The Cloud of Witnesses

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In our morning services, we are working our way through the book of Hebrews and today we're covering chapter 11 verse 1 through to chapter 12 verse 2. Our focus this morning will be Heb 12:1-2.

As many of you know I have just returned from a country in East Asia. A team of us were visiting members of JPC who have now returned home after their studies here. Thank you so much for your prayers and support for us while we were away. We were able to met old friends and learn more about the life they lead and the pressure they face - such as crazy working hours, opposition from non-Christian family and even the government. A big question we faced over and over again was this: Would they keep trusting in Jesus till the end? Would they endure?

Well, Hebrews was written to a group of Christians who were also coming under immense pressure. They were facing persecution and opposition because their faith was viewed as strange, like a cult or a sect. The temptation they faced was to reduce the stigma of their faith and the pressure it resulted in by aligning themselves more closely to the more culturally acceptable Judaism and its practices. That would be a dangerous move as it would mean no longer trusting in Jesus alone, and Hebrews was written to warn them not to do that. So far in the letter, the writer has argued that Jesus is far, far greater than angels, and the great prophet Moses and the Old Testament Priests with their sacrificial systems. In fact, the purpose of all those things was to point to Jesus! So they must not try and add anything at all to their trust in Jesus. They must hold fast and cling to Christ alone, even if it's going to result in difficulty in their lives now.

We, too, face the temptation to add something to our faith in Christ that might help us fit in a little bit better with our extended family or at work in order to avoid ridicule or reduce the shame of living lives that are incredibly countercultural.

To help them, and us, to see that adding anything to our trust in Jesus is dangerous the writer uses the metaphor of running a race to win a prize. He wants us to press on in the faith and run the race with endurance. He will tell us, first: how to run, second: what hinders us from running this race and third: how we can ensure we finish the race.

So first, how are we to run this race? The answer is my first point: we are to run the race that has been marked out for us with endurance.

12:1-2 contain the only instructions to do something in this whole section. Look at 12v1:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us...(12.1)

Notice the phrase 'let us...' which is repeated twice. The first thing to do is negative... 'let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely' and the second is positive... 'let us run with endurance the race that is set before us'. They are really two sides of the same coin.

What should we do? Run the race that has been set out for us. This race refers to the whole of our life: so more a marathon than a sprint. The point is, there is a specific race for us to run with a specific prize for us to win. There is a choice between different races we can run and different prizes that we can try and win. But we need to run the race that God has laid out for us in order to win the prize that he has prepared for us. That race is to trust in Jesus, and in Jesus alone.

The metaphor of a race relates to our lives so let me stop and ask you: What are you living for? What drives you? What is the ultimate prize in your life? It's just possible that you are running the wrong race! This path is one where the prize is ultimately to become like Jesus. We'll see that in v2 where we are told to look to Jesus. He is our goal.

We must run that race. And we are to do so with endurance. We are to be persistent and not give up even when we don't get the prize straight away. We are to press on to the end. In this race it's not about how well we start but how well we finish.

Now you may have noticed that we skipped over the beginning of verse 1. It begins by saying, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud (in other words - crowd) of witnesses...". That refers back to the whole of chapter 11 which is full of famous people from the old testament who ran the race of faith with endurance and who God was pleased with. They are called 'witnesses'. Their job is not to be spectators, watching us as we run our race. We are supposed to look at them, rather than the other way round! Their job is rather to be like a witness in a court of law who provides important evidence. They provide us with evidence that if we keep running the race of faith as they ran their race, then God will be pleased with us as he was with them. Let's pick out just two examples:

Early in chapter 11 we see Abel. His father was Adam and his mother was Eve. He was told by God the way he was to sacrifice. It involved the shedding of blood, the killing of an animal, the offering of the best of his flocks. Abel did exactly that and therefore offered a sacrifice that was acceptable to God - we read that he was commended for his faith. But his brother Cain didn't. He did not listen to the instructions that God had given and he just made a sacrifice to God of some vegetables and the fruit of the ground. Look at 11v4.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. (11.4)

There is also the example of Sarah. v11 says "By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised". God word was revealed to her and she trusted and believed in that word.

These are just two examples of people of faith who trusted and believed God and were therefore commended for their faith.

So how are we to run this race? Answer: in front of this great cloud of witnesses we are to run the race that has been marked out for us with endurance.

Secondly, we are to throw off all that hinders us from running this race. Look halfway thought v1. "let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely".

Remember the pressure that they were in to add to their faith in Jesus alone something that would make their lives a little more comfortable? Some of these things may have been perfectly good things that they may have thought would make the race more bearable or easier to complete. They couldn't be more wrong. However, if those good things were trusted in place of Jesus they would weigh them down and needed to by thrown off. Immediately. Urgently. What are some of the 'weights' in your life that you need to discard?

They also needed to lay aside sin. Romans 14.23 tells us that "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin". We saw from Abel and Sarah's example that faith was to believe in his word and trust him. So sin is the temptation to run in the opposite direction - instead of trusting and believing God to doubt him and trust other things instead of him. The critical question is whether or not we take God at his word.

What we are to do is therefore clear, but how do we do it?! Can we even do it?

Think for a minute about those people of faith from Hebrews 11. Was their faith a perfect faith? Did they trust God every moment of every day?

Abel - don't know too much about him.
Sarah - we know she laughed when she heard that in a year she would have a child. Is that Sarah considering God faithful who made the promise? Not at that point, certainly.

Yet, in v39 we see that all these were commended for their faith.

Thirdly, how can we ensure that we finish the race? We must look to Jesus. V1b:

"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, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (12.1b-2)

Jesus ran a race too - a perfect race. Those in Hebrews 11 did not run a perfect race and we know that we can't either. But Jesus did. He was God yet he came to earth and ran the perfect race in our place - the founder and perfecter or our faith.

He endured the cross. He was persecuted, opposed and betrayed by friends. He faced an appalling death on a cross. Yet, he did not give up his race.

He despised its shame. Can you imagine what it would have taken for Jesus run his race? The son of God! Hanging on a cross: naked, beaten, crucified. The shame! Shame should make you feel despised. Yet Jesus despised the shame. Why? Jesus looked ahead to the prize and endured and finished the race. He sat at the right hand of the throne of God.

We are to look to Jesus. Does that mean he is setting an example here for us to follow? In some ways - yes. But if it is only a good example that is not exactly good news! If you misunderstand the message here as 'Jesus ran the race and therefore you can too', you are setting yourself up for a spectacular fall, with plenty of guilt, condemnation and discouragement along the way.

The point is not that Jesus acts as a holy pacesetter in the race of faith. No! The key phrase is that he is the founder and perfecter of our faith. If you understand that, you understand the heart of Christianity. Jesus has not just come to us as an example or as a teacher who gives good advice about how we can get to God. Jesus comes as a substitute to do what we cannot do for ourselves. To run in our place the race we cannot run for ourselves.

The Bible makes it so clear that Jesus died FOR our sins. He died instead of us to pay the penalty of our rejection of God and for the wrong we have done. Christianity is therefore not about what must do - it is all about what Jesus has done for us by his death in our place on the cross. If we want to be saved we need to have faith that this is the only way to be acceptable to God.

Hebrew 11 is a mighty chapter! Those listed were not perfect but yet they pleased God by their faith. The point is that they believed the promises of God and acted on them. We must do the same and not drift away from trusting in Jesus, and Jesus alone. That is what it means to look to Jesus.

Abel trusted what God said would be an acceptable sacrifice. He believed God, trusted in that sacrifice and so was commended for his faith. We know that points forward to Jesus who is the perfect sacrifice provided for us to offer up to God. We need to believe God and trusting that Christ is enough. Nothing else is needed.

Sarah, may have struggled but she did come to a point where she trusted that God will be faithful to his promise. She believed that what God had promised would happen in the future and she too was commended for her faith. Just as with Sarah, faith is about living a perfect life but trusting in the promise of God. What has promised? That if we put our confidence not in our goodness, but in the goodness of his son, Jesus, then the prize which he won would be given to us as well.

Jesus is also the perfecter of our faith. That doesn't mean that Jesus takes our little faith and then tops it up. No he is the perfecter in the sense that when our faith is placed in Jesus, God looks at the perfect faith of Jesus and accepts us because of what Jesus did in our place. If we keep our eyes fixed on him, He is able to keep us and preserve us and bring us to God perfectly.

Does God seem to you like a parent who you can never please? Are you crushed by the pressure to live a perfect life and wonder if you are good enough to be in the race, let alone hope to make it to the end? If so, then other alternative paths may be seen as appealing. And you have forgotten Jesus is the founder and the perfecter of your faith. He is the one who ran the race in your place and the one who will hold you to the end.

Conclusion

This part of Hebrews was written to encourage Christians battered by trials to press on in the faith and run the race with endurance. They were tempted to embrace certain elements of Judaism to avoid persecution for being Christians. As they considered the cloud of old testament witnesses who testified to God's faithfulness, they were to run with endurance the race marked out for them. Like them, we must lay aside 'every weight' - those things that would slow them down - as well as our 'sin' - those things that take us off course from our goal, which is Christ. The way to do this is to fix our eyes on Jesus who came and entered the race Himself to win it on our behalf and who will also bring us home to Him in glory. He is the wonderful founder and perfecter of our faith. Because Jesus ran the race perfectly on our behalf we can run with endurance the race marked out for us.

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