By Simon ManchesterSunday 10 Jan 2021Christian Growth with Simon Manchester
If you want to know what God says to us as a congregation this morning, the answer is Hebrews 12, and the key to the chapter is found in the 1st verse which begins like this: “Let us run the race with perseverance that has been marked out for us”.
The word for ‘race’ is literally the word ‘agon’ from which we would get our word ‘agony’, and so the writer is saying let’s run the contest, let’s run the obstacle course with perseverance and this morning as I was coming to the earlier service, I noticed I was passing literally dozens and dozens of people who had been running this morning in a half-marathon.
I want to give you some thoughts on the Christian race. In fact, I want to give you two essential clues to the Christian race.
First, the Christian race is very different from an Olympic race because the contestants in the Christian race aren’t chosen for their giftedness, ability or because they are good. Selection in the Christian race isn’t based on fitness for the race.
It’s based on God’s kindness, it’s based on God’s choice. It’s God who brings to us the message of Jesus Christ that he is the Son of God and that he died on the cross and he opened the door into the family of God, and one day into the glory of God. It’s God who brings that message to us, and it’s God who gives us the ability to respond to the message, and when we respond to the news of Christ and when we bow to him and when we trust him we have a brand new life and we are in the race.
The most significant mistake you could make this morning is to think that I am going to give you a pep talk as if we all just by being here are in the Christian race. There may be some here this morning not in the Christian race yet because you have not yet come to the point of putting your faith in Christ and having the life and being placed in the race. I wouldn’t want you to think that I am giving you a little beat-up this morning about how we’ve all got to go home and try harder. The key is to get into the race by putting your faith in Christ.
That’s why the writer has spent ten chapters telling us about Jesus and his work on the cross so that we’ll know what he’s done and we can trust what he’s done before we then do any running of our own.
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I received an e-mail this week from a young man, and he wrote to say to me ‘I’m not in the Christian life, I realise I haven’t got it’. That was a great breakthrough on his part, a real piece of humility to be able to write ‘I don’t have the Christian life, I’m still spiritually dead’.
The second clue to the Christian race is that it is not a competition. We are not in the Christian race to defeat other people. We are in the race to finish. If you have ever read the book called “Pilgrims Progress” you know that it’s not about finishing first, but it’s about finishing well. We need God’s grace to help us finish well because there is a lot of stupidities inside us. There’s a lot of invitations to evil and indulgence outside us, and there is a devil who is rubbing his hands and mixing his own plots around us, and we need the grace of God to help us, not only into the race but on in the race and eventually to finish the race.
That’s why Paul says very wonderfully in Philippians 1;
“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to the day of completion”.
Don’t fall into the trap this morning thinking that we are here for a little bit of a pep talk and that I’m going to give you excellent tips on how to run the race.
We need to get chapters 1 to 10 clear, put our faith in Christ and then we are in the race. This is a Christian race; it’s not a human race.
There are four brief encouragements in chapter 12 to help you run the race. I hope these things will be like an energy drink or an energy bar and that each one will help you to run the race because that’s the purpose. This chapter is not designed to discourage you; it’s designed to make you glad to be in the race and glad to keep going. And if at the end of these few minutes you come to that conclusion, I think we have got the chapter right.
Sacrifices are worth it
“Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”.
Who are the witnesses? We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and the answer is that it’s all those people in Hebrews 11. It’s that long list of people who God saved and carried to the end.
They were not very great
They were not very impressive
But God saved them and carried them to the end, and they are witnesses to his faithfulness. They are testifying that he is good and able. These are not witnesses to us. That is they are not sitting in the grandstand watching us run our race. What a depressing experience if they were in the grandstand watching me run my race!
They are testifying, they are witnesses to God’s faithfulness, helping them complete the race and who will help you complete the race and we have this great cloud of people who began and finished and they say to us “God is faithful, he saw us through, and he will see you through”, that’s the encouragement.
So, therefore ‘throw off the things that keep you from running’.
You must think now this morning friends of the things that hinder Christian race. The things that take away your zeal and your joy. I’m not talking about your busyness. We are all busy. Busyness does not rob us of joy. You can be very busy and very joyful. I’m thinking of those things that rob us of joy and zeal, the things that make us spiritually weak, and sluggish.
I know the areas in my life that do that, and I guess you know the areas in your life. There are certain things which crop up in our lives which take away the joy of our Christian race. The good news and the bad news at the same time is that these things have got to be thrown off every day.
We must take heart from the fact that there is nobody here this morning who has successfully thrown away their sins and now they are free of sins. Those people are depressing, aren’t they? You meet them at Morning Tea occasionally and they give the impression that the Christian life is A5+. And there may be good phases but actually what we are being told is that the person who runs the race, trusting in Christ, following Christ is going to have to on a daily basis throw away the sins that keep getting in the way.
It’s almost like an athlete who is tempted, “I must have my television under my arm. I must have my laptop under my arm. I must have my I-phone in my back pocket”.
There nothing wrong with television, laptop and an I-phone or whatever but you just don’t run well with those things so work out those things that prevent you from running well and throw them away for the race.
If you want some help, you’ll find some help in Jesus. Not only is he the one who forgives us for our failures and he hangs on to us despite our stubbiness but he is our example because he looked at the cross and he scorned it. He despised it. He knew that it would be shameful, personally, physically, spiritually, and in every way shameful and he disliked it and he despised it because he was looking forward to the joy that was coming when he would be seated beside the Father.
As one Commentator said, “as he was nailed to the cross he thought about sitting at the Father’s right hand, and that’s where he is”.
That time of suffering was short, terrible and now he’s at the Father’s right hand, and he’s there to help us in our struggles. That’s why the writer says in verse 3 “therefore consider him who endured such opposition so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”. Look to him for help.
So God has put us in the race. The question is not will we begin the race if we are Christians, that’s the non-Christian ‘will I begin, will I put my faith in Christ?’
The question for the Christian is ‘am I going to finish?’
When we think about so many who have gone to the end and run for decades by the grace of God and especially as we think about Jesus who has arrived and is seated at the right hand of the Father, the sacrifices are worth it.
Circumstances are under control
The writer starts to talk about God disciplining his children. Why does he begin to talk about disciplining his children? Friends, I hope you don’t read the Bible and think that this writer has ADD and he’s just come up with a random topic, I hope you don’t read this chapter and think it’s like an Encyclopaedia we’ve just gone from one topic to something completely different. I hope you’ll read the section and you will say to yourself ‘why does he say this, why does he say God disciplines you in the middle of a letter written to people who may be tempted to turn their back and go back to the Jewish faith?’. You’ve got to think about this.
The obvious reason is that these people who are thinking about turning back are misreading their circumstances. It’s much more costly to follow Jesus than to be a member of any other faith.
You’ve got to trust promises
You don’t get to touch and taste and smell and feel all the time
A lot of it is walking by the promises
And there is opposition
There was for Jesus (verse 3) and there will be for keen Christians.
These Christians are wondering if God is punishing them, if God is angry with them and the writer is turning around and saying “No, No, No” God is disciplining you because he loves you. He’s working on you to shape you and to make you into the person who will trust and obey and rejoice and keep going and survive and get to the end of what is quite a short race.
So we’re told in verse 6 that God disciplines those he loves. Now we all get to watch other people raise their children and people get to watch us raise our children and we are concerned, aren’t we, when we or others indulge children to the point where it’s all treats and no boundaries, and you wonder really how these children are going to cope with all treats and no boundaries.
The answer is that a person who raises their children with all treats, and no boundaries doesn’t love their children says the Bible because, in the end, you are more likely to be loving yourself to do that. It’s easier to do that, isn’t it?
But to exercise discipline, to come down with boundaries and to stand with your standards and keep your children in the way of faithfulness is costly but it’s loving, and it’s constructive and it’s purposeful and it’s wonderful.
That’s why the writer says there’s no father who doesn’t discipline their children who is a good father. And if the heavenly father is disciplining you, it’s because he loves you. In fact, if there is no discipline you might start to ask yourself the question whether you have a heavenly father. If God never brings you low, if he never corrects or rebukes you, disciplines or trains you, you need to wonder, have I got a heavenly father? Have I just been neglected? Am I adrift in the world?
Verse 10 says human fathers do their best, and many of us know they made mistakes and we may not respect their mistakes, but we appreciate them. How much more should we respect the perfect heavenly Father?
It’s no fun, it’s not easy to be disciplined, it’s painful but it is productive, and it brings forth the fruit of progress and maturity and change.
So verses 12-13, don’t be tricked into thinking the way God is working your circumstances is some carelessness on his part as though he’s walked away from you and said: “I’m fed up”. That’s impossible.
Chapter 13 “I’ll never leave you never will I forsake you”. So lock that into your brain. And don’t imagine the circumstances God is putting you through at the moment are sadistic as though his character has suddenly changed and he has become faulty. That’s impossible. He’s perfect, loving, wise and powerful. So we have to lock it into our brain that God loves us, he has said it, and he has proved it.
Now he is like that father who is watching his daughter play netball, or his son play football, and he’s on the sidelines, and he is watching the child and the child is being knocked around quite a bit, and he’s getting quite a few discouragements and a few whacks and a few falls but the father knows that actually the whole process is good and he is allowing certain things to take place which will strengthen and build but if something serious happens, then the father will run in. That’s the way the heavenly Father looks after us.
If you interpret your circumstances on the basis that he is careless, you have swallowed a lie. If you interpret your circumstances on the basis that he is sadistic, you have swallowed another lie.
But if you interpret your circumstances on the basis that he is a loving heavenly Father interested in every detail, that’s the truth of the word.
We need to make sure we don’t despise what’s happening to us, and we don’t get despondent, but we discern. We say ‘this is happening to me at the moment, I’ve got a heavenly father behind and he works all the circumstances. The question is not am I going to get it all explained to me? The question is, How will I respond to even those facts?
If God is at work for our righteousness, the writer goes on to say from verses 13-17 ‘you need to be wise as well, you need to choose a good road for your feet, you are never going to make much progress if you chose a dumb road’. Verse 14 ‘seek peace with others’ because that’s going to bless your walk with Christ as well – the horizontal and the vertical, they go together. Verse 14 ‘go hard for holiness’ because in the end holiness and happiness are much linked together.
Verse 14 ‘beware the root of sin that takes hold and starts to strangle you’, but verse 16 ‘also beware that insane ability we have to exchange our eternal future for some kind of cheap present’ what an insane thing that is and we are capable of that aren’t we? We need to be very careful that we don’t give away an eternity for the present.
This is very practical information. When we are embattled in the Christian life or feeling very needy and empty, it’s easy to misread things, and that’s why we need to lock into our head. Loving Father, not abandoned, not neglected, loving Father.
And when sin is coming at us very strong, we need to say to ourselves.
Holiness is the best road
Work at the holiness
Don’t act as though nothing matters
Don’t imagine that sin is going to satisfy in the long term or be helpful in the long-term
Work at the holiness.
C.S. Lewis says in one of his letters on the subject of Temptation “It’s the devil’s lie that the only escape is through yielding but the temptation will go and what seemed yesterday to be impossible, will today be utterly insipid and tedious”.
Isn’t’ that a wonderful comment on temptation? One day it seems impossible, doesn’t it? The next day it seems pretty boring. Well, we love those days where sin seems boring. We don’t often know what to do where sin seems impossible but here is the great wisdom of this writer telling us – Keep going as best you can on the road of holiness because God is at work as a loving father.
Privileges have begun
Here is a section which needs very careful handling because he says in verse 18 ‘you have not come to a mountain with fire, gloom, storm and terrifying words (which sounds like Mt Sinai) but you have come (verse 22) to Mt Zion and to the angels and to God and to Jesus’. What is he talking about?
What do you make of it if I say to you this morning ‘you’ve not come to Mt Sinai, you’ve come to Mt Zion’? How can you talk like that especially in chapter 11 when he said none of those people who were trusting God’s promises has arrived?
Now he says in chapter 12 ‘you’ve come to Mt Zion’.
And then in chapter 13 verse 14, he says ‘we haven’t yet come to the city’, but here in chapter 12 he says ‘you’ve come to Mt Zion’, what’s he talking about? Have we come? Have we not come?
I think the answer to the question, Do you feel like you have come to Mt Zion this morning? I hope you don’t feel like you’ve come to Mt Sinai? There’s no lightning, thunder and gloom and doom I trust but do you feel like you’ve come to Mt Zion? He says you have come to Mt Zion.
How are we going to interpret this?
I think the best answer is what he’s been saying through the letter of Hebrews which is; you’ve come to the throne of grace, you’ve now spiritually got to the point because of your faith in Christ where you can step into God’s fellowship. You can come into his presence; you can speak to him and receive mercy and grace in time of need. In other words, listen very carefully to this; this is a very important sentence I am going to say:
- You have spiritually arrived
- You have not yet physically arrived
Just as Paul will say in Colossians 3 “You’ve been raised with Christ”, and you say to yourself “I’ve not been raised with Christ”. Yes, you have says Paul. You’ve been spiritually raised. You’ve not yet been physically raised. One day you’ll be physically raised, but you’ve been spiritually raised. Here the writer says ‘you’ve come spiritually to Mt Zion, you can now speak to God as it were at his very throne’.
You can go home this morning, kneel down beside your bed, and you are in the very presence of God spiritually. One day you’ll be in the very presence of God physically.
That’s why the writer is saying to those who are running the Christian race. Take heart, you are halfway home, and you are spiritually home. You are not yet physically home. You are no longer at Mt Sinai which was all about separation and distance; you are now at Mt Zion which is about access and availability and therefore rejoice because you are not separated from God, Christ has bridged the gulf.
In the Christian life which is a very testing race, here are some wonderful encouragements that your conversion means access. And therefore don’t throw away your Christian life because you have received so much;
- Future in front of you – Don’t throw it away.
So there are the first three things
- Sacrifices are worth it
- Circumstances are under control
- Privileges have begun
The values of Christ are unshakeable
He says in these last verses (25-29) “Everything that is created is going to be shaken, but the kingdom is unshakeable” and therefore you live in the creation but when you come to faith in Christ, you live in the kingdom. The kingdom intersects the creation, and you are there in the intersection between the creation and the kingdom.
Because you belong to the kingdom, you are on very solid ground.
When God spoke at Mt Sinai everything trembled. When God speaks in the future, everything will dissolve and the person who is standing on the Rock of the kingdom will find that they are absolutely safe and secure and therefore to walk away from the King and to lose your security and your stability is an absolute insanity.
Because the clock is rotating quite quickly, the hours and the days are going by and the weeks and the months and suddenly we will find ourselves face to face with our Maker.
The person who, by grace, has put their trust in Christ will hear those wonderful words: “Welcome take your inheritance”.
The person who has never done that will hear those terrible words “Depart, I don’t know you”.
When you’ve put your faith in Christ, you’ve got unshakeable privileges. Whatever you do, don’t turn your back on him.
The person who is struggling in the Christian life says to themselves every now and again ‘my sins are so constant, is it worth it?’
And the writer says ‘it is worth it, throw away what stops you running’.
And then the person says ‘yeh, but circumstances are terrible, I don’t know what’s going on, and nobody seems to be looking after anything or caring about me’.
The writer says ‘your Father is entirely in control making sure that you go forward, looking to him and trusting him.
And then the person says ‘yes but those sacrifices they may be worth it and circumstances may be under control, but in the end, it’s all too unreal, you know I want to have something now’.
And the writer says ‘you have access to the throne of God, you are spiritually raised, you’ve come to Mt Zion, you are no longer separated, but because of Jesus you are now in fellowship with God’.
And then the person says ‘yeh but it’s getting very difficult, I still really would like to have everything NOW’.
And the writer says ‘if you give up the kingdom for the creation you lose everything but if you hand on following the King as he hangs on to you, you’ll gain everything’.
So here is the writer encouraging us in the Christian race not to turn back and not to give up and he’s given us some excellent reasons that all have to do with the faithfulness of God.
Well let’s ask him to keep us going – Let’s pray.
Our Father we give you our thanks for this chapter. We thank you for reminding us of the Lord Jesus enduring the cross, despising its shame and now seated at the right hand of the Father. Please help us to throw away those things which would destroy our faith – help us to do that.
We thank you that you lovingly regulate all our circumstances, nothing slips your attention. We pray that you would help us in the very midst of many troubles to trust you and to look to you. We pray that you would save us from sulking or setting up our own barriers.
We also thank you our Father that you have given to us in this part of your word the assurance of present blessings, access, fellowship and closeness.
We pray that you would help us to walk closely with you and finally we thank you that you have set up a kingdom which will never be shaken and pray that you would help us stand faithfully on the Rock of Christ. And we pray that you would keep us, each one who is here this morning.
Help us, those who are not in the race into the race and help those who are in the race to continue on in the race.
We pray Heavenly Father that there would be nobody in this building who misses the privilege of following and arriving.
We ask it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.