but that’s ok because we don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews, either. The truth remains.
When God wants to drill a man
And thrill a man
And skill a man
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part
When He yearns with all His heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Watch His methods, watch His ways!
How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him
And with mighty blows converts him
Into shapes and forms of clay
Which only God can understand.
How He bends but never breaks
When his good He undertakes
How He uses whom He chooses
And with mighty power infuses him
With every act induces him
To try His splendor out —
God knows what He’s about.
At times, we feel the hand of God heavy upon our life. We long for relief. But God knows what is best for us, just as we know what is best for our children. If we trust our earthly fathers to discipline us for our good, how much more should we trust our Heavenly Father?
Viewed biblically, discipline is a cause for rejoicing, not lamenting. God is moving us toward holiness. He’s bringing us closer to his heart. It hurts at first, but it yields fruit in the end. To understand that difficulty in your life is used by God for his purposes is to rest deeply in the reality of Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Do not despise the discipline of God. If you’re on his anvil, stay on his anvil. Jesus did, and he saved the world.
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
After encouraging us to accept the discipline of God, the author then gives us 6 exhortations in 12:12-17.
- Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, making straight paths for your feet (v. 12)
- Strive for peace with everyone (v. 14)
- Strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (v. 14)
- Obtain the grace of God (v. 15)
- Let no root of bitterness spring up and cause trouble (v. 15)
- Do not be sexually immoral or unholy like Esau (v. 16)
John Piper says, “All of these commands for us to do something are rooted in something God is already doing for us and in us. So just like chapter 11 taught us, we are to do these things "by faith" - that is, with the assurance that God is for us and is working for those who trust him. We are not being commanded here in this text to do things that will get God to adopt us as his children. We are being commanded to act like people who are utterly persuaded that we are already adopted through faith, and that our omnipotent Father loves us, and that the most painful adversities of our lives are expressions of his loving discipline and not his hateful vengeance.”
But there is a warning here in this passage, as well. There is a common thought that goes something like this, “I don’t need to get right with God now. I just need to do what makes me happy. I’ll get right with God later.” That’s foolish. You cannot determine the point at which you come to God. God determines that. Therefore, if you live an unrepentant and unapologetic life, it is possible to reach a point when you are unable to repent. Your heart will simply be too hard. You will have spurned God your entire life. You heard the news. You just denied the truth. If these Hebrew readers continue to ignore the revelation from God in the person of Jesus Christ, if they return to the slavery of the law, if they do not persevere with Christ, they will find themselves on the wrong side.
To be clear, God will save anyone with a truly repentant heart, no matter how good or bad their actions. But there is a kind of heart that doesn’t really want to be forgiven by God. The desires are all wrong. They don’t want God, they want something else, and see God as the pathway rather than the destination. There is a sin that leads to death (1 John 5:16). For Esau, this deadly sin was present. He allowed his earthly desires to spurn the grace of God in his life. He gave away his birthright for a bowl of soup.
The thought, “I’ll wait to make peace with God,” says you want the gifts God gives but not God himself. But the gospel does not allow for that. The great prize of the Christian life is not the gifts of God but God himself.
The Hebrews readers faced temptation. Craig Koester says, “Esau gave up the promise in order to ease his physical discomfort, listeners might consider giving up the promise in order to ease their social discomfort.” Will we cave on doctrine to fit in? Will we abandon gospel issues for a life of popularity? Do we see eternal things as less important than temporal things? Is the persecution we’re facing the end-all-be-all? Is the suffering we must endure the greatest anyone has ever faced? Is not God better than all trials? Is not Jesus better than all Saviors? Is not the Holy Spirit the guarantee of all hope?
This warning should startle us, but it should not cause us despair, especially if we trust in Christ for our salvation. If you do not trust Christ, may this serve as a warning to turn to God in repentance while you still can. A soft heart is a gift from God. Do not waste it.
18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
The author exhorts us for the final time not to refuse God who is speaking to us through the person of Jesus Christ. There is a difference between our experience of coming to God and that of Israel. There is no central place of worship. We come to a heavenly city. It is all invisible. It is spiritual, and therefore omnipresent. We can go to God at any time. The seriousness of coming to God remains. But we have something that Israel did not have, namely, a perfect high priest mediating for us. We do not have to worry about not touching the mountain because we’ve been given access to the throne room. The blood of Jesus does not speak condemnation to us who believe but speaks mercy and grace and acceptance instead.
We may be thinking, “How in the world am I supposed to run this race?” That’s a good question to wrestle with. God is not opposed to wrestling through it with you. Jacob’s life proves that. But here’s what we must know: God is a good trainer. Therefore, our hardships are not haphazard. They are purposeful. God is a good father. Therefore, our hardships are not unloving. They are kind and merciful. And God is a good God. Therefore, our hardships are not punishment. Jesus took all the punishment our sin required upon himself at the cross. Our race is wrapped up in his race. And he won. That means we just might win too.
One day, there will come a great earthquake, and all that is shakable will be shaken and destroyed. Only that which will remain forever will stand. Though you and I feel so weak and feeble, in Christ we have been reborn and granted eternal life. Only eternal things will survive that great day. If we put our hope in earthly things, we will be disappointed in the end no matter how well life goes. If we put our hope in eternal things, we will rejoice in the end no matter how bad our life goes. If we focus our eyes on Jesus and run the race he has set out for us, when all is shaken, we will remain.
So, we can draw near to the one who made us righteous, to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant. His blood speaks a better word than the blood of goats and bulls. His blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. His blood is not crying out for justice. It is crying out for mercy. He has purchased our eternal forgiveness. He took upon himself the responsibility to be his brother’s keeper, and he is not ashamed of you.