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Sermon Message

"The Cure for Stagnant Christianity"

Hebrews 12:1-2
Theme: This passage calls us to renew our pursuit of progress in the Christian life.

(Delivered Sunday, July 20, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)    

INTRODUCTION

This morning, I'd like us to look at one of the most important passages in the New Testament book of Hebrews. In fact, I believe it gives us the main exhortation of that book. It's found in the first two verses of chapter twelve; where it says,

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1-2).

* * * * * * * * * *

Hebrews is a remarkable book. No one today can be certain just who its human author was. Some say that it was Paul, others say that it was Barnabas, and others say it was Apollos or Silas. Perhaps one of the early church fathers said it best when he asserted that only God knows for sure who wrote the Book of Hebrews. But there's no mistaking who its ultimate Author is. It was clearly inspired and preserved for us by God the Holy Spirit. And under the inspiration of the Spirit, the writer presents the whole Old Testament system of sacrifices and commandments to his Jewish brothers and sisters and shows how it all points to Jesus Christ as the "better" and more complete sacrifice for sins.

The book of Hebrews is a call to faithful endurance. Its human author was led by the Spirit to exhort his Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ to remain true to the faith at a time when they were tempted to abandon it. These Jewish Christians were being persecuted severely for their faith in Jesus the Messiah; and many of them were tempted to give in to the pressure and return to the safe realm of the way things were. And so, in exhorting these Christians to stay the course, the writer of Hebrews reviews the great themes of the Old Testament - themes that were very familiar to them. He wanted to show them that (1) these great Old Testament themes point to Jesus, (2) that Jesus is now presented to them as the representative of a new and far more superior "covenant" than the one that came through the law of Moses, and (3) that there's really no longer any "old covenant" to return to - that God has now revealed that salvation is through His Son, and that they must stay true to Him. The writer acknowledged that many may have been tempted to give up and turn back;

But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Heb. 6:9-12).

In one of the most remarkable and beloved chapters of the Bible - Hebrews 11 - the writer calls his Jewish readers to think back on all the great heroes of faith that they had grown up reading about. He reminded them of how each one of them operated on the basis of faith in the promise of God - the promise that was first established to fallen Adam and Eve, that was then clearly passed on to Abraham and his descendants, and that has now at last seen its fulfillment in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. He reminded his readers of how those great Old Testament heroes of faith were willing to suffer hardship and persecution out of a confidence in God that He would keep His promise to them - even if they wouldn't see the fulfillment of that promise in their lifetime. He reminded them of all this to encourage those New Testament believers who were then striving, that they should keep on striving in hope of future victory in Christ and not give up the fight.

Chapter 11 has often been called "God's Hall of Faith". It's a gallery of the great heroes of the Old Testament who were heirs of the promise of God - heroes who were willing, because of that promise, to suffer and to strive for their faith in Christ, whom they had not yet seen. The writer of Hebrews begins by affirming what faith is: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (v. 1); and he insists that without faith it is impossible to please God; "for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (v. 6). A persistent faith in God - that He will indeed keep His promise, and that He will indeed do everything He said He would do for those who trust in Him - is essential to the life that pleases Him. Those suffering Jewish Christians needed to be reminded of that, and to be encouraged to endure in their faith. And so the writer takes them through a guided tour of "God's Hall of Faith" to show how God did - indeed - prove faithful to those who trusted Him.

He tells them, in chapter 11, of the stories of such heroes as Abel, who by faith offered a better sacrifice than Cain (v. 4); and of Enoch, who by faith pleased God and was taken by Him to heaven (v. 5); and of Noah, who by faith endured the mockings of the world as he prepared an ark for the saving of his household (v. 7). All of them took God at His word by faith and lived accordingly; and they eventually saw Him prove faithful to His promise.

He tells them of Abraham - perhaps the greatest of all heroes of faith - who by faith left the homeland of his fathers, and to wander in a strange land in order to receive the land promised to him by God - "the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God (vv. 8-10). He tells them of Abraham's wife Sarah, who by faith became pregnant with the child of God's promise when she was in her nineties - thus seeing God keep His promise to make old childless Abraham into a great nation (v. 11-12). He tells of how Abraham, by faith, obeyed God's command and offered up his only son Isaac as a sacrifice - fully believing that God was able to raise Isaac, even from the dead (vv. 17-19). He tells them of how, by faith, Isaac blessed his two sons and passed the promise of the land of their inheritance on to his son Jacob (v. 20); and of how, by faith, Jacob passed this same promise on to the sons of his son Joseph in Egypt (v. 21); and of how, by faith, Joseph made it his dying wish that his offspring promise to carry his bones with them when they eventually came into the land that God promised Abraham (v. 22; see also Gen. 50:24-25). The writer of Hebrews says,

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (vv. 13-16).

The descendants of Abraham waited 400 long years in a foreign land - even while suffering under cruel slavery in that land - for God to keep his promise to their forefather Abraham. But at the right time, God DID keep His promise. He raised up a deliverer to take them to the land He swore to give them. And so, the writer of Hebrews then reminds his readers of Moses' parents, who by faith saw that their child was a child uniquely blessed of God, and hid him from Pharaoh for three months - risking their lives, but refusing to obey Pharaoh's evil command (v. 23). He tells them of Moses, who by faith refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, and chose instead to suffer affliction with God's chosen people (vv. 24-24). He said that Moses was "esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward" (v. 26). He tells us that, by faith, Moses forsook Egypt, "not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible" (v. 27). He tells us that, by faith, Moses led the people to keep the Passover and sprinkle the blood of the Passover lamb upon the doorposts of their homes, so that the firstborn of their homes would not be killed (v. 28). He tells us that, by faith, the people - led by Moses - passed through the Red Sea and onto dry land (v. 29). They eventually were brought to the land God promised them. God kept every single one of His promises to them; so that years later, after Joshua had led them all into the promised land and saw them finally settled into the place God had given them, he was able to say;

Behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth. And you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one thing has failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spoke concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one word of them has failed (Josh. 23:14; see also 21:43-45).

What a faithful and mighty God we serve!! How worthy He is of our faith in Him!!

The writer of Hebrews then goes on to tell his readers of such heroes of faith as Joshua, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets;

... who through faith subdue kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourging, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented - of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth (vv. 33-38).

These great heroes of faith didn't wait around until it was safe to act in faith. They didn't demand to see God fulfill His promises BEFORE they stepped forward in faith and acted on them. If they had waited until it was safe to trust in God's promises, they wouldn't have been heroes of "faith". But instead, God spoke ... and they believed Him and acted accordingly!

How the stories of these great heroes of faith must have stirred the hearts of the readers of this letter! How it must have emboldened them to once again be reminded of all that those heroes gave up and suffered because of their faith in the promise of God. How it must have encouraged them to see that God kept all His promises to those who faithfully trusted Him. And how stunned these readers must have been at the next thing the writer says - because he unites these readers with those very same great heroes in their battle for the faith! He says,

And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us (vv. 39-40).

Those Old Testament saints looked ahead to God's promises concerning Christ; and the readers of this letter - and that includes us - were now experiencing the very fulfillment of the promises for which those Old Testament heroes, in faith, suffered all these things. We are now, in the light of the cross, the recipients of the same promise that those Old Testament saints trusted in and hoped for. We are the ones who live in the clear light of the grace of God that the Old Testament prophets could only inquire and search carefully into (1 Peter 1:10-11). All that happened to them was written down for our admonition, "upon whom the ends of the ages have come" (1 Cor. 10:11). The things they struggled for and hoped in have come upon us. And that's why the writer then says, in the words of our text,

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1-2).

* * * * * * * * * *

I felt led to this passage this week because of a growing sense of discontent. I don't believe I'm where I ought to be in my walk with Jesus Christ. Frankly, I've grown disturbingly "comfortable" in my Christian experience. And as a result, I have lately been asking myself how long it's been since I've suffered anything because of my faith in Him. I've been asking myself how long it's been since my devotion to Him has cost me something. I'm wondering how long it has been since I've given up something of this world, or said no to some unprofitable habit or pleasure, or stepped out of my comfort zone in some way in obedience to His call upon my life. What's more, I have grown to suspect that I'm not the only one thinking that way.

I suspect that there are many of us in the room this morning who are needing to ask the same sort of questions of ourselves. Perhaps it's true that you're not as diligent in your walk with the Lord as you once were. Perhaps one thing has led to another in your life, and now you're not really making the progress in your Christian life you once did. Perhaps you too have grown to be comfortable with that fact; and you have grown to be satisfied with where you are - while the Lord wishes you were more troubled by it. Perhaps you're not as fervent in your service for the Savior as you once were, or you're not as bothered by the sin in your life you used to be, or you're not giving personal fellowship with Christ the high priority you once did.

This passage is like a good splash of cold water in our spiritually sleepy faces. It's a call from God to us to get real about what it means to walk by faith in His Son. It's a call for us to cease from the contentment with where we are, and to renew our diligence in the pursuit of progress in our Christian life.

* * * * * * * * * *

Let's look at the details of this passage, and see how the Spirit of God is calling us to this progress. First, this passage lets us know ...

1. HOW DILIGENTLY WE'RE TO PURSUE PROGRESS IN OUR CHRISTIAN LIFE.

Look at how the writer of Hebrews describes the Christian life. He compares it with an athletic event. He says, "... Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us". The Greek word that he uses is "agn". It's related to the Greek word from which we get the English word "agony". It was the word that the ancient Greeks used to describe a serious athletic competition or event that required great straining and agonizing effort - such as a race.

If you are a reader of the Bible, you'll know that the apostle Paul was a great sports fan. He loved to use athletic events to describe the seriousness with which we are to pursue progress in the Christian life. For example, he was very angry with the Galatian believers for having gotten seriously off track with respect to the doctrine of God's grace; and he wrote and said, "You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?" (Gal. 5:7).

He once communicated how diligently the Corinthian believers should pursue progress in their faith, when he told them,

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run it in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

Paul looked at himself as a "spiritual athlete". He sought to discipline himself and push himself on, so that he could make progress, and so that he might finish his spiritual life in a way that pleased the Lord. And because of this, he was able to write to Timothy near the end of his life and say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day ..." (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

So then, when the writer of Hebrews says, "let us run with endurance the race that is set before us", he is using the metaphor of a race to show us how seriously we are to pursue progress in our faith. And please notice something very important about this: He doesn't suggest that we get into the race. He's not inviting us to "sign-up for the run". He assumes that we're already in the race. That's our condition. We're already in a race - a very serious event - and we need to conduct ourselves as if that's the case.

Can you imagine a runner in a world-class athletic event stopping in the middle of the race track and just sitting down by the side? Can you imagine him saying to himself, "You know; I think I've made enough progress now. I'm really rather proud of how much of the race I've run; and I'm pretty content with how far I've gone. But after all, all I really wanted to do was be IN the race - I don't want to make too big a deal about FINISHING it. Besides, I feel like STARTED pretty well; and that's what's really important, isn't it?." Well; that's exactly how many of us are treating our Christian life right now! It requires all the diligence and discipline of a world-class athletic event; and yet, many of us have stopped running, have sat by the side of the track, have laid down on the grass, and have said, "I'm IN the Christian faith and I STARTED well; but there's no need to make a big fuss about FINISHING. I'm actually pretty pleased with how much progress I've made up to this point. I don't drink and I don't cuss; and I certainly don't fool around. I'm certainly doing better than most folks I know. If I just stay out of trouble; I figure that should be good enough."

Actually, the grammar of this text will not allow us to get away with that sort of an attitude. The writer of Hebrews uses the present tense of the Greek verb; and that speaks of a progressive, ongoing action. He's saying, "Let us continually, progressively keep on running the race that is set before us." There's no stopping in it at any point. There's no justification for being "content" with where we are. Even the apostle Paul affirmed this when he spoke of his own progress in the Christian faith;

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:12-14).

If you've grown to be content with where you are in the Christian life, then you're either a greater Christian that Paul, or you're fooling yourself and are not seeing your situation as the Lord sees it. If Paul wasn't satisfied, how can we expect to be? No professional athlete would be satisfied with just "a little progress". No such athlete would be content to simply "plateau", and be happy where they are. Neither should we. Do you and I treat our progress in the Christian faith with the same sort of seriousness and passion as that of a world-class athlete? We should! We have far more at stake than any athlete ever did.

* * * * * * * * * *

So; we must make progress. It is God's will that we make continual, ongoing progress in our faith. This leads us to a second thing this passage teaches us ...

2. WHAT IT IS THAT HINDERS OUR PROGRESS.

I find that the hindrances to our progress in the Christian faith are hinted at in what the passage says to us about the Lord Jesus. He is our great example; and it says that He, "for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame ..."

First of all, we see that Jesus looked ahead to "the joy that was set before Him". And that points up one of our great hindrances. We don't look ahead to a future "joy" - the joy that comes as a result of hearing Jesus say, "Well done, good and faithful servant. ... Enter into the joy of your lord" (Matthew 25:21). We don't want to wait for a better heavenly joy in the future. We we're willing to settle for a temporary, lesser "joy" right now. We want to store up our treasures of joy and happiness in this life and in the things of this world.

I cannot tell you how many times, as a pastor, that I've heard people justify their sins to me by saying, "Well; God wants me to be happy, doesn't He?" And I've grown to understand that the problem isn't that people want to be happy. That's normal. We all want to be happy. The real problem is that that such people don't want to be happy enough! They don't believe that what God holds out to them will result in a far greater and more eternal happiness than they can imagine - a future happiness that is so great that present suffering isn't even worth being compared with it (Rom. 8:18). Instead, such people are like Esau, "who for one morsel of food sold his birthright" (Heb. 12:16). They are willing to settle for what the writer of Hebrews called "the passing pleasures of sin" (11:25). They're like Demas, who was willing to forsake the heavenly work that God called him to, "having loved this present world" (2 Tim. 4:10). The apostle John warned us,

Do not love the world or the things in the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world - the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life - is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:15-17).

Examine yourself before the Lord. Do you find that you have been hindered in your progress in the Christian faith because you love present, temporal things more than the eternal joys that God has set before you in Christ?

* * * * * * * * * *

Another thing we see is that Jesus, because of that joy that was set before Him, "endured the cross." And that points up another way we are easily hindered in our progress in the Christian faith. We are unwilling to crucify self. We love our own comfort, our own peace and prosperity, our own safety and security, more than we love God's call on our life. We make a great show of loving the cross of Jesus; but when He sets the cross before us and beckons us to crucify "self" upon it in our walk with Him, we stop dead in our tracks.

Jesus said something very radical. He said,

He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and He who loses his life for My sake will find it (Matthew 10:37-39).

The apostle Paul made great progress in his Christian life because he was crucified to self. He said, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in Me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). He no longer lived according to his own agenda. He considered himself to have "died" to his own agenda; and to now only live for the agenda of Christ for his life.

If you are hindered in your progress in the Christian life, then perhaps you should examine whether or not it's because, somewhere along the way, Christ called you to die to self in some specific area of life, take up His cross, and follow Him - and to this point, you've refused to do as He has said.

* * * * * * * * * *

Another thing we see is that, in enduring the cross, Jesus "despised the shame". And this points out to us a third way we can be hindered in our progress in the Christian life.

The cross of Jesus is a matter of great shame in the eyes of this sinful world. The world considers it a joke. Paul says that "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" (1 Cor. 1:18). They mock the cross. They consider the religion of the cross to be a religion for losers. And if you're going to take up the cross, follow Jesus, and live a life of righteousness, then you'll learn the truth of what Paul told Timothy - that "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12). You'll learn the truth of what Jesus said to His disciples - that "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:19).

God calls us to follow Him and make progress in our Christian faith; but worrying about what others will think of us if we do, or what loved ones will say about us if we follow Him, or how angry it will make those around us if we are devoted to him - being controlled by such worries stop us dead in our tracks. Proverbs 29:25 says that "The fear of man brings a snare". And if you and I are going to make progress in our Christian faith, we're going to have resolve in our hearts to "despise the shame" - that is, to count the shame that is attached to the cross in the eyes of this world as something that has absolutely no value to us whatsoever. We will have to let God to drive a steel bar down the backbone of our conviction; and declare, "Others may not like it that I have taken up the cross and have followed Christ; but I could not care less what they think! I only care that He loves me and has died for Me. I despise the shame!" We have to be like one man I heard about many years ago. A friend of his mocked him and said, "So, I hear that you've climbed aboard the OJesus Bandwagon' now!"; and the man responded, "That's right. It's the only OBandwagon' that's going anywhere!!"

If you are not making progress in your Christian life, have you ever considered that it's because you are allowing yourself to be ruled more by a fear of man than by an obedience to Christ? Have you ever considered that it's because you have not yet resolved to "despise the shame" of the cross?

* * * * * * * * * *

Those are some of the things that this passage suggests may hinder our progress in the Christian life. Next, we see that this passage tells us ...

3. WHAT WE'RE TO DO TO PURSUE THAT PROGRESS.

The writer of Hebrews says, "Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" (v. 1). And I appreciate - don't you? - that he says "Let us ..." He begins with "Therefore we also"; and follows that introduction with four "us's". He doesn't speak down to his readers; but gives them an exhortation to participate with him in the action he's calling for. All of us - no matter who we are - need to be encouraged to keep on running in the Christian race faithfully; and to keep on doing the things we need to do to make progress in our Christian life. This isn't a race in which we're in competition with one another; rather, it's a race in which we are to encourage one another, and to seek to cross the finish-line faithfully together to the glory of God.

* * * * * * * * * *

The first thing he exhorts us to do is to lay aside every "weight" (or "encumbrance", as it is in the NASB). He urges us to strip ourselves of the unnecessary burdens that will slow us down.

A runner who runs in a race takes that race so seriously that he or she will spend a significant amount of time losing weight and shedding the extra pounds. He or she will dress appropriately for the race - not wearing unnecessarily burdensome garments. And certainly, no runner running in a race would wear a backpack or carry an extra couple of books to read along the way. They would be so devoted to the race that they will diligently free themselves of anything that might - in any way - slow them down.

Similarly, as Christians, we need to be so devoted to progress in our Christian faith that we are willing to shed anything that slows us down or distracts us from that progress. Paul wrote to Timothy and told him,

You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier (2 Tim. 2:3-4).

We must make sure that the things of this world have such a loose hold on us that we are free to go anywhere and do anything that our Lord and Master tells us to do as soon as He tells us to.

* * * * * * * * * *

Second, he tells us to lay aside "the sin which so easily ensnares us" (or "entangles us" as the NASB translates it). The writer uses the definite article in the original language; speaking of "the" particular sin which easily trips us up. And so, I believe he is here calling us to lay aside that particular sin which is unique to us - the thing that may not be a problem for someone else, but that is a particular stumbling block for us personally.

A runner who runs in a race is going to pay attention to his feet. Everything depends on where his feet are placed. He'll look ahead, and make sure that he avoids any particular pot-holes or stumbling stones that are in the way. And he'll also make sure that his shoes are properly laced, and that there's nothing flipping and flopping around that might make him trip.

Similarly, as Christians, we need to be on the alert against those particular sins that we are most prone to; and to lay aside anything that will cause us to stumble and lose ground because of them. It may be a different thing for me than it is for you. It may even be a different thing at one time in your life than it is at another. But whatever it is - even if it is something very dear to us - it must be laid aside or we will not make progress in our Christian faith. Jesus said,

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell (Matthew 5:29-30).

This is not a call to mame yourself. This is a call to, for example, get rid of your computer if your access to material on the internet causes you to sin. It means to get rid of your television set if the programs you're watching is causing you to stumble. It means ending friendships or relationships that lead you into sin. It means being so devoted to progress in your Christian life that you'll lay aside that particular sin - or the thing that causes you to sin - which so easily ensnares you personally.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thirdly, he urges us to "run with endurance" (or "perseverance" as it's translated in the NIV). This describes the manner that is to characterize our pursuit of progress in the Christian faith. It is the essential element in running the race.

I'm not much of a runner; but the running I have done reminds me of how much "endurance" is needed. It's in the midst of the run that you most feel like quitting. Your lungs feel as if they're on fire, and you're gasping for every breath. Your legs feel like led weights, and your body aches with every movement. Experienced runners know that the Osecond wind' is just around the corner, and they keep on running. But if a runner gives in to the pressure to quit, they'll forfeit the race. It's the runner who endures - who perseveres and keeps at it - who crosses the finish line.

Similarly, we need to pursue progress in our Christian life with the same level of endurance. There will be times when we feel like giving up. There'll be sinful habits and temptations in our lives that we just don't feel like we'll ever conquer. There'll be crucial doctrines of the faith that we feel like we'll never understand. There'll be disciplines and practices that we feel like we'll never master. There'll be times when we'll read our Bibles faithfully, or pray consistently, or attend church regularly; and yet, those things don't seem to be doing any good. There'll be times when everything in us is tempted to give up. But we must keep persistent, and persevere in our pursuit of growth in the faith. If we fail and fall, we need to immediately get back up and get into the running. We must not quit, whatever happens.

Paul - one of the most persevering Christians who ever lived - told us, "And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart" (Gal. 6:9).

* * * * * * * * * *

So far, we've considered the manner in which we're to pursue progress in the faith. We've also considered what hinders us in this progress, and what we must do to make progress. And now we close by considering ...

4. WHO IS TO INSPIRE US TO FURTHER PROGRESS.

We've already considered this in part. The writer has reminded us of the "great cloud of witnesses" that surrounds us; and here, he speaks of those great heroes of faith who proceeded us. He refers to them as a "great cloud" - a densely packed mass - as a way to illustrate that they are an innumerable multitude. And in our case, they not only include those great Old Testament saints who looked ahead in faith to Jesus but also the many, many saints who believed on Him and trusted Him during the many centuries that followed after He came. We are a part of a great heritage of faithful believers; and what an inspiration to us they are to our continued progress!

But as great as they are, they stand second in rank to an even greater Example. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to keep on running the race; "looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy what was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (v. 2).

Jesus is the "author" and "finisher" of our faith. He held council with the Father in the creation of the plan of our salvation; He gave Himself to make our salvation possible; He declared Himself to be the way to that salvation; He presents Himself as our example of perseverance in that salvation; He guides us through our progress in that salvation; He is the one who guarantees our complete glorification in that salvation; and He Himself is the goal in the full realization of that salvation.

And can you see that in calling you to run this race, Jesus is not calling you to do anything but what He Himself has already done before you? "For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren ..." (Heb. 2:10-11).

Jesus - the captain of our salvation, and the author and finisher of our faith - didn't seek His joy in the temporal things of this world. Rather, He set His sights on the joy that was set before Him - that is, having us with Him forever in heavenly glory (John 17:24). He did not try to cling to His own prerogatives as God, but humbled himself to the point of death - even the death on the cross (Phil. 2:8). He did not shrink back from the ridicule and hatred that accompanied the curse of the cross - despising the shame. And now, He is seated at the right hand of the throne of God in glory - beckoning us to faithfully run the race as He did; beckoning us to make progress in our faith.

We're to turn our heads away from everything else that might distract us, and look to Him as He is seated on the other side of the finish line. And the more we do so, the more we'll run the race with passion and devotion. You cannot look to Jesus and be satisfied with where you are.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; let's repent of our contentment in the thing over which we should be very much dissatisfied. Let's yearn to be further in the Christian life than we are. Let's hate our stagnation in the Christian walk. Let's ask God to make this very day a new day of devotion, and of a renewed commitment to seek further progress in Christ-likeness and personal holiness. Let's throw aside everything that hinders us; let's turn aside from lesser things; and let's follow hard after all that He calls us to be.

He has so much in store for us when the race is over. Let's run the race that He has set before us faithfully while we still can.

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