Persevere Amid Difficulties

Explore the Bible Series

November 19, 2006

 

Background Passage: Hebrews 12:1-29

Lesson Passage: Hebrews 12: 1-8; 12-16; 28-29

 

Introduction: Let’s reflect for a moment on the lessons of the previous chapter.  The grand doctrinal section of Hebrews (Chapters 1-10) laid out the theological reasons why believers, even in the midst of terrible hardship, cannot turn back on their profession of faith in Christ.  No routes of retreat exist.  The believer must continue on the straight and narrow path of discipleship.  Then, our author provided, in Chapter Eleven, a catalog of Old Testament saints who persevered in the faith, despite significant trials and heartbreaks. Again, we find that our writer was a master teacher.  He anticipated that some beleaguered saints would recoil from the examples provided in Chapter Eleven.  How could ordinary Christians live up to the example of great people of faith like Abraham, Moses, or David?  Chapter Twelve provides help for believers who stagger under the weight of continuing in Christ.

 

As we approach this important juncture in our study of the Book of Hebrews, I encourage you to consider the monumental task faced by the human authors of the Bible.  Of course, Christians recognize and affirm the divine inspiration of Scripture; however, we must not forget the human side of the inspiration issue.  The Holy Spirit moved these men to write the word of God, but the Lord did not suspend the historical context, cultural background, or personalities of the people who penned the Scriptures. Imagine the difficulties these men encountered.  God revealed profound spiritual truths to them, but they had to express those verities in the language of men.  In a sense, they were charged with describing the indescribable. Under the power of the Holy Spirit, these writers expressed these grand thoughts in the form of human analogies (An analogy, according to Webster, is “a comparing of something with something else; similarity in some respects”). In other words, the Scripture often reveals divine truth through the familiar things of this world.  “Salvation is like…” justification, adoption, redemption, ransom, marriage, covenant, etc.  These wonderful analogies help frail, fallible men to understand the glorious mysteries of the Christian faith.  Often, I fear, Christians make the mistake of pressing these analogies so hard that they fail to grasp the essential truth contained in the analogies.  This failure contributes to the endless debates among believers, and, in some cases, leads folks into error and extremism. 

 

Chapter Twelve employs three analogies to describe the Christian life.  As stated above, perhaps the original readers felt intimidated by the examples of the great heroic faith of those saints described in Chapter Eleven.  Of course these great men and women persevered in their confidence in God, but how can ordinary people stand firm?  Our current study lays out practical counsel for the daily realities of walking with God.  If Christians continue in these precepts, they will certainly remain faithful to their calling. The author employs three powerful analogies to help struggling believers: the difficulties of an endurance race, the corrective discipline of a parent, and the blessings of Mount Zion.

 

 

 

Outline of the Background Passage:

 

I.                   The Analogy of the Endurance Race (12:1-4)

A.    The nature of the race:  The text notes that the course is set before us; that is, no runner gets to determine the course of his own race.  God has set a certain course before his people, and each must run as his life-circumstances determine.  The analogy of a race denotes purposeful exertion of energy and determination to complete the course.  The runner must concentrate on his objective, finishing the race with honor. Endurance is the key element of finishing the race.

B.     The venue of the race:  Verse one makes clear that runners compete in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses; that is, those who have run the course before take notice of those who presently compete.  The idea seems to focus on the image of a relay race.  The saints of old have run before us, and they observe the race of contemporary Christians.  Notice that the author includes himself among the racers (note the use of the personal pronoun “we”). 

C.     The dangers of the race:  Runners face two hindrances to their efforts.

1.      “let us lay aside every weight”: Hewitt points out that the word translated “weight” refers to the excessive girth that might encumber an ill-trained athlete.  The skilled runner disciplines himself to train and eat properly so that he may perform efficiently.  This training proves particularly crucial for endurance runners.  Their bodies need to be lean and strong for the race.  Any excessive weight might prevent them from finishing the course.  In this phrase, the writer seems to call upon Christians to lay aside even some of the natural, neutral pleasantries of life in order to focus one’s attention on the essential task at hand.

2.      “and the sin that so easily besets (ensnares) us”: The word “beset” may describe a distraction or hurdle that encumbered that way of the runner.  Keep in mind that ancient endurance competitions often took place in open country, much like a modern cross-country event.  May hindrances lie in the way of the runner, and he must devote all of his attention to avoid the catastrophic results of tripping on one of these snares.   Perhaps the writer has a particular sin in mind, maybe the sin of apostasy, but the warning has broad application to all Christians and circumstances.

D.    The runner’s example in the race: “Looking unto Jesus..”  Christ serves as the Christian’s starting place and finish line.  Just as the ssavior endured the hardships of his incarnation and sacrifice for sins, so must his followers endure their hardships and humiliations.  He pressed on in obedience and faithfulness despite the unceasing hostility of sinners, and we must find comfort, in Christ, during seasons of weariness and discouragement (See v. 3). Also, like the Lord, those who endure the race will share in his glory in the triumph and bliss of heaven (v. 2b).

 

II.                The Analogy of a Chastened Child (12:5-17)

A.    The analogy stated (See quotation from Proverbs 3:11-12): Hebrews uses the analogy of the father/son relationship to describe an important aspect of Christian experience.  God, seen as a compassionate and wise father, always properly disciplines his children (vv. 5-8).  Undisciplined children are illegitimate.  This, by the way, serves as an excellent example of how we must handle these analogies carefully.  Verse Eight refers to illegitimate children who do not receive the careful correction of a loving father.  If we mishandle this analogy, we might conclude that the text implies that God has illegitimate children. This, of course, is a hideous distortion of the intent of the passage. 

B.     The example of earthly fathers (vv. 9-11): The chastening hand of an earthly father provides both formative and corrective discipline.  Children chafe under the restrictions of parental training; nevertheless, in time, the child grows to maturity due, in large part, to the father’s wise formation of the son’s character. The father’s discipline gives readers a helpful framework for understanding the hardships that attend the Christian life.   Difficulties never come to the child of God in a haphazard, random manner; rather, these trials come purposefully, wisely from the hand of a compassionate Father.

C.     The lessons of divine discipline (vv. 12-17): The writer of Hebrews provided his readers with a brief series of exhortations in light of his observations concerning the chastening of sons: strengthen your hands and feeble knees (v.12), make straight paths for your feet (v. 13), and pursue peace and holiness (vv. 14). This subsection closes with a sobering reminder of the life of Esau.  A sensual and profane man, Esau sold his birthright for the temporary satisfaction of a bowl of lentils.  Afterward, he tearfully sought a restoration of his familial status, but his shortsighted and unwise decision brought him to a point of no return (vv. 16-17).

 

III.             The Analogy of Mount Zion (12:18-29): Two mountain-experiences shaped the contours of the experience of Old Testament saints; Mount Sinai and Mount Zion.  These First-Century readers, having come to Mount Zion, could not return to Mount Sinai.

A.    The terrors of Mount Sinai (vv. 18-21):  Sinai, the venue of God’s revelation of the Law, was a place of terrible dread for the Jews.  Exodus and Deuteronomy describe the great fear that Sinai struck in the hearts of ancient Jews who camped at the feet of the great mountain.  Even Moses trembled upon his approach to the mountain of God.  This striking reminder of Israel’s fear serves as another analogy to help the readers of Hebrews understand why they could not return to Judaism.

B.     The blessings of Mount Zion (vv. 22-29): Zion, the central prominence in Jerusalem, became a symbol of the presence and salvation of the Lord.  Our text uses this image to convey the inviting, glorious atmosphere of the dwelling place of the Lord. Zion, then, serves as a symbol of the blessings of heaven: the dwelling place of God and angels, the abode of the church, and the habitation of Christ the mediator. God spoke from both of these mountains, and, when he spoke, the mounts shook.  Even the seemingly timeless mountains of the word tremble at the voice of God and are shaken to their foundations.  However, the heights of heaven stand regal and secure, unshaken by any force on earth or in heaven (vv. 25-27).