A Cloud of Witnesses
After describing a few heroes of the faith, down through thousands of years of history with the Lord, it is as though the writer metaphorically cast his hands up into the air and exclaimed,
“Look to the heavens, where all these who have gone before are like all the clouds in the sky, everlasting testimony to the Lord.”
We are not alone!
Instead, the saints who have gone before us are an encouragement to us, for by the mighty wonder-working power of God, they persevered, and so can we. Take heart, this race has been run, and been won, by countless many, generation after generation. You can do this!
The writer closed his epistle with seven exhortations for living daily by faith.
1) Focus on Christ
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.Hebrews 12:1-3
The picture, here, is of a great amphitheater, like the one in Athens, Greece, where the marathon runners began their marathon, ran all over Athens, then ended their race back in the arena. The seats are filled all around with past runners, whose lives bear testimony to the power of faith and God’s faithfulness.
You and I, the current runners, do not have a short sprint, we have a marathon to run. We are going to get tired, winded, our legs and arms will ache, we will get thirsty and hot – but they are cheering us on, we can do it, they have proven it with their lives, God is trustworthy, loving and kind, God’s promises are true, keep on running, keep on running, keep your eyes on Jesus, He’s the beginning of the race and He’s the finish line, you are going to make it . . .
2) Welcome God’s Discipline
Let us not feel sorry for ourselves when things start to get hard, most of us (especially in the west) have not had our faith tested to the point of blood.
Though that may come for many brothers and sisters in the Lord.
In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—
“My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by him;
for the Lord disciplines those whom [the Lord loves],
and chastises every child whom [God] accepts.”
Endure trials for the sake of discipline.Hebrews 12:4-7 (NRSV)
God’s discipline, or training, is to build, strengthen, and deepen our character, it is training us to get us into this central place of power where you and I can stand firm, face anything without wavering, abandoning ourselves to almighty God with total confidence in the Lord.
All our lives, this process of training is raising us up in God just as any parent would raise their child up to be healthy and whole, and to have the ability to both enjoy life and live well in it.
God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?
If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not [God’s] children.Hebrews 12:7-8 (NRSV)
We cannot afford to lose this perspective. Training hurts! And we can fall into wrong thinking about the “why” of our suffering.
God’s discipline takes on two main forms: chastisement and pruning.
They can feel the same, they can both hurt the same, so it is sometimes difficult to tell what kind of discipline God is working into our lives. Here are some ideas that may help:
Is prompted when you and I are doing something wrong, when we are not producing good fruit.
Happens when we are doing something right so that you and I can produce even more fruit.
Our sin is what must be let go of when God chastises us, here is where you and I do well to repent and stop sinning.
But it is the self that must be released when God is pruning us, by giving God our permission to infuse our inner person with God’s own person.
Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live?
For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but [God] disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share [God’s] holiness.Hebrews 12:9-10 (NRSV)
This is a hard saying for many, who grew up with parents who did not love or nourish, who did not discipline with good hearts and good methods, but who rather abused, molested, neglected, and warped the precious children God gave into their care. If this was your experience, then another way to understand this saying is to think of those in your life who mentor you, who take a special interest in you and help you now.
Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.Hebrews 12:11-13 (NRSV)
For that is God’s aim for each of the Lord’s beloveds. To be healed and made whole, to be enriched by the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
3) Keep Our Relationships Right
Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God;
that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.Hebrews 12:14-15 (NRSV)
One of the essentials proofs of new life In Christ is the way believers get along with each other—as the apostles all taught from the Lord’s own command.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”Jesus, John 13:34-35
The writer then reached far back into the scriptures for the example he wanted to hold up as warning.
See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal. You know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears.Hebrews 12:16-17 (NRSV)
Esau wanted some relief from his hunger pangs, so he discounted what God had give him, his birthright, to get at the stew Jacob had made.
When you and I are hurting maybe we will also be tempted to discount what God has given us, since it is hard to bear. May we will also be tempted to compromise with what we know is right, tempted to set aside God’s promises for something that looks a lot more sure and a lot more immediate.
“But,” the author here is saying, “Be patient. Be strong. Keep running this race, even if you have to slow down to a walk. Do not give up hope, and do not take your eyes off of Jesus. Right now is hard, you are suffering, immediate relief may seem like the only sure thing. But if you persevere you will not only finish the race, you will finish it well. This is God’s guarantee.”