Monday, April 23, 2007

Marathon Ministry

A reflection on Hebrews 12:1-3.

"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."

I want to start by stating the very obvious truth that there's "a lot of meat on this bone." This is such a rich passage of Scripture, and we could spend hours thinking about it and uncovering the applications. The reason I chose it today, though, is because of how it applies when we are struggling, feel like giving up in a ministry when it appears that things are falling apart, and wrestle with weariness in doing good. That's where I've been recently, and I have been encouraged afresh this morning by these three verses. Maybe God will use these verses and a couple of my rambling comments to refresh you as well.

The encouragement we are being given is to "run with endurance the race set before us." First, I remember the most recent time I studied this verse that the word "set" indicates that our course has been is has been planned. Who is it that set your course before you? Who it is it that has set my course? It is God Himself, for no other can set the course of human history and life as He can. In the race I am running, I run because God has set my path. It is as Jesus told His disciples, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit that will last" (John 15:16, paraphrase). Jesus set their His call and for His purpose. So, when Jesus told them that they would face tribulation in this world but that His peace would be with them (John 16:33), it was part of their course in life. All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). Why? Not only because the world hates Christ...not only because of spiritual warfare...but because God has set our path, and it has been granted to us not only to believe in Christ, but to suffer for His sake (Phil. 1:29). What is so encouraging about this reality? The reality is that the gracious, loving Heavenly Father, is conforming us to the image of His Son Jesus Christ. This conforming of our hearts and lives must walk us down the path of suffering and struggle and even wanting to pass on the cup of suffering, even as it did for our Christ. So, He has set our path just as it needs to be, and we are to run it with endurance.

The second thing I notice is that we are to run. I completely believe in dependence on God and that anything done in my own energy will be folly...that apart from Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5). I also see that, in Scripture, we do not simply sit back and do nothing. Some would say that we need not strive and work and run because it indicates that we have no real dependence on God and His work. What, then, do we do with Scripture when it tells us to "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12)? What about going into the highways and hedges and compelling people to come into the kingdom (Luke 14:23)? What about running in such a way so to win and not simply boxing the air (1 Cor. 9)? You can probably think of others, but surely we should include our Hebrews passage, "run with endurance". Friends, we are to run. We are to run to gain the prize. We do not believe that our running and working and striving are the basis of our prize...Jesus Christ purchased our inheritance on the cross, and no striving or working will do better than our Savior did. However, part of God's kingdom work is men and women running to win in this life, and so we must. We must run, knowing that any strength we have to win comes from our great Savior Jesus Christ. When we are struggling, when we are weary, when we want to give up...we must remember our Christ and run. Not run away, but run the path right through the heart of difficulty with endurance.

The third thing that stands out to me in these verses is the connection made between our life's race as believers and the life of Christ. How does the life of Christ connect to our race? Christ is, first and foremost, the author and finisher of our faith. There is no running, no winning, no victory apart from Him. It is so true that we fight from victory and NOT for victory. Also, Christ endured the cross, despising the shame, for the joy set before Him (v. 2). How did Jesus face His cup of suffering? Despising the shame...the shame of the beatings, the hostility, the mocking, the scourging, the crucifixion...He despised it. "Despise" means "to think little of" something. It wasn't the shame that Jesus focused on, but the glory on the other side. He thought little of what He had to endure but thought much of what He endured it for. I have said a few times in teaching that "there is glory on the other side of adversity," and this is so true of Christ and the cross. The glory of obedience and having a name above every name...the glory of gathering God's people into God's kingdom...the glory of seeing sinners redeemed...glory is on the other side of adversity.

This point doesn't stop here, though glory through adversity is a great truth on which to dwell. The writer goes on to tell us that Jesus endured this hostility so that we would not grow weary and lose heart. One of the things that Jesus' work accomplishes for us is the ability to endure. When we want to throw the white towel to the center of the ring and give up or fly our white flag and surrender to the pressure around us...we must remember our bloody red Savior, whose endurance is our example and our source of strength. We must remember this same blood dried up and flaking off His eyelids as He opened them on the third day, having been raised from the dead, and so securing the truth that "those who endure to the end will be saved" (Matt. 24:13). The very life, death, and resurrection of Christ is our strength and example of how to run the race with endurance.

Finally, I notice that the race is not to be run alone. I am an introvert by nature, and I truly enjoy spending large amounts of time alone. Even in a crowd, I find ways to stay hidden. However, this is not how the race of a Christian is to be run. Every pronoun used in these three verses are plural, and we know that this letter was written to a group of believers. Though we are accountable for our own lives...our own races...we are to run them together. This is part of what happens in a local church...we run the race together. I have only run one race in my life; it was a 5k in college. If I had set out on that race alone, I probably would have given up because I'm not all that interested in running. However, I ran with a couple of friends in the midst of a group of about 200 runners. Because of the challenge in seeing runners who had more endurance than me, hearing the cheers of the crowd, and having my friends who had run before encourage me along the way, I finished. I have many such friends in my Christian life, and I am thankful to God for them. Do you know where I found these friends? Not in coffee shops or bookstores, but in local churches. I pray you have these kinds of friends, who will help remind you of the Pacesetter we have in Christ, the importance of running with endurance, and the fact that giving up is not an option.

So, (1) our course (painful as it is at times) has been set for us by our God, (2) we are to run in complete dependence on God, refusing to believe that doing "nothing" is the most spiritual avenue, (3) Christ is our great example and our strength for the journey, and (4) we should not run alone.

Even as I have written these words, I am renewed for my own journey. I pray that you take encouragement from all this and that you will run the race with endurance because of what is taught here in Hebrews 12. This way, we will close our eyes one last time in this life and say, along with Paul, "I have finished the race."