We spent three weeks on Hebrews 11 and on that long list of people from the Old Testament. What did all these people have in common? After all, they were very different from one another. For instance, Moses, I’m sure, was very different from Rabab the prostitute. And they lived at different times and in different places. For instance, David lived in Israel before the exile, whereas Daniel who is lived Babylon after the exile. Some of them were prosperous and successful. For instance, Abraham became a rich and powerful man who was able to summon an army when necessary. And David was king over all Israel. So some were rich and powerful, but then the writer ends his list by mentioning others who were destitute and persecuted and ill-treated and who lived in caves and holes in the ground. So what did all these different people have in common? What they had in common was this: they were all believers. They all possessed faith. They all trusted the Lord and his promises. In particular, they all trusted God for the future. Abraham was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob were longing for a better country, a heavenly one. Moses regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. They were looking beyond this world to the world to come; and they were looking beyond the Promised Land of Canaan to the Promised Land of Eternal Life in the presence of God.
As the writer says at the beginning of Hebrews 11, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. All of the people mentioned in chapter 11 were sure that they would receive what God had promised them which is eternal life in his presence; they were sure that they would one day see what they could not yet see in this life. And because of their faith, because they were sure that they would receive what God had promised them, they were prepared to endure all things now in this life, because of what God had promised them in the life to come. So, for the joy set before them in the life to come, they endured all kinds of sorrow and suffering in this life. And so, the writer mentioned those who were tortured; and some who faced jeers and flogging; and some who were chained and imprisoned; and some who were stoned; and some who were sawn in two; and some who were put to death by the sword; and some who went about destitute and persecuted and ill-treated. They endured all of these things because of the joy set before them.
And, of course, the writer mentions these people and their forward-looking faith to teach us to endure all things in this life because of the joy set before us in the life to come. We too must have a forward-looking faith, because the way to endure suffering now in this world is to keep in mind the glory that will be revealed to us in the world to come, where we will receive our future reward, which is a reward we do not deserve and cannot earn, but it’s a reward which God freely and graciously promises to give to his believing people. And so, instead of giving up the faith, instead of turning away from Christ, we’re to persevere in the faith and we’re to keep believing, because in the end it will all be worth it.
And verses 1 to 3 of chapter 12 are really the conclusion to chapter 11. ‘Therefore…’, the writer says. In other words: In view of what I’ve been saying about all these people who trusted God for the future, this is what you’re to do. And so, verses 1 to 3 of chapter 12 are the conclusion to chapter 11, where he applies what he’s been saying. And then from verse 4 onwards, he goes on to teach us that God uses our present sufferings for our good. In fact, our present afflictions are not a sign that God hates us, but they’re a sign that God loves us and he’s disciplining us for our good.
Verses 1 to 3
Let’s turn to verses 1 to 3 first, where the writer says, ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses….’ He refers to all the people he’s mentioned in chapter 11 as a great cloud of witnesses. By calling them witnesses, he means they bear witness to us. So, by their faith and perseverance, they bear witness to us. They are an example to us. They witness to us by their forward-looking faith and by their willingness to endure all things now because of what God had promised them in the future. And by calling them a cloud of witnesses, he means there are lots of them. And so, the combined witness of all these people from the Old Testament is overwhelming. We cannot ignore their witness. We cannot disregard it or dismiss it, because there are so many of them and they’re all teaching us the same thing about faith and perseverance.
And so, since we have their witness, what should we do? 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. So, he’s comparing the Christian life to a race which is marked out before us. And the thing about this race is that it’s not a sprint which is over in a flash. No, the Christian life is not like a sprint, because it’s like a long-distance race, it’s like a marathon. And what does a long-distance runner need? What does a marathon runner need? Endurance. Perseverance. They need to learn to disregard that little voice inside their heads telling them to stop; that little voice inside their heads telling them it’s too hard. They need to learn to disregard that voice and to keep going. And so, believers must ignore the little voice inside our heads which says to us that the Christian life is too hard and why don’t you stop. We must disregard that voice and keep going. We need to persevere. We need to endure. The Christian life is not like a sprint, which is over in a flash, but it’s like a marathon which takes endurance.
And, of course, to run the race well, a runner needs to throw off every entanglement. They can’t wear heavy clothes which will weigh them down. They have to tie their laces tightly so they don’t come loose and trip them up. And in a similar way, believers must throw off everything that might hinder us. What might hinder us in our Christian lives? Well, the writer goes on to explain what he means when he refers to the sin that so easily entangles. Sin prevents us from making progress. It causes us to stumble on the way. It holds us back. In other words, sin is dangerous. Sometimes we regard our sins as relatively unimportant. You know, so long as we’re not committing big sins, then we can live with our little sins. But all those little sins in our lives combine to harden our hearts and they can keep us from running the race with perseverance. And so, God’s will for his people is for us to throw them off. Get rid of them. Turn from them and run the race with perseverance.
And the way to run with perseverance is by fixing our eyes on Jesus. That is, we’re to consider him. We’re to look away from ourselves and we’re to look away from our present troubles and we’re to fix our attention on him; and we’re to learn from his example to us. If the Old Testament saints are examples to us, then the Lord Jesus is our main example. He’s the ultimate example. He bears witness to us, because for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame. So, he disregarded the shame of the cross, and he endured the suffering of the cross, and he endured the punishment of our sins which he bore on the cross, because of the joy set before him. What was the joy set before him? To sit down at the right hand of the throne of God. So, the Lord Jesus was willing to endure the cross for the joy of being able to sit down afterwards at God’s right hand in heaven.
So, he endured present sufferings because of what was in store for him in the future. That’s the example he has set us. He endured all things in this life, because of the joy set before him. And so, he sets us an example that we too should endure all things in this life because of the joy set before us in the life to come, when we too will come into the presence of God to be with him forever. In fact, in Revelation 3:21, the Risen Lord Jesus promises his people that whoever overcomes, he will give the right to sit with him on his throne. So, right now he is seated at God’s right hand. And one day, if we persevere and keep going, we will sit with him.
And the writer also describes the Lord Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith. That is, he’s the founder of our faith, the originator of our faith, or the source of our faith. He’s the one who enables us to believe, because if he didn’t send his Spirit into our lives, then none of us would believe. And he’s also then the perfecter of our faith, because, as our great High Priest, he intercedes for us and he helps us. Think of the time in Mark’s gospel when that man came to the Lord Jesus to ask for help for his son who had an evil spirit. And when the Lord Jesus said that everything is possible for him who believes, the man exclaimed: ‘I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.’ And that’s what the Lord Jesus does for all his people. We believe, but our faith is mixed with doubts. And he’s able to help us to overcome our doubts; and he’s able to strengthen our weak faith.
And so, he’s the source and perfecter of our faith. However, the word translated ‘founder’ can also mean ‘pioneer’ or ‘forerunner’. And when translated that way, it means that he’s our example who has led the way for us to follow. And so, we should follow his example of enduring all things now for the sake of the joy that is set before us. And so, we’re to fix our eyes on him, we’re to fix our attention on him, we’re to consider him, because he’s provided us with the perfect example of faith; and he’s shown us that after our suffering in this life, there will be joy for all of God’s believing people in the life to come.
And then, in verse 3, the writer commands us to consider him. Think carefully about him. Consider him attentively. In particular, consider the way he endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Sometimes when we suffer, we think we’re all alone in the world; and that no-one has ever suffered what we’ve had to suffer; and no-one has ever endured what we’ve had to endure. ‘No one knows what I’m going through.’ ‘No one knows what it’s like for me.’ ‘No one has suffered like me.’ But here’s the writer telling us to think carefully about the Lord Jesus who endured such opposition. And the word ‘such’ is there to emphasise the severity of the opposition and hostility he endured. He endured such great hostility. And so, when you suffer, consider him and you will not grow weary or lose heart. You’ll see that you’re not on your own, because your Saviour suffered too. And just as his suffering ended in joy, so your suffering will also end in joy.
So, let us fix our eyes on Jesus. And consider him. When you’re suffering, when life is hard, when that little voice inside your head is telling you to stop, you need to turn your attention away from your present sufferings and fix your attention on the Saviour, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross. And in this way, he set you an example to follow so that you will endure all things now for the sake of the joy that is set before you and which God has prepared for you in the life to come.
Verses 4 to 13
However, this is not the only thing our writer has to say about suffering, because he goes on in verses 4 to 13 to make clear that God uses our suffering for good. And so, it’s not as if what we suffer now is pointless. It’s not pointless, because God uses it for good.
The writer says in verse 4 that in our struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. So, although his first readers had suffered for the faith, none of them had been martyred for the faith. They had been insulted and persecuted. Some had been imprisoned. Some had lost their property. Their suffering was severe. But they hadn’t yet lost their lives. Martyrdom might come, but it hadn’t come yet.
The writer refers to their suffering as struggling against sin. He perhaps means they’re struggling against sinful people. So, in your struggle against sinful people, you haven’t yet shed your blood. Or perhaps he means that it would be a sin for them to give up the faith because of what they’re suffering. And so, they’re struggling against that sin: the sin of abandoning the faith because of persecution. In any case, none of them have lost their lives yet.
Nevertheless they’re still suffering. They’re still suffering affliction. They’re still going through hard times. And so, listen to this word of encouragement from the book of Proverbs. And the writer then quotes Proverbs 3:11+12 where it says that God disciplines those he loves. And then he explains in verse 7 that we must endure hardship as discipline.
So, when we face troubles and trials, we might wonder why we’re going through this trouble. What’s the point of this? Is there any point to it? Is it meaningless? Is it pointless? That’s how it appears to those who don’t believe in God; and who think that everything happens by chance. So, if suffering comes, it comes by chance. It has no meaning. No purpose. It’s just a chance occurrence which is pointless. And when there appears to be no reason for it, it’s even harder to bear. But here’s the writer saying to us that there is a point to our suffering, because God uses our troubles to discipline us.
And this shows us the greatness of our God, because the people who read this book first were suffering persecution. So, wicked men and women were persecuting these believers for their faith. And yet God is so great and powerful and wise that he’s able to use the action of sinful men and women for good. Their persecutors hated the Christians and wanted to harm them. But God used what those evil men and women were doing for his own good purpose. That’s how great our God is. Not only is he good so that he does good to us all of the time, but he’s able to bring good out of evil. Someone intends to harm us, but God uses it for our advantage. Isn’t that one of the lessons of the story of Joseph in the Old Testament? His brothers intended to harm Jospeh, but God had a plan to do good to Joseph and to all of his people.
Now, I need to add before we go on that when we hear the word ‘discipline’, we often associate it in our minds with punishment. So, a parent disciplines a disobedient child. A teacher disciplines a disruptive pupil. We associate discipline with punishment because we discipline those who do wrong. And discipline, of course, does involve punishment. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? It includes training and education and instruction as well as correction and chastisement. So, when Proverbs says that the Lord disciplines those he loves, it means he trains those he loves and he instructs those he loves. He uses the hardship we face and the troubles we suffer to train us and to instruct us. There’s more to discipline than punishment.
And I need to say this, otherwise whenever you suffer you may think it must be because you’re done wrong and God is punishing you. Now, he might be punishing you, if you’ve done something wrong and if you haven’t confessed it and turned from it. So, if you’re persisting in sin, he may punish you so that you will turn from your sin. But there are other times, when God’s people are walking in his ways, and they’re doing his will; and he still sends trouble into their lives. And he sends trouble into their lives because this is one of the ways he trains us up in the faith.
And so, we’re told to endure hardship as discipline. He uses hardship to train us up in the faith. And the writer adds in verse 7 that God is treating us as sons. That is, he’s treating us as his children. And every child expects to be disciplined, because that’s what responsible parents do, isn’t it? Responsible parents don’t just leave their children to their own devices, but they do what they can to train their children and to teach them what’s right and what’s wrong and what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. And they teach their children the things they need to know for life.
So, every child is disciplined. In fact, the writer is saying in verse 8 that if a child is not disciplined, it’s because that child does not have any parents to discipline him. But children are normally disciplined by their parents; and the children respected their parents for it. Maybe they didn’t respect their parents at the time. After all, because we’re sinners, we resist authority, don’t we? We don’t like people telling us what we can and can’t do. But after the children have grown up, they realise the good it did them and they’re grateful for all their parents did to bring them up in the right way. And since that’s the case, since we respected our earthly parents, then how much more should we respect and honour our heavenly Father and submit to his discipline.
And our earthly parents disciplined us for a little while when we were young. And they did it ‘as they thought best’. But, of course, sometimes human parents get it wrong, don’t they? They make mistakes. They misjudge a situation. They over-react. They try to do their best and to get it right, but they make mistakes. But God disciplines us for our good and he never makes a mistake and he never gets it wrong and he never makes a foolish decision. Since he is perfect, he disciplines us perfectly. Since he is good, he disciplines us for our good.
And he disciplines us so that we might share in his holiness. Do you see that in verse 10? He uses the hardships of our life in order to train us in holiness and obedience. So, listen to what the psalmist said in Psalm 119. He wrote:
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word.
So, I was going astray. I was disobedient. But then you sent affliction into my life; and as a result, I now keep your word. And then the psalmist goes on to say later in the psalm:
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes.
So, it was good that you sent those hardships into my life, because now I have learnt to do your will. The Lord uses hardship and suffering to train us up in obedience and to keep us on the right path.
The writer adds that no discipline seems pleasant at the time. You see, we’re not lumps of wood who feel nothing. When hardships happen, they’re painful. When we’re afflicted, we feel it. We suffer. God has not made us to be like stones or rocks who feel nothing. We feel pain. But later on, however, later on those painful experiences and those heartbreaking events produce something good in our lives. They produce a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. That is to say, the harvest it produces in our lives is righteousness and peace. This is another way of saying that hardship enables us to share in God’s holiness, because God uses our hardships to shape us and to mould us and to refashion us in his image so that we learn to do what’s right.
And since God uses our hardships and afflictions for good, we should strengthen our feeble arms and weak knees and make level paths for your feet. He’s encouraging us to keep going. We might feel feeble and weak because of our suffering. But keep going. The marathon runner might be exhausted, but the end is in sight; and so he forces himself to keep going. And in a similar way, we’re to force ourselves to keep going.
And don’t take the wrong path, which will lead you away from the Saviour, but remain on the straight path which leads all the way to the presence of God, where Christ has gone before us. And while this road might be hard, nevertheless the lame will find healing on it, because this is the right path and not the wrong path. It’s the right path, because it’s the way God has set for us and it leads to glory.
Those who don’t believe in God or in the life to come think that suffering is meaningless. It’s pointless. It happens by chance and there’s no design or purpose to it. But we who believe know that nothing happens by chance, but it happens according to the will of God who made all things and who rules over all things. And through faith in Christ — who gave up his life to pay for our sins and who shed his blood to cleanse us of our guilt — we are reconciled to God and we’re adopted into his family, so that the God who made all things and who rules over all things has become our loving heavenly Father. And whatever his will is for his believing people, and whatever he sends into our lives, is for our good. While we may not understand, we nevertheless believe that he uses hardship and suffering and troubles and trials for our benefit, because this is one of the ways he disciplines us and builds us up in the faith.
It’s not easy, because no suffering is easy. But we trust that it’s necessary, because our Heavenly Father would not have sent it otherwise.
And when we suffer — and all of us will suffer in this world — we’re to remember those Old Testament saints who suffered, but who endured all things because of the joy set before them of eternal life in God’s presence; and we’re to remember our Saviour who suffered so very much, but who endured all things because of the joy set before him. And so, for the joy set before us of eternal life in the presence of God, we’re to endure all things now, because in the end, when we’re seated with Christ in the life to come, we’ll see that it was all worth it.