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A Call to Spiritual Discipline

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 3, 1999

Hebrews 12:1-11

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Turn with me to Hebrews 12. The argument of  Hebrews is fairly straightforward. If we were to review and taking a few cues from those wonderful messages that we heard from Mark Dever, and especially his message on the Book of Hebrews, we could say that chapters 1-10 tell us to stick with the best, stick with the Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t look anywhere else for our fellowship with God. Don’t look anywhere else for our salvation than the Lord Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 10 ends then with an exhortation for us to continue on in the faith. And Hebrews 11 is basically a big exhortation and illustration calling us to persevere in the faith, giving us example after example after example of believers who have gone on before us who have faced very hard things and yet who have endured to the end.

So if Hebrews 1-10 says “stay with Christ,” Hebrews 11 says, “let me give you some examples of those who have stayed with the Lord throughout all the trials of their lives.” Here their examples are, not just to fill your minds with interesting stories, but actually to exhort you to stay with Christ, to stay the course of your Christian life.

Now having completed Hebrews 11 with these examples of faithful saints, the author of Hebrews comes to chapter 12 and gives us again another exhortation in light of everything that he said. So let’s look at Hebrews 12 and the first 11 verses. 

Hebrews 12:1-10 

“Our Father, we ask that You would work in our hearts, reminding us again of the truth for us in this familiar passage. We have perhaps read this passage numerous times in our Christian experience and yet we ask that You would break forth with fresh light for us as the Spirit applies the word of truth to our hearts. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.” 

The author of Hebrews has given example after example in Hebrews 11, that chapter which records the faithful and their persevering in faith to the very end.  He has already given many examples of people who have struggled with significant trials. And many of those trials are trials which the Lord Himself designed for their own growth in grace, their spiritual endurance. And having told us about their faithfulness, having given us their example of those who have persevered to the end, the author of Hebrews now lays out for us a challenge, several exhortations. And I would like to look at those with you tonight in these first 11 verses. 

I. Christians must purpose to grow in grace.

The first thing I would like for you to see in verses 1-3 is the encouragement that he gives to us in our struggle for sanctification. What he is talking about in this whole chapter is a call to us to work to apply ourselves to, to purpose ourselves to growing as Christians. One of the vows of membership that we take at this church says, “Do you now resolve and promise in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit that you will endeavor to live as becomes Christians?” That is exactly what he is calling us to. He is saying, I want you Christians to endeavor to live as Christians.

But what that is going to involve is you warring against the remaining sin in your hearts, you warring against the temptations which the world holds up before your eyes and your hearts. You have got to be prepared to struggle for that sanctification.

It is very interesting, that in the New Testament two things are stressed about how we grow. One aspect is that it is the Holy Spirit who enables us to grow. We can never grow in Christ on our own. That is why that beautiful third question of membership is so precisely phrased. It says, “Do you now resolve and promise that you will endeavor to live as becomes Christians?” How do you do it? You endeavor by the grace of the Holy Spirit to live as becomes Christians.

So there is this stress in the New Testament that it is the grace of God, it is the Spirit of God who enables us to grow up and be more like Christ.

But there is this other stress in the New Testament and you find it in Paul and you find it in John and you find it in Jesus and you find it right here in the author of Hebrews, that we ourselves must apply ourselves to growing in grace. And the author of Hebrews is saying let me give you some encouragement for why you ought to join this struggle, join this battle for growth in grace, for holiness, for sanctification. And he basically is reminding us here, that we have got to purpose ourselves to grow in grace. We will not just accidentally grow in grace. We have got to purpose to grow in grace. It has got to be something that we aim for. It is not something that we do in our own strength. But it has got to be something that we aim for. It has got to be a goal in our own hearts.

And he gives us encouragement because he knows this is not easy. And the encouragements come first interestingly. You might think that he would give us the exhortation and the encouragement last. But he starts with the encouragements. And maybe that tells us how hard a job this is. He’s got to encourage us to even get us out of the block.

So in the first three verses here are the encouragements. Look at what he says. First, he pictures the Christian life here in terms which are emphatically not passive. You know, we often hear people tell us things like well you know the way to grow in the Christian life is you let go and you let God. Well, it is very interesting that you couldn’t find a bit of that theology in this passage. It is strive, it is purpose, it’s lay aside every encumbrance. It’s run the race ahead of you. It’s strive against sin. There is no passivity here. We are to be actively involved in the Christian life.   

And so the author is calling us here to run. And by the way, that image of run is commonly used by authors in the Greco Roman world to illustrate the moral quest. The Stoic philosophers have used this. But the author of Hebrews is taking this imagery from the arena, from the race tracks of the day, the Olympic racetracks where the runners would strip themselves down to prepare to run the race. And he is using it and applying it to his moral contest that is Christianity. He knows that Christianity entails a commitment to holiness, a life of holiness, and he compares this struggle against sin, this life of holiness to a race. We’re to run that race and we’re not to quit until we get the prize.

And so the author calls us here to a struggle for sanctification by reminding us of two things. We will see these in verses 1 and 3. First, he says, “I want you to remember you have a great cloud of witnesses.” One of the things that happens when we are called to be different from the world, when we are called to be strangers in a strange land and that is what we are called to be as Christians, is we immediately feel like, “Oh my, we are the only ones who have ever had to do this.” And the author of Hebrews wants us to be aware, he wants it to be part of our conscious experience, that we are simply part of a great cloud of witnesses who have been faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ. Contrary to popular belief, though we are called to be strangers in our own time, in our own worlds, in our own land. There is a great multitude, a multitude that no man can number that has gone this same way and has been faithful. So, our charge is far from unprecedented, even if we feel alone sometimes when we are called to be faithful. We may be actually alone in our place of work. We may be the only practicing Christian in our place of work. And yet, we are far from alone. There is a great cloud of witnesses who have been faithful. And so the author says I want you to remember that. I want you to remember that you are not alone. This is just like the prophet when the Lord told him “there are 7,000 who have not yet bowed the knee to Baal.” He thought he was the only one left in the land. But no, there are 7,000 who have not bowed the knee.

So that is the first encouragement. You are not alone in this. And then in verse 3 he goes on to say that we need to consider Jesus. Here he is reminding us that we have a reigning Savior who has already endured things that we cannot imagine. And there are several things that he tells us about that savior in verses 2 and 3. Look at them with me briefly.

First, he says that the joy that was set Jesus died was a significant source of His ability to persevere even in the cross. The fact that Jesus had His focus on what the Father had promised to Him from the foundation of the world, enabled Him to endure the cross and not simply to endure the shame, but look at the word, He endures the cross, but what did He do to the shame?  He despises the shame. The shame is not worth comparing to the glory that is before Him.

And so here’s the first clue to our own perseverance. If the Lord Jesus persevered to the cross, looking to the joy that was set before Him, is that not also how we ought to persevere?  We’ve got the prize before our eyes. That is why Jonathan Edwards spent 20 minutes every day meditating on Heaven. Because this life tricks us into thinking that this all there is and that these are the ultimate blessings. So we have to consciously work to realize that the blessings of this life cannot measure to what the joy is set before us.

If you look again in verse 2, Jesus, we are reminded, is in fact right now sitting at the right hand of the throne of God. All that He has endured has resulted in His being crowned in majesty. And if we believe the New Testament, the New Testament says that all of us as saints will participate in that glory with Him. That majesty with which He is crowned is something that we as His children share with Him.

Look again at verse 3. Here, Christ in His earthly life and ministry endured every manner of hostility from sinners. There is no hostility that we can experience, for our faithfulness to God that the Lord Jesus has not experienced Himself. Even so, He reigns now.

Finally in verse 3, we are told to consider Jesus. Why?  So that we will not lose heart. When we consider that He set the glory of God’s joy before Him and He endured the cross, despising the shame, when we realize what He went through in terms of the hostility of sinners, when we realize that He is now sitting at the right hand of the Father in glory, it gives us strength to face the trials that we must face.

Furthermore, if you look at verse 1, two specific exhortations are given. It’s not just that He gives us this encouragement, but He gives us two specific challenges. He says “lay aside every encumbrance,” and he says “let us run with endurance.” This is sort of the negative and the positive. On the one hand we are to set aside anything that gets in the way of our quest for glorifying God through Jesus Christ. It is interesting that he doesn’t just say get rid of sin. He says to get rid of sin and every encumbrance. It may be something legitimate. But if it encumbers us in our quest for glorifying God through Jesus Christ, it’s got to go. So on the one hand we are to lay aside everything that gets in our way for this quest for glorifying God through Christ, and on the other hand he says we are to run with endurance. In other words, we are to run without quitting this race for grace-empowered transformation of our lives. It’s very clear in this passage that the race the author is talking about is this battle against sin. 

Look at verse 4 and the phrase that is used at the end of the verse: “striving against sin.  That is what the author is talking about here. Probably he has particularly the sin of unbelief in his mind, because he has been giving us the example of people who believed, who trusted, and now he wants us to continue on not being caught up in the sin of unbelief, but we need to strive for that. So what we are looking for is a grace-empowered, moral transformation.  So we must throw ourselves into the warfare against sin and unbelief like an Olympic athletic throws himself into the preparation for the upcoming Olympics.

You know, one of the great problems of the Christian life is that there are professing Christians who don’t seem to know that they are in a war. Can you imagine a group of Marines standing around on the beach at Guadalcanal, not quite realizing they were at war. That would be a dreadfully dangerous situation for those men and that is a dreadfully dangerous situation for Christians who don’t realize they are at war. The author of Hebrews makes it clear that this struggle against sin, the remnants of sin in our own hearts, the struggle against temptation in the world, is a life and death matter. This is not something that can be taken lightly. So he calls us to warfare against the sin of unbelief.

Then in verses 4-6, he continues to expand this idea and tells us a very sobering truth and follows it up with yet another exhortation. In this section he tells us we must commit ourselves to mortification. That is just a shorthand word that the Puritans used to use for saying, “killing sin.” We must commit ourselves to killing sin. We must become sin-murderers. The only thing you can murder lawfully is sin. So he is calling us to kill sin in our own experience and to prepare for the discipline of the Lord in this passage. We are reminded in verses 4-6 of just how complete our struggle against sin must be.

Look at the words of verse 4: “You have not resisted at the point of shedding of blood in your striving against sin.” How serious, how total must be our striving against sin?  Well, he says none of you have died yet in your struggle against sin. That’s how total, that’s how serious the struggle against sin must be. None of you have died yet in your struggle against sin. He is thinking of a total commitment on our part to battle against sin and unbelief. It’s a fight to the death. And furthermore, this fight will not end in our lives. This is a fight that is always going to be with us. As long as we are here, there is going to be sin and unbelief to be resisted. You have not resisted unto blood in striving against sin.

Calvin has an interesting comment to make here, because these people had already endured more, at least physically and externally by way of persecution and hostility than most of us here. Listen to what he says: “Let us bear in mind the people that Hebrews is addressing. They had joyfully suffered the loss of their goods and had endured many reproaches and yet he charges them with slothfulness because they were fainting halfway into the contest, and they were not going strenuously to the end. There is, therefore, no reason for us to ask a discharge from the Lord, whatever service we may have performed. For Christ will have no discharged soldiers, but only those who have conquered death itself.”

When you are conscripted into the Lord’s army, that conscription is a lifetime opportunity and it is only laid down when you have conquered death. And so the author of Hebrews is reminding us again that the struggle against sin, the struggle against unbelief is not something we are going to get over one day in this life. It is something that we continue on and on.

He further goes on to say that is going to mean that the Lord is going to discipline you from time to time. Just like a drill instructor disciplines his men to get them ready for warfare, so also the Lord disciplines His children. And that discipline is not His attempt to hurt them, it is His attempt to help them.

Notice what he says in verses 5 and 6. He makes it clear that God’s discipline is meant to help us in the quest for Christ likeness, not to hurt us, or to discourage us.  First, he says in verse 5, that he needs to tell us this because we have forgotten it. And how often do we need to be reminded of this truth?  I mean, this is not a truth that we want to be reminded of. This is not even a truth that we particularly want to be true. And so he has to remind even this congregation. “Let me remind you of something that you have forgotten.” And he says the Lord disciplines you as sons. Indeed, in verse 6 he says that discipline is a mark of sonship. Those whom the Lord loves, He disciplines. He scourges every son that He receives.

So he is saying we must realize how seriously God takes the fight against sin and we must prepare ourselves for discipline. We should not be surprised when the Lord disciplines us. He brings things into our experience that are hard, but which are designed by Him to help us in the growth of grace. 

III. Christians  are called to discipline as a part of their striving against sin.

Finally, in verses 7-11, he tells us again about the importance of this pursuit of holiness. He tells us that we as Christians are called to God’s discipline as a part of our striving against sin. He tells us in verse 8 that if we are not disciplined, we are not sons. We are asked to look at the Lord’s discipline as something He is doing against us and the author of Hebrews wants to turn that fear upside down and say, “Look, it’s the other way around. If the Lord is not disciplining us, it is an example that He is against us. But if He is disciplining us, it is an example that He is for us.”

I had a young couple in the office this afternoon who are preparing for marriage. As they were sharing their testimony to Christ, one of them was talking about the process of growth in grace and she was remembering Margaret Tohill teaching a class about the vine and the branches and about how the Lord is the divine husbandman. And one of the ways He helps those branches to grow is that He prunes them from time to time. And Margaret asked this young woman how she felt about this particular stage in her Christian life when this class was being taught. And she said, “I sort of feel stubbly all over. The Lord has been doing a lot of pruning.”  She recognized that it was something that the Lord was doing for her benefit because He wanted her to grow. And the author of Hebrews wants us to have a different view of the Lord’s discipline. It is not that it is enjoyable while you are going through it. It is, however, that it is ultimately for our good. He stresses this that we understand it when our earthly father is disciplining us, their ultimate purposes are for our good even if their discipline is imperfect. But we have to remember that even if our earthly parent’s discipline was imperfect, our Heavenly Father’s discipline is never imperfect. It is always just what we need. And yet, I will bet that you have spent just as much time, if not more, resisting the Heavenly Father’s discipline than you did your parent’s discipline. And the author of Hebrews is saying, “Look, the Lord’s discipline is always good, it is always what you need, and” he goes on to say, “it yield the fruit of righteousness.”

You see his point is to say this: Discipline is good even though it is hard, and it always yields the fruit of conformity to Christ. Now these people were facing the discipline of persecution. Imagine that for a moment. The author of Hebrews is asking them to look at the way people treat them unfairly in this life, as something that God has put into their experience in order to make them more like Christ.

Now if that is the case in their circumstance, who or what has God brought into your experience which you might be tempted to resent Him for, but which is in fact simply His design to make you more like Jesus? You see, the author of Hebrews is asking you to totally change your attitude about the things that God brings into your experience, however painful, however unpleasant, however grief-filled, however sorrow-producing they are. He is asking you to look at those very things that hurt us the most emotionally perhaps but which are designed by Him to build us up and he is saying, “I want you to look at them differently than you have ever looked before.”

And he says, “Let me just give you the encouragement of the Son of God. He endured things that we will never understand.” And yet the Lord used it in His experience for our good and His glory. And what happens to the Master, happens to the disciples — both the discipline and the glory. They are interconnected. You can’t have God’s discipline without also having that glory to come. But the author of Hebrews just wants us to remember tonight. You can’t have the glory to come without the discipline if you are his child.

May the Lord help us to remember that the next time He draws us into the valley of discipline. Let’s pray.

“Our Heavenly Father, we do not court dark providences like martyrdom but when we are in the midst of trials and tribulations and losses and crosses, by Your grace we would ask you to recall the words of this passage to our minds and more than that, to help us to truly believe them in those times and to live in accordance with it. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

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