************ Sermon on Hebrews 12:1b ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on August 6, 2017
"How to Run"
Let me remind you of the main point of our Bible reading: Run the Race. Run the race of the Christian life. Everything else in our text simply supports this command. Run the Race of faith.
Last time we said the Greek word for "race" is "agon." The race is the agon. Agon, remember, is the root of our English word "agony, agonize." Meaning that the race involves exertion, pain, agony, hard work; meaning there are obstacles and difficulties. We also learned the race requires perseverance. Meaning it is a lifelong pursuit; meaning it starts when we are born again and goes until the time we die; meaning it is a marathon instead of a sprint; meaning we don't have the option of calling it quits. The third point we looked at last time is that the race comes under the providence of God. Meaning God marks out the course for us; God determines the course best suited for us; it might involve cancer, heart attack, disabilities, a wayward child, a bankruptcy, a fire, a death; but God chooses the course and gives us the grace we need to run the course He has selected.
Run the Race of the Christian life. How are we to do this? How are we to run and keep on running the race in the face of life's difficulties? How are we to run so we win the prize? Verse 1 of our Bible reading calls for two things on our part: first, we are to listen; second, we are to throw off.
I Listen to the Witnesses
A Every five years athletes from the ancient Greek world gathered at the city of Olympia for the Greek Olympic Games. Spectators by the hundreds would flock to the amphitheater to watch. Also watching would be the winning athletes; they would sit with the rest of the spectators until the games were finished and then they would be awarded the victor's wreath with the rest of those who were victorious. And, also watching would be a group of judges; these judges used to be athletes and now judge the performance of those competing at the games. I am sure you recognize that our Bible reading borrows from this image of the Greek Olympic Games:
(Heb 12:1) Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses ...
B Who are the witnesses Hebrews is referring to? Well, who have we been looking at for the last eight months? Hebrews is talking about the Old Testament heroes of faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses' parents, Moses, the faithful people of Israel who passed through the Red Sea, the people of Israel who marched around Jericho, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets, and a host of others. Hebrews is referring to all of those who, according to Hebrews 11:39, were commended for their faith. Hebrews is referring to all of those whose salvation was completed together with us (Heb 11:40). All of these are to be seen as athletes who have already run the race. All of these are to be seen as athletes who endured the pain and the suffering of the agon. All of these are to be seen as athletes who persevered. All of these are to be seen as athletes who have already run the race marked out for them by God.
C What do these witnesses do? They aren't spectators watching us from heaven. In the New Testament the Greek word for "witness" is not a passive onlooker. Rather, a "witness" is someone who testifies to the truth. A witness is someone who speaks. The Greek word is "martureo" and forms the basis for our English word "martyr." They were killed not because they were silent observers but because they spoke, because they witnessed, because they testified to Jesus. The emphasis of the word "witness" is on what we hear from them. We, with the Hebrew Christians, are surrounded by these witnesses who testify to us of God and His grace. They testify to the faithfulness God displays to all those who live and die by faith. All these Old Testament witnesses testify to us today from the pages of Scripture.
Keeping this in mind, do you remember what was said about Abel in Hebrews 11? "And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead" (Heb 11:4). The same thing is true of Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses' parents, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, and Samuel: though dead they still speak to us. They speak to us of the faithfulness of God towards all those who live and die by faith. They speak to us of how God always keeps His promises. They speak to us of how God never disappoints. These all speak to us of God.
D Our text tells us there is an abundance of witnesses. We see that in the phrase "cloud of witnesses." In the Ancient World poets and other writers used the word "cloud" to refer to a vast number of people. To make sure we get the point Hebrews adds the word "great": a great cloud of witnesses. A host of people. A huge number. As you run the race of faith there is a vast throng of people witnessing to you about the faithfulness of God.
The testimony is also a uniform testimony. This is emphasized by the word "cloud." Hebrews doesn't say "clouds" -- plural. It says "cloud" -- singular. Why? To emphasize that all the witnesses, that all the testimony, is from a single cloud. There are many witnesses, but they all say the same thing. They all testify to the faithfulness of God. They all testify to a life of faith.
E As we run the race of faith we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They are speaking. It is obvious what we are supposed to be doing: we are supposed to be listening. Listen, my brothers and sisters. Listen to their voices. There are so many other voices calling you away from the race of faith. There are so many other voices tempting you to quit the race. Listen to the testimony of the heroes of faith. Listen to the witnesses. Let their testimony surround you and fill you and inspire you.
We have had 23 sermons on the heroes of faith of Hebrews 11. And, 23 times we have sung, "By Faith." Why? What was the purpose? To inspire you to live and run by faith. I listen to the stories of Abraham and Moses and Joseph and David and I am inspired to be like them: to live by faith, to run by faith, to depend on the faithfulness of God. Listen as they tell us how they are looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Listen as they tell us we, too, can run and live by faith. Even when the race seem too hard. Or, maybe I should say especially when the race seems too hard. I need these stories so I know I too can run.
So listen. Listen. Listen. Listen to the great cloud of witnesses. That's the first thing we need to do as we run the race of faith.
II Throw Off Everything that Hinders
A The second thing we need to do as we run the race is throw off: "let us throw off everything that hinders ..." (Heb 12:1).
Can you imagine someone at the Olympic Games running in a Sunday suit or in a Winter coat? Can you imagine someone running loaded down with weights? Can you imagine someone running with their life's possessions strapped to their back? Can you imagine someone running who is 50 pounds overweight? Olympic athletes get rid of all excess body weight and strip down to the bare essentials so they can run. They go into training. They deny themselves a piece of cake and ice-cream for dessert. They practice self-denial.
B So, what hinders the running of the Christian race? What keeps us from running the race of faith? The second clause explains the first clause: "let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles ..." (Heb 12:1). The Christian race is hindered by sin that so easily entangles. Another translation: sin that so easily surrounds us, encircles us. Think of coyotes, lions, or wolves surrounding their prey; the prey is completed surrounded and has nowhere to run. Or, think of a boa constrictor wrapping itself around its victim so it cannot escape. That's the image here. In the same way, sin encircles, sin surrounds, sin entangles.
"Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles ..." (Heb 12:1). Throw off. Cut off. Remove. Dispatch. Get rid of. And if we don't, sin encircles, sin surrounds, sin entangles, sin keeps us from running. It makes no difference what kind of sin: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, laziness, addiction, pornography. Sin that is tolerated is sin that encircles us and hinders us and keeps us from running. Sin obscures our vision of heaven. Sin weakens our desire for God. Sin takes away the desire to live and run by faith.
C Not everything that hinders running the race is sinful. I have observed over the years that things that are not sinful in and of themselves can distract us from running the race of faith. It can be almost anything: sports, fishing, hunting, exercise, cycling, music, books, movies, TV, computers, Facebook, work, money, family, friends. If we let these items distract us from God and heaven and the race of faith, they hinder.
But now a note of warning. What hinders one person may not hinder another. TV may be a problem for you without being a problem for someone else. The internet can be deadly to some and make no difference to another. That's why the Apostle Paul forbids us from binding the conscience and being legalistic. That's why the Apostle Paul encourages Christian freedom.
D Many times we are blind. Many times we are blind to our sins. Many times we are blind to the hindrances in our life.
I vividly remember a sermon I did on gossip in the second church I served. The church's biggest gossip came up to me and said it was too bad so and so wasn't present to hear it. She had no idea about the sin of gossip in her life.
So how do we know what keep us from running the race? Very simple: start running the race and it will quickly become clear to you. You don't feel weighed down by the wallet and keys and cell phone and pen in your pockets when you are sitting down; get up and start running and the weight of all this stuff becomes evident. Run the race of faith and you will quickly realize if jealousy or anger or lust is hindering you. Run the race of faith and you will quickly realize if you are being hindered by family or friends. Run the race of faith and you will see what entangles and surrounds and hinders.
Are you moving forward? Praise the Lord for this.
Are you moving backwards? Throw off, cut off, remove everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. Now, the Lord wants us to be radical and ruthless in this area of cutting off. Nothing, absolutely nothing, must be allowed to hinder us as we run the race of faith. How radical? How ruthless? Listen to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount:
(Mt 5:29-30) If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (30) And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.The Lord wants us to run. The Lord wants us to run and live by faith.
Psychologists use the phrase "toxic" to describe some people today. I was talking with someone about a toxic person in her life; this toxic person took away the joy of the Christian life, the joy of marriage, the joy of motherhood. This toxic person was keeping her from running the Christian race. The person I was talking to did with Hebrews says: she cut off, she threw off, she removed this person from her life. She admits everything is now better and she lives and runs with joy. That's what it takes sometimes. Maybe you have someone toxic in your life: someone who wants you to do what is sinful, or someone who drags you down, or someone who stands between you and the Lord and the joy of the Christian life.
Are you moving backwards? Throw off, cut off, remove everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. Do it before you find yourself unable to run.
E "Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles." How do we do this? Where do we start? This will be the focus of the next sermon on Hebrews but let me give you a preview:
(Heb 12:2-3) Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (3) Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
We need a change of focus in order to run the race of the Christian life. Our focus is not to be on sin. Our focus is not to be on things that hinder. Our focus is to be Jesus.
You love your sin and find it hard, impossible, to throw it off? Focus on Jesus. You love the stuff in your life that hinders and are unwilling to part with any of it? Focus on Jesus.
The key to running the race of faith is Jesus. Focus on Jesus. Focus on Jesus Who ran the race all the way to the finish line. Focus on Jesus Who shows us how to run.
I appeal to you, my brothers and sisters: run the race of the Christian life, run and live by faith. Listen to the witnesses who came before you. Repent of your sin so you cut off whatever hinders your race. And above all focus on Jesus.
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