I was talking to someone the other day who did the Great North Run a while back. One thing the Great North Run has in its favour is that they don't call it a 'Fun Run', which always seems to me to be a contradiction in terms - a bit like 'Newcastle summer' or 'fast food'. Anyway, we were talking about the Great North Run and he said that he 'hit the wall' (which is running talk for 'felt awful') at about the 10 mile mark. I thought that was impressive: I 'hit the wall' at about the third lamp post up my street (and the lamp posts are pretty close together). In fact he said three things simultaneously made him feel like giving up:
his weakness: he'd 'hit the wall'; the conditions: he was running into driving wind and rain; and isolation: the people he'd agreed to run with had long since left him behind.
Well, the book of Hebrews is the Bible book on keeping going as a Christian. It talks about the Christian life as a long-distance 'run' - between conversion and heaven (Hebrews 12.1). And it says those same three things will make us feel like giving up following the Lord Jesus:
our weakness, ie our ongoing sinfulness and failure; the conditions, ie the suffering we face; and isolation, ie lack of Christian encouragement.
And Hebrews 10.19-25 tackles each of those in turn. Which makes it an important section of the Bible for this time of year. Over the summer, some of us will be leaving - to start university for the first time, to leave university for the last time, or to change jobs. And at a time of change, we need help to keep following Jesus. But others of us will be staying, and it's as easy (and perhaps less noticeable) for us to drift in our Christian lives as it is for those who are moving. It's quite possible that those of us who are going nowhere geographically are also going nowhere spiritually. So, we each need the prod of Hebrews 10 as much as one another. And it basically tells us to do three things through which God will keep us going in the Christian 'run':
Look up to God Look forward to heaven Look out for one another
First, LOOK UP TO GOD (vv19-22)
The number one thing that will make us feel like giving up the Christian run is our own spiritual weakness, ie our sinful natures and our actual sinning. Again and again in the Christian run, we 'hit the wall' of temptation - and fall. So at anytime in our Christian lives, looking back we'll feel guilty (to some degree) and looking forward we'll feel weak, and maybe pessimistic about whether we'll ever be any different. So the first thing we're told to do is: look up to God. Verse 22:
… let us draw near to God…
And Hebrews 4.16 spells out what he means:
Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
He's talking about drawing near to God in prayer. We can come to God in prayer feeling guilty about the past - and there is 'mercy', forgiveness for that. And we can come feeling weak and pessimistic about the future, its temptations and troubles - and there is 'grace', strengthening, for that. (NB: exactly the two things Jesus taught us to pray for - see Matthew 6.12-13). So, back to Hebrews 10.22. 'Let us draw near to God,' we're told. But this section doesn't start there. It starts at v19 - because although we often want to pray and feel the need to pray, we often lack the confidence to pray. We often feel too guilty, too grubby, too ashamed of ourselves to come to God in prayer.
A while back I was talking to a Christian who'd taken a big moral tumble. He'd fallen for a temptation which he'd never thought would be a problem for him. He felt shocked at himself and full of guilt. And he told me it was nearly two months after that tumble before he could bring himself to pray. And during those two months he was thinking, 'How can I possibly draw near to God after that? Surely that must be The End. Surely God must now have given up on me.' (When we give up on ourselves we naturally assume that God has also given up on us, don't we?) But God had not given up on him. Look at Hebrews 10.19:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place [ie, the presence of God] by the blood of Jesus… let us draw near to God…
God, in his written word, is telling us there that we have confidence to enter his presence. By what? By living perfectly (or as near as we can get) as Christians? No: 'by the blood of Jesus' (v19). The basis of our confidence to come into God's presence is not what we do in our lives (which is always imperfect), but what Jesus has done for us when he died on the cross. We haven't got time to go into every detail of vv19-22, but lets look at them briefly. Verse 19:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, through a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience, and having our bodies washed with pure water.
In Old Testament [OT] times - before Jesus - people could draw near to God through a 'visual aid' called the temple. (See Hebrews 9.1-10 for a quick summary). At one end of this visual aid was an area called 'the Most Holy Place' - which represented the presence of God. Next, there was a great, thick curtain that stopped anyone going in to the Most Holy Place - which represented the fact that sinful people like you and me cannot come into God's presence unless our sin is forgiven. And that brings us to the third part of this visual aid: the sacrifices and priests.
Imagine I'd been a believer in those days. I'd have brought an animal to the temple and confessed my sins over it - which represented my sin being transferred to a substitute. Then a temple official called a 'priest' would take the animal and kill it ('sacrifice' it) - which represented the substitute taking on itself the punishment for sin which I deserve - the punishment of being cut off from God's presence and friendship. And then the priest would take some of the blood of the animal and take it before the curtain, as if to say to the Lord, 'A sacrifice has been made for this person; please forgive him/her.'
Now, all of that was just a visual aid - of the problem (sinful people cannot come unforgiven into the presence of a holy God), and of the solution (we need a substitute to take our punishment in our place). It was just a visual aid, pointing forward to what Jesus would do when he came. So, look back at v19:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus…
That's talking about Jesus' death on the cross, where he really did take the punishment our sins deserve, in our place He is the only sacrifice we need - and the only sacrifice there is today. And then look back at vv20-21:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter… by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God…
That's talking about Jesus' resurrection from death after the cross. Jesus is alive ('living'), the body that died for us is now risen and alive in heaven, and Jesus is our 'priest'. He's in heaven, constantly pleading our case. His presence there says, 'A sacrifice has been made for these people who trust in me; please forgive them.' He is the only priest we need - and the only priest there is today. So, vv19-21 are saying: since Jesus died to take off us the punishment we deserve, and since Jesus rose and now lives and pleads our case constantly, then let us draw near to God - whatever we've done, however we feel about ourselves.
A previous Archbishop of Canterbury tells a story abut his chauffeur. The Archbishop had gone to a formal 'do' at Parliament, so everyone was dressed in their glad rags. Doubtless the Archbishop was wearing the silly dress and the tea cosy on his head. And he invited his rather scruffily dressed chauffeur in for the bunfight afterwards. He, of course, looked (and probably felt) completely out of place. And the Archbishop suddenly noticed a security man tapping the chauffeur on the shoulder - with the obvious intention of removing him from the proceedings. But the security man then felt a tap on his own shoulder. He turned round to see the Archbishop, who simply said, 'It's OK. He's with me.' And vv19-22 are saying: when we feel too morally and spiritually scruffy to come into the presence of God, when we feel the tap of conscience or Satan (or both) on our shoulder, let's remember that Jesus died for us, and that he lives to plead our case constantly. And when he sees us coming in all our scruffiness to pray, he says, 'It's OK. He's with me.'
Nothing, in my experience, paralyses us in the Christian run quite like guilt. And in vv19-22, God is telling us that he wants us to know with confidence that we can come to him in prayer whatever we've done, however we feel, so that he can reassure us that we are permanently forgiven people, dust us down, and set us on our way again as if nothing had changed. Because in God's eyes, nothing has changed. So if now, or in the future, you feel you've sinned one too big or once too often, and that God must now surely give up on you, read Hebrews 10.19-22 until you believe it again. And if you can't manage that, then get another Christian friend to help convince you that these verses really are true of you, as well as of other Christians.
Or perhaps tonight you're someone who's never come back to God for the first time. Maybe you're like a friend of mine. When I asked him, 'What's stopping you turning to God?' he said, 'I'm not good enough and I couldn't keep it up.' Well, none of us is good enough. And none of us can keep it up. Which is why these verses tell us the basis on which we can come to God is nothing to do with us, but by the forgiving death of Jesus. So that's the first thing: Look up to God. Keep praying, whatever you've done, however you feel. Keep confessing your sins openly to God. Keep using verses like these to reassure yourself that you are a permanently forgiven person. Above all, don't stay away from God. As the old hymn puts it:
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requires
Is to feel your need of him.
Secondly, LOOK FORWARD TO HEAVEN (v23)
The second thing that will make us feel like giving up the Christian run is the conditions we're running in, ie the suffering we face. Christians suffer in many, many ways. If just those of us gathered here tonight made a catalogue of what we've been through and what we are going through now, it would be an almost unbearable read. And not only do we suffer like everyone else; but Christians also suffer unlike anyone else - the specific suffering for being a Christian. And suffering makes us feel like giving up following Jesus by faith. So the second thing we're told is: look forward to heaven. Verse 23:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
'Hope' in the Bible means 'future certainty of heaven'. It doesn't carry the doubtful sense of the English word as we use it (eg, 'I hope it'll stay dry for the barbecue'). And at first sight you might think the Bible isn't being very practical here. After all, these people were really suffering. Look at Hebrews 10.32:
Remember those earlier days, after you had received the light [ie after you were converted], when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathised with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you had better and lasting possessions. (vv32-34)
These people were really suffering. So you might think a lot of pious talk about heaven is not a lot of help. But that depends entirely on whether heaven is real, doesn't it? Do you believe heaven is a reality? The apostle Paul wrote:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we [ie believers in Jesus] are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15.19)
What he meant was this. To follow Jesus in this life means struggle - against sin within and against the pressure of the world around. It means standing for Jesus in a world that is against Jesus. It involves sacrifice and loss. And Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: if it's not true that we have a future in heaven, then the sacrifice and loss are not worth it. Ie, if there's no heaven, it's stupid to be a Christian. (Which is why I cannot understand the Christians who say, 'Even if it turned out not to be true, and there is no heaven, I'll still have had a better life.') Do you believe heaven is a reality? Jesus said it is. And his resurrection from the dead shows it is.
I don't know whether you've seen the film The Great Escape. (If not, where have you been? It's been on TV every Christmas for the last 20 years…) It's a film about prisoners trying to escape from a World War 2 prisoner of war camp. Charles Bronson plays the tunneller - and after a huge amount of work digging, he finally pops out on the other side of the perimeter fence and signals back to the others. As if to say, 'There's life out here. And the way is now open.'
Well, when Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples (see 1 Corinthians 15.3-8; Matthew 28, Luke 24, John 20-21). He appeared on the other side of the perimeter fence of death. Which says loud and clear: 'There is life beyond death. And the way is now open for you to follow.' By his death and resurrection, Jesus has tunnelled through death for us, so that we who trust in him can - and will - follow. So v23 isn't just pious talk from someone with no real help to offer. Heaven is real. And the favourite word of the book of Hebrews to describe heaven is the word, 'rest'. When it's talking about this life, the book of Hebrews uses words like 'struggle' (12.4), 'run' (12.1), 'persevere' (10.36), 'effort' (4.11). But when it's talking about heaven it talks about 'rest' (see chapter 4). Because in heaven we will no longer have sinful natures: there will be rest from temptation, failure, shame, guilt, confession. And in heaven we will no longer be in a sinful environment: there will be rest from the pressure around to conform and rest from all opposition to Jesus. And there will be rest from sickness, mortality and death.
On holiday in France last year, we found a superb river to swim in. It ran through a rocky gorge - complete with waterfalls. And we found a place from which it was a ¼ mile swim up to some rapids, where once you'd got there you could simply lie back on warm rocks with warm, sun-drenched water bubbling around you… nature's jacuzzi. Bliss. (I'm going back this year.) Getting there against the current was a big struggle - almost too much for us. But the rest at the end was terrific. And so it is, says Hebrews, with the Christian run. Getting from conversion to heaven can be a big struggle - at least at times. But the rest at the end is quite literally out of this world.
I was in one of our student Focus Bible study groups the other day, and we were looking at a section of the Bible on heaven. And one of the group said, 'I have to admit, I hardly ever think of heaven. I don't really need to - life is so good here.' And it often is good here, isn't it? God is very good to us in so many ways. But you don't have to live long in this fallen world before suffering comes. Either that specific suffering - for being a Christian (I think of a Muslim girl I'm praying for. She's professed faith in Jesus and her family have threatened to disown her). Or the general suffering we share with all people - the disappointments, shocks, exam failures, redundancies, relationships splitting up, seeing loved ones suffer and die; and if Jesus doesn't return soon, suffering and dying ourselves. You don't have to live long in this fallen world before suffering comes. Before you need to think of heaven a good deal in order to keep going as a Christian. In order to remind yourself that the struggle and the suffering is temporary and the rest at the other end is real. Verse 23 again:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
And it's vital to be clear about what God has and hasn't promised us. He hasn't promised us, in this fallen world, full health (mental or physical), or happiness, or marriage, or children, or children who never go off the rails. There is much that he has not promised us. But he has promised two great things: 1) that he will be with us through it all:
Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. (Hebrews 13.5)
And 2) that after it all, we will be with him in heaven. So that's the second thing: Look forward to heaven. Realise that the gospel is primarily a promise about the future. That most of the blessings of being a Christian lie beyond the grave, not this side of it. And realise that even if you don't feel much need to think of heaven now, you will. And it will be our wisdom right now to study the Bible so that before we 'hit the wall' of suffering, we know why we believe what we believe - especially about Jesus' resurrection and heaven. Because it's hard enough to keep going in suffering when we have thought those things through in advance. Even harder when we suffer unprepared. Look up to God. Look forward to heaven. Then,
Thirdly, LOOK OUT FOR ONE ANOTHER (vv24-25)
The third thing that will make us feel like giving up the Christian run is isolation: lack of encouragement from other Christians. So the third thing we're told is: look out for one another. Verse 24:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing. But let us encourage one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching [ie, the day of Jesus' second coming / the day we meet Jesus face to face]. (vv24-25)
There are some things in the Christian life that we have to do individually. For example, I can pray for you. But I can't do your praying for you. I can remind you of the truth and promises of God. But I can't trust them for you. And some people make the mistake of not making time to meet with God individually - they never read the Bible or pray individually, for themselves. So that when the 'scaffolding' of church and Christian friends is taken away (eg, in the university holiday, or when they move on), they wobble badly as Christians.
But some people make the opposite mistake - the mistake of not meeting up with other Christians. Not belonging to a church. Not joining a group of Christians. They're the people who say to you, 'Can't you be a Christian without belonging to a church?' To which God's answer in these verses is: 'Don't.' Question: 'Can't you be a Christian without belonging to a church?' Answer (vv24-25): 'Don't. Don't not belong. Don't give up meeting together.'
I remember a student who graduated 4 years ago. He turned up at JPC in his final term, having not really been since his first year. I saw quite a bit of him while he struggled through finals with a bad illness. He said to me on one occasion, 'Do you know my biggest mistake during my time in Newcastle? I dropped out of church when I came back my second year. And that was my biggest mistake in life so far.' And I thank God that he did come back. Because he died last year. The illness was never diagnosed. But he died a clear believer. And I look forward to seeing him in better shape than I ever knew him in this life. Verse 24 again:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing. But let us encourage one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (vv24-25)
I guess they were giving up meeting together because they didn't want to meet. And the reason they didn't want to meet is that they were wobbling as Christians - perhaps contemplating going back to their old life. No wonder they didn't want to be 'spurred on' by other Christians. None of us wants to be spurred on when we're wobbling or compromised or doubting. We're embarrassed by ourselves when we're spiritually off colour. We'd rather stay away from Christians. The point is: staying away from meeting with Christians is a bad sign. We need to heed that for ourselves: the times we most need to be at CYFA or Focus or Home Group or church are the times we least feel like coming. And we need to heed that for others: the times and weeks when others don't come are probably the times they most need our encouragement.
The people to whom Hebrews was first written were not meeting because they didn't want to. But sometimes Christians don't meet with one another because they feel they don't need to. But that's pride - because God says in these verses that we do need the encouragement of other Christians. And it's also selfishness - because God says in these verses that other Christians need our encouragement (we must get out of the consumer mentality which only thinks of 'what I can get out of CYFA / Focus / Home Group / church / etc').
Hebrews 10.24-25 is why we're keen to help you find a church if you're moving away, or away over the summer (and also to link you in with a Christian Union if you're off to university). Over the years we've built up a list of contacts which we call 'The Good Church Guide'. Just recently we've put people in touch with churches from Scarborough to Geneva - do see the Welcome Desk or contact the church office for details. And Hebrews 10.24-25 is why we encourage every believer - whether staying at this church or moving to another - to join a small group of some sort (at church, in CU): where you actually get known; you're missed if you're not around; and where you can make Christian friends who can ask you how you're doing as a Christian.
I've got a couple of Christian friends who have permission to ask me about anything: from, 'How is your Bible reading and praying going?' to 'How are you doing on sexual holiness?' It's important to have people like that so that we're honest and don't deceive one another - or ourselves. So that's Hebrews 10.19-25: God's prescription for how he means to keep us going as Christians:
in the face of the enemies of sin and guilt, look up to God; in the face of the enemy of suffering, look forward to heaven; and in the face of the enemy of isolation, look out for one another.