Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Easter Sunday is later this year than it has been for a long time. Sometimes it is in mid-March, but this year it falls on April 16. After this past snowstorm and the accompanying cold temps, it seems like spring is running late too. My sense is that many are getting impatient for spring to arrive. We only have to endure a few more weeks and the grass will start to turn green.
The book of Hebrews was written to encourage the members of the fledgling church to persevere in their pilgrimage of faith. It was not easy being a Christian in those days. The message of the gospel was not well received by society at large. The Jewish religious leaders of the day saw followers of Jesus as a heretical threat to their religious tradition, and secular Rome saw Christians as strange religious fanatics who had the potential to rock the political boat. So there was always the temptation for Christians to either throw in the towel or withdraw into seclusion.
When we look at it like that, we realize that things were not that radically different from what they are today. Do we not have the same temptation to either lose our salty distinctiveness or hide our light under a basket? The same exhortation to endure that was given to the early Christians is given to us.
The author of Hebrews was adept at drawing from Old Testament history and symbolism to illustrate the gospel. In doing so, he highlights God’s central purpose in biblical history- to send his Son to redeem us and create us as a people to be his unique possession. But he also highlights Christ’s supreme lordship over all of history. For those outside Christ this sounds absolutely absurd, but by spelling all this out for us he intends for us to see our circumstances in light of the bigger game plan.
I have always loved how the author of Hebrews lists in chapter 11 those whom we often refer to as “the gallery of the saints” as an example to us. He starts with Abel and brings us down through Old Testament history to the prophets. I am convinced he leaves chapter 11 open ended, intending for us to read the New Testament saints into the story as well; the Apostles, and, yes, while we’re at it, why not those throughout the history of the church? And perhaps our own loved ones too! They are meant to serve as an example of those who trusted in God’s faithfulness to his bigger game plan. While we see them as an encouragement, we are specifically encouraged to focus our attention on Christ himself.
I have especially found myself intrigued by the use of the word “joy” with regard to Christ’s crucifixion- “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Why did he use this particular word? Certainly crucifixion was not a joyful experience for Jesus. Especially given Jesus’ agonizing prayer in the garden just hours before his death, that if possible God would “remove this cup from [him]”, not to mention Jesus cry of dereliction from the cross itself, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We can only understand the use of “joy” in Hebrews in terms of Jesus’ overarching anticipation of and commitment to his crucifixion as a means by which he would redeem us to himself. This was the source of his joy, and in this he willingly (and joyfully) endured to the end. That’s a pretty staggering thought when we understand it in this light.
The Christian life is indeed much more akin to a marathon than a 100 meter dash. The 100 yard dash is, as Sam Mussovini said in the film Chariots of Fire, “tailor made for neurotics”, but we need to go further out. That requires endurance.
Thank God for Jesus’ endurance. And thank God for God’s faithfulness to his game plan.
Pastor Tom Bridgman